By Jonathan S. Tobin
The jihadist siege of a kosher grocery store in eastern Paris on January 9 was not the beginning of a new threat to French Jews and the Jews of Europe. Rather, it was the culmination of a decade of crisis. And it will not be the end.
The new era of deadly anti-Semitism in France began with the January 2006 murder of 23-year-old Ilan Halimi. Shortly after a Shabbat meal with his mother, he was lured to a Paris slum, where he was ambushed by a gang. They held him captive for 24 days, during which time he was beaten, stabbed, burned with acid, mutilated, lit on fire, and tortured to death. Halimi’s murderers were African and North African Muslim immigrants with ties to Islamic extremists. They called themselves the Gang of Barbarians. And they chose Halimi because he was a Jew.
France’s 5 million Muslims account for 10 to 12 percent of the country’s total population. It is the largest Muslim population in Europe; it is also the most problematic. Several factors contribute to this reality.
The first is radical Islam. Since the late-20th century, a Saudi-funded, anti-Semitic strain of Islamist radicalism has spread to all corners of the Muslim world. Many of France’s recent Muslim immigrants from North Africa have brought their Islamist and jihadist sympathies to Europe. Indeed, a 2013 poll found that a startling 27 percent of French Muslims younger than 24 support ISIS.
Second, nationalism is a foundational aspect of French life. Old nationalist allegiances have made it hard for well-meaning Muslim immigrants to integrate into society, as they have no direct ties to Metropolitan France. They live largely among themselves inbanlieues, whose customs and norms closely resemble those of the inhabitants’ countries of origin—not those of their new home.
The doctrine of multiculturalism, the idée fixe of postwar Europe, has a strange relationship with French nationalism: Though it would seem nationalism’s ideological opposite, multiculturalism offers rosy-cheeked cover to France’s deep unwillingness to allow anyone without centuries-old roots to become “French.” Nominally, according to the postmodern ideal of multiculturalism, no one culture is more virtuous than another. And so the anti-Western, anti-Semitic Islamism practiced by France’s most dangerous citizens is not to be vilified, but rather understood and, ultimately, tolerated. As a matter of daily reality, however, multiculturalism allows the French to keep the Muslims separate—and unequal. And it allows some in France to entertain the belief that Jews, too, can never be French.
France is also home to Europe’s largest Jewish population. For decades after World War II, French Jewry thrived both as a vibrant community of co-religionists and as integral members of French society. While European anti-Semitism was far from extinguished, France seemed a living example of successful Jewish life in Europe after the Holocaust. Today, the Jewish population of France stands at approximately 478,000—the world’s second-largest population of Diaspora Jews (after America’s).
But France’s Jews are outnumbered by its Muslims 10 to 1. The unspeakable murder of Halimi in 2006 heralded a sharp turn back to Europe’s most notorious hatred, at the hands of its newest population. There have been thousands—thousands—of attacks on French Jews and Jewish sites in the years since Halimi was killed. These range from muggings to firebombings to the desecration of Jewish graves to murder. In March 2012, Mohammed Merah, a radicalized French citizen of Algerian descent, shot and killed Rabbi Jonathan Sandler, his two children, and another child at the Ozar Hatorah school in Toulouse. The shooting led to further attacks. In retrospect, one of the more chilling incidents occurred in August 2012, when a French Islamist threw a grenade into a Kosher market in Sarcelles.
Muslim attacks on French Jews increased more significantly still in the summer of 2014, during and after Israel’s war with Hamas in Gaza. On July 13, dozens of North African immigrants stormed Paris’s Don Isaac Abravanel synagogue, chanting “Allahu Akbar” and “Death to the Jews.” The mob, wielding knives, clubs, and axes, tried for hours to get through the barricaded door to some 200 congregants on the other side. Police and representatives of France’s Jewish Community Protection Service eventually dispersed the attackers. In July and August, there were a total of eight attempts to destroy or burn various synagogues in Paris. And in Sarcelles, mobs set fire to Jewish-owned business. All told, anti-Semitic incidents in France shot up an estimated 90 percent in 2014.
From the Halimi murder to the attacks in January, the official French response has been one of sympathy for the victim and denial of the nature of the victimizer. On the afternoon of January 9, at the close of a week in which gunmen who claimed to be avenging the prophet Muhammad killed 17 French citizens, President François Hollande stood in front of television cameras and announced that the terrorists had “nothing to do with the Muslim religion.”
