Two topics are Jewish perennials: “who is a Jew” and “the Diaspora and Israel.” Do Jews have to feel guilty (or even guiltier) if they still live in Galut? Contradictory developments have occurred in Europe: Life is more insecure for Jews and at the same time Jews, especially young ones, claim spaces and discourses in public and in the societies in which they live.
The Jewish Museum Frankfurt devoted two days to this question and not only shed light on the role of Jewish museums in this matter. No. It was also about the current situation on the entire continent. The “symposium” was called Transitions (Website). For example, Diane Pinto and Bernard Wasserstein discussed opposing assessments of the current situation in Europe. The authors Doron Rabinovici and Fania Oz-Salzberger discussed the extent to which the present period of Jewish life in Europe is one of transition. (Direct link to the discussion on YouTube) Legal frameworks (and their changes) for Jewish life in Europe (think of Shechita) were also addressed.
I had the honour to join one of these panels about a self-determined Jewish life in the diaspora, together with Laura Cazés (of the Central Welfare Board of Jews in Germany), the Swiss journalist Yves Kugelmann, with scientist and author Dr Zsófia Kata Vincze from Budapest and the French journalist and novelist Marc Weitzmann. The whole discussion is available here (YouTube).
From the notes I made during and before the panel, I wrote a small text to describe the current diaspora situation – without solving the question of whether European Jewry has indeed a perspective or not. But there are some hints – please don’t consider this a full essay on this topic:
People who were raised in the Soviet Union, when it still was the Soviet Union, told me a joke about the situation of Jews in the late days of the Soviet Union: The joke was about newborns in a hospital. Whenever there was a Jewish baby, the nurses took special attention and handled it with extra care. They used warm sheets and special powder and so on. Of course, this was noticed by the mothers of the goyishe babies. And so they asked the nurse why the Jewish babies got special care. And the nurses answered: These are export products.
I guess this is, indeed, not unknown to many. The communities all over Europe are shrinking. For demographic reasons on the one hand and because some people leave the continent for Eretz Israel. I doubt that this is only because of anti-semitism. Another reason for this is different and confusingly entangled with another development: I see an increasing interest in Jewish culture and identity especially among people who were formerly unaware of, or even uninterested in their Jewish roots. For me, the rediscovering of Judaism within families is interesting.
At the same time the identification with Judaism, or better to say, with the Jewish family or culture, let’s call it Jewishness, raises the chances for a Jewish future in Europe and of a Jewish presence all over Europe. And some of these motivated and interested people move to Israel to have a closer connection to Jewish life or culture.
Many younger people of today are self-confident about their Judaism or their connection to the Jewish people. The Internet may have empowered some of these processes. They claim their place in society and they are not bound to a specific city or country. But: How long will free-minded young people endure the repressive atmosphere in their countries – I think of Hungary for example. Where will these people go?
And: while some people are leaving for Israel – people from Israel are contributing to the continuance of European Diaspora communities. Some of them are part of local Jewish communities, some of them are not (like in Berlin). But they opened new debates. Refreshing for some people, others have disturbed the general cosiness in Germany.
The general perspective is: We will have a smaller number of communities in every European country. Jewish life will cluster in certain centres – mainly big and attractive cities. In Prague, I met Jewish people from all over the world. Some of them are short-time guests, others enjoy the atmosphere for a longer time. These cities have already rather big communities today.
And the last word to my view on the situation in Germany: The German government has an interest in a growing Jewish community. A growing community is meant to heal the wounds of the past. Everything will be all right again. But, of course, this will not happen.
The style of speech that populism has liberated, clearly shows that Anti-Semitism was invisible only because it was socially outlawed. Not because people were convinced that Anti-Semitism is something bad. This will not be a climate for flourishing Judaism in the future.