Diana Pinto is the daughter of Italian Jewish parents. She studied in the United States (Harvard) and has been living in France for a long time. Her autobiography, “Entre deux mondes” (Odile Jacob Paris) testifies to her multiple backgrounds. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, her work focused on strengthening pluralist democracy in the then-reconfigured Europe. She has been a consultant to the Council of Europe and the editor of ‘Belvédère’, a French pan-European journal. Diana Pinto has written a lot about the political implications of the Jewish presence in post-1989 Europe. For K. she gives a broad and panoramic reflection, which easily crosses borders, and in which the situation of European Jewry is considered within the Jewish world as a whole.
Since the late 1990s, I had heard of and read reports to which Diana Pinto contributed related to the situation of Jews in post-1989 Europe, and I always had a feeling that through her perspective as an intellectual historian who graduated with a PHD from Harvard in Contemporary European History and was actively involved in fora that had no direct links to the Jewish world and its issues, I was being given access to thinking that took me “off the beaten tracks.” But I only met Diana Pinto for the time at the 2013 Presidential Conference in Jerusalem, a few months after reading the (French version) of her essay/book “Israel Has Moved” – which in my opinion was (and remains) one of the most exact and nuanced readings of contemporary Israel. Though I congratulated her on her achievement, I had the ‘chutzpah’ to tell her that I did have a few comments or corrections to make to some claims made in the book. Diana was gracious and invited me to share these comments with her by email. There followed an ongoing email correspondence, which included an opportunity to read her article on the “Never Again” misunderstanding between Europe and Israel – a fundamentally important work of reframing that helped me re-enunciate for myself much of the semantics surrounding the work that I pursue as a lawyer and social activist in Israel (to which I try to give relevance to both my Jewish religious and European heritage). Since then, Diana Pinto and I regularly share insights, moments of worry and hope. I have had the opportunity to take her to “the field” in Israel – including to south Tel Aviv to better understand the complexities surrounding the presence of non-Jewish migrants and refugees in Israel, and also to Gush Etzion to witness the surprising cooperation of Jewish settlers and Palestinian activists. Her mix of intellectual rigor and human generosity are always illuminating. – Jean-Marc Liling.
Jean-Marc Liling: I left Europe – Paris – for Israel more than 25 years ago in order to build it and be built by it and mine may be a good example of a successful ‘aliyah’ story. So, it feels a little incongruous to contribute my voice to a piece on the Jews and Judaism in Europe – a reality that I left in my past and that affects me only little in my daily life as an Israeli Jew. Still, so many of the elements that influence or are part-and-parcel of my experience as a Jew in Israel are the heritage of Europe – my Ashkenazi Judaism ever oscillating between a religious culture/practice and a secular political understanding of society; chassidic texts that illuminate my horizons; reflections on the building block of a nation-state as the base for an identity that is strong, generous and welcoming – including vis-à-vis strangers that are not part of the majority (Jewish) national-group; the emphasis on a national language (Hebrew) as the base for a common identity; the heritage of existential angst that is the result of an age-old antisemitism and the indelible wounds of the Shoah; European influence even on Israeli Jews of North African or Middle Eastern origin who grew-up under the influence of European colonial powers; the political divisions between left and right, between liberals and socialists… all of these and many more trends, questions and contradictions are in fine fundamentally inherited from Europe and find dynamic and chaotic expression in contemporary Israel.
Diana Pinto: a few words about myself as well to better explain my Jewish world-view. I was born in Paris in 1949 and come from an Italian Jewish family but was raised and educated in the United States with constant trips back to Italy before settling in France. I therefore grew up in an America where its Jews had finally ‘come of age’ in national terms in the 1960’s in a buoyant optimistic and self-confident manner, and this very much influenced my Jewish identity. For me being Jewish went well beyond the Holocaust (barely mentioned in America during my youth). I also felt much more ‘European’ than simply Italian or French. I remember every time I returned to Italy in my youth feeing that its Jews were ‘silent’, inward looking and very much absent from the national sphere. The only theme that counted was Israel. Whereas I grew up in America where before 1967, Israel was not a crucial reference. The contrast with Jewish life in Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall could not have been more spectacular and helps explain my interest in the new Jewish presence in post-1989 Europe. So, we will be engaging in an ‘astygmatic’ dialogue, and I always find such encounters to be the most interesting.
