Demography is Key

Anti-Semitism is only one factor contributing to the demise of European Jewry, and not the most decisive one.

Aug. 18 2013
About the author

Walter Laqueur is the author of, among other books, WeimarA History of TerrorismFascism: Past, Present, Future, and The Dream that Failed: Reflections on the Soviet Union. His newest book, Putinism: Russia and Its Future with the West, was released in 2015 by Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s.

I broadly agree with Michel Gurfinkiel’s thoughts concerning the eventual disappearance of European Jewry. The process will probably take longer than we assume today—such events have multiple causes, and there are almost always retarding factors as well. In my judgment, however, anti-Semitism is only one factor contributing to the demise of European Jewry, and not the most decisive one.

This is hardly to deny the truth of everything Gurfinkiel records about the incidence of verbal and physical anti-Semitism, up to and including murder. Indeed, every passing week supplies fresh evidence. Anti-Semitism has appeared even in the most tolerant European lands, among them the countries of Scandinavia and Benelux where Jews have been advised not to wear certain types of clothing or display other obvious signs of their identity, and Israeli tourists are cautioned against speaking Hebrew.

It is also true that whereas, in the past, most anti-Semitism, especially in its virulent forms, issued from the extreme Right and fascist groups, today it is spearheaded by new Muslim immigrants. A number of writers, including myself in The Changing Face of Anti-Semitism (2006), have pointed to the increasing pressure on European Jews from this quarter, and it has been clear for some time that Jewish communities are well advised to adopt a low profile. Exacerbating the situation is the policy of silence and accommodation that prevails in many “enlightened” European circles: when a leading left-wing French intellectual, writing in Le Monde, ventured to discuss the political implications of the fact that there are ten times as many Arabs as Jews in France, he was chastised for saying out loud what everyone knew and what most had quietly accepted.

Still, to repeat, anti-Semitism is not the main factor. The main factor is demography. Before World War II, more Jews lived in Europe than in any other part of the world. Ever since the great bloodletting of the Holocaust, the presence of Jews in Europe has been insignificant. Against the backdrop of earlier European history, and contrary to what Gurfinkiel writes, European Jewry today does not even look healthy. The postwar flowering that he describes, impressive as it is (or was), should not be exaggerated; the real vibrancy of a community is not measured in new museums and similar institutions.

In the 27 member states of the European Union, Jews today number, in all, only slightly more than a million souls: demographically, an immaterial factor in the affairs of Europe and one that appears destined to become even less consequential as the century progresses.

True, the Jewish communities in France and Germany have increased in size since 1945, although this is less the result of natural growth than of the migration of Jews from other parts of the world. In all other EU countries, however, the numbers have declined, in a process that continues to gather momentum. The number of Jews in Britain, for instance, has fallen from about 320,000 two decades ago to 270,000 today. Synagogue membership and attendance in Britain have likewise fallen by 20 percent in the same period. Mutatis mutandis, the same holds true throughout the continent. Tempting as it is to locate the cause in anti-Semitism—from the aggression of young Muslims to the anti-Israel obsession of the European elites—this is at best the smaller part of the answer.

The larger part was outlined in a book published over a century ago entitled Der Untergang der deutschen Juden (“The Downfall of German Jewry,” 1911). The author, a German Jewish physician named Felix Theilhaber, stressed an inescapable fact: with the exception of the Orthodox and the ultra-Orthodox, the Jewish fertility rate was already well below the replacement level of 2.1 children per family. And as for the Orthodox, they numbered, then as now, too few to compensate for the overall demographic drift downward. Intensifying the attrition, again then as now, was the rising number of those “marrying out” of the community altogether. (On a purely personal note: I knew Theilhaber, who was also the brother-in-law of the novelist and playwright Lion Feuchtwanger, quite well in his old age in Jerusalem, and was friends with his son Adin.)      

Although Theilhaber wrote about German Jews, his analysis applied to Western Europe in general, where, in a pattern universal among all cultures in modern history, the number of children was falling as the Jewish standard of living improved. Needless to say, the devastations wrought by both world wars would magnify the Jewish demographic losses hideously; in our own time, ineluctably, the process has resumed its steady course onward.

It is noteworthy in this connection that Jews are not the only religious community in Europe that is suffering a decline: the number of practicing Catholics and Protestants has also substantially decreased. But the situation of a Jew who no longer belongs to the religious community, or who does not identify himself with Israel, is quite different from that of a non-church-going French or Italian Catholic. Take the example of the Berlin Jewish community. Officially, it has 10,000 members; but the real number of Jews in that city is considerably higher, with estimates ranging anywhere from 25,000 to 95,000, among them about 10,000 Israelis.

Why do the great majority demur from identifying themselves as Jews in a modern-day city that, while hardly free of anti-Semitic and anti-Israel outbursts, is no hotbed of anti-Semitism?  Some point to the off-putting stringencies of Jewish religious practice. Others cite the special burden of the tax that has to be paid by registered members of any German religious community (but which entitles them to a variety of social services they could otherwise not obtain). One might mention as well the absence of an active Jewish intelligentsia or cultural life, and the consequent disaffection of many younger Jews. To all these might also be added the lamentably low level to which German Jewish leadership has fallen. In Berlin this year, the general meeting of the local Jewish council ended in a bitter confrontation over real estate that in turn led to an out-and-out brawl necessitating intervention by the police.

An extreme case, no doubt, and a sad story. But, in considering the decline of Europe’s Jewry, and the pressures under which Jewish officialdom operates, the story of the Berlin community also highlights the analytical imperative to avoid single-issue explanations, even such compelling ones as the presence of real and enduring hatred by one’s enemies.

Walter Laqueur is the author of, among other books, A History of Zionism, Weimar, A History of Terrorism, and After the Fall: The End of the European Dream and the Decline of a Continent. His newest book, Optimism in Politics and Other Essays, is due out from Transaction in January.

More about: Anti-Semitism, European Jewry, European Union, Michel Gurfinkiel