For millennia Europe was the center of diaspora life but as Jews continue fleeing the continent, by the end of this century all that’s left will be a Jewish graveyard
Some people go their whole lives without seeing a ghost; me, I see them all the time.
– Detective Bernie Gunther in Phillip Kerr’s Greeks Bearing Gifts
Last month the German commissioner for “Jewish Life in Germany and the Fight Against Antisemitism” used his impressively titled office to advise German Jews against wearing kipahs in public. The commissioner’s response to a surge of anti-Semitic violence in his country was a sheepish acknowledgment that Germany is once again a dangerous country for Jews. And as Germany goes, so goes Europe. For millennia, following the destruction of the Second Temple and the beginning of the diaspora, Europe was home to the majority of the world’s Jews. That chapter of history is over. The continent is fast becoming a land of Jewish ghost towns and graveyards where the few remaining Jews must either accept an embattled existence or else are preparing to leave.
In his earliest speeches Adolf Hitler made clear that his primary mission was to make Germany, and then all Europe, judenrein—free of Jews. He failed only because of the Allied victory but today, slowly, inexorably and, for the most part, legally and largely unconsciously, Europe is fulfilling the Nazi aspiration. It is not only in Germany but in England, France, Hungary and elsewhere across the continent, that the many forms of European anti-Semitism—far right, left-wing anti-imperialist, and Islamist—are not only multiplying but moving closer toward controlling the official levers of power.
Progressives and the media prefer to blame anti-Semitism primarily on Europe’s deplorables, but the far right does not constitute the only, or even the primary threat, to European Jews. A detailed survey from the University of Oslo found that in Scandinavia, Germany, Britain, and France, most anti-Semitic violence comes from Muslims, including recent immigrants. Similarly a poll of European Jews found the majority of incidents of anti-Semitism came from either Muslims or from the left; barely 13% traced it to right-wingers. Violence against Jews is worst in places like the migrant dominated suburbs of Paris or Malmo in Sweden.
Nor is the hollowing out of Europe’s Jews confined to one region or type of country. The rate of exodus differs in Russia compared to France, and the sources of insecurity in Belgium are not identical to those in England. But, taken together, the phenomenon of Jewish flight crosses borders and applies to Eastern and Central Europe as well as the countries of the West.
Cities of Ghosts
In 1920 Europe was home to over half of world Jewry and many of its most creative, dynamic communities; today it contains barely 10% of the world’s Jews. The devastation wrought by the Holocaust is not, on its own, sufficient to explain this loss. In 1939 there were 9.5 million Jews living in Europe; at war’s end in 1945 only 3.8 million remained. But today, more than half a century after the Holocaust, there are barely 1.5 million Jews left in Europe.
Cities once among the pearls of Jewish life—Vienna, Berlin, Warsaw, Lublin, Riga, Kiev, Prague—have Jewish populations that would fit neatly into a Texas suburb. Even the last great redoubts of Jewish life in Europe, Paris, and London, are threatened both by right-wing anti-Semitism, assimilation, and the pernicious new hybrid that joins leftist and Islamist hatred. Today Europe boasts only three of the world’s twenty most heavily Jewish cities—Moscow, London and Paris; the rest are all in the New World or Israel.
France, with the largest European Jewish population, has been sustained largely by the mass migration from North Africa. But it still has fewer Jews than it did in 1939 and seems destined to continue shrinking. Eastern Europe, the center of the Jewish world in 1939 with its 8 million Jews, has less than 400,000 today. Germany, home to 500,000 Jews in 1933, now has as little as a third of that, with most originally refugees from Eastern Europe. Fewer than 15,000 of the Jews living in Germany today can trace their roots to the pre-Nazi era.
In much of Europe, the artifices of Jewish life are being reduced to historical relics. The great capital city of Vienna, chosen home of Sigmund Freud, Gustav Mahler, Theodore Herzl, and Billy Wilder as well as the birthplace of Arnold Schonberg, was home to over 200,000 Jews in 1923. Today there are barely 10,000 among Vienna’s 1.7 million residents, many of them refugees from the old Soviet bloc.
