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I'm a European Jew—and No, I'm Not Leaving

Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images

Europeans, especially European Jews, are used to being treated as museum pieces and historical relics by Americans. We are the object of extensive commentary but rarely regarded as possessing any living voice worth engaging with. I recently had the strange experience of listening to myself and other European Jews talked about as if we were already as silent as a Pompeian plaster cast while reading Jeffrey Goldberg’s article “Is It Time for the Jews to Leave Europe?” in the April issue of The Atlantic and watching his accompanying video chat with James Bennet and Leon Wieseltier. If a plaster cast may be permitted to speak, I would say that Goldberg and his colleagues aren’t describing my reality; the world I come from isn’t already destroyed; and the story of the Jews in Europe isn’t yet ready to be relegated to museums or to antiquarian sites like Pompeii.  

The implicit assumption in Goldberg’s piece, and in many articles going back to at least the end of the Cold War in 1989, is that Europe’s Jews, if they had an iota of common sense and dignity, would not be in Europe. It’s a point that’s been hammered home by Israel’s leaders over the last two decades (Netanyahu is only the latest example): You should all be heading “home” to Israel, before “it is too late.” At least there’s a Zionist logic behind such calls, for Zionists have always believed that Israeli-Diaspora relations are essentially a zero-sum game, with only Israel as the legitimate beneficiary. 

The assumption among a significant portion of American Jewry that Europe’s Jews are poised to finally leave the continent is a more complex trope. The origins lie deeper than the spate of homegrown terrorist attacks aimed at Jews qua Jews which have beset Europe, mainly France, since 2012, or the growing climate of anti-Semitism which has raised its ugly head since 2000, often at the hands of the native-born children of Muslim immigrants. Goldberg claims that such venom would not have taken root so easily had these Muslim voices not drunk at the well of classical European anti-Semitism (leave aside for a moment the absurdity of Edouard Drumont being read in the banlieues). Foreign preachers from Saudi Arabia spreading their own Muslim brand of anti-Semitism, the Internet and its glorification of terrorism, and anti-Israeli sentiment can together easily explain the horrendous attacks.   

One source of Americans’ expectation that Europe’s Jews are packing their bags is to be found in their distrust of the complex galaxy called “Europe,” a nebulous place whose national incarnations, political references and geographical borders blur into a solid entity spanning the long pre-Holocaust past and the more recent postwar and post-1989 present. How else can one interpret Wieseltier’s one word answer—“Spit.”—when Bennet asks him on camera what the “last European Jew” should do before leaving the continent?

Such an answer is not a political statement about recent events, but a cri de coeur whose tenets were already present in Wieseltier’s beautiful and powerful book, Kaddish. The origins for such antipathy to “Europe” run deep: One does not spit in vain. Beyond Wieseltier, I would argue that most American Jews, Goldberg included, the overwhelming majority of whom hail from what became during World War II the “Bloodlands” of Eastern Europe, have built into their collective Jewish identities an understandable feeling of existential gratitude toward their forefathers who left the continent of anti-Semitism and subsequent absolute Jewish horror in time. Add to this the general nineteenth- and early twentieth-century immigrant (from Europe) ethos that saw the Old World as a place of injustice and poverty one was lucky to have fled. To which one may add a specific Jewish layer of antipathy for France after its abrupt change of alliance from Israel to the Arab world in the wake of the 1967 Six Day war, and, more recently, the French-led construction of an ever more united Europe, culminating in the European Union’s desire to “meddle” (unfairly of course in Jewish eyes) in the Middle East peace process through a false analogy with the Franco-German reconciliation.

This is not the place to trace this postwar antipathy. Suffice to say, when the Berlin Wall fell, there were precious few American Jews and Israelis who greeted the event as a positive turning point. When Jewish life became possible again in Eastern Europe and in the former Soviet Union, there was rejoicing over the return of (surely mobile) Jews into the Jewish fold, hailed as a Chanukah miracle of sorts, but virtually no true appreciation, and rather distrust, for the new European context that emerged. It is no wonder then that the European setting continues to provoke fear and profound dislike, now that many of the hopes of 1989 seem to be withering away. For most American Jews, the continent remains a drunkard who might have been on the wagon for a short while, but is in the process of falling off once again to return to its natural inebriated anti-Semitic state—especially now that the “the age of post-Holocaust Jewish dispensation,” according to Goldberg, has come to an end, as though Holocaust commemorations had been weak one shot inoculations with no possible boosters down the road.  

