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VIII. The Promised Land

One evening this past September, Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, hosted a gathering in Washington to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year. The guests—political supporters, leaders of Jewish organizations, members of Congress, Jewish officials of the Obama administration, and the stray journalist or two—gathered by the pool of the vice president’s house, on the grounds of the U.S. Naval Observatory.

Biden was characteristically prolix. He talked about the Shoah, and about the many contributions Jews have made to American life, and he mentioned, as he invariably does in such settings, his first encounter with a legendary Israeli prime minister.

“I had the great pleasure of knowing every prime minister since Golda Meir, when I was a young man in the Senate, and I’ll never forget talking to her in her office with her assistant—a guy named Rabin—about the Six-Day War,” he said. “The end of the meeting, we get up and walk out, the doors are open, and … the press is taking photos … She looked straight ahead and said, ‘Senator, don’t look so sad … Don’t worry. We Jews have a secret weapon.’?”

He said he asked her what that secret weapon was.

“I thought she was going to tell me something about a nuclear program,” Biden continued. “She looked straight ahead and she said, ‘We have no place else to go.’?” He paused, and repeated: “?‘We have no place else to go.’?”

“Folks,” he continued, “there is no place else to go, and you understand that in your bones. You understand in your bones that no matter how hospitable, no matter how consequential, no matter how engaged, no matter how deeply involved you are in the United States … there’s only one guarantee. There is really only one absolute guarantee, and that’s the state of Israel. And so I just want to assure you, for all the talk, and I know sometimes my guy”—President Obama—“gets beat up a little bit, but I guarantee you: he shares the exact same commitment to the security of Israel.”

There was applause, and then photos, and then kosher canapés. I will admit to being confused by Biden’s understanding of the relationship between America and its Jewish citizens. The vice president, it seemed to me, was trafficking in antiquated notions about Jewish anxiety.

Nearly 30 years ago, I moved to Israel, in part because I wanted to participate in the drama of Jewish national self-determination, but also because I believed that life in the Diaspora, including the American Diaspora, wasn’t particularly safe for Jews, or Judaism. Several years in Israel, and some sober thinking about the American Jewish condition, cured me of that particular belief.

I suspect that quite a few American Jews believe, as Biden does, that Jews can find greater safety in Israel than in America—but I imagine that they are mainly of Biden’s generation, or older.

A large majority of American Jews feels affection for Israel, and is concerned for its safety, and understands the role it plays as a home of last resort for endangered brethren around the world. But very few American Jews, in my experience, believe they will ever need to make use of the Israeli lifeboat. The American Jewish community faces enormous challenges, but these mainly have to do with assimilation, and with maintaining cultural identity and religious commitment. To be sure, anti-Semitism exists in the United States—and in my experience, some European Jewish leaders are quite ready to furnish examples to anyone suggesting that European Jews might be better off in America. According to the latest FBI statistics, from 2013, Jews are by far the most-frequent victims of religiously motivated hate crimes in America. But this is still anti-Semitism on the margins. A recent Pew poll found that Jews are also the most warmly regarded religious group in America.

For millennia, Jews have been asking this question: Where, exactly, is it safe? Maimonides, the 12th-century philosopher, wrestled with this question continually, asking himself whether it was better for Jews to live in the lands of Esau—Christendom—or in the lands of Ishmael.

“The thing about this question is that it is always about a decision made at a specific point in time,” David Nirenberg, the University of Chicago scholar, told me. “If you looked around the world in 1890, you might have said Germany and England were the best places. If you’re looking around the world in 1930, you could have made a good argument that the United States was not a great place for Jews.”

Today, the world’s 14 million or so Jews are found mainly in two places: Israel and the United States. Israel has the largest Jewish population, slightly more than 6 million. The U.S. has about 5.7 million. Europe, including Russia, has a Jewish population of roughly 1.4 million. There are about 1 million Jews scattered across the rest of the world, including significant communities in Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa, Australia, and Canada.

It is not uncommon to hear European Jews argue today that their departure from the Continent would grant Hitler a posthumous victory. The desire of so many Jews in Europe to remain in Europe, and remain European, is admirable. All across Europe—from Great Britain, where the situation does not feel so dire, to Sweden, where it does—I met Jews leading full Jewish lives.

