Is It Time for the Jews to Leave Europe?
For half a century, memories of the Holocaust limited anti-Semitism on the Continent. That period has ended—the recent fatal attacks in Paris and Copenhagen are merely the latest examples of rising violence against Jews. Renewed vitriol among right-wing fascists and new threats from radicalized Islamists have created a crisis, confronting Jews with an agonizing choice.
by Jeffrey Goldberg
“All comes from the Jew; all returns to the Jew.”
— Édouard Drumont (1844–1917), founder of the Anti-Semitic League of France
I. The Scourge of Our Time
The French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, the son of Holocaust survivors, is an accomplished, even gifted, pessimist. To his disciples, he is a Jewish Zola, accusing France’s bien-pensant intellectual class of complicity in its own suicide. To his foes, he is a reactionary whose nostalgia for a fairy-tale French past is induced by an irrational fear of Muslims. Finkielkraut’s cast of mind is generally dark, but when we met in Paris in early January, two days after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, he was positively grim.
“My French identity is reinforced by the very large number of people who openly declare, often now with violence, their hostility to French values and culture,” he said. “I live in a strange place. There is so much guilt and so much worry.” We were seated at a table in his apartment, near the Luxembourg Gardens. I had come to discuss with him the precarious future of French Jewry, but, as the hunt for the Charlie Hebdo killers seemed to be reaching its conclusion, we had become fixated on the television.
Finkielkraut sees himself as an alienated man of the left. He says he loathes both radical Islamism and its most ferocious French critic, Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s extreme right-wing—and once openly anti-Semitic—National Front party. But he has lately come to find radical Islamism to be a more immediate, even existential, threat to France than the National Front. “I don’t trust Le Pen. I think there is real violence in her,” he told me. “But she is so successful because there actually is a problem of Islam in France, and until now she has been the only one to dare say it.”
Suddenly, there was news: a kosher supermarket in Porte de Vincennes, in eastern Paris, had come under attack. “Of course,” Finkielkraut said. “The Jews.” Even before anti-Semitic riots broke out in France last summer, Finkielkraut had become preoccupied with the well-being of France’s Jews.
We knew nothing about this new attack—except that we already knew everything. “People don’t defend the Jews as we expected to be defended,” he said. “It would be easier for the left to defend the Jews if the attackers were white and rightists.”
I asked him a very old Jewish question: Do you have a bag packed?
“We should not leave,” he said, “but maybe for our children or grandchildren there will be no choice.”
Reports suggested that a number of people were dead at the market. I said goodbye, and took the Métro to Porte de Vincennes. Stations near the market were closed, so I walked through neighborhoods crowded with police. Sirens echoed through the streets. Teenagers gathered by the barricades, taking selfies. No one had much information. One young man, however, said of the victims, “It’s just the Feuj.” Feuj, an inversion of Juif—“Jew”—is often used as a slur.
I located an acquaintance, a man who volunteers with the Jewish Community Security Service, a national organization founded after a synagogue bombing in 1980, to protect Jewish institutions from anti-Semitic attack. “Supermarkets now,” he said bleakly. We made our way closer to the forward police line, and heard volleys of gunfire. The police had raided the market; the suspect, Amedy Coulibaly, we soon heard, was dead. So were four Jews he had murdered. They had been shopping for the Sabbath when he entered the market and started shooting.
France’s 475,000 Jews represent less than 1 percent of the country’s population. Yet last year, according to the French Interior Ministry, 51 percent of all racist attacks targeted Jews. The statistics in other countries, including Great Britain, are similarly dismal. In 2014, Jews in Europe were murdered, raped, beaten, stalked, chased, harassed, spat on, and insulted for being Jewish. Sale Juif—“dirty Jew”—rang in the streets, as did “Death to the Jews,” and “Jews to the gas.”
The epithet dirty Jew, Zola wrote in “J’Accuse …!,” was the “scourge of our time.” “J’Accuse …!” was published in 1898.
The resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe is not—or should not be—a surprise. One of the least surprising phenomena in the history of civilization, in fact, is the persistence of anti-Semitism in Europe, which has been the wellspring of Judeophobia for 1,000 years. The Church itself functioned as the centrifuge of anti-Semitism from the time it rebelled against its mother religion until the middle of the 20th century. As Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of Great Britain, has observed, Europe has added to the global lexicon of bigotry such terms as Inquisition, blood libel, auto‑da‑fé, ghetto, pogrom, and Holocaust. Europe has blamed the Jews for an encyclopedia of sins. The Church blamed the Jews for killing Jesus; Voltaire blamed the Jews for inventing Christianity. In the febrile minds of anti-Semites, Jews were usurers and well-poisoners and spreaders of disease. Jews were the creators of both communism and capitalism; they were clannish but also cosmopolitan; cowardly and warmongering; self-righteous moralists and defilers of culture. Ideologues and demagogues of many permutations have understood the Jews to be a singularly malevolent force standing between the world and its perfection.
