Anti-Semitism Europe's Jews Will Go

Europe’s Jews are part of the region’s culture and identity. But if authorities fail to act to stop growing anti-Semitism, Jewish people will go, the author argues.
What does the future look like for Europe's Jews?

Hitler’s goal of a Europe without Jewish people is in danger of becoming a reality seventy years after his death.

Let’s take France as an example.

Fear is growing among Jews in France due to the anti-Semitism and crime that has been increasing over the years. It is leading Jews to migrate to Israel: 10,000 people left France for Israel last year and that number is likely to rise to 15,000 this year.

Following the Holocaust, France had the largest community of Jews in Europe, with half a million people. At the same time, Europe’s Muslim minority grew on the continent too. The political and religious radicalization of a growing portion of young Muslim people is because they are not well-integrated. That leads to hatred and feeds violence against Jews.

The other factor is the authorities’ broad inactivity; despite repeated expressions of support for Jews, not enough is done to protect them.

After Muslim youths tortured and killed Jewish salesman Illan Halimi in 2006, assuming that because he was Jewish, he must be wealthy, politicians promised greater security for Jews.

Two years ago, Mohamed Merah murdered a rabbi and three Jewish children in Toulouse. At the end of last year, a Jewish couple was attacked in Paris and the woman was raped; again, the attackers thought that they were robbing wealthy Jews.  

And right after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, four Jews were killed in a kosher store.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls said a France whose Jewish citizens felt forced to leave was not a France he wanted to live in.

But when Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu decided to take part in the funeral for the victims of terrorism, the French government let him know that his presence was not welcome as they wanted to avoid a connection to the Middle East conflict.

Mr. Netanyahu went to Paris anyway and called on France’s Jews to leave Europe and go to Zion – remarks that caused resentment in the government in Paris.

Compared with all this anti-Semitism, Germany seems like a safe haven to Jews today.

France’s anti-Semitism is among the historic causes of political Zionism. Its author Theodor Herzl, a correspondent at Vienna’s Neuen Freien Presse, reported from Paris on the trial against Alfred Dreyfus, an officer accused of spying, from 1894 onwards. The journalist, who initially had little interest in Jewish issues, was shocked by the blatant anti-Semitism, the calls of “death to the Jews” and the tone of the media’s reporting of the day. The events convinced him that Jewish attempts to assimilate were for naught.

“We are loyal and occasionally effusive patriots but this is in vain… people don’t accept this,“ he wrote.

Mr. Herzl responded by writing his book, the Jewish State, in which he called for the Jews to have their own country which would be a place of asylum for Europe’s Jews under threat.

Nonetheless, Mr. Herzl believed the biggest threat to Jewish people was Russia; the Tsarist regime systematically supported the hatred of Jews.

Konstantin Pobedonostsev, advisor to the Czars and the Ober-Procurator, or highest supervisor, to the Holy Synod, had a diversified strategy for driving the Jews away. He believed a third of the Jews would die anyway, a further third should be forced to emigrate and the last third should be forced to convert to Christianity – assisted by the pogroms which had been supported by the court since the end of the nineteenth century, leading to the deaths of thousands of Jews.

Millions of Jews immigrated, mainly to the United States where the largest community of Jews in the world was created. Many other Russian Jews took the discreet option of abandoning their beliefs, and a small minority became Zionists. The young among them immigrated to Palestine and took on Hebrew names; one of them was David Grün who became David Ben-Gurion and went on to become Israel’s first prime minister.

From 1941 onward, the Nazis and their supporters systematically murdered millions of Jews in the land that was once the Czars’. But even after the fall of the Nazi regime, the liquidation of European Jews continued. Of 3.5 million Polish Jews, only a tenth survived the Holocaust; those who returned to their homes were driven away again to head west, following pogroms like at Kielce in 1946 and other places.

If Europe’s people and governments want an intact Jewish community as part of their world, they have to protect them.

Many Polish Jews saw their rescue in flight to Germany, the land of their former captors. In displaced persons camps, they were safe at least from persecution. There, they prepared to emigrate to Canada and the United States, where they were welcome. After Israel was created, most immigrated to the Jewish state.

The 25,000 who remained behind became the core of Germany’s post-war Jewish community. Only in 1950 was the Central Council of Jews in Germany established. The “in” of this title was intended to suggest that this was a temporary state. The rabbi Leo Baeck, once a Jewish mentor in Germany, announced on his release from the concentration camp that the many thousand years of German Jewry was over. He immigrated to the United Kingdom. The German Jews who had survived living abroad acted similarly, mainly deciding against returning to their German homes. Those who did re-migrate, such as the later mayor of Hamburg Herbert Weichmann and Arnold Zweig, who lived in the GDR, remained exceptions.

The start of the nineties with the fall of the wall and the end of the Soviet Union brought an unexpected chance of a renaissance for German Jewry. The first democratically-elected GDR government allowed the immigration of Jews from the USSR. After reunification, Germany allowed this to continue despite opposition from Israel. 200,000 Jews from countries of the former Soviet Union immigrated to Germany. Only half remained in the Jewish community.

In Russia, where there were 5 million Jews after the end of World War II, there are now half a million. Jewish communities are growing smaller in the rest of Europe too. There are only a few thousand Jews living in Poland; Jews in Hungary face increasing attacks. The Jobbik party has made anti-Semitism and opposition to Gypsies part of its program. Prime Minister Orbán gives the agitators free rein.

In Greece, every second person has anti-Semitic prejudices. Jews in Britain have seen an increase in anti-Semitic prejudice and attack, and one in four Jews living in the United Kingdom has considered emigrating. Sweden’s small Jewish community faces an anti-Semitic pincer movement: Islamists and anti-Zionists are hostile towards Jewish institutions while Jews also face anti-Semitic mistreatment from Swedish chauvinists and neo-Nazis.

Compared with all this anti-Semitism, Germany seems like a safe haven to Jews today. Despite differences of opinion, the government is one of Israel’s most trusted European partners. That has made Germany into one of the most popular places to go for young Israelis, especially Berlin: there alone there’s a population of 200,000 Israelis.  

But there are flaws.

The number of anti-Semitic attacks has been rising in Germany for years. People who look Jewish are subject to mistreatment by young people from Arab countries. People shout phrases like “gas the Jews” at anti-Israeli demonstrations without facing prosecution. That’s creating a feeling of uncertainty in Germany.

“I don’t see an existential threat to Jewish life in Germany. But if that situation arose, the central council would have to work towards the Jewish people leaving the country,” said Josef Schuster, the central council’s new president.

Since the Jewish exodus in the year 70, Europe was the home of the majority of Jews for two thousand years. Cities from Mainz to Prague, Vienna, Warsaw, Amsterdam, Antwerp, Thessaloniki, Riga, Berlin, London and Paris were and some are still centers of Jewish religion and culture. The Jews were – and are? – part of European identity.

But Jews in Germany are in danger of being extinguished. After the holocaust, in 1945, six million Jews lived in Europe; now there are one million. If Europe’s people and governments want an intact Jewish community as part of their world, they have to protect them.

Jewish communities have to continue to transmit to their members independent social, religious and cultural characteristics.

If Jews and non-Jews do not do so, despite assertions otherwise, the Jewish community will be history, through emigration, anti-Semitism but chiefly through indifference.


This essay first appeared in Die Zeit. To contact the author: [email protected]