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Behind the spin about European Jews

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  • AMI
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    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 1, 2011

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      Jan 26, 2011

      Is a wave of anti-Semitism forcing a massive Exodus of Jews from Western Europe? I confess that I do not live in Europe and do not know very much about European Jews. After reading a few articles on the subject, it seems that I knew even less than I thought. Two mutually contradictory pictures are presented. There is evidence for both or neither.One version of reality is presented in articles such as this one,  The Slow-Motion Exodus of European Jews and this one, ‘No future for Dutch Orthodox Jews’ this one, Rising Trend in Number of New Immigrants to Israel Continues , and more alarmingly,  Anti-Semitism May Be Spurring Wave of Aliyah from Sweden, that insist that European Jews in France, the U.K. Holland and Sweden are fleeing Europe for Israel because of a vicious wave of violent Islamist anti-Semitism.

      The opposite picture seems to be presented in articles like this: Jewish Renaissance In Europe Presents A Surprising Challenge, which tells us:

      ‘France is a great place for Jews to live,” the young woman on film was saying. “It’s a challenging environment but a welcoming environment.”

      The audience practically gasped on hearing her remarks, which seemed so far removed from their expectations of Jewish life in France.

      That moment took place during the screening at LimmudUK in England last month of an 11-minute film documenting new Jewish initiatives for and by young people in Europe. And the crowd reaction — though perhaps on a more dramatic scale — was not unlike the response American Jews have to recent reports that a renaissance in Jewish life is taking place among young European Jews.

      According to a new survey, the continent is “witnessing a revival of contemporary Jewish life through the emergence of hundreds of new initiatives reaching hundreds of thousands of people.”

      The report, published last fall by Jewish Jumpstart, a Los Angeles-based incubator for Jewish innovation, notes at the outset that “conventional discussions of Europe often emphasize anti-Semitism, Jewish continuity and anti-Israel activism. While we do not dismiss or diminish those concerns, we know that these are only part of the story. The European Jewry we know is confident, vibrant and growing.”

      Such positive news presents a challenge to those of us (and I include myself, until recently) who essentially had written off European Jewry.

      We tend to think of that population as having a tragic past culminating in the Holocaust; an embattled present, with anti-Semitism fueled by Arab Muslims a reality; and the bleakest of futures, given an aging demographic threatened by intermarriage and assimilation.

      A similar article was published by the same author previously. The report that he refers to is here. It indicates a qualitative revival of Jewish community life in Europe, but not  quantitative one. In Europe and in the U.S. Jews are forming organizations that take the place of the older religious frameworks (see: The Jewish religion in modern society).

      Neither set of pleaders provides any real quantitative data about population movement. It is impossible to form an impression from subjective estimates and attitudes. It is always possible to find a few people in any country or situation who will say it is wonderful, and others who are certain that it is terrible. Depending on who is measuring and how (for example here and here), there are about half a million or 600,000 Jews in France, another 300,000 in the UK, perhaps 30,000 in Holland. These numbers have not changed much. Large numbers of Jews do not seem to be coming on Aliyah (immigration to Israel)  from anywhere, nor are there noticeable fluctuations in European Jewish population. Of the 300,000 Jews in the U.K., it seems that less than 800 came on Aliyah in 2010, and a record 853 people came on Aliyah from the U.K. in 2009. Aliyah from France is relatively active. About 2,200 Jews came from France in 2010, a slight increase over previous years, but a trickle compared with France’s Jewish population of about half a million. It is true that Aliyah from Western Europe and the United States increased in recent years. This is a real achievement, and perhaps it is significant. It may have more to do with improvement of quality of life in Israel than with threats of anti-Semitism abroad or a Jewish awakening. It remains to be seen if the increase is sustained.

      The absolute numbers of immigrants remain small. The numbers of immigrants compared to the total Jewish population should give us some perspective. At this rate, and assuming there is no replacement, France may lose its Jewish population by the year 2250. The countries of the former Soviet Union contributed the most Jewish immigrants to Israel in the first half of 2010. Countries such as Holland and Sweden, where there is supposedly massive anti-Semitism, did not contribute many immigrants it seems, and they are not mentioned in the statistical summaries.

      The headlines do not seem to be backed by the numbers. Tel Aviv is not full of newly arrived Dutch and Swedish Jews. There has been a relatively  marked increase in the number of immigrants, perhaps due to relatively poor economic conditions abroad, but there was no dramatic “Exodus” of Jews from anywhere. The actual numbers may cool your enthusiasm a bit. In 2010, there were reportedly over 19,00o immigrants to Israel, a dramatic increase compared to previous years, but not an “Exodus.” Latin American aliyah rose 19 percent: From 1,200 in 2009 to 1,470 in 2010. There was a 280 percent increase in aliyah from Venezuela — from 38 olim (immigrants) in 2009 to 150 in 2010. There are about 12,000 Jews in Venezuela.  There were 260 olim from Australia and New Zealand, an increase of 48 percent from 175 in 2009, and a 63 percent increase in new immigrants  from Belgium — from 152 in 2009 to 250 in 2010. The are about 30,000 Jews in Belgium.  Holland and Sweden are not mentioned. The trends are encouraging. Over a decade, if they continue, they might make a difference.

      The article Anti-Semitism May Be Spurring Wave of Aliyah from Sweden informs us:

      According to Aryeh Jacobson, who represents the Jewish Agency in Sweden, 24 immigrants from Sweden finalized their aliyah during the first eight months of 2009 – exceeding the total of 16 during all of 2008. This figure also tops the average number of Swedish immigrants per year, totaling 19 new arrivals.”

      The actual figures seem to be less than awe-inspiring. There are about 18,000 Jews in Sweden. Even if 200 of them came to Israel it would not be a “wave” of Aliyah. In this Jewish Agency summary for the end of the Jewish year last September (2010) we find “Holland — 65 [immigrants] , as opposed to 45 last year; Scandinavia — 50 new immigrants as opposed to 30 last year.”

      The Dutch Jewish organization, CIDI, monitored Aliyah over the long term. About 400 Orthodox Jews have left Holland for Israel from 1995-2009, and a total of slightly over 1,000 Jews have come on aliyah. A sizable number, but not yet an Exodus.  About 0.11% of Dutch Jews come on aliyah, as opposed to 0.28% from Belgium, France 0.43%, Great Britain 0.31%, Switzerland 0.36% and 0.32%.from Italy.

      These statistics may not be an adequate answer either to dramatic Jeremiads about the coming collapse of European Jewry or ecstatic pronouncements about the “vibrant” (Why is this word used so often in hopeful descriptions of Jewish culture and communities? Are they like cell phones?)  Jewish cultural life in Europe.  However, they seem to represent a dismal truth: There is no real evidence of a dramatic change in the status of Western European Jews, or other Jews, for better or worse. Anti-Semitism exists and should not be ignored or minimized. It may be on the increase, but it hasn’t provoked a massive flight of Jews.Aliyah from Europe is increasing, but it remains a peripheral phenomenon.

      Aliyah happens, and when it happens it can be wonderful, and should be encouraged. However we should not invent facts and engage in wishful thinking. It is much more dramatic and interesting to report about ant-Semitic catastrophes, historic Exoduses or “vibrant” revivals, but there just isn’t any evidence that any of these things are happening.

      If anyone has real evidence to the contrary, either of a massive exodus or a dramatic revival of Jewish life in Western Europe, vibrant or otherwise, it is remarkable that they have not presented this evidence to back their bombastic and sometimes frightening claims.

      Ami Isseroff

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