A version of this article appeared in the Ottawa Citizen, April 20, 1997 

Vanishing Diaspora: The Jews in Europe since 1945 By Bernard Wasserstein

Penguin Books, 1997; 332 pages; $15.99

The Vanishing American Jew: In Search of Jewish Identity for the Next Century By Alan M. Dershowitz Little, Brown & Co.; 396 pages; $33.95

On the Jewish calen- dar, it is the year 5757. It has been well over three thousand years that Passover has been celebrated. But this Passover, which begins Monday night and ends on 29 April, may be one of the last celebrated in the Diaspora by a wide range of secular and religious Jews in a way that draws them together.

Passover marks the liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. In the Jewish tradition, this was the first step for Jews, both as individuals and as a nation, in discovering their mission to be `a holy people’, bound by law. They were freed from serving Pharaoh in order to better serve God.

According to two recent books, Vanishing Diaspora by Bernard Wasserstein and The Vanishing American Jew by Alan M. Dershowitz, many of today’s Jews have lost this sense of connectedness and common mission. Their commitment to maintaining Jewish traditions and identity has been weakened. This loss has drastic effects on Jews outside of Israel. Both books foretell the end of the Diaspora as we know it in Europe and America.

The books, though different in style and presentation, are based on some of the same perceptions and demographic realities. In every country outside of Israel, the birth rate of Jews, except among the Orthodox and Hasidim, has fallen below the replacement level of 2.1 births per woman.

In the western world, Jews have become more and more integrated and accepted in the countries where they live. According to both authors, they face the risk of disappearing, not because of persecution, but because of the openness of these western societies. Jews are threatened by intermarriage and assimilation rather than oppression and physical annihilation.

The book by Mr Wasserstein, a British-born scholar who is president of the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, is intended to be a history of European Jews since the Second World War. It describes the broad sweep of events across Europe after World War II and traces the movement of Jewish refugees as well as the evolution of communities in Eastern and Western Europe. The section on Jewish displaced persons after the war is particularly informative.

The creation of Israel and its subsequent wars served to strengthen Jews in their identity and their link to other Jews. In Western Europe, this tended to make communities more active and united, while in Eastern Europe it also tended to fuel state-sponsored anti-Semitism masked as anti-Zionism.

In Mr Wasserstein’s view, these developments in Eastern Europe were the coup de grace delivered to Jewish communities already decimated by the Holocaust. They stimulated the mass departure of Jews from Eastern Europe, a process continuing today with the reappearance of older forms of anti-Semitism in countries newly emerging out of the dissolution of the Soviet empire.

Mr Wasserstein examines the resurgence of right-wing nationalism in Western Europe, particularly in Germany and Austria. Both phenomena in Eastern and Western Europe are also analysed in The Extreme Right: Freedom and Security at Risk, edited by Aurel Braun and Stephen Scheinberg and published by Westview Press in 1997.

Yet these are not seen as the main threats to Jews. Mr Wasserstein is most concerned by the dissolution of established communities because of an apparent loss of will to continue: ` … would disappearance by murder and emigration in Eastern Europe be matched in the West by dissolution into a society that killed by kindness?’

The demographic losses are particularly striking for Great Britain, but the trend is similar in all countries for which the author gives statistics, except in Spain and Germany, where there has been a resurgence in numbers, based primarily on immigration.

For Mr Wasserstein, the dissolution `is already advanced on at least three fronts’:

- With the Holocaust emigration, assimilation and low fertility rates, there will likely remain little more than one million Jews in Europe after the year 2000.

- Judaism is withering away `as a spiritual presence in the daily lives of most Jews of Europe.’ There is less observance of Judaism, except among the orthodox and the Hasidim, where Mr Wasserstein sees it as rigid and traditional.

- There is no more `authentic Jewish culture in Europe’. Both Yiddish (the German-based language of Ashkenazi Jews) and Ladino (the Spanish-based language of the Sephardi Jews) have almost disappeared. Jews now overwhelmingly speak the language of the country in which they live. They participate in the secular culture and the arts not as members of the Jewish people with a distinct culture but as individuals. Their contributions are part of the secular tradition.

Mr Wasserstein throws out one thin lifeline to the future. He quotes French author Richard Marienstras, who in his book Etre un peuple en diaspora calls for a revival of interest by secular Jews in Hebrew, Yiddish, Jewish history and `a cultural politics of the Diaspora’.

This lifeline is obviously a frail one in his view. He ends the book by describing the disappearance of the Chinese Jews of Kai-feng after 800 years and notes that the Jews of Europe face a similar fate. `Slowly but surely they are fading away. Soon nothing will be left save a disembodied memory.’