In Stockholm, I spent a day at a small Jewish institute called Paideia, which focuses in good part on classical text study. Its students are mainly young European Jews who have expressed a commitment to remaining in their home countries. “These are not naive people, and they are not suicidal,” the institute’s founding director, Barbara Spectre, said. “They grew up with a full understanding of the Holocaust and its implications. The fact that they are staying in Europe testifies to something that we must respect: there is going to be Jewish life in Europe. There is a certain nobility about the decision to stay in Europe.”

On the other hand, there is this: a 2013 survey conducted by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights found that 60 percent of Sweden’s Jews fear being publicly identified as Jewish.

Critics of the Jews have often called us stiff-necked, but sometimes this insult can be understood as a compliment. And yet, stubbornness for the sake of stubbornness has a half-life.

One night, I had dinner in Brussels with Ariella Woitchik, a senior official in the European Jewish Congress, and her husband, Gregory, a lawyer. The congress lobbies the European Union on matters related to the well-being of Jews. Woitchik’s job demands that she be publicly committed to the perpetuation of European Jewish life, but she seems to come by this feeling honestly. “On a moral and philosophical level, the question is, why should we leave?,” Woitchik said. “Belgium is our country.”

I told them of my visit, earlier that day, to the Jewish Museum of Belgium, the recent massacre site. The museum, by necessity, is not well marked. When I asked police officers on the street whether I had indeed found the museum, one asked me, “Why?”

“Because I want to visit,” I said.

“Why?” he asked.

I gave what turned out to be the correct answer: “Je suis Juif.

In a courtyard I found a plaque memorializing the victims of last May’s attack. It read, in French, Dutch, and English:

This aggression against a specific culture, aims at isolating the relevant community from the population of which it is an integral part. With unanimous consent, the Jewish Museum of Belgium considers that the continuation and the development of its activities are the most appropriate answer to this barbarian act.

So admirable—but also, perhaps, so futile. What I did not find at the museum were visitors; I was the only person there.

Woitchik admitted she is hesitant these days to attend services at her synagogue. “If we have children,” she said, “I’m worried about sending them to the Jewish schools, because they’re targets. But in the public schools, Jewish kids are themselves individual targets of anti-Semitic bullying …” She trailed off.

“Maybe we’re just kidding ourselves,” she finally said.

I tend to think they are. European Jewry does not have a bright future. A declining population (the German Jewish community in 2013 recorded 250 births and more than 1,000 deaths); the return of old habits of anti-Semitic thought; the rise of the far right in a period of stagnation and cultural crisis; the waning of Shoah consciousness; the inability of European states to integrate Muslims; and the continued radicalization of a small but meaningful subset of those Muslims—all of this means that Jews across large stretches of Europe will live for some time to come with danger and uncertainty. (Perhaps the saddest, and most debasing, comment I saw from a Jewish leader came in the wake of the Copenhagen synagogue attack, from Jair Melchior, the head of Denmark’s Jewish community, who was arguing that anti-Jewish activity in the country was relatively mild. “It’s not a dangerous anti-Semitism,” he told Reuters. “It’s spitting, cursing, like that.”) Of course it is possible, in ways that were not 80 years ago, for Jews to dissolve themselves into the larger culture. But for Jews who would like to stay Jewish in some sort of meaningful way, there are better places than Europe.

Despite all of this, we will not witness a mass exodus anytime soon. It is not so easy to pick up from one place and move to another. The Jews, the “ever-dying people,” in the words of the late historian Simon Rawidowicz, have a gift for self-perpetuation. “All Jewish stories come to an end,” the German Jewish novelist Maxim Biller told me recently, “but then they just keep going.”

The Israeli government, as one might expect, is interested in accelerating the departure of Jews from Europe. Israeli leaders have lectured French Jews about the necessity of aliyah, or emigration to Israel, in ways that have displeased French leaders, including the prime minister, and have also frustrated some French Jewish leaders. “To all the Jews of France, all the Jews of Europe, I would like to say that Israel is not just the place in whose direction you pray. The state of Israel is your home,” the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said after the kosher-market attack. (He reprised this entreaty after the attack in Copenhagen a month later.)

