For much of the past century, America has dominated the Jewish world. It has been a semi-sacred ‘safe place’, where anti-Semitism only rarely impinged on the national political culture. Yet today, American Jews face levels of anti-Semitism not seen since the 1930s, with half saying they have observed anti-Semitic incidents over the past year.
This includes the attacks on synagogues during last summer’s riots, the random assaults on the streets of LA and New York, and the spate of violent and unprovoked attacks on Jews during the recent flare-up of the Israel-Palestine conflict.
No longer confident in their tolerant paradise, America’s Jews face a reality similar to that of the shrinking, increasingly marginalised European Jewish community. Remember that, in 1920, Europe was home to over half of world Jewry, including some of its wealthiest and most accomplished communities. Today it contains barely 10 per cent of the world’s Jews. In 1939, there were 9.5million Jews living in Europe; at the war’s end in 1945 only 3.8million remained. Today, more than half a century after the Holocaust, barely 1.5million are left in Europe.
This decline has many roots, including intermarriage, which impacts roughly half of all European and American Jews. But rising anti-Semitism is clearly a factor. Around 90 per cent of European Jews in 2019 reported witnessing anti-Semitic incidents. Some of this anti-Semitism comes from traditional nationalist, far-right sources, notably in Eastern Europe, but it also comes from other sources in Western European political and social life.
For instance, Alexander Gauland, one of the leaders of Germany’s right-wing Alternative for Germany party, was accused of trivialising the Holocaust when he dismissed the crimes of Hitler and the Nazis as ‘a speck of birdshit in 1,000 years of glorious German history’. Though Gauland’s rhetoric is shocking, more alarming still is the fact it resonates with a large segment of the German public. According to a 2015 Anti-Defamation League survey, just over half of Germans now believe that Jews overplay the Holocaust, while a third blame Jews themselves for rising anti-Semitism. Another study reports that 60 per cent of German anti-Semitic messages come from well-educated people. And recent research concludes that today barely half of Europeans think Israel has a right to exist.
So although anti-Semitic views are still present on the extreme right, they are now also widely embraced by the more mainstream left. Green parties, likely the future of Europe’s left, tend to support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which aims to demonise and eliminate the Jewish state. And the German Greens regularly label Israel an ‘apartheid’ regime. A poll of European Jews has found that the majority of anti-Semitic incidents now emanate from either Muslims or from the left – barely 13 per cent of incidents were attributed to right-wingers.
Things are not yet as awful for America’s roughly six million Jews, but the European experience increasingly resonates. The American Jewish population, unlike that of demographically robust Israel, is unlikely to grow before 2050, with a marked decline in Reform and Conservative synagogues. The median age of the largest group, Reform Jews, stands at 54. Four fifths of the movement’s youth drop out of Jewish institutions by the time of their high-school graduation. Over the past 20 years, the numbers of Reform and Conservative congregants have declined by an average of 26 per cent, while only the Orthodox Chabad movement has grown, tripling in size.
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Joel Kotkin is the author of The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class. He is the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director for Urban Reform Institute. Learn more at joelkotkin.com and follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin.