For Young European Jews, Beyond The Fear Factor
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For Young European Jews, Beyond The Fear Factor

Experts say new major survey paints a more nuanced picture than anti-Semitism figures suggest.

European Union of Jewish Students recently launching the “Pledge for Jewish Life,” a set of actions they urge their EU representatives to take to protect Jewish life in Europe. Courtesy of the EUJS
European Union of Jewish Students recently launching the “Pledge for Jewish Life,” a set of actions they urge their EU representatives to take to protect Jewish life in Europe. Courtesy of the EUJS

In the wake of a BBC expose on corrosive anti-Semitism in Great Britain’s Labour party, and amid an increase in Holocaust denial and anti-Semitic attacks on Jews across countries like Germany and France, Europe may seem resigned to a Jew-less future.

But a new report from the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) brings nuance, and even hope, to a conversation that young Jewish leaders say has long been dominated by a defeatist narrative.

According to the FRA report, almost 44 percent of young European Jews say they’ve experienced anti-Jewish harassment over the past year, and over 41 percent have considered leaving Europe because of anti-Semitism.

Almost half of all young European Jews say that anti-Semitism has “increased a lot” over the past five years.

The report, “Young Jewish Europeans: Perceptions and Experiences of Antisemitism,” is the first comprehensive look at anti-Semitism among from the perspective of European Jews between the ages of 16-34. Based on the responses of over 2,700 young adults to the FRA’s 2018 survey about European Jews’ experiences with anti-Semitism — the largest of its kind with almost 16,400 Jews of all ages surveyed across 12 EU-member countries — the new report confirms many longstanding fears about anti-Semitism’s pervasiveness in contemporary Europe.

On the other hand, “the survey managed to tell a very good and complex story about what the young Jewish community looks like,”  Alina Bricman, outgoing president of the European Union of Jewish Students, told The Jewish Week by phone from Brussels.

“The Jewish community is constantly saying ‘things are really bad, they’re getting worse,’” she said. “I think [this framing] misses all the things that are being done on an institutional level, but it also misses all the positive Jewish identity that exists within the Jewish community.”

Alongside its survey of attitudes about anti-Semitism, the FRA report is unique for asking questions about Jewish practice and identity, providing a first-time snapshot of young European Jewish life.

Rating their Jewish identities on a scale of 1 (weak) to 10 (strong), roughly 80 percent of young Jews claimed 7 or higher. Only 35 percent, however, did so when describing their level of religiosity. Still, over half of young European Jews light candles on Friday night, and far more fast on Yom Kippur and attend a Passover seder.

“You can see here quite strong levels of Jewish identification and engagement,” said Jonathan Boyd, executive director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR) in London. JPR was a partner on the original 2018 FRA survey on anti-Semitism, and wrote the new report.

“The patterns of Jewishness, in terms of the elements of Jewish practice that European Jews prioritize, are remarkably similar to Jews in the United States, Jews in Israel,” he said. “Jewish identity in Europe is not dramatically different from Jewish identity anywhere else.”

For Boyd, the new report is full of interesting data. But at the top of his list of eye-catchers is a graph that shows that the attachments of European Jews, by age group, to their country, their region, the EU and Israel. Across America and Europe, Jewish communal leaders have long worried about a younger generation that cares less about Israel than its elders do.

It’s clear that Israel is not unique to young European Jews when it comes to feelings of attachment; they are also less attached to their home countries, regions and the EU than their elders are.

“The pattern is exactly the same,” Boyd said. “In communal debate, the conversation about young people’s attachment to Israel tends to happen in isolation from any consideration of their attachment to anything else. These data broaden our perspective and push us to think a little differently — the issue may not be only about Israel alone, but about attachment to place more generally.”

Young European Jews are also much more likely than their parents and grandparents to say that Islamophobia has increased over the past five years. At the same time, young Jews report that people with a “Muslim extremist view,” rather than Muslims in general, are the most common perpetrators of anti-Semitic acts.

“Oftentimes, the establishment Jewish community is in this extreme fear mode, where they project onto the Muslim community that they are much more prejudiced than the majority of the Muslim community actually is,” Bricman said about the discrepancy.

“The fact that there is Muslim anti-Semitism is clear, and at the same time, the fact that there is anti-Muslim sentiment among the general society is also really clear,” she said. “The fact that young Jews are able to recognize this and not have a problem to hold on to both of these facts is really encouraging…it goes to show this mindset of solidarity and general care for society.”

Wider social and political trends are directly related to concerns about anti-Semitism, Boyd said. Europe has seen an increase in far-right and far-left populist movements over the past decade, culminating in events like Britain’s infamous plan to leave the European Union, dubbed Brexit, that has thrown both the UK and the EU into political uncertainty. The anxiety around current events and anti-Semitism is inseparable, Boyd said. “The findings suggest that Europe is at a crossroads for young European Jews. It’s either going to go in the direction it has been going for a number of decades, which is towards greater freedom and openness and acceptance of minorities, or it’s going to go down a much darker path.”

It’s possible, however, to misinterpret the new report on young European Jews in light of those fears. Though 41 percent represents a shocking number of young Jews who have considered leaving Europe because of anti-Semitism, the actual number of Jews who emigrate is far lower.

“The contrast between [the percentage that considers leaving vs the percentage that actually leaves] is extraordinarily striking,” Boyd said. “One cannot assume that because 41 percent say they are considering leaving that therefore 41 percent will actually leave. What is being measured here is something rather different.

“It’s better understood as an indicator of mood. It’s an indicator of how the people feel. The important thing is to ask that question over time and see if the proportions are shifting.”

With the impact of anti-Semitism on young European Jews made all the clearer by the new FRA report, the next step is using the information to lobby the EU and national governments to respond to anti-Jewish sentiment, Bricman said. She says that even the positive parts of the report have a role in lobbying.

“It’s important for policy makers to be more aware of what Jewish life looks like beyond Holocaust remembrance and anti-Semitism,” she said, “so that they can make that part of the education against anti-Semitism.”

The FRA report is also helping to guide organizations like the Anti-Defamation League, said Dalia Grinfeld, ADL’s assistant director for European affairs and the past president of the German Union of Jewish Students. The ADL is working to bring its Words to Action program, which teaches young Jews how to address anti-Semitism in their daily lives, to Europe.

“This is where Jewish communities and organizations need to come in and say, ‘OK, we have to deal with it,’” and then work on preventing anti-Semitism, Grinfeld said.

On the responsibility of European governments, Grinfeld said they should “ask young Jews, what do they think. Why and what could be done differently [to combat anti-Semitism]. It’s not only about the data, it’s really asking the why, how, and what we can do about it…I think Jewish organizations, and especially young Jews, have a pretty good idea of what can be done.”

In the Jewish world, Grinfeld warned against misrepresenting European Jewish life through the FRA report’s statistics on anti-Semitism.

“It’s totally fine if Jewish organizations put out the alarming data of anti-Semitism,” she said. But “they should offset it and balance it, because our life is not only negative and horrible and [full of] anti-Semitism as young Jews.

“Jewish organizations should make sure they give an accurate portrayal of Jewish life in Europe, if they comment at all, and that also means showing the good side.”

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