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Diana Pinto (Paris)
Towards an European Jewish Identity

The presence/absence of so many Jews at the Balkan conference begs the two central questions of this essay. The first is internal. Can Jews in Europe today come together to constitute a significant «third pole » for a postwar Jewish world mainly established in Israel and America? The second is external and more fundamental for our concerns. Can Jews in Europe today assert their active presence in a democratic continent coming to grips with pluralist and multicultural challenges? In brief, sixty years after World War II and the Shoah and at the dawn of the 21st century can one speak of or even imagine the contours of a new European Jewish identity, one which would be enriching and useful to Jews and non-Jews in Europe and around the world ?

The answer in my opinion is « yes », qualified by the proviso that identities take shape only if there are people who incarnate them, in this case Jews who feel equally at home in their Jewish and European roots. It is my belief that only now in the context of a democratic (or aspiring democratic) and reunited pan-European continent do we have the premises for such a new Jewish identity.
For a European Jewish identity to emerge a series of major conceptual obstacles have had and still have to be lifted. The most fundamental is historical, cultural and ideological : a profound (and not wholly unjustified) antipathy for the very concept of « Europe » in a post-Shoah Jewish world dominated by American Jewry and Israel.

The second obstacle was ideological : only with the end of Communism as a state ideology symbolized by the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 could the two halves of the continent be reconciled and the Jews within them, with their multiple and clashing pasts be reunited as voluntary Jews. The third obstacle that had to be lifted was the silence that surrounded the Holocaust, comfortably cordoned off into the realm of private Jewish grief or placed on a lofty pedestal of the « unspeakable » far from the very real life and politics of the continent. The fourth obstacle could be found in the realm of interreligious dialogue in particular with respect to Catholicism. Only when the Vatican recently recognized the State of Israel could one speak of a final normalization between Jews and Christians without which the past could not be transcended. The fifth obstacle that is slowly being lifted is the tension and suspicion which surrounded Western European-Israeli relations in the postwar period in particular after Israel’s Six day War in 1967, characterized by an infernal spiral of suspicion and disdain on the part of the Israelis toward the Continent. Europeans seemed to be bogged down vis a vis Israel in a psychologically disturbed and most unhealthy blend of silence, guilt, realpolitikal considerations vis a vis the Arab world, misplaced international morality and legalistic punctiliousness all of which wrought havoc with the very idea of Jewish life in Europe.

Only with the lifting of these obstacles, can one begin to deliniate the contours of any future oriented European Jewish identity and can Jews calmly confront the challenges ahead both as Europeans and as Jews. Among the most important I would place the pluralist democratic challenge, the multicultural challenge, and the Jewish coming to terms with a new European cultural phenomenon: the Jewish space.

The Sea Change of 1989

Jews around the world however including those in western Europe, assumed that the fall of the Wall would lead to only one outcome: the departure of all the Jews from the Communist bloc and thus the final closing of accounts in the painful chapter of Jewish life in Eastern Europe. Although hundreds of thousand of Soviet Jews did indeed go to Israel, many chose to stay behind and many even settled in Germany. Rather than turning into a definitive graveyard, Eastern Europe was suddenly aglow with a numerically small but qualitatively vital revival of Jewish life. Thus did the demise of Communist regimes across Europe set the ground for an emerging European Jewish identity. For it was only when « captive Jews » were finally free to leave for Israel that one could identify and count the «voluntary » Jews who instead chose to remain willingly as Jews inside their respective homelands and by ricochet in a renewed pan-European setting. These Jews were coming back to the fold out of forced or voluntary total assimilation, precisely at the same time as Jews in Western Europe were also disassimilating and taking on a more confrontational attitude toward their countries’ respective pasts during the Holocaust. They could pursue such an internal distancing with impunity because they were full fledged citizens of their respective countries and endowed with a self confidence which their parents had lacked.