The ultimate cause? `If the Jews of Europe do, in the end, disappear, it will be because, as a collectivity, they lost the will to live.’

This depressing conclusion to an otherwise interesting and worthwhile book is too much like an elegy to the departed. But it is perhaps more pessimistic than it needs to be. The Jews of Eastern Europe have escaped the graveyard of their people. In part, the mass emigration from there was driven by economic and political variables. In part, however, there was a reawakening of Jewish consciousness among those who were pressing to leave, especially in the Soviet Union.

The Jewish life of those who remain is threatened not only by demography but by economic and social chaos that continues to hover at the edges of the new Russia and some other Eastern European countries. There is good reason to leave.

Meanwhile, in countries like Poland, anti-Semitism does not currently have any political impact. Anti-Semitic parties were shut out in the last election and the supposedly Jewish origins of one of the candidates caused hardly a ripple, unlike in the previous election.

The economy is improving and some reports indicate that Jews who did not officially identify themselves in the past are coming out. There are 5,000 mostly ageing people who are `officially’ Jewish. When I was in Warsaw in 1995, I was given estimates of those with less formal Jewish connections ranging from 15,000 to 40,000. As one Jewish leader confided, however, the challenge is to find what unites these people in some common interest and to build a community.

There may be similar challenges in the Czech Republic and Hungary, the two other most westernized countries of the former Soviet bloc. And there are two growing populations of Jews in Germany and Spain. What can be done to keep this momentum going? For the countries of Western Europe, it may also then be too early to despair. It is certainly too early to despair for the Jews of America.

Alan Dershowitz’s analysis of the problems facing Jews in the liberal democracy of the United States is similar to that of Mr Wasserstein, but Mr Dershowitz’s book is much more detailed on this theme and his style of presentation more dynamic and forward looking.

Mr Dershowitz is a professor at Harvard law school, the author of best-sellers such as Chutzpah and a well-known criminal defence lawyer. In The Vanishing American Jew, his style is eclectic and repetitive. He hammers home his points in a way some readers will find annoying; in his introduction, he uses the word `positive’ over and over again in connection with Jewish values and identity. He is emphasizing his point that Jews must now go beyond `negative’ reasons for staying Jewish: resisting destruction, oppression and discrimination. They must affirm a clear set of values to attract Jewish youth and keep all Jews actively engaged in living out their Jewishness.

Mr Dershowitz’s presentation can also be seen as a secular version of a Talmudic format. He constantly intersperses his arguments with personal stories and Jewish jokes. He asks questions, then answers them. At some points it is not clear if the effects are intentional or just the result of sloppy editing. On one page, he uses the word `Certainly’ to start three sentences just a few lines apart.

Many will find that the humour of the jokes and the passion of the delivery outweigh the negatives. Once past the introduction, the book makes for engrossing reading.

Mr Dershowitz tries to show that the fight against institutional anti-Semitism has been won in the United States. The Middle East peace process, if it reaches its goal, will establish Israel within secure boundaries at peace with its neighbours. The external threats to the Jewish people will have been met.

Jews in America now face the internal threats of dissension and assimilation. The Tsuris (Yiddish for troubles or worries) theory of Jewish survival will no longer apply. Jews will not be faced by enemies but by success in a secular world, with no barriers to their assimilation into the surrounding society. How will they survive as a people?

Mr Dershowitz points out that current anti-Semitism is manifested mostly at the margins of society, among groups of disadvantaged and disenchanted, those who start from powerlessness, who are seeking to empower themselves by attacking the Jews. White racists and black bigots are both seeking to establish a following by attacking `the establishment’. Since, as Mr Dershowitz shows, many Jews have succeeded in America, they are perceived as a part of the establishment that one can attack more easily.

This is a far cry, however, from the institutionalized racism that Jews faced in the past. These groups may distribute anti-Semitic leaflets and take violent action, but they do not reach a broad audience and they do not prevent Jews from living their daily lives or from succeeding socially, culturally and economically. Indeed, Mr Dershowitz sees the Christian Right as more of a danger to a diverse Jewish community, even when their motive is not anti-Semitic but `pro-Christian’. If they succeed in imposing their view of America as a Christian state, then other minorities will lose their equality. But as Mr Dershowitz notes, the Christian Right has not garnered wide support when the issue has been clearly formulated as one of separation of church and state, a concept that has deep and strong roots in American democracy.

The threat comes not from these quarters but from the incapacity of Jews to reproduce themselves as a vibrant community. Only the Hasidim and Orthodox have birth rates that would lead to an increase in their numbers. In the future, it is the descendants of these groups who will dominate the Jewish landscape in America.

