Short read

Different Jewish identities , shared values

Yes, Jewishness can be divided into 'types'. But all 'types' of Jews hold some shared values

Prof Sergio DellaPergola

Jews in history have known moments of great tragedy, fear and times of relative stability and welfare. Today, the situation is fair, with most Jews in the world away from neediness, a strong Jewish sovereign state, and civil rights ensured to Jews in democratic countries where most of them live. Yet, dissatisfaction undeniably permeates the air, related to persisting perceptions of hostility and possible destabilising geopolitical scenarios. Significantly, many of the solutions to these issues depend on answers we hold in our hands, unlike in the past.

In my long career as a researcher of contemporary Jewry, I have seen tremendous changes in Israel and throughout the Jewish world. A few of them I would term without hesitation as miracles, some as expectable rational developments, and, occasionally, also some as serious judgment errors. I chose to move from my native European community to Israel during my early adulthood, and I have never regretted that move. But I can understand those who have made different choices.

Social change affecting the Jewish world can be studied and understood if the appropriate questions are asked and the appropriate tools are used

The connective of all this is that I believe social change affecting the Jewish world can be studied and understood if the appropriate questions are asked and the appropriate tools are used. Since my youth, I have been interested in the changing numbers of Jews in different places and the causes and consequences of such changes. Clearly, the leading engine has been over time and will continue to be the changing patterns of Jewish identity locally and globally in the foreseeable future.

Moving toward a multi-dimensional approach

Jewish identity in the UK, Europe and worldwide is usually represented linearly, from strongest to weakest. Popular and scholarly evaluations of Judaism’s historical trajectory typically portray a path from (often idyllic) imagined past to (allegedly meek) present realities, extending it toward uncertain futures. Such a one-dimensional approach unavoidably ends in simplistic interpretations on a spectrum between optimism and pessimism.

Three significant dimensions operate simultaneously and significantly intersect in creating the complexity of Jewish identity. We call them the What, the Why, and the How

The configuration of Jewish identity is much more complex and exciting. The new JPR report, co-authored by Dr Daniel Staetsky and me – based on answers provided by over 16,000 Jews in 12 European Union countries in 2018 (then still including the UK) – throws a new glance at the entire repertoire of perceptions, ideas, symbols, behaviours and interactions that constitute the real gist of Jewish corporate life. Three significant dimensions operate simultaneously and significantly intersect in creating the complexity of Jewish identity. We call them the What, the Why, and the How.

The What is the primary meaning Jews attribute to Judaism: on what grounds does a person self-identify as a Jew? Contemporary Jews in Europe attribute importance to Judaism as religion, but the most diffuse mode of self-recognition concerns Jewish ancestry (parentage and upbringing) and cultural inheritance. Jewish ethnicity is less tolerated in a continent of national states.

The Why concerns the specific Jewish values that most engage Jews intellectually and emotionally: The most essential elements to one’s Jewish identity are remembering the Holocaust and fighting antisemitism, followed by a sense of Jewish peoplehood and supporting Israel, with the more religious dimensions of Belief in God and donating to Jewish charity at lower positions in the ladder. However, there appears to be a definite surge of greater religiosity among the younger age groups. Jewish peoplehood and Israel support often constitute a connective convention, though on a low fire.

The How shows the preferred patterns of Jewish religious belief and behaviour, self-presentation, and interaction with other Jews, exemplified by ideal denominational types such as Haredi, Orthodox, Traditional, Reform, and Just Jewish. A plurality of European Jews define themselves as Just Jewish or Traditional, without mentioning a specific religious denomination. The self-assessed Haredi and Orthodox constitute a minority though a visible and most active segment of the Jewish population. But on some accounts, such as the intensity of support for Israel, the Haredi and the Reform/Progressive are quite similar.

Celebrating Shabbat in Poland

These different Jewish identification strands are spread unequally across European countries, with more traditional strongholds in Belgium, the UK and Austria, followed by France; Spain, Germany and Italy at intermediate levels of traditionalism; with the Northern countries (the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark) and Eastern Europe (Hungary and Poland) the more secularised. We can now regroup European Jews into a few major recurring identificational types: the religious/traditional, the ethno-community oriented, and the modernised-cultural. A periphery of marginal-assimilated holds a thin Jewish identification residue which adverse external circumstances may revive.

Different Jewish identifications, shared Jewish values

Other things being different, our report highlights the dilemmas of the individual Jew when rubbing not with society at large but with other Jews and one’s own Jewishness. And though it finds that European Jews can be organised into distinct types, it also helps show that Jews have more in common between them than we might imagine. Indeed, antisemitism equally affects the most pious and the most assimilated; those interested in giving mainly to Jewish charity and those Jews who prefer donating to universal causes both lost some of their dearest in the Shoah; Israel’s fate powerfully resonates – though perhaps on different wavelengths – among the most conservative and the most radical of Jews; and most European Jews celebrate Passover, tapping into one shared story and history.

Acknowledging that so much is shared in personal memories and sensitivities, and facing the common interest to preserve personal security and freedom, the extant tendency to construct and nurture internal Jewish hierarchies, animosities, and tensions appears pointless. The powerful existing commonalities are remarkable and recognisable even through the many divisions and internal competing characterisations of contemporary Jewry. Our study brings new knowledge that can and should translate into greater mutual understanding and respect, interaction and collaboration to pass down Jewish identity from the present generation to the one that will follow.

Images of people

Prof Sergio DellaPergola

Chairman of JPR's European Demography Unit

Prof Sergio DellaPergola

Chairman of JPR's European Demography Unit

Professor Emeritus and former Chairman of the Hebrew University’s Avraham Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry, and Chairman of JPR’s European Jewish Demography Unit, Prof DellaPergola...

Read more

You might also like: