The past two months have been especially traumatic for Europe’s approximately 1.4 million Jews. On February 15th, a gunman attacked a Jewish synagogue in Copenhagen that was celebrating a bar mitzvah, killing a Jewish security guard. In January, four Jews were killed in a reportedly anti-Semitic attack on a kosher supermarket in France. Police in England, France, Denmark, and the Netherlands are stationed outside of Jewish synagogues, ready to protect against further violence.
In response to this terrorism, Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has extended a hand towards European Jews in a plea for immigration to Israel. The morning after the Denmark attacks, he said, “Jews have been murdered again on European soil only because they were Jews. Of course, Jews deserve protection in every country, but we say to Jews, to our brothers and sisters: Israel is your home.” These comments echoed an earlier speech he made urging European Jews to come to Israel following the Paris attacks. The Israeli government has since followed through on his statements, initiating a $180 million plan to encourage “aliya,” or a return to Jerusalem, for Jews in France, Belgium, and Ukraine.
Netanyahu’s claim that European Jews, reeling from violent attacks at home, would be safer in Israel, where attacks against the Israeli population are more common, is a fallacy. However, for European Jews with a long history of terrible persecution, the rising tide of anti-Semitism strikes a chord with fears rooted in insecurities much deeper than the purely physical. The fact that Europe’s Jewish population is once again pushed to the margins of society is a powerful vindication of “aliya.” In order to understand the decision that European Jews — “European” referring specifically to those countries in which their Jewish communities have been under considerable attack in recent months, including England, France, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, and Denmark — face over whether to stay in their home countries or migrate to Israel, we must understand the history of one of Europe’s most marginalized groups. A failure to do so risks reducing this complex conflict into simple political rhetoric.
Netanyahu’s outspoken critics, many of whom are Jewish leaders in European states, see his statements as off-base, given Israel’s precarious situation in the Middle East. This is the opinion of the former chief rabbi of Norway, who argued that, “We have a prime minister who says Israel is about to come under an attack of terrible dimensions, and at the same time says that everyone should run away from there to come here.” Statistics on Jewish deaths support their skepticism: In an editorial in The Telegraph, King’s College London professor Ned Lebow wrote, “Fewer than 50 Jews are thought to have been killed in Europe by terrorists since 1993. By contrast, between the 1993 Oslo Accords and today, approximately 1,400 Israeli civilians have been killed by terrorists.” To these leaders, Jews concerned for their immediate security would be better served staying in Europe than flying to Israel, contrary to Netanyahu’s claims.
But when one takes into account hostility towards Jews – threats not to their lives per se, but rather to their freedom to practice Judaism – the situation gets far murkier. Anti-Semitism in Europe is indeed on the rise, expressed not just through terrorist attacks but also through widespread harassment perpetuated by the rise of anti-Semitic political groups. Due to a swell of anti-Israel sentiment compounded by increasingly large frustrated Muslim populations in European states, anti-Semitism is gaining traction in the European public. While Europe’s Muslim minority is not to be blamed for Europe’s broader anti-Semitism, certain Muslims have been a part of recent incidents of virulent anti-Semitism. Countries like Germany have seen a spike in anti-Jewish sentiment amongst Muslim immigrants, attributed in part to Muslim anger over the Israel-Palestine conflict and frustration at European Islamophobia. Independent of these Muslim immigrants, the European political establishment has seen an increase in anti-Semitism, as well. As Emma Axelrod, a Brown Political Review writer, explored in her article “Tread Carefully: When Anti-Zionism becomes Anti-Semitism,” in recent months, anti-Zionism has been used to cloak a rising anti-Semitism in rightist European politics.
Such threats to Jewish religious freedom strike nerves that, seventy years after the Holocaust, are still raw. As leaders have recently evaluated the present plight of Jews in Europe, they have used the Holocaust as a reference point for religious persecution at its abysmal peak. The leader of Germany’s Central Council of Jews, Dieter Graumann, said of recent demonstrations, lootings and murders, “These are the worst times since the Nazi era.” People living with the historical memory of such an atrocity have every right to view hate crimes as the seeds of unimaginable horrors. France, Germany, and the UK are home to large portions of Europe’s Jews, many of whom trace roots in their respective countries to the Holocaust and even further back. Hence, a willingness to abandon their home for a proverbial homeland in Israel is perhaps understandable.