JML: So, for me, there begs the question: What remains of this plural heritage – of all these layers – within European Judaism itself? Or put differently, if one considers that the Jews are the actors of a small but old people bearing an ancestral memory – wisdom (?) – who were always able to reinvent themselves dynamically in order to survive while constantly imagining new modes of expression – What remains of all this for the Jews of Europe themselves? Do they have anything to contribute to the Jewish world, and perhaps more globally also to the non-Jewish world?
DP: First of all, from the point of view of semantics, we are dealing here with a heavily loaded term. For most of the Jewish world today the term “Jews of Europe” refers either to a lost pre-Holocaust world, or most recently to the Continent’s threatened and dwindling Jewish communities. The term rarely refers to contemporary Jewish life across Europe in all of its multiple identities. For reasons linked to internal Jewish developments and also to Europe’s own evolution, the answer to your question can only be highly complex. From a Jewish point of view, when I first started writing after the fall of the Berlin Wall on a possible new ‘Jewish identity in Europe,’ it still made sense to speak of Jews in postwar Europe as a coherent, double-generational entity of post-Holocaust parents and children, coming into their own after long years of Western European postwar silence and East European repression. Thirty years have elapsed since then, and it is no longer possible to treat seventy-five years of Jewish life in Europe as though it were merely a ‘postwar’ or post-Holocaust phenomenon. In parallel, the very term ‘European’ has radically changed. After 1989, it carried the resonance of a future full of hope and promise, a continent finally reunited that could make a place for itself in the world, as the incarnation of a powerful ‘never again’ based on national reconciliation, and a full-fledged integration of the Holocaust in its collective history. Nowadays, the term ‘Europe’ evokes no similar passion and refers mainly to bureaucratic decision-making and a rather threatened set (both internally and externally) of common values. There is no reason Jews should be ‘more European’ than the Europeans, hence the notion of a ‘European Judaism’ has lost its symbolic power —it is now essentially a geographical notion. I may add, that Europe’s Jews after 1989 were also ‘responsible ‘for this non-existence of a European reference. My ideas left many Jews in Europe cold. They could all justify their own presence inside their post-Holocaust countries but not that of their Jewish neighbors elsewhere in Europe’s bigger countries. The ‘how could Jews still live in..’ trope went from British Jews who could not understand Jewish life on the European continent, to French Jews who could not accept the idea of Jews living in postwar Germany; to Germany’s Jews who would not hear of a new Jewish presence in Poland, and Jews in Poland who looked on with pity to the Jews in the Ukraine.
That said, in ways that can be considered a healthy evolution, Jewish life in Europe has become highly diversified, multiple and even quite divided—the postwar huddling under one Jewish religious and cultural roof, often out of fear, has disappeared. When I stress the diversification of European Jewish life, I do not primarily have in mind a change of ‘ethnicities’ (such as North-African Sephardi in France or Russian in Germany) but rather the growing variety of ways of ‘being and feeling Jewish.’ The differences that count the most nowadays are related to (1) religious association (ultra-orthodox, orthodox, conservative, and liberal); (2) religious observance within these traditions; (3) the role ascribed to and accepted by women within each one of these denominations – and I am quite aware that there are major shifts inside orthodoxy on this count; (4) cultural/historical/philosophical identification with Judaism beyond the synagogue – ‘Limmud-like’ – and exposure to various Jewish Studies frameworks; (5) the relationship vis-à-vis community institutions (which range from acceptance, rebellion, total lack of interest and preferring to be ‘Jewish’ within wider society); (6) Political engagement qua Jews irrespective of which camp – mainly with respect to Israel. These divisions are much more important than geographical origins nowadays, especially given the ‘intermarriage’ rate among different Jewish groups, not to mention deep interaction and ‘intermarriage’ with non-Jews.
