In his book, World Order, Henry Kissinger points out the word “Asia” does not exist in a single Asian language. From a distance, Europeans lumped together numerous different countries under this single term, but to the locals, the idea of “Asia” makes no sense at all. There is no shared “Asian” past, present, or future – it is hard to think of any connection between Saudi Arabia and Japan, Azerbaijan and Indonesia, Yemen and China.
Jewish leaders from Israel and America may be guilty of a similar crime when they refer to “European Jewry”. From a distance, the Jewish communities of France, England, Germany, Ukraine, Belgium, Italy, Holland and others, are lumped together, when in fact they do not share a common history, nor do they face the same challenges today.
Examining the three largest Jewish communities in Europe is enough to show that there is not a shared European Jewish history. French Jewry is predominantly Sephardi, largely made up of North African immigrants who moved in the 1950s and 60s. Anglo Jewry is predominantly Ashkenazi, largely made up of Eastern European immigrants who emigrated around the turn of the 20th century. The Jewish community of Germany contains significant numbers of Eastern Europeans and Russians, who moved to Germany at the end of the Cold War. There are few cultural and historical connections between these different Jewish communities.
And the challenges Jews in Europe face are not identical. In broad terms, the Jews of Western Europe face a threat from Muslim extremists, whereas in Eastern Europe there is the challenge of rising fascism and neo-Nazism.
But even within Western Europe, there are significant differences between different countries. The Muslim population of France poses a different challenge than that of other countries, as the antagonism between Muslims and wider society is far deeper than anywhere else in Western Europe. French Muslims are predominantly from Algeria, which fought a terrible war of independence with France between 1954 and 1962. Hundreds of thousands of Algerians were killed, including hundreds of Algerians in France itself. Amongst French Algerians, there is an entrenched sense of us versus them, and a distrust of wider society, to a much greater extent than in other Western European countries.
Even if extremism is rising in Britain, it is less deeply rooted in British Muslim society – the first generation of British Muslims, largely of Pakistani origin, were known to be taxi drivers and shopkeepers, and overall, good citizens. The Muslim populations of these different countries have different histories and identities, and that impacts the threat Muslim extremists represent to the Jewish community.
Different countries are also perceived to have more or less Jewish friendly governments. In France, Jews look at their government`s history – the open anti-Semitism of Charles de Gaulle, the French support for Arab enemies of Israel, the established nature of the far right, lead by Jean Marie and Marine Le Pen, and they are unsure whether they have a government they can trust to protect them. The government of England, and the post-World War government of Germany, are perceived to be more Jew and Israel friendly, and Jews feel safer because of that.
There are a few things that link European Jews together – not least, that attacks against them spike when there is violence in Israel. But by and large, European Jewry does not share a common history, and in the present, they do not share identical challenges. Today, more than ever, Jewish leaders and policy makers around the world would do well to recognise the complexity of the European Jewish situation, in order to formulate effective solutions to the challenges Jewish communities face.