A continental shift in population

150 years ago, only about 10 per cent of world Jewry did not live in Europe. Today, only about 10 per cent of world Jewry remains there.

April 12, 2017 13:09

The head of the Service de Protection de la Communauté Juive — the French equivalent of the CST — doesn’t use her surname in public. She has been advised not to; it is simply too dangerous. The antisemitic threat there is all too real and, while most French Jews are staying put, many are leaving. Close to 22,000 have made aliyah in the past five years, almost five per cent of the whole.

The director of the Jewish community of Athens is struggling with the economic crisis in Greece. A key source of communal income has typically come from real estate but that has seen a dramatic drop. And, with unemployment rising, tax increases and capital controls, the community is becoming ever more reliant on financial aid from international Jewish organisations based in Israel or the United States.

In Istanbul, the leaders of “Generation Next” are trying to remain upbeat in the aftermath of last year’s coup and Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian policies. They continue to run activities for young adults, but many are looking for ways out — perhaps to Israel, although Spain looks like a viable option for some.

A leader of Lisbon’s small Jewish community laughs despairingly at philosophical questions about how to strengthen young people’s Jewish identities. He’s more concerned about the fundamental community infrastructure — keeping the synagogue open, maintaining the chevra kadisha and gaining access to kosher food.

Attending several conferences of European Jewish leaders recently — in Rome, Barcelona and Frankfurt — these are some of the anecdotes that have stayed with me. The atmosphere is often jovial and relaxed, but dig a little under the surface and you soon start to see how difficult things really are, and how much we take for granted about Jewish life in the UK. I keep coming away from these events asking myself one key question: what responsibility do we have, as British Jews, to support Jewish life elsewhere in Europe?

It’s ironic really. British Jewry has never had a great track record of supporting European Jewish communities in the first place, and now, just as the UK triggers Article 50 and begins the process of extricating itself from the European Union, it seems to me that European Jewry needs UK Jewish support more than at any time since the War.

European Jewish demographics are striking; 150 years ago, only about 10 per cent of world Jewry did not live in Europe. Today, only about 10 per cent of world Jewry remains there. The transformation, caused chiefly by the Shoah, two enormous waves of migration from Russia and the FSU at the end of the 19th and 20th centuries to the US and Israel, intermarriage and assimilation, driven particularly by the oppressive anti-religious policies of communist regimes, and the long-term effects of ageing and low fertility, has left much of Jewish Europe a mere shadow of what it once was. While the UK and France still have sizeable communities with Germany and Hungary following behind, no other country in the European Union has more than 30,000 Jews left and in most cases the numbers are much smaller.

Moreover, demographic projections make grim reading. While the UK Jewish population is largely stable, decline can be seen more or less everywhere else, fuelled by ageing, low fertility, migration and assimilation. Even in Germany, where an influx of Jews from the FSU in the 1990s dramatically enlarged the Jewish population, and where expat Israelis help to bolster numbers, the long-term projections based on age distributions are dire. And while there are cases of assimilated Jews rediscovering their roots in former communist countries, I have seen no evidence to suggest that this phenomenon will in any way offset the potency of demographic decline.

So what is our responsibility? Will we stand idly by while European Jewry slowly fades away? Does the continued existence of multiple Jewish communities on the European continent really matter, given that other historical Jewish communities have also long since disappeared? I don’t know.

But I do know that there are still more than a million Jews living in Europe who have much to contribute to the Jewish and wider worlds, and that we will be more successful if we all find ways to pool resources and support one another. Brexit probably makes that task harder, but “Brexodus” — further British Jewish disengagement from Jewish Europe — must be resisted.

Jonathan Boyd is Executive Director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research

April 12, 2017 13:09

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