The highs and lows of Jewish life in post-war Western Europe

March 8, 2016  

The Jewish communities of Western Europe managed to re-establish themselves after WWII. The situation has changed so drastically since then, that it is hard to remember that it seemed as though a golden age had begun and that anti-Semitism has been buried once and for all. Looking back, it is clear that the second half of of the 20th century were the best years of postwar Western European Jewry.

French post-war Jewry had been greatly strengthened by a major influx of North African Jews, and France still has more Jews than all other Western European continental countries combined. The number of Jews in Germany increased significantly over time, due to the arrival of Jewish immigrants, mainly from Russia and Israel. The Jewish population of the United Kingdom also showed an upward trend. Smaller numbers of Jews arrived in Italy from countries such as Libya, Lebanon and Iran. Almost all Danish Jews were saved in WWII, largely by fleeing to Sweden.

(On the other hand, at least three-quarters of the 140,000 Jews living in the Netherlands at the time of the German occupation in May 1940 were murdered with Dutch cooperation while Greek Jews suffered a similar fate.)

The increasing affluence of Western European countries had a considerable impact on the development of their Jewish communities, while the related increase in leisure time created new opportunities for culture and sports, as well as religious activities. These newer activities often facilitated the inclusion of those who, although of Jewish origin, were not considered halachically Jewish.

A variety of Jews occupied prominent roles in politics, business, the media, art, popular culture and other sectors of society, often on opposing sides of political and social debate. Their importance, as has often been the case historically, was disproportionate to the percentage of Jewish citizens in each country.

Remember the socialist Léon Blum, the only Jew to serve as Prime Minister of France prior to the Second World War? Postwar France had three Jewish Prime Ministers – Blum, René Mayer, and Pierre Mendès-France. In Gibraltar, Sir Joshua Hassan became the first Jewish Chief Minister, serving two terms in that position.

In Austria, the socialist Jewish self-hater, Bruno Kreisky, became Prime Minister – that post would never go to a Jew today – and in Belgium, Jean Gol was appointed Deputy Prime Minister. Ministers of Jewish origin served in governments in France, the Netherlands, Denmark, Italy and Switzerland, Jews chaired Parliaments and there were many Jewish parliamentarians.

European Jews received Nobel Prizes in the sciences and literature.

European Jewish writers and artists achieved international fame, including the French novelist Romain Gary, the Dutch writers Harry Mulisch and Leon de Winter, and the Italian Giorgio Bassani.

The Italian designer Emanuele Luzzati became internationally known. René Goscinny authored and edited the internationally treasured Asterix and Obelix comics.

In some countries, Jewish thought and culture flourished. France was in the forefront, due in part to the size of its Jewish community. The country was home to “The Parisian School of Jewish Thought,” a small group of thinkers of international rank including André Neher, Emmanuel Lévinas, Leon Ashkenasi and Ėliane Amado Levy-Valensi. Philosopher and sociologist Shmuel Trigano stands out as a contemporary thinker.

Many books were published on Jewish topics, initially mainly in France but eventually throughout Western Europe. Holocaust studies and increasing publications of holocaust literature made a niche for themselves on the shelves. Interest in Jewish issues also grew in many non-Jewish environments, due to the Holocaust and the Israel-Arab conflict.

Slowly, as European societies became more open, Jews were more willing to show their Judaism outdoors. Some started wearing a yarmulka in public, having previously preferred less distinctive head coverings.

Worldwide attention was drawn to a scandal regarding dormant bank accounts in Swiss banks belonging to Jews murdered in the Holocaust with public opinion generally supporting the Jewish position. This ultimately led to restitution payments, both in Switzerland and also in other countries such as Norway, the Netherlands and Austria which generated historical studies on Holocaust-related financial and economic matters.

It seemed as if most European countries wanted to clean up their past at that time, in a fin-de-siècle gesture.


All that was to change: Although Jews continued to do well economically and were to be found in all fields of endeavor, the 21st century started off badly, with anti-Semitic incidents unprecedented since the Second World War. Many of these were caused by Muslim immigrants or their descendants. A non-selective immigration policy had brought large numbers of Muslims into Europe from countries where anti-Semitism was widespread. Some were radicalized and some were simply hooligans. Those who took the Koran literally considered Jews to be pigs and monkeys in an extreme case of unadulterated racism.

France, the Western European country with the highest percentage of Muslims, had the most extreme anti-Semitic incidents. Several Jews were murdered in racist motivated crimes over a decade. In 2014 a number of French synagogues were attacked by Muslim gangs.

All this must also be seen against the backdrop of the mantra of “multiculturalism”, aka the failure of Western democracies to integrate their large immigrant populations and where most remain in enclaves where even the police fear to tread.

Widespread European anti-Israelism finds its expression in extreme, false negative stereotypes of the only democratic country in the Middle East. A recent survey revealed that over 40% of adult EU citizens view Israel as a Nazi-like entity, believing, for example, that the country is conducting a war of extermination against the Palestinian Arabs.

Efforts by political parties to attract Muslim votes affect their policies. The EU’s November 11 decision, announced the day after Kristallnacht memorials took place, to label products from areas Israel conquered during the 1967 war was a low point of political double standards. In a Kafkaesque move, Jews were not invited to the Kristallnacht memorial in Sweden, and anti-Israel Arab MK Haneen Zouabi was invited to speak at a ceremony held in Amsterdam.

This negative view of Israel has had an impact on the image of all Jews in Western Europe, and “anti-Israelism” is seen by many as a 21st century cloak for anti-Semitism.

At the same time, right wing parties opposing Islam have become stronger. Ritual slaughter has been attacked in certain countries, which although aimed largely at Muslims, also affects the Jewish population. Similarly, the prohibition of female circumcision, exclusively practiced by Muslims, has also drawn attention to male circumcision, leading to calls for its prohibition.

There are many indications, including a negative birth rate and failing economies, that both the European Union and Europe at large are decaying societies. Conscious Jews are increasingly asking themselves what the future there holds, in particular, for their children. In the meantime, more and more European Jews hide their Jewish identity in public. One major exception is the Chabad movement, which has introduced public lighting of the Hanukkah candelabra in central locations in many cities. These ceremonies are often attended by local authorities.

Eastern Europe, surprisingly, has a lower incident of anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism than it had in the 20th century, despite the rise of the right. In fact, Vladimir Putin often appears in the company of a Chabad rabbi.

The present reality for Jews in Western Europe is confusing. This year’s influx of hundreds of thousands of Muslim refugees with no end in sight, particularly in Germany and Sweden, is already posing more challenges to local Jews and will in all probability get worse. Murderers from the Islamic State movement who have infiltrated the mix of today’s refugees could target Jews specifically.

The horrendous November 13th terror massacre in Paris was not aimed specifically at Jews, but exacerbated the fears of that community and, since the Islamist terrorists have already announced that this is but the first of a series of attacks, has brought a constant feeling of insecurity to an already frightened community.

Had this article been written five years ago, it would have been less negative. The question is whether five years from now, such an article will be even more negative.

Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld, a prolific author and columnist, is a board member and former chairman of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award (2012) of the Journal for the Study of Anti-Semitism. His newest book is The War of a Thousand Cuts on 21st century anti-Semitism.

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