European Jews' self-imposed Faustian bargain

Do we have to give up our identity to enjoy this troubled but golden age?

Not all is well for Jews in Europe. In most EU countries synagogues need security; identifiably Jewish people may be harassed or attacked on the street; shechita(kosher slaughtering) is under assault; and public support for Israel draws condemnatio n. On these four major elements of Jewish identity, being Jewish in Europe is not easy. Sure, provided one does not go to synagogue, does not eat kosher, does not wear a kippa and does not identify in any way with Israel, being Jewish is not only uncontroversial, it can actually draw admiration and sympathy. With all the legitimate concern about the rise of a new anti-Semitism in Europe, one should never rush to make rash comparisons with the 1930s. There is still space left to express, culturally, a strong secular Jewish identity. But the question looms: Can secular Jewish humanism help communities survive? Can Jewish continuity be ensured if those four elements increasingly lose legitimacy in the eyes of the broader societies where Jews live? The t ruth is that, though a problem, anti-Semitism is not European Jewry's main threat today. Assimilation is. Jews have never had it so good; never have Jewish communities been so prosperous, so integrated and so influential in their societies. Never have young Jews enjoyed more access to education and the best jobs. Never have Jews been so accepted that they could take positions of power without stirring much opposition. Even as traditional Jewish practice and Zionism have come under pressure as vehicles of Jewish identity, the privileged position enjoyed by Jewish communities and some of their prominent members should be a source of strength for Jews to proudly reassert their identity on their own terms. Except that it is the Jews themselves, who often fail to defend this elementary right. Why? Because the prosperity and privilege characterizing this golden Jewish age has coincided with perhaps the greatest level of Jewish illiteracy in recorded Jewish history. Our great success and integration has com e at the expense of our identity and awareness of our heritage and destiny as a people. And while in the past assimilation, the cost of success in Christian societies, was forced on Jews as the inevitable price of acceptance, today Jews who snub their r oots do so by choice. CONSIDER ENGLAND, the birthplace of religious tolerance. On Rosh Hashana the Tory party gathered for its annual conference and the expected replacement of its leader, Michael Howard. Howard is Jewish and could be seen at the conference on the beginning of the holiest season of the Jewish calendar, along with another Jewish leader, Malcolm Rifkind, whose failure to replace him had nothing to do with his origins. Later this year, Rifkind is to address the annual dinner of a prominent barrister chamber in London - on a Friday night. Soon after the conference, while the party was fighting it out over his succession, Howard could be seen trying to outwit Prime Minister Tony Blair in the Commons - on Succot. Though these are hardly exc eptions, one could retort that the demands of state cannot be postponed on account of one's personal religious beliefs. Nevertheless, and quite aside from the fact that speaking at an annual dinner is no state function, there are many Jews who can keep t heir faith while entering public life in Christian societies. Besides, examples abound from other walks of life that show how indifference to Jewish heritage is the trademark of our age of success. Recently, two Jewish intellectuals met in front of a lar gely non-Jewish audience in a packed university auditorium to discuss their anti-Zionist inclinations and offer a non-national version of Jewish identity. Of the two, one is a former Israeli who frequently quotes Jewish wisdom and occasionally waves his old Israeli passport to substantiate his anti-Israel views. The other is a British Jewish literary critic and a follower of the late Edward Said. The event, framed as a conversation between the two - whose margin of disagreement on Zionism is similar to the one between Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels - was scheduled on the eve of Succot not in order to avoid the presence of unwanted critics in the audience, but because these two critics of Zionism, ever so fond of referring to the ideals of the prophets o f Israel and the need to return to a Jewish identity devoid of nationalism, did not know they were meeting on a Jewish holiday. In the past, Jewish communities never faltered in their devotion to their roots, despite their fragility and inability to stan d up for their rights. Today Jews suffer from none of the troubles of the past: They have resources, influence and friendly legislation to defend their interests. That is why, though it still lurks in the shadows, anti-Semitism is not the biggest threat t o Jewish survival. What will ultimately doom the Jews is not the resurgence of the oldest hatred, but their indifference to their own heritage. Too bad, then, that so many Jews who are in a position to advance community concerns and be a source of pride and inspiration to their fellow Jews have lost their commitment to Jewish survival and their knowledge of, let alone devotion to, what for so long has kept us alive as a people. The writer teaches Israel Studies at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Je wish Studies.Sd