Despite this history of sorrow, Jews spent long periods living unmolested in Europe. And even amid the expulsions and persecutions and pogroms, Jewish culture prospered. Rabbis and sages produced texts and wrote liturgical poems that are still used today. Emancipation and enlightenment opened the broader culture to Jews, who came to prominence in politics, philosophy, the arts, and science—Chagall and Kafka, Einstein and Freud, Lévi-Strauss and Durkheim. An entire civilization flourished in Yiddish.
Hitler destroyed most everything. But the story Europeans tell themselves—or told themselves, until the proof became too obvious to ignore—is that Judenhass, the hatred of Jews, ended when Berlin fell 70 years ago.
Events of the past 15 years suggest otherwise.
We are witnessing today the denouement of an unusual epoch in European life, the age of the post-Holocaust Jewish dispensation.
When the survivors of the Shoah emerged from the camps, and from hiding places in cities and forests across Europe, they were met on occasion by pogroms. (In Poland, for instance, some Christians were unhappy to see their former Jewish neighbors return home, and so arranged their deaths.) But over time, Europe managed to absorb the small number of Jewish survivors who chose to remain. A Jewish community even grew in West Germany. At the same time, the countries of Western Europe embraced the cause of the young and besieged state of Israel.
The Shoah served for a while as a sort of inoculation against the return of overt Jew-hatred—but the effects of the inoculation, it is becoming clear, are wearing off. What was once impermissible is again imaginable. Memories of 6 million Jewish dead fade, and guilt becomes burdensome. (In The Eternal Anti-Semite, the writer Henryk Broder popularized the notion that “the Germans will never forgive the Jews for Auschwitz.”) Israel is coming to be understood not as a small country in a difficult spot whose leaders, especially lately, have (in my opinion) been making shortsighted and potentially disastrous decisions, but as a source of cosmological evil—the Jew of nations.
An argument made with increasing frequency—motivated, perhaps, by some perverse impulse toward psychological displacement—calls Israel the spiritual and political heir of the Third Reich, rendering the Jews as Nazis. (Some in Europe and the Middle East take this line of thought to an even more extreme conclusion: “Those who condemn Hitler day and night have surpassed Hitler in barbarism,” the president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, said last year of Israel.)
The previously canonical strain of European anti-Semitism, the fascist variant, still flourishes in places. In Hungary, a leader of the right-wing Jobbik party called on the government—a government that has come under criticism for whitewashing the history of Hungary’s collaboration with the Nazis—to draw up a list of all the Jews in the country who might pose a “national-security risk.” In Greece, a recent survey found that 69 percent of adults hold anti-Semitic views, and the fascists of the country’s Golden Dawn party are open in their Jew-hatred.
But what makes this new era of anti-Semitic violence in Europe different from previous ones is that traditional Western patterns of anti-Semitic thought have now merged with a potent strain of Muslim Judeophobia. Violence against Jews in Western Europe today, according to those who track it, appears to come mainly from Muslims, who in France, the epicenter of Europe’s Jewish crisis, outnumber Jews 10 to 1.
That the chief propagators of contemporary European anti-Semitism may be found in the Continent’s large and disenfranchised Muslim immigrant communities—communities that are themselves harassed and assaulted by hooligans associated with Europe’s surging right—is flummoxing to, among others, Europe’s elites. Muslims in Europe are in many ways a powerless minority. The failure of Europe to integrate Muslim immigrants has contributed to their exploitation by anti-Semitic propagandists and by recruiters for such radical projects as the Islamic State, or ISIS.
Yet the new anti-Semitism flourishing in corners of the European Muslim community would be impoverished without the incorporation of European fascist tropes. Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, a comedian of French Cameroonian descent who specializes in Holocaust revisionism and gas-chamber humor, is the inventor of the quenelle, widely understood as an inverted Nazi salute. His followers have taken to photographing themselves making the quenelle in front of synagogues, Holocaust memorials, and sites of past anti-Jewish terrorist attacks. Dieudonné has built an ideological partnership with Alain Soral, the anti-Jewish conspiracy theorist and 9/11 “truther” who was for several years a member of the National Front’s central committee. Soral was photographed not long ago making the quenelle in front of Berlin’s Holocaust memorial.