The early Hapsburgs, rulers of Central Europe’s last great empire, barely tolerated their Jewish subjects, treating them as “living fossils,” sometimes expelling them and other times allowing them a limited ghetto existence. But after their emancipation in 1867, noted historian Carl Schorske, Jews played an oversize role in the empire. The city’s elegant Ringstrasse apartments were often both designed and inhabited by the Jewish upper crust. Some of these are now luxury hotels, catering to Vienna’s tourist trade. Former Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society official Walter Juraschek, a 60-something child of Eastern European refugees, estimates that out of the current population of Viennese Jews a mere 500 are native Austrians. Most of the rest come from outside the country: Orthodox and entrepreneurs from Israel, or the descendants of refugees from the east. Austria has not fully confronted its Nazi past. The country, Juraschek suggests, still indulges the fanciful notion that it was “the first victim” of Nazism even though it largely welcomed the Anschluss, the unification with Hitler’s Germany, in 1938. Vienna incubated the anti-Semitism that so influenced Hitler, himself an Austrian, who lived there under the city’s famously anti-Jewish Mayor Karl Lueger. Adolf Eichmann, another native of the country, ran the Austrian Holocaust from the former Rothschild Palace on the elegant Prinz Eugen-Strasse.
“When I was growing up, Austrians never talked about this at all,” Juraschek recalls at a small Jewish coffeehouse not far from Judenplatz, the historic center of the city’s small Jewish community. “It only became public in the late ’80s when Kurt Waldheim [former U.N. secretary general and briefly Austria’s president] was unmasked as a former Nazi.” Nor have Austria’s far-right tendencies disappeared. Until last month, the Freedom Party, founded by former SS officers, functioned as part of the country’s conservative government.
When my wife and I were staying in Vienna recently we saw large groups of Jewish tourists visiting the city’s restored old Orthodox temple, most of them visitors from North America and Israel. Such tours are now common through the old centers of Eastern and Central Europe, where visitors gaze at memorials to what were once the vital centers of Jewish communal life. Like Vienna, many once great Jewish cities with communities numbering over 100,000 members—cities like Lodz, Kiev, Warsaw—only tiny residues remain. The chances of such vibrant Jewish communities coming back to life in these cities are as likely now as the actual blue and gray returning to American Civil War battlefields.
Like Vienna, Budapest once was a dynamic center of early 20th-century Jewish life. A boomtown—the fastest growing in fin de siècle Europe—it attracted Jews from throughout Eastern and Central Europe and became one of the most Jewish cities outside the czarist empire. In 1913, the Jewish community in Budapest exceeded 200,000 people, accounting for more than 20% of the city’s estimated 1 million residents. The city, scathingly labeled “Judapest” by Vienna’s Mayor Lueger, once boasted some 47 synagogues.
Most of Budapest’s Jews lived in highly dense urban neighborhoods, but the upper crust, like their Viennese counterparts, lived in large apartments along streets like Andrassy Avenue. They thrived in part, notes historian John Lukacs, due to the dominant Magyar aristocracy’s relative inattention to business.
The magnificent Dohany Street Synagogue, third largest in the world after the Betz Great Synagogue in Jerusalem and New York’s Temple Emanuel, testifies to the vitality and great wealth of Budapest’s Jews. Its continued presence in the historic Jewish quarter of the city reflects the community’s complex history. Hungary’s Jews survived largely unscathed until 1944 due to the unwillingness of the country’s fascist dictator and Hitler ally, Admiral Miklos Horthy, to exterminate a population that, while discriminated against, still made significant contributions to the country’s productive economy. It was only in March 1944, when the Nazis installed more rabidly anti-Semitic elements inside Hungary, notably the fascist Arrow Cross, that the exterminations started.
Even then, the Dohany Street Synagogue managed to survive, in large part because it served as Eichmann’s headquarters. The Nazi architect of mass slaughter cynically knew the Allies would be loath to bomb a building located amid the Jewish ghetto. The late date of the extermination campaign—and the intervention of brave gentiles like Swedish Count Raoul Wallenberg allowed many Hungarian Jews to survive the war—some 100,000 in Budapest alone.