Constructing an European Jewish identity

Constructing an European Jewish identity implies above all abolishing the new pecking order inside European Jewry which replaced the old pre-Shoah order. In pre-Nazi Europe, Jewish ‘elites’ were those that were most assimilated, while the Ostjuden were perceived as ‘inferior’ and at times even threatening to Western European Jews because of their religious obscurantism, traditional life style and essential refusal of assimilation and modernity. The vast majority of the Ostjuden were exterminated during the Holocaust but it was their Judaism that appeared in retrospect to have been the most legitimate, along with its lay dialectical opposite, Zionism. Both had forcefully eschewed the hopeless illusion of Jewish integration or assimilation inside European societies and the Shoah seemed to have justified them beyond appeal.. The pecking order inside the postwar Jewish world thus gave highest status to the Zionists and to a lesser degree to the religiously orthodox, even though they were essentially perceived by others as guardians of a spent world. The great losers were the assimilated humanistic and modern Jews that had predominated in Western Europe.

Positing a European Jewish identity implies paradoxically retracing one’s steps backward and reentering the lost world of humanistic European Jewry supposedly killed at Auschwitz to look for living embers rather than ashes. This is a major challenge. Postwar American Jews are convinced that they carried off the last spark of European Judaism into the terrestrial Jerusalem of the New World far from spent Europe, and for most of the postwar period, it seemed undoubtedly so. Today however, the surviving embers of the past are coming back to life in Europe itself, fanned by the winds of pluralist democracy and by the healing powers of history…and with the help of American Jewish institutions The comparison that comes to mind is with the California vines that were sent back to Europe after the phyloxera epidemic of the 1870’s had destroyed Europe’s most prestigious vineyards, so as to bring them back to life. The California vineyards had of course originally come themselves from Europe. European Judaism will be the product of a similar grafting.

Of course Jewish life in Europe can only have a future if it is rooted in Europe itself and if it confronts its own very special challenges, first and foremost among which the legacy of the Holocaust. It can do so now precisely because the Holocaust is slowly coming to rest where it belonged from the start, not only in the circles of Jewish sorrow but above all on the shoulders of the countries and societies that abetted it, i.e, not just on guilty Germany but on Europe as a whole.

Europe’s ‘New Jews’

In the Israeli and in the American imagination, naturally enough, Europe’s Jews today are perceived very much as the inheritors of the history and the weaknesses of their pre-Shoah forefathers whose civilization purportedly went up in smoke at Auschwitz. Yet nothing could be further from the truth for a series of crucial structural reasons. Today’s Jews in Europe are qualitatively different and very much ‘new’ compared to those of the prewar past. First of all, in Western Europe, many are simply geographically new thanks to the important migrations of the postwar period. French Jewry was renewed through the arrival of North African Jews, above all from Algeria in the early 1960’s. But the same was true for Italian Jewry that received Jews, as Great Britain and Switzerland, from Lebanon, Syria and Egypt, while the Scandinavian countries received Jews from Poland, Austria received many Jews from Hungary while West Germany welcomed Jews from Poland, Hungary and Romania and most recently and most spectacularly Jews from Russia.

Equally important, those Jews who were the descendants of the long established pre-Holocaust Jewries of Europe were themselves transformed by historical events into a new type of Jew. The old assimilated Jewries of Western Europe may have retained a national loyalty but they could no longer muster the same kind of unconditional patriotism as in the past, especially among the younger generations who were better informed about the greyness of their national antecedents. In eastern Europe Communism assimilated Jews forcefully, turning them into citizens like everybody else at the expense of their own often fragile identitites. The postwar Polish Jews had little in common with their prewar predecessors, just as few postwar French Jews continued to be the equivalent of the assimilated ‘Israelites’ of the past. Furthermore in France, the survivors of the Ostjuden who had immigrated after World War I and who were never part of the old French Jewish elites, have taken up their own identity in the postwar period with a vengeance, next to the Sepharad Jews. In countries with virtually no Jewish populations such as Spain or Portugal, new Jews arrived which were a mix of German exiles, Ashkenazi immigrants from Latin America, and local Jews that emerged often from clandestinity, true Marranos, although the term was now also used to evoke Poland’s ‘new Jews’.

To these Jews must be added the relative cohorts of Jews stemming from mixed marriages and actively choosing to espouse a Jewish identity whereas in the past, they would have been nothing in religious terms or members of the majoritarian religion. These « half Jews » pose a most disturbing historical question. Indeed, many of today’s active and voluntary Jews in Europe would not even have been born had their own parents not survived because they were the children of mixed marriages.

To this mix must also be added two other categories of Jews not from Europe: American Jews living as expatriates in Europe who played a crucial role in helping to set up voluntarist communities often of a liberal sort and taught the notion of grass roots community organization; and Israelis abroad who have brought with them their own national culture but also a renewed interest in Hebrew literature beyond the religious texts.

