Originally published in Eretz Acheret under the title ‘the Exodus from Europe 2015’.
Israel is a European country.
This fundamental fact is the essential starting point for any analysis of the current crisis of European Jewry and of its impact on Israel.
Yet many Israelis do not consciously recognize this fact. It is so much part of their mindset and cultural milieu that many never stop to think where lie the roots of their country and society.
Similarly, the overwhelming majority of American Jews have no understanding, let alone appreciation, of this basic characteristic of the Jewish state. Consequently, their ability to understand Israel and most aspects of Israeli society is severely impaired and the gulf between Israeli and American Jews widens inexorably.
Israel’s European-ness is almost all-embracing. The people who invented political Zionism, founded and led the Zionist movement and, eventually, created and built the Zionist state, were overwhelmingly of European origin, mostly central and eastern European.
More importantly, the cultural roots and ethos of Israel and of almost all Israeli institutions is European. A short and very incomplete list of Israeli institutions built on European lines would include: the entire political system, including the electoral system, the party system, the parliament, the governmental system; the health system; the financial system, including banks, insurance companies, bourse and pensions; the educational framework, encompassing kindergartens, schools, universities, yeshivot; the armed forces; the cultural complex, from opera to popular music to television; in short — everything that matters.
The argument that over half the population is not European, because it (or its parents or grandparents) hails from North African or Middle Eastern countries may be geographically correct but is otherwise invalid. The Sephardic or Mizrahi Jews come, almost without exception, from countries that had been conquered/ occupied/ annexed by European imperial powers. More importantly, the Jews in these countries — from Morocco to Iran — were intent, even when they lived there, on ‘becoming European’, by adopting European (French, English, whatever) culture, language, mores, etc. They brought this aspiration with them to Israel and sought to realize it here. The European-ness of Israel is testimony to their success, no less than to that of their Ashkenazi-European brethren.
Precisely because Israel is a European country, the demise of Europe, of European culture and, as a by-product of this process, of European Jewry, is a traumatic event for Israel both as a country and as a society, as well as for individual Israelis of every stripe. The greatest challenge facing Israel in the first half of the 21st century is how to survive the collapse of Europe and continue to thrive in a very different global environment.
The roadmap of crisis
Europe — to be precise, the European culture that dominated the world for half a millennium — is in terminal decline. But of far more pressing concern is that the process of decline is clearly much more rapid in the 21st century than it was in the 20th.
Observing and analyzing long-range historical processes that stretch over decades and centuries is usually an academic exercise. However, at critical points along the way, the process telescopes and becomes observable in real time — and hence an immediate issue for everyone, everywhere.
This is what has happened in Europe over the past five years. Trends that had been developing for decades, above all in demographics, but also in finance, economics, politics and much else, burst into the open in late 2009 and, having surfaced, have intensified rapidly since then.
The specific event that triggered this new and overt stage in the European crisis was the admission by a new Greek government, elected in September 2009, that Greece was effectively bankrupt. This technical event in a peripheral and marginal country, coming immediately after a severe global financial crisis, served to blow the cover off the façade of European economic success and financial stability.
The continent-wide crisis that began in Greece and rapidly spread to other and much larger countries, is still underway. Ironically, it is also Greece again that, in its January 2015 general election, has demonstrated that five years of belated and partial responses on the part of the European political elite have failed to resolve any of the underlying problems and that the time has arrived to try radical political, social and economic change.
The development of the European crisis can be most easily tracked using a simple roadmap, in which each stage is clearly identifiable:
- Financial: The initial stage is a financial collapse — because the financial system and markets, by their very nature, are the most sensitive to developing societal changes and respond in the most volatile way. Thus the ‘revelation’ that many sovereign states within the European Union were at or near the point of financial bankruptcy — although the evidence for this had long been available for anyone wishing to look — triggered a massive and prolonged financial crisis.
- Economic: This was no mere ‘technical’ financial problem that could be solved by financial sleight of hand — although that has been the response, in a vain attempt to force the destructive genie back into the bottle. Rather, Europe’s shattered finances reflect decades of damage inflicted by adherence to bad economic policies that rendered most European economies uncompetitive and hence unviable in a global economy.