Of the Jews who remained in Budapest after the war, many would leave following the failed 1956 uprising against the Soviets. Today demographic experts estimate that around 47,000 Jews are left in Hungary, although counts vary and some top 100,000. It’s a far cry from the past but more than a trace. There remain 17 synagogues in the city.
This relatively robust Jewish community is located, ironically, in a country ruled by the autocrat Viktor Orban who has been widely criticized as fascistic and anti-Semitic. Orban has used thinly veiled anti-Semitic memes to attack his nemesis, George Soros. But even some Orban critics, like blogger Ádám Szedlák, see his attacks on Soros—a devoted atheist who has often been cold, if not hostile, toward both Israel and Jewish communal life—as exercises not of anti-Jewish or proto-fascist ideology but of “political opportunism.”
Ironically, Orban is far more pro-Israel than European leaders widely celebrated as standard bearers of the liberal international order, like France’s Emmanuel Macron or Germany’s Angela Merkel. He is close to Prime Minister Netanyahu and maintains particularly strong ties to the Hasidic Jews of Budapest’s thriving Chabad community. Orban’s regime has also made Holocaust denial illegal, established an official Holocaust Remembrance Day, and refused to cooperate with the anti-Semitic, far right Jobbik party.
Some local Jews endorse Orban because his strongman nationalist approach has included a ban on Middle Eastern migrants into Hungary. Longtime Jewish activist Anni Fisher, the child of Holocaust survivors, dislikes Orban’s nativist rhetoric but argues that his immigration policies have prevented the virulent Islamism all too common in other European capitals from taking root in Budapest. “The Jews here live well, not bad,” she says. But even so, Fisher does not see much of a future for the community. “The young people are not staying. All we get are Israelis and the elderly who come here to retire.”
Yet for now, in contrast to other European cities, Budapest’s Jewish quarter remains lively. You can find traditional Jewish food and klezmer music in popular hangouts like Café Spinoza. Some nominal Christians such as Kristof Molnar, a 32-year-old business development executive, are rediscovering the hidden Jewish heritage of their grandparents, and have participated in trips to Israel.
Although he sees no religious reawakening on the horizon, Molnar believes there is a modest restoration of the Jewish role in Hungarian life. “This is a new beginning,” he says. “It’s not like the old generation who only think of the Holocaust and memory. Among those of us in their 20s or 30s, there’s a desire to recommit to our own past and to that part of our Hungarian heritage that remains rooted in being Jewish.”
The New Threat in the West
In the past, the Jews of Hungary and other countries of Eastern Europe might have looked west for inspiration. Yet today the Jewish populations in Western Europe are themselves threatened and their populations seem likely to decline in the coming decades.
The decline of Western European Jewry is caused by a confluence of factors. The least lethal threat lies in assimilation, which impacts roughly half of all European and American Jews. Assimilation has also been especially impactful on Russian Jews, the source of much recent Jewish migration to Western Europe, since as many as 70% lose their affiliation in adulthood. But far more unnerving has been rising anti-Semitism. Some 90% of European Jews, according to recent surveys, have experienced anti-Semitic incidents. In France, anti-Semitic crimes were up by 74% in 2018 over the previous year.
Resurgent anti-Semitism in Europe has two faces, one familiar, the other of more recent vintage. A persistently weak economy, and the shrinkage of the middle class, have engendered, as in the last century, an explosive growth of right-wing populism across the continent. In some countries, notably Russia, Poland, Belgium and parts of Germany, anti-Semitism of the traditional right-wing type has been mainstreamed, often by nationalist parties such as the ADF in Germany, the Freedom Party in Austria and Jobbik in Hungary.
