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European Jews don’t need Jeffrey Goldberg’s provocations

Atlantic cover story validates the classic anti-Semitic charge: Jews don’t belong

March 25, 2015 2:00AM ET

I am a European Jew. I know only too well that anti-Jewish hostility is a serious problem in some European countries. But the title of Jeffrey Goldberg’s cover story for the April issue of the Atlantic, “Is it time for Jews to leave Europe?” is not a question. It’s a provocation. An anti-Semite wishing to dress up his animus in politically acceptable language might ask this. But to hear it from a fellow Jew, who purports to care about the Jews of Europe and then concludes that he would “prefer” us to leave, is a betrayal. With friends like Goldberg, who needs enemies?

In an accompanying video discussion with his Atlantic colleague Leon Wieseltier, Goldberg intones, “I can’t sit in judgment of anyone that’s lived in a place for generations,” and says the desire to stay in Europe is “admirable.” But then he tells us we’re “kidding ourselves” if we think a thriving Jewish life is possible. Wieseltier dismisses European Jews by calling us “the saving remnant,” “the afterlife of the European Jewish community.” Goldberg doesn’t disagree. Their judgments are patronizing, contradictory, arrogant and wrong.

At the center of his assessment of Jewish life in Europe is a concept of a new form of post-Holocaust anti-Semitism unprecedented in scale and ferocity. Traditional hatred of European Jews has merged with “Muslim Judeophobia” and manifests itself largely in violence against Jews by Muslims, very many of whom are disenfranchised, subject to discrimination and harassment. European states have failed to integrate them.

Goldberg doesn’t agree that their vociferous opposition to Israel is driven by sympathy for their Palestinian cousins. They are more likely to shout “Heil Hitler!” than “Allahu Akbar!” Israel is seen as the “heir of the Third Reich,” an anti-Semitic discourse that makes Israel “the Jew of the nations.” “Behind anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism,” said the French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, Goldberg’s hero. And while he acknowledges that leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Valls and British Prime Minister David Cameron are fully committed to the fight against anti-Semitism, he questions whether their efforts will succeed.

Although he meets Jews across Europe leading full Jewish lives, they are now “hiding their Jewishness.” They “can’t do anything out in the open anymore,” and “no one is optimistic.” They have Israel as their insurance policy and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urges them all to come. But he doesn’t expect a mass exodus soon — though he would like one.

If this sounds like a plausible story, perhaps it’s because most of it isn’t new. The theory of the “new anti-Semitism” — the notion of Israel as “the Jew of the nations” — has been used to explain away growing, severe criticism of Israel’s conduct since the early 1980s. It rapidly became a tool of Israeli government propaganda. Jewish leaders in Western countries adopted it, as did major political leaders. It became a new orthodoxy.

In fact, the rise in anti-Jewish hostility largely reflects Israel’s illiberal trajectory: defying international law and its U.S. patron, suppressing the Palestinians, allowing fascist and racist tendencies to run riot and reveling in its role as the front line against the Islamist threat. Every time Israel launches a military offensive, anti-Semitic incidents increase, and then the numbers subside. Is today’s violence unprecedented? This is a Guardian headline from November 2003: “The ‘new anti-Semitism’: Is Europe in the grip of the worst bout of hatred since the Holocaust?” — as apocalyptic as any recent examples.

Jews are a constituent part of Europe and have been for 2,000 years. Tragic and devastating as it was, the Holocaust didn’t negate that.

Goldberg focuses on anti-Jewish hostility in France but misses its complexity. Jews have fallen into a trap, the National Bureau of the French Jewish Union for Peace argues. The community is not monolithic but is seen as giving unconditional support to Netanyahu’s Israel, claiming that Jews are the principal victims of the “clash of civilizations” and leading the charge against Islam and for Zionism. Meanwhile, for decades France has failed to tackle the deprivation and institutionalized discrimination faced by youths of Arab and North African origin in public housing where Jews also live. Demonized for then identifying with the oppressed Palestinians, they take out their frustrations on Jews.

This central issue stares Goldberg in the face, yet he repeatedly avoids it. As Ilan Baron writes, Jewish identification with Israel “means that even if Diaspora Jews are not responsible, we can be expected to hold a degree of accountability for what is done by the world’s only Jewish state.” That Muslims reach for anti-Semitic tropes and use violence to express their feelings is unacceptable, but in societies in which such tropes are endemic, it’s not surprising.

To support his jeremiad, Goldberg cherry-picks from inherently unreliable data on anti-Semitic incidents, speaks almost exclusively to serial pessimists and generalizes on the basis of the worst cases of anti-Jewish intimidation. But on the revolutionary transformation of the Jewish position since the Holocaust, he is practically silent. It’s not 1933, he admits. But no mention of the absence of anti-Jewish discrimination and state-sponsored anti-Semitism. Nothing on Jews thriving in every conceivable walk of life across the continent, benefiting from full civil rights and states not questioning whether they belong, in contrast to Muslims. Does he know that there are laws against racial incitement practically everywhere in Europe and also against Holocaust denial in many countries? And has he not noticed the extensive media coverage of anti-Jewish hostility — a sign that societies are still sensitized to the problem?

In Goldberg’s Europe, where Jews live “camouflaged” lives, there can be no vibrant Jewish cultural and religious life. And yet a major survey of new Jewish initiatives in Europe by a respected American research group found a European Jewry that is “confident, vibrant and growing.” For example, there has been a massive growth in Jewish schools, informal Jewish educational frameworks are burgeoning, and academic Jewish studies have blossomed. Hardly a week goes by without the staging of a Jewish cultural festival in Europe. London’s Jewish Book Week is one of the most popular literary festivals in the country, held in one of the capital’s most accessible and open cultural centers. Most remarkable is the revival of Jewish life in formerly communist Europe. Small scale in most places, to be sure — but it’s life, not afterlife. Security issues, fear and other challenges are not insignificant, but as Barbara Spectre of Stockholm’s European Institute for Jewish Studies told Goldberg, “There will be Jewish life in Europe.” He just doesn’t want to hear.

Jews are a constituent part of Europe and have been for 2,000 years. Tragic and devastating as it was, the Holocaust didn’t negate that. European Jews can’t control their own fate, but American Jews can’t either. European Jews can change their fate, however, by following one good American Jewish example: Make horizontal alliances to fight racism, discrimination, social and economic exclusion and injustice. Also, show sympathy and concern for Jews and Palestinians in Israel and the Palestinian territories by supporting equal rights for all, not Jewish exceptionalism — not to curry favor with critics but because it’s the right thing to do.

Although Goldberg thinks Israel’s future as a Jewish haven is open to question, by concluding that Jews should leave Europe, he effectively endorses Netanyahu’s classic Zionist call for all European Jews to go and live there. How perverse that in an 11,000-word piece of reportage designed to expose the consequences of contemporary hatred of Jews in Europe, Goldberg ends up validating the classic anti-Semitic charge: Jews don’t belong.

Antony Lerman has written extensively on anti-Semitism and Jewish life in Europe. He was the director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, a think tank on issues facing Jews and other minorities in Europe, and is the author of “The Making and Unmaking of a Zionist: A Personal and Political Journey.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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