A Jewish family in Antwerp, Belgium
In the aftermath of the religiously motivated attacks in Paris and Copenhagen, the question of how to craft an appropriate response to the marginalization or terrorization of a minority group within a society has become subject to increasingly heated debate. Israel, for its part, has stepped to the fore of this discussion with a troublingly simplistic solution: relocation.
Within hours of the Copenhagen attacks, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that his government would be endorsing a “mass immigration” of Jews from Europe to Israel. This statement was bolstered by the simultaneous announcement of the Israeli cabinet’s approval of a $45 million spending package to stimulate immigration from Europe to Israel. This plan, which had been in the works since the attacks in Paris last month, will attempt to motivate immigration by a number of methods, including greater funding for Hebrew studies and an increase in the number of Israeli immigration officials in European nations with significant Jewish populations.
In his speech, Mr. Netanyahu stated, “Jews have been murdered again on European soil only because they were Jews […] Jews deserve protection in every country, but we say to Jews, to our brothers and sisters: Israel is your home.”
While on its surface a benign statement, a troubling notion is contained within its subtext—that Israel is not only the Jews’ home, but their only home.
Certainly, self-imposed isolation in a perceived safe haven might give members of a religious minority a sense of physical and spiritual security. At the same time, however, it enables the perpetuation of bigoted ideas and mindsets among members of hostile religious majorities. “If the way we deal with terror is to run somewhere else, we should all run to a deserted island,” said Jair Melchior, the chief rabbi of Denmark. He added, “people from Denmark move to Israel because they love Israel, because of Zionism, but not because of terrorism.”
The prevalence and visibility of anti-Semitism has risen markedly in Europe over the past several years, particularly in the wake of the Israel-Hamas war last summer in the Gaza Strip.
Immigration rates of Jews from France to Israel have likewise been on the rise, doubling in the past year, due to feelings of both economic insecurity (due to the country’s endemic economic problems) and physical security. The rate is much lower among Danes, who note Denmark’s strong economy, welfare system, and strong history of Jewish sanctuary in Denmark (the majority of Denmark’s Jewish population survived the Holocaust due to the refuge provided to them by Danes) among their reasons for staying put.
Given these trends—in combination with the heightening occurrences of religious conflict in the region—European leaders are concerned about the prospect of losing hundreds of thousands of citizens to Israel and the United States. Prominent leaders in France and Denmark have issued passionate pleas for Jews to stay: “A Jew who leaves France is a piece of France that is gone,” said French Prime Minister Manual Valls, whose sentiments were echoed by Denmark’s Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt’s remarks that “this is not the Denmark we want. We want a Denmark where people freely can choose one’s religion.”
But Mr. Netanyahu’s remarks aren’t aimed solely, or even primarily, at an international audience. Rather, they are aimed at voters in the country’s upcoming national elections, who will likely see Mr. Netanyahu’s recent statements and actions as being consistent with the security-conscious, proactive image the Prime Minister has tried to cultivate over the past several years. John Mann, the chair of Britain’s Parliamentary committee against anti-Semitism, had much the same view, calling Mr. Netanyahu’s post-Copenhagen posturing, “just crude electioneering. It’s no coincidence that there’s a general election in Israel coming up”.
Nonetheless, Mr. Netanyahu’s open-armed statements are more than just a political ploy, and the coming response to them will mean more than sheer immigration statistics.
To be sure, the significance of this issue lies not just in the way Mr. Netanyahu has tried to twist it in his favor for political gain. Zooming out a bit, it becomes clear that Europe’s post-WWII reputation as one of the world’s champions of human rights and dignity is at stake here. If Europe allows hostile religious majorities and institutional barriers to once again weave their way into the de facto cultural cloth of modern society, it will be a failure to defend the foundational values of the most ambitious and successful experiment in democracy in modern history.
The solution to bigotry in Europe cannot be to simply remove the subjects of said bigotry. The open arms of Israel should not be the only safe harbor for Jews today, both for the sake of Israel and for the sake of religious freedom and pluralism.
On the opposite side of the coin, the legitimacy of Israel cannot be dependent on the existence of anti-Semitism, and our response to that anti-Semitism cannot be to try and outrun it. To do so would be to accept the idea that Jews no longer have a place in Europe, or anywhere outside of a designated Jewish state.