EUROPEAN JEWRY’S FOUR CUPS
Aeronautical engineer, Samuel Sandler, and head of the Jewish community in Versailles, France, recently registered the local synagogue as a national landmark. “My feeling is that our congregation will be gone within twenty or thirty years, and I don’t want the building demolished or, worse, used for improper purposes.”
What makes Sandler so pessimistic? One answer lies in a personal tragedy. Last year, an Islamist terrorist killed his son Jonathan, a 30 year-old rabbi at a Toulouse school, along with two grandsons, and a young girl. In part, this explains Sandler’s grim diagnosis, but it is not the whole story. Nor is this dilemma unique to France. To the contrary, throughout Europe one confronts an essential paradox: European Judaism looks healthy. Religious and cultural activities are everywhere. Berlin hosts a new Jüdisches Museum; in Baden-Württemberg, an exquisite synagogue is inaugurated; in Paris, a European Center for Judaism is being built. And yet, despite it all, most European Jews believe that catastrophe looms.
One does not have to look far to see why. Recent surveys record widespread anti-Semitism. Harassment is so rampant that between 2/5 and 1/2 of Jews in France, Belgium, and Hungary has considered emigrating. The atmosphere is so poisoned by the incessant spewing of hatred against Israel by universities, the elite, and mass media, that Jews feel unsafe.
Against this backdrop, many conclude, that “any clear-sighted and sensible Jew who has a sense of history would understand that this is the time to get out.” Indeed for many European Jews, there is a déjà vu quality to the present situation. Unlike most American Jews, today’s European Jews are survivors, or children of survivors. They know from personal testimony how things unfolded in the not too distant past, and how Jewish communities could be destroyed overnight. When anti-Semitic incidents accumulate, they can’t help asking whether history is repeating itself.
Back in the early 30s, there were about 12 to 13 million Jews in Europe. Half perished in the Holocaust. Of the 6 to 7 million survivors, 2 million emigrated to Israel and the U.S. Another 2.5 million were locked up behind the Iron Curtain. Only one third remained in Western Europe.
What motivated those that stayed? For the most part, these former citizens were eager, once their rights and property were restored, to resume their former life, even at the price of selective amnesia about their country’s wartime behavior. Culturally speaking, many felt at home in Europe. Before the war, the Jewish upper and middle classes had learned French, English, German, Russian, and had imbibed bourgeois Western values. But soon another and unexpected reason emerged. Old Europe, the continent of gloom and doom, war and revolution, division and crisis, decadence and tyranny, was giving way to a New Europe: optimistic, free, open-minded, and united.
Economic efficiency, combined with the postwar baby boom and the need to rebuild wrecked cities, led to prosperity, employment, the expansion of welfare programs (health care, housing, education), political stability, the rule of law, and religious tolerance, supplanting the trademark European paradigms of racism and nationalism. It culminated with the end of the cold war, the incorporation of most of the former Communist countries into the West European fold, and finally the establishment of the European Union.
Suddenly, Jews were welcome. From despised outcasts, they became the very embodiment of what the new Europe was supposed to be. The Shoah, a haunting episode that locals refused to discuss, now served to epitomize what the new Europe was not. Even Israel, a modern, Western state was accepted as a “normal country, a socialist dream come true.
Demographically, European Jewry - helped immensely by immigrants from Eastern Europe and North Africa - flourished dramatically. This quantitative growth yielded qualitative results; communities reached a sufficient critical mass to sustain schools, synagogues, kosher outlets, etc. In the early 60s, France had fewer than 2,000 pupils in Jewish schools, four decades later there were 32,000 students. European Jews had entered a golden age.
According to Rabbinic tradition, anti¬-Semitism starts when Jews beguile themselves into thinking they can fulfill their destiny in exile…..to be continued