These forces include some who minimize the Holocaust. Alexander Gauland, one of the leaders of Germany’s AFD, called the Nazi Holocaust: “a speck of birdshit in 1,000 years of glorious German history.” Though Gauland’s rhetoric may appear shocking coming from a German public figure, it comports with a significant segment of the German public. Just over half of Germans now believe that Jews overplay the Holocaust, according to 2015 ADL survey, while a third blame Jews themselves for rising anti-Semitism.
But the far right, as famed Nazi-hunters Serge and Beate Klarsfield explained to my wife, Mandy, and me almost two decades ago, are not nearly as powerful a threat to Jews as the alliance of Islamists and left-wing activists. Increasingly the assault on Jews reflects a larger kulturkampf being waged against Western civilization; if Hitler saw the Jews as dangerous outsiders to European culture, the left today blames them for being too linked to continental values.
As in the 1930s, anti-Semitism is reaching beyond the marginal and into the educated mainstream. Sixty percent of German anti-Semitic messages came from well-educated people, according to one study. Today barely half of Europeans think Israel has a right to exist. The generally middle class Green parties, which emerged as big winners in Germany and across the continent after the recent European elections, tend to support the BDS movement, which aims to demonize and eliminate the Jewish State. The German Greens regularly label Israel as an “apartheid” regime.
Jewry’s Post-European Future
Europe will not become completely judenrein in the near future. But the signs of decline are everywhere and the endpoint to which they lead appears inescapable. In Russia, the once huge Jewish population has fallen from 1.4 million in 1989 to roughly 400,000. The Israeli demographer Sergio della Pergola, an expert on Jewish populations across the world, recently pointed out that last year Russia witnessed 8,000 deaths of elderly Jews but only 600 births recorded to Jewish mothers.
In Great Britain the Jewish population has declined over the past half century. The prospect of Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, whose long history of anti-Israel and Judeophobe associations is well known, becoming the next prime minister constitutes what Britain’s former chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks called, “an existential crisis.” If Corbynism maintains its hold on British politics it could spark a mass exodus of British Jews. By century’s end, one study predicts, what remains in England will be a largely Orthodox community constituting the majority of the country’s Jews.
France, today home to the world’s third-largest Jewish community, appears to be following the same pattern of demographic decline. Though the French Jewish community was temporarily revived by mass migration from its former North African colonies, it has since been battered by a rising Islamist threat and a steady increase of anti-Semitic attacks. Since 2000 nearly 50,000 Jews have left France, mostly for Israel, the United States, and Canada. With no likely source of new immigration since the Middle East and North Africa are already largely judenrein, it’s difficult to envision how France’s Jewish population will grow in the future—the one exception to this being the Orthodox who can grow with above-average birth rates.
Taken together, the forces of history, politics, anti-Semitism and migratory patterns spell the likely demise of Judaism in Europe, particularly its more secular elements. The once widely spread tribe is rapidly concentrating in North America and Israel, together home to roughly 90% of all Jews. Yet even in America and Canada, both assimilation and resurgent anti-Semitism, not just among the far right, but in the universities and progressive political movements, including among Democratic members of Congress, may lead increasing numbers to feel they need to choose between their Jewish roots and their political committments.
Over the long term, if current trends hold, the Jewish future could become predominantly Israeli, much as the French sociologist Georges Friedman predicted a half century ago. Beginning at the turn of the 20th century and continuing through recent decades, the Jewish population in North America grew by absorbing immigrants first from Central and Eastern Europe and later from places like the former Soviet Union, Iran, and North Africa. Today over 70% of diaspora Jews live in the U.S. and Canada but the aggregate numbers may decline because these Jewish communities will no longer be able to count on the infusion of “new blood” to keep them vital.
With close to a majority of all Jewish children living there already, Israel in the near future will become, for the first time since early antiquity, the home to a majority of all Jews. It marks the end of an epoch of Jewish life, and the beginning, however fraught, of a new one.
This article first appeared in Tablet Magazine
Joel Kotkin is the Roger Hobbs Distinguished Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism. He authored The Human City: Urbanism for the rest of us, published in 2016 by Agate. He is also author of The New Class Conflict, The City: A Global History, and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. He is executive director of NewGeography.com and lives in Orange County, CA.