For Jews in Europe, is the glass half-full or half-empty?

The question of whether the glass is half-full or half-empty is sometimes regarded as a philosophical issue of some significance.  Whatever the scholarly answer in abstract terms, the question can be usefully posed to consider the situation of Jews living in European countries.

A detailed answer to the question is expected in October 2013 with the publication of the official results of a large-scale survey commissioned by the Fundamental Rights Agency of the European Union.  Through this survey, reliable and comparable data has been collected by asking Jewish people in nine European countries about their experiences as Jews in the countries in which they live and their perceptions of anti-Semitism.  Meanwhile, the general outline of the findings of the survey has been made known in a report of the Jewish People Planning Institute (JPPI) entitled "European Jewry -- Signals and Noises."

The JPPI report indicates that a considerable number of Jews in those nine countries do not feel safe.  About one quarter of the Jews said they had experienced anti-Semitism during the past year, and about one-third spoke of harassment over the last five years.  A lesser number said their property had been deliberately vandalized because they were Jewish or that they had experienced some form of physical attack.  The report states that anti-Semitic incidents in Europe increased last year by more than 30 percent, and in France by 58 percent.  Those incidents in France increased dramatically after a series of terrorist attacks, including one on a Jewish school in Toulouse on March 19, 2012 by a French-born national of Algerian descent.  Synagogues in Europe for many years have been under guard by police on Jewish High Holy Days.

The hostility to Jews is explained differently in the various countries.  In France, with its Muslim population of perhaps eight million, and in Sweden, in which the town of Malmo has 45,000 Muslims, 15 percent of the population, anti-Semitism is clearly fueled by Islamist elements, though others exist as well.  In Greece and Hungary, declarations for ethnic purity and nationalism imply, directly or indirectly, rejection of Jews.  In the racial hate wave flowing through Hungary, even the 89-year-old retired chief rabbi was assaulted in June 2012 by an assailant shouting, "I hate all Jews."  Elsewhere, anti-Semitism is rationalized as a response to actions of or the very existence of the State of Israel.

Political anti-Semitism has grown in recent years, with the increase in strength of extremist or neo-Nazi parties.  These parties have already appeared in Austria, Greece, Hungary, Latvia, and Ukraine, and recently in Italy with the Five Star Movement.  Expressions of anti-Semitism by these parties, and others, in public discourse have exacerbated hostile attitudes towards Jews.  Moreover, media coverage of Jewish-related events and Jewish activities may, inadvertently or not, have fueled anti-Semitic incidents and led to greater insecurity in Jewish communities.  Similarly, the incessant, unrelenting criticisms and hatred of the State of Israel by members of the wide-ranging international community have led many Jews to feel potentially vulnerable to manifestations of anti-Semitism.

In addition, restrictions on Jewish practices and handicaps for them have come into effect.  These restrictions refer to attempts to ban circumcision in Germany, to bans in a number of countries of ritual slaughter, and refusal to change the dates of public examinations from the Sabbath to accommodate Jewish students.  Ironically, the attempts to ban circumcision and ritual slaughter were directed not so much against Jews as against the growing Muslim population, which made these practices public policy issues of increasing importance.  Similarly, the attempt in France to ban Muslim head scarves in schools has also led indirectly to the banning of Jewish kippot.

In a more general way, European liberalism is a factor in this issue.  It tends to be secular, even belligerently negative to religious expression on the basis that a secular ideology implies a public sphere free of religious expression, and that religious adherence leads to divisiveness or insufficient integration within the national community.  Accordingly, Jewish practice and rituals may be perceived as a threat, both to equality and to the national ethos, though now less than those of the European Muslim population.  Jews are required to assimilate, yet social and political factors make it difficult for them to do so.  The result is that often European Jews avoid emphasizing their Jewishness and tend to make their Jewish identity private.

As a result of their experiences, between 40 and 50 percent of Jews in Belgium, France, and Hungary are considering emigration from Europe, mostly to the United States, Canada, Britain, or Israel, because they feel insecure in their places of residence.  Emigration is already taking place.  During the last year, nearly 300 Jewish families left France to go to Montreal, and another 120 families went to London.  About 50,000 French Jews have gone to Israel since 1990.  Another 20,000-30,000 French Jews live in Israel for part of the year.  In addition to emigrating, the report indicates that European Jews, especially those who are Orthodox, have changed their pattern of life and behavior.  The Orthodox now tend to live in self-segregated neighborhoods.

Yet the glass is half-full in some European countries.  The report indicates the existence of a vibrant Jewish life in West Paris, in North London, in Vienna (to which Hungarian Jews have moved), and in Berlin, which has a publicly funded Jewish quarterly periodical with a circulation of 50,000.  Jews play a considerable role in Western  European countries.  To take a few examples, in France, Jean-François Cope, whose mother is of Jewish Algerian descent and whose father is of Jewish Romanian ancestry, is the successor to Nicolas Sarkozy, himself partly Jewish in origin, as leader of the UMP political party and leader of the political opposition.  In Britain, Edward Miliband, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, is of Jewish origin, as is John Bercow, the son of a taxi driver, who is the current speaker of the House of Commons.

A report by a British Parliamentary group in 2005-6 noted there was much truth in the apparent contradiction between the extremely positive situation of British Jewry and feelings of vulnerability and isolation.  Perhaps we should consider the glass half-full when we learn that the young actor, Daniel Radcliffe, the embodiment of Harry Potter, the quintessential English schoolboy, is of Jewish origin?