- Social: The economic issues could and should have been addressed long ago, but the structure of European society has prevented meaningful reforms and thus exacerbated, rather than ameliorated, the problems. The financial and economic crises translated themselves into a social crisis via the labor market: the business sector and, at least in the openly bankrupt countries, the public sector too, were finally obliged to shed huge numbers of employees, so that unemployment shot up. In particular, because of the structure of most European labor markets, young people were unable to find jobs and youth unemployment soared to previously-unimaginable levels. In 2013, the unemployment rate for the 18-25- age group in every significant Western European country except Germany exceeded 20%, while in some it was above 50%.
- Political: The crumbling of the social fabric and the aggravation of social tensions — between rich and poor, old and young, ethnic and religious groups, and between different regions within a country and different countries within the EU — has generate a systemic political crisis. The mainstream, ‘Establishment’ parties of the centre-left and centre-right, which have dominated European politics and monopolized government since the Second World War, have been serially rejected by voters. Protest parties with, in the best case, populist platforms or, in the worst case, extremist views, have sprung up across Europe and are rapidly gaining momentum in almost every country.
Underlying the escalation of Europe’s decline is a demographic collapse which encompasses most European countries and which has presented these countries and their societies with an existential Catch-22: either block immigration and tread rapidly down the path of financial and economic collapse, or allow immigration — which, in practice, will come either from Africa or the Maghreb/ Middle Eastern Moslem countries — and suffer social dislocation, tensions and unrest, culminating in irreversible cultural, ethnic and religious transformations.
The Jews lose
One thousand years of Jewish history in Europe have taught several vital lessons. One is that whenever there is a prolonged socio-economic crisis in a European country — let alone in Europe as a whole — the latent anti-Semitism that is a constant feature of European society is unleashed and becomes overt.
Anyone believing that “this time is different” and that, for whatever reason, the 21st century would see a different scenario with regard to the Jews, has been sorely disappointed. The current crisis has followed the classic historical configuration in almost every respect.
Thus the upsurge in anti-Semitism that has taken place across Europe has been closely linked to the length and depth of the economic crisis and its primary social manifestation, unemployment. Research conducted by this writer has shown that the level of political extremism, as measured by support for extremist political parties in elections, is highly correlated to the level of unemployment — and usually tracks the direction of unemployment with a lag of 12-18 months.
Where the current European situation has departed from historic precedent is not with respect to the emergence of overt anti-Semitism or its intensity, but with regard to its sources. There are now three distinct ‘fronts’ in the fight for Jewish survival in Europe.
The first and most prominent is actually the newest from an historical standpoint — Moslem anti-Semitism, aided and abetted by the radical left, despite the inherent contradiction of secular self-proclaimed Socialists marching arm-in-arm with Islamists who openly espouse homophobic, sexist and racist beliefs.
The claim that this alliance is merely opposed to Israel and not to Jews per se — and even that Arab Moslems, as Semites, cannot be ‘anti-Semites’ — has long since been exhaustively debunked by scholars and investigative journalists. For our purposes, it suffices to say that this idea died in Paris on July 13, 2014, when an anti-Israel demonstration protesting Israel’s campaign against Hamas in Gaza metamorphosed into a pogrom aimed at the Abarbanel Synagogue in the 11th arrondissement and the Jews sheltering inside it, against whom the mob shouted “Death to the Jews”.
However, although most of the successful and attempted murders, arsons and street attacks against Jews and Jewish property in recent years that have made it into the Israeli and global media were perpetrated by radical Moslems, this has created a grossly distorted picture of the anti-Semitic reality in Europe. In many countries, many or most of the increasing number of anti-Semitic incidents are perpetrated by ‘classic’ anti-Semites, meaning native Europeans (as opposed to immigrants), Christiana or neo-Nazia (as opposed to Moslem/ Islamist), and are ‘domestic’, with no link to Israel and the Middle East.
Indeed, in some countries in central and eastern Europe — notably Hungary — anti-Semitism thrives even in the absence of a significant Moslem population, as it has done for many hundreds of years. This brand of Jew hatred is labeled “extreme right”, to distinguish it from the “extreme left”, Israel-driven sort.
Finally, and potentially most worryingly, there is a growing strand of ‘liberal” or “establishment” brand of anti-Semitism, emerging from the political centre, rather than the extreme wings. In country after country across Europe, “liberals” are leading efforts to outlaw central elements of Jewish life, primarily circumcision and ritual slaughter, often under spurious grounds of protecting the rights of babies or animals.
