Daniel J Elazar. Judaism. Volume 47, Issue 4. Fall 1998.
Sitting in my Jerusalem synagogue on Pesach, so close to the annual commemoration of the tragedy and bravery of the Jewish people in the Shoah and the fiftieth anniversary of the triumph and bravery of the Jews of Israel in the struggle to reestablish the Jewish state all within a month, I could not help thinking about the extraordinary convergence of events of the past decade. Since 1989 we have celebrated the fall of Soviet Communism, the centenary or jubilee anniversaries of the World Zionist Organization, the State of Israel, and most of the major Jewish bodies that have shaped current Jewish life. Just about every other major Jewish organization or institution involved in the revival of Jewish life in the world was established within this past century.
My synagogue, Yisssa Bracha, sits in the heart of Talbieh, two blocks from the official residence of Israel’s Presidents in one direction, the official residence of its Prime Ministers in another, and the hotel used by US Presidents, Secretaries of State, and their representatives when they come to negotiate with the Israeli government in a third. Reputedly the major Sephardic synagogue in Israel, it was founded by Sephardim of the old Yishuv, some of whom had been in the Land of Israel since before the Spanish Expulsion, as well as a cross-section of those who came after the rise of political Zionism one hundred years ago and the establishment of the state in 1948, down to the latest Ethiopian immigration. Yissa Bracha represents the Hebrew acronym for Yaakov Shaul Eliachar, the Rishon LeZion or Chief Rabbi of Israel before the turn of the century, whose family settled in Jerusalem in 1485. It has a distinguished membership a former President of Israel, Israel’s senior United Nations official, members of the Knesset, judges, and professors, alongside myriad shopkeepers, policemen, day workers, and students, with a good sprinkling of doctors and lawyers to balance things out.
Most of our members do not have the personal connections with the Shoah that are found in Ashkenazi congregations. Only those from the Balkans or their descendants do, although the Algerians and Tunisians also bring that experience into our picture. On the Sabbath before Yom HaShoah we do give an aliyah to the senior survivor of Auschwitz from Salonika in our congregation and recite memorial prayers for the Jewish dead in that tragedy.
More important week in and week out is the recitation of the prayer for Israel’s soldiers, recited when the Ark is opened and just before the Torah is taken out for its weekly reading. This time, as always, there are young soldiers on leave in the congregation, including my son who is to return to Lebanon on Monday morning. In such an atmosphere at such a time it is impossible not to contemplate the astounding events of the last century and the last decades, during which the Jewish people emerged as a modem political force, suffered great tragedy in perhaps the greatest disaster that has ever befallen us, and went from it to one of the greatest triumphs of any people in human history, the return to their land and the re-establishment of their state after 2,000 years of subjugation and nearly that many of exile.
The Jewish people has had to confront large and powerful enemies every step of the way. Now as Israel celebrates its 50th anniversary, the Jewish people is close to completing the great tasks of the last century or more. These can be summarized in four categories:
- A revolution against the conditions of oppression and isolation imposed upon Jews by both external and internal forces and their consequences.
- The rescue of millions of Jews from perilous situations, in many cases where the alternative to rescue was death.
- The relief of most of those .Jews and others who did not have to be physically rescued.
- The rehabilitation of individual Jews, Jewish communities, Jewish life, and Jewish civilization from their immediate displacements and from the consequences of long-term disadvantages.
These efforts led to a reconstruction and reconstitution of the entire Jewish world. Few if any Jewish public institutions of a century ago have remained, even in outline. The location of most of the Jews in the world has shifted to new sites where they built new communities and societies, including Israel and the American Jewish community. These tasks have been all but completed. What remains are pockets and routine tasks rather than dramatic efforts, so much so that today the Jewish people is looking for a new agenda around which to rally for collective effort and public purposes.
