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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

The Complexity of the Relations between European Jewry and Israel

Filed under: Europe and Israel, World Jewry
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review
Volume 28, Numbers 3–4


From the inception of the Zionist movement to the present, Israel and the Diaspora have been sharply at odds over the future and the nature of the Jewish people. This controversy is quite unique among the nations of the world. There is no similar phenomenon that reflects a situation in which more than half of a people still lives outside the borders of its country.

Before the outbreak of the Second World War, there were 16.6 million Jews in the world. Today 460,000 live in France, 290,000 in Britain, 190,000 in Russia, and 117,000 in Germany. In the United States there are 5.4million Jews, and in Canada there are 388,000. In Israel, meanwhile, there are only 6.5 million Jews. 

The establishment of the Jewish state did not lead to the aliyah (immigration) of the bulk of the Diaspora communities. Seventy years later, more than half of the Jewish people in the Diaspora have never visited Israel and have indeed disengaged from Zionism and Judaism.

The past seven decades have also been marked by an asymmetry between the responsibility of the state of Israel and the demands of Diaspora Jews. On the one hand, Israel is committed to the wellbeing and security of world Jewry and to imparting culture and education; on the other, the Jewish communities have grown frustrated with continuing to provide economic and moral support. In recent years criticism and political involvement have grown, especially among younger Diaspora Jews. 

The dilemma has remained unchanged, especially regarding how to support Israel while disagreeing with and criticizing the government’s policy on the future of the territories and on a solution for the Palestinian problem. Other issues concern religion and state. Diaspora communities are unsure about how to deal with Israeli governments that are not concerned about “dual loyalty” or about the different religious denominations, about the opinions and needs of Jewish communities regarding issues such as conversion, “Who is a Jew?” or the future status of Jerusalem.

There are also large and fundamental differences between American Jewry and European Jewry. It must, of course, be taken into account that each Diaspora community has certain attributes and identities that have developed in the course of history, dating back to the destruction of the Second Temple and, later, the Spanish Expulsion.

It should also be noted that today there are not many Jews living in distress and physical danger as in the past, and most of the immigrants still coming to Israel are from well-established  states.  

Although there are disagreements, particularly on political and religion-related issues, there is full agreement among most factions of the Jewish communities that Israel is indeed the nation-state of the entire Jewish people.

The Main Differences between American Jews and European Jews

  • The Zionist movement arose in Europe. Thanks to the first aliyot (influxes of immigration) that arrived mainly from Russia, Poland, and Germany, pioneering settlement began in the Land of Israel.
  • Neither American Jewry nor British Jewry experienced the Nazi Shoah in their country. The Shoah eradicated six million of the Jews of Europe. Today the fight against antisemitism continues unabated and is an integral part of Diaspora Jewry’s daily activity.
  • There is a fundamental difference between Western Europe and Eastern Europe. Until the beginning of the 1990s, Jews in Eastern and Central Europe, who constituted the large majority of European Jewry, lived under the oppression of the Soviet communist regime. The communities’ activities were circumscribed or even disappeared completely, the gates of aliyah were closed, and maintaining ties with the Jews behind the Iron Curtain was complicated and dangerous.
  • American Jews contributed much to Israel’s establishment, even sending fighters and volunteers to defend it, but only a few settled in it.
  • Whereas American Jews have lobbied for Israel domestically and with foreign countries, in Europe there was no tradition of establishing lobbies and of similar political involvement among the parties. There have indeed been Jewish activists in movements, in governments, and at all governmental levels, but they did not operate publicly and refrained from criticizing the authorities. They were loyal citizens of the country where they were born or to which they had emigrated. Support for Israel involved mainly demonstrations, financial contributions, and publishing articles in the press.
  • Jewish identity in the United States and Canada is not a hindrance and is not concealed, unlike in Europe where it is suppressed.
  • Zionist activity is limited in Europe, and the members of the Zionist movements constitute only small percentages of the particular communities.
  • The European authorities’ attitude toward the Jews has focused mainly on the religious aspect, even in secular countries such as France. Over the past two decades, religious and traditional awareness of the Zionist movements has grown in the Jewish communities. Concomitantly, support and sympathy for Israel have risen as the Muslim population multiplies and Israel is delegitimized.
  • With the support of the Palestinians and far-left intellectuals, classical far-right antisemitism in Europe, which is still alive and kicking and apparently will never disappear, has assumed a clearly anti-Zionist coloration.
  • The recent wave of terror in Europe, and the presence there of Muslim immigrants, have altered the authorities’ attitudes toward the Jews and Israel.
  • In America there has always been great sympathy and admiration for Israel. The large Jewish population is six times larger than the European Jewish one. The key roles that many Jews have played in administrations, the media, the economy, and culture have undoubtedly influenced the warm and supportive attitude, in contrast to the current situation in Europe.

