It is a warm Monday morning in Rome, and the city’s ancient ghetto resembles an armed camp. As carabinieri line the streets, a cloud of melancholy hangs in the air: not only had more than 1,400 Jews recently been slaughtered in Israel, but the date — October 16 — marks the anniversary of its residents forced evacuation to the concentration camps. History, it seems, is repeating itself.
Despite the unconscionable parallels, however, and regardless of the prevalence of Kosher restaurants and carciofi alla giudia, little in the ghetto is as it was. Few Jews, amid Italy’s population of less than 50,000, live there. The same can be said of almost every European city. After the Holocaust, most Jews, as historian Paul Johnson observed, “accepted oppression and second-class status” outside of the ghetto in return for being left alone.
To some extent, life in America was more welcoming; as far back as 1790, George Washington, writing to the Touro Synagogue in Rhode Island, went beyond upholding tolerance to embracing full citizenship as part of “their inherent natural rights”. Today, however, that credo is being called into question. Here, as in Europe, the great period of Jewish influence and efflorescence that started a century ago may be peaking. The result, once dismissed as inconceivable, is that the allure of a more separate existence, a ghetto of the spirit, may start to grow.
For now, the golden era of Jewish achievement still twinkles, but only just. Jews remain inordinately celebrated in the arts and sciences; both the Tony Award in 2023 and the Pulitzer for fiction the year before went to writers covering, somewhat obsessively, Jewish themes. The list of Jewish Nobel prize winners has also expanded since the War, constituting well over 20% of the total.
Yet such achievements cannot mask the fact that the Jewish Century is rapidly fading. On the surface, Jewish life, both inside and outside the diaspora, may seem unassailable. But just as terrorists were able to breach Israel’s supposedly impenetrable defences, the forces of antisemitism have penetrated Western society, as young, educated progressives, including a few Jews, make common cause with Hamas and its allies.
Continuing demographic retreat isn’t helping. After the war’s end, 3.8 million European Jews remained; today, there are barely 1.5 million. Even the last great redoubts of Jewish life are threatened by assimilation and the pernicious new hybrid that joins Leftist and Islamist hatred. Nearly 50,000 Jews have left France since 2000, mostly for Israel, the United States and Canada. With no likely source of new immigration, it’s difficult to envision how the country’s Jewish population will ever grow again. Likewise Eastern Europe, once the centre of the Jewish world with its 8 million Jews, is home to fewer than 400,000 today. Indeed, the only place there seems to be growth is among the orthodox — a community that may not live in official ghettos, but is still in inwardly focused and defensively minded areas.
What is driving this retreat? In political terms, at least, many Jews across the West feel abandoned, particularly by their traditional allies on the Left. In France, for instance, the Left’s most prominent figure, Jean Luc Melenchon, not only openly supports Hamas but has emphasised the role of Jews in the killing of Christ. In Germany, anti-Israel protesters have been targeting Jewish homes, firebombing synagogues and, according to German intelligence officers, calling for a second Kristallnacht.
This antisemitic revival may be less developed in America, but places that were once friendly to Jews, such as Brooklyn, now suffer anti-Israel riots not too different from those in Europe’s banlieues. As in Europe, it’s the Left that cheers on these demonstrations. Almost all the US representatives who voted against or refused to take a stand supporting Israel came from the Left, and it was at a rally organised by the Democratic Socialists of America that a speaker crowed about how Hamas had killed some “hipsters” partying the desert. None of this is surprising, of course. Progressive groups such as Black Lives Matter have a long history of support for Hamas, while their charter labels Israel’s treatment of the West Bank as “genocide” and “apartheid”.
Now, one could easily place the blame for such bigotry on the universities that provided the oxygen for these ideas to grow. For years, students felt it was acceptable to ban kosher food and promote anti-Israel views, often with the help of generous funding from Muslim-majority states such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Few who had been on campus in recent years were surprised when numerous groups at elite Ivy schools such as Harvard openly celebrated Hamas’s pogrom, or when one Cornell professor called it “exhilarating”.
But it would be unfair to blame all this on Arab machinations; the problem clearly runs deeper. Ten days after Hamas’s attack, for instance, a poll found that 51% of adults under 35 disapproved of the United States’ sending weapons and military support to Israel — a steep shift from the 28% of Americans who oppose such a policy. In the minds of many young Americans, there is, at best, a moral equivalency between Hamas and Israel.
And as protecting Jews increasingly becomes less of a priority, the very nature of Jewish identity will evolve with it. We could, for instance, see a Jewish future that is mostly Israeli, much as the French sociologist Georges Friedman foresaw a half century ago in The End of the Jewish People. He predicted that, over time, most diaspora Jews would melt into their host populations, Judaism largely merging with the Israeli identity, with the exception of scattered pockets of orthodox believers. Indeed, already close to a majority of all Jewish children live in Israel which, could become, by 2030, the home to a majority of all Jews for the first time since early antiquity.
Outside of Israel, though, as diaspora populations reduce in size or suffer greater harassment, we could also see the revival of a new kind of Jewish ghetto that is inward-looking and focused largely on survival in a harsh environment. The rise of orthodox populations could hasten this movement, with a greater emphasis on community-based security and welfare. It wouldn’t necessarily be as miserably constrained as Rome’s enclave, but it would provide protection from a largely hostile, or indifferent, population.
Yet there may be a more favourable, more inspiring scenario, as Jews rally to Israel’s cause and seek to defend their college-age offspring. It is not inconceivable that the rise of antisemitism, on campuses and the streets, may convince some that being Jewish is about more than indulging in family lore or traditional foods. Instead, they may embrace an identity worth preserving, even as the centre of Jewish life moves to the eastern Mediterranean. After all, the survival of the diaspora has always been built around Martin Buber’s notion of creating “a vocation of uniqueness”.
How this manifests itself will always vary, though it inevitably means standing up to antisemites on both Left and Right. We can already see how this looks in the US, as a number of Jewish donors line up to withdraw their funding from Ivy colleges. Many pro-Hamas squad members are now also having trouble raising money, while progressive opposition to President Biden’s support for Israel could further separate the Hamas crowd from the mainstream of the Democratic Party.
Ultimately, however, Jewish survival, particularly in the diaspora, will always depend on the next generation, both Jews and Gentiles alike. Here, we can find some encouragement in the increase in support for Israel, even among young people and Democrats, following Hamas’s attack. Today, nearly 70% support Israel during this crisis — a striking reversal of a long-term trend that has seen Americans, particularly on the Left, sympathise more with the Palestinian cause.
Yet the battle is far from won and, as Israel’s armed response grows, this trend could itself peak. Even current surveys find more support for Hamas among younger people, at least until they turn 25. The only positive here is that their worldview largely stems from ignorance: most people under 25 think Israel, not Hamas, has controlled Gaza over the past decade.
In such a world, the challenge for the Jewish community, particularly the new generation, is to convince ourselves, as well as our Gentile neighbours, that the continued Jewish presence is a blessing not just to itself, but to the many countries we still hope to call home. This is the fight that awaits — and restoring the ghetto is not the answer.