Zionism Overcomes its Enemies
The extraordinary events of this past century are marked by three principal benchmarks, each of which reflects a Jewish triumph over forces of evil, seeking to destroy Judaism, the Jewish People, and decency in the world. The first accompanied the launching of the new Jewish dream at the beginning of this miraculous century between 1897 and 1917 when the Zionist movement became an organized political force and in a relatively short period of time secured international support as reflected in the Balfour Declaration (1917) supporting “a Jewish national home in Palestine.” At that time the vast majority of the world’s Jews lived in the medieval empires of the Romanovs in Czarist Russia, the Hapsburgs in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Sultans of the Ottoman empire, or under local rulers in North Africa of similar stripe who represented the ancien regime in one form or another. In most, the Jews were oppressed or suffered serious discrimination. In the first two, antisemitism was rampant.
Jewish efforts to raise their own level within those empires while preserving their own communities and character were frowned upon or rejected entirely. Zionism arose with its greatest vigor precisely in those empires in an effort to change the circumstances of Jewish existence for the Jews within them. The Jewish triumph was part of a general triumph of liberal democracy and national self-determination that led to the overthrow of those atavistic regimes.
Unfortunately, that overthrow also gave birth to something worse, twentieth-century totalitarianism. The Jewish people were in the front lines of the confrontation with totalitarianism in all of its forms after 1917. The worst of those forms for Jews by far was the Nazi totalitarianism of Hitler’s Germany, which brought with it the Shoah in all of its horror and the murder of nearly 40% of the Jewish people. Once again, the Jews triumphed not only as part of the grand coalition of the Allies but because of the Zionist movement and its successful establishment of a strong Jewish community and society in the Land of Israel. For the Jewish people as a whole the creation of the State of Israel was central and providential, for no matter how sympathetic world opinion might have been to Jewish needs in the aftermath of the Holocaust, only the facts which the Zionists had established on the ground in Palestine made a Jewish state possible.
The Zionist Struggle Against Communism
The Jewish people also had to confront totalitarian Communism, a more insidious enemy because of its masquerade as progressivism, which enticed all too many Jews and others to follow its false beacon. Veteran Zionists throughout the world, excluding only those on the far left, had been aware of the Communist menace to Judaism and the Jewish people from the very beginning. I have personal memories of my aunt, a Labor Zionist and close friend of Golda Meir, Eliezer Kaplan, Levi Eshkol, and others of Israel’s founding fathers and mothers in the 1920s and 1930s, who in those same years fought against the Jewish Communists in Minneapolis who were touting the Communist Potemkin-like Jewish “homeland” of Birobidjan as their more progressive alternative to Zionism.
Within the USSR, Jews who tried to preserve any semblance of organized Jewish life that did not fit the Communist mold were severely persecuted, imprisoned, and even executed by the Communist regime. None were more anathema to the Communists than the Zionists, who were viewed as mortal enemies. At the beginning, the task of destroying Jewish life was left to the Jewish Communists, while the other members of the Communist apparatus murdered millions of other hapless victims in the Soviet Union, but in the end, even the Jewish Communists were eliminated as too Jewish, and. the murderous tasks passed into other hands. Only Stalin’s death in 1953 at the height of the infamous Doctor’s Plot, saved Soviet Jewry from deportation and extermination, Nazi-style, at the hands of another madman and his henchmen.
Why did the Communists, from Bolshevik days onward, devote so much time, effort, expense, and energy to persecuting the Jews, a very small, objectively weak minority? Perhaps for the same reason that Hitler did they recognized that the Jewish idea, and the culture and way of life it produced, were mortal enemies of all totalitarianism. Despite their small numbers, Jews and the Jewish people posed a great threat to the construction of new totalitarian world orders. In the end, Jewish ideas, especially Zionism triumphed, ideologically and on the ground, as Soviet Communism collapsed under the weight of its own evil and failures and the insistent force of the U.S. and its NATO allies.
