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European Jewish Leaders Seek Israeli Help against Assimilation
A volunteer is shown on October 18 cleaning up the old Waehring Jewish cemetery in Vienna, which has suffered from decades of neglect and vandalism. (Alex Halada/AFP via Getty Images)

European Jewish Leaders Seek Israeli Help against Assimilation

Diaspora figures cite anti-Semitism – and even aliya to Jewish state – as weakening their communities

European Jewish leaders have told a committee in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, that the Jewish state must do more to help their communities stave off assimilation and anti-Semitism.

“I call on the Knesset and government to do whatever it can to help us. We’re talking about saving these communities and our next generation,” Pinchas Goldschmidt, president of the Conference of European Rabbis, told the Immigration and Assimilation Committee via video from Moscow on Wednesday.

The committee was holding a special hearing on assimilation and anti-Semitism owing to reports that Europe’s Jewish population is at a millennial low.

An extensive study titled “Jews in Europe at the turn of the millennium – Population trends and estimates,” by Sergio DellaPergola and L. Daniel Staetsky of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, was published in October.

The report found that the percentage of Jews with non-Jewish spouses was 24% in the UK, 31% in France, 46% in Germany, 62% in Sweden and 76% in Poland.

A surge in anti-Semitism combined with the coronavirus pandemic – as well as a focus by local leaders on Zionism and emigration to Israel – has depleted the communities and weakened Jewish identity across the continent, European Jewish leaders said.

Immigration to Israel from Europe has nearly doubled in the past five years, from 58,000 between 2010 and 2014 to more than 111,000 between 2015 and 2019.

Joel Mergui, president of the Israelite Central Consistory of France, went as far as to call on the Israeli government to stop encouraging European Jews to immigrate.

“Since the beginning of the 21st century, we’ve seen an exodus of Jews from Europe to Israel, not only because of anti-Semitism or terrorism, but because of our education and focus on Zionism,” Mergui told the committee.

“Our leadership here is entirely Zionist. The connection between Jews and Israel is talked about constantly. This leads to our kids believing they must make aliya,” he stated, using the Hebrew term for Jews moving to Israel.

“It is impossible to find replacements for community leaders and members who leave. There just aren’t enough Jews,” he complained. “I would temporarily stop aliya.”

It is impossible to find replacements for community leaders and members who leave. There just aren’t enough Jews. I would temporarily stop aliya

Dov Maimon, a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute, partially agreed.

“The richest and brightest Jews move to America. The weaker ones with no other options – or the very few idealists – go to Israel, and the rest simply abandon their religion and assimilate,” he told the committee.

The richest and brightest Jews move to America. The weaker ones with no other options – or the very few idealists – go to Israel, and the rest simply abandon their religion and assimilate

Laurence Weinbaum, director general of the World Jewish Congress office in Israel, struck a slightly different tune. He called on the government to support immigration to Israel while also strengthening the Jewish identity of those who remain abroad.

However, he told The Media Line after the meeting that he differs with Maimon.

“For years now, many of the best and the brightest with a Zionist inclination in communities all over the world have elected to come to Israel. That’s a positive development, but also a negative one, because [those left behind] feel like they’re being depleted,” he said.

For years now, many of the best and the brightest with a Zionist inclination in communities all over the world have elected to come to Israel. That’s a positive development, but also a negative one, because those left behind feel like they’re being depleted

“Perhaps modern-day technology can enable those who have come to Israel to engage with those who remain in their countries of origin with greater ease,” he added.

Yosef Taieb, a Knesset member from the Shas party and the lawmaker who convened the hearing, made it clear that the Israeli government would not stop promoting aliya.

“We’re not there,” he told The Media Line. “But we do have to give some thought to what was said today.”

We’re not there. But we do have to give some thought to what was said today

Taieb, who immigrated to Israel from France, has focused his efforts on supporting France’s Jewish community. He mapped out the main challenges the Diaspora faces.

“Anti-Semitism leads directly to assimilation. Jews are afraid to externalize their religion, to participate in formal or non-formal activities, to go to synagogue. They are afraid to report anti-Semitic attacks. They prefer public schools over Jewish ones,” he said.

“So,” he noted, “we have to work on both fronts, anti-Semitism and assimilation, together.”

As for Israel’s investment in helping European Jewry with these issues, Taieb admits that so far, “the solution has been a kind of band-aid only” and the government is “unfortunately cutting funding” at the worst time.

“Our committee recently budgeted NIS 50 million ($14.8 million), and we have asked the Diaspora Affairs Ministry to detail what has been done with that money,” he said.

“Behind the scenes, I’ve been working to form an inter-ministerial body, with representatives from the Diaspora Affairs Ministry, the Foreign Ministry, the Jewish Agency, the World Jewish Congress, the Aliyah and Integration Ministry and others to tackle these issues,” he stated.

“Israel,” he believes, “has to treat this issue seriously.”

A Diaspora Affairs Ministry spokesperson told The Media Line that “in order to face the challenge of assimilation, the ministry is investing heavily in education – formal and informal – which has always been, and continues to be, the key to the continuity of Judaism.”

The ministry oversees “UnitEd,” a formal program that operates in Jewish schools around the world to strengthen Jewish identity and ties to the community and Israel. The belief is that quality Jewish education is key to communities in the Diaspora continuing to flourish.

Informal educational investments include the “Mosaic” program of afternoon studies. The ministry describes it as “a partnership between the State of Israel and the global Jewish community dedicated to mapping the broad spectrum of Jewish experiential opportunities; strengthening each area of engagement; increasing the number of meaningful interactions; and deepening the impact of Jewish experiences for millennials aged 12-35.”

There is also the “Campus” project, for Jewish students.

Yet Jewish communities in Europe need more help, the Israel-based Weinbaum said at the hearing.

“This isn’t enough…. We’ve gotten used to this model of accepting monetary or human support from these [Diaspora] communities. Now we have to give back. We have the tools to do so.”

This isn’t enough…. We’ve gotten used to this model of accepting monetary or human support from these Diaspora communities. Now we have to give back. We have the tools to do so

The Israelite Central Consistory of France’s Mergui agrees.

“Up until a few years ago, the responsibility was one-sided – we were committed to supporting the struggling Jewish state. Now is the time for you to help us,” he said.

“I’m talking practical budgets, not just empty words and promises. Anti-Semitism we can manage. European governments are doing what they can…. But we are alone in our fight against assimilation.”

Separately, Weinbaum told The Media Line: “I would expect – and certainly hope – that the State of Israel would take upon itself the responsibility of doing whatever it can to ensure the continuity of the Jewish communities, whether it be assisting them in their struggle against anti-Semitism, but also to preserve their identity.”

Did you know we’re celebrating our 20th Anniversary as the 1st American News Agency exclusively covering the Middle East?

  • The Middle East landscape is changing rapidly.
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