The ineffectual response of Hollande and his predecessors to the Muslim problem in their midst has sent many French into the arms of the National Front (FN). This far-right party, founded in 1972 and led today by Marine Le Pen, scored its biggest victory ever in municipal elections in March 2014. Le Pen is an outspoken opponent of Muslim immigration, but the FN is ultra-nationalist in every respect, and neither the party nor its supporters can be considered friends of the Jews. Far from it. Le Pen, daughter of FN founder and unabashed anti-Semite Jean-Marie Le Pen, supports a ban on the wearing of yarmulkes in public. And like many extremists before her, she has sought to make common cause with anti-Semitic figures from opposing parties. Thus the tentative rise of the French far right poses its own potential threat to France’s Jews. This was exemplified on January 16, 2014, when 17,000 French nationalists gathered in central Paris for a “Day of Anger” and chanted, “Jews, get out of France,” “Jew, Jew, France does not belong to you,” and “The gas chambers were a bluff.” Working-class French are increasingly drawn to both the far right and far left, both of which have a propensity to lay blame on the Jew.
The battle lines are drawn. The French elite may occasionally condemn anti-Semitism, as did Hollande after the attack on the kosher market. And on January 11, Hollande, arm-in-arm with world leaders including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, led more than a million people in a march supporting the victims of the January attacks and condemning hate.
But there are no substantive signs that France’s leaders are prepared to stop the radical Islamists who have declared war on French Jewry. Meanwhile, members of the French working class are coming to see the Jews more and more as a hindrance to their own economic well-being. And Europe’s steady turn against Israel has sharpened anti-Semitism of all stripes.
Caught between the deadly reality of radical Islam and the potential manifestation of a neo-fascist revival, what are French Jews to do? For ever greater numbers, the answer lies in Israel. Last year, a record-high 7,000 French Jews immigrated to the Jewish state—more than double the year before. The Jewish Agency, which oversees immigration of Jews to Israel, now estimates that some 15,000 French Jews will make aliyah in 2015.
Jews should have the right to choose to stay in France or anywhere else on the planet Earth they wish to live, from the center of Hebron to the top of Mount Everest. But the issue is not right but reality. Jews in France—and, given certain trends, elsewhere in Europe, from Great Britain to Scandinavia—have to consider their literal survival.
In 1894, the Viennese journalist Theodor Herzl was on the scene in Paris to cover the official public degradation of Alfred Dreyfus, a French officer who had been convicted of spying for Germany and sentenced to life on Devil’s Island. No matter that both men were Jews; Herzl had believed the prim, stuffed-shirt, more-French-than-the-French Dreyfus to be guilty. But once Dreyfus’s military colors were torn from his clothing, with crowds screaming “death to the Jews,” as they had for months, Herzl had not only changed his mind about Dreyfus’s guilt but had come to see him as the representative figure of the Jewish crisis in Europe. As Herzl’s biographer Amos Elon wrote, “the degraded man symbolized the Jew in modern society, conforming to its ways, speaking its language, thinking its thoughts, sewing its insignia to its shoulders only to have them violently torn off.”
Jews should “not delude ourselves,” Herzl wrote in his diary. The cause “is a lost one.” The cause of which he spoke was the effort to secure equal rights to life and liberty for Jews as a minority population living among non-Jews. For Herzl, the Dreyfus case marked the conclusion to years of rumination about the existential condition of his people. In the wake of the Dreyfus conviction, Elon wrote, Herzl “finally made up his mind to lead a worldwide action on behalf of the Jews.”
Eighteen months later, Herzl published The Jewish State. This pamphlet, which changed the world in 23,000 words, is startling even today, not because of the power of its rhetoric but because of its unprecedented practicality. It does not advance uniquely powerful or memorably polemical arguments against anti-Semitism: “I do not wish to take up the cudgels for the Jews in this pamphlet,” Herzl wrote. “It would be useless. Everything rational and everything sentimental that can possibly be said in their defense has been said already. If one’s hearers are incapable of comprehending them, one is a preacher in a desert. And if one’s hearers are broad and high-minded enough to have grasped them already, then the sermon is superfluous.”
The Jewish State is not a sermon. It is a blueprint. It was revolutionary because Herzl argued there was nothing to be done to “cure” anti-Semitism when Jews lived among non-Jews. It was a by-product of that coexistence. His answer was a step-by-step program for what Jews needed to do as a practical matter to continue to exist—what organizations they needed to establish, what tactics and techniques they needed to employ to secure the aim that was stated very plainly in his title.
For all the opinions among the Zionist leaders who followed Herzl as to what form Jewish self-rule should take—and there were many—there was one thing on which they all agreed. Any debate over what kind of state Israel should be was irrelevant unless there was a state. This was a practical nationalism.
