“Europe will forever be tainted”, wrote Haaretz journalist Anshel Pfeffer in the wake of the terrorist attacks against Charlie Hebdo magazine and the kosher supermarket in Paris. “It will always be the continent of expulsion, blood libels, numerus clausus, ghettos and the Final Solution.”
It was an ominous warning to European Jewry that it “may be too late” to save them from discrimination, hatred and violence. “Freedom of speech is shrinking in Europe”, Pfeffer concluded, “hemmed in on all sides by libel laws, political correctness, financial pressure and religious intimidation.” Jews would inevitably flee, he argued, if “freedom and tolerance” didn’t survive across Europe; instinctively Jews knew the history of pogroms, expulsions and death camps and never felt safe away from Israel.
This is the debate that never goes away. It’s a discussion that lurks under the surface of almost all arguments on the future of the Jewish people and the Jewish state. Terror in France has unpicked a scab that never heals, unleashing insecurity over what it means to be a Jew in the 21st century and where to live it. Growing numbers of French Jews are moving to Israel, claiming they feel safer there than in their birth country, happy that they can openly wear a kippah [skullcap] and comforted with an army to protect them. There’s little comment about what that military actually does to the Palestinians, occupying and brutalising them daily.
It was a highly selective argument forcefully made recently by Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, telling French Jews that they were only secure under his nation’s protection, though he was slammed for shamelessly appropriating a tragedy for political gain. Israel even pressured one of the Jewish victim’s families to be buried there.
Too much of the discussion in the last weeks has revolved around a clash of civilisations narrative, with refined Europe, Israel and the west on the one side and barbaric extremism of the Muslim fanatic on the other. This is a gross insult to the truth. Moroccan-Dutch writer Abdelkader Benali explains that the reason so many European Muslims are disenfranchised, and a tiny minority are attracted to violent jihad, is because “Muslims are every bit as European as the Roma, gays, intellectuals, farmers and factory workers. We have been in Europe for centuries and politicians and the press must stop acting as if we arrived yesterday. We are here to stay.” Both Said and Cherif Kouachi, the Charlie Hebdo killers, had a long history of radicalisation against France, the US and Jews.
Increasing numbers of Muslims have argued that Islam itself needs to become far more capable of both tolerating and accepting blasphemy in a non-violent way and acknowledging that virulent antisemitism, not simply in response to Israeli violence in Gaza or the West Bank, is a rising problem. Not all anti-Jewish hatred is about Israeli crimes in Palestine (though it is one of many causes). The Jews of France have felt increasingly targeted for the act of being Jewish. Historical anti-Semitism was always about targeting the “otherness” of Jews, playing on stereotypes that today finds an expression in Islamist attacks on Jewish centres of learning. Muslims also face deep discrimination for their faith, practices and alleged association with terrorism. In fact, separatist groups are the largest majority of perpetrators of political violence in Europe, not Islamist jihadis. For example, in 2013 there were 152 terror attacks across Europe and only two were “religiously motivated”, according to Europol.
Israel is hardly a good model of tolerance and plurality; there’s a reason European boycotts are surging, more young Israelis are refusing to serve in an occupying military and prominent Zionist groups decry intermarriage as treason. It’s a delusion to believe that Jews are either safer in Israel than in Europe or more able to live peaceful lives. The narrative pushed by Netanyahu that all Jews of the world should move to Israel – 90% of his election funding comes from American Jews, proving that a Jewish diaspora remains an essential support base for maintaining Israeli policies – cynically expands the belief that Jews are the eternal victim (despite now having a country with nuclear weapons). Islam is framed as the enemy, an image recently tweeted by the Israeli embassy in Ireland.
Instead, Israeli writer Orly Noy explains, it’s easier to “promote a worldview in which there is no national conflict, no occupation, no Palestinian people and no blatant disregard for human rights. There are only Jews and Muslims. Turns out we look a lot better fighting a religious war than we do running an occupation.” Free speech is constantly under threat in Israel with a vocal and active far-right, Jewish fundamentalist movement.
Hypocrisy over free speech principles defines this debate. Muslims are accused of having no sense of humour over depictions of the Prophet Mohammed and yet Israel and its backers routinely try to censor images critical of the Jewish state.
France, with its historical and ongoing record of colonial adventures in Africa and the Middle East, claims to believe in free speech but wants to silence those with whom it disagrees. The Charlie Hebdo massacre should enlighten us to the real power of satire and how it affects those with and without power. Is it a false comparison to say that if you can insult the prophet Muhammad, you should be able to poke fun at the Holocaust? Does British journalist Mehdi Hasan have a point when he says that “Muslims are expected to have thicker skins than their Christian and Jewish brethren”?
British political parties such as the UK Independence Party have mainstreamed anti-Muslim rhetoric of the type once experienced by Jews. “The cold truth is that organised suspicion and denigration of Islam is the new antisemitism”, argues historian John Keane. Islamophobia is a scourge despite the term being dismissed by the French prime minister.
So what are Jews to do from Australia to Europe to America? In a recent survey, a majority of British Jews said they couldn’t imagine a long-term future in England, concerned with rising anti-Semitism. This Jewish feeling of insecurity is real and can’t be easily dismissed. British police have recently stepped up patrolling Jewish communities and soldiers in Belgium are guarding Jewish sites. The threat exists.
The answer isn’t more state surveillance, as proposed by Australia, Britain, France and the US, nor mass emigration. The facts speak to a vibrant Jewish diaspora that has the right, in light of the 20th century, to settle and be safe wherever they want. Fleeing to Israel isn’t the answer. It would be a “blatant capitulation to terror”, suggested Israeli reporter Chemi Shalev.
Israel has framed itself since its inception as a “light unto the nations”. “There is no demographic or practical existence for the Jewish people without a Jewish state”, Netanyahu proclaimed in 2010. But the vast bulk of global Jewry feels secure in their own multicultural country with full rights and responsibilities, a transformation from 100 years ago when Jews were often ghettoised.
Living in Israel isn’t the solution to antisemitism, though many like the concept of a Jewish state despite its racial exclusivity. Modern Jewish identity isn’t about cowering in fear but should be about building decent communities that accept the diversity of human existence.