Ben Judah upends the myths about Europe

The British-French author and journalist's new book charts an 'indelibly altered' continent through the personal struggles of everyday Europeans, many of them immigrants

Alexandra Chan for the Jewish Chronicle

Ben Judah

In his day job at the Atlantic Council, a prominent foreign policy think tank based in Washington, D.C., Ben Judah, the British-French author and journalist, is widely recognized as a leading expert on all things Europe. In his recently published book, This Is Europe: The Way We Live Now, he embraces a different mode, abjuring political analysis in favor of a novelistic approach to illuminating — rather than simply explaining — a rapidly changing continent through the lens of its inhabitants.

The book, Judah’s third, is an impressionistic series of deeply personal profiles told through the eyes of his subjects, many of whom are refugees seeking new opportunities, to varying degrees of success and personal fulfillment, in all corners of Europe. Even as he acknowledges that there are “no politics” in the book, however, Judah, 35, still views his latest work — a five-year project — as exploring what he described as “a deeply political question.”

“People often ask me, ‘How is it that you work at a think tank and you’re just constantly telling us on Twitter what you think about politics’” and yet ‘“you’ve written a book in which you don’t have a single word of yourself in it?’” Judah said in a recent interview with Jewish Insider. “The answer is, I believe, that all of the great political philosophies — conservatism, liberalism, socialism — all of them, at their root, are moral questions about how should we live?”

Each of his subjects — ranging from a Syrian migrant in Berlin who finds his stride performing in drag to an overworked Romanian truck driver largely disenchanted by the promise of modern Europe — “are all asking themselves this question,” Judah said. “Is this the way we want to live now? Is the way that I’m living the way I want to live now?” The multitude of answers, he suggested, provide broader insight into the European condition as the continent is indelibly altered by climate change, technological advancements and war, among other things.

In composing the book, Judah also drew on a long-standing appreciation for Jewish texts — namely the Talmud, which informed his effort to triangulate a portrait of Europe with contrasting narratives. “I was very influenced by the principles of Talmud, where one of the key principles is that everything has to be looked at from another point of view again and again and again,” he explained. “With this book, we see the same phenomenon from two or three different points of view.”

His ultimate goal, he said, was to “challenge the reader” who may unconsciously have accepted certain stereotypes about Europe that he views as misguided. That includes what he described as “the growth of Islam as a European religion” and what it means “for the future of Europe’s Jews in this age.”

“A lot of what this book is, is about the new European Muslims and how they live and how they see Europe,” Judah added. “Even if it’s obviously true that Islam is a rapidly growing religion in Europe, it’s very important for us as Jews to recognize, as we would want people to recognize of ourselves, that that green color on the pie chart is not all the same thing. In fact, it’s lots of very, very different human experiences and people going in very different directions.”

In conversation with JI last week, Judah discussed his reporting process, how his own family’s immigration narrative informs the book, the challenges facing Europe’s Jews amid rising antisemitism and — in a possible hint at a future project — his hope to eventually write a similar book on Jerusalem, where he once briefly studied as a yeshiva student.

The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

JI: From a structural standpoint and content-wise, your book takes a unique approach. How did you ultimately arrive at this form?

Judah: Basically, my first book, This Is London, was written in the shadow before Brexit and before the Grenfell Tower disaster in London, and really sought to show how London had been really transformed into a new new city and, with it, a new society through free immigration. When I finished This Is London, I began to feel that there were other places around the world where the method could be applied. I first thought I wanted to write a book about France, so I went to France and I began to travel all around and started reporting, and I actually wrote 40,000 words or 50,000 words of a book about France, which I hated, and I threw it in the bin. I did that for a couple of reasons. 

The first was, I realized that all of the phenomena that were interesting me were not French phenomena — they were European phenomena. And those were the transformation of Europe through immigration, and how that was changing every rural area and every urban area, every city, every community; the transformation of agriculture through climate change; the ongoing transformation of our societies through supply chains and how that really meant that simply behind every product there was an incredible complexity that most people don’t realize; the transformation of Europe through war, not just the war in Ukraine but also the war in Syria; and then, finally, technology and how technology meant that almost every human interaction, every love affair, every family relationship was being mediated or touched by apps.

