Should Jews leave Europe and head to Israel in the face of growing Islamic terrorism on the European continent?
That was the question put to a prominent historian and a high-profile journalist at a panel discussion at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs on April 7.
The panelists were Derek Penslar and Bret Stephens.
Penslar holds the Samuel J. Zacks Chair in Jewish History at the University of Toronto and the Stanley Lewis professorship of Israeli Studies at Oxford University. He’s the author of, among other books, Jews and the Military and Israel in History.
Stephens is the deputy editor of the Wall Street Journal‘s editorial page and its foreign affairs columnist.
They reached significantly different conclusions. For Penslar, the glass is metaphorically half full, but for Stephens, it’s half empty.
In the winter of 2015, following the fatal shooting of a Jewish guard outside a Copenhagen synagogue, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for the “mass immigration” of European Jews to Israel.
Speaking a day after the sentry was killed, Netanyahu said, “Jews have been murdered again on European soil only because they were Jews. Of course, Jews deserve protection in every country, but we say to Jews, to our brothers and sisters: Israel is your home.”
Ariel Sharon made a similar appeal when he was Israel’s prime minister.
Penslar acknowledged that Europe is less secure today and that, in the past two years, Jews have been singled out by jihadists in France and Belgium. He was referring to “lone wolf” attacks on a kosher supermarket in Paris, a Jewish school in Toulouse and a Jewish museum in Brussels.
But he pointed out that “state structures” in Western and Central Europe are not antisemitic and that Jews are not being stripped of their civic rights.
“This is not the 1930s,” he said in a reference to the rise of fascism in Germany and Adolf Hitler’s accession to power.
Describing Jewish cultural life in Europe as “robust,” he claimed that Jews leaving Europe today do so mainly for economic reasons or to lead a more Jewishly religious life in Israel.
Penslar said Netanyahu acted arrogantly in calling for the “emptying out” of old Jewish centers in Europe. Classic Zionist theoreticians never advocated the wholesale immigration of European Jews to Palestine, he noted.
In an allusion to the Palestinian terrorism that besets Israel, he said the Jewish state is not the safest place in the world for Jews today. “Israel faces constant threats to its security,” he said, noting that 25,000 Israeli soldiers have been killed since Israel’s founding in 1948.
Paraphrasing former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Penslar observed, “Jews are not safer in Israel, but only in Israel can they defend themselves.”
Stephens, who was editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem Post from 2002 to 2004, adopted a far more pessimistic tone. He began by saying that his Russian Jewish grandparents, the Ehrlichs, had made the right decision in emigrating from Bessarabia in the wake of an early 20th century pogrom in the city of Kishinev.
Disagreeing with the notion that Europeans had buried their antisemitism after the Holocaust, Stephens recalled that the president of France, Charles de Gaulle, disparagingly referred to Jews as a “stiff-necked” people following Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six Day War.
And he pointed out that European newspapers carried antisemitic cartoons during the early phases of the second Palestinian uprising, which broke out in September 2000.
By his reckoning, Europe is experiencing a “reawakened antisemitism” today. Thousands of French police guard Jewish schools in France and French Jews must think twice before donning yarmulkes. In addition, unprecedented numbers of French Jews are making aliya.
Stephens had words of praise for Manuel Valls, the philosemitic prime minister of France, but warned that his successors in Europe may not be as positively disposed toward Jews.
Stephens blamed socialist politicians in Belgium for having allowed local jihadists to create “a huge, radical, politically dangerous community” in Molenbeek, a neighborhood in Brussels with a significant Muslim population and an incubator of Islamic fundamentalism. “It’s a breeding ground for thousands of jihadists,” he declared.
In closing, he rebuked European Jews who remain in Europe rather than immigrate to Israel. “Jews have lost their instinct for danger,” he said darkly.