Israel’s Responsibility and Duty

  • In its Declaration of Independence proclaimed on May 14, 1948, Israel promised to open its gates to all Jewish immigration and to ingather the exiles.
  • Israel appealed to Diaspora Jews to make aliyah and take part in building the country, and to support the state of Israel in its great struggle.
  • The Law of Return, which was passed in 1950, grants every Jew the right to immigrate to Israel. The Absorption Ministry helps immigrants in finding housing and jobs, and in learning the language.
  • The state of Israel declares that it promotes and ensures the wellbeing and security of the Jews of the Diaspora. It came to the aid of Soviet Jewry and has rescued Jews in distress from Arab countries, and from Ethiopia in two daring operations that brought thousands of Jews to Israel.
  • The state of Israel also works to disseminate the Hebrew language and Jewish culture, and to maintain an ongoing connection with all of Diaspora Jewry through the educational and cultural activity of emissaries. Israeli embassies throughout the world are also an address for appeals by Jews and serve as a bridge. The Israeli ambassador often represents the majority of the local community, especially in times of emergency, severe crisis, or war.

European Jews’ Attitude toward Israel

As mentioned earlier, the Zionist movement arose in Europe and contributed greatly to Israel’s founding before and after the Shoah. The early pioneers of the initial aliyot, as well as those who were born in the land, broke off almost all connection with Diaspora Jewry; most saw themselves as “new Jews” who had come to build and be built in the Land of Israel in the spirit of socialism and secularism.  

Despite the cutting of ties, and despite the pogroms, the antisemitism, and of course the Shoah, Judaism in Europe survived. Jewish communities continued to live and function in a unified framework, each with a local rabbi and a synagogue.

Israel’s establishment and the Arabs’ threats to destroy it completely changed how Jews thought and conducted their lives. They went from an exclusive focus on communal and religious problems to a commitment to help Israel through financial contributions and investments, volunteering, and setting up lobbies and advocacy groups to encourage support and sympathy in public opinion and the local media.

A Political Lobby and a Jewish Awakening in France

The Jewish community of France is the largest and among the oldest in Western Europe. It suffered under the German occupation and the Vichy regime’s collaboration with the Nazis. It still remembers and does not forgive the waves of antisemitism that began even before the days of the Dreyfus affair.

Although the community has been organized and established since the days of Napoleon’s government, it has undergone far-reaching changes. A community that was mostly Ashkenazi became, as the Maghreb countries gained independence, primarily Sephardic. A leadership sponsored by the Rothschild family was replaced by Jewish leaders and activists of North African extraction. A community that was mostly bourgeois, secular, and assimilated became more and more religious, traditional, and even ultra-Orthodox.

The 1980s saw the “Jewish awakening” movement, which sought to supplant the traditional leadership with ambitious young people capable of influencing France’s policy toward Israel. The aim was to create a lobby modeled on AIPAC in the United States and to oust then-President Giscard d’Estaing because of his pro-Arab policy. The attempt indeed succeeded, but unlike in America, there is no tradition of political lobbying in France or in Europe generally. The movement also did not gain the support of the existing institutions, and it gradually faded even though its leaders eventually became leaders of the community.

Today the Jewish community does not have political weight and has moved to the margins in lieu of the constantly growing Muslim population. The waves of terror that have struck France, the increasing antisemitism, anti-Zionism, and role of BDS groups, do not allow for much antigovernment activism or large solidarity demonstrations for Israel. Only exceptional cases, such as the terror attack at the Jewish supermarket on January 9, 2015, have brought numerous Jews to the streets along with ministers and other politicians. The community lives in anxiety and requires the government’s protection. Meanwhile the number of immigrants to Israel has also grown, and solidarity and support for Israel remain firm. The French Jewish community is undoubtedly a Zionist one that generally identifies with all Israeli governments whether they are left-wing or right-wing. At the same time, when coming to Israel as new immigrants, French Jews feel a certain disappointment and resentment over the supercilious and even contemptuous attitude toward them.

The British Community

The British Jewish community now numbers about 300,000, one-fifth of them ultra-Orthodox. It is an established community that is proud of its Judaism and, unlike French Jews, does not feel anxious or restricted. Whereas Jews in Paris fear to go out in the streets or to the metro with kippot on their heads, or with prayer shawls and prayer books on holidays, the Jews of London feel free and safe. They are warmly pro-Israeli, and the great majority of them do not engage in harsh criticism on religious issues or in crude political interference. Except for a minority that continues to criticize the occupation and the settlements and speaks of boycotting products, most regard themselves as Zionists who are concerned about Israel’s good name in the world. Only few of them, however, mainly among the older adults and those with established families, are prepared to make aliyah.

Solidarity or Interference? 

Over the years a feeling has emerged among European Jews that the Israeli government does not take their position into account, especially when it makes decisions that are weighty for the entire Jewish people on issues such as conversion or the status of Jerusalem. In the opinion of Diaspora leaders, Jerusalem belongs to all of the Jewish people and not only to the citizens of Israel.

The debate focuses on why Diaspora Jews are not given the chance to take part in discussions or to express their views in the appropriate forums. Some even call for participating in elections or in a referendum despite the fact that, to date, not even Israelis living abroad, except for emissaries of the state, have the right to vote.  