So where does this leave us, the Jews across Europe today? Well first of all, the vast majority of us will be staying put by choice, for it is true that we do have a choice unlike the tragic victims of the Holocaust. And I am happy to know that French Jews and other European Jews who want to leave can find countries to go to, whether out of fear, in the name of business opportunities, more lenient tax regimes or—unfortunately in ever rarer quantities—a true Zionist impulse. They have Israel of course, and also Canada and possibly Australia, but, oddly enough, not America. It’s as though the U.S. felt no need to learn from its own past behavior of denying visas to Jews in the wake of the Nazis coming to power. It is shocking to learn that even though European Jewry may be reaching its end according to the pundits, Europe’s Jews are not invited to partake in the American Jerusalem. In the vast literature on the topic, I found only one solitary voice advocating refugee status on their behalf as a way of compensating for what America had failed to do in the 1930s.

But let us return to those of us who are staying in Europe. We are not, contrary to what Goldberg asserts, “collateral damage” in Europe’s war against the Muslims. We actually feel that fighting for our security, our rights and above all our shared values inside Europe is a battle worth waging, for ourselves, for our countries and for the wider Jewish world and an increasingly isolated Israel. No one is saying the fight will be easy, but then when have major fights been simple? We are staying because the Europe we live in, despite its blatant faults, remains a place we are a part of not just politically as citizens, but also linguistically and culturally, even in purely urban and landscape terms. It is the same Europe you Americans and even American Jews love to visit. We have major stakes here and not just petty personal reasons. Read the answers young Europeans Jews from Denmark to France, from the U.K. to Germany, all the way to the Ukraine have written in response to the never-ending question of whether they might be leaving. Unlike in the ’30s, our governments protect us rather than excluding us and we are determined to improve our respective countries in terms of social justice and minority integration.

If such idealism seems stupidly misplaced in American Jewish eyes, then let us talk realpolitik. Europe is the place where Jihadist terrorism has chosen to strike beyond the Muslim lands because it is perceived as the Achilles’ heel of the Western world. It is also the place where Putin has planned his post-Soviet revenge. This is the continent where Putinism and Jihadism will be countered beyond Russia and the sands of the Arab-Muslim world. Surely one should not disregard those Jews who are willing to fight such a fight in the name of inclusive pluralist democracies?

Goldberg stresses that ultimately Jews should leave Europe because we are not “in control” over what happens here. But are we so certain America’s Jews will continue to exert the kind of influence in Washington they’ve been able to achieve over the postwar period? America is now far more divided, including its own Jews, over Netanyahu’s Israel and the overall Middle Eastern context. And are we so sure the Israeli Jews controlling Israel’s destiny are really in charge of its long-term future? Only time will tell. Furthermore, Western democracies, including those of Europe, have allowed Jews to splinter off into myriad opinions and positions; ghetto-like unanimity no longer exists. As for Muslim-Jewish relations, granted we in Europe are not lucky enough to possess the Muslim middle class America boasts, but such a class is growing. 

My final point concerns Israel and the impression that it’s safer for Jews. How can one fail to mention the angry and alienated Arabs, Muslim and Christian, who make up 20 percent of Israel’s population and, even more problematically, the Palestinians, who will amount to roughly half of those who reside between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River if Netanyahu goes through with his pledge that there will be no Palestinian state under his watch? Meanwhile in Europe there are at most 15 million Muslims out of a population of more than 500 million; even in France, only 10 percent of the population is Muslim. The comparison, imperfect as it may be, should warrant greater circumspection in the lashing out against Europe, or at least raise eyebrows, for the numbers speak for themselves.    

In reality most of the discussions concerning Europe and the Jews belong to the realm of unchecked and unconscious emotions. Amos Oz prefers to fall down on the street in Israel rather than abroad for he is convinced that in Israel he will be lifted up (even by those who hate his ideas), whereas abroad, who knows? Some scared French Jews have been overheard to say that they prefer to be stabbed in Israel rather than in France. Is this the language of sane comparison or does it reveal a generalized Jewish existential despair that does not dare admit, in our age of terrorism, that there are limits even to an all-powerful Jewish nation state? 

To the question “Can one trust Europe?,” American Jews will instinctively say “no.” Most of Europe’s Jews will say “yes,” for non-Jewish Europeans are our neighbors, colleagues, friends, partners and even family members. American Jews might make exceptions for France and Britain, noting their military courage, counter-terrorism capabilities, and the high social status of their Jewish populations. Yet these countries are the two most affected by anti-Semitism, as well as being the source of the terrorists who have answered the siren song of ISIS. Can one have one’s cake and eat it too?

The only thing we Jews in Europe ask of you is to at least consider us, those who are staying put, with a modicum of respect. We are not blind fools. We are responsible citizens committed both to our Judaism and the countries we live in. And these in turn are committed to our ongoing presence. And unlike Wieseltier, we find this appreciation of Jewish life on the continent to be an important, hardly irrelevant, factor in its democratic growth. Wieseltier may gloss over our supposed imminent disappearance as “sad” (but not “tragic” since he sees us as mere remnants of the murdered European Jews of yore). But there is no reason for him to worry: We will not disappear. There will be no “last Jew” who will spit. So please, dear American Jews, leave aside your fears, and listen to a living European Jew who has no intention of becoming a plaster cast.