Should They Stay or Should They Go? On Europe's Jews

A Jewish leader in Paris answers my questions about hope, despair, liberalism, and politics.

I've spent the past couple of weeks writing about the consequences of Israel's complicated politics (I don't know if you've heard, but they recently had an election), but I've also been working at the American Academy in Berlin, mainly on my next book about the Middle East. The book will address, among other topics, the happy-go-lucky relationship between the Israeli prime minister and the American president (working title: Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?). But I hope to turn soon (meaning, now, more or less) to the discussion surrounding my cover story for the April edition of The Atlantic, about the future—or non-future—of Europe's Jews.

There has been a great deal of reaction to the piece. Some of it has been critical, mainly though not exclusively on the far left and the far right (as we know, there are a couple of subjects about which extremists of the left and right generally find themselves in agreement), and I'll address those critiques later on, but for now I wanted to try to answer a particular question sent to me by a reader in Belgium. I've received numerous variations of this question from a number of people—including from friends—over the past couple of weeks.

I will extend this general conversation out over the next month, but I thought I would turn to the question, and then turn over this discussion to Simone Rodan-Benzaquen, who serves as the Paris representative of the American Jewish Committee, and who is one of the most eloquent and influential advocates for European Jewry on the continent.

But first, from a Jewish person in Belgium who asked to remain anonymous: "I read your article, and the experience of the Jews of Belgium is similar, or maybe worse, than the experience in France, because our government is quiet on the subject and there are not so many of us here. However, I don't want to leave. This is my country. You probably feel that way about your country. If you were a Belgian Jew, what do you think you would do?"

The answer is very difficult, of course. As I wrote in the article, I do not sense a great future for Jews across much of Europe. The trends are not moving in positive directions, even putting aside the most obvious negative trend of all: In 1939 there were nine million Jews in Europe, and today there are roughly 1.4 million. But my answer is this: If I were a completely assimilated Jew, one who, say, has married out of the faith; one who is not raising my children Jewish; and one who does not associate with Jewish people in specifically Jewish places, then I think I would be fairly safe in Belgium. It is possible to be secure in a place like Belgium by avoiding Jewish institutions (synagogues, schools, and so on) and, of course, by not participating in any obviously Jewish activity, or dressing in an obviously Jewish manner. So it comes down to a person's relationship with Judaism. Obviously, the Nazis are not coming, and so it is not unduly dangerous to have Jewish ancestry. The article I wrote, however, was about normative Jewish life. For those people who want to be actively Jewish, a place like Belgium could, in fact, be dicey. I suppose that if I lived in Belgium, and could afford to be mobile, I would be getting mobile. But these are terribly hard questions. If I had parents, or siblings, who were tied to Belgium, I probably wouldn't be so quick to look for an exit.

I put some some of these sorts of hard questions to Rodan-Benzaquen, who thinks about these problems continually. I think her answers to my emailed questions are illuminating, and I'll be posting similar conversations in the coming weeks.

Jeffrey Goldberg: You are a European—Romanian-born, German-raised, now bringing up your own family in France—working for an American Jewish organization. What don't American Jews, and others, understand about the current situation facing Europe's Jews?

Simone Rodan-Benzaquen: Most American Jews probably do not understand how difficult everyday life is for some European  Jews; that bringing your kids to Jewish school, that going to synagogue, or putting on a kippa in certain areas in public, or going to a kosher supermarket, can be everyday acts of courage.

For the more informed and alert American Jews who know that there is a serious problem of anti-Semitism in Europe, I think there is a misconception on the other end of the spectrum. Some of those American Jews believe history is repeating itself and that we are now in a period that resembles the 1930s. But there is a profound difference [between] the 30s and today, in that the governments of Europe are today not only not anti-Semitic, but that most of them have made it a priority to fight anti-Semitism.

Goldberg: The governments are with the Jews, but are the people?

Rodan-Benzaquen: Yes, the governments are thankfully very outspoken in the fight against anti-Semitism. The people? This is, unfortunately, different. There has been a lack of civil-society mobilization against anti-Semitism. We have not seen massive demonstrations on the streets after the murders of Ilan Halimi in 2006 or after Toulouse in 2012, and one wonders what would have happened if there had only been the attack against the kosher supermarket, and not Charlie Hebdo right before it. Would we have seen 4 million people on the streets demonstrating?

