Europe European History JEWISH HERITAGE


This article by Dr.Gerstenfeld about Jewish Life in post-war Europe, was originally published in the American publication Jewish Word and republished here with the author’s permission.

jewish life in postw war europe

Jewish Life in Post-War Western Europe – Highs and Lows

By Manfred Gerstenfeld

After the Second World War, the Jewish communities in Europe had great difficulty in re-establishing themselves. Soon major differences emerged between the Western European democracies and the Middle and Eastern European countries under Soviet dominance. Many aspects of this are described in the book Postwar Jewish Displacement and Rebirth 1945-1967, edited by Francoise S. Ouzan and myself.

Even among Western European countries themselves, significant differences appeared. Almost all Danish Jews were saved, largely by fleeing to Sweden. About three-quarters of the 140,000 Jews living in the Netherlands at the time of the German occupation in May 1940 were murdered. French post-war Jewry was greatly strengthened by a major influx of North African Jews, and numbers more Jews than all other Western European continental countries combined. The number of Jews in Germany also increased significantly over time, due to the arrival of Jewish immigrants, mainly from Russia. Smaller numbers of Jews arrived in Italy from countries such as Libya, Lebanon and Iran.

The increasing affluence of Western European countries had a considerable impact on the development of their Jewish communities. Furthermore, the related increase in leisure time created new opportunities for culture and sports, alongside religious activities. These newer activities often enabled the inclusion of those who, although of Jewish origin, were not considered halachically Jewish (according to Jewish law).

Individual Jews have played prominent roles in general society, often on opposing sides of political and social debate, representing differing views and positions. Their importance, for the most part, was disproportionate to the percentage of Jewish citizens in each country. A variety of Jews occupied prominent functions in politics, business, the media, art, popular culture and other sectors of society. While the socialist Léon Blum was the only Jew to serve as Prime Minister of France prior to the Second World War, postwar France has had three Jewish Prime Ministers – Blum, René Mayer, and Pierre Mendès-France. In Gibraltar, Sir Joshua Hassan became the first Jewish Chief Minister, serving two terms in this position.

In Austria, the socialist Jewish self-hater, Bruno Kreisky, became Prime Minister, and in Belgium, Jean Gol was appointed Deputy Prime Minister. Ministers of Jewish origin served in governments in France, the Netherlands, Denmark, Italy, Sweden and Switzerland. Over the years, several Jews chaired Parliaments and there were many Jewish parliamentarians.

European Jews received Nobel Prizes in the sciences. Those in literature, included Nelly Sachs, Elias Canetti and Imre Kertesz, while Patrick Modiano is of Jewish origin. Other European Jewish writers and artists achieved international fame, such as the French novelist Romain Gary, the Dutch writers Harry Mulisch and Leon de Winter, and the Italians Primo Levi and Giorgio Bassani. The Italian designer Emanuele Luzzati became internationally known. René Goscinny authored and edited the internationally treasured Asterix and Obelix comics. The Dutch political cartoonist Fritz Behrendt also published in papers outside his country. During this era, some non-Jewish writers introduced Jews as characters in their books and theater plays, presented often in either a positive or a negative light. The most publicized example of the latter was the German Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who modeled one of his villains on the national Jewish leader Ignatz Bubis.

In some countries, Jewish thought and culture flourished. France was in the forefront, partly due to the size of its Jewish community. The country was home to “The Parisian School of Jewish Thought,” a small group of thinkers of rank, André Neher, Emmanuel Lévinas, Leon Ashkenasi and Ėliane Amado Levy-Valensi. Philosopher and sociologist Shmuel Trigano stands out as a contemporary thinker.

Many books were published on Jewish topics, initially mainly in France but eventually throughout Western Europe. Nowadays one sees many books in Jewish bookshops, even in a country with a relatively small Jewish population, such as Italy. Holocaust studies and increasing publications of holocaust literature made a niche for themselves on the shelves. Interest in Jewish issues also grew in many non-Jewish environments, often due to the Holocaust.

Slowly as European societies became more open, Jews often were more willing to show their Judaism outdoors. Some started wearing kippot in public, having previously preferred less distinctive head coverings. Perhaps the end of the 20th century may be considered the best years of postwar European Jewry. Worldwide attention was drawn to a scandal regarding dormant bank accounts in Swiss banks belonging to Jews murdered in the Holocaust. This ultimately led to restitution payments, both in Switzerland and also in other countries such as Norway, the Netherlands and Austria. Furthermore, in consequence many historical studies on Holocaust-related financial and economic matters were published. It seemed as if many European countries wanted to clean up their past at that time, in a fin-de-siècle gesture.

The 21st century, however, started off badly with anti-Semitic incidents unprecedented since the Second World War. Many of these were caused by Muslim immigrants or their descendants. A non-selective immigration policy had brought large numbers of Muslims into Europe, from countries where anti-Semitism was widespread. Part of these were radicalized or hooligans. Those who took the Koran literally considered Jews as pigs and monkeys, an extreme case not only of anti-Semiticm but also of racism.

France, the Western European country with the highest percentage of Muslims, had the most extreme anti-Semitic incidents. Several Jews were murdered in racist motivated crimes over the past decade. In 2014 a number of French synagogues were attacked by Muslim gangs. All this must also be seen against the backdrop of the failure of Western democracies to integrate part of their large immigrant populations, while many others refused to integrate.

The widespread European anti-Israelism found its expression in extreme false negative stereotypes of the only democratic country in the Middle East. More than 40% of adult E.U citizens view Israel as a Nazi-like entity, believing, for example, that the country is conducting a war of extermination against the Palestinians.

This negative view of Israel has also had an impact on the image of Jews in Western Europe. Efforts by political parties to attract Muslim votes exacerbate the issue. At the same time, right wing parties opposing Islam have become stronger. Ritual slaughter has been attacked in certain countries, which although aimed largely at Muslims, also affects the Jewish population. Similarly, the prohibition of female circumcision, exclusively practiced by Muslims, has also drawn attention to male circumcision, leading to calls for its prohibition.

There are many indications that both the European Union and Europe at large are decaying societies. Conscious Jews are increasingly asking themselves what the future there holds, in particular for their children. In the meantime, more and more European Jews hide their identity in public. One major exception here is the Chabad movement, which has introduced public lighting of the Hanukah candelabra in central locations in many cities. These ceremonies are often attended by local authorities.

The present reality for Jews in Western Europe is confusing. The current influx of large numbers of Muslim refugees, in particular in Germany and Sweden, will pose even more challenges to local Jews. Murderers from the Islamic State movement who may have infiltrated the mix of today’s refugees could target Jews specifically. Had this article been written five years ago, it would have been less negative. The question is whether in five years from now, such an article would be even more negative.

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