Actor Michael Douglas came face to face with European anti-Semitism recently and didn’t like the experience. Neither have many of the European Jews interviewed by the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg for his feature, whose headline poses the main question about the upsurge in hatred and violence against them: “Is It Time for the Jews to Leave Europe?” Douglas writes about the abuse directed at his son because the boy was wearing a Star of David while staying in what was likely a posh hotel in “southern Europe,” in an op-ed published in the Los Angeles Times. He has plenty of commendable outrage but nothing other than an anodyne call for an ecumenical stand against hatred to offer in response to a trend that can’t be ignored. Goldberg delves deeper into the motivations of the haters and the responses of the Jews but seems ambivalent about what conclusions to draw from it all. But the answer remains obvious even if it is easier for American Jews, who live in a country where anti-Semitism touches few lives, to ignore it: Israel remains the only logical answer to the question that his article poses.
Douglas’s piece was noteworthy because he lends his celebrity status to the effort to draw attention to what even the U.S. State Department has described as a “rising tide” of anti-Semitism in Europe. Goldberg offers a far more comprehensive triptych through Europe, describing the dilemma of Jews in places as diverse as France and Sweden and everywhere finding the same thing: it is increasingly impossible for Jews to live openly Jewish lives in nations that were long assumed to be bastions of Western freedom. But while the two pieces together help establish the importance of the issue, they also show how hard it is for American Jews to speak out on this issue in way that offers any clarity about the choices facing their European brethren.
Goldberg concludes his piece with the following puzzling paragraph:
I am predisposed to believe that there is no great future for the Jews in Europe, because evidence to support this belief is accumulating so quickly. But I am also predisposed to think this because I am an American Jew—which is to say, a person who exists because his ancestors made a run for it when they could.
Is Goldberg telling us that Jews must make “a run for it” in Europe in order to assure their safety? Or is he making a point that American Jews, who live in a very different environment, lack the standing to tell Europeans what to do?
If the latter, there is a point to be made on that score. No one can stand in judgment on the willingness of Jews in France, Sweden, and other countries to put up with insults and violence while seeking to conceal their Jewish identity in public. Leaving a home where you have history, jobs, family, and connections is very difficult. As a general rule, most people only do so when they feel they have little to lose by leaving or are motivated by ideology. Certainly American Jews, who are not likely to leave their homes for Israel, are in no position to demand that European Jews wake up and depart. Nor are we in a position to assure them asylum here at a time when a broken immigration system has left so many waiting to get in while millions live here illegally, albeit with the promise of amnesty from President Obama.
But it is possible for American Jews to look at the situation in Europe and to cease pretending that scattered gestures of goodwill or appropriate statements of concern from European leaders is any kind of an answer. As Goldberg’s report makes plain, the problem is too widespread, the roots of anti-Semitism run too deep in European culture, and the hate brought with them by Muslim immigrants to the continent far too embedded in their religion and culture to be talked out of existence. If Jews fear to wear Stars of David in public in some of the most enlightened capitals of the world, then it must be conceded that they not only have no future, but not much of a present.
Nor should American Jews think this situation has nothing to do with them.
It is true that American exceptionalism renders even the most virulent anti-Semitism less dangerous on these shores. Despite a history that includes many instances of Jew hatred, unlike every European and Asian country, America is a place where there is no real history of government-sponsored discrimination against them. Moreover, unlike Europe, where Israel’s existence is considered a vestige of the original sin of imperialism, support for Zionism is embedded in the political DNA of America. Religious Christians are ardent supporters of Israel and opponents of anti-Semitism. So are the overwhelming majority of Americans of all faiths.
But the trends that Goldberg discusses in Europe have established beachheads here on university campuses where Israel is a constant object of hate speech and boycott movements are part of the mainstream of academic culture. Last month’s incident at UCLA where a Jewish student was initially disqualified for a student government post was just the tip of the iceberg of a growing problem of prejudice. So is the ability of BDS (boycott, divest, sanction) movements to demonize supporters of Israel and to legitimize anti-Semitic attacks on Jewish rights on many campuses.
The difference is that American Jews are in a position to stand up against these disturbing trends while European Jews find themselves isolated and at risk. Though attacks on Jews still vastly outnumber those on Muslims (despite the incessant harping of the media on the myth of Islamophobia), Jews know they are at home in America in a way they can never be in places where they have already experienced expulsion and extermination.
But as we wrote in our February editorial on “The Existential Necessity of Zionism,” after the attack on the Hyper Cacher market, like the subsequent attack on a Danish synagogue and a host of other examples in recent years, it is no longer possible to treat anti-Semitic violence as if it were an isolated phenomenon.
Nor are the arguments of Israel’s critics, such as those recounted in Goldberg’s piece, even minimally persuasive. The State of Israel faces a nuclear threat from Iran and an ongoing siege of terror from Palestinians and other Islamists. But it has the capability and the will to defend itself and it can be counted on to do so no matter who is running its government. Israel will retain its Jewish identity and it will do what it must to preserve itself even if that means, as it has so often in the past, forfeiting the applause of Europeans who are indifferent to the rise of anti-Semitism in their backyards.
The only possible answer to what Michael Douglas and Jeffrey Goldberg witnessed in Europe is an effort to help those Jews who wish to leave Europe to do so. And it should remind all Jews and non-Jews that the need for a Jewish state is just as much of an imperative as it was in the late 19th century where the Dreyfus case convinced Theodor Herzl of the need for one or as it was during and after the Holocaust. Any response to anti-Semitism that seeks an answer that ignores the Zionist imperative is part of the problem, not its solution. And American Jews, who are for the most part, as Goldberg pointed out, descendants of people who had the smarts to leave Europe while the getting was good, should not be shy about saying so.