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Panelists debate the future of European Jews

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European Jews make aliyah to Israel in July, 1947 WIKI COMMONS PHOTO
European Jews make aliyah to Israel in July, 1947 WIKI COMMONS PHOTO

Journalist Bret Stephens reached deep into the past for a look into the future, and what he found suggested European Jews ought to have their bags packed and be ready for a quick departure.

It was 1903 when anti-Semitic pogroms broke out in Kishinev, then part of the Russian empire, he recounted. Forty-seven Jews were killed, 500 injured and 600 homes were destroyed. At the time, Jews considered what to do. Some thought the troubles would pass, but his great-grandmother had a different perspective. It was because of her urging that the family packed up and moved to the United States, thus saving them from the fate of their co-religionists decades later at the hands of the Nazis.

Stephens, deputy editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal, presented his dire prediction at a panel discussion at the Munk School of Global Affairs April 7. He was joined on a panel by Prof. Derek Penslar, the University of Toronto’s Samuel Zacks chair in Jewish history, and Diana Pinto, an academic and writer who participated from Paris via Skype.

The topic under discussion was “European Jews and Israel: Security and Existential Dilemmas.”

READ: ALIYAH FROM WESTERN EUROPE AT ALL-TIME HIGH

Stephens suggested a “bad smell” was permeating European society – the stench of anti-Semitism, which was never dispatched, despite suggestions after World War II that Europeans had finally put it behind them.

Bret Stephens
Bret Stephens

Stephens presented polling data that found in 2003 that 59 per cent of Europeans believed Israel was the greatest threat to world peace, and anecdotal evidence to show that anti-Semitism, often in the form of criticism of Israel, runs deep in European society. The evidence ranged from a British diplomat calling Israel “a shitty country” to the Spanish newspaper El Pais running a crude anti-Semitic cartoon of former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon.

The situation in Europe is being exacerbated by the immigration of one million Muslims, who bring with them anti-Semitic attitudes about Jews.

Stephens noted that 5,000 French troops were assigned to protect Jewish children at their schools and that approximately 8,000 French Jews left the country for Israel in 2015. (Only 1,775 emigrated in 2010 and 2,904 in 2013.) He wondered what it says about their view of France when they depart for a country where Jews are being stabbed in the street.

The trend is worrying, he said. “It would be foolish to wish [it] away.”

Stephens’ diagnosis and prognosis were disputed by both other panelists. Penslar suggested that this is not 1938 all over again. There is no state policy of anti-Semitism in any European country today, he noted.

If you focus on selective quotations from European leaders, you might ignore the fact that Jews have not seen their rights stripped, they have not been put into ghettos, and Jewish life in Europe is actually quite “robust,” Penslar said.

“There is something to be said for cultural fluorescence and the desire to retain a way of life in light of physical danger,” he added.

Penslar said factors other than concern over safety are prompting some European Jews to leave. In Antwerp, Jews are leaving for New York and London because the diamond industry is being taken over by Asians. The Orthodox are moving  to Israel to live more fulfilling Jewish lives, he said.

Penslar noted that even former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert said Israel was no safer for Jews than other locations, though they could fight for themselves as Jews.

There is a psychological advantage from a sense of Jewish solidarity in Israel, Penslar said.

In the end, leaving France “is a very personal choice… Trying to find security in a world where security is rare, especially for Jews,” he said.

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Speaking from Paris, Pinto suggested the situation in France looks worse from the outside than it does within the country. There was solidarity with French Jews following the Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher attacks in early 2015 and with subsequent terrorist events, it became clear the “war… is against all French life,” she said.

Pinto, who has lectured widely on transAtlantic issues and Jewish life in Europe, said the complexities of modern life have also touched American Jews, where debates already experienced in Europe over boycotts,  anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are current. What’s more, the traditional American relationship with Israel may be shifting, as the United States is influenced by domestic constituencies into becoming more Latin American- and Asian-oriented.

At a time when  an Israeli NGO has opened an office in Berlin to assist Syrian refugees, “what you have now is complexity all over the place,” she said.

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