The Israeli state that is now calling for European Jews’ aliya was founded in direct response to the tragedy of the Holocaust and to the insecurity Jews felt worldwide. It is meant to be, among other things, a safe haven for threatened diasporic Jews. The very present-centered conversation between Israeli and European leaders on Jewish safety should be placed in the context of a long history of marginalization.
The real connection European Jews have to their countries cannot be denied. For many Jews, their sense of belonging to a national culture keeps them in their respective countries. Jews who move to other countries feel a sense of cultural disjuncture. They must learn Hebrew to interact with other Israelis, which is no easy feat. This, and the fact that professional qualifications attained in the European home country often do not easily transfer over to the Israeli workforce, make professional adjustment hard.
At the same time, the connection between Jews and nation is a very delicate one, with Jews rarely able to enjoy patriotism for very long. Some of the most awful genocides in human history – the Holocaust, the Spanish inquisition, and the pogroms among them – have been sanctioned against Jews by the states in which they live. Israel is the only state in which Jews live as a part of the majority, after years of precariousness at society’s edge. European Jews who immigrate to Israel, likely in direct response to rising feelings of this precariousness, are able to express their Jewish identities fully, without any of the marginalization they face at home. Many European leaders recognize the centrality of Jewish identity politics to the precarious positions of Jews in their countries and plea that Jews realize their belongingness in their homes. Francois Hollande, for example, said, “Jews are at home in France – it’s the anti-Semites who have no place into the Republic.” Helle Thorning-Schmidtt, the Danish Prime Minister, responded similarly to the Copenhagen attacks by saying, “An attack on the Jewish community is an attack on Denmark.”
There is a sharp difference between these leaders’ attitudes and those of past European leaders during eras of state-sponsored anti-Semitism. In England, Germany and France, far-right political parties with anti-Semitic ideology have little public support. Most Jews fleeing Europe for Israel flee not anti-Semitic governments, but a rising wave of hatred at the ground level. Unlike points during the mid-twentieth century, Jews today are not at risk of immediate, mass annihilation at the hands of the state. The great risk lies in what history shows could happen if anti-Semitism does take hold in the majority of countries’ populations or in the national government.
In Western Europe, the tropes being levied against Jews indeed recall a history of alienating stereotypes. Images of Jews as money-hungry, dishonest and foreign are becoming prevalent in the minds of some Europeans: In England, according to a poll by the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism, a quarter of people believe that Jews “chase money more than other British people,” and one sixth think that “Jews have too much power in the media.” These beliefs, although not held by the majority of British citizens, are stereotypes that have for centuries made Jews into scapegoats at the margins of society, fueling genocide from Germany to Spain. The state of Israel was intended to be a place where Jews would have a national identity after years of marginalization by the state; it is natural that Jews threatened by the resurgence of old hateful tropes both fear for their lives and consider moving to the one country in which they are a majority. With the resurgence of these once lethal stereotypes of Jews, Netanyahu’s call for European Jews to emigrate for safety ring true.
Part of what differentiates recent anti-Semitism from historical hatred is radical Islamic terrorism. While national governments have historically orchestrated many of the largest-scale crimes against Jews, terrorists committed the crimes that have recently seized the world’s attention. Terrorism should be separated from a general rise in anti-Semitism, but focusing on these acts is important because they have both shaken the Jewish psyche and prompted the conversation between Benjamin Netanyahu and European leaders. Again, this type of terrorism is more likely to occur in Israel than it is in Europe. Israel is not a safe haven from terrorist attacks, but it is from the greater sentiment that terrorist attacks evoke: that of normalized anti-Semitism that exploits the marginal position of Jews in European society.
European Jews today are torn not just by physical violence, but also by conflicts of history and national and cultural identity. After centuries of marginalization and assimilation, Jews face decisions that go far beyond basic issues of security. They must confront challenging choices between hard-won national identities and enticing religious freedom, among many others. While leaders may portray Jewish immigration to Israel as a question of security, it is in fact a far more complicated question, one that reaches back into years of history.