Religious Judaism / Cultural Judaism
JML: You mention here the differences in religious affiliation and observance in the Jewish world today. Would you agree that European Jews are all-in-all more ‘secular’ than Jews living in Israel and North America? If so, why might this be the case and is it related to the current European zeitgeist?
DP: I am not sure that is the case. There has been a return to serious religious practice among European Jews (not just simple practice of traditions a couple of times a year). I can see this among my sons’ friends. Those who are religious are much more deeply so than their fathers or grandfathers – and I am not talking here of the ultra-orthodox who, by the way, have found new followers coming from previously non-religious families. Europe, given its history of religious strife, is more secular than America whose currency states ‘In God We Trust,’ but that does not mean Jews in Europe are any more secular or religious than their American or Israeli counterparts. One of the major characteristics of the Jewish world today is that it is divided along conceptual lines that cross all of its borders, including Israel.
JML.: Still, would you say that European Jewry is destined to give expression to a more ‘cultural’ incarnation of global Judaism? If so, what might the ‘cultural’ building blocks of such a ‘cultural Judaism’ include? Can European Jewish communities thrive without references to the ‘Jewish bookshelf’ or a common Jewish language (Yiddish, Hebrew, etc.)?
DP: Cultural Judaism is thriving in all three poles of the Jewish world (Israel, Europe, North America), and Europe is not a leader on this front. There may be more Jewish intellectuals in European countries contributing to the general public discourse than in America but cultural Judaism in fact has many more significant voices in America – take the review Tablet for instance. European Jewish contributions can be strongest in the realm of history, literature (not in the ethnic Jewish sense as in America or as Israeli national literature), or the creative memory of that history (take the Hungarian film 1945 for instance whose scenario was written by two Hungarian Jews, Gabor Szanto and Ferenc Torok).
In terms of the building blocks of a European cultural Judaism, I don’t think ultra-orthodox Jews in Antwerp or elsewhere care much about the Jewish ‘bookshelf’ but all others should. For me, such a bookshelf would be constituted by a vast library of Talmudic knowledge and philosophy literature, history, culture, even cuisine, and above all QUESTIONING and assessing the interplay between these Jewish sources and the national contexts in which they evolved. On this count Europe is blessed with non-Jewish publishers and cultural entrepreneurs who have taken this task to heart and are de facto spreading Jewish thought and historical traditions within wider society. The Jewish bookshelf is crucial in all three poles of Jewish life, including Israel where the old classics in literature, history and philosophy were downplayed by serious Zionists who condemned all that ‘alienated diasporic’ writing, except for those they considered as precursors of Zionism. On this count, Jewish Studies departments play an important role in cultivating Jews (and non-Jews) on key Jewish cultural and historical texts across Europe and America. More Israelis should be studying these themes as well.
What were once perceived as uniquely European Jewish dilemmas have now become issues that concern all Jews everywhere
On the question of Jewish languages, the time has come to call a spade a spade. Neither the old vernacular languages such as Yiddish or Ladino can unite the Jewish world., nor for that matter Hebrew. Outside of Israel, too few speak it. It would be embarrassing to test prominent Jews (community leaders, intellectuals, Jews as a whole) on this count. It is nice to have Jews have a smattering of the language – also for prayers – but Hebrew is too complex and a historically multi-layered language to be readily accessible. Few are the non-Israelis who can read the Jewish sacred texts critically, or modern Israeli literature in Hebrew for that matter. They will do so in their native language, or in English if need be. English remains the ‘networking’ language when Jews come together. As for the old languages, I am all for keeping them alive to access the vast treasure of culture they produced, but it will always remain a limited cultural and linguistic pursuit for aficionados. Since emancipation in the 19th century, Jews have managed to remain Jews without a unifying language.
