The Next Aliyah

Replying to his respondents, Michel Gurfinkiel assesses the destiny of Europe's Jews.

Aug. 27 2013
About the author

Michel Gurfinkiel is the founder and president of the Jean-Jacques Rousseau Institute and a contributing editor at the Sun. He served as editor-in-chief of Valeurs Actuelles from 1985 to 2006.

I feel very fortunate that such distinguished figures as Daniel Johnson, David Pryce-Jones, Walter Laqueur, and Hillel Halkin accepted Mosaic’s invitation to respond to my essay on the European Jewish future, and that Annika Hernroth-Rothstein gave permission to publish her personal letter about the severe dislocations of Jewish life in her country. From other places around Europe I received additional messages sounding similar notes to hers, some of them equally shattering. Nor is there room here to list and thank all those who mentioned or recommended my article in blogs and on social media.

I could only wish my conclusions were sunnier—and that, if European Jews are news today, the news were good news. Unfortunately, a mere seven decades after the Holocaust, the prospect of stormy times is not to be taken lightly. However one may finally come down on the facts and arguments marshaled in my essay, I am deeply grateful that at least they are being discussed.


Daniel Johnson’s deeply sympathetic comment begins with an anecdote about a Ukrainian-German Jewish student who encounters anti-Semitism for the first time at . . . the London School of Economics. I love that anecdote, which says so much. I also echo Johnson’s disappointment with Karl Schwarzenberg, the Czech foreign minister who, despite his family’s heroic stance under the Nazis and his own affection for the Jewish people, has not only succumbed to repeating anti-Israel clichés but dismisses reports of anti-Semitism in 21st-century Europe. I met Prince Schwarzenberg several years ago and will never forget something he said about his father: upon learning shortly after the 1938 Anschluss that the Nazis had forbidden access by Jewish children to Vienna’s public parks, the elder Schwarzenberg opened his own palatial gardens to them.

Johnson nevertheless lists some “cautious reasons” for optimism, some of which are well founded. Indeed, given the intensity of anti-Israel campaigns throughout Europe, one marvels at the pro-Israel resilience shown by large sectors (from 25 to 50 percent in polls, depending on the questions asked) of public opinion. Israel is admired as the home of “Silicon Wadi,” as a beacon of contemporary culture (Israeli movies are very popular in France), even as a haven of human rights (especially when it comes to gays); all this offsets the boycott sentiment to some degree. Another important sign is the election in Rome of the philo-Semitic Pope Francis. While Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular are not as entrenched in Europe as they used to be, they are still the main religious force on the continent and may yet undergo a revival in the face of an increasingly assertive Islam. That they should exert a positive rather than a negative influence when it comes to Jews and Israel is certainly of relevance.

I am less sure about other facts cited by Johnson. As an Englishman, he is critical of his own government and rather soft on the French political class. As a Frenchman, I disagree. Yes, François Hollande, the socialist president, and his interior minister Manuel Valls have expressed concern about anti-Jewish violence and pointed to its Islamist component, and that is no small matter. But at the same time, Hollande gives house room to the false symmetry of anti-Semitism and “Islamophobia.” He has bestowed state honors on Stéphane Hessel, a nonagenarian former Resistance fighter and former diplomat turned rabid anti-Israel propagandist. (Hessel even maintained in a 2011 interview that the German occupation of France in World War II “was, if one is to compare it, for instance, with the current occupation of Palestine by Israelis, a rather mild one.”) French diplomacy under Hollande has stayed as blindly insensitive as ever to Israel’s rights and security interests, a consequential attitude in a country where many media and the main press agency are government-controlled or government-influenced. And then there is the recent case of a photography exhibit on “Palestinian freedom fighters” at the government-controlled and-subsidized Jeu de Paume gallery that amounted to an apology for suicide bombers and a wholesale, implicit indictment of Israel’s politics if not Israel’s existence.

Johnson is correct in saying that European Jews might be protected up to a point by their comparatively higher social and educational status. Indeed, fleeing to wealthier Christian neighborhoods has become a common strategy for elements of the Jewish middle class who were hitherto content to live in less expensive areas. But this is hardly a long-term solution, as Samuel Sandler’s remarks about his own privileged community in Versailles, quoted by me, indicate. Upper-class and upper-middle-class neighborhoods can also be subjected to ethnic riots and looting, as has been the case in the UK, in France, and in Sweden, and a thin line divides such riots from pogroms. Moreover, sizable parts of European Jewry—in particular, the Orthodox—simply cannot afford to relocate. That is why the possibility of emigration, for rich and poor alike, has increasingly moved from a last resort to being seen as a preferred option, if not an urgent imperative.