The union of Middle Eastern and European forms of anti-Semitic expression has led to bizarre moments. Dave Rich, an official of the Community Security Trust, a Jewish organization that monitors anti-Semitism in the United Kingdom, wrote recently: “Those British Muslims who verbally abuse British Jews on the street are more likely to shout ‘Heil Hitler’ than ‘Allahu akbar’ when they do so. This is despite the fact that their parents and grandparents were probably chased through the very same streets by gangs of neo-Nazi skinheads shouting similar slogans.”
The marriage of anti-Semitic narratives was consummated in January of last year, during a so-called Day of Rage march in Paris that was organized to protest the leadership of the French president, François Hollande. The rally drew roughly 17,000 people, mostly far-rightists but also many French Muslims.
“On one side of this march, you had neonationalist and reactionary Catholics, who had strongly and violently opposed gay marriage, and on the other side young people from the banlieues [suburbs], supporters of Dieudonné, often from African and North African background, whose beliefs are based in opposition to the ‘system’ and on victimhood competition,” Simone Rodan-Benzaquen, the Paris director of the American Jewish Committee, told me. “What unites them is their hatred of Jews.” That day, on the streets of Paris, the anti-Hollande message was overtaken by another chanted slogan: “Juif, la France n’est pas à toi”—“Jew, France is not for you.”
Howard Jacobson, the Man Booker Prize–winning writer whose latest novel, J, is a study of a future genocide in an unnamed but very English-seeming country of an unnamed people who very much resemble the Jews, told me the book emerged from an inchoate but ever-present sense of anxiety. “I felt as if I was writing out of dread,” he said when we met recently near his home in London.
“It will never go away, this hatred of Jews … and the proof of this is that barely 50 years after the Holocaust, the desire for Jewish bloodletting isn’t over,” he said. “Couldn’t they have given us a bit longer? Give us 100 years and we’ll return to it.”
“I know this is a dangerous thing to say … but the Holocaust didn’t satisfy.”
I’ve spent much of the past year traveling across Europe, in search of an answer to a simple, but pressing, question: Is it time for the Jews to leave? Europe is a Jewish museum and a Jewish graveyard, but after the war it became, remarkably—and despite Hitler’s best efforts—home once again to living, breathing Jewish communities. Is it still a place for Jews who want to live uncamouflaged Jewish lives?
II. “Don’t Go to the Jew”
On the morning of March 19, 2012, a man named Mohamed Merah, a French citizen of Algerian descent, parked his motorbike in front of the entrance of a Jewish school in Toulouse called Ozar Hatorah, which is in a placid residential neighborhood not far from the city center. Merah, who had been radicalized in a French prison and trained in an al-Qaeda camp in Pakistan, dismounted and almost immediately began firing a 9 mm pistol at students and the parents who were dropping them off. He killed a 30-year-old rabbi and his two sons, who were 3 and 6 years old. Merah then walked into the schoolyard, shooting at students. He chased down an 8-year-old girl named Myriam Monsonego, catching her by the hair. Merah held her down and placed his 9 mm to her head, but the weapon jammed. He switched to another handgun, pressed it against her head, and fired. The sound of shooting had brought the school’s principal to the school yard. Yaacov Monsonego arrived to see Merah execute his daughter.
Merah escaped on his motorbike. He was later shot and killed by police. French authorities said he was also responsible for the earlier killings of three French soldiers of Muslim background. In the theology of radical French Islamism, Muslims who cooperate with the state are as much an enemy as Jewish children.
Ozar Hatorah, which is today known as Ohr Hatorah, is surrounded by a high wall, topped in places by barbed wire. I visited the school in October with Nicole Yardéni, the Toulouse representative of the national Jewish council. Yardéni wanted me to meet a physician named Charles Bensemhoun, who would explain, she said, the collapsing relationship between Toulouse’s 18,000 or so Jews and its much larger Muslim population.
Bensemhoun, who is in his mid-50s, is Sephardic, born in Morocco. Three-quarters of France’s Jews are Sephardim, chased from Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia in the 1950s and ’60s.
Many of Bensemhoun’s patients are North African Muslims. “These are people like me, who were born there,” he told me outside the school’s synagogue. “We speak the same language, literally”—he says he and his patients move easily between Arabic and French—“and we understand each other in very deep ways. They’re very comfortable with me as their doctor.” He went on, “But it’s changed in recent years. Now their children are telling them, ‘Don’t go to the Jew,’ ‘You can’t trust the Jew.’ They’ve become radicalized. It’s upsetting. The new generation is anti-Semitic in a way that we haven’t experienced.”