JML: Still, what might be characteristics specific to European Jews and their communities that make them different from their peers elsewhere in the world?
DP: It goes without saying that being a Jew in Europe is not quite the same as being a Jew in Australia, America, or Israel. Throughout Europe one is physically confronted either by the presence or the absence (now sometimes reconstructed) of the long Jewish past on the Continent, going back to the very beginnings of ‘Europe.’ Such a presence begs its own questions and is a source of positive contact with the non-Jews occupying the same cultural space. Having said this, it is important to stress that in the last decade, Jews around the world (including Israelis) have come closer to each other because they face the same life-styles, divisions, challenges, and are equally split in all three geographic poles on the issues of populism, democratic values and human rights.
If I wanted to be provocative, I would say that what were once perceived as uniquely European Jewish dilemmas have now become issues that concern all Jews everywhere. First and foremost, the issue of antisemitism. It used to be that American Jewry worried about this problem with respect to Jews all over the world with the exception of American Jews, deemed to be living in a blessed land without any antisemitism. This has changed. Antisemitism has now hit America forcefully (it was always there historically but postwar generations did not notice it). This issue also touches Israelis who are quick to stress that any anti-Zionism can only be a mask for antisemitism, therefore touching them in the way Israel and Israelis are perceived in the world, especially when they move beyond their own borders. Secondly, the question of intermarriage and its long-term consequences is now a shared question paradoxically also in Israel with respect to the Israeli Diaspora and also regarding the impossibility of civil weddings. Another question common to Jews all over the world concerns how to cope with the long-term consequences of the Holocaust and its remembrance now that the Holocaust has become increasingly ‘abstract’ for all – including for Europe’s Jews – with the passing of its survivors; An additional issue is how Jews position themselves in the new identity debates within democratic countries—the links with Black and other minority groups and their demands is now a shared problem, including in Israel with its own Jewish ‘others’, and of course Israeli Arabs. Finally, there is the question of how to define Judaism as a minority identity when all the ‘others’ perceive Jews as being ‘in power.’
Being a Jew in Europe remains – for the Jewish world – an existential paradox…In other words, what is specific about European Judaism is that it continues to survive…
JML: So, what might have been European Jewish questions have now become universal Jewish questions. But are European Jews answering these questions with their own nuances and from their own specific prism?
DP: In my mind what remains unique about Judaism in Europe are less the ‘questions’ than the everyday ‘answers.’ Europe’s Jews have not left; they must have found reasons to remain (or to settle) in their respective countries all the while wishing to remain Jewish. Within specific communities, Jews’ attachment to all of these cultures, languages (beyond English and Hebrew) is highly significant and warrants a better understanding because among other things it can open up the way for other ‘others’ to similarly feel that they can be an integral part of these European countries. Being a Jew in Europe remains – for the Jewish world – an existential paradox…In other words, what is specific about European Judaism is that it continues to survive and even flourish despite all the predictions that it was doomed to disappear. True, particularly in France, there have been many times when elements of the Jewish community (strengthened by the positions of the wider Jewish world) have stated that ‘this time around’ does indeed spell the end of a Jewish presence in France and possibly in Europe (as right now in France over the Sarah Halimi case when the highest judicial body ruled that her murderer could not be judged because he was in a hallucinatory trance linked to the absorption of drugs). But despite these Cassandra predictions that have yet to come true, it is important to keep in mind that Jewish reactions do not go unnoticed—in this case with the State desire to change the law. It is the proverbial case of the glass half full of half empty. To speak about Jews in Europe is to ask what exactly is contained in the half full glass.