Although he is now considered the founding father of the ideological right in Israel, the revisionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky was dedicated to a pragmatic, not a religious or historic, need for a Jewish national home in Palestine. He called it “humanitarian Zionism.” As the anti-Jewish storm clouds over Europe gathered strength once again, Jabotinsky aimed for a simple goal: the rescue of as many Jews as possible. Jabotinsky, the most literate and literary of the early Zionist leaders, grew to disdain the arguments about what a “good” Israel ought to look like—thus, he dismissively called the project of other Zionist leaders an “amusement park for Hebrew culture.” What Israel needed was not to become but to be.
Jabotinsky died in 1940, before he could know the full measure of how desperately his humanitarian Zionism had been required. The Holocaust did not create the need for a Jewish state. It proved the need. “Who is willing and capable of guaranteeing that what happened to us in Europe will not recur?” David Ben-Gurion asked a UN commission in 1947. “There is only one security guarantee: a homeland and a state.”
The pervasiveness of anti-Semitism throughout the world continued proving the need after the state of Israel became a reality. Arab countries either expelled their Jews or made it impossible for them to survive without leaving. This resulted in an immediate refugee crisis: 850,000 Jews fled the Arab world in the years following Israel’s independence. Nearly 600,000 settled in Israel. The Jewish state’s absorption of those refugees was unprecedented; the immigrants nearly doubled Israel’s nascent population. Such a thing was only possible because of practical Zionism—the organizations and the banks and the bureaucratic systems originally envisioned in The Jewish State.
The Jewish Agency was formally established in 1929 with immigrant absorption as one of its main areas of concentration. It took its name from Article Four of the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine: “an appropriate Jewish agency shall be recognized as a public body for the purpose of advising and cooperating with the administration of Palestine in such economic, social, and other matters as may affect the establishment of the Jewish National Home and the interests of the Jewish population in Palestine.”
Although the Jewish Agency had other functions, aiding aliyah was the reason it was kept intact after the founding. Ben-Gurion had wanted it to go out of existence but was overruled. The Israeli historian Anita Shapira explains why:
Many in the Israeli leadership…recognized that the Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency (which had shared personnel) were experienced in organizing immigration and absorbing and settling immigrants. They therefore supported the organization’s continued existence despite Ben-Gurion’s opposition.
Keeping these organizations intact was again a practical decision, owing in part to Ben-Gurion’s own demands. Early on, there were calls to slow the tide of immigration from lands east of Palestine or to impose requirements on prospective immigrants’ health or ability to work. Ben-Gurion would have none of it. “We must bring the Jews of Iraq and all the other dispersions that are prepared or have to immigrate,” he said, “as soon as possible—without considerations of property and absorption possibilities.” And so they were brought. Not without immense difficulties, and not without creating social tensions that exist inside the Jewish state to this day. But there they are. They are still there. As are their children. And their grandchildren. And their great-grandchildren.
The influx from Arab lands was not the only astounding wave of immigration. Soviet Jews, desperate for relief from institutionalized totalitarian hatred in the 1970s, found a crucial ally in U.S. Senator Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson and Representative Charles Vanik, who successfully moved legislation restricting U.S. trade with countries, such as the Soviet Union, that did not permit oppressed minorities to emigrate. Jews began, slowly, to find their way to the other side of the Iron Curtain. The trickle became a flood with the Gorbachev government’s liberalization and finally the collapse of the USSR in 1991.
Today, there are 1.2 million Jews from the former Soviet Union in Israel, the third-largest Russian-speaking Diaspora after the United States and Germany. The Jewish Agency is now led by Natan Sharansky, who spent nine years in the Gulag for the crime of wanting to live as a Jew. And it is the Jewish Agency that will be there to aid the Jews of Europe over the coming years.
Zionism was not a utopian vision. It was a program, and remains a program—the means by which Jewry can and will survive into its fourth millennium. It is about providing Jews with a safe haven in the world and allowing them to exercise rights they have been denied almost everywhere on earth where they have been governed by others—save the astonishing exception of the United States. It is about letting Jews be. That is one of the many reasons Israel was established as a democratic state, and one that respects minority rights.
And yet, to some of Israel’s professed supporters, this is controversial.
The classic opposition to Zionism outside the Jewish community has always been that the need for an Israel was and is not pressing, or that competing practicalities outweighed the need. Within the Jewish community, the most potent opposition to Zionism has had a religious source—in the belief among some in the ultra-Orthodox community that a state preceding the arrival of the Messiah is an idolatrous offense against God. The religious objection to practical Zionism, in other words, lies in its practical success.