Are these patients listening to their children? “Yes,” he said. “In some cases, yes.”
I asked him whether he thought he had a future in Toulouse. He smiled. “Does any Jew have a future in Toulouse?” The Jewish community is shrinking, Yardéni said. Some families are moving to Paris. Others are moving to Israel.
The Merah attack was the gravest in the modern Jewish history of Toulouse (the slaughter of the city’s Jews by Crusaders in 1320 is presumed to have been bloodier). But the list of less tragic, though still damaging, attacks is long. Last July, Molotov cocktails were thrown at a Jewish cultural center; street harassment of Jews walking to and from school and synagogue is common. Early last year, Yardéni and other Jews were banned from a left-wing demonstration called to protest homophobia and—of all things—anti-Semitism, because they were ruled to be Zionists. The local police record dozens of anti-Jewish hate crimes each year. “There is a point where it becomes difficult to stay,” Bensemhoun said.
Monsonego, the school principal who saw his daughter murdered, came out of the synagogue. He is a small, slight man with a graying beard and a hesitant gait. We spoke privately for a couple of minutes. I found him in some ways unfathomable. I don’t understand how a father maintains his sanity after witnessing what he witnessed—but his daughter’s murder has not caused him to lose faith in God or in his work.
Later, I asked Yardéni why the Monsonego family has remained in Toulouse. She herself is one of the city’s most visible Jewish leaders, and receives many veiled death threats. “If the leaders of the community run away, what will happen to the rest of the people?” she said.
III. “Je Suis Juif”
Like many of the banlieues that ring Paris, Montreuil bears no socioeconomic or aesthetic resemblance to the Paris of popular imagination. The architecture is rude, the parks are unkempt, and the people, many of them immigrants from North Africa, are estranged from la belle France. On the way to Montreuil, in the Métro, I passed defaced posters of the musician Lou Reed. Stars of David had been drawn on his nose. Other graffiti was less ambiguous: Nique les Juifs—“Fuck the Jews.”
I was visiting a vocational high school, the Daniel Mayer School. The school is associated with ORT, which is a Russian acronym for the Society for Trades and Agricultural Labor. ORT was founded in 1880 to educate the destitute Jews of the Pale of Settlement, the vast ghetto created by czarist Russia for its Jewish subjects. In France, ORT schools educated a generation of Polish and Russian survivors of the Holocaust; today, they primarily educate the children of North African Jews.
The Mayer School is housed in a seven-story building in Montreuil, near the Robespierre Métro station. The principal, Isaac Touitou, gathered a group of students—mainly ages 17 and 18—and teachers in the library to talk with me. These were mostly the children of striving working-class parents; the school, which has a reputation for rigor, is a ladder to the middle class. Its students graduate as opticians, dental technicians, accountants, computer programmers. The school also functions as a haven for young Jews living in a dangerous environment.
“Once we get here we’re safe,” one of the students told me. “Getting here from home is the hard part.” Many of the students live in distant and equally perilous suburbs, including Sarcelles, the site of anti-Jewish riots this past summer; and Créteil, where Jews have suffered beatings and rapes by anti-Semitic gangs.
Each of the 10 students had a story to tell about brutality. “I was in a public school in Créteil but I had to leave. People would yell at me in the halls: ‘Dirty Jew.’ ‘Fucking Jew.’ ‘I want to kill all of you,’ ” a student named Paola said. “Two years ago they attacked my brother. They would always scream, ‘Go back to your country.’ They meant Israel.”
The ORT school had itself been the target of harassment. Touitou described a recent incident in which about 20 or so students from a neighboring public school had gathered in front of the building and made the quenelle.
The students I talked with in the library generally agreed that their future lay outside of France. “A lot of the Muslims hate us here,” a student named Alexandre said. His parents had already moved to Israel. They were two of the roughly 7,000 French Jews who left for Israel in 2014. Alexandre would be joining them after graduation.
Zionism, which at its essence is a critique of Europe—Theodor Herzl, its founder, interpreted the Dreyfus affair in France and the pogroms in Russia as invitations to seek an alternative Jewish future outside of Europe—is perpetually resuscitated by anti-Semitism. Paola said, “Those kids told me to go to Israel, so that’s what I’m doing.” Others were contemplating the possibility of life in Quebec, and some dreamt of America.
