‘Striking’ liberalism among European Jewish leaders

By Simon Rocker, March 26, 2009
Jewish education is the top priority for European Jewish leaders

Jewish education is the top priority for European Jewish leaders

Just 17 per cent of European Jewish leaders would prefer a hawkish government in Israel compared with 69 per cent who would not, according to a new survey.

The poll also found that rising intermarriage and alienation from the Jewish community are considered far more serious threats to Jewish life than antisemitism.

While 79 per cent felt that all Jews have a responsibility to support Israel and 61 per cent fully supported Israel regardless of its government, 47 per cent of leaders admitted feeling “sometimes ashamed” of the Israeli government’s actions, compared with 49 per cent who did not.

The online survey was conducted last autumn by Gallup for the American Joint Distribution Committee’s International Centre for Community Development (ICCD). A total of 465 community professionals, lay leaders and “opinion formers” in 31 countries were asked to take part, with replies received from 251.

Twenty-seven per cent of the respondents described themselves as Orthodox; 18 per cent Masorti; 12 per cent Progressive; 38 per cent just Jewish or secular; and 6 per cent other. A quarter came from the UK.

On the question of who is a Jew, 72 per cent thought that a person with one Jewish parent should be accepted as a member of the community, and 69 per cent favoured the recognition of non-Orthodox conversions — including 40 per cent of Orthodox respondents.

But just over half thought that issues regarding Jewish status would become “more problematic” over the next few years.

Jonathan Boyd, who was involved in the research as ICCD’s former operations director, commented: “The fact that antisemitism came so low down on a list of the most serious threats to the future of Jewish life in Europe is particularly intriguing. Given that many Jews in Israel and America would probably imagine it to be a much greater danger in Europe, it is striking that a number of those actually living on the continent do not appear to concur.”

He was also “struck by the fact that strengthening Jewish education came out as the single highest communal priority across all age groups, across all denominational streams, and across the entire continent. If there was ever any question about where our community’s resources ought to be invested, the survey surely gives one of the clearest and most definitive responses we have ever heard.”

Mr Boyd, who is now a fellow at the Institute for Jewish Policy Research in London, believed that those who chose to reply showed “a clear-leaning towards the more liberal-minded”. But “the sample was not comprised of an accurate representation of European Jewry”, he felt. “Nevertheless, the findings do point to the existence of certain views that may be more prevalent that we previously imagined.”

The ICCD survey’s findings on conversion and intermarriage were challenged by a senior European rabbi.

Dayan Yisroel Lichtenstein, praesidium member of the Rabbincal Conference of Europe and head of the Federation Beth Din in the UK, said Orthodox rabbis reacted with “a frown and bewilderment”.

In a statement issued through the RCE, he wrote: “A frown, because it reminds them of their constant battle with lay leaders over standards for conversion; and bewilderment, because this survey is like asking taxi drivers about world economic policy — they’ve got a lot to say but understand little about the intricacies of the subject matter.”

He said that figures presented to a recent conference of the RCE – one of two Orthodox rabbinical bodies in the continent “proved that the future and even the continued existence of any form of Judaism would be determined only by adherence to Jewish law and Jewish tradition without diluting standards of conversion”.

The same figures proved “that the policies suggested by this survey are simply untenable”, he contended.

“We challenge the JDC to undergo a new survey this time with a truly representative pool and this time not to forget Europe’s spiritual leaders.”

What our chiefs really think

● Worst threats to Jewish life? 64% intermarriage,
50% alienation from community, 48% declining Jewish practice, 23% antisemitism

● Will antisemitism rise?
54 % agreed,
16% thought it would rise significantly,
6% expected a decrease.

● Is it safe to be a Jew in your country?
92% said yes, 7% said no.

● Should inter-married Jews be banned from communal membership?
85% said no, 7% said yes.

● Should communities discourage inter-marriage but welcome non-Jewish spouses?
58% said yes, 33% said no.

Last updated: 5:08pm, March 26 2009