In some cases, the proponents of these initiatives will privately acknowledge that they are in fact aimed at immigrant Moslem communities, so that the Jews are ‘collateral damage’. Even if true, this does not change the fact that were these efforts to succeed, Jewish communal life would be seriously constrained — and the way would be clear for further measures.
Fortunately, the governments of the key European countries — and of most of the smaller ones — have prevented most of the ‘liberal’ anti-Semites from achieving their legislative goals. These governments, formed from the mainstream political parties, have also spoken and acted firmly against ‘classic’ or extreme-right anti-Semitism. They speak and act much less firmly against that of the extreme left-Islamist alliance, but this may be changing in the wake of the most recent terrorist outrages in France and Belgium.
However, the failure of European governments and the EU as a whole to effectively address the socio-economic crisis that has gripped Europe makes the survival of the ‘European project’ — first of the euro and, eventually, of the EU itself, increasingly unlikely. Once again, Greece is playing the role of “canary in the coal mine”, by sweeping the failed Establishment centrist parties from office and replacing them with extremist, fundamentally illiberal and hence anti-European parties.
This process has long since led European Jews to the conclusion that they are faced with an existential threat, not merely a period of tension which will eventually fade away. Their response patterns to the gathering crisis have also been ‘textbook’, confirming that the underlying patterns of Jewish life in Europe are fundamentally unchanged from earlier ages.
In essence, Jews have developed three distinct responses to anti-Semitic surges in the society in which they live. One is to submerge into the wider society, by cutting religious, cultural and social links with Judaism, the Jewish community and even, in some cases, with family and friends. This route has always been used, but in today’s much more open society, where inter-marriage between Jews and gentiles is commonplace and at least some degree of acculturation is almost universal among Jews, it is readily accessible and far less traumatic than in the age of ghettos and overt discrimination.
The second response has been to leave. The historical record shows that this was not a popular response among Jews and it was only adopted under severe pressure — or, as all too frequently occurred — under the direct duress of enforced expulsion.
Today, forced expulsion of a European Jewish community still seems unthinkable but, on the other hand, voluntary emigration is much more acceptable than in the past. Several factors explain this change — starting with the fact that emigration to a new country or continent is now far more commonplace and practicable than it used to be. Especially for young, well-educated professionals, globalization has smoothed the way to ‘relocation’, even if it is intended to be permanent.
Furthermore, the existence of the State of Israel provides all Jews — especially European Jews, who have much closer ties to Israel than do American Jews — with a ready goal for immigration. Israel, for its part, stands ready to receive any Jewish immigrant and to provide assistance in the immigration and absorption process. It is particularly keen to attract the young, educated elite from France and elsewhere, and seeks to compete with other popular destinations, such as London, New York, Miami, Canada and Australia, for this group.
The third response has been to hunker down, grit one’s teeth and try and survive the dark period until better days come. Not surprisingly, this has been the preferred response of most Jews in most places , at most times — but today this approach is tarred by the knowledge that it doesn’t always work. Every European Jew is aware of the tragic failure of this strategy in the 1930’s and 1940’s, when neither submersion nor hunkering down helped. That knowledge pushes them toward the emigration route.
However, emigration is not for everyone. Underneath the glitz of globalization and freedom of movement lies a much grimmer reality. Many countries, notably the US, are closing the gates to immigrants, or at least being far more selective about they let in. Young, educated and rich people are generally still welcome — and, as noted, fiercely competed for.
But what about the old, the poor and the sick? They have much greater difficulty in detaching themselves from their homes, communities and cultures — and they lack the means, monetary and emotional, to resettle in a new country and start from scratch.
The current debate about emigration from Europe and immigration to Israel is therefore skewed and hence misleading. It focuses on those who have already moved, who are planning to do so and who want to do so. Almost by definition, these are people with either financial capital or human capital in the form of degrees, professional qualifications and experience.
As the level of anti-Semitic rhetoric and activity continues to rise — as it assuredly will — it is essential that the debate expands to encompass the silent majority of European Jews, the ones who lack the resources to extricate themselves from an increasingly hostile environment.
The challenge facing Israel and the American Jewish community is to identify this aspect of the crisis enveloping European Jewry — and to prepare to respond firmly, speedily and effectively, if and when it becomes essential to do so.