Comedy is not the opposite of seriousness. David Shrigley

A new Exodus?

As anti-Semitism gains traction across Europe, the continent’s Jews might once again have to ask themselves: Where do we belong?

I survived the Holocaust in a sub-cellar in Tarnopol (Ternopil), a city now located in the Western Ukraine that once had a thriving Jewish as well as Polish population. After the war and before coming to the U.S., I grew up in France when philo-Semites like Camus, Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir, as well as Pierre Mendès France, the country’s second Jewish prime minister, were luminaries. Jewish origins have been an important part of that nation’s genius from Montaigne to composers as different as Giacomo Meyerbeer and Jacques Offenbach, to painter Camille Pissarro, to the inventor of sociology, Emile Durkheim, to writer Marcel Proust, to philosopher Henri Bergson, to actor Sarah Bernhardt, to movie superstar Jean-Pierre Aumont, to groundbreaking writer Georges Perec, to the multitalented Serge Gainsbourg … to mention only a few.

Today, I am under the impression that France has forgotten about its Jewish cultural roots. The televised events from the streets of Paris and Marseilles fill me with sadness and consternation. In the middle of July, thousands of Muslims, along with some anti-Semitic Christian demonstrators, walked through the center of Paris shouting “death to the Jews.” They burned cars, vandalized Jewish stores, and, as reported by the press, not far from the Bastille, a number of them, armed with knives, threw stones and bottles at the Izaak Abravanela Synagogue.

It is not better in other parts of Western Europe. A bomb was planted in the new synagogue in Wuppertal, Germany; swastikas were painted on stores in the Jewish quarter of Rome; Israeli soccer players were attacked in Austria. These are but a few examples of the daily realities faced by European Jews. It is not just a onetime eruption of anti-Semitism by Muslim immigrants caused by the actions of Israel in the Gaza Strip. The hatred of Jews in Western Europe has been growing for many years. More and more, it is expressed by elites and the educated middle class.

Safer in Europe than in Israel?

Italy’s most popular philosopher and inveterate anti-Semite, Gianni Vattimo, told interviewers on Italy’s Radio 24 that he wanted Europeans “to buy Hamas some more rockets” to “shoot those bastard Zionists” because Hamas’ current arsenal is limited to “toy rockets that don’t really kill anyone.” He wants to forget and not have to apologize for his fascist grandfathers’ atrocities committed in Abyssinia, Guernica, and Greece. One of Spain’s most popular playwrights, Antonio Gala – an obvious anti-Semite – has written justifying historical Jewish expulsions with the implication that Western Europe should become Judenrein again to punish Israel for supposedly slaughtering innocent Palestinians. He seems to ignore the fact that after the expulsion of Jews from Spain, his country slid into scientific and intellectual obscurity. Today, Spain, with a population larger than Poland’s by one quarter, boasts fewer than half of Poland’s Nobel Prize recipients.

The problem has been noticed and taken up by world media. From a Newsweek cover story to newspaper pieces entitled “the next Kristallnacht” or even “the next Holocaust,” the stories about the current and future prospects of European Jewry are extremely grim. A month or two ago, the Economist magazine ran an editorial arguing that, all things considered, Jews were safer in Europe than in Israel. Of course, that was before the latest eruptions of violent anti-Israel riots threatened to turn Paris into the West Bank.

If history repeats itself, then perhaps the unthinkable – an exodus under threats of physical harm to Jews – will again become thinkable. I want to pose the hypothetical question: If West Europe’s Jews need to leave again, en masse, in what direction should they go? And where would they find the most hospitable welcome? I assume here for the sake of argument that, for whatever reasons, they would choose to not go to an embattled, unsafe, and crowded Israel.

Let us focus first on whether America would offer a safe haven, as the new world sometimes has for half a millennia. If you had asked me when I first came to America as a young man whether America would provide safe haven to a new mass Jewish influx – a subject in which I developed a keen interest – I would have had grave doubts.

