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Is it time for Jews to leave Europe?

Are the Jewish-American writers Jeffrey Goldberg and Leon Wieseltier right when they say that it is time for Jews to leave Europe?

Hasidic Jews in Stamford Hill, North London, prepare for Passover. The area is home to Europe's largest Hasidic Jewish community. Demotix/Piero Cruciatti. Some rights reserved.

In a video accompanying his recent article in The Nation, American journalist Jeffrey Goldberg discussed the state, and fate, of the Jews of Europe with his fellow Jewish-American intellectual Leon Wieseltier. The article and conversation have caused something of a stir since their conclusion is stark and apocalyptic: it is time for the Jews to leave Europe.

Such a contention, from two such influential thinkers, is necessarily controversial to Europeans, but we would do well to realise that Goldberg and Wieseltier's doomsday forecast is merely a prominent articulation of a notion that is, if not a consensus, then certainly widespread in the two great centres of Jewish population, Israel and America. That the Israeli establishment advocates a mass Jewish European exodus has been made repeatedly clear by Prime Minister Netanyahu, whose own enunciation of the Goldberg thesis - in the wake of Copenhagen and Charlie Hebdo - brought criticism from both Jewish communal leaders and gentile heads of state in Europe.

Netanyahu's call for European Jews to “come home” is, in fact, not remotely novel, but instead represents a fundamental Zionist notion evident as far back as Ben Gurion: that the establishment of the State of Israel made the Jewish diaspora both irrelevant and illegitimate and therefore the responsibility of the Jews of Europe was, and is, to settle in Israel. Novelist Arthur Koestler summed up this sentiment, as early as 1949, when he wrote that: 'since the foundation of the Hebrew State the attitude of Jews who are unwilling to go there, yet insist on remaining a community in some way apart from their fellow-citizens, has become an untenable anachronism.'

That there has remained a vibrant Jewish community in Britain and other parts of Europe shows that, gratifyingly, not all Jews accept Koestler's argument. And yet, for those of us gentiles who wish to see the continuation of a Jewish Europe it is past time that we address the fact that many European Jews are beginning to see the wisdom (perhaps the inevitability) of the Goldberg-Netanyahu-Koestler rationale.

The contemporary situation is, to many, evidence for the validity of the original Zionist thesis, which held that the Jews of Europe could not achieve a secure status as fully recognised citizens of their countries of residence. Whatever their legal protections, there would always be many who viewed the Jew as alien and other; an interloper whose first loyalty was to his own co-religionists above the nation. The reason The Dreyfus Affair caused such fear amongst European Jews was that it seemed to confirm that both the French establishment and its working classes saw them in this light. That, far from an isolated miscarriage of justice, Dreyfus was a far wider illustration of how gentile Europe saw its Jews. The best case for the Jews then, was as a tolerated minority.

It is understandable that in this culture a large, though not then predominant, number of Jews saw no future for themselves in the continent and pursued Jewish nationalism. The campaign for a Jewish homeland was, in large part, the product of a desire to “normalize” the Jewish condition. Anti-Zionist Europeans, though they have any number of reasons to be critical of Israel, would do well to realise that were it not for consistent European Jew-hatred Israel would very likely never have come into being. The courageous and innovative Israeli writer and politician Avraham Burg is pushing the thesis that memories and consciousness of European anti-Semitism, especially the Holocaust, are holding Israel back; that it must, to use his phrase, 'rise from its ashes' and move on. Gentile Europe, however, should not forget or forgive its own sins, but instead use their memory to inform a tolerant and just present and future.

It is important to proceed with perspective: it is not 1933 and European Jewry is not facing an existential threat. Indeed, many European Jews don't see Goldberg's thesis as reflecting their reality, and defiantly reject the Israeli call to emigration. But the situation is nonetheless real and serious. A Campaign Against Anti-Semitism - YouGov 2015 poll found that 'more than half of all British Jews feel that anti-Semitism now echoes the 1930s' and, most depressingly, 'well over half of British Jews (58%) believe Jews may have no long-term future in Europe'. Chairman of the Jewish Leadership Council Sir Mick Davis - neither an alarmist nor an inflexible “Israel, right or wrong” hard-liner - has argued similarly that 'Jews at their family dinner tables, when they gather to pray and learn, are beginning to wonder whether they are valued as citizens and can securely think of Britain as their natural home.'

Despondency over the viability of a Jewish future in Britain has been lent celebrity support by actress Maureen Lipman, while Booker Prize winning novelist Howard Jacobson's latest novel J offered a dystopian vision of the Jewish near-future. If you want an indication of how seriously the threat to British Jews is being taken in some quarters, take a look at the website of the Community Security Trust (“Protecting Our Jewish Community”) which has a section which constantly updates the number of CCTV cameras and amount of perimeter fencing installed by the trust at various Anglo-Jewish centres. 