Maybe the attacks this January have served as a wakeup call to France's civil society. Maybe people will understand that Jews have been the canary in the coal mine, that it might start with the Jews, but that it never ends there. Today it will be the Jews, tomorrow journalists and policemen, and then someone else? Maybe people will understand that Prime Minister (Manuel) Valls is right when he says that when Jews are attacked, France is attacked.

Goldberg: You mention Prime Minister Valls. Obviously he is committed to the security needs of the Jewish community. But do you feel comfortable that the political class will continue to be worried about the Jews?

Rodan-Benzaquen: There are probably very few political leaders who are as determined as Prime Minister Valls in combating anti-Semitism. He is pretty unique in this sense.

That being said, there seem to be more and more politicians from both major parties in France who understand what is at stake. A parliamentary group on anti-Semitism has recently been created with more than 80 members from all parties, except the extreme parties, and several of them are quite strong.

Goldberg: No extremes? What happens if the extremes eventually come to power? We see that Marine LePen, for instance, is already the most popular politician currently in France, according to the polls.

Rodan-Benzaquen: The National Front feeds off fear of Europe, fear of globalization, as well as a fear of radical Islamism. In this context I am obviously concerned that the National Front is gaining ground and [about] what will happen if they win the next presidential elections. I just can’t exclude this possibility. But it will be up to the democratic parties (on the right and the left) to reclaim a voice in the fight against Islamist extremism [and] anti-Semitism and reaffirm the values of the French Republic. In the recent departmental elections the polls were proven wrong; the National Front, while certainly gaining ground, turned out to be only the third-largest party after the conservative and socialist [parties]. While we would be foolish to celebrate this as a victory, maybe it can teach us a lesson—that the traditional parties should not shy away from addressing some of the more difficult issues. If they do, the extremes win.

Goldberg: What do you say to American Jews, and other diaspora Jews, who say that Europe is a lost cause—that Jewish charitable money should be directed to Israel, or to other Jewish communities? Sometimes, I myself feel that propping up small and shrinking Jewish communities, while admirable, is not the best use of limited communal resources.

Rodan-Benzaquen: I would say that we are probably going through a defining moment in history, for Jews, for our values, for liberal democracies. Much of this is playing out in Europe.

If Jews were to leave Europe, it would be bad for Jews all over the world, because I believe in the need for a strong diaspora. It is a vital, creative and necessary force for Judaism, and also essential for Israel. It would also be a bad sign for Europe, as it would be a sign that its values are crumbling, that Europe is losing the battle against extremism. What happens if we "lose" Europe? Wouldn't this profoundly change the world equilibrium?

Many European Jews believe this is a battle worth fighting, for ourselves, for Europe, for democracy, for our values. And I think they are right. This is exactly where the money should be put, not only by Jews, but by non-Jews. Giving up on the destiny of European Jewry means issuing a death sentence on the fight against extremism, on the idea of liberal democracy.

Goldberg: All of that is fine, but you know as well as I do that tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of Jews, in the suburbs of Paris, in Marseilles and Toulouse and Lyon—and in Brussels and Copenhagen and Malmo, by the way—are frightened for their physical safety, and for the safety of their children. How can you argue to them that they should stay where they are for the sake of a principle, when they are worried about the safety of their children?

Rodan-Benzaquen: First of all, I want to be very clear: I would never tell anyone that they should stay or leave. It is a very personal choice that I would never judge. As you say, there are thousands of Jews in Europe who are frightened and it is understandable that they choose to leave.

But my mission is to assist those who choose to stay and make sure that they continue to have a future here. AJC's mission is to get the government, civil society, the media, and policymakers to understand that we are going through a crucial moment in history, where the destiny not only of the Jewish people will be decided upon, but that of Europe and liberal democracies worldwide. And while we still have leaders such as Manuel Valls, Angela Merkel, and David Cameron, who seem to understand this and make it their priority to transform this into policy, maybe there is still place for hope.