JI: So you decided to zoom out while also zooming in.

Judah: I realized that none of these phenomena can be restricted to France and, really, the canvas was Europe. I then came to another conclusion, which was that, who cares about a British guy — or a Franco-British guy, if you’d rather — a great white male kind of wandering around Europe telling people what he thinks. I thought, I hate the sound of my own voice. I hate the way this reads, in which I wander around, and I kind of meet people and introduce you to people. That old style of the travel writer, which is really a very postcolonial, postwar style, just felt exhausted. I wanted to write a book that wouldn’t be artificial but that would be as if the reader himself or herself or themselves was actually meeting these people.

JI: So where did you go from there?

Judah: I decided to shoot the narrator and write a book about Europe where everybody I met would speak, as close as possible, for themselves. The technique I developed was like this, where every person I met — and I met hundreds of people and interviewed hundreds of people — but out of the people that I decided I wanted to include in the book, I said, This is how I work, where you’re going to sit for portraits, I’m going to interview you for days or weeks, we record everything, and then out of the recordings I’m going to write out a short story with quotes from you, and I’m going to check it with you and you’re going to tell me, Actually, that’s not how I felt, actually, this is how I felt, and you’re going to help me with the process.

JI: How did that help you to better understand Europe? 

Judah: I thought long and hard about what it was that really interested me about Europe. There are three different Europes. There’s a Europe of the mind, and that’s the Europe of stained-glass windows and the smell of coffee and images from 1970s Italian movies, and that’s becoming increasingly distant from the Europe we actually live in. Then there’s the Europe of politics. That’s the Europe of [former Italian Prime Minister] Mario Draghi and [French President] Emmanuel Macron and the European Union and the euro. And again, that’s very distant from the Europe we actually live in. And then there’s Europe as we live in it, which is a very different place from those images of the continent. I wanted to capture something which I thought was very important and is especially important, I think, for Americans who can easily fall prey to illusions and stereotypes about Europe, which is that Europe is not a museum. In fact, the way we live is changing in a very accelerated pace in Europe because of immigration, supply lines, technology, climate change and war. 

I thought, well, I need to write each of these chapters on the arc of life. So all chapters in the book are different Europeans of different classes and races and genders. They’re all arranged on different phases of the arc of life, from teenagers to people who are facing death, through parents, people who are grieving the loss of their own parents, young people who are coming up in the world, people facing decision moments, falling in love. It’s all on the arc of life. I found myself really assembling this incredible puzzle, because I felt, once I decided on the arc of life in all of the regions of Europe, I needed a 50/50 gender split to reflect sexual diversity. I found myself in situations like, Oh my God, I need to find a woman over the age of 60 who’s lost her parents in Scandinavia, go!

JI: When you gave the drafts back to the people you were writing about, did they generally have a favorable or positive reaction to how you had depicted them?

Judah: Some of them burst into tears they were so moved by it. What these people have in common is that they’re all storytellers, and they all believe that their stories tell us something very important about what Europe is and about the way we live now. The subtitle of the book is very important to me. That’s because I believe that the actual fabric of our lives is changing, the way we live is changing, the way we’re young, the way we’re old, the way we have children is changing; it’s not the same as it was. People often ask me, How is it that you work at a think tank and you’re just constantly telling us on Twitter what you think about politics. You’ve had conversations with Emmanuel Macron and you profiled Draghi and all that. Why have you written a book in which you don’t have a single word of yourself in it? 

The answer is, I believe, that all of the great political philosophies — conservatism, liberalism, socialism — all of them, at their root, are moral questions about how should we live? How should we live together? And each of these people in the book, they’re all asking themselves this question. Is this the way we want to live now? Is the way that I’m living the way I want to live now? That, for me, is actually a deeply political question. I think we live in a Europe where there’s too much policy and there’s not enough politics, because people are all too quick to propose fixes but are all too slow to ask profound questions, like, Is this actually the way we want to live? The book kind of seeks through them to ask those questions.

JI: How did you find the subjects?

