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Europe’s last chance to hold on to its Jews

One of the most quoted passages from Amos Oz’s autobiographical novel “A Tale of Love and Darkness” tells of Oz’s father relating how in 1930s Europe he had seen on the walls the anti-Semitic graffiti “Jews go to Palestine” only to arrive in Palestine and see “Jews go back to Europe” scrawled on a wall in Jerusalem. Oz, in writing this apocryphal story, tried to encapsulate the tragedy of Jewish existence in the 20th century.

French Environment Minister Royal touches the arm of Valerie Braham, the widow of Phillipe Braham, one of four French Jews killed in an attack on a Paris kosher grocery, during their joint funeral Photo by Reuters.

As more and more commentators hear, in the latest events in Europe, the tones of the dark days of the previous century, it is worth noting the sudden popularity of Jews among the continent’s leaders. In an interview with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls is quoted saying “if 100,000 Jews leave, France will no longer be France. The French Republic will be judged a failure.” The French government has noticed the increasing numbers of Jews leaving the country and doesn’t seem to like it.

This brings to mind a trend I first noticed a few years ago during a visit to Berlin when a senior government official told me that “basically, any Jew who immigrates to Germany will get citizenship very easily. We are doing everything to rebuild our Jewish community.” The numbers bear him out. By most estimates, there are over 200,000 Jews in Germany today, 10 times the number living there a quarter of a century ago.

Early last year the largest storm cloud looming on the horizon of the Jewish world was the dire prediction that with the growing chaos in Ukraine and the fall of the oligarch-supported Yanukovych government, the old hatreds would be unleashed and a wave of pogroms would engulf the Jews of that country where blood libels are still widely believed. These were not empty threats; some of the parties most active in last year’s Ukrainian revolution were openly anti-Semitic and celebrated the memory of mass-murderers of Jews. The fact that Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin, which opposed Yanukovych’s ouster, was trying to brand the revolutionaries as “neo-Nazis” didn’t necessarily mean it was untrue.

What eventually happened was unprecedented in Jewish history.

The new administration in Kiev, with the full backing of those very ultra-nationalists, went out of its way to defend the Jewish community and integrate its leadership into the government. Actual anti-Semitic attacks were few and far between and the Jewish oligarchs have become central power players. Moscow and Kiev competed over who was the real protector of the Jews, blasting each other for every real or perceived instance of Judeophobia.

As the four Jewish victims of last Friday’s attack on the Hyper Cacher grocery store in Paris were being laid to rest in Jerusalem and hundreds of French soldiers were deployed to guard Jewish schools in France, it seemed almost as if the two countries were in a similar kind of struggle for the hearts and minds of French Jews. Benjamin Netanyahu used every opportunity to remind them that Israel was their only “real home” and senior French politicians protested that French Jews are as French as Pernod and Gitanes. Environment Minister Segolene Royal representing France at the funeral in Jerusalem on Tuesday said “you are the republic.”

On Wednesday, a small British Jewish organization scandalized the media with a report claiming that 45 percent of Britons hold anti-Semitic views. Behind the scenes British government officials began feverishly briefing journalists, pointing them to more reliable data proving what a philosemitic nation the United Kingdom is.

Some Israeli politicians and pundits describe how Europe is hurtling back to the 1930s, if not to the Spanish Inquisition and will soon expel the Jews from its midst. At the same time, the governments of the continent have never been trying so hard to prove the opposite, promoting a vision of Europe as a paradise for its Jews.

Ah, so you will say that the real spirit of jolly friendly England can be divined in the remark made by a BBC reporter to a daughter of Holocaust survivors in Paris this week that the murder of French Jews in a kosher supermarket could be explained by the fact that “Palestinians suffer hugely at Jewish hands as well.” After all, this is the same reporter who spoke recently of “prominent Jewish faces” opposing a tax targeting the rich fat-cats. And for all of the heartfelt protestations of love from French politicians, they failed to prevent the third murder of Jews in three years by French-born terrorists. We’ll believe them when they get serious about dealing with their Islamist problem. And do you really want us to believe that Germany, Russia and Ukraine can be cleansed from their history of persecution, pogroms and genocide?

Europe will forever be tainted. It will always be the continent of expulsion, blood libels, numerus clausus, ghettos and the Final Solution. It accounts for only 10 percent of the world’s Jews, perhaps even less. How can anyone deny the demographics? Between the rise of the Muslim tide and reawakening of ugly old nationalism in the form of resurgent far-right parties, can there be space for Jews?

In his monumental television series, “The Story of the Jews,” British historian Simon Schama presented two alternative endings. One was Zionism with its promise of a Jewish state and all the attendant flaws and contradictions of an embattled democracy. The other was the wide sunny uplands of America, the goldene medina, the most successful Jewish story in history. That is the choice: Zion versus Manhattan, the Silicon Valley or the startup nation. Europe had its chance, it had multiple chances to make the Jews feel welcome and succeeded in missing each and every one of them.

And now Europe is appealing to the Jews to give it one last chance.

It may be too late. In 2,000 years Jews have never constituted such a small proportion of the continent’s population. Paradoxically however, they have never been so materially successful, well-integrated and publicly prominent. But the trends remain ominous – in most places, their numbers are dwindling, communities eroded by emigration and assimilation. The only hope European nations have of maintaining a viable Jewish presence by the end of this century is by making sure that Jews feel at home as much as they do in Israel and America. It may be impossible, but the only way that it may prove possible is by safeguarding European democracy and tolerance.

Manuel Valls is not necessarily right. If even 200,000 Jews emigrate because of financial reasons or Zionism or because other lands offer them more opportunities, France will still remain France. However, a France in which Jews feel they are no longer secure or welcome and have little choice but to leave, will certainly be a very different country.

Europe’s effort to hold on to its Jews may ultimately fail, but it is a campaign Europe needs to wage for its own interests. It is no coincidence that the terror cell which carried out last week’s attacks targeted both Jews and the irreverent cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo. Freedom of speech is shrinking in Europe, hemmed in on all sides by libel laws, political correctness, financial pressure and religious intimidation. Just like Jews, the outliers of a wildly independent and free press are canaries down the mine of European democracy. Some Jews were offended that in the massive march, much more attention was given to the Charlie Hebdo victims than to those from Hyper Cacher, but their fates are now entwined. If France and the rest of Europe will fight for freedom and tolerance on the continent, then it may have a chance of remaining a home to its Jews. If not, the Jews will have elsewhere to go, but Europe will lose much more.

Anshel Pfeffer