PARIS – From the Turkish protests in Istanbul to the French anti gay-marriage protests, and from euthanasia rights to fledgling forms of participatory democracy, it is difficult to ignore the growing aspirations of Europeans toward autonomy and freedom of choice. This new individualization dynamic is silently revolutionizing European values.
Individualization is the the power to decide for oneself what is good and what is bad. It is beginning to touch all major aspects of life. For example, the family model has greatly evolved, especially in Western Europe, where traditional marriage now co-exists more peacefully with freely chosen relationships between individuals. The relationship toward work has also evolved, by embracing meritocracy wherein qualitative and quantitative expectations are combined. And work is not just about earning a good salary but also about allowing people to fulfill themselves.
These days, sociability is more about affinity, with each person seeking to develop a network of relationships according to their preferences rather than out of social obligation. The same goes for political values: The big ideological divisions are weakening, but on the other hand political protests – such as petitions and demonstrations – are on the rise. Religion is less and less central in the structuring of values. Though religious beliefs have not disappeared, they are wavering and “a-la-carte.”
A recent comprehensive survey of European values asked Europeans from 47 countries and regions about family, work, religious, political and societal values.
The study showed that individual choice and control over their lives were considered essential for Europeans. But individualization has to be distinguished from individualism, which consists of prioritizing one’s personal interest and not caring about others. While levels of individualism appear stable, individualization is on the rise – in particular the desire of each person to become autonomous, free from the constraints imposed by politics and institutions as well as from the pressures of social and family environments. Hence, individualization is compatible with values of tolerance toward others and being open to the world.
Levels of individualization are not the same throughout Europe. It is very present in the Scandinavian countries, in the Netherlands and France. In general, it is also prevalent in Western Europe – with the exception of Italy, Ireland and Portugal. But it is much less important to Eastern and Southern Europeans.
Individualization is strongly linked to economic factors and corresponds to the level of wealth in each country. In other words, the desire for autonomy is stronger when quality of life is higher and when people can develop qualitative aspirations because they are not struggling merely to live. Individualization is also correlated with domestic social spending. Protection against social risks – favored by economic development – can also contribute to the construction of individual autonomy.
The acceptance of suicide and euthanasia
Even if economic development is necessary for individualization to thrive, it is not the only factor. Other factors play a determinant role, including religion and culture. It is in Protestant countries that this trend is increasing more rapidly. Muslim and Orthodox countries, on the other hand, lag well behind.
Beyond the traditionally dominant religion in a country, the average level of piety – measured by 10 indicators of religious practice and beliefs – plays a huge role in the level of individualization. The more faithful people are, the less they desire autonomy. It is in the most secularized geographical zones of Europe that social liberty has progressed the most in past few years.
Religious and cultural factors – with a Protestant Europe in the north, dominantly Catholic in the center and in the south, mostly Orthodox in the east and Muslim in the southeast – influence not only the levels of social choice, but also other phenomena that are more or less related: civic responsibility and interest in public affairs; participation in political and community life. Trust in others and institutions are all more present in the north than in the south. The division between a tolerant West and a more traditional East also helps to explain why there is a more open view of the family model in the West.
Acceptance of suicide, euthanasia and adultery is also progressing in Western countries, whereas acceptance of liberal lifestyles is stagnating and even sometimes regressing in the East. The support of new kinds of relationships and couples is far less common in the South and the East, where the traditional marriage model remains very influential.
In general, the value systems of Europeans have evolved, and their desire for autonomy has led them to demand and compare different ways of living together. But these evolutions are happening at different speeds in each country. According to the survey, European values have not grown closer between 1981 and 2008.
The cultures of each country, which are profoundly tied to history, are evolving very slowly. And even if individuals aspire to more freedom of choice, they remain influenced by their social environment.
A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.
BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.
Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.
The incident at the cemetery
They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."
There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.
It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.
The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.
The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender
Crimes against Jews are rising
Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.
Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.
Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.
Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.
And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?
Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously
This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.
That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.
Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.
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