Judah: I found them through every possible technique imaginable. I found some people in shelters. I found some people in newspapers. I found some people from friends. I found some people from contacts. I was filling in this enormous puzzle that was sociological, anthropological, regional, racial class-based — that was trying to respond to these great revolutions that I feel are happening in Europe. I used every possible technique I could think of as a journalist. I found people online, I found people in the snow. I found people on the side of the road. It took five years.

JI: Given your think tank experience and your knowledge of European policy and politics, are you open to drawing any conclusions from the portraits you drew, even if you left them out of the book?

Judah: One of the things that I am willing to say is that, when we talk about Europe, we’re often talking about the past — Europe as castles and Europe as Roman ruins — and of course, Europe as the present, the Europe of the European Council and the Europe of the various flags that are flown in the continent. But really, we don’t talk enough about Europe as being also the future, and I think that what it means to be European is not just to share that past simply by having arrived and lived in the land where it took place; it’s also much more about sharing a future together. Europe is actually, at the end, a kind of community of destiny in which geography ties these countries and regions and these flows of humanity together, and I think European politicians and writers fail to talk about that, and they fail to talk about the Europe in front of our eyes. There’s a reluctance to write about that and talk about that.

JI: From a personal standpoint, does your own interest in immigration extend at all from your father’s Baghdadi Jewish background? 

Judah: Two of my grandparents were immigrants. My grandfather was born in Calcutta from the Baghdadi Jewish community and the Judah family was originally from Baghdad and they left Baghdad in the early 19th century after persecutions from a kind of vicious governor and also kind of lured by trade to India. My grandmother was a German Jewish refugee and a Holocaust survivor who was born in Berlin, and she made several immigrations or emigrations in her life, first from Berlin to France as a teenage refugee after Hitler came to came to power. I grew up with these stories of immigration and emigration and, literally, with lots of little trunks that made the journey from India littering my grandfather’s grandfather’s house and all of this sort of debris that seemed to have come with them from Germany and from India and little objects that went even further back to Baghdad. 

That always left me very interested in immigration — in particular, kind of immigrant storytelling, because I was always fascinated by the way they told stories and the way they viewed things, and I’m always very interested in the stranger’s eye. It’s not a secret, I think, that you need to be an outsider in order to really appreciate something and really understand what something is. So that’s always inspired me to kind of write these books in which a lot of the voices are immigrants, because I believe they often actually have the best understanding of what London is or what Europe is, and there is a kind of moral element to it. I’ve always been very conscious of the failure of journalism towards Europe’s Jews in the interwar period and afterward, frankly, during the kind of great emigration, mostly to Israel. That’s one of the reasons I have always striven to just sort of really highlight the voices of the marginalized and persecuted and migrants and asylum seekers in my work. 

JI: Are there any other ways in which your Jewish background may have informed the book? 

Judah: The techniques I mentioned to you, those are actually really influenced by very old works. For many years, I kind of studied with a rabbi and studied the Hebrew language, and I was very influenced by the principles of Talmud, where one of the key principles is that everything has to be looked at from another point of view again and again and again. With this book, we see the same phenomenon from two or three different points of view. So we see Berlin first from the point of view of a Syrian refugee who is deeply traumatized by having almost drowned in the Mediterranean. His wife is deeply depressed and is at home, and he drives around delivering for Amazon in Berlin, living in the sort of soft authoritarianism of the app, where he can’t even go to the left or the right of the road without the app telling him no or bleeping at him. He wishes nothing more than to go to Dubai, because he thinks his wife will be happier there. And he, interestingly, is one of the few people in the book, when asked the question, do you feel European, said no, because he doesn’t feel he shares that future, that he’s part of that destiny with other Europeans. When he sees Berlin, he’s been pushed into a kind of semi-illegal work. He sees this kind of criminalized city, which he doesn’t even feel is really a German city anymore. He feels there’s a German overclass exploiting Middle Eastern and Eastern European and African migrants.

And then we see Berlin all over again. We see it from the point of view of a gay Syrian refugee from the same place, the same town. For him, the metro map of Berlin is a metro map of joy and self discovery and happiness, where he finds his freedom to really be himself and discover who he really is as a gay man, as a performer, as an artist, and goes on on a voyage where he finds himself going from the war in Syria to performing drag with somebody born in Israel. So that’s how the book works. We see things from two different perspectives, and I wanted to challenge the reader. 