Toward the end of his comment, Daniel Johnson warns that “for Europe to revert to the pattern of the mid-20th century in its treatment of the Jewish people would imply the abandonment of Western civilization.” I am not surprised that David Pryce-Jones, in his own comment, chooses precisely to dwell upon this point. Pryce-Jones knows a very great deal about the innermost workings of civilizations—and about the ailments that can plague them. One does not easily forget his acutely reasoned books on the Arab world (The Closed Circle) and on the history of French diplomatic bias against Zionism and the Jewish people (Betrayal). I fully concur with his remarks regarding the role of the Soviet Union in the demonization of Israel after 1967 and his even deeper observation that the UN, and more ominously the EU, have engaged in a near-Orwellian reversal of values regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict.  “With a logic all their own,” Pryce-Jones writes, “EU policy makers oppose Israel . . . as the embodiment of the sense of proud nationhood that runs counter to EU ideology . . . while doing whatever they can to build a nation-state of Palestine.”

All of this leads one dearly to wish for a European counterpart to The Closed Circle, a book that would show how Europe has gradually lost touch with the real world, how this has become reflected in its attitude toward Jews and Israel, and how a latter-day exodus of European Jews may coincide with Europe’s own final demise. That would be some book, and David Pryce-Jones is the man to write it.  


I have followed the writings of Walter Laqueur—on Israel and the Jewish world, Germany and Nazism, Russia and Communism, war and terrorism, Islam and the Middle East, Europe and trans-Atlantic relations—for more than forty years, and I’m honored by his presence among the commenters. I also agree with his insistence on the factor of demography. While I had not previously heard of Felix Theilhaber’s 1911 work, to which he draws our attention, I’m familiar with and have often drawn upon other studies pointing to similar conclusions.

Like Laqueur, I have also had occasion to note the decisive impact of the Orthodox revival and demographic upsurge on Israeli, American, and French Jewry and, conversely, the demographic and political decline of the non-Orthodox and secular Jewish populations in Israel and the Diaspora. I differ from Laqueur, however, when it comes to the chemical interaction between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews.

Already in the 19th century, and certainly by the time when Theilhaber was writing, non-Orthodox Judaism and various movements of Jewish secularism were aggressively on the march against traditionalist Judaism both as a philosophy and as a way of life. Simultaneously, they were raiding Orthodoxy for recruits to their own alternative modes of Jewishness. Since at that time there was scarcely such a thing as a third-generation non-Orthodox or secular Jew, it was necessary to seduce significant numbers of the Orthodox young in order simply to survive. Clearly, such a Jewish Ponzi scheme was bound to collapse one day. A moment would be reached when, in the Jewish world at large, the Orthodox (as Laqueur writes specifically of Germany) would “number too few to compensate for the demographic drift downward.”

However, what was true then is no longer true now. As I see it, a reversal has occurred over the past decades as Orthodoxy has retaken the initiative everywhere, both philosophically and demographically. And it is not just a matter of Orthodox communities resilient enough to retain most if not all of their (more abundant) offspring, instead of constantly losing them to the non-Orthodox or to assimilation. It is also, notably, a matter of them beginning to win back many non-Orthodox, secular, and assimilated Jews and, no less significantly, indirectly influencing a partial return to tradition among the non-Orthodox themselves, from Kabbalah-oriented study groups in Reform Judaism to “secular” yeshivas in Israel.

In France, this reversal was part and parcel of the post-1945 revival I described in my essay. First came the rise, almost ex nihilo, of a large Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox community; this in turn sparked, more out of mimicry than competition, the growth of Reform and Conservative (masorti) congregations catering primarily to those who in the pre-1945 world would have vanished as Jews. As a result, overall synagogue membership and attendance, which in Britain, according to Laqueur, has dropped by 20 percent in the past two decades, increased dramatically on the other side of the Channel.

Regarding today’s Germany, Laqueur is right that there are many more unregistered than registered Jews (registration meaning, under German law, membership in a congregation funded through a compulsory “church tax”). But the bulk of the new German Jews are recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union and Communist Eastern Europe, characterized by very little traditional Jewish background, a high incidence of intermarriage, and very little interest in any sort of registration. What is relevant in this context is not the large proportion of unregistered Jews but rather the growing proportion who do agree to register, as well as the growing tendency of unregistered Jews to attend services or share in other community activities. (The “post-Zionist” Israeli community in Berlin poses a slightly different issue.) 

Whether Britain may fully qualify as a counter-example, I don’t know. The substantial Jewish demographic decline that has occurred there may be linked to a protracted economic and social crisis that dissipated only in the mid-1980s and then resurfaced in the late 2000s; one of its side effects has been the emigration of many middle-class and upper-middle-class families and of single young people. Then, too, Britain has not benefited from Jewish immigration as much as France and Germany, and especially not from a mass immigration of “ethnic Jews” like the Sephardim who came to France from North Africa. Finally, due to social and even geographic barriers that do not exist to the same extent elsewhere, there seems to have been less interaction between the Orthodox and the non-Orthodox in Britain than in other countries.


Annika Hernroth-Rothstein’s account of Jewish everyday life in Sweden is poignant and painful. For years, Sweden was hailed as the ultimate social model in Europe, a brave new world where the best of capitalism combined with the best of socialism to produce affluence, welfare, and a moral society adhering to an ethic of universal human rights. Back in the 1970s, European social-democrats, so-called “Eurocommunists,” and soft conservatives like Valéry Giscard d’Estaing would all invoke the Swedish model in their respective campaign platforms. Four decades later, I am afraid that Sweden still models a possible European future, albeit one where the pursuit of collective and individual happiness has derailed into chaos. Annika Hernroth-Rothstein’s testimony strikes a chord among many other European Jews, including French Jews. 

An interesting detail in her letter is that while shehitah (Jewish ritual slaughtering) is forbidden in Sweden—a legacy of the 1930s that was not revised upon Swedish accession to the EU in 1995—halal slaughtering is not, on the pretext that Muslims condone the prior stunning of animals. In this connection, it may be pertinent to point out that specifically Christian anti-Semitism has always run high in Sweden, as it has in neighboring Norway—this, in spite of what has always been a very small Jewish presence. (Jews were not allowed into Sweden until the 18th century; in 1939, they numbered 8,000 souls, or 0.01 percent of the total population.) The prospect of this traditional form of Swedish anti-Semitism coalescing with Muslim anti-Semitism is worth pondering.


Hillel Halkin, the dauntless and accomplished champion of Jewish culture and of Zionism, convincingly compares the respective situations of European and American Jewry, pointing in particular to the fact that American Jews still live in a biblical, predominantly Christian culture while European Jews appear to have entered a post-biblical, post-Christian world. Thus, in the eyes of both evangelical Protestantism and modern Catholicism, American Jews, as Jews, still enjoy a high level of legitimacy that European Jews have lost.

What remains to be seen is how long and how strongly America will retain its Christian (or Judeo-Christian) heritage. In his first inaugural address in January 2009, President Obama pointedly departed from the established consensus that the United States, while dedicated to religious freedom and founded on the separation of church and state, is primarily a Judeo-Christian country. A few months later, in Cairo, he initiated a “dialogue” with Islam on Islam’s terms that was academically unsound, politically unwise, and culturally revolutionary. If Obama’s legacy endures, I fear it could signal the beginning of the end of the special Jewish status in America.

I unhesitatingly endorse Halkin’s statement about a possible large-scale emigration from Europe: “If Jews do start leaving Europe in significant numbers,” he writes, “I hope that many of them will choose to settle in Israel rather than drift off to America, Canada, Australia, and other places.” I agree with him again when he says that “this depends on Israel as much as it does on them.” What puzzles me, however, is the next sentence: “It depends, ironically, on Israel’s becoming a more European country—more soundly and efficiently run, more economically affordable, more environmentally caring, more peaceful, more livable.” 

To the best of my knowledge, European Jews who leave for Israel are not looking for a more European Israel. One reason is simply that if Europe is defined, as Halkin seems to imply, by Swedish criteria, then European Jews know better. Perhaps what he has in mind is simply a western Israel, that is, Jewish and democratic, in which case he might be right. But let me make something clear. 

One part of my essay was devoted to the return of anti-Semitism and the possibility of a mass Jewish emigration from Europe. Another part, however, narrated the rebirth of European Jewry after 1945. The salient fact here is that, over the course of the late 20th and early 21st century, European Jews have accumulated an impressive Jewish potential. The main challenge facing both them and their fellow Jews is not to waste or damage this potential in the travails of emigration and relocation but rather to help bring it to even greater fruition. European Jews planning to leave for North America or Australia may just be leaving an unsafe place for a safer one. Those moving to Israel intend to do so as Jews, to enhance their own Jewishness, and to contribute to a more Jewish state.

In that respect, Halkin is ultimately correct: a lot does depend on Israel. One can only hope that the government and other established institutions of the Jewish state have realized what is at stake in the present moment, and considered the best options for helping to facilitate what could be the next major wave of olim


Michel Gurfinkiel, a French journalist and writer, is the author of eight books and a regular contributor to publications in Europe and the United States. The former editor of Valeurs Actuelles, France’s leading conservative magazine, he is the founder and president of the Jean-Jacques Rousseau Institute, a political think-tank in Paris, and a Shillman/Ginsburg fellow at the Middle East Forum. He also serves on the board of governors of the Consistoire, the union of French synagogues.

More about: Anti-Semitism, Barack Obama, European Jewry, Hillel Halkin, Israel, Michel Gurfinkiel, slaughter, Sweden, Zionism