A Jewish Exodus From Europe?

Stories of Jewish flight from 'the accursed continent' are widespread, but as long as communities remain, we must remember what it's like to be a minority.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

ROME AND THESSALONIKI – Where is the oldest Jewish community in the world? Go to Italy and they tell you it is Rome, where Jews first arrived in the early Hasmonean period. In Greece, the claim is that a Jewish settlement was established in Salonika (or Thessaloniki as they call it today) on the Aegean shore earlier, around the time when the Greek empire ruled the Fertile Crescent.

Last week, I visited both cities and found the Jews there facing very similar challenges – dwindling demographics from within, dire financial circumstances and a rise of xenophobic and neo-fascist movements with more than a tinge of anti-Semitism from without. The threats to the Jewish communities may be almost identical, but the response of their leaders is very different.

Elsewhere in these pages, you can read my interview with Ricardo Pacifici, president of the Roman Jewish community. His message is stark: This is as good as it was going to get, after a brief golden age for Italian (and European) Jewry, things are rapidly going downhill. A combination of growing Islamic fundamentalism, the breakdown of the political establishment and the surge of the Five Star movement – which received 25 percent of the vote in last month's Italian elections, led by the Judeophobic Beppe Grillo, whose views on governance echo those of Il Duce Mussolini – has led Pacifici to call upon his community to cash in their Jewish insurance policy and prepare for aliyah to Israel. Better now when the going is still good than in ten years when things will be much worse, he says.

Two days later, I was sitting down with David Saltiel, president of the Greek Jewish community and native of Thessaloniki. Matters in Greece are more difficult. At around 6,000, the number of Greek Jews is barely a quarter that in Italy (The Roman community of 15,000 is ten times larger than Thessaloniki's), the economic and political crises are deeper, and though the Golden Dawn party received less votes than the Five Stars, around 7 percent of the electorate, it openly uses neo-Nazi symbols, violently attacks immigrants and political opponents and cultivates sympathizers within the police force.

But Saltiel's conclusion is the opposite of Pacifici's. He insists that Greek Jewry must and will continue to flourish, keeping alive even its smallest outposts. Israel also features in his plans but as a place where young members of the community should live for a few years and study at university before returning home to set up their own families. Israel does not need them as immigrants, he is convinced, but it does need a viable Diaspora.

And what about the racists? It is the Jews' duty to sound the alarm bells he says. As yet, Golden Dawn's violence has been directed mainly against other ethnic groups, more recent arrivals and its anti-Semitism is rhetorical, focused on Holocaust denial and talk of rapacious Jewish bankers gouging the Greek economy. But we must feel that every attack on an immigrant is an attack on us, says Saltiel, and demand the government outlaw Golden Dawn.

The story is repeating itself across Europe with the rise of racist parties, changing Jewish demographics and fear of the threat of growing Islamic groups (talk of which can sometimes sound too similar for comfort to the xenophobic rhetoric directed at the Jews). In recent weeks, there has been a spate of reports on a spike in anti-Semitic incidents in France, which is leading to a wave of immigration to Israel, the United States and Britain. But is this an accurate picture?

The talk of a French Jewish exodus seems so far to be based on anecdotal evidence of a prevalence of Jewish Francophones on the streets of London, New York and Tel Aviv. The numbers don't bear this out. In 2012, aliyah from France, at 1,923 immigrants, was actually lower than the average over the last decade.

Last weekend was also the first anniversary of the murders of three Jews in Toulouse at the hands of an Islamic fundamentalist, but last year, on the streets of the city in the aftermath of the murders, I failed to detect preparations for a panicked departure of local Jews. For every person who told me he or she was planning to leave, I found a Hebrew-speaker who had lived in Israel for a few years and returned to Toulouse. Emigration is a slow process and we may find ten years from now that a large portion of French Jewry has left, but the situation for now seems much less clear cut than the media would have us believe.

And even if there is a growing departure of Jews from France, or from other European nations, is it directly connected to Jew-hatred or to the widening slump in the Eurozone and dwindling prospects of employment?

Whatever the real figures show, talk of a Jewish Exodus from Europe will continue to dominate the agenda. There is nothing new about this – eighty percent of Jews today live in either Israel or North America (Australian Jewry is also thriving), and since the Holocaust, there have been many who believed that we have no future on the accursed continent. (The Hebrew name for the iconic Exodus ship of 1947 was Yetziat Eyropa – "Exit from Europe") But those who derive grim satisfaction from Europe's plight are forsaking a central Jewish mission – not to back away from the fight against racism and xenophobia, even if its main victims are not Jews.

Last weekend, the World Jewish Congress' leaders convened in Thessaloniki to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the first deportation of the city's Jews to Auschwitz and demonstrate support for Greece's Jews. Jewish Agency Chairman Nathan Sharansky was also there, and I was surprised when he said to me that "so far Golden Dawn has not been violent, they have only used words." Hadn't he seen the reports of their bands of vigilantes attacking immigrants in markets and streets? Then I realized he was only talking of attacks on Jews.

Some Jewish and Israeli figures even cooperate with racists in Europe and the United States in the belief that they only hate Muslims and are actually pro-Israel. We must oppose this unholy alliance.

The forces of economic migration are too strong to predict or control, and many European Jewish communities may dwindle and disappear over the next century or remain little more than quaint relics of a glorious past. But while there are still Jews in Europe, it is their duty, and the duty of all of us to remember we were also a persecuted minority in a foreign land.

Salonica's Jewish community.Credit: AP

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