It’s very important to me, really coming from a Jewish point of view, to look at things from many different perspectives and to expose the reader to what I think is really almost a Talmudic interrogation of a topic — but leaving the reader to be his own rabbi, to draw his own or her own or their own conclusions about what Europe is.

JI: I noticed that there aren’t any Jewish profiles in the book. Is there any reason why you didn’t highlight any Jewish stories?

Judah: Well, I think this is a very Jewish book. A lot of people have asked me about the absence of a Jewish character, but there is a Jewish editor. A portrait is always infused by the painter, and I thought that the book was so infused by my own concerns and interests and obsessions that the book is Jewish simply through me having written it, and I do think that my interests are also a reflection of what Europe’s Jews feel right now — which is, European Jews are very keenly aware of how Europe is being transformed by immigration, climate change, supply lines, technology and war — and that is because so many aspects of Jewish life are touched by them. In Paris or in London, it’s simply not the same mix of population as there was 30 or 40 years ago, and that means something profound for Europe’s Jews. In terms of sourcing products, when they come from ever further away, what does that mean in terms of kashrut? Can you trust that this has been certified? And actually, Jewish communities are spending a lot of time trying to work this out and trying to get this right. 

When it comes to war, the European Jewish communities have thrown themselves into aiding our brothers and sisters in Ukraine and are already experiencing in the community refugees from Ukraine, but also refugees from Russia because more Jews have left Russia actually than have left Ukraine. And when it comes to technology, Jewish life, especially religious Jewish life, I think, experiences that more keenly because of Shabbat, how for one day a week we actually unplug from the way we live now. One of the urgencies I had in writing this book is, I feel that Jewish history kind of teaches us that we need to be incredibly keenly aware of where we live, and if Europe is changing, Europe’s Jews need to know better than anyone how it’s changing and why and what those changes mean for our way of life and the investigations into that need to be done seriously not just in kind of mutterings in synagogue hallways or on WhatsApp groups. 

JI: How do you feel that Jews are responding to these changes? 

Judah: I think that you kind of see across Europe that lots of Jewish artists and writers and intellectuals are all responding to this question of how Europe is changing in different ways. That’s one of the Jewish spirits of the book. One of the questions which any European Jew will tell you is constantly discussed in the community is what does the growth of Islam as a European religion mean for the future of Europe’s Jews in this age? And a lot of what this book is is about the new European Muslims and how they live and how they see Europe. Even if it’s obviously true that Islam is a rapidly growing religion in Europe, it’s very important for us as Jews to recognize, as we would want people to recognize of ourselves, that that green color on the pie chart is not all the same thing. In fact, it’s lots of very, very different human experiences and people going in very different directions. 

That’s why it was important to me to do the portraits we have. One is a young immigrant who grows up in France and becomes a Salafist imam, and that’s one destiny. Another is a gay man who ends up performing drag in Berlin. That’s one destiny. One is a guy delivering for Amazon who dreams of nothing else but to leave Europe. And then one of them is a Syrian refugee who comes to Europe and wants to be an actor, can’t be an actor, becomes a porn star and becomes obsessed about making it online and goes on this kind of harrowing adventure through the internet, basically in order to become a porn star. I think that it is really important as Jews to both to look at Islam and Europe as we would want other non-Jews to look at us — and that’s recognizing both our presence and complexity, and to look seriously, we’re not stereotypes, and realize the diversity of our experience.

JI: The rise of antisemitism across Europe seems to have manifested in different ways depending on the country, whether it comes from the Labour party in the U.K., Viktor Orban’s government in Hungary, neo-Nazis in Germany or Islamist extremists in France. How do you make sense of it all?

