Bernard Avishai teaches at Hebrew University and Dartmouth College. He is the author of “The Hebrew Republic.”
This past year, Brussels, Paris and Copenhagen have been scenes of lethal attacks against Jews by benighted young Islamists in uncertain international networks. The deaths have triggered revulsion in European capitals but also a particular response in Jerusalem. After Copenhagen, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that “Jews have been murdered again on European soil only because they were Jews,” and, as he did after Paris, he exhorted European Jews — actually, all Jews, including Americans — to emigrate to Israel, “the home of every Jew.” With reporters present, Netanyahu presented his Cabinet with a $50 million plan to accommodate “mass immigration.” “Israel is waiting for you with open arms,” he said.
Netanyahu is also, presumably, waiting for the messiah. But even if the summons is sincere, most Jews in the West don’t need his protection — or conceive of Israel as their “home.” Life in Europe is just not perilous or alien in the way he implies, and even if it were, Israel is no easier to move to than any other country. It is, as it was intended to be, a radically different Jewish culture, engendered by a very foreign tongue only vaguely familiar to Western Jews from their liturgy. Israel is not the 21st arrondissement, and it cannot provide some comfortably Jewish yet pluralistic idyll that worried Western Jews might be longing for right now.
On some level, Netanyahu may simply have defaulted to the neo-Zionist passion play popular with his national-orthodox political allies, in which the victimization of innocent Jews transcends history — the Passover Haggadah predicts persecution “in every generation” as a venal, ineradicable response to the Jews’ divine election — and which depicts the risen Jewish state as redemption. He might be simply posturing for next month’s less-divine election, reassuring voters that he, alone and defiantly, speaks hard truths against perpetual threats to world Jewry. He might even be implying what his party has said for years: that the problem of annexing the occupied territories, along with their Palestinian residents, would be much easier if millions of European and American Jewish settlers showed up.
But instead, take Netanyahu at his word — that he sincerely cares about the safety and happiness of diaspora Jews. Even so, it is futile to try to induce them to move here, for several reasons.
For “mass immigration” to make sense, the places where Jews now live would have to be insufferably dangerous for them, or at least Israel would have to be comparatively safer. Yet while European democracies are not without their hatreds, ethnic frictions and sociopaths (human beings live there), it is completely ahistorical to believe they are failing Jews, or any other group, in ways that are reminiscent of the 1930s and ’40s — a period from which Netanyahu draws dubious lessons, even as he understandably urges us to remember it. Any citizen of the European Union can freely travel, work and invest across member countries. This may make things easier for terrorists, too, alas, but it is a tribute to federal and liberal institutions that emerged after the war and remain resilient.
Public attitudes bear out an unprecedented era of tolerance — one that is in no danger of collapse. According to a recent Pew poll, almost 90 percent of people in France, 82 percent of Germans and 72 percent of Spaniards say they have a favorable opinion of Jews. Polls in Britain show that attitudes toward Jews are about as positive (and about as negative) as attitudes toward Christians and more positive than those toward “Asians.”
Racist fringe parties have risen in France, Austria, Hungary and some other European states; France’s National Front, for instance, commands about a fifth of the electorate. These parties largely target Muslims, but they also imply anti-Semitism. And public attitudes toward Israel, especially with Netanyahu as its face, have soured in recent years. This is, no doubt, a reaction to occupation and settlements, and the frustration spills over to various diaspora Jewish organizations that defend those policies. But this not anti-Semitism; it is growing moral condemnation. Nor are the overwhelming majority of Jews in Belgium, France and Denmark living under persecution. Spectacular but rare attacks are not signs of existential doom.
At the same time, might Israel seem like a sanctuary for European Jews who, for whatever reasons, feel unsafe? I have often landed at Ben-Gurion Airport and heard passengers break into applause. But, surely, this is hardly like landing on a Haganah ship in 1947. Indeed, the frictions with Palestinians that make for political tensions in Europe make for actual violence in Israel: Between 2000 and 2004, about 1,000 Israelis were killed in various bombings and attacks. The wall that Likud built to separate Palestinians, and the missile-protection shield funded by the United States, have dramatically reduced the number of casualties but not the intention of a determined minority to kill: Hezbollah’s thousands of rockets are not, after all, trained on the Left Bank.
