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Cultural politics and European Jewry

The debate on the nature of culture is taking place among Jews

Stanley Waterman

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Besides being a confusing designation, culture is a contentious issue. Nevertheless, people depend on the relatively safe and stable entity called culture, which both aids and encumbers them as they negotiate their way in society.

Conventionally, religious beliefs and practices have been the main symbols of collective Jewish identity; their development and legitimation have been profoundly embedded in group life, social class and organizations. ln the Jewish Diaspora, these beliefs and practices were the 'mortar' that cemented the 'Jewish' bricks. However, as European societies have modernized and become more secular, pluralistic and multicultural, Jews have had to adapt. But European Jewish communities do not stand in isolation and the issue is not simply 'modernize and die' or 'modernize or die'-secularism v. religion.

European Jewish communities, in their struggle to survive and create Jewish identities with which they are at ease, must contend with new streams of Jewish life emanating from North America and Israel. With the exception of France and the United Kingdom, which still have relatively large and viable-and autonomous-Jewish communities, most European communities are small with a considerable need for external support.

Debate on culture is taking place among Jews in terms of the nature and content of Jewish cultures. But Jewish cultures are changing, as they have always done; this fact is most evident in both Israel and North America. lf European Jewish communities are to survive and prosper as autonomous entities without being over-influenced by any one ideological or religious tendency in the Jewish world, or without fear of assimilation, they must be sufficiently brave to develop their own means of self-expression and to learn to live with them. This is not an easy task, because those who offer single-track alternatives - such as the dissolution of the Diaspora or a return to a form of Judaism which isolates itself from the rest of society-do so with forceful conviction. European Jews must be able to develop an independent and vibrant culture. The construction of forward-looking European Jewries will be hampered by attempts at delegitimization.

Many accusations-e.g. that it is not the traditional way, that it is against the overall Jewish interest-will probably be aimed at efforts by European Jewry to set its own course for survival. However, if European Jewish communities are to avoid irreversible decline, there is no other way. The present offers a golden opportunity to communities of European Jews to co-operate across national boundaries and develop coalitions with other ethnic groups, and cultural and religious minorities, so that they can be leaders rather than hangers-on in the era of multiculturalism. It is an opportunity not to be missed.

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Stanley Waterman

Stanley Waterman

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