Judah: What I’d say to answer that question — and this is not my observation, it was made first by [American historian] Yuri Slezkine, but I think it’s very, very true — is that, in the 19th and for most of the 20th century, Jews were seen as outsiders because they were too modern, because they weren’t rooted enough, because they were too cross-border, because they were too international, because they left behind their tradition, because they were too experimental with new ideologies, because they had thrown themselves too deeply into capitalism. And I think today, Europe’s Jews find themselves viewed with a little bit of suspicion because they’re too traditional, because they still practice, for the most part, traditional forms of community life which have faded incredibly fast across Europe. Now, Jews are seen as being too attached to their identity, too attached to their religion, too stuck in the past. You can see this in the criticism. Whereas in the 19th and 20th century, the stereotype was that Jews were too willing to marry non-Jews — and that was viewed as bad — and today, Jews are often criticized for having a preference for in-group marriage and a religion that views that as important. I think that’s the way we live in a new Europe, and it means a new Jewish condition that needs to see more clearly than others.

JI: It also seems as if there’s a lack of comprehension, broadly speaking, of the Jewish community’s commitment to Israel. 

Judah: I think the lack of comprehension about that comes back to Yuri Slezkine’s point, which is, in the 19th and 20th century, the great insult in Eastern Europe was ‘rootless cosmopolitan.’ But now, the dominant mood among European elites is to embrace being a rootless cosmopolitan and to have suspicions of people who are rooted in religion and tribal attachments. I think that that’s one of the things that Jews find challenging in the new Europe.

JI: How do you assess the rise of antisemitism in Europe?

Judah: I think it’s important to say a few things about antisemitism in Europe, which is that, in almost all European countries, Jews are flourishing and Jews are succeeding and Jews are living beautiful lives and producing incredible works of art and making amazing scientific discoveries and launching incredible businesses, and Jews are doing what they have been since the destruction of the temple, which is participating in and enriching the incredible mosaic of European civilization, which wouldn’t be what it is without the Jews both in the past, the present or the future. Although there has always been antisemitism in Europe, and there will always be antisemitism in Europe, I think it’s still important to kind of assess it fairly and squarely, which is, most European Jews live in a moment of low antisemitism. 

What we’ve all seen in Ukraine, in the kind of epic of [Ukrainian President Volodymr] Zelensky and the prominence of Ukrainian Jews, is a testament to that. But also, I would argue, the prominence of Jewish and half-Jewish figures on the Russian side of that is showing that antisemitism is not a barrier to entry if you are Vladimir Solovyov, the main propagandist for the regime, or if you’re half-Jewish — he doesn’t identify as a Jew — but if you’re half-Jewish in the case of [Wagner leader] Yevgeny Prigozhin. Maybe that’s not a happy story of the Jews on all sides of this. You know, there’s a war going on right now that’s remaking Europe and, in a lot of ways, the fate of what the West is as a political entity is being decided there. And for one of the first times in history, we have Jews really on either side. You have to go quite far back to find European Jews in such prominent military and political positions deciding the fate of European countries like that in a war. 

JI: Do you live in Europe?

Judah: I kind of live between London and New York, but I live in New York. My wife is American and we kind of moved here over the course of this project. I think that actually living here and seeing Europe from here was one of the things that enabled me to write it. 

JI: With that in mind, would you ever aspire to write about the story of immigration in the U.S.?

Judah: Well, I just kind of think that Americans have better journalists than Europe. Americans are the kings of journalism. No one else in the rest of the world is even close. Americans just do the best reportage, the best news reporting, have the best magazines. Americans just write so freaking well about their society that I don’t think they need me. But the book that I would like to write is about Jerusalem. I feel that the Jewish world needs it. I briefly spent a bit of time in Jerusalem at yeshiva and I’d kind of wander around at night through the Old City and I realized by the end of my time there that I had been blinded by the Jerusalem of the mind and by this image of Jerusalem in my heart and my soul and in my head that was so powerful that, even when I was there, I was unable to see what was in front of my eyes. I would love to write a book, using this technique, about Jerusalem, just about how people live in Jerusalem and who are the kind of sort of Jerusalemites of today. I’d love to do that. 

JI: Is that something you’d like to take up as your next project?

Judah: If somebody would let me. 

Subscribe now to
the Daily Kickoff

The politics and business news you need to stay up to date, delivered each morning in a must-read newsletter.