Dr. Barry A. Kosmin of Trinity College, author of a survey of European Jewish leaders and opinion formers, discusses the challenges facing the Jewish communities of Europe.
European Jews are more concerned about a demographic decline today compared to the previous survey, and believe that mixed marriages pose one of the gravest threats to the community - yet when they are asked which action-items should be prioritized by the community, they rank “developing an effective policy on intermarriage” as last on their list. Does this make sense?
Well Jewish leaders are no more bound to be logical or consistent than other people. But I think this gap indicates their difficulty in dealing with the divisive social issues that arise from intermarriage such as Jewish status questions and the education of children of intermarriages.
The obvious and logical policy response to demographic decline is more emphasis on retention and recruitment. Yet if the cause of the loss is mainly due to intermarriage, then this raises other divisive communal issues that produce denominational tensions.
So the real problem is ambivalence about “developing effective policy.” Most of these countries have an established Orthodox rabbinate which will not sacrifice Halakhic norms for positive demographic solutions. So in order to avoid a Kulturkampf, which will split their communities, the leaders tend to flag the problem as demographic and reluctantly admit there is no viable, pluralistic consensus solution worth considering.
Supporting the State of Israel also doesn’t rank very high on the list - but 84% of West-European respondents think that Israel is “critical to sustaining Jewish life in Europe”. So why not make it a higher priority?
Again the answer is the leaders’ ambivalence and caution. Israel involvement on the political and personal levels is an important aspect of European Jewish life today but again it is a divisive issue – not only about the peace process but also regarding the power of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate and the Orthodox religious establishment. The responses show that there is an acknowledgement that the community leaders do not have the power to do much to influence Israeli Government policies or local reactions to it by Jews or gentiles.
As leaders their policy priorities lie in areas where they have executive authority to influence outcomes so their responses are quite realistic.
Judging by your study, is seems quite strange to ask Eastern Europeans and Western Europeans the same questions. The answers are so different - and I’d be happy if you can highlight some such differences – so why do these two groups share the same study?
I don’t accept this assessment. In fact the differences between East and West on most issues are not large and the gap is narrowing. The great value of creating a time series such as this survey is that one can see how differences change over time.
One particular issue that is of historical significance in the European context is that leaders in Western Europe are more concerned about rising anti-Semitism than those in the East. This is related to the presence of more Muslims in Western Europe. This in turn ties into the Israel question. Currently Easterners are less critical and more enthusiastic in their support than Westerners. This is probably related to the lower level of anti-Israel sentiment in the media and public life in the former Eastern bloc.
Another interesting phenomenon is that the Easterners seem to becoming a little more traditional and Westerners are becoming more secular so that again the regional differences are eroding.
You didn’t ask a question about Jewish European view of the American Jewish community - why?
This survey was about practical issues that impinge on the community life in Europe and assessments of policy options. So views about American Jews are irrelevant to its aims. Moreover many Europeans do not know much about the American community as they may not have visited it. The same would go in reverse for asking American Jewish leaders about Europe.
You have very few Haredi respondents - is it because they were not cooperative, because you didn’t think it’s important, or for another reason? And how does such an absence impact the outcome of the study?
Well there are not large numbers of Haredim in Europe today especially in the category of “leaders and opinion formers.”
The medium is also the message. This was an on-line survey and many Haredim have reservations about using the internet.
Finally, the opinions of Haredim on most of the issues we surveyed are well-known and fixed. Moreover they are a hierarchical group and my experience is that they will advise any investigator to talk to their Rebbe for an authoritative answer.
If the community needs changing, what could be the “drivers of change” that respondents specify, and do you think their choice of drivers makes sense?
Some drivers of change are beyond the power of local leaders to influence e.g. the national economy. One feature of life today is mobility. Young Jews move around from region to region or across borders for study and jobs. The young also adopt new ideas and technologies faster than others. The leaders also value the role and efficacy of institutions to effect Jewish social life.
This is perhaps why the respondents distinguished groups of people as the drivers of change – the lay leadership, the professional leadership and young people in that order.
Reading this survey one wonders: Should anyone be investing in such a declining Jewish community - would it not be better to just be blunt about it and tell Jews that there seems to be no future for Jews in Europe?
This is a very provocative statement. Outside financial investment is minimal these days except for support of the elderly poor Shoah survivors. Personally I’m reluctant to tell over one million Jews in 32 countries what they should or should not do. Now that the totalitarian regimes have been displaced they are free citizens and capable of deciding for themselves where they want to live.
Moreover it is very dangerous to suggest that areas of the world – cities like Paris, London, Rome or Budapest with large and historic Jewish communities - should be Judenrein. In the U.S., communities like Detroit and Cleveland have smaller Jewish populations and are also in numerical decline but I doubt you would make the same argument about abandoning them.
The point is that numbers are not everything in Jewish life today. Obviously there is a certain point at which size matters for viability in terms of membership and audiences. However, there is a visible Jewish cultural revival in Europe as in the U.S. – books, films, art, publications, festivals of all kind and of course Jewish education of all types.
When it comes to considering the impact of numbers you should bear in mind that the small community of Troyes in France with less than 100 Jews produced Rashi and that Vilna – the Jerusalem of Lithuania - in its heyday had a Jewish population of only 60,000.
There is also a political or diplomatic value in having Jewish communities in lots of countries who as constituents and citizens can voice Jewish concerns to their nations’ political leaders e.g. on the Middle East.