Rabbi Jair Melchior, 32, is the latest in a long line of chief rabbis. His grandfather and great-grandfather were each the chief rabbi of Denmark, and his father, former member of Knesset Rabbi Michael Melchior, served as chief rabbi of Norway. The younger Rabbi Melchior, who was brought up in Israel, currently serves as chief rabbi of Denmark, a country that is home to 6,000 to 10,000 Jews. He will participate via Skype in a forum on the future of European Jewry at Toronto’s Beth Tikvah Congregation on April 26. He spoke to The CJN by telephone.
Do you think there is a future for Jews in Europe?
There is a future for Jews in Europe. I believe they will want to stay. We have today Jews all over the world. There is no reason to see Jewish existence in Europe disappear. It won’t be as in the past, of course, going back to the glorious past of European Jewry. I find that very hard to imagine. But Jewish life in Europe exists, and in some countries just as it did before.
Why are people questioning the future of European Jewry?
I think there is a mixture of a few things. First of all, people remember a time where European Jewry was much more important and larger. So they see it goes down and think it will disappear, and that’s not the necessary conclusion.
After the Holocaust, many Jews left. But we also see the opposite: Jews moving back to Germany and Jews moving around Europe.
The other thing is that all the talk about anti-Semitism and attacks against Jews blames Muslim immigrants, but it’s very dangerous and very wrong of people to talk this way. We recognize that there is a problem and a danger, but it is still not very high. The vast majority of Muslims in Europe are not a danger to Jews in any way. When we look at numbers of Muslims and conclude that they will all be against Europe and against the Jews, I think this represents a mix of prejudice and fear that doesn’t have a connection to real life in Europe.
So the problems facing Jews in Europe are both internal – Jews don’t want to practise Judaism – and external, discrimination or intimidation?
I think the main challenge for Jewish life in Europe is the interest to continue Jewish life. You have in some countries, more than others, assimilation, but there are many places where young people have become active. I just don’t see a reason to paint a complete picture of all of Europe. Yes, there are challenges, but there are challenges to all Jewish communities, including in the United States. Some challenges have to do with security, some challenges have to do with Jewish identity.
I think the main thing has to do with how Jewish identity will be stronger. It’s a challenge of choice. People can actually choose to be Jews. In the past, no one asked Jews if they wanted to be Jews or not.
What is the situation for Jews in Denmark?
The main challenge is the identity challenge. How will it be part of Jewish children’s lives in the future? The generations have changed. We don’t have as many religious people as before. Many of the strong families who helped the community for the last 200 to 300 years have left Denmark for Israel. But you have a lot of Jews who have stayed here. It means it will change the way the community looks. Where it will go, I’m not sure.
The very big issue we have here is circumcision. I don’t see a ban happening in the near future. It is a danger that if something like this happens, it will threaten the existence of the Jewish community here.
Why is this being raised? And aren’t there also some European countries that have banned schchitah?
In Denmark, they did that last year, but we didn’t have shchitah before, because we are too small a community. We import our meat.
The reason is a lot of secularization of Europe. People can’t understand how religion can be so important in people’s lives. They see circumcision as a religious rite that contradicts the free will of the child. People need to have a deeper understanding of what religious freedom is. We don’t have many politicians who want to ban circumcision, because they understand the issue in a way that normal people in the street can’t.
We hear that many Jews are planning to leave France. They don’t see a future for themselves in Europe.
The French situation is very different than the Danish one. The French Jews are much more traditional and Sephardi-oriented. They are much less assimilated than in Denmark. There is a much larger Muslim community in France. It’s around 10 to 11 per cent of the population.
There’s a lot of talk about immigration, but the numbers don’t support this talk so much. Also, no one talks about Jews who come back to France, who move to Israel for a few years and who find out how difficult it is to live economically and who move back to France. This also exists, and the numbers are surprisingly large.
So, it exists, but much less than people talk about in the media.
Isn’t there a reason for reports of French Jews leaving – the Charlie Hebdo massacre, the kosher supermarket attack, the killings in Toulouse?
We also had an attack in Denmark two months ago.
So is this not something that worries the average French Jew and leads them to consider leaving Europe?
There are people who think about it, but it doesn’t make up as big a part of people’s lives as it seems. In France, have been quite a few attacks in the last few years, but it’s still more dangerous to be in Israel. You could be hit by a terror attack.
So are you saying that people’s fears are not rational?
You have people with some fear. I just lost a friend. I know the real danger that exists here, but it exists everywhere else in the world. The numbers are not that high, if you look back in history.
But isn’t the trend pretty bad for the Jews? Twenty years ago, no one was talking about leaving western Europe?
In Denmark over the last few decades, the number of Jews who have left has gone down.
There is a change happening here, and it’s happening in the rest of Europe. It’s coming to a new balance. I’m not sure what will happen in the future, but I don’t see a reason to say Jews will disappear or anything like that, definitely not because of terrorism. There have been attacks on Jews over the last 50 years. We had an attack on the synagogue in 1985 in Paris. It’s not a new phenomenon in Europe that Jews are attacked, but it happens much less than in the far past.
There are reports that Jews can’t walk wearing a kippah in some neighbourhoods without being threatened, spit upon and insulted, and they don’t feel safe.
I think people exaggerate. I go with a kippah everywhere. More people go today with a kippah eveywhere than 40 years ago. It’s not that you don’t have rising attacks, cursing and spitting and hitting. These things happen, yes. But these are things that can change when social conditions change. The majority of these attacks are in difficult neighbourhoods with social problems. When these problems are solved, the violence will disappear, too.
Usually, the people who perpetrate these attacks are youngsters who just want to pick on someone, so they pick on homosexuals, on Jews or whomever they can see who is different.
And you have a specific problem with people from Palestinian backgrounds who have a deep hatred of Zionism, and they combine Zionism and Judaism. If you solve the situation in the Middle East between Palestinians and Israel, the same day you will solve the problem of anti-Semitism in Europe. The same day.
What is the situation of Jews in Germany?
Germany has had the fastest growing Jewish community in the world over the last 20 years. You have 20,000 Israelis living in Berlin. And you have Jews from other places moving to Germany. It’s a rising Jewish community. In Europe, people move around. It happens all over Europe.
Does the European media’s coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict play a role in people’s attitudes to Jews in Europe?
It does. It’s one of those things that many people are angry about. There’s a lot of anti-Israel sentiment. In Denmark it’s better than in other countries. It comes from a very deep human rights point of view.
The Scandinavian countries were also the most supportive for Israel in the beginning, because they are so occupied about human rights issues. They became very anti-Israel because of the conflict with the Palestinians. They take the Palestinian side, usually, and that’s an issue in Scandinavia.
Does that spill over into anti-Jewish attitudes?
From the Muslim community, it does. They don’t make a distinction.
So your overall message is…?
There will be incidents, but Jewish life will continue in Europe.
This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity.