European Jews Are Staying Put - and They Deserve Israel’s Respect for Doing So

For Jews in Europe, moving to Israelhas never been easier. But while most love and embrace the Jewish state, they refuse to abandon the communities they have fought to build and where they feel most at home. The Cossacks Aren't Coming: A special series on the future of European Jews.

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Participants on a Taglit-Birthright trip.
Participants on a Taglit-Birthright trip.Credit: Marc Israel Sellem
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

In the four weeks I spent researching this series in five European countries, I did not encounter one European Jew who had not visited Israel at some point in recent years. Many had stayed longer stretches than just a vacation or two; they had studied or worked in Israel and tried out living there.

While the data on this is patchy, it is clear that a significant portion of European Jews have at some time in their lives acquired Israeli citizenship. For some, mainly Russians and citizens of other former Soviet republics, this is an insurance policy in case their region’s volatile politics makes it dangerous to stay there.

For others, it is simply a souvenir of a period in their lives in which they thought they could actually become Israelis. And then of course there are many Jews born in Israel who for a raft of reasons have decided to live their lives in Europe.

Despite what it says in the Haggadah, not every generation of Jews is marked down for destruction. If anyone has developed an instinct for survival, it’s the Jews of Europe. Most of them are staying at home, and they deserve our respect for doing so.

In many of the interviews I conducted, Hebrew turned out to be the language both sides were most fluent in. In my years of reporting and traveling throughout Europe, the only Jews I met who hadn’t been to Israel at some point were those who had become so assimilated that their Jewishness played no part in their lives at all.

Any discussion of Europe’s Jews in either the Israeli or international — especially American — media very quickly comes down to the question: “Why aren’t they leaving?” Very often that is the starting point. There is something inherently disrespectful in this question — as if European Jews were a bunch of docile frogs incapable of realizing that the water around them was boiling.

The fact is, few communities are more aware of their emigration options than the Jews in Europe. Those living in the former Soviet Union will have very clear memories of how the great majority of their Jewish contemporaries packed up and left almost the very moment after the Iron Curtain came down. In their hundreds of thousands, even millions, they emigrated not only to Israel but to Germany, the United States, Australia and pretty much every other Western country offering them a decent livelihood.

Nearly all the rest live in nations of the borderless European Union where emigration is a daily feature of life, particularly for a younger generation facing a lack of employment opportunities contemplating a move to richer countries such as Germany and Britain.

Leftists’ comfortable niches

It has never been so easy for a European Jew, who always has the option of living in Israel, to consider emigration. The great majority have stayed for all the normal reasons people prefer living in the culture where they were brought up, rather than facing the hardships of relocation and permanent dislocation.

When they stay in Europe, in nearly all cases this has not been an ideological rejection of the Jewish state. The Jewish anti-Zionist camp is alive and well, due largely to the outsized voice it enjoys in the media and academia, but it is little more than a fringe element — far-left Israelis with comfortable niches in local universities and others who have made a career prefacing their anti-Israel diatribes with the farcical: “As a Jew ....”

And then of course there are the handful of Neturei Karta ultra-Orthodox who can be counted on to turn up even at the most virulent Iranian-sponsored anti-Israel rally. They provide the tiny fig leaf that proves the organizers are not anti-Semitic. They just hate the world’s only Jewish state.

Aside from these groups, the overwhelming majority of European Jews support and love Israel in a very broad sense, whatever they think of its current government’s policies. Some want to portray the relationship as a conflicted one, but that is often not the case.

For many Jews, Israel is a convenient place to have nearby. It’s useful not only for holidays in the sun, but also for sending unruly teenagers to blow off some steam — a handy destination for gap-year sojourns or accumulating academic credits for a semester or two. For the more affluent it’s an attractive venue for having a wedding or bar mitzvah, or the real-estate investment of a second home. And the low-cost airlines make it affordable to the less wealthy as well. EasyJet Zionism; it’s never been so comfortable.

No generation of Diaspora Jews has known the Promised Land as well as the European Jews in the 21st century — or been affected by its politics to such a degree. But even this impact is not felt to the same degree. As many Jews in Western Europe grumble that Israel should take into account the rise of anti-Semitic incidents that occur whenever a military offensive takes place in Gaza or Lebanon, and how Israel’s image in the media makes them look to their non-Jewish contemporaries, Jews in Russia have a radically different take.

“Israel should be bombing the Palestinians much more,” lectured me a Jewish-community leader in Kazan, the capital of the Muslim Tatar region in Russia’s heartland. “When Israel shows that it’s strong, people here respect and fear us Jews more.” There hasn’t been an act of anti-Semitism against the Jews of Kazan for years.

Rough-and-tumble Israel

Most European Jews I’ve spoken to say they feel at home in Israel but even more so in their real homes. And while they grumble about Israel’s politics, economy and the people’s lack of manners, in many ways having Israel close by makes them more secure in the Diaspora, even though they sometimes feel that Israel gives the local anti-Semites a useful excuse to punish them for the country’s sins.

They’re not leaving yet because they are clear-eyed when it comes to survival and know that the chances of a Jew being killed in violence superfluous in the Jewish state is still higher than being murdered in a jihadist terror attack in Europe.

They’re not leaving because despite the rise of the far right in many European countries, Israel has more than its fair share of racists and bigots. And the European governments are doing much more to integrate Muslim communities than Israel is.

They’re not leaving because even though anti-Semitism is an ever-present menace, they’re still valued and influential in their local societies, probably to an unprecedented degree in European history. And they will find it nearly impossible to attain similar positions in the rough-and-tumble Israeli race for material and political success. Many of them have tried and failed.

“The Jews are the canary down the European mine,” says Diana Pinto, a French-Italian historian. The terror attacks on Jews in Paris and Brussels have finally woken up those governments to the wider threats they are facing and the issues of integrating minorities.

“In each European nation, Jews know how to handle their country’s problems,” says Pinto. “In the European democracies Jews are very successful, and in the less democratic countries they have the ear of the leaders who are eager to show the world that they’re not like the smelly old European dictatorships. Modern authoritarianism is Jew-friendly.”

That desire of European governments to protect and showcase their Jewish communities has led to a renaissance of Jewish life and culture across the Continent and a revival in places such as Poland and Hungary, where it lay dormant for decades.

“Every European city needs a Jewish community,” says Keith Kahn-Harris, a sociologist at the Institute for Jewish Policy Research in London. “Israel is the biggest hub of Jewish life today, but the idea of a Europe without Jews is horrific.”

But for now there is no prospect of that happening. The general response to the recent attacks on Europe’s Jews helps prove that beneath the hysteria and tension, Jews there have never been as secure, resilient and accepted as they are today.

Tolerance of anti-Semitism is much less than it used to be, and it’s not just a question of the Jews, says Kahn-Harris.

“To some extent, living with occasional outbursts of extreme violence seems to be what is happening in the world. America is no solution, the violence there is much more extreme, and in Israel it’s not occasional. Jews are more sensitive to racist violence, and that works for good and for ill,” he says.

“It’s good there’s a group more sensitive to racism, but it’s also much more difficult to make a more nuanced case between ‘the sky is falling’ and being dismissive of the threat with the media attracted to zero-sum arguments and everyone feeling so insecure because of the chaotic period we are living in.”

But if there is any group in the world that has learned to live and prosper in chaotic periods of history, it is the Jews of Europe. For now most of them believe that the Cossacks aren’t coming, at least not just yet. Israel is just around the corner, but Europe is still home.

The Cossacks aren’t coming: A special series on the Jewish future in Europe

How has Jewish life been reborn from the ruins of the worst Jewish destruction? And can Jews ever live in Poland free from the shadow of history and hatred?

After being given up for lost in the Holocaust and finished off by Communism, Polish Jews are back on the scene, grappling with the questions of what exactly makes them Jews in today’s Poland.

A new generation of Hungarian Jews is eager to rejuvenate their community and have radically different ideas of how best to do so.

Denmark is the most recent country to suffer an Islamist attack targeting Jews. The local community is not afraid and more determined than ever to emphasize their identity as Danish Jews.

Hungary still has difficulty dealing with its collaboration in the Holocaust and the anti-Semitic Jobbick Party isn’t making that any easier. The Jews though are more worried by an illiberal government.

In the wake of the terror attacks in Paris and Toulouse, the Jews of France are reassessing their place in a republic which is undergoing a rude reawakening of its own.

The number of Jews moving from France to Israel is on the rise but is this a mass emigration or just a passing trend? Most French Jews say they’re not about to leave.

A mob of Muslim demonstrators attacked the Jewish community of Sarcelles last summer. Was it an anti-Semitic riot, a political protest or just local tensions? The local Jews say they plan to stay and fight.

A spike in anti-Jewish incidents in the wake of last summer’s Gaza war has shaken the sense of security of British Jews. But is it really so bad that they now feel like in the 1930s and are thinking of leaving?

They have never been so successful and well-integrated and yet the Jews of Britain seem uncertain of their place in society. Partly, because their identity has been subsumed by their connection to Israel.

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