The Zionist struggle against Communism took several forms. When the new Jewish state aligned itself with the United States and the West, it shifted the balance of power in the Middle East westward. In this respect, even the West was surprised since, according to their calculations, based on quantity rather than quality, the oil-rich Arab states would dominate the region. Without denigrating the strategic and hence political importance of oil, or the ability of the oil states to use their oil as a bargaining chip, their internal weaknesses made them no match for Israel with its small but cohesive population, possessed of an enormous will to survive and succeed in local wars. More than that, on the world scene, the Jewish people of the West and particularly the United States, where the largest concentration of Jews in the world was to be found, rallied to Israel’s side to defend what they correctly perceived to be fundamental Jewish interests, and thereby greatly strengthened the West.
At the same time, these Jews remained strong liberal democrats. Even the small number that had turned to Communism in the 1920s and 1930s for the most part left Communism, when its excesses became painfully apparent even to them. We need not be too forgiving of those who lasted until the postwar period. Most of world Jewry had discovered the evils of Communism and the threat of Communism to the Jewish people long before. Hence, Jewish talents and resources contributed mightily to the triumph of liberal democracy, based on American-style responsible capitalism, and the human rights movement during the postwar years.
Finally, the very existence of the State of Israel became a rallying point for Soviet Jewry, who found their Jewish pride restored and their curiosity about, Judaism piqued by Israel’s very existence. Assisted by their Jewish brethren from around the world, they emerged to wage a valiant and successful struggle against the Soviet Communist regime’s efforts to repress them and their Jewishness. Indeed, they provided a rallying point for the leaders of the Free World, particularly those in the United States, and a club with which they could beat the evil empire. As history showed, Communism indeed had much to fear from that small but powerfully energetic people that the Communists so vigorously opposed.
1989 will go down in history like 1689 and 1789 as a turning-point year, in this case the beginning of the final downfall of the Soviet Union. I happened to be in Moscow the summer of 1991 when George Bush came to the city in a visit that was in effect the acceptance of Gorbachev’s surrender, ending the C, old War. I watched the meeting on CNN from the Hotel Uskaya, the upscale hotel of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. Nearly fifty years earlier as a Minnesotan I had watched our beloved Hubert Humphrey, then an instructor at the University of Minnesota, and his colleagues, including Max Kampelman, who was later to handle the follow-up to the Helsinki talks for President Reagan, Evron Kirkpatrick, later the husband of UN Ambassador Jean Kirkpatrick, and others who would play their own Cold War roles, lead the fight against the very serious albeit little known attempted Communist takeover of the Democratic Farmer-Labor Party in Minnesota in what was effectively the start of the American policy of aggressive containment and the Cold War itself. Humphrey and his group probably were supported by most of the Jews of Minnesota. Throughout his political career, Humphrey, who combined a liberal progressivism with a staunch anti-Communism based on his first-hand experience with the Communists in his home state, enjoyed the almost unlimited support of Minnesota and American Jewry, another front in which the Jews played a decisive role in the struggle against Communism. Nor was Humphrey alone. Much of the support for liberal anti-Communist American political leaders came from the Jewish community, whose support of figures of that persuasion from Harry Truman to Henry Jackson was critical. If that could not be said of Ronald Reagan, it certainly is true that a stellar group of Jewish intellectuals, who had turned in his direction as part of their assessment of the Cold War situation, played a major role in his campaigns and administration.
The Re-Emergence of the Jews of the Communist Bloc
The fall of Soviet Communism not only liberated the Jews of the USSR and the former Communist empire in Eastern Europe as individuals, but made possible the revival of Jewish communal life in those countries. The Jews of the former Soviet Union and its satellites responded to the new opportunities for living Jewish lives with alacrity in a wave of community building from Berlin to Vladivostok. Often overlooked among the many myths and jokes about “two Jews–three opinions” or “one Jew and two synagogues so he will have one that he does not attend”–is the truth that Jews have been outstanding at self-organization since the beginnings of the Jewish People. While they have not always been wise in statesmanship, a handful of Jews placed anywhere can erect an organizational or communal framework for themselves that enables them to perpetuate the Jewish people and its polity under almost every circumstance, if there were any doubt about this, one need only look at the record of the past hundred and fifty years of Jewish migrations to new territories and what Jews have done organizationally to establish or reestablish Jewish life within them.