In terms of Jewish communities (their organizational identities) there has been quite a lot of European networking in the last thirty years. This Jewish networking is quite important when it comes to helping local Jewish leaders handle community issues (be they schools, welfare, old age homes, security, etc.). Institutions such as JDC and Leatid have played an important role in having Jewish leaders come to know each other across the continent, to discuss common needs, problems, and find interesting solutions. In my experience, such networking has played a key role in giving credibility and validity to even the smallest of communities in smaller countries, putting them on par in terms of ideas and practices with larger ones. And I don’t believe this is just sub-regional networking. I have seen Southern European, Scandinavian and post-Soviet community leaders from communities of various sizes interact quite profitably despite their extremely different contexts. Among the common projects that have come about as a result of networking opportunities: Jewish education particularly at the younger school-age levels; security issues and how to interact with national interlocutors; even very practical issues of budgeting and bureaucratic management, and how to train future community leaders. But I personally believe that what counts in assessing the symbolic importance of Jewish life in Europe is its interaction with the surrounding world beyond Jewish bureaucratic institutions.
Variety and dynamism of the European Jewish world
JML: You mention smaller Jewish communities. Many Jews in Europe live in numerically small Jewish communities (certainly compared to those that exist in Israel and North America). Are these small communities viable and sustainable in the longer term, or do you expect Jews in Europe to increasingly migrate to larger Jewish communities?
DP: In modern times, Jews have traditionally gravitated toward more urban centers. I remember Sergio Della Pergola once telling me that most of Italy’s minuscule Jewish communities (such as Asti, Pitigliano, Orvieto, Ferrara etc.) had lost most of their Jewish populations well before the Holocaust, because Jews naturally gravitated to bigger centers of economic and cultural life. One can safely say that there are fewer Jews in Europe’s countryside than in the past, but there are still important groups in smaller towns. In Germany, immigrants from the Former Soviet Union (FSU) have even restored Jewish life in places where there had not been for a very long time even before Nazism.
Here once again Europe is a very varied place. A few thousand Jews in a given city can wield quite an important cultural and symbolic role if the outside world is interested in their Jewish presence. This is certainly the case in Italy where – out of a national community of some 30,000 members – one has a thriving Jewish life in smaller cities like Florence, Genoa, Trieste, Naples and of course Turin, well beyond the two “powerhouses” of Rome and Milan. One of the reasons is that they are in a rich symbiotic relationship with their non-Jewish milieu while still sufficiently strong for religious life. And of course, the Internet connects Jews well beyond their immediate surroundings. The opposite case is to be found in France where Jews in Marseilles, Lyon or Bordeaux – numerically significant communities – have much less national visibility because their cities are also marginalized with respect to the Parisian behemoth.
I have always asserted with a bit of provocation that 20,000 Jews in Sweden were a far more important presence for the Jewish world than any American (or Israeli) city with the same number of Jews. The same is true for countries with small numerical Jewish presences. The Jewish world must not ‘fight’ to keep them there but if they are there and want help to sustain themselves, they should be listened to. Generally, however, I have found that they are quite good in representing themselves and their interests. There are no ‘lost’ Jews to be discovered on the European continent.
JML: The variety and dynamic nature of European Jewish communities in Europe you describe here seems to contrast and depart from the oft-repeated image of European Judaism as just an out-of-breath vestige of the post-Shoah era…
DP: This image had indeed been the guiding trope of American Jews and Israelis for the greater part of the years that followed 1989. The idea was to support the re-nascent Jewish life across Europe as a modern-day Chanukah miracle, as a statement to the outside world, and as a local force for wider issues of reparation or historical memory and justice. But in the end, from the perspective of the Jewish world, Jews in Europe were expected to move to Israel or at any rate to abandon Europe if they were to remain vibrant actors of the Jewish world, especially during the years of the ‘new antisemitism’, Islamic attacks against Jewish symbols and Jews, terrorism, and a renascent extreme right.
