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Is there any such thing as European Jewish identity?

European Jewry often seems an afterthought, attracting little interest in the Jewish world other than as a target of rising antisemitism

    Map of Europe (Photo: Getty)
    Map of Europe (Photo: Getty)

    Sandwiched between the great blocs of North American Jewry and Israel, European Jewry often seems an afterthought, attracting little interest in the Jewish world other than as a target of rising antisemitism. Whereas in the 19th century, nine out of every ten Jews lived in Europe, their proportion has shrunk to just one in ten of the  global Jewish population.

    European Jews are scattered across various countries, speaking different languages, living in different jurisdictions and against different historical backdrops. Jews in East Europe experienced not only the Holocaust but the anti-religious zeal of Communism, while British Jewry escaped the trauma that befell the rest of the continent.

    Despite that, a survey of European Jewish leaders a few years found they shared a belief in a common bond and in there being something unique in European Jewry. Now a new study has tried to examine whether European Jewry does have some special characteristics or is more an “imagined community”.

    Ironically, it rose out of a study of feelings about antisemitism carried out by the Institute for Jewish Policy in London for the European Union six years ago. Along the way, JPR collected data on Jewish identity — from eight countries including the UK — and it has just published its findings.

    When it comes to religious practice such as lighting candles on Friday night or attending a Pesach Seder, European Jews fall somewhere between Israel and the USA. Israel is significantly ahead in Pesach observance, while Europe and the USA are closer, but the author David Graham notes that in Israel, Pesach is a national holiday.

    “But when personal choice plays a greater role — in terms of synagogue attendance and the religious ritual of Friday night candle lighting — Europe’s greater level of commitment shines through and it moves closer to Israel than to the US,” Dr Graham says.

    Whereas intermarriage is negligible in Israel, it is 27 per cent among European Jews (with Britain recording the lowest in Europe), compared with 44 per cent in America.

    Holocaust remembrance seems stronger in the diaspora than in Israel. Support for Israel is a stronger feature of Jewish identity among European Jewry than American.

    As far as the belief that moral and ethical behaviour is important to Jewishness, the USA and Europe give this far more weight than Israel. Offering an explanation, Dr Graham suggests in Israel, Jewishness is informed by national identity — like Britishness for Brits — and “as such, it is less likely to incorporate particular value systems in the way that religious and ethnic identities tend to do.”

    European Jews are “most united... when it comes to aspects of Jewish identity that are more universally human in nature (and are reflected in wider society) such as upholding ethical behaviour, remembering past tragedies (Holocaust), valuing culture, combating racism (antisemitism)”. By contrast, belief in God or keeping Shabbat are considered less important. Nonetheless, religious practice remains “a central pillar of Jewish identity,” Dr Graham says.

    Young Jews appear more religious, almost twice as likely to regard kashrut as important as the elderly (28 per cent of under-30s to 15 per cent of 80 year-olds ). Does that mean the young are growing up more religious than their parents, or people in Europe get less religious as they grow older, Dr Graham wonders.

    There is considerable diversity between East and West. Jews in the West are more than three times as likely as those in the East to regard kashrut as important, and nearly twice as likely to share festivals with family. In fact, only one area of Jewish activity  is valued more by Jews in the East than the West, Jewish culture, and only by a single point.

    The country that attached most importance to “moral behaviour” as a Jewish priority was the UK  (though combating antisemitism might have figured more strongly if the survey had been done now rather than in 2012). British Jews were also the most religious, observing on average at least three from a list of six practices, whereas the continental average was from two to three.

    But one “puzzling” finding is there is “ virtually no difference” between East and West in the proportion going to synagogue at least once a week.

    Nearly two- thirds of European Jews in the JPR survey regarded themselves as Ashkenazi — 64 per cent, compared with 18 per cent Sephardi and 18 per cent mixed. Whereas nearly half of French and Italian Jews are Sephardi, only six per cent are so in the UK.

    As for a common Jewish identity, Dr Graham concludes, “Whilst it is true that some aspects of Jewish identity are common to all of the eight countries examined, these traits tend to be somewhat superficial, and upon further examination, they reveal wide variation to be the European Jewish norm.”

    The culture of a country influences its Jewish community but not always in a way that is clear. For in relatively secular France, for example, Jews place more importance on belief in God than Jews in some other countries.

    European Jewish identity, he says, is “far more mosaic than monolith, a patchwork of varied Jewish belief systems and behaviours rather than a unique and cohesive expression of Jewishness.”

     

    European Jewish Identity: Mosaic or Monolith? can be downloaded from www.jpr.org.uk/publications

     

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