France, for the anti-Semite, has long occupied a particular place in hell. It was France, the thinking has gone, that laundered the Jew, turned him into a human, a creature with rights, and thus helped him along the road to global domination. “He received civil equality with the French Revolution,” Adolf Hitler wrote. “With that the bridge was constructed over which he could stride to the conquest of political power within nations.”
Hitler wrote this in 1928, in his Zweites Buch, or “Second Book,” which his publisher failed to distribute, likely because sales of his first book had been so weak. That first book, of course, was Mein Kampf. It did not enjoy nearly the notoriety in its early years that it was subsequently—retrospectively—to achieve.
The Europe of today is not, as Jeffrey Goldberg writes in our cover story, the Europe of 1933, when Hitler took power. Not close. The elected leaders of the major European nations are united in their repugnance for anti-Semitism. Marine Le Pen, of the rightist National Front, a party shadowed by a history of anti-Semitic expostulations, asserts her concern for France’s Jews even as she fans anger against its Muslims.
And yet. Goldberg traveled through 10 European countries and spent a year reporting this story (though one could say a lifetime of reporting and thinking went into it). In Malmö, Sweden, he met a man he calls probably “the most persecuted Jew in Europe”: a rabbi, the only person in the city who dresses unmistakably as a Jew—kippah, black coat—and so makes himself a target.
What haunts me most, though, are the students Goldberg met in a suburb of Paris, Montreuil, who confided the various ways they and their neighbors now try to conceal their Jewishness. Have camouflage and denial become the price of the civil equality Hitler lamented? Is that too high a price to pay?
It is painful, and frightening, to watch European nations struggle to contain the contradictions that can come with liberalism—to celebrate the rights of satirists who caricature Muhammad one week, yet condemn a man who styles his hair like Hitler’s the next. Yes, there are excruciating reasons for these distinctions. But it is one thing for opprobrium to be unevenly distributed. Can any minority truly be secure when rights are unevenly distributed as well?
So—the Israeli prime minister’s clumsy importunings for emigration notwithstanding—is it at long last time for the Jews of Europe to depart? I’ll let you read the story to discover Goldberg’s wrenching reflections on that question, and his answer.
As Goldberg writes, we all bring our own history to the question. About a decade after Hitler wrote his second book, my family was warned to leave Warsaw; a foreign correspondent based there—a German, in fact—told my grandfather that Hitler meant what he was saying. But the family was so large, and so embedded in the life of the city. They were Poles, after all. So they stayed. After almost all of their relatives and friends were murdered, my grandparents and mother, having survived the war in Poland, eventually made their way to the United States. This was the only country, my grandmother told me, that would accept them, like other immigrants, and give them the chance to rebuild their lives.
And so, because I think I understand my grandfather’s choice, and also because 2015 is not 1939, and because maybe history has taught us something, I can’t presume to answer the question on our cover. I just find myself thinking of the parents of those students in Montreuil, and of their lonely struggle to find the right path for themselves and their children.