Even some French Jews who are contemplating aliyah, and who tend toward the right end of the Israeli political spectrum, told me that they found Netanyahu’s remarks unhelpful. Others noted that life in Israel is not especially tranquil. Jews die violently in Israel, too. And while the presence of so many Jews in one narrow place has created a dynamic country, it has also created a temptation for those inclined toward genocide. In 2002, Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, reportedly said in a speech that if the Jews “all gather in Israel, it will save us the trouble of going after them worldwide.”

The argument for Israel is one that has been made since Theodor Herzl witnessed the humiliation of Alfred Dreyfus: Jews living in their own country are at least masters of their own fate. No more relying on the fleeting kindness of Christian princes or the caprice of Ottoman viziers. Or, for that matter, on the continued embrace of a French prime minister or the uncertain mercies of the National Front. Israel’s success, or failure, is largely in Jewish hands.

Yet Israel’s future as a Jewish haven is an open question. Alain Finkielkraut, the French philosopher who is a harsh critic of his country’s management of the jihadist threat, is also a strong critic of current Israeli policy. “It is an irony of history that people who move to Israel as Jews might be moving to a state that in the next decades becomes a binational state with a Jewish minority, because of the occupation of the West Bank and the settlements,” he told me when we talked in Paris in January. “Moving from France to escape the attacks of Arabs to a country that will not be Jewish does not make a lot of sense.”

Last spring, on a visit to Chi?in?u, the capital of Moldova, the former Soviet republic situated between Romania and Ukraine, I met a delightful group of Jews in their teens and 20s, most of whom had learned only recently that they were Jewish. This is a common occurrence in Europe’s east; the collapse of communism has allowed Jews to admit to themselves, and to their children, the truth of their origins. (This is becoming a phenomenon in other countries as well. A 2008 genetic study found that about 20 percent of the populations of Spain and Portugal have some Jewish heritage.) Barbara Spectre, the Jewish educator in Sweden, calls these people the “dis-assimilated.” The youth group I encountered meets each week to learn Jewish prayers and sing Jewish songs.

The modest rebirth of Jewish life in Chi?in?u is a remarkable thing, because Chi?in?u, which is known in Russian as Kishinev, was the location, in 1903, of one of the most terrible pogroms in European history—a pogrom that turned tens of thousands of Jews toward Zionism, and sent many more on the path to America. Included in this latter group was a branch of my family. My grandfather grew up in a pogrom-afflicted village, not far from Kishinev, called Leova.

One afternoon, I met Moldova’s then–prime minister, Iurie Leanc?, to discuss the return of another sort of European historical pathology—Vladimir Putin’s attempt to rebuild the Russian empire at the expense of, among others, Leanc?’s small and hapless country. The prime minister, a progressive, pro-Western politician, was eager to make his case for American support, but he was especially eager to tell me of his sadness that Moldova is home to so few Jews today. He was touchingly sincere; my grandfather would have been moved—and incredulous. As I was leaving, the prime minister mentioned that he was trying to raise funds to build a Jewish museum in Chi?in?u. The parliament is willing, he said, but the country is poor. “A friend of mine said I should ask the Rothschilds for help,” he said. “Do you know any Rothschilds?”

The next day, I drove an hour southwest to Leova. My grandfather had painted vivid pictures of his shtetl youth, and Leova, which has not left poverty in the intervening century, came alive before my eyes. Here was the river where he watered the half-blind family horse; here was the Jewish cemetery; here, down a muddy path, was the old synagogue; here was the church where the priests denounced the Christ-killers.

There are no Jews left in Leova. What used to be the synagogue is now a gymnasium; the caretaker tried to sell it to me. The Holocaust history of Leova is incompletely known, but the last Jews appear to have been rounded up in late 1941 by Germany’s Romanian allies. According to records in the Moldovan State Archives, this group included six people who I believe were part of my grandfather’s family, among them five children, ages 15, 12, 9, 7, and 3. Their last known destination was a concentration camp in Cahul, in what is today southern Moldova.

I am predisposed to believe that there is no great future for the Jews in Europe, because evidence to support this belief is accumulating so quickly. But I am also predisposed to think this because I am an American Jew—which is to say, a person who exists because his ancestors made a run for it when they could.

Article source: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/04/is-it-time-for-the-jews-to-leave-europe/386279/


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