If American Jewry with the opening of Eastern Europe has gone into an immense nostalgia trip for their roots in the world of Yiddishkeit, Jews in Eastern Europe, coming out of assimilation, feel no similar need. Their search is for viable modern roots inside the Judaism of their forefathers, for a useable as opposed to a mythical past. These ‘new Jews’ who are disassimilating both East and West are searching for a compromise, for unlike their prewar ancestors, they are not marginal insiders who in reality were outsiders but true insiders who seek to keep an identity foot ‘outside’ by recuperating or rather reinventing a Jewish tradition and identity for themselves. They are living Jews, who are conquering for themselves places within civil society, no longer confining themselves in niches within the protective (or often stifling) structures of the State. One can no longer speak about ‘Anglo-Jewry’, French Jacobin Jews, or Jewish Italian patriots, much less of old German Jews as in the past. What is emerging before us are new personae: Jews with multiple loyalties who are rather like free electrons inside newly defined state and cultural perimeters.

Toward a new America-Israel-Europe Triangle

Europe’s Jews were peripheral and negligible quantitites, second class assistants in the great Jewish play unfolding in Israel and in America, with the added misfortune of performing on a lateral and badly lit stage with an indifferent public.
In the last two decades, this black and white vision of each side of the triangle has become less clear cut, more open to reflection and even more relativized. American Jewry, so proud of its power, has turned inward to contemplate its own inherent diasporic fragility : declining numbers, mixed marriages, a loss of commitment and ideals as its members moved up the social ladder , virtually disappearing into a WASP elite condition in the space of just three generations, from ghetto to national power. In the great multicultural jockeing for power, America’s Jews stand uneasily among the power elite, having still barely recovered from the struggles and tensions of their relations with the Black community after the initial honeymoon of the civil rights period. Europe’s historical victims could not make a similar claim for ‘victimhood’ inside the American body politic whose quintessential historical victims were either the American Natives dispossessed of their land and identity or the descendants of the Black slaves—the only group not to have come voluntarily to the New World. In this context, one can better understand the recent American Jewish fixation on the Holocaust as a world historical event that could restore for them a sense of historical victimhood by proxy, one that could be enshrined in the very heart of the American liberal and democratic conscience—all the more easily that the historical culprits of the horror lay elsewhere, in Germany.

Similarly, Israel also has experienced a major transformation that has eroded its original ideological power, historical purity, and progressivism. As the most powerful country in the region, Israel has experienced the reality of state power with its concomitant realpolitikal choices, errors and injustices, in particular toward the Palestinians. Paradoxically, it has achieved its quest for normality and should not be surprised if it treated as such in the international arena. More important , the tiny democracy in the Middle East has developed its own internal enemies in the ultra-orthodox nationalist camp, whose beliefs are at the antipodes of social democratic Zionism, bordering on a Jewish version of ‘blood and soil’ fascism, religious intolerance and ethnic purity. Internal strife, deadly tensions, and a growing feeling that Israel, like all of the western world, but Europe in particular, still had democratic lessons to learn, has given Israelis a new humility. A major role was played in this sense by the revisionist historians who underscored the inherent European like ethnic nationalism that underlay the foundations of the Jewish State in its behaviour to its historic ‘others’ , the Arabs. In other words, Israel was much more a part of Europe than its Zionists ideology claimed. It too is having to retool its national identity to take democratic pluralism into account. Thus its challenges are far closer to those of Europe at present. The gap between the old world and the new Israel is narrowing rather than expanding.

The relativization of the three sides of the Jewish triangle is only slowly emerging today but it will have an undoubtedly crucial impact on future European Jewish life, in that it will disengage it from the need to be the equivalent of Israeli ambassadors abroad, in order to resume its own Jewish tasks inside the continent. Israel will need a strong Diaspora in Europe not just as a messanger but far more importantly as a democratic and pluralist counterweight to the State’s own inevitable realpolitik and political choices which can only lead to compromise with the ultra religious camp. In this context, it will be neither in the interests of Israelis nor of European Jews to speak of poor or even ‘dying’ European cousins at the hands of a haughty historically self- contained and self-confident Israel. The relationship will be mutually beneficial and reciprocal. In the future, European Jewry may well end up being a point of equilibrium between the Israeli and the American poles of world Judaism.