The students talked about ways in which Jews concealed their identity. I’d heard that it had already become fairly common practice in some of the apartment blocks in the banlieues for Jews to remove the mezuzot from their doors. A mezuzah is a piece of parchment that contains Bible verses and that is placed in a case and then affixed to a doorpost. In some suburbs, mezuzot had become pointers for those in search of Jews to harm.
But the students told me something new. “Jewish people are telling other Jews to take down their mezuzot,” one of the students said. “People are being pressured to hide that they are Jewish. The pressure can be very intense.” The impetus for this new campaign seems to have been an incident that occurred in early December, in which a group of robbers broke into an apartment in Créteil. They told the occupants that they knew they were Jewish, and therefore wealthy, and then they raped a 19-year-old woman in the apartment.
“Everyone is saying ‘Je suis Charlie’ today,” Wendy, another of the students, said, in reference to the popular slogan of support for the slain Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. “But this has been happening to the Jews for years and no one cares.”
“It would be nice if someone would say ‘Je suis Juif,’ ” Sandy, another student, said.
Everyone agreed that more attacks were inevitable. “Next week or next month, no one knows,” David Attias, a teacher at the school, said. “But it’s coming. Everyone knows it.”
The next attack came that afternoon. I met with the students on the morning of January 9. Several hours later came the massacre at the kosher supermarket, about a mile away. One of the dead was a graduate of another ORT school.
IV. Fear in Sweden
The most persecuted Jew in Europe is almost certainly Shneur Kesselman, the rabbi of Malmö, a city in southern Sweden. He was dispatched there by the Brooklyn-based Chabad Hasidic movement.
Malmö, which sits across the Øresund from Copenhagen, has a population of roughly 300,000. This includes a large number, perhaps 50,000 or so, of Muslim immigrants. The Jewish community is much smaller—by some estimates, there are fewer than 1,000 Jews; the population has dropped by half in recent years. Malmö’s leadership has at times been at odds with Malmö’s Jews. A former mayor said that the city accepts “neither Zionism nor anti-Semitism”—a statement that was taken as hostile by Jewish Swedes supportive of Israel’s existence.
Acts of anti-Jewish harassment and vandalism are common in Malmö, and Kesselman is a main target, because he is the only Jew there who still dresses in an identifiably Jewish manner—kippah, black hat, black coat, and long beard. Jewish teenagers in Malmö told me that wearing a Star of David necklace can incite a beating. Kesselman estimates that he has been the target of roughly 150 anti-Semitic attacks in his 10 years in the city, mainly verbal, but also physical. “There is a lot of cursing at me, and people sometimes throw bottles at me from their cars. Someone backed up their car in order to hit me,” he said when I met with him. Occasionally, he said, people spit on him.
Donors recently provided him a car of his own, so he would not have to walk from his apartment to Malmö’s sole synagogue, except on the Sabbath, when Jewish law forbids driving. I attended services at the synagogue with Kesselman one Friday night in January. The synagogue is a large, ornate, Moorish-style building that was constructed in 1903. Seventeen others attended the service, most of them men in their 60s. There was no police presence around the synagogue—Scandinavian governments have been far more lackadaisical about Jewish security than France’s—but the Jewish community has its own security guards. Before I was allowed to enter, a security officer, a Swedish Jew—playing a role similar to that of Dan Uzan, the Danish Jew killed in a mid-February attack on a synagogue in Copenhagen—quizzed me at length about my identity, asking me a series of idiosyncratic questions designed to test whether I was, in fact, Jewish. (“What is the address of Chabad headquarters in Brooklyn?” he said. Luckily, I had trained my whole life for this moment.)
After services, I walked with Kesselman and a group of other worshippers through the dark city center. They set an extraordinarily fast pace. I fell in step with a young woman who was born and raised in Malmö but now lives in Israel. She was visiting her father, trying to convince him to leave. “He’s stubborn,” she said. “I worry about him here.” I noted that Israel is not pristinely safe. “It’s different. We protect ourselves there.”
Kesselman and his wife, the parents of four young children, avoid venturing out in public as a couple, for fear of being targeted together. Earlier, I had asked Kesselman why he has stayed in Malmö. Because Malmö’s remaining Jews would have no rabbi if he were to go, he said. Also, many Chabad rabbis resist the urge to leave even dangerous areas, in order to honor the sacrifice of their brethren: in 2008, a Chabad representative and his wife, along with four other Jews, were murdered (after reportedly being tortured) by Pakistani jihadists during the lengthy siege of Mumbai. I asked Kesselman whether he was scared to stay in Malmö. “Yes, of course I’m scared,” he said.
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