Let us not forget that in America levels of anti-Semitism were sky high both before World War II (when Father Coughlin was admired by tens of millions of radio fans for his anti-Jewish diatribes) and during World War II (when it wasn’t safe for Jewish youngsters to walk the streets of Boston). Rafael Medoff, in his latest book, has documented the political timidity and/or prejudice that caused FDR not to “lead from behind” on the refugee issue like Obama is now doing, but not to lead at all. Remember that open German immigrant quotas were unfilled during the 1930s because of anti-Semitic U.S. consular bureaucrats. Remember also the fiasco of the 1938 Evian Conference, when the U.S. and Britain refused Hitler’s offer to deport as many Jews as they would accept, and the turning away in 1939 of the doomed S.S. St. Louis, which the Coast Guard prevented from landing on the shores of Florida.

Even immediately after the war, U.S. polls reflected strong opposition to admitting large numbers of Jewish DPs (Displaced Persons). This was “the post-Final Solution” proposed, for example, by anti-Zionist Jews who vainly promoted it as an alternative to creating the state of Israel.

Destined to last forever?

Only later did the unsuccessful Hungarian Revolution of 1956 begin to change attitudes in a big way, making admitting non-Jewish anti-communist refugees fashionable, and after 1960 when JFK sold himself as president of “a nation of immigrants” – a vision that posthumously triumphed in the Immigration Reform Act of 1965. Then in 1967, when Israel’s underdog victory in the Six-Day War electrified Christian as well as Jewish Americans, anti-Semitism began to ebb dramatically and American Jews, though declining as a percentage of the population, achieved unprecedented success and influence in the intellectual, economic, cultural, and political realms.

However, I think it is appropriate to pose the uncomfortable question: is the current window of favorability toward Jews – and probable hospitability of the U.S. sheltering a new Jewish influx, if that proved necessary – destined to last forever? If Jewish-Muslim conflict continues at a high level in the Mideast, if the American Muslim population increases over the course of time from 2-3 percent to 8-10 percent on the order of France now, and if New York and Washington, D.C. politically take on the coloration of Paris, will the favorable window to a new Jewish influx persist – or will that window close to a mass influx of Jewish refugees?

This leads me to my last question and challenge. Should European Jews cover their bets, not by abandoning Europe, but by moving East the way their ancestors did when expelled in the hundreds of thousands from practically every part of Europe from the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries?

Despite the reality of anti-Semitism promoted by the Catholic Church, the Jewish community of Poland-Lithuania, from the time of the Statute of Kaliscz (1263), achieved an unprecedented level of communal autonomy, a Jewish self-government through the kehilla system, and Jewish-Polish cross-fertilization reflected, for example, in Jews fighting for Poland in both the anti-Russian Revolutions of 1831 and 1863. During much of that era, Poland was the only country in Europe to willingly admit Jews; for that, we Jews owe Poland an everlasting debt of gratitude. Also inadequately understood is the degree to which Jews reciprocated this hospitality by enriching Polish intellectual and cultural life.

I believe that Poland, once again, could become a beacon for West European Jews wanting to start over in a safe family environment but not to abandon Europe. Poland could even serve as a haven and headquarters country for European Jewish business elites whose interests are global. A few reasons include the hospitality of the Polish people despite residual prejudices kept alive by a slow-to-reform Catholic Church, the openness of the Polish economy to Jewish entrepreneurship, and Poland’s receptivity to Jewish culture as reflected in the concept of the phantom limb enunciated by Polish intellectuals and journalists. The once thriving but now nearly extinguished population has been compared to the missing limb of an amputee that no longer exists but still has feeling.

History repeats itself

But there is another reason. Let us be candid: anti-Jewish Islamization hasn’t happened and isn’t expected to happen during the next half century the way it has in parts of Western Europe and may even happen in America. It is also reassuring to know that Poland’s neighbor to the west, the most powerful country in Europe, is its ally and the ally of Jews and Israel. Germany has taken upon itself, for generations now, the task to oppose anti-Semitism in Germany and beyond and has staunchly supported Israel and its right to exist. Germany has been a refuge for hundreds of thousands of Eastern European Jews, has encouraged their growth, and would have great allure were it not for its large and growing Muslim population that is not immune to radicalization. All of this creates a new Polish “window of opportunity.”

Once again, history repeats itself. Centuries ago, Jewish folklorists, feeling secure in Poland, played creatively if inaccurately on the etymology of the word “Poland.” They argued that it derived from the Hebrew word “Polin” meaning “here find a haven.” One Jewish folktale related that when Jews first came to Poland, they found a wood, the forest of Kawęczyn, in which on every tree one tractate of the Talmud was carved.

Maybe the time has come to dust off the bark of those trees.

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