Commentary Magazine


Topic: Michel Gurfinkiel

Confronting the End of European Jewry

Last year the U.S. State Department noted that a “rising tide of anti-Semitism” was sweeping through Europe. It was a significant acknowledgement of a critical problem. But as serious as this warning was, the dilemma of European Jewry remains a marginal issue that only gains sporadic attention when there is an egregious crime or a move to ban Jewish religious practices in a specific country. As much as the murder of four Jews in a shooting spree in Toulouse by an Islamist terrorist or the attempts to ban circumcision or kosher slaughter makes headlines, the revival of Jew hatred on the European continent is not so much the function of egregious incidents as it is a historic process that is leading to what seems like an inevitable conclusion. In is in this context that Michel Gurfinkiel’s essay “You Only Live Twice” on the subject in this month’s edition of Mosaic magazine must be seen as an important contribution to Jewish historiography. After decades of celebrating the unexpected revival of European Jewry after the Holocaust that created new vibrant communities where desolation had existed in 1945, we have now reached the moment when the cycle of hatred has turned around again. In a brilliant tour de force of historical perspective, Gurfinkiel reminds us that the virus of Jew hatred has not merely revived but threatens to write what may be the final chapter in the long saga of European Jewry.

Gurfunkiel puts the steady drip of depressing stories about anti-Semitism in context. But it is important because it dares to draw conclusions about the problem that many sober European commentators refuse to approach. Instead of merely lamenting a sad trend, he demands that Jews draw the proper conclusions from events. That is something growing numbers of European Jews are doing, as many are immigrating to Israel. But his conclusion should send a chill down the spines of not only Jews but also all civilized persons who might otherwise be inclined to take a less alarmist view of events:

A mitigating view of today’s situation might have it that, at the very least, divine providence did beneficently afford to about two million European Jews a brief golden age, a true rebirth, which in turn brought fresh luster to European civilization as well as encouragement and inspiration to millions of their fellow Jews around the world, most especially in the Jewish state. True enough; but what is no less certain is that the end of European Jewry, a millennia-old civilization and a crowning achievement of the human spirit, will deliver a lasting blow to the collective psyche of the Jewish people. That it will also render a shattering judgment on the so-called European idea, exposed as a deadly travesty for anyone with eyes to see, is cold comfort indeed.

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Last year the U.S. State Department noted that a “rising tide of anti-Semitism” was sweeping through Europe. It was a significant acknowledgement of a critical problem. But as serious as this warning was, the dilemma of European Jewry remains a marginal issue that only gains sporadic attention when there is an egregious crime or a move to ban Jewish religious practices in a specific country. As much as the murder of four Jews in a shooting spree in Toulouse by an Islamist terrorist or the attempts to ban circumcision or kosher slaughter makes headlines, the revival of Jew hatred on the European continent is not so much the function of egregious incidents as it is a historic process that is leading to what seems like an inevitable conclusion. In is in this context that Michel Gurfinkiel’s essay “You Only Live Twice” on the subject in this month’s edition of Mosaic magazine must be seen as an important contribution to Jewish historiography. After decades of celebrating the unexpected revival of European Jewry after the Holocaust that created new vibrant communities where desolation had existed in 1945, we have now reached the moment when the cycle of hatred has turned around again. In a brilliant tour de force of historical perspective, Gurfinkiel reminds us that the virus of Jew hatred has not merely revived but threatens to write what may be the final chapter in the long saga of European Jewry.

Gurfunkiel puts the steady drip of depressing stories about anti-Semitism in context. But it is important because it dares to draw conclusions about the problem that many sober European commentators refuse to approach. Instead of merely lamenting a sad trend, he demands that Jews draw the proper conclusions from events. That is something growing numbers of European Jews are doing, as many are immigrating to Israel. But his conclusion should send a chill down the spines of not only Jews but also all civilized persons who might otherwise be inclined to take a less alarmist view of events:

A mitigating view of today’s situation might have it that, at the very least, divine providence did beneficently afford to about two million European Jews a brief golden age, a true rebirth, which in turn brought fresh luster to European civilization as well as encouragement and inspiration to millions of their fellow Jews around the world, most especially in the Jewish state. True enough; but what is no less certain is that the end of European Jewry, a millennia-old civilization and a crowning achievement of the human spirit, will deliver a lasting blow to the collective psyche of the Jewish people. That it will also render a shattering judgment on the so-called European idea, exposed as a deadly travesty for anyone with eyes to see, is cold comfort indeed.

