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Background Report the Jews of Western Europe

The Jews of Western Europe share a common historical memory, of which the Holocaust is the dominant event and face many of the same problems of contemporary life. But they are separated by national borders and a diversity of languages, customs and ideologies and even cultural attitudes which stem from their many different places of origin.

They are, for the most part, an unknown quantity to American Jews whose own communities, though widely separated by geography, enjoy a homogeneity of attitudes and ideas.

Those observations were contained in a detailed survey of Western European Jewry by David Zeff, published recently in the Jewish News of New Jersy. Zeff, a consultant to the Jewish Community Federation of Metropoliton New Jersey, served as a consultant on community organization to the European Council of Jewish Communities in Paris from 1976-78 for the purpose of upgrading its effectiveness in serving the efforts of the Jewish communities to reconstruct themselves.

He was assigned to the Council by the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) which had created it and which subsequently turned it over to the European Jews themselves “in line with the JDC’s commitment to the strengthening of the infrastructure of Jewish communities outside the United States,” Zeff stated.

UNIQUE ASPECTS OF JEWISH LIFE

“To describe the Jews of Europe is a highly complex and elusive task,” he wrote. “One cannot speak about European Jewry as a distinctive entity; the best we can do is take note of the unique aspects of Jewish life in a variety of countries. Although geographically distances are not great, the distinctions in terms of language, tradition, history, value system are all so great that one cannot easily lump them together. Several countries — Great Britain, Sweden, Switzerland — were left relatively untouched by World War 11. But in virtually all of the other nations, the Jews suffered not only terrible losses in lives but also the destruction of their organized Jewish communities…”

There is “a sense of sadness,” he said, “in finding out how little interest American Jews have in the contemporary Western European Jewish condition” which leads to a number of misconceptions on their part. One of these is that “assimilation is rampant.”

A NUMBER OF MISCONCEPTIONS

According to Zeff, “In some smaller Jewish communities, particularly where the general society is especially open, such as in the Scandinavian countries, the rate of mixed marriages is dangerously high. However, for 90 percent of Western European Jews, those in France and Great Britain, the rate is lower than our own According to a recent study in France, there is now, for the first time, a decrease in the rate of intermarriage. As for Great Britain, the rate of assimilation has never been as high as it is in the United States ….”

Another misconception, Zeff wrote, is that “European Jews are affluent. The fact is that there are some wealthy Jews in Europe but most Jews live with quite modest incomes, in addition to which there are many who are outright poor.”

The most notable fact about European Jewry today is that it is a community of survivors, Zeff noted. Its composition therefore is different from what it was before World War 11. He cited as an example, the Jewish community in Milan that, before the war, was almost entirely Italian-Jewish.

“Today, only 10 percent are of Italian-Jewish ancestry, another 10 percent are from Iran, 35 percent are from Eastern Europe and the balance, some 45 percent, are from a variety of North African countries.” France’s Jewish community, which has increased in size since the war, derives its present strength largely from Jews who have immigrated from North Africa.

FEARS AND DOUBTS

Considering the background of the Holocaust, Zeff wrote, “it is not surprising … that beneath the surface tranquility there are fears and doubts even in the apparent openness and security of Western European society. This sense of anxiety is reflected in the manner in which Jews relate to the general community.

“Although they are relatively well adjusted economically and certainly educationally, they do not have the freedom from self-consciousness which permits American Jews to petition their government freely and persistently. In Western Europe there are no large, well attended demonstrations in behalf of Soviet Jewry or to mark the anniversaries of the birth of Israel …”

On the other hand, Zeff noted, “European Jewry’s deeply emotional and visceral relationship” to the Jewish State is “as if unconsciously there is a fear that one day they might once again be forced to flee, and this time only Israel would be ready to welcome them.”

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