BOOK REVIEW / Culture killed by kindness

VANISHING DIASPORA: The Jews in Europe Since 1945 by Bernard Wasserstein, Hamish Hamilton pounds 20
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The Independent Culture
THE Jews of Europe find themselves in a paradox. Life on the continent is easier for them now than it has ever been, and yet they seem to face something close to extinction. This at least is what Wasserstein believes.

In 1939 there were ten million Jews in Europe. At the end of the War, for reasons that we all know, there were four million. Now there are fewer than half that number and the figure is shrinking all the time. The trends, of course, vary from country to country. The decline has been greatest in Eastern Europe. In Poland the number of Jews has dwindled from over 200,000 in 1946 to just 6,000 today. In Czechoslovakia in the 1980s "a bare minyan (prayer quorum of ten men) regularly attended services at Prague's two remaining synagogues: the most indefatigable attender at the Altneuschul was a secret policeman". In contrast Britain has, in the same period, lost about a quarter of its Jews, bringing its population down to 300,000. The only place, though, where the numbers are increasing (and very slowly) is, irony of ironies, Germany.

Emigration has been a major force in this decline. Most of those Jews who survived the Holocaust could not contemplate remaining in a continent that was, to them, little more than a graveyard, and left, mainly for America and Israel. And anti-Semitism since the War - especially in the Soviet Block - has continued to act as a spur. Since the fall of Communism well over half a million Jews - nearly half the Jewish population - have left the former Soviet Union for Israel. The very terms on which, until 1951, Polish Jews were allowed to go into exile explains why they wanted to do so - they were permitted to take with them "about $280 plus some pocket money, two rings, one watch, one overcoat, one nightshirt, two pillows, two blankets, a few pairs of shoes, one sheet and five books".

But as Wasserstein admits, if anti-Jewish feeling runs high in the ex- Soviet Union and its old satellites - out of all proportion to the number of Jews actually remaining - in Western Europe things have developed very differently. Of course prejudice lingers on, and this book provides plenty of examples of it, from the role of the Catholic Church in hiding Nazis to the Waldheim affair. But Wasserstein is too fair-minded an historian not to agree that for most part Western European Jews have been treated with civility. In Spain, Franco finally lifted the edict of 1492 prohibiting Jewish residence; the Catholic Church, long "the most important anti-Semitic institution in Europe" formally changed its teaching, retracting the charge of "deicide". In France and Germany public opinion polls have consistently shown an increasing acceptance of Jews as neighbours, political representatives and family members. And in Britain Margaret Thatcher made no secret of the fact that she much preferred the self-help ethos she found among her Jewish constituents in Finchley to "whinging" Anglicans.

No, the main cause of the decline of Jews and Jewish culture in Western Europe over the last 50 years, at least as Wasserstein tells it, is that life has been too good. Liberal tolerance seems to be succeeding where Nazi persecution failed: Jewish culture is being killed by kindness.

Part of the problem is that Jewish fertility rates have fallen - itself attributable at least in part to prosperity - and the rate of intermarriage has grown: in most of Europe a third to a half of Jews who wed take a Gentile spouse. But even among those born into the faith, fewer and fewer are likely to observe it. For many, Judaism is now a matter of commitment to Israel and observance of the "entry and exit rituals of male circumcision and Jewish burial".

The Jewish languages - the web of traditional Jewish culture - have all but disappeared from the continent, too. Yiddish, 60 years ago the lingua franca of ten million Jews, is now spoken only by a few thousand people, and Ladino, the Judaeo-Spanish language spoken in Turkey for 500 years, is on the verge of obsolescence. Although Wasserstein does not say it, there seems little doubt that the process of assimilation has been encouraged by the comforting knowledge that Israel can be relied upon to preserve Jewish values, so other communities are relieved of this pressure.

Wasserstein is a clear writer with an impressive mastery of his material, and he makes his case persuasively. I wish, though, that he had a bit more to say about the values and the ways of life whose passing he so regrets. Instead, he sticks almost exclusively to political and demographic developments. There is a good case, too, for arguing that Wasserstein exaggerates. Conservatives tend to bemoan and liberals and socialists to look forward to the "harmonisation" of different cultures, but cultural traditions have generally proved a good deal more robust than they once seemed. Remember the concept of "the global village"? You'll find it in the bin marked "intellectual bric-a-brac".

Ben Rogers is working on the official biography of A J Ayer