The desire to avoid drawing such a stark conclusion about the problem is natural and it is based in no small measure, as Gurfinkiel notes, on the fact that European Jewry “looks healthy and secure.” The postwar revival of Jewish life in France and even Germany has created substantial communities and a population that is invested in the future of these countries. They have enjoyed a golden age that created a superficial similarity to the strength and security of American Jewry. But the comparisons no longer make sense. With anti-Semitism raging on the left and the right and with the unprecedented growth in the population of Muslim immigrants in Europe (especially in France), you don’t need to be an alarmist to understand that “catastrophe may lie ahead.”

What Gurfinkiel sees as the “seeds of a new anti-Semitism” were sown in France by Charles de Gaulle who repudiated his country’s alliance with Israel after the Six-Day War and embarked on a campaign of delegitimization of the Jewish state that did not exclude frankly anti-Semitic utterances. But while de Gaulle deserves a large amount of the blame, the problem was bigger than the enormous ego of that hero of the Second World War. Post-war European intellectuals were weaned on a belief that imperialism was the original sin of European civilization and wrongly categorized Zionism as part of the colonial endeavor rather than as the national liberation movement of the Jewish people. While Europe enjoyed a brief period of philo-Semitism as part of the reaction to the Holocaust, the movement seeking to brand as illegitimate the expression of Jewish identity simmered under the surface. Just as Muslim anti-Semitism “has been intimately connected with classic European anti-Semitism for more than a century” and freely borrows from the Hitlerian playbook, as the historian notes, “the two brands share a common language, and each sees in the other a mirror image of itself.” The comeback of Jew hatred in Europe is inextricably tied to its rise in the Muslim and Arab world.

The problem is that the “new” anti-Semitism that focuses on Israel is merely a variation on the old themes that once ravaged the European continent. Perhaps the most important insight in an essay full of them is Gurfinkiel’s pointing out that whereas in the aftermath of the Enlightenment European Jews thought they could gain equality and acceptance by jettisoning their specific Jewish identity and faith, so, too, do some now think they can escape the anti-Semitic tide by distancing themselves from Israel.

For the most part, in France and throughout Western Europe, that price was fully and willingly paid. Generations of Jews eagerly pledged their allegiance to the ideals of democracy, patriotism, and religious tolerance, pouring their prodigious talents and energies into making Europe a better place. Over the centuries, in fair weather, the bargain held; in foul, the price would be successively raised, the conditions of acceptance revised, the bargain hedged, until at last the offer was finally, brutally, rescinded in wholesale massacre.

Now, busily building monuments and museums, Europe ostentatiously engages in celebrating and mourning its lost dead Jews of yesterday, whose murder it variously perpetrated, abetted, or (with exceptions) found it could put up with. Meanwhile, it encourages and underwrites the withering of Jewish life today. Once again, Jews are accepted on condition: that they separate themselves from their brethren in Israel and join the official European consensus in demonizing the Jewish state; that they learn to accommodate the reality that so many ethnic Europeans hate them and wish them ill, and that Islamists on European soil seek their extinction; and that in the interest of justifying their continued claim to European citizenship, they accept Europe’s proscription of some of the most basic practices of their faith.

To the dead Jews of yesterday, everything; to the living Jews of today, little and littler.

This juxtaposition of affection for the dead and indifference or hostility to the living is a common theme in much of the world after 1945, but especially so in France and Europe. As in the past, those who think they can escape hate by turning their back on their own people may someday discover that they have given up much in exchange for little or nothing. Though some may hope that it is not too late for the tide of anti-Semitism to be reversed, it is difficult to argue with Gurfinkiel’s conclusion. Even more to the point, it is a powerful argument for even greater support for a Jewish state that provides the only fitting memorial to the Holocaust and the only effective answer to anti-Semitic hate.

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