In that respect, what has happened, in some cases after 70 years of severe oppression-years of suppression of any possibility for a free organized Jewish life–is simply the most convincing demonstration of this Jewish talent. As soon as it became possible, organized Jewish communities sprang up as if out of nowhere, wherever even a minimal number of Jews resided. True, those communities were able to turn to world Jewry for assistance, but the initiatives had to be local.
Both the initiatives and the world Jewish response through their organizations was typical. Tremendous energy was exerted, major efforts were made to supply personnel and finances where needed, all within an atmosphere of both cooperation and competition. Looking at the trees only, one might see what seem to be groups of Jews squabbling over the same turf. Those capable of looking at the forest as a whole saw the emergence of a network of instant yet effective organized Jewish communities throughout the USSR, or, after 1991, the new states of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Schools, cultural societies, synagogues, yeshivas, umbrella organizations, and theater groups appeared across the face of the former Soviet empire. Moreover, these new communities had the encouragement of major organizations and. institutions of world Jewry who were excited to reach out to Jews from the former Soviet bloc, and these bodies were quickly given representation in various international Jewish bodies, regional ones in Europe and worldwide.
Simultaneously, the gates of the Soviet empire opened and Jews were allowed to leave. Over the next decade a million did, principally to Israel but also to the United States, Canada, Germany, and elsewhere. This mass emigration both complicated and stimulated local Jewish organization. The complications came from the fact that as one group of leaders would get an organizational framework underway, most would leave the country for other locations. On the other hand, it was the possibility of leaving the country that stimulated them actively to organize as Jews even before they left.
The statistics are notably inaccurate in all of these cases. For example, the Soviet census classified the inhabitants of the USSR by nationality and the last Soviet census showed approximately 1,600,000 Jews in the country. This figure was suspect for several reasons. First of all, the definition of who would be counted as a Jew depended, upon what was written on an individual’s internal passport, which identified everybody by nationality. Many people who considered themselves Jews were able in one way or another to get themselves listed as something else on their passports, so that they would not be subject to Soviet discrimination against Jews when it came to entering universities or the professions. Also, it was in the Soviet interest to undercount the number of Jews to make it seem as if there were fewer than there really were.
When the Soviet Union broke apart, its Jews were divided among the successor states in which they lived. At the same time, many people who previously had hidden their Jewish connections reemerged to claim them, even if they were tenuous, if only because it was the best ticket for emigration. Suddenly the number of Jews increased radically in state after state. Indeed, today, after a million Jews have left the former Soviet Union and close to a million have been separated from Russia by virtue of their residence in other successor states, the most publicized estimate of Jews in the former USSR still stands at 1.5 million and there are some estimates (no doubt wildly exaggerated) that suggest that there are three million. Looking at the best estimate of Russia alone, we find as many identified Jews there today as there were according to the last Soviet census despite ten years of great emigration.
These figures are all based on subjective definitions of who is a Jew; and in the former Soviet Union even the objective definitions for most Jews are not based on halakhic criteria. Early in the 1990s, on one of his early trips to Israel, when he was asked by a group of Jewish leaders how Jews in the USSR defined who is a Jew, Michael Chlenov, the head of the Vaad, then the Union-wide organization of Soviet Jewry, responded with the following three-fold definition: Those whose internal passports identify them as Jewish; those whom everyone knows are Jewish no matter how their passports read; and “those who have chosen to share the fate of the Jewish people.” There is nothing halakhic about that definition. The first category ostensibly included anyone whose father was Jewish whether the mother was or not, whereas in halakhah Jewish descent is passed through one’s mother. The second had no objective criteria at all, while the third clearly referred to those who were not Jewish by birth or conversion but who were married to Jews or perhaps were parents or siblings of those married to Jews.