The Jews of Europe do not have a single, authorized body that represents them. Of course, in each country there are bodies that represent the community to the authorities, such as the French Jewish umbrella organization, CRIF, or a local chief rabbinate. There are other institutions as well, such as the European Jewish Congress, rabbis’ organizations, and lobbies or fundraising campaigns, but none of these constitutes an elected body for all Jews and they do not represent the full spectrum of opinions including the anti-Zionist ones. As such, they cannot interfere with decisions of a sovereign Israeli government.

Another problem concerns dual loyalty. It poses a difficult dilemma for European Jews who are accused of not being loyal citizens of the country in which they live. The claim of dual loyalty has, however, been rebuffed in recent years, and even European leaders understand that Jews cannot totally sever their connection to Israel and that it is natural and also legitimate for Diaspora Jews to continue expressing support for their Israeli brethren. There is indeed no contradiction involved here; it is comparable to a child who loves his father and his mother to the same extent.

In recent years Diaspora Jews’ solidarity with Israel has not been automatic. There is growing criticism of the Israeli government’s policy on issues of the peace process with the Palestinians and of conversion. Although these criticisms are not expressed harshly as in the United States, they are expressed in meetings, forums, and in the media, including the Jewish press.

Indeed, in a related phenomenon, the Jewish press, radio stations (there are four such stations in France), and websites have been flourishing of late. The discourse about Israel and Judaism inspires numerous, candid, and varied responses, and is integrally linked to the debates that are waged in Israel. If in the past failures were hushed up or concealed, in recent years – and thanks to the social networks – most of what is written in the Israeli media reverberates in the various communities, though at lower intensity and with less harshness.  

The Future of Relations

The older Jewish generation is gradually disappearing and making way for the young, dynamic, and critical generation. The generation of Shoah victims contributed much to building Israel. They did so out of sincere love for the Zionist project, without political calculation or interference in government decisions.

Today the situation has changed completely. In the era of the Internet and globalization, the problems that arise in Israel on issues of religion and politics,  the rifts between right and left and between religious and secular, resonate powerfully among Diaspora Jews. Israel’s domestic debates actually mirror the new reality.

The state of Israel is, however, duty-bound to prevent alienation and polarization. It must ensure with all the means at its disposal that the legitimate and justified debates will take the form of natural, forthright arguments among the family as a whole, between the brothers and sisters who live in Israel and their counterparts in the Diaspora.

We must not ignore the new phenomena, and we must prevent Jews from being indifferent toward Israel, which could lead to total estrangement. Every Jew, whoever and wherever he is, can contribute in his own way and according to his abilities to improving Israel’s status and image in Europe.

With time European Jewish aliyah has declined, and today it numbers a few thousand per year. Neither the increase in antisemitic incidents, nor the growth in the power of far-right and neo-Nazi parties and movements, nor even the waves of terror have trigged a mass aliyah of French, British, or Belgian Jews.

The period of the Second Intifada, which erupted in September 2000, saw many violent incidents against Jews in Paris and the provincial towns. The surge of violence indeed prompted Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to call for a mass aliyah of French Jews. The French Jewish leadership and the French government reacted with outrage to what they saw as crude interference in their country’s domestic affairs. This and similar cases cause great perplexity among Jews and must be prevented from recurring.

The state of Israel indeed needs to fundamentally rethink the future of its relations with Diaspora Jewry. It must take into account the new situation that has emerged, including the growing alienation, assimilation, and disinterest in belonging, as in the past, to Jewish organizations and Zionist movements.

On the aliyah issue, it is necessary to prepare well and place full emphasis on the individual, the family, absorption, housing, and suitable jobs, especially for young people and students. They yearn to move to Israel but encounter problems of absorption and even aloofness on the part of Israeli society. Today this is especially the case among French Jews, fully one-third of whom have returned to their country because of absorption difficulties. Undoubtedly the Taglit-Birthright project and the preparatory programs in the universities are of much help to the young people in their countries of origin, and also when they decide to make aliyah. Hence similar projects must be expanded and strengthened.

Israel must also take into account the wishes of the communities’ leaders and enable them to participate in forums in the sphere of education for Jewish identity, and in the struggle against antisemitism and the boycotting of Israel. Their great experience can contribute much to decision-making and initiatives.

Attempts were made in the past to establish a Jewish parliament that would represent the European communities, but they did not succeed. It is, however, worth considering the creation of a representative professional, not political, body that would be empowered to conduct an ongoing dialogue with the institutions in Israel.

Seventy years after the establishment of the state, there is also a need to make extensive changes in the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency and prevent these bodies from having a political-party composition. If one wants to keep them in existence and make them efficient, they will need a thorough overhaul. If this is not done immediately, then these bodies must be dismantled and a different, dynamic body set up that responds to the needs of the hour. 

The many challenges that face us require genuine soul-searching about the future of relations between the state of Israel and Diaspora Jewry. The situation is urgent, and the sooner the better.