The last chapter of a Jewish chronicle?

May 3, 1996

The Jews of Europe are fast disappearing and the Continent will be the poorer for it, argues Bernard Wasserstein

Bad news is never welcome. So I suppose I should not have been surprised at the chorus of anathemas that descended on me recently, following the publication of my book Vanishing Diaspora. Most of the book is concerned with the past half century, during which the Jewish population of Europe has experienced a precipitous decline in numbers, from around four million in 1945 to well under two million today. But at the end I ventured on to the treacherous ground of prognosis and suggested that, if current trends continue, Jews will in all likelihood disappear as a significant element in European society during the next century.

There is nothing particularly original about that conclusion. Demographic experts have been making similar forecasts for years. But perhaps precisely because Jews in Britain - and in Europe in general - are becoming increasingly anxious about the prospects for their collective survival, my book seems to have struck a sensitive nerve. It evoked some yelps of outrage, blind denial, and, in some instances, wilful misunderstanding.

The protests have come from various points along the spectrum of Jewish religious belief. The Jewish Chonicle called me a "prophet of doom". Hugo Gryn, a distinguished Reform rabbi, writing in The Sunday Times, declared my treatment of the memorialisation of the Holocaust "misguided and hurtful"; he is an Auschwitz survivor and I regret having caused him any pain - though I could not on that account expurgate my historical narrative. A Liberal rabbi in the Netherlands, reviewing the Dutch edition, worked himself up into a lather of indignation at the idea that God would not ultimately provide for His own. As for the Orthodox, some were infuriated by my suggestion (buttressed by recent survey data) that ultra-Orthodox Jewish families, celebrated for their fecundity, are in many cases now practising birth control - with a consequent reduction in average family size. The Manchester Jewish Telegraph wheeled out "father of eight" Rabbi Yossi Chazan of the Holy Law Hebrew Congregation, who reportedly said "that when they had only seven children his son had come home from [Jewish religious] school complaining that he belonged to the smallest family in his class."

Such anecdotal evidence notwithstanding, the overall figures cannot be wished away. In Britain there were about 410,000 Jews in the early 1950s; there are about 290,000 today. Every year in this country more Jews die than are born. The below-replacement-level Jewish reproduction rate is similar throughout Europe. Taken together with rapid emigration of Jews from Eastern Europe, large-scale out-marriage, and a general drift away from all forms of religious identification, the writing is clearly on the wall for European Jewry.

If there were any doubt about the adequacy of the evidence on which I based my conclusions, these have been reinforced, at least so far as Britain is concerned, by two major new sets of data. The first is a report by the Jewish Board of Deputies. That tells us that Jewish births in Britain fell from an average of 3,934 per annum in 1965-69 to 3,200 in 1975-79; by 1993 they had fallen again, to just 2,847. Even assuming some stabilisation in the number of births and a slight further rise in average life expectancy, that implies a base Jewish population early in the next century of under a quarter of a million.

The second new piece of confirmatory evidence comes in a major survey of Anglo-Jewry conducted by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research. This reveals that, while Anglo-Jewry is growing more affluent and socially secure, it is declining demographically, dispersing geographically, and is in danger of disintegrating as a collectivity.

The British community is exceptionally well-studied and so the trends are clearest here; but the general tendency is visible all over the Continent. That is true even of France, whose Jewish community, now the largest in Europe, numbering about 530,000, was reinvigorated in the 1950s and 1960s by a mass influx of Jews from North Africa. In the early years these immigrants brought a more intense religiosity and sense of communal commitment than was common among the well-integrated native-born Jews. The North Africans also tended to have much larger families. But as early as 1985 a sophisticated analysis revealed that the reproduction patterns of North-African-origin Jewish women, particularly in the second generation, were rapidly approximating to the very low fertility rates characteristic of the indigenous Jewish population. French Jewry, while still more lively, in its religious and cultural life, than its neighbour across the Channel, seems to be heading down a parallel demographic avenue.

As for Eastern Europe, until as late as 1939 still the Jewish heartland, this is emptying out before our eyes, just as North Africa jettisoned nearly all its Jews in the two decades after the war. At least 100,000 Jews have been leaving the Commonwealth of Independent States each year this decade. As a result, for the first time since the early modern period, there are today more Jews in Western than in Eastern Europe. True, the fall of communism has permitted freedom of worship and of cultural and political expression. But for Jews the most widespread manifestation of such freedom in the ex-communist lands has been the packing of suitcases for Israel or the United States.

Can the decline of European Jewry be arrested? Religious Jews, of course, take comfort in the prospect of a return to the faith. But that is probably a will-o'-the-wisp. In this regard the Jews seem no different from their surrounding societies: Europe in general, northwestern Europe in particular, is undergoing a far-reaching process of secularisation that inexorably affects Protestants, Catholics, Muslims - and Jews.

What of Jewish schools - the great panacea embraced by many communal leaders? Far be it from me to discountenance any heightened educational effort; that is valuable and to be encouraged for its own sake. But is it also useful as a form of collective survival insurance? In fact, evidence from children educated in Catholic schools in Britain and the US or in other comparable systems does not support the contention that sectarian segregation in schooling necessarily yields a more faithful religious flock. What about the last resort argument: the extrapolation of social trends is always mistaken because history never proceeds in a straight line? Maybe, but if we are to form any sense of the near-term future we have to base our expectations on something more than Micawberish hopes that something will turn up.

Does all this matter? Should Jews or anybody else care that, some time in the next century, the Jewish presence in Europe seems likely to dwindle to something akin to that of the Amish in Pennsylvania - a picturesque but essentially irrelevant remnant? There are some, even among Jews themselves, who believe that their disappearance is an outcome devoutly to be wished.

Jonathan Miller told The Independent the other day: "If there is a shrinking diaspora, I don't think it is a particularly important matter. I don't want to see the Jewish community shrink by elimination, but by assimilating or by progressive transparency; that seems to me good and reasonable and inevitable. It is a form of natural speciation, just as in the jungle - it is simply not troublesome." Such a clearheadedly assimilationist attitude has a long historical pedigree, all the way from Flavius Josephus to Isaac Deutscher (though in all these cases one suspects that its exponents protest a little too much). Of course, in a liberal society, all individuals are and should be free to choose their own destiny.

Nevertheless, I must confess (here abandoning the sociological mask of objectivity) to a feeling that not only world Jewry but European society in general is on the threshold of losing a constituent element that has been of profound significance in shaping its modern character. Surely it is axiomatic that all forms of cultural distinctiveness deserve to survive and that the world is poorer with the death of Yiddish literature as with that of Welsh or Scottish Gaelic. Only the most blinkered cultural imperialists still deny that such minority languages, cultures and peoples have a right to make a positive contribution to the European mosaic by asserting their continued vitality. Dr Miller is one of our most humane and sensitive thinkers: I am sure he would defend the right of cultural survival of those indigenous peoples in the Amazon or Borneo whose languages and customs are in deep peril. Yet he denies the value of such survival peculiarly to the culture from which his own ancestors drew life and sustenance. What does he feel that humanity will gain from the Jews' submergence in some kind of mashed-up unicultural tofu? This sort of social Darwinism is surely out of tune with the pluralism that most of us now recognise as fundamental to a humane society.

Since the Enlightenment the Jewish role in politics, the economy, and every branch of the arts in Europe has been - well, shall we say with all due reserve - not negligible. As that vanishes, all of us, I opine, will feel the loss.

Bernard Wasserstein is president-elect of the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. His Vanishing Diaspora: the Jews in Europe since 1945 is published by Hamish Hamilton.

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