An Epochal Change in Self-Definition
This definitional problem and the new forms that Jewish definition has taken for the Jews of the former Soviet empire has made the entire Jewish world subject to the kinds of questions of “who is a Jew” that were previously relevant only in the United States and. perhaps Canada, where the old halakhic criteria are no longer considered adequate by substantial numbers of people who consider themselves Jews. As Jews so defined from the former Soviet Union began to reach Israel they brought the problem with them. To date it has not been solved and efforts to solve part of it through the recent proposals for regulating formal conversion to Judaism in Israel only deal with part of the problem. In any case, this problem is now worldwide and is likely to get more complex before any solutions are found. What does seem to be clear is that new definitions are in the offing.
World Jewry today is probably in a situation analogous to that of world Jewry in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries at the threshold of the modem epoch. At that time Western Europe was officially empty of Jews as a result of the expulsions of the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries. It was resettled by Jews through the arrival of Marranos from Spain and particularly Portugal. They were able to return to Judaism openly, beginning with the establishment of the independence of the Protestant-controlled United Netherlands, which provided a safe haven for openly-Jewish Jews from the 1590s onward as part of their struggle against Catholic Spain. Sixty years later England under Oliver Cromwell was next. The Marranos who returned to Judaism and the Jewish people did so by voluntary choice–but included in that choice was a refusal to be “ghettoized,” that is to return to being an isolated community separated from the rest of the world.
The affiliations of those returned Jews were primarily synagogal. While each synagogue was a self-contained community, offering a broader range of services than synagogues of today and. exercising sanctions against dissenters, it still left. more room for the Marranos to enter general society as individuals, thus opening the doors for Jewish emancipation in Europe and elsewhere 150 years later. It took a hundred years or more for the realities established by the ex-Marranos to become formally embodied in state law and Jewish communal organization, as it may take several generations for a formal resolution of the who is a Jew question today. But the fact. that a change has been. begun by so many, means that sooner or later it will have to be reckoned with.
A similar situation exists in the former Soviet satellites. Poland, which formally was said to have 6,000Jews at the end of the Communist regime, soon found itself with 12,000, then 15,000, and estimates of as many as 80,000, as those who hid their Jewish ancestry publicly come out as Jews. The more Jews emigrated, the more Jews there seemed to be. This has been dramatically evident in the case of Sarajevo in Bosnia. Before Tito’s Yugoslavia crumbled there were 1,200 Jews in Sarajevo. The coming of the civil war led to the evacuation of hundreds to the point where it was reckoned that none were left. Nevertheless, today there are still several hundred obtaining assistance from world Jewish organizations.
A New European Jewry?
What this means is that as the Iron Curtain dividing Western and Eastern Europe crumbled, an additional one to three million Jews were added to the total number in Europe capable of being mobilized, a number equal to or, more likely, exceeding the one million Jews counted in Western Europe. Moreover, just as the Jews in the East organized themselves locally, so, too, they reached out to other European Jewish communities, who in turn reached out to them to begin to develop a new sense of what constitutes European Jewry. The new local or countrywide communities joined the European-wide confederations of communities and became active in them.
Those confederations began to have their meetings in the East to enable their members from the West to become acquainted with those newly emergent Jews who had been considered lost to the Jewish people. It is hard to underplay the excitement of this reunification, a family reunion, as it were. This excitement prevailed whether in connection with the mass emigration to Israel, or in connection with the rise or re-establishment of Jewish communities in Europe.
Moreover, the reinvigoration that it brought to Western European Jewry was palpable. Those communities in the West, painfully restored after the Holocaust, with the exception of France which was transformed by the influx of Algerian Jews after De Gaulle divested France of that country, were just dragging along, keeping up the forms but without great vigor. They were inspired by the vigorous interest of these lost Jews in restoring their Jewish ties. Those Western European Jews who did have the requisite vigor took the lead in forging these new contacts and together they began to build a new European Jewry. Now it is between two and three million strong, the third largest concentration of Jews in the world after the United States and Israel.