Such a reading is no longer pertinent. Since 2017 and the Trump Presidency and with the lull in terrorist attacks in Europe, Jewish opinion makers have been focused on other global issues and this has allowed Europe to lose center stage as the monster of the Jewish world – something about which one can only rejoice. American Jews have had to rethink their own standing in the country when faced for the first time with both murderous attacks and the renascence of extreme right-wing antisemitism and conspiracy theories. From another perspective, for a portion of left-wing Israelis, Europe has become a positive reference point and a welcoming hinterland. This is particularly true of Berlin, where Israelis of a leftist persuasion have found their most congenial interlocutors in political and philosophical terms, since the rereading of the German Jewish classics is an important chapter of Germany’s own intellectual life. I am thinking of Eva Illouz or Omri Boehm whose ideas are very much debated in the German setting. Or of an older generation, Amos Gitai in France and the whole chapter of Franco-Israeli co-productions in film and TV series which totally belie the idea of an inherently ‘antisemitic France.’ Israeli businessmen are to be found in many Eastern European countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, and even Poland, investing in real-estate, hotels, high tech, etc. with little or no interaction with their left-wing, intellectual fellow citizens. Interestingly enough Israelis, abroad have become one more sub-group within local European Jewish communities. As I said earlier, Jews across the world are now banding together in terms of their own religious, cultural, ideological Jewish identities, in a free-floating world of exchanges where there are no longer any ‘captive Jews’ and where the Internet allows ‘birds of a feather to flock together’.
JML: Can you give other examples of Jewish communities where – whether through its official and recognized representatives or outside of community institutions – Jews are being heard and their contributions valued?
DP: I have to confess that on the whole, Jewish official institutions have been rather slow to pick-up on a potentially positive Jewish role within wider society. In France, there is Delphine Horvilleur, a rabbi, whose books on Jewish biblical and philosophical themes are very much appreciated also in non-Jewish circles and now increasingly Chief Rabbi Haim Korsia in his defense of La République. But I find that in France most community institutional representatives remain solidly on the defensive and busy fighting ‘against’ (mainly antisemitism) rather than ‘for’ an inclusive society.
As someone who comes out of the Italian Jewish tradition, I am constantly amazed by the vitality, innovation, and positive identity of Italian Jews today (in total contrast with their weakness and invisibility throughout most of the postwar period up to the 1980’s), fighting for the memory of the past but above all taking-on new social and cultural challenges – including taking a stand on debates ranging from bioethics to the treatment of Muslim Italians – inside a society that seeks and welcomes their multiple Jewish voices. I can mention for example the yearly Jewish book festival in Mantova that is one of the Italian intellectual highpoints of the year. Rome’s Jewish community and its Chief Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni are frequent participants in inter-religious but also inter-ethnic dialogue often run by the (Catholic) Comunità di Sant’Egidio. Each Italian city – notably Turin – has its Jewish nucleus that has teachers actively involved on these issues inside their (Italian) school systems. Jewish and Israeli literature is a very important part of the Italian publishing industry (they are the first to translate books from Hebrew, easily one or two years ahead of their English or French equivalents) with frequent debates and op-eds in the major national newspapers.
The same is true of course in other national settings throughout Europe, and where populism is in power, most Jews are to be found among the leading voices enriching the debate of ideas and activism within civil society. During the great migration into Germany in 2015, the Zentralrat played an important role in welcoming Syrian refugees and extending to them their social and even psychological counseling services. In Sweden and Denmark, similar outreach initiatives have taken place with respect to the new Muslim communities. In the U.K, such intra-religious networking is quite strong. Rabbi Herschel Gluck is a leading voice in the British Haredi world on this front and he was even given an OBE by the Queen.
Much more should be done on this count. No migrant group knows about the long and hard won struggle of Jews in the Western world to obtain equal rights and how they survived the millennial institutional discriminations. Rather than talking about eternal Jewish suffering one should be explaining Jewish resilience and how ‘others’ could learn from that long past and its creative process.
Jewish voices, whether individual or collective ‘count’ as perhaps never before, as vital pieces of an ongoing European puzzle.
JML: Have Jews marked Europe, left a trace? Do they still influence it?