This situation helps explain why about 15 percent of the 1 million Russian Jews who came to Israel in the 1990s have left for Western countries. In recent years, more Israelis have moved to Berlin than French have moved to Jerusalem: Out of France’s 700,000 Jews, perhaps 6,000 mainly orthodox immigrants came to Israel last year — three times the number from the United States, but hardly “mass immigration.” Until the rise of fascism, no exodus of Western Jews came to the Yishuv. Since fascism’s defeat, the same pattern holds true.
If security, then, will not move diaspora Jews to emigrate, the real question for them is whether they could be happy in this fractured Israeli culture, which, among other things, disputes even such terms as “diaspora.” Most Western Jewish immigrants will not even begin to appreciate the complexity of this question until they become fluent in Hebrew, a project of self-transformation as challenging for them as it was for Jews from the Russian Pale of Settlement in the 1890s to become English-speaking Americans. Previous generations of immigrants came out of dire need, with no other options; today’s diaspora Jews are comfortable Westerners with iPhones, frequent-flier programs and private schools — and a feel for liberal commonwealth. (Is Bernard-Henri Lévy not, for God’s sake, French?)
Netanyahu implies that the Law of Return, which renders Jewish immigrants into citizens, can make them Israelis as well. And some aspects of life here make it seem like inhabitants simply transplanted their cultures wholesale: Owing to ultra-orthodox Haredi Yiddish speakers and modern orthodox arrivistes from New Jersey or Paris, there are pockets of Jerusalem in which Hebrew is hardly spoken. (From their perspective, Israel is a bit like a wondrous museum of Judaism, with archeological digs finding — or trumping up — traces of David’s reign and settlers spreading out to biblical places.) The once secular, middle-class neighborhood I live in, the German Colony, is sprouting vacation apartments, yeshivas, synagogues, New York delis and French restaurants. How easy it would be to move there!
Jerusalem is still the home of Hebrew University, government agencies and other Israeli institutions. But only 19 percent of its adults are now secular. Tens of thousands have left for Tel Aviv, Israel’s beating heart, where the country’s unique secular life is thriving and the transformation immigrants must undergo is much more challenging than Netanyahu advertises. (I know; I went through it myself after 1967, when Israel still seemed a pristine adventure.) In fact, the growing disjunction between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv reflects a subtle cultural struggle that most Western Jews, lacking Hebrew, can miss completely.
Likud party leaders, from Menachem Begin to Netanyahu, have worked to make Israel more of a “Jewish state” than a Hebrew democracy. They’ve implied that the secular Israeliness born of Labor Zionist state-building — kibbutz harvest festivals, the historical scholarship of Hebrew University, modern Hebrew poetry — has produced something inauthentic. On the settlements, “Israeliness” is an epithet, a modern vision in which the innovations of the Hebrew enlightenment and the promise of political normalcy falsely presume to overcome persecution and religious law. Rightists also scoff at Israeliness because it opens civil space for Israeli Arabs, such as the writer Sayed Kashua, who know Israel’s language, music, celebrities, geography and rules of the road, or lack of them more thoroughly than new Jewish immigrants do. (Kashua, exasperated to see racism winning the argument, now lives in Illinois.)
In other words, Europe’s dangers, the failure of its liberalism, the murder of its Jews just for being Jews, the intractability of existential threats — all of these Netanyahu fixations are part of Israel’s founding mythology as Likud sees it. Progressive Israelis are more skeptical. (That conservative vision of Europe is common in Israeli street culture but often disputed in its literary culture, dramatized in national remembrance days but ignored when Israelis look for vacation spots.) And Netanyahu’s rhetorical bows to Jewish statehood risk distracting from the imperative to become a Hebrew-speaking Israeli. Apart from those in certain Jerusalem enclaves, this imperative hits new immigrants hard once they start making their lives. To be sure, the satisfactions of Hebrew culture are very great. But they cannot be acquired without a struggle. What, for most Western Jews, is the incentive to undertake that struggle?
“We’re Danish Jews, but we’re Danish,” said Jeppe Juhl, a spokesman for the Jewish community in Denmark. “It won’t be terror that makes us go to Israel.” Which is another way of saying that, for most, nothing will. Then again, terror can apparently draw Israelis to Europe — at least for a couple of weeks. After Netanyahu’s exhortation, the mayors of Kiryat Gat and Beit She’an, each running deficits, seized on the pretext of recruiting French immigrants to organize Parisian junkets for themselves and other municipal officials . Apparently, there is some beauty in the West. You can take your Zionism only so far.