Cause for Grief?

The Jewish people would suffer no great loss if all the Jews of Europe were to pack and leave tomorrow.

Aug. 25 2013
About the author

Hillel Halkin’s books include Yehuda HaleviAcross the Sabbath RiverMelisande: What are Dreams? (a novel), Jabotinsky: A Life (2014), and, most recently, After One-Hundred-and-Twenty (Princeton). 

On the level of generalities, little in Michel Gurfinkiel’s “You Only Live Twice” will come as a surprise to anyone who has followed the growth of anti-Israel and anti-Jewish sentiment in Europe in recent decades. To have the evidence so clearly and systematically laid out before one, however, is depressing and alarming even for those familiar with much of it.

As a theoretical exercise, one could debate the chicken-or-egg question of which came first. Did European hostility toward Israel, which has increased slowly but steadily with continued Israeli control of the Palestinian territories conquered in 1967, awaken a traditional anti-Semitism that had lain dormant since the end of World War II? Or did, on the contrary, this dormant anti-Semitism fuel hostility toward Israel as a way of venting anti-Semitic feelings whose direct expression was made taboo by the Holocaust?

This is not, though, a very useful way of posing the problem. In reality, we are dealing with a process of mutual reinforcement. Without Israel, widespread anti-Semitism in post-Holocaust Europe would most likely not have awakened from its dormancy; had it not been there to be awakened, criticism of Israel would never have reached the pathologically ferocious levels that it has. In the language of the rabbis, tsvat b’tsvat asuya—the smith’s tongs make each other. Each cause has caused the cause that caused it.

Although Michel Gurfinkiel does not explore the issue, the influence of the Holocaust on European attitudes toward Jews and Israel has been double-edged. On the one hand, horror at the Nazi genocide, and guilt for the widespread complicity in it of many European governments and peoples, initially encouraged sympathy for its survivors and support for a Jewish state. On the other hand, the desire to get rid of this guilt has grown with time—and psychologically, there are few better ways to get rid of guilt than accusing the accuser of the crimes one is accused of. The reversal of roles whereby Israelis are now cast as the Nazi aggressor and the Palestinians as their helpless victims has been a wonderful salve for the European conscience. It has enabled Europe to say: “By what right do you Jews blame us? You are doing to others what Hitler did to you.” There is no other way to account for such facts as the one cited by Gurfinkiel that 48 percent of all Germans and 63 percent of all Poles now believe the insane charge that Israel is waging a “genocidal war” against the Palestinians.  This is not just mass psychology. It is mass psychopathology.

This reversal bears a chilling resemblance to the one on which the entire edifice of Christian anti-Semitism was constructed. A popular preacher of Judaism is crucified in first-century Jerusalem by the Romans—and the Christianized Roman Empire that deifies him turns the people he preached to into his crucifiers, setting the stage for centuries of persecution. This archetype is deeply embedded in the European psyche. One could give endless examples of how it works. I encountered a small one ten years ago in Spain, during the second intifada. A mass-circulation tabloid published a large front-page photograph, dramatically retouched for effect, of a Palestinian mother cradling in her lap a dead child allegedly killed by an Israeli bullet. The pose was identical to that of a medieval Pietà I had seen that same day in a local church.

Yet had I pointed this out to a Spaniard, he would probably have looked at me wonderingly, for it is precisely the de-Christianization of contemporary Europe that makes most Europeans unaware of the psychic mechanisms driving them. They have inherited Christian anti-Semitism while losing all touch with its roots. This permits them to protest with a measure of sincerity that they are only “anti-Israel,” not “anti-Jewish,” and precludes their understanding the Israeli experience. For all its distortion of Judaism and Jewish existence, Christianity always had some idea of what these things were about; as Judaism’s offspring, it was theologically incoherent without its Jewish background. Christians may have considered Zionism misguided or villainous, but they also knew from their Bible what its historic rationale and emotional impetus were. Post-Christian Europe hasn’t a clue. It more easily conceives of Israel as an illegitimate colonial presence on Arab land than as the return of a people to its own land, because it is more familiar with the European colonial past than with the European Christian past.

