Contradictions Mark Views on Jewish Future in Europe, Survey Says

The vibrancy and continuing investment in European Jewish life requires a deep examination of the attitudes of these leaders who are forging ahead despite the odds.

Flag of European Union
Flag of European Union

By Marcelo Dimentstein

With fresh debate on the future of Europe’s Jews once again in the news, an opinion survey of European Jewish leaders on their current status and future reveals a mix of apprehension and optimism present in the community. These leaders – who together with their fellow Jews face a surge of anti-Semitism, rising nationalism, terrorism, and economic uncertainty – were surveyed in the “Third Survey of European Jewish Leaders and Opinion Formers,” just released today by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s International Center for Community Development (JDC-ICCD). The survey, conducted between June and August 2015, lays out the major priorities and challenges facing European Jewish communities at the time, as well as the perceptions these leaders and opinion makers had about the most serious issues, threats, and opportunities for the future of Jewish life on the continent.

The sample, which was polled online, included 314 respondents holding a variety of lay and professional roles representing all denominational affiliations within European Jewish life. These include organizational executive directors, program coordinators, and current and former board members from Jewish organizations; rabbis; principals of Jewish schools and professionals in Jewish education; directors or owners of newspapers and publications of communal content; intellectuals, academics, and recognized thinkers focusing on Jewish communities; and significant donors to these communities. Respondents ranged in age from under 40-years-old to over 55-years-old, and represent 29 counties including France, Germany, Hungary, Bulgaria, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Denmark and the Baltics.

Similarly tailored to previous surveys conducted in 2008 and 2011, one of most striking, and contradictory, responses related to the leaders’ feelings on safety and the character of the European Jewish future. Most respondents felt secure in Europe, with 85 percent reporting that they felt “very safe” or “rather safe.” 9 percent felt “rather unsafe” and 5 percent felt “not safe at all.” At the same time, under half, 45 percent of the sample agreed that “the future of European Jewry is vibrant and positive” – 8 percent “strongly agreed” and 37 percent “rather agreed.” Noting a generational trend, respondents under the age of 40 were more optimistic about the Jewish future in Europe – 60 percent of that group “strongly agreed” and “rather agreed” with the statement that Europe’s Jewish community future was bright.

When respondents were asked to prioritize a list of future priorities of European life over the next 5-10 years, those ranking highest in priority order were: Strengthening Jewish education; including young leadership in decision-making bodies; supporting Jews in need in your community; investing in leadership development; developing creative reach-out policies towards the non-affiliated; and combating anti-Semitism. On the other end of the spectrum, the lowest priorities on the scale were: Strengthening Jewish religious life and developing an effective policy on intermarriage.

Concerns on anti-Semitism remained prevalent, but there was a significant uptick regarding that alarm with 40 percent of the sample placing it on a serious threat index, rising from 26 percent who did so in 2011. The underlying trend here is that more respondents than ever before across all socio-demographic groups see this as an increased threat and 75 percent of respondents were particularly concerned by the prevalence of anti-Semitism on the Internet.

When asked if they expect to see changes in this area over the next 5 to 10 years, responses tended to be pessimistic with 67 percent, or two-thirds of respondents, expecting anti-Jewish sentiment to increase significantly as compared to previous surveys. Other threats to Jewish life, recognized as strong internal community problems, were the alienation of Jews from Jewish community life (61 percent), weakness of Jewish organizations (55 percent), and demographic decline (54 percent).

Alienation from the community was felt as more of a threat than years prior, 61 percent in 2015 compared to 50 percent in 2008, which likely has a direct link to the growing concern about demographic decline in these regions, equating to 54 percent in 2015 versus 41 percent in 2008. Respondents also noted their Jewish communities had few allies in civil society (61 percent in 2015 versus 50 percent in 2008) – yet the sample regarded national governments (54 percent) and Jewish organizations abroad (49 percent) as their strongest allies in the struggle against anti-Semitism always or most of the time.

For Jewish communities in Europe, financial concerns also remain a pressing issue. In fact, the overall assessment of the current financial position of the communities surveyed show that 69 percent were concerned about a tightening of funds. 43 percent of respondents saw their communities’ funding situation as tight but currently manageable, while 26 percent went as far as to describe it as tight and increasingly unmanageable. 40 percent of those polled expected the general financial situation of the community to deteriorate somewhat or significantly, while 18 percent expect the situation to improve somewhat or significantly. Although poverty in these areas was not considered a major concern, concern about it has increased by 14 percent over the past 7 years.

Digging deeper, one can also see changes in attitudes toward some longstanding communal issues. In a new and important trend, the increasing rate of mixed marriages was no longer regarded as the most serious threat to communities, decreasing to 44 percent in 2015 versus 64 percent in 2008. And, in a stable trend, 77 percent of respondents agreed that all Jews have a responsibility to support Israel and a majority of Eastern European respondents were more supportive of Israel overall.

The vibrancy and continuing investment in European Jewish life – seemingly miraculous after Nazism, Communism, and in the face of today’s critical challenges – requires a deep examination of the attitudes of these leaders who are forging ahead despite the odds. For Jewish organizations and advocates who are determined to strengthen these Jewish communities for the long term, it starts with mining this data and fostering pan-European solutions that are driven by the leaders, and Jewish communities, they represent.

Marcelo Dimentstein, a social anthropologist, is Operations Director for JDC-ICCD.