The postwar European Jew has been cited as the guardian of memory in Europe, as the conscience of the West in Europe and as a litmus test for that continent’s democracy. As the Jews have no geographical particularity in Europe, and could once be found throughout, some suggest they may even be the truest of Europeans. Yet while the circumstances of Western Jewish experience have often been presented as a means through which to explore group membership, when it comes to European integration Jews have often been silent. Why is this?
I recently interviewed a hundred prominent Dutch, British and Italian Jewish opinion-formers, including communal leaders, and discovered that underneath their prominent positions, thoughts about liquid assets, multiple passports and places to where they might flee, persist. And while a federal Europe might have expected to have been of interest to figures - particularly in mainland Europe – who’d been subject to exclusionary measures from the 1930s until 1945 in the same mainland states in which they have played significant national roles since - their concern that being associated with a post-national Europe might ‘confirm’ the reckless allegations which had cast the Jews as ‘rootless cosmopolitans’ during the late interwar and wartime period, continues.
Not only that, but they fear they’ve remained depicted as a ‘type’ in Europe, and as a type of ‘European,’ outside the norm, and excludable. This is why politically-active Jews across western Europe after 1945 have pursued a staunchly national direction in the public domain, they told me. Many have even made their public criticisms on national identity from ‘safe,’ (that is, non-Jewishly-centred) interest groups or platforms - and have sensed that universalising the relevance of their themes, speaking out as a ‘citizen of democracy,’ and making their concerns generic has been the best approach, fearing that to do otherwise might re-void their entitlement to call their country their home – and see them cast out once again.
For many on the Left, such problems have been on-going. A split after the Six Day War resulted from the Left’s hostile attitude towards Israel, and saw many Jews ejected from what had hitherto been their natural habitat. At the other end of the dominant wing of European politics, the solidarist conservative internationalist brand of Christian thinking, which resonated forcefully among the founding fathers of the European project, was centred on a call for blanket forgiveness, and was a technique used to whitewash Second World War criminals. Here again, Jewish opinion-formers felt depicted as outsiders.
And such feelings persist today, not only among survivors themselves, but also among their offspring, whose parents or grandparents had been expelled from university because of the racial laws in the lands in which they live. Exclusion in countries like the Netherlands and Italy had a profound effect on Jewish families’ afterwar economic and psychological predicament, and it was only during the 1970s that educated, then-young adult Jews felt able to start to redefine their relationship to national society. At this point, ‘feeling European’ just meant not immigrating to Israel, physically, but also mentally. Until then, in continental Europe and sometimes in Britain, many Jews of the older generation had seen themselves as the weak left-overs, who had not dared to go to Israel to develop the new state. A central coping mechanism employed by many such Jews, who continued to live in European lands which had earlier been occupied or fascist, was to imagine that they actually lived in a land which had resisted fascism. They thus mystified the past of their country, in an attempt to deal with living in a space where many had betrayed them, knowing that most who had been involved in the past regimes would never pay for their crimes, and that as Jews there was nothing they could do about this.
Although its mainland had not been occupied, hostile continental European wartime images, notably, that the Jews controlled the black market and that they were ostentatious, had also appeared in Britain in the early 1940s. Popular, local violence against Jews there had been confined to extremists, just as it had been in pre-occupation Italy and the Netherlands, while a small but significant proportion of the local population in Britain had advocated the extermination of the Jews – paralleling the situation in Italy and the Netherlands before the racial laws there. Furthermore, the Jews had been emancipated and well-established in all three countries well before the 1930s. For some of the British Jewish opinion-formers I talked to, recognising how close fascism came to becoming British government ideology, that their fate could have been identical to that of their mainland counterparts, and that hostile images of Jews persisted in Britain long after the War, caused them also to want to be perceived as utterly national for the same reasons as their continental cousins, such that many thinking Jews, particularly those with a Holocaust background, diverted their attentions away from politics completely in Britain, into social action or non-establishment, critical-commenting professions instead, such as journalism, film-making, law, psychotherapy, as well as other areas of mental health.
To many Jewish thinkers, European integration seemed like a bureaucracy-ridden, virtual-state, lacking spiritual appeal, aimed merely at reconciling the almost-hereditary antagonism between France and Germany, with Benelux and the Italians tacked on, although the paradox was that if a ‘European’ was one who lived and thought beyond national borders, then it was to their own afterwar Jewish peer group that such Jews pointed. European by attraction rather than through political experience, some felt too close to Europe to disregard it as a locus of identity, yet were simultaneously too alienated from it to help radically reshape its postwar political structure. Today, they remain struck by those moments in which they feel ‘at home in Europe,’ knowing that it is also a ‘home’ which rejected them during the twentieth century - and which could kick them out again.
What of western Europe’s Jewish communal leaders? Here, there has been no greater interest in the evolution of postwar Europe: such figures have desisted from cultivating any image of Europe other than one which has depicted the continent as a Jewish graveyard, rejecting it as an afterwar space of Jewish belonging, and regarding Israel as prewar Europe’s natural heir and bearer of a substitute identity for those who lingered in Europe after the fat had been cleared from the crematoria. Israel was a more malleable construct for their management of diverse communal constituents than an unwieldy ‘Europe,’ whose political dynamic they felt they could barely affect.
What of the situation today? Because European integration’s fundamental structures lack popular support, and remain underpinned by small cliques who operate from centralised, opaque powerbases, the European project still cannot guarantee the Jews’ long-term well-being. Thinking Jews’ fear that an EU superstate could become dominated by elites hostile to Israel, encouraged by their inability to stem the growth of radical Islamist unrest in Europe, while a populist-nationalist grass-roots backlash against an expanded EU could seen the emergence of a ‘Europe for the Europeans,’ from which the Jews, like Muslims, could be excluded. If the EU’s security forces fall into unsafe hands, ‘Fortress Europe’ could disable the Jews from escaping across the frontiers of a superstate, whose unified economic and political system could now restrict the spaces to which they might once have fled. Worse, some warn, this destabilisation may have already started with the dramatic enlargements of 2004 and 2007, as ever-larger union struggles to source revenue for its expansion and tackles widespread disagreement among its members, on a multitude of policy areas.
Jewish thinkers may have correctly mistrusted postwar integrators, asking where were the high-cultural intellectual dimensions, the ethical commitments to supporting those minorities which had suffered most in Europe’s recent past. They may have rightly asserted that crossborder harmony had been prioritised over justice, that the constructors of Europe had pursued a Christian vision of Europe, to whom surviving Jews were of little consequence, and that they had been left to bury themselves among the afterwar ‘free nations of Europe,’ knowing no one could guarantee a future rebranding of Europe would not see them ejected once more from the next, new definition of pan-European peoplehood. Ever-fearful of the fragility of their newly-restored right to national participation, many Jews recognise they were no more than sporadic and fragmented protestors.
Will they continue to observe the shaping of the European project from an upstairs window, and continue to accept the values and cultures of the societies which have cast them as irredeemably stigmatised? Find out in my book…
A version of this article appeared in German on the site of the Swiss weekly, www.tachles.ch.
Nick Lambert is Honorary Research Fellow at New York University in London and The Rothschild Foundation Europe Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Department of History, Royal Holloway, University of London. His book, Europe and the Jews in the Twenty First Century, is published by Vallentine Mitchell, London, in September 2007. ISBN 9780853037613 Paperback. To contact him: [email protected]
6 July 2007