Jewish identity researched: We are all different (but not that different)

A woman passes by the Star of David on a fence   (Photo by Artur Widak/NurPhoto) via Jewish News
A woman passes by the Star of David on a fence (Photo by Artur Widak/NurPhoto) via Jewish News

In my long career as a researcher of contemporary Jewry, I have seen amazing changes throughout the Jewish world. A few of them I would term without hesitation as miracles, some as expectable rational developments, and, occasionally, also some as serious judgment errors. What has interested me all the time since my youth is the changing numbers of Jews in different places, and the causes and consequences of such changes, perhaps due to my personal choice to move from my native European community to Israel during my early adulthood. I have never regretted that move, but I can understand those who have made different choices.

Jews in history have known moments of great tragedy and fear, and times of relative stability and welfare. Today, objectively, the situation leans to fair, with most Jews in the world away from neediness, a strong Jewish sovereign state, and civil rights ensured to Jews in democratic countries where most of them live. Even though, undeniably, a sense of dissatisfaction permeates the air, much related to persisting perceptions of hostility and possible destabilizing geopolitical scenarios, much of the choices Jewish people make depend on answers which – unlike in the past – we hold in our hands.

Jewish identity in the UK, in Europe and worldwide is usually represented on a linear continuum, from strongest to weakest. Popular but also scholarly evaluations of Judaism’s historical trajectory typically portray a path from (often idyllic) imagined past to (allegedly meek) present realities, extending it toward uncertain futures. Such a one-dimensional approach unavoidably ends in simplistic interpretations on a spectrum between optimism and pessimism.

The configuration of Jewish identity is much more complex and interesting. JPR’s new Jewish Identity report, based on 16,000 answers provided by Jews in 12 European Union countries (including the UK), throws a fresh glance at the full repertoire of perceptions, ideas, symbols, behaviours and interactions that constitute the real gist of Jewish corporate life, looking at the What, the Why, and the How of Jewish identity, as expressed by Jews themselves: What makes people attach themselves with Judaism? Is it religion, ancestry or cultural inheritance that plays the bigger role? Why is it important for a person to engage with his Judaism? Is it remembering the holocaust, fighting antisemitism today, or is it belief in God that makes it important to ‘be’ Jewish? And How do people exercise their Jewishness? what are the preferred patterns of Jewish religious belief and behaviour, presentation of self, denomination and interaction with other Jews?

Facing the odds of the contemporary Jewish experience, the new report possibly alludes to one of Shakespeare’s most famous passages: If you prick us, do we not bleed? Shylock’s lament pitted the drama of the Jew versus a hostile non-Jewish world. Indeed, memories of the Holocaust and fear of antisemitism powerfully resonates both among the most conservative and the most radical of Jews across Europe.  But other things being different, our report highlights the dilemmas of the individual Jew when rubbing not only with society at large but also with different Jews.

The powerful existing commonalities are remarkable facing the many divisions and internal competition that characterise contemporary Jewry. Our study brings fresh knowledge that can and should translate into greater mutual understanding and respect, interaction and collaboration in the effort to pass down Jewish identity from the present generation to the one that will follow. Acknowledging that so much is shared in personal memories and sensitivities, and facing the common interest to preserve personal security and freedom, the extant tendency to construct and nurture internal Jewish hierarchies, animosities, and tensions appear pointless.

About the Author
Sergio DellaPergola is Professor Emeritus and former Chairman of the Hebrew University’s Avraham Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry, and Chairman of JPR’s European Jewish Demography Unit.
Related Topics
Related Posts