Europe's Jews need this union

There's one number you won't find in the torrent of opinion polls unleashed by David Cameron's European summit veto. You can find the verdicts of men aged between 18 and 24 or of women in social class C2 - but if you're looking for the attitudes of British Jews to Europe, you will search in vain.

There is hardly any polling of British Jews on any topic, so we are left with the evidence of our own eyes and ears. Here's what my own, unscientific survey has picked up: that this is a subject which, while hardly discussed, touches on sentiments that go very deep, pitting our gut instincts against our heads, our fears against our hopes.

The gut instinct is one we're wary of voicing it lest we sound stuck in the past - fear of Germany. Plenty of Europeans voice similar anxieties. Witness the nervous response when one of Angela Merkel's allies quipped: "Suddenly Europe is speaking German." Or the Greek magazine cover which, protesting at the subordination of Athens to economic decisions taken in Berlin, depicted a swastika on the Acropolis. Or look no further than the British press, which compared Cameron's stance to Britain's lonely defiance in 1940, recalling the famous cartoon of the solitary Tommy declaring: "Very Well, Alone!"

We're not the only ones to worry. And yet these concerns hit a particularly raw nerve for Jews, one that goes deeper than tabloid headlines. I spoke to one especially thoughtful Jewish man of letters who confessed to being spooked by the pictures that came out of the Brussels summit: a German chancellor at the centre, the leaders of Lithuania or Croatia hovering close by, the smaller nations of Europe apparently reduced to mere satellites of mighty Berlin. Maybe that's unfair or a distortion, but that's how he saw it.

Viewed through this lens, Cameron did the right thing. Anything that can stop a fiscal union that would have required the countries of the eurozone to have had their budgets approved, their homework marked, in effect, by Germany is to be welcomed. Never mind that none of those arrangements would have applied to Britain, still comfortably (and rightly) out of the eurozone. As far as this elemental Jewish gut instinct is concerned, talk of German domination is scary and we should support any move that stands in its way.

But that is not the only Jewish way to see the European question. Other Jews, no less haunted by the last century, might have the opposite reaction. They might, for a start, be alarmed at the prospect of the eurozone breaking apart in chaotic fashion. Everyone agrees that such a crash would see the economy tanking, not only across Europe, including Britain, but far beyond. You don't have to have a doctorate in modern Jewish history to know that when a depression looms, so does trouble for the Jews. We may not have played the role of scapegoat for a while, but history remembers are past performances and the script is still there, always ready to be revived.

History remembers us in the role of scapegoat

But even if the euro does not break up, Jews still have good reason to want the EU to succeed rather than fail. What motivated the founding fathers of the European project (among whom there was, incidentally, a strong Jewish presence) was a desire, after the horrors of two wars, to ensure the nations of Europe never fought each other again, to make them into trading partners rather than military rivals. It was a noble ideal and one in which Jews have a particularly high stake - for war in Europe has hurt us especially.

Fear of Germany was central to this mission. The aim was to tie down the German Gulliver in bonds of commerce, the Lilliputians of the rest of Europe confining him in the shackles of shared sovereignty. In the post-1945 era Germany submitted willingly to those constraints, seeing the EU as the way it might be protected from its darkest self.

Few British politicians speak this way now; the wartime generation has passed. But Jews have long memories. We should heed them, listening to our heads not our guts - and willing the EU to survive the current storm.

Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist

    Last updated: 11:32am, December 15 2011