If European attitudes toward Israel and Jews differ strikingly from American ones, this is in part because Americans do not feel guilt for the Holocaust and live in a country in which Christianity remains a force. Not all American Christians, of course, are sympathetic to Israel. Only among evangelicals does one find a remarkable support for Israel accompanied by pro-Jewish sympathies that are unprecedented in the history of Christianity, although they were foreshadowed in England by various low-church and dissenting movements that have by now disappeared from English life. If not for them, there would have been no Balfour Declaration and probably no Jewish state. American evangelicalism is their descendant, and fortunately it continues to thrive.

There are, needless to say, other crucial factors in contemporary American attitudes toward Jews and Israel, such as the traditional tolerance and openness America has shown toward its immigrants and its financially wealthy and politically powerful Jewish community that has no counterpart in Europe. The relatively small number of U.S. Muslims and their successful integration into American life have helped, too. These things give one reason to hope that, despite the assimilation that is gradually eroding the strength of American Jewry and the “Europeanization” of thinking about Israel that has taken place in liberal and intellectual circles, the United States will not follow in Europe’s path. This is a comfort in light of how dire the situation in Europe has become.


I cannot say that I feel grief over the end of European Jewry (if that is really what we are looking at). I say this, to be sure, as a Jew born and raised in America; were I a European Jew like Michel Gurfinkiel, I suppose I might feel differently. But I say it even more as a Zionist, as an Israeli, and as a Jew who knows something about Jewish history.

I have written once or twice about my aversion to all attempts to reconstitute or reinvigorate Jewish life in Eastern Europe  in particular. Not only were the countries of this region hotbeds of anti-Semitism for hundreds of years, they were also, with considerable native aid and abetment, the killing grounds of the Jewish people during World War II. Anti-Semitism continues to run high in them. I will have to beg pardon for my intemperance, but all talk of a new start for Jewish life in a country like Poland makes me think of the verse in Proverbs, “Like a dog that returns to his vomit is the fool who repeats his folly.”

Western Europe is not Eastern Europe. The Jewish story there has been more nuanced. It has had many more happy chapters alongside its grim ones. Yet the grim ones have been grim indeed, and the worst of them took place, historically speaking, just yesterday. Nazi Germany was, culturally, a Western European country, and Western European collaboration with the Nazis was great. Countries like Holland, Belgium, France, Italy, and Greece were not killing grounds, but they helped round up their Jews and ship them off to slaughterhouses elsewhere.

One can understand many survivors of the Holocaust choosing to rebuild their lives in these places. Human beings seek to return to the familiar even when the familiar has sought to spew them out. One can also regret, however, that a sense of Jewish pride and dignity did not deter them from doing this when they had Israel as an alternative.

No one can say whether the current anti-Israel and anti-Jewish mood in Europe will eventually run its course. Perhaps an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement would temper it, perhaps not. Yet as unkind as it may be to say so, the Jewish people would suffer no great loss if all the Jews of Italy, Holland, Germany, and even England, let alone countries like Sweden and Switzerland, were to pack and leave tomorrow.

The only European country in which Jewish life currently has any real demographic strength or cultural dynamism is France—and this is only because of the post-World War II influx of hundreds of thousands of North African Jews who have transformed, who knows for how long, the French Jewish community. But this is precisely why French Jews are more apprehensive about their future than are, say, the Jews of England. They know that, outnumbered ten-to-one by French Muslims, they are politically weak and that the more visible they are as Jews, the more vulnerable they are, too.

If Jews do start leaving Europe in significant numbers, I hope many of them will choose to settle in Israel rather than drift off to America, Canada, Australia, or other places. This of course depends on Israel as much as it does on them. Indeed, it depends, ironically, on Israel’s becoming a more European country—more soundly and efficiently run, more economically affordable, more environmentally caring, more peaceful, more livable. This was the vision of Theodor Herzl’s utopian novel Altneuland (1902): to lure Jews from Europe by creating a Jewish society that could compete with any in Europe. It’s a goal still worth aiming for.


Hillel Halkin, the Israeli essayist, novelist, and translator, is the author of Yehuda Halevi (Nextbook/Schocken) and has recently completed a biography of Ze’ev Jabotinsky for the “Jewish Lives” series (Yale, forthcoming). 

More about: Anti-Semitism, European Jewry, Holocaust, Israel, Jewish State, Michel Gurfinkiel