The Exodus Syndrome
Across the thousands of years of Jewish history no large group of Jews has, willingly and of its own choosing, uprooted itself from wherever it considered home. In all the very numerous instances wherein Jews were involved in a mass emigration, they had to be pushed out – or else they wouldn’t have gone. No matter how inhospitable the legal and bureaucratic environment they were leaving, no matter how inimical and aggressive popular sentiment was toward them, they were never ready to leave and had to be driven out, whether by decree or by ‘persuasion’ on the part of private persons or agencies.
The prototype for this behavior was the Exodus itself, as the Bible records. At the hour of supreme crisis, following the smiting of the first-borns, the Egyptian public were – unsurprisingly – panic-stricken and insisted that the Israelites depart their midst, instantly. In the words of the King James Version of Exodus 12:33, “And the Egyptians were urgent upon the people, that they might send them out of the land in haste; for they said, We [be] all dead [men].” The subsequent departure was so hasty, the Bible stresses, that the Israelites had no time to make bread for their impending journey and had to make do with matzot. The commandment to eat matzot on Pesach is, in fact, a commemoration of the circumstances of the exodus – for which the key word is “bechipazon, in haste”.
The reverse situation, however, in which Cyrus proclaimed that the exiled Jews in the Persian (formerly Babylonian) empire could return to their ancestral homeland and rebuild the Temple, did not spur the Jews to depart en masse, not in haste nor even in a leisurely manner. Some of them – scholars debate what percentage of Baylonian Jewry the 42,000 or so emigrants recorded in the Book of Ezra actually represented – took up the offer. The others, probably the large majority, preferred to stay put.
Fast-forward to modern times and you find the Exodus syndrome still very much in action. Despite poverty and overcrowding in the Jewish areas of Eastern Europe, as well as anti-Semitic laws and attitudes, it took actual pogroms and widespread, systematic violence against Jews to trigger the mass emigration of the late nineteenth century. Conversely, the Balfour Declaration and the official establishment of the British Mandate for Palestine, failed to motivate many Jews to leave their countries.
Throughout the interim period, Jews kept moving, earning their (anti-Semitic) title of “wandering Jews”. But they didn’t wander out of choice, they went because they were forced out. In medieval Europe, the pattern of expulsion was mostly from city to city or from province to province. This pattern was especially suited to central Europe, where no large political entities existed. However, beginning in England in1290, followed by France (repeatedly) and culminating in Spain in 1492, expulsion on a national scale and as national policy became a standard feature of European Jewish history. The response was, perforce, to move to the nearest available country that offered refuge.
Persecution as national policy re-emerged on a wide scale in central and eastern Europe after the First World War and, in the German case, would have culminated in expulsion – except that the Reich ended up conquering almost all of Europe and hence ruling over its Jews, with no practical options for expelling them, in the geographic sense. Hitler’s alternative was the Final Solution.
But although anti-Semitism in Europe is a permanent and chronic condition, with only the style changing – from religious, to cultural or racial – but not the substance, it is clearly not always at the same level of intensity. Why does it remain dormant and largely quiescent for long periods and then abruptly explode into overt and large-scale violence? The simple answer is that for latent anti-Semitic feelings to be activated on a large scale, the general population has to become seriously unhappy – so that they seek, or can be sent to find, a victim to vent their anger on. The most common cause of widespread unhappiness is a protracted economic crisis, which generates high and rising unemployment, exacerbates underlying tensions between classes, ethnic or religious groups and other mutually-antipathetic sectors of society and exposes all the fault-lines in a society – especially multi-ethnic societies.
That explains why, at least in the modern period for which we have good records, and probably in the pre-modern period too, outbreaks of widespread and prolonged anti- Semitic violence come in the wake of economic crises and the socio-political upheaval that they trigger. The rise of the Nazi party and its eventual seizure of power (Hitler never won an electoral majority) is, in many respects, the classic example of this process.
In light of a historical record stretching back over one thousand years and repeatedly confirmed in recent times, and given that Europe is today in the grips of a very severe and protracted socio-economic crisis, there is no basis to expect any other outcome than the usual one. Anti-Semitism across Europe, in various guises, has anyway surged over the past decade, but the socio-economic collapse underway sets the stage for the move to the typical denouement. Fortunately, this time the emigrants/ expellees have where to go.