The Challenges

The challenges we refer to here are of a political and cultural nature, and not in the spiritual arena. Jewish religious life interests us only insofar as its manifestations succeed or fail in espousing the leading values of our age, pluralist democratic tolerance. While the ultimate ‘holy Jewish life, what interests us here are internal’ Jewish challenge is to lead an integral and the far more terrestrial challenges of Jewish life inside the wider polis and in the cultural agora. These challenges exist everywhere, including in Israel and in America. But in Europe, perhaps because they are spelled out for the first time across the continent, they take on a special significance and even symbolism.

Accustomed to millenia of discrimination and exclusion, followed by the maelstrom of emancipation and its apparent traumatic finale, the Holocaust, Jews in Europe, have yet to come to terms with their condition as full fledged citizens of their respective countries able to pursue the Jewish identity of their choice in the freest of possible manners. The three challenges that will confront them in the future are the pluralist democratic challenge, the multicultural challenge, and the Jewish presence inside Europe’s growing Jewish Space.

Meeting the pluralist challenge implies finding an equilbirium between the pluralist ideals of the outside world and the manifold incarnations of an often traditional and hierarchical Judaism, a Judaism whose internal equilbriums had been greatly facilitated in the past by the external unifying pressure of often hostile surroundings. Confronting the multicultural challenge implies reflecting on the political and cultural implications of a Jewish identity inside Europe’s historically laden nations. Should Jews become new multicultural ‘outsiders’ prodding a tolerance for their traditions and rituals ? Should they invoke the same tolerance instead as ‘insiders’ dismantling from within millenial prejudices but in the name of equality rather than in that of special (as though ‘exotic’) treatment? The third and most difficult challenge is the Jewish Space: how should Jews approach and intervene in Europe’s growing Jewish spaces, increasingly initiated, populated and even administered by non-Jews?

Toward a European Jewish identity ?

Whether such an identity will really crystallize depends ultimately on the continent’s own Jews. The internal and external challenges are all there waiting to be seized creatively. However, no amount of American and Israeli intervention and funding can make such an identity exist if it does not possess and develop its own dynamic. During this past decade as Europe embarked on its own sea change, international Jewish support was crucial to the establishment of new communities, to the rebirth of Jewish life especially in Eastern Europe, and to the financing of encounters. Now that the Jewish actors of the new Europe are gradually putting themselves in place, the ball will be increasingly in the European camp, a camp defined in the largest possible sense, one that by no means excludes and instead welcomes Jewish contributions from elsewhere. In this context it is significant to see that the heirs of the old German Jewry to be found mainly in the States but also in Israel are increasingly attracted to the growing Jewish Space in Germany . They come to it not only for the sake of their own past, but very much as an international Jewish stake for the future.

The past is only now coming back to life in Germany whereas it had been preciously preserved in exile whether in New York or in Jerusalem, most notably through the Leo Baeck institutes. The prognosis so far seems good. Everywhere throughout Europe ‘new Jews’ from Portugal to Russia are developing their own symbioses, agendas and cultural life. Never has the timing been more propitious both in terms of the interest of the outside world and the possibilities of the world within….but with one proviso. Jewish life can fully blossom in an open Europe only if Jews learn to master the fear of freedom in order to develop a Judaism which no longer has to face debilitating external constraints.

European Jews in the future if they are to flourish must above all not be guardians of a static and finalized pre-Holcoaust heritage.They must not become the museum keepers of world Jewry. They must cease to think of themselves as a dying species, obsessed with declining numbers. Rather they should infuse Jewish life in the numbers they have and welcome inside the Jewish ranks those who want to join the Jewish people. By the spreading of Jewish religious values, history, philosophy and ethics, and culture (well beyond its facile ethnic components) Jews should take on a leading role in Europe’s coming to terms with itself. The invisible voices at the conference on the Balkans should at last feel free to express their own multiple identitites and values. The ultimate victims of yesterday have become Europe’s most impressive postwar success story. They are increasingly towering over the crossroads of the continentstage. May we, Europe’s ‘new Jews’ ’s past, present and future, very much on center have the collective wisdom to use this symbolic power with openness, modesty and justice.

content: 1996 - 1999