The debate over the future of European Jewry has centered on violent anti-Semitism, and for good reason. Without basic security for European Jews, the only question will be the rate at which they leave. But attacks on Jews don’t happen in a vacuum, and whether Jews feel welcome in their home countries will depend also on something not often given enough weight: nonviolent anti-Semitism.
As Joel Kotkin explains in a column for the Orange County Register, the global Jewish community is rapidly becoming a regional Jewish community. According to Kotkin, four out of every five Jews now lives in either Israel or the United States. In 1939, that number was one in four. Rising anti-Semitism throughout the world–and not just Western Europe–has combined with a dwindling birth rate to produce demographic decline in most of the world’s Jewish communities. Kotkin writes:
Overall, nearly 26,500 Europeans immigrated last year to Israel – a 32 percent increase from 2013. In Britain, a Jewish population of less than 300,000 has not grown for a generation. With recent polls showing close to half of all Britons holding some anti-Semitic views, a majority of British Jews now feel there is no future for them in Europe; one in four is considering emigration.
Other historically significant Jewish communities, such as that in Argentina, also are losing population. The number of Jews in the South American republic has fallen from roughly 300,000 in the 1960s to 250,000 today. This demographic decline will likely be accelerated now that the current Peronista regime has been accused of collaborating with Iranian terrorists implicated in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people and wounded more than 300. The government is widely suspected of complicity in the murder last month of the prosecutor investigating the bombing.
Argentina and France aren’t the only nations with formerly large, now-shrinking Jewish communities. In 1948, Iran was home to 100,000 Jews; now it’s a tenth of that number. In South Africa, the population reached 119,000 at the end of apartheid but since has dropped by roughly half. The largest numerical losses were in the former Soviet Union, where, in 1980, there were some 1.7 million Jews; now, as few as 250,000 remain. Most have resettled in Israel or the United States.
Still, France emerges as the canary in the coal mine–if, after the 20th century, the Jews of Europe need such a canary at all. It’s the largest European Jewish community, and it saw 7,000 of its Jews make aliyah last year alone. The numbers keep climbing, however. And there’s a reason beyond the violence.
In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher terror attacks in Paris, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls delivered a beautiful speech on what French Jewry means to the French state. He spoke out forcefully against resurgent French anti-Semitism and accused his country of historical blindness. And he was clear on France’s responsibility to the Jewish community.
And yet, there is a lingering sense that the endemic anti-Semitism in France has already reached a point of no return. I wrote in response that although Valls’s speech was laudatory and, at times, even inspiring, his framing of the issue left a bad taste. He spoke of France as the “land of emancipation of the Jews,” but that calls into question whether non-secular Jews will ever feel at home there again. I wrote: “A Frenchman who happens to be a Jew at home cannot be the only Jew who feels at home in France.”
A video making the rounds today demonstrates my point. A Jewish reporter for the Israeli news outlet NRG put on a yarmulke, untucked his tzitzit fringes, and walked around various neighborhoods of Paris for ten hours filmed by a hidden camera (and flanked by an undercover bodyguard). Here is what he encountered in more heavily Muslim neighborhoods of Paris:
Walking into a public housing neighborhood, we came across a little boy and his hijab-clad mother, who were clearly shocked to see us. “What is he doing here Mommy? Doesn’t he know he will be killed?” the boy asked.
Walking by a school in one of Paris’ neighborhoods, a boy shouted “Viva Palestine” at me. Moments later, passing by a group of teens, one of the girls remarked, “Look at that – it’s the first time I’ve ever seen such a thing.”
Walking down another neighborhood, a driver stopped his car and approached us. “We’ve been made,” I thought. “What are you doing here?” he asked. “We’ve had reports that you were walking around our neighborhood – you’re not from around here.”
In one of the mostly-Muslim neighborhoods, we walked into an enclosed marketplace. “Look at him! He should be ashamed of himself. What is he doing walking in here wearing a kippa?!” one Muslim merchant yelled. “What do you care? He can do whatever he wants,” another, seemingly unfazed merchant, answered. Over at a nearby street I was lambasted with expletives, mostly telling me to “go f*** from the front and the back.”
At a nearby [café], fingers were pointed at us, and moments later two thugs were waiting for us on the street corner. They swore at me, yelled “Jew” and spat at me. “I think we’ve been made,” the photographer whispered at me. Two youths were waiting for us on the next street corner, as they had apparently heard that a Jew was walking around their neighborhood.
They made it clear to us that we had better get out of there, and we took their advice.
The video also suggests there was a fair amount of spitting in their direction throughout the day. The reporter, Zvika Klein, was spared violence by adhering to threats that were probably not empty. But even without violence, what you see in the video is a pervasive sense of almost distaste for a Jew wearing a kippah. I received similar stares at the airport in Paris once when I thought I could use the time before my flight to don my tallis and tefillin. I was not received warmly (by the Frenchmen nearby, that is; the other non-French tourists were fine with it).
But I don’t live there. What does Manuel Valls plan to do about his country’s obvious, pervasive, rank anti-Semitism? Staging security forces or police outside Jewish schools is all well and good, but they’re there for a reason. They won’t make French society less anti-Semitic, and they won’t make Jews feel more at home in a place where being identifiably Jewish has become not an expression of French multiculturalism but an act of defiance that requires a bodyguard.