Daniel Hannan is an MEP for South-East England, and a journalist, author and broadcaster. His most recent book is How we invented Freedom and why it matters.
Last week, a Jerusalem-based think-tank made a startling announcement: after three-quarters of a century, there are now as many Jews alive as there were before 1940. The idea that it has taken so long to recover from the Shoah is sobering enough; but, as demographers have since pointed out, even these statistics are over-optimistic. The global Jewish population peaked at 16.6 million in 1939. The Einsatzgruppen and the death camps reduced that number – familiarity has muffled the shock of this statistic more than it ought to have done – to less than 11 million. Today, there are 14.2 million self-identifying Jews in the world. The Jewish People Policy Institute reached the higher number by including those covered by Israel’s Law of Return – that is, people with a Jewish parent or grandparent and their spouses.
Obliteration on this scale is impossible to visualise. Our brains, evolved on the savannahs of Pleistocene Africa, can’t compute such losses. Our vocabulary is inadequate to the enormity. Perhaps the closest we can come is to reckon the cultural cost to the continent where the abominations took place.
It is difficult, nowadays, to recapture the intellectual atmosphere of early twentieth century Europe. Music, philosophy and physics were, if not exactly Jewish disciplines, certainly so dependent on their Jewish practitioners that, unlike the global Jewish population, they never properly bounced back. Across large parts of the Old World, academic and literary life had been carried on in the German language by Jewish thinkers. Civilisation, in every sense, was extirpated in the camps.
One of the few practising philosophers who can remember the intellectual ambience of pre-war Europe is George Steiner, who left France as a child on the last boat to New York before the Nazis invaded in 1940. More than half a century ago, Steiner advanced the troublingly plausible thesis that, in losing its Jews, Europe had lost its soul.
Perhaps not all Europe. Antwerp, for example, has at least partly recovered its old feel. Its Jewish population was almost wholly destroyed during the horror, but the Flemish city was afterwards re-colonised, so to speak, from East London, many of whose Jewish inhabitants had family origins there. Paris, which stood by as its Jews were deported and murdered, attracted a different Jewish population from North Africa during the postwar unrest in the Maghreb. Go further east, though, and you find only what Steiner once called “ghosts and ash”.
By chance, the day after the JPPI report was published, I was watching Fiddler on the Roof at Grange Park Opera, one of the gems of my Home Counties constituency. Grange Park is set in the kind of countryside that English expatriates see in their homesick visions, and stages superb performances without receiving a penny from the taxpayer. It does so partly because of generous private sponsorship, led by that patriotic philanthropist Michael Spencer; and partly because its visionary Chief Executive, Wasfi Kani, understands the difference between quality and attention-seeking, and commissions productions that are traditional without being stale.
When Fiddler on the Roof was first performed in the 1960s, critics were a little snooty. It was, they wrote, too middlebrow, too cute, too culturally specific. Philip Roth called it “shtetl kitsch”. In fact, the musical makes George Steiner’s argument, recalling the civilization whose eradication drained vast regions of Europe. Its protagonist, the milkman Tevye, torn between religious identity and practical need, embodies the dialectic (“on the other hand… on the other hand…”) At the end of the Grange Park production, as the Jewish population trudged into forced exile, the audience was left looking at a backdrop of sterile winter steppes: Europe emptied, Europe dispirited, Europe inanimate.
The point surely doesn’t need labouring, not now. As anti-Semitic violence returns to the Old Continent, the Sephardic Jews who repopulated France are leaving in droves. Europe may this time be left truly soulless.
The Anglosphere, thank God, has known a happier story. Its Jewish population, unusually, grew after the Second World War, especially in Canada and South Africa. Anti-Semitism was not unknown in English-speaking societies, of course; but attitudes were very different. In his monumental History of the Jews, Paul Johnson made a convincing case that, prior to the settlement of North America, Britain was the best place in the world to be Jewish. This state of affairs had partly come about, paradoxically, because England’s Jewish population had been expelled during the thirteenth century, and so was not specifically recognised in the legal system. Laws were codified in the rest of Europe at a time when courts were largely ecclesiastical, and claimed no jurisdiction over non-Christians. Jews were therefore placed in a separate legal category, opening the door to centuries of discrimination and maltreatment.
When Jews returned to England under Cromwell, by contrast, they found themselves in the same legal position as other non-Anglicans, subject only to the relatively mild restrictions faced by, say, Baptists or Catholics. These impositions were fitfully imposed, and were scrapped altogether in the early nineteenth century at a time when – to put things in context – the Spanish Inquisition was still operative.
From Cromwell to Churchill, from Daniel Deronda to the sponsoring of a Jewish state, the English-speaking world has had a Philo-Semitic tradition that finds little echo in neighbouring lands. Perhaps it has something to do with attracting the same sorts of enemy, not least those Continental autocrats of Left and Right who complained that Anglo-Saxon culture, like Jewish culture, was too individualist and materialist.
I realise this is a controversial line to take. To celebrate the presence of Jews in the Anglosphere as Jews, rather than just as individuals, strikes some people as racist. The Guardian columnist Hadley Freeman, who is normally rather brilliant, recently wrote a graceless column attacking Louise Mensch for calling herself Philo-Semitic. I can just about see her point. A common reaction to the Holocaust is to conclude that any acknowledgment of national or racial characteristics, however complimentary, risks a renewal of bigotry. Yet, as Steven Pinker shows in The Blank Slate, this attitude, though understandable, is misplaced. The correct response to racial or religious prejudice is not to say “There are no ethnic characteristics”; rather, it is to say “Treating individuals unfavourably on ethnic grounds is morally unacceptable”.
The Anglosphere never suffered the devastating civilizational loss that most of Europe did in the 1930s and 1940s. Our long-settled Jewish populations make Britain a wealthier, more inventive, freer country.
The thought of European Jews being pushed into emigration in our own age is depressing beyond words. Still, we may take some small comfort in the fact that several émigrés are, again, choosing to come to English-speaking countries. As Tevye might put it: “On the other hand… there is no other hand!”