DP: Jews have most definitely left a trace on the European past as individuals, as a collective force, as a progressive ‘leaven’ and as barometers of dangers – the first to be hit by forces that would later engulf all others in their countries. Some have argued that Jews were the ‘first Europeans.’ I disagree, preferring to call them the first globalists, because before the Holocaust, Europe for all intents and purposes was the center of the Western and also the Jewish world. Jews were both a borderless people with transnational ties and, where it was possible, increasingly loyal patriots, but this did not make them ‘European’—a term loaded with Christian/pagan and often right-wing connotations (especially in the 1930’s). By the time Europe became just one part of the Western world in the postwar period, the Jewish world had shifted its center to America and Israel. An important example of the shift from Europe to those two major poles in the Jewish world was the understanding reached between Jacob Blaustein (President of the American Jewish Committee (AJC)) and Israeli Prime Minister Ben Gurion in 1950 according to which it was agreed that America was not a place in which Israel would work to encourage Aliya. American Jews were in effect encouraged to remain armchair Zionists working to send all other Jews to Israel. With this shift from Europe to America and Israel in mind, it is difficult to even think of the Jews qua Jews as a vital presence or motors of the postwar reconstruction of Europe. They were either universalists or national patriots…Jews were not one of the warring nations inside Europe, one that could then reconcile itself in the postwar period with other countries, along the lines of the Franco-German reconciliation.
JML: So, does European Jewry still have anything to contribute to contemporary Jews’ understanding of themselves in the world?
DP: As pointed out before, there is no ‘European Judaism’ as a coherent articulated entity that can offer contributions to world Judaism. There are instead multiple voices and groups from within European Jewish communities who by their sheer existence and vitality not only offer a lesson in resilience, but more importantly play a major symbolic and, in fact, a very real role in the great civilizational debates before us. Jewish voices, whether individual or collective ‘count’ as perhaps never before, as vital pieces of an ongoing European puzzle. Historically, Jews – when they were allowed to do so – have managed to reconcile a specific identity with universal values. This task is more necessary than ever, but it does imply that Jews across Europe be willing to look at their long historical presence on the continent not just as a history of suffering or merely as a dangerous path to emancipation opening the way to the Holocaust.
In this context, I totally disagree with those who would stress that ‘Europe’ today continues to have a murderous pedigree vis-à-vis the Jews, or can only be indelibly associated with the Holocaust. ‘Europe’ today is only a small part of the world, and one cannot confuse the European project with the world views of a continent that was, once the heart of the Western world. Recently, one of the most virulent disparagers of Jewish life in Europe has been Leon Wieseltier along with those in power in the (old) New Republic. I could also add influential American reviews such as The Atlantic that ran a whole special debate on “Is it finally time the Jews left Europe” in 2015, and their equivalents in Israel in reviews such as Azure. As pointed out earlier, I would go so far as to say that the prevailing Zeitgeist in the Jewish world was anti-Europe. One did not have to spell it out, not unlike the bass in an orchestra that ‘holds’ the musical line for all the other musicians. I was very interested to note that such a negative reading of ‘Europe’ in Europe itself has come out mainly in French Jewish intellectual debates, for instance Danny Trom in La France sans les Juifs, (Paris , PUF 2019). pp 25-43 or Jean-Claude Milner in his Considerations sur l’Europe, (Paris, ed. du Cerf, 2019) or his Les penchants criminels de l’Europe démocratique (Paris, Verdier, 2003).
As far as I’m concerned, Jews in Europe need to rewind the Ariadne thread (sorry for the reference to non-Jewish mythology) and take a look at all the moments in which their encounters with the wider world were positive and stimulating. They must also show the degree to which when they accepted the wider surrounding culture, they were able to do so without forfeiting their own. And perhaps most importantly they need to revisit the old Jewish passion for universal values and the classics of a truly universal culture (redefined to remove the false racist assumptions of white superiority) without which it will be impossible to keep disparate identity groups together. One example strikes me: I once lectured in front of non-Jewish (Black and Muslim second-generation Europeans) about the questions Napoleon had asked Jews to respond to during the French Sanhedrin in 1806, when Jews were asked whether they wanted to become ‘true’ Frenchmen by adhering to the principles of the French State, and thus forfeiting their old loyalties to the Kehilla. These young non-Jewish Europeans were speechless in front of the documents because so many of the questions were so pertinent to their own negative understanding of assimilation.