Today, within the Jewish community, anti-Zionist Jews do not pose much of a challenge. Now the real challenge comes from within Zionism itself—with the way practical Zionism has disappointed some Jews. These are people who have replaced practical Zionism with what might be called “conditional Zionism.” For the conditional Zionists, Israel was once the port of call for Jews adrift. Now, they say, the storm is over and the threat to Jewry comes more from what they see as the calamity that the storm has wreaked on the port.
In his 2012 book The Crisis of Zionism, Peter Beinart insists he sleeps better at night “knowing that the world contains a Jewish state.” His very next words, however, might count as a succinct motto of the conditional Zionists: “But not any Jewish state.” If Israel does not behave as the conditional Zionists wish it to behave, if it does not enact policies the conditional Zionists wish it to enact, if it does not confront its own external challenges in a manner that salves the consciences of the conditional Zionists, then it is not deserving of their support.
And what is the alternative to Zionism for them? In a darkly ironic passage in the book, Beinart points to Europe: “The vast majority of European Jews now live in democracies that ensure religious liberty.” The Jews of France, warned not to wear yarmulkes or Stars of David or even, at times, go to synagogue, might disagree.
The conditional Zionists have a way of mistaking a lull in the waves for a permanent low tide. Consider this sentence Beinart wrote only three years ago: “For the most part, young American Jews don’t experience their campuses as hostile or anti-Semitic.” In fact, crude anti-Zionism is ruthlessly enforced both among the faculty and the student body across American higher education.
In their own words and actions, conditional Zionists implicitly acknowledge that the end of the need for practical Zionism is a necessary prerequisite for their own brand of Zionism—one in which left-leaning American Jews can use the State of Israel as their moral playground, the successor to Jabotinsky’s “amusement park for Hebrew culture.” While the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza was used as a pretext for the kind of popular violent anti-Semitic expression in Europe that the conditional Zionists had assured us was a thing of the past, in the United States the liberal Zionists were agonizing over the supposed irreconcilability of their progressive values with Israel’s method of self-defense.
“Israel Is Making It Hard to Be Pro-Israel,” complained the headline of a New Yorkmagazine post by Jonathan Chait. He flubbed the facts of the conflict—“The operation in Gaza is not Netanyahu’s strategy in excess; it is Netanyahu’s strategy in its entirety,” he writes, preposterously—but he was actually quite honest about his own brand of Zionism. He explains that his long-running definition of what it means to be pro-Israel includes “two possible qualifications: a sympathy for the country’s history vis-à-vis its critics, or an ongoing support for its political stance in relation to its international foes.” This is conditional Zionism, heavy on the “conditional.”
So what happens to the conditional Zionists’ arguments when anti-Semitism reasserts itself with a vengeance? The answer comes from the academic Alan Wolfe. His latest book, At Home in Exile, purports to explain “why Diaspora is good for the Jews.” Wolfe accepts, to some degree, the premise of practical Zionism. But then he caricatures it, asserting that the credibility of the Zionist project, at least as its most dedicated adherents see it, depends on the complete collapse of Diaspora life:
Intentionally or not, a focus on diasporic success undermines that unity, for if Jews can flourish outside the Jewish state, the fundamental rationale for that state’s existence is inevitably brought into question. Zionists did not build a home for some Jews so that others could treat it as a place to go on vacation.
According to Wolfe, then, the Zionists’ response is threat inflation in the service of particularism at the expense of universalism. Wolfe says Jews don’t appreciate, or don’t permit themselves to appreciate, their good fortune. “Far from representing an appeal for the rights of powerless minorities to live in dignity,” Wolfe writes, “repeated accusations of anti-Semitism under such conditions all too often lose their innocence.”
It is, we fear, Wolfe and the conditional Zionists who must now lose their innocence, if innocence it ever was. The conditions in France reveal the dangerous complacency of conditional Zionism. Israel was not established as a messianic project or a secular haven. It is not a socialist workers’ paradise. It is not a capitalist-imperialist outpost. It is, instead, a country, now 66 years of age, freer than most, fairer to minorities than most, in which 6.2 million Jews now live.
“Home is the place where, when you have to go there,/They have to take you in,” wrote Robert Frost. For every French Jew at risk, for every Jew everywhere at risk, and for every Jew who chooses, Israel is home. Its existence before the Holocaust would have saved millions. Its existence after the Holocaust saved and created millions. Seventy years after the Holocaust, Jews in Europe are in need of it again.
Alas, the promise Herzl offered at the conclusion of The Jewish State was dreadfully naive: “The Jews, once settled in their own State, would probably have no more enemies,” he wrote. In two months, Jews will gather for the Passover seder and sing: “In every generation they rise up against us to destroy us.” Anti-Semitism is a disease for which there is likely no cure.
The existential necessity of Zionism after Paris is not only a fact. It is a charge for the future.