For Mr Dershowitz, it is the diversity and pluralism in American Jewish life that make it valuable. He urges the more secular Jews and the less orthodox to take a greater hand in learning about their Jewish heritage and in setting the agenda. Jews must be more open to intermarriage and feel less threatened by it. As part of the mainstream, they must be prepared to become `less tribal, less ethnocentric. … less defensive, etc.’ They must give up being only `victims’.

Mr Dershowitz is looking for a new Jewish leadership that supplements the traditional rabbinic and political leadership of the community. Most of all, they need educators who can inspire and who can reach out beyond the letter of ancient law, which Mr Dershowitz feels is too inaccessible, too constraining and too limited for most of today’s American Jews. Mr Dershowitz proposes Jews promote excellence in Jewish education and the Jewish

Moreover, he thinks Jews should not be afraid of extending their appeal. Jewish schools should be open to all who wish to pursue this excellence and this knowledge. But above all, American Jews need to educate themselves about their traditions and their values, the origins of their cultures and civilizations.

Can we accept Mr Dershowitz’s analysis and prescriptions? In Canada, the Jewish community is considered to be a decade or so `behind’ in its evolution as a North American community. It is certainly different in some ways from the picture that Mr Dershowitz paints. Intermarriage rates are lower. Canada’s Jewish population grew between 1981 and 1991 (primarily through immigration), according to analyses of 1991 census data by Jim Torczyner and others. Studies have also highlighted a greater involvement of Canadian Jews in both community and religion than their American counterparts. Furthermore, Canadian Jews are much more concentrated geographically than American Jews and have not dispersed throughout the country. To the contrary, latest trends show an even greater concentration in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and Ottawa. Mr Dershowitz would argue this means Canada’s Jews will simply face the same challenges a little later.

But there are some other caveats one should add into the mix. While Mr Dershowitz claims to show that Jews have `arrived’ in American society, statistics from Canada indicate that Jewish poverty is also growing. As with other Canadians, the gap between rich and poor is widening.

This is a not unlikely reality in the United States as well. Mr Dershowitz may be mistaken in assuming the continuing wealth of the Jewish community. This has an effect on fund raising and the capacity of Jews to maintain their own institutions, secular or otherwise.

In addition, Mr Dershowitz’s arguments may not be as good as his math. Using the figures from the graph he presents in his book, one can conclude that 1,000 Jews today will have offspring numbering some 6,000 in four generations–but 5,000 will be descendants of the Hasidim. On the one hand, even Mr Dershowitz concedes that Hasidim are Jewish, so how can one claim that Jews will disappear? On the other hand, over a period of four generations, even the offspring of Hasidim may become less orthodox. So the diversity of the fourth generation is likely to be much greater than Mr Dershowitz claims.

Furthermore, it is disingenuous to claim that Jews have never before been accepted by the establishment in any other Diaspora country as they are in America. Their early acceptance by Polish nobility did them no good in the eyes of the Polish, White Russian and Ukrainian peasants over whom the nobility ruled. On the contrary. We cannot assume that the current establishment in either the United States or Canada is permanent or that it cannot be influenced from below.

Finally, in many ways, Mr Dershowitz’s program for the future is an adapted `Bundist’ approach to the Diaspora. The Bund was a Jewish socialist party of Poland, Lithuania and Russia which held that Eastern European Jews constituted a people with their own Yiddish culture and language beyond purely religious ties. It had very strong support among the Jews of Eastern Europe and was seen as a strong competitor to both religious Jews and Zionists. The Holocaust destroyed the Bundists’ dream of a Yiddish secular life in Europe. Mr Dershowitz is proposing an American version of this program and like the Bundists puts many of his hopes in secular education about Jewish history, culture and traditions.

This proposal is very similar to the thin lifeline that Mr Wasserstein throws out to the future and about which he himself has doubts. It is an idea he calls `neo-Bundist’.

In the end one must agree with Mr Dershowitz that there is no single path that will guarantee the survival of the Jewish people. But when there is work to do, humans must do it. `God helps those who help themselves.’ Those who wish to take up the monumental task must follow multiple paths to maintain and help evolve the Jewish tradition, through religion, through ethics and working for justice in the world, and through connection with Israel.

Mr Wasserstein’s book was first published by Hamish Hamilton in 1996. The Penguin softcover has just been published. It is the more scholarly and objective work. But for inspiration and motivation for the future, I prefer Mr Dershowitz’s chutzpah and passion to the quiet resignation and wistful sympathy of Mr Wasserstein. Pass the matzah please.