So what is really bugging European Jews?

A survey of Jewish leaders in Europe offers intriguing pointers for the future

By Simon Rocker, April 2, 2009

Around 18 months ago, I was sitting at a charity dinner next to an Israeli visitor who had come to London especially for the occasion. We had barely swapped names when he asked me whether I had recently encountered any antisemitism. I almost felt that I was letting him down when I said I hadn’t. From what he had been reading of the anxieties of diaspora Jewry, he seemed to think that fear of abuse or attack would be weighing constantly on our minds.

If anything, preoccupation with antisemitism and anti-Zionism has grown in the intervening period — not simply because of a rise in anti-Jewish incidents but because an intellectual and political battle is being waged over the very definition of antisemitism. Yet for all the understandable public focus on external threats, European Jewish leaders, according to the findings of a new survey, believe that the main danger to Jewish life lies not from without, but from within.

In a list of what they felt to be the most serious threats, antisemitism came only ninth: below, in descending order, increasing rates of intermarriage; alienation of Jews from Jewish community life; declining knowledge of Judaism and Jewish practices; low rates of childbirth; declining numbers of Jews; lack of religious pluralism inside the Jewish community; weakness of Jewish organisations; lack of religious life.

The sample who responded to the online poll, carried out for the American Joint Distribution Committee, was large — 251 leaders and opinion-formers from 31 countries, though it was not necessarily religiously representative of Jews on the continent as a whole: the strictly Orthodox and Progressives were probably under-represented, Masorti over-represented.

Had the survey, conducted last autumn, been taken a few months later, following the conflict in Gaza, then it is always possible that antisemitism might have jumped up the threat list. But at the time it was taken, the summary of the findings stated: “Respondents were split in their opinions as to whether antisemitism was a serious threat or not.”

What is undeniable is that the internal challenges remain as urgent and as taxing as ever. Take the top two “threats”: intermarriage and alienation. The more intermarried families, the more people you may have growing up believing themselves Jewish but not accepted as such by other Jews. Jewish organisations, homes for the elderly, for example, meanwhile have to decide whether to open up services to the non-Jewish partners of Jews.

Intermarriage brings with it the increasingly contentious question of conversion. Recent American research suggests that if the non-Jewish spouse converts, then the children of the marriage are as likely to remain Jewish as those of natural-born Jewish parents (whichever denomination they convert into). From this perspective, it would make sense to launch a concerted conversion campaign but it would be hard to get agreement on this between Orthodox and non-Orthodox, with their different entry conditions. The solution therefore becomes part of another problem, serving only to exacerbate inter-denominational tensions.

In fact, when asked their “top communal priority”, only 12 per cent of leaders responded: “Developing an effective policy on intermarriage” — a result which suggests a collective shrug of the shoulders; as if to say that no one frankly knows what to do.

As for alienation from community life, we can all speculate what may be driving it — loss of religious faith, ambivalence towards Israel, disaffection with bourgeois Jewish society. But beyond anecdotal impressions, we have little hard evidence and the only Jewish organisation I am aware of trying to do research in this area is the Reform movement.

Not surprisingly, given the thrust of the findings, the top priority for Euro-Jewish leaders was investing in Jewish education: 73 per cent cited it, compared with 54 per cent for supporting Israel and 52 per cent combating antisemitism. Jewish leaders in the UK might well believe they have given the community a fighting chance of survival with the huge investment in Jewish schooling here over the last couple of decades. But whether it really pays off, we’ll have to wait another generation to find out.

Simon Rocker is the JC’s Judaism editor

Last updated: 12:41pm, April 2 2009