This new European Jewry was marked by several very important characteristics. First of all, with numbers of between two and three million it could demand to be taken seriously by the rest of world Jewry, particularly by the Jews of Israel and North America. Since World War II, Jewish life in the world has been bipolar, principally consisting of relations between Israel and American Jewry. Indeed, the very term “Israel-diaspora relations” to most of the four and a half million Israeli Jews and the five and a half to six million American Jews, who together comprise some two-thirds or more of world Jewry, has meant just that, with no real attention paid to the other diaspora communities except as victims in need of sustenance.
Now that a European Jewry of two to three million has begun to weigh in on the scene, that bipolar relationship will have to become more of a triangular one at the very least. Once it becomes triangular it becomes more possible for the more than one half million Latin American Jews to weigh in as well. Furthermore, a European Jewry of that size is no longer a group of small satellites of Israel in geographic proximity to the Jewish state, but an actor with concerns of its own and means of expressing them.
The opening of the East and the spread of European unity in the general world has made the insular countrywide communities of European Jews take notice of one another and their common Europeanness. The Jews have notably lagged behind the rest of Europe in this regard, divided as they are by language and the habits imposed upon them by their respective governments at the time of Emancipation and subsequent eras which the Jews, seeking to be emancipated and accepted, avidly embraced. As those self-same states became the leaders in the movement towards European integration, their Jews clung conservatively to their state-based, not Jewish-based, separateness.
This isolationism was further enhanced by the fact that the two largest Jewish communities in Western Europe are in France and Britain. They are also the two most separatist communities in Europe with the least incentive to join with others because of their size and the range of institutions that each has developed over the years. These give them the illusion of being capable of handling their own affairs independently. Only the attachment of those new communities to the east which, while in at least three cases (Russia, Ukraine, Belarus), are as large or larger than French and English Jewry and which because of their recent historic experiences as oppressed communities know that they need outside assistance, has been able to overcome some of that resistance and isolation.
Thus it is precisely the result of the entry of Eastern European Jewry onto the scene that has made possible and encouraged the development of serious connections among the Jewish communities of Europe. Ironically, the rapid growth of German Jewry, itself a consequence of the opening to the East, is likely to add to this thrust. Germany now has some 60,000 Jews and the number is growing. The expectation is for it to reach 100,000 before very long, mostly through immigration from the former Soviet bloc.
The Jews in Germany, like Germany in general in relation to Europe, for their own reasons are likely to want to maintain strong ties with. Jews in other European countries. Hence they will be a force for European Jewish integration. Because Germany is the strongest country in Europe today, their influence will be greater than their relative numbers imply. Moreover, the Jewish world, which has refused to develop more than the most limited de facto connections with German Jewry since World War II, has begun formally to take notice of these new developments, with the American Jewish Committee leading the way by establishing an office in Germany this year.
What Kind of Jews for Europe?
All of this is happening to European Jewry at a time when it is undergoing another sea-change. For the first time it seems that all the doors in Europe are open to Jews, at least far more so than in the past. While Jewish emancipation is not new, broad-based Jewish acceptance is-no doubt part of the general rejection of racism worldwide, at least partly as a reaction to the exceptional evil of Nazi racism in World War II.
While not all Jews recognize or even believe that this is now the case, a very substantial group of younger Jews do. They furnish a major segment of the young leadership of today’s European Jewry. This view is particularly pronounced among those who are least interested, in Judaism as a religion and who advocate a secular Judaism as the most appropriate for the future of European Jewry. To an American this sounds like a very strange argument, since American Jewry passed through an analogous version of that phase years ago. But this is a very serious business in Europe and represents the basis of a very serious controversy.
The controversy has reached its pitch in France, where the secularist argument is strongly advocated by Diane Pinto and her colleagues, and is equally vociferously opposed by people like Shmuel Trigano, a Jewish political philosopher who represents a modern Orthodox point of view. The Pinto group has found allies in England, particularly at the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, formerly the Institute for Jewish Affairs, now headed by Antony Lerman, the successor to the late Stephen Roth who directed the IJA for years. The Institute has divorced itself from the World Jewish Congress, which has established its own institute in Jerusalem, and has entered into a new partnership with the American. Jewish Committee. This alliance has the advantage of tying together major forces in those two previously isolationist Jewries in a common front that is making its ideas felt throughout Europe.