In other words, Jews have a major role to play on this continent not just in terms of ‘memory’ but to deal with the increasingly vital challenge of reconciling specific identities (whether cultural, religious, racial, historical) with a sense of shared-belonging beyond one’s own group of origin, without which democracies can neither exist nor thrive. Jewish voices able to dialogue with others on what constitutes dignified belonging inside a society, common rules of the game, and particular identity concerns would be a major contribution to what I have called the establishment of a res publica, the Commonwealth – not the French République, which is historically unique. The question before us is whether the Jewish world as a whole considers this double challenge to still be worthwhile and relevant or whether it considers it as an outdated reference in a world where Israel is a strong country and many Jews are evermore keen to assert the primacy and exclusivity of their own ethnic-religious identity.
JML: In this context, what might be the elements that make for long-term sustainability of Jewish community life and where should Jewish communities in Europe be investing to insure their future well-being and dynamic development?
DP: Excuse my directness but I find this question quite boring. For the past thirty years, I have lectured to and listened to Jewish community leaders who were constantly asking themselves such questions as they went about their professional lives. They all operated with fashionable and ever changing mantras – “Jewish continuity”, “Jewish Peoplehood”, “Jewish resilience” – but I don’t think any of them ever made the slightest difference in terms of the existence (or non-existence) of vibrant Jewish life. It is too early to know the long-term impact (whether positive or negative) of programs such as Taglit for reuniting Israel with Jews in the Diaspora by giving them a free trip to the land of their ancestors. Community leaders should handle issues such as religious worship (which should not be limited only to orthodoxy), old-age homes, and Jewish schools. Although I have doubts about the latter: Like their Catholic counterparts, Jewish schools have often alienated as many Jews as they have reinforced, if one does not count those who, propelled by the Zionist orientation of such schools, moved to Israel. And I won’t go into the dismal quality of most official Talmud Torahs meant to give Jewish children the basics in Jewish literacy. And the scandals over which Jewish children could be enrolled in such schools have not done them any good in strengthening their creativity, especially concerning the issue of children of mixed-marriages. The most interesting Jewish schooling experiments have come out of Jewish society itself, not the official community. I am thinking of ‘L’Ecole Moderne’ in Paris for instance.
If someone were to give me piles of money in order to strengthen Jewish life in Europe I would set up a Foundation along the lines of the London based Jewish Heritage Europe Rothschild Foundation which finances European Jewish academic studies and programs in Jewish heritage. Such a foundation would welcome applications from all sorts of Jewish-inspired religious, inter-religious, cultural and intellectual initiatives, all devoted to the idea that new, positive Jewish (and also non-Jewish) voices involved in Jewish issues are crucial inside the Jewish world and outside of it (they constitute the “Jewish Spaces” concept I created in the 1990s). And let there be no confusion – such creative grassroots projects are not necessarily linked to ‘liberal’ Judaism. They should also include orthodox and why not ultra-orthodox initiatives as long as they are open, innovative and capable of enriching the ongoing Jewish conversation which was never interrupted throughout millennia. On this count I am positive and optimistic, well beyond all the usual over-worried bureaucratic mantras. Dynamic Jewish life exists by itself, and no amount of artificial feeding can produce it. And if none arises in places where the terrain is not favorable, then so be it. I am not advocating ‘Social Darwinism’ here. On the contrary, I want the Jewish powers-that-be to have faith in what Jews of all stripes are capable of initiating if they have the ‘spark.’ Nurturing such sparks is feasible, even easy; creating them from above, impossible.
Interview by Jean-Marc Liling.