So what has caused this crisis? And why are some Jews questioning their future in Europe? The tragic answer is that they believe that the continent has once more succumbed to the disease of anti-Semitism. Or, in the more extreme reading of someone like Wieseltier, that Europe is fundamentally, institutionally and irredeemably anti-Semitic and is experiencing a peak following decades of post-Holocaust calm. There is much legitimate debate as to what constitutes anti-Semitism but what is clear is that those Jews who feel threatened at present consider the hostility to emanate in three different ways from three distinct groups, whose combined attitude constitutes a “New” anti-Semitism.

The first “threat” is seen as coming from some elements of disaffected European-Muslim society spurred by a combination of religious rivalry and Palestinian quasi-solidarity; the second, from the rise of a far-right in states as diverse as France, Greece and Hungary whose anti-Jewish hate is of a traditional kind; the third, from a left-wing intelligentsia whose anti-Zionism is so virulent as to constitute anti-Semitism.

The Banlieue-Blackshirt-Leftie axis may seem spurious to most Europeans, and its effects minimal, but the evidence is that it feels profoundly real and present to many Jews. The refusal of gentile Europe to take these concerns seriously - including accusations of alarmist exaggeration - sadly speak volumes as to the ambivalence that racism towards Jews currently evokes.

Regarding Muslim-Jewish relations in Europe it is clear that this is one element in a far wider multi-faceted problem that Europe must address with its minority Muslim communities. In terms of Islamist terror however, the events in France showed Jewish communities that they have more to fear than gentile Europeans; in the Hyper Cacher Kosher supermarket European Jews were, once more, slaughtered simply for the crime of being Jews.

The rise of the far right too, is not a threat unique to the Jews. We should all be concerned with its implications and with what it says about us as a continent. That Jews' feeling they will be the first target of an extremist rightward shift is justified by the lessons of history, though Goldberg discovered from his encounter with Marine Le Pen that the Front National is going so far from its original Jew-hatred as to court the Jewish vote. United against banlieue Islam will be her frightening message to France's Jews.

It is perhaps the leftist plank in the axis that is, although less physically threatening, most distressing to many Jews, the poll finding that 77% of British Jews questioned 'have witnessed anti-Semitism disguised as a political comment about Israel.' Let us be clear: opposition to the actions of the State of Israel does not, of itself, indicate anti-Semitism. Often it is simply indicative of a good conscience. However, when such opposition is couched in terms which implicate Jewishness and malign Jews qua Jews then this stops being principled opposition and becomes anti-Semitism. Those concerned with the liberal-left element in the “New” anti-Semitism feel, rightly or wrongly, that far too much opposition to Israel falls into this category.

At the very least it is clear that in the left's league table of peoples worthy of solidarity and support, the Jews no longer rank very highly. Israel's success, its role as Western outpost in the Middle East, its appalling conduct in the Occupied Territories and the occupation itself have diluted the left's objection to anti-Semitism. Its collective heart-strings are no longer tugged by it, its moral-outrage reflex no longer activated. The unspoken, unacknowledged rationale is that, in short, Israel has made anti-Semitism fair game. Some of the left are honest enough to openly advocate this view, while others' complacency and inaction seems to speak just as loudly.

Seen in a more charitable light, it is as though concern for the hideous plight of the Palestinians has eroded anti-racist solidarity when Jews are the victims. It is frankly embarrassing that the left subconsciously sees these as incompatible causes; that it seems incapable of walking and chewing gum at the same time. For why overcomplicate the simple dictum: “Actively oppose racism and brutality whomever is the victim and whomever the perpetrator”?

The post-1948 continuation of the European diaspora is proof that many Jews, though often proud and grateful for the existence of the Jewish State, have rejected the idea that their Jewishness demands that they make their home in the Jewish State. European culture has been much the richer for this rejection. The Campaign Against Anti-Semitism-YouGov poll is alarming because it portends a future in which we see an ever-diminishing Jewish presence in Europe. Netanyahu and Goldberg welcome this outcome, since they see it as the best way to preserve Jewish life and security, but gentile Europe should be be both concerned and ashamed that it has not done more to ensure the continuation of the European diaspora.

We should take a moment to consider what such a future would mean. It would mean that the liberal European experiment has failed. It would mean that the outcome which Europe's anti-Semites have long desired has finally been achieved; that the ghosts of Édouard Drumont and Oswald Mosley, of Houston Stewart Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler can indulge in a grotesque spectral celebration.

European Jewish communities are having these discussions internally, but their gentile counterparts are ignoring or dismissing the problem. It is time for the gentile intelligentsia, especially its liberal-left branch, to unblock the deaf ear it has turned to this issue and take it seriously. The process must begin now and begin in earnest.

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About the author

Jack Omer-Jackaman is a doctoral researcher at King's College London working in the fields of Zionism and anti-Semitism.


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