Those ideas are particularly significant because any effort to suggest that Jewish continuity in Europe, as elsewhere, depends upon at least a degree of Jewish exclusiveness-in defining who is a Jew, in the organized activities of Jewish life, and in issues of marriage and the family-is strongly rejected by the secularist alliance as trying to isolate Jews from the European mainstream. It is as if people are saying “now that we have made it in Europe, we are not about to pull out of anything for any reason.” This new commitment to total acceptance is reminiscent of European Jews in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, after the first acts of emancipation when so many shed their Judaism altogether so that they would not be restricted, given the new opportunities that seemed to present themselves.
The impact of this essentially Western European struggle on Eastern European Jewry is unclear. On one hand, the openness and lack of clear boundaries as to who is Jewish and who is not, advocated by the secularists, appeals to them because it more closely matches their situation than the religionists’ views that there have to be some traditional boundaries to maintain the Jewish people. On the other hand, the Eastern Europeans have gone through the idea that Jews would simply be accepted if they did not stand out. They “have been there and done that” and still have found that they either stand out or are perceived to stand out. Thus they are less likely to be attracted by that line of argument.
They may be more open to something that has barely existed in most of Europe in the past, namely, religious but non-Orthodox Judaism. Except for German Reform and Hungarian Neolog communities, there have been no really successful non-Orthodox religious movements in Europe. In general, those who have maintained their religious connection but were lax or informal in their observance, believed that they could find their places in traditional congregations, which indeed were quite relaxed about enforcing private standards of observance, contenting themselves with a traditional public standard.
One hundred years ago and more this led to the secession of the forefathers of today’s haredim, the fervently Orthodox. The latter would use collective pressure to maintain both public and private standards even in the mainstream communities. In our times the haredim are rapidly encroaching on or taking over the mainstream Orthodox communities, leaving not only the less privately observant but many modern Orthodox out of the picture. Indeed, there has been a modest counteroffensive launched by the modern Orthodox, at least in France. How this new energetic force of Eastern European Jews will fit into the overall pattern is not yet clear. What is clear, however, is that non-Orthodox religious congregations have been organized successfully by indigenous initiative, and without serious assistance from the world movements.
In describing the character of European Jewry in the post-Communist era one has to avoid the temptation to describe it as bringing with it both problems and opportunities. The truth is that the Jews of the Free World were surprised and gratified by the level of basic Jewish identification to emerge in the former Communist countries. At the same time they were not really attuned to the problems of determining who is a Jew in those countries and among those who emigrated. They certainly were not equipped to deal with the problem even if they recognized it.
Jewish activists in the Free World undoubtedly believed that there was no future for Jewish life in those countries, even if Jews were free to pursue their Jewishness; they expected that all who wanted to remain Jewish would leave as rapidly as possible, principally for Israel. Few expected significant numbers of Jews to prefer to stay in those countries which, after all, had been countries of persecution, at least to some degree, under the previous regime, and with the intention of building a Jewish life for themselves where they were. That is what we find throughout the region. In that connection, I suspect that few expected the frenzy of self-organization that took place as soon as it was opportune, and the number of Jews previously in hiding or disguise who appeared on the scene.
What all this means is that suddenly European Jewry has a source of energy of the kind that it has not had for generations. But, like all contemporary Jewish sources, it is a flawed source, whose energy consists of a will, but whose bearers do not possess the tools to exercise that will effectively. It is under such circumstances that historic revolutions are made.
The Jews began to enter the Western world as full partners at the very beginning of the modern epoch in the seventeenth century. The destruction of European Jewry was one of the benchmarks of the collapse of that epoch. One of the markers of the opening of the postmodern epoch was the establishment of the State of Israel, and one of the main features of the first generation of that epoch was the Cold War struggle that pitted, inter alia, Zionism against Communism.
That struggle, too, has been won. What is emerging from it is a Jewry that is about to make another revolution in Judaism, and in the process reshape the Jewish people.