Before I became an ideological Zionist – who believed in the return of Jews to Israel for positive reasons – I was a safety-net Zionist. This is my term for the belief that there needs to be a Jewish state primarily to act as a refuge for persecuted Jews in the diaspora. Many diaspora Jews, even if they won’t admit it, are safety-net Zionists, viewing Israel as a last-resort place to go if things become bad for Jews in their country.
Safety-net Zionism has always had a sad validity. Its primary historical impetus was the Evian Conference, when 32 of the most significant countries declared that they would accept very few to none of the Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution. The necessity of a Jewish refuge has been proven repeatedly since then, with the absorption of persecuted refugees from post-Holocaust Europe, the Arab and Muslim world, the Soviet Union, and Ethiopia. However, most people cannot foresee an actual situation in which the Jews of the enlightened Western countries would have to resort to this option.
Back when I was a pure safety-net Zionist, the following sort of argument was one I’d had tens of times over.
Cosmopolitan non-Zionist Jew: “Why should I support Israel? What do I owe them?”
Me: “Well, they’d give you refuge if antisemitism ever got bad here.”
CnZJ: “That’s never going to happen – that’s in the past. Britain is a tolerant, liberal place and the Jews are treated completely equally here.”
Me: “Yeah but the Jews of Germany also thought that, and they turned out to be wrong…”
CnZJ: “Are you seriously suggesting there’s going to be a Holocaust in Britain? You must be mad!”
Me: “Well, I don’t really think that, but I’m just saying you never know.”
Even now, I don’t think anything of the magnitude of the Holocaust is even remotely possible in the UK, or any of the other Western countries where Jews live. But thinking back to these conversations, my interlocutor was wrong to scoff and be so dismissive.
Over the last few years, the cultural distance between our figurative islands of tranquility and the glowing embers of antisemitism has begun to shrink, and rapidly. Judeophobia has started to spread from the most radical fringes of society – the far-left, disgruntled indigenous xenophobes, and Islamic radicals – to the edges of the mainstream. It has started to materialise in countries with whom we have a great deal of cultural exchange, in eastern and even central Europe – if it ever left.
The only people reports of these activities surprised were those who insisted that we are perfectly safe because Britain or America is tolerant and the cultural frameworks we have here would definitely protect us. These people should be eating their words. Instead, the common response is to dig a deeper hole, and insist that if we denounce the actions of the State of Israel sufficiently loudly, we will be spared.
However, the recent rise in Judeophobia has served to prove that Israel remains a necessity as a safety net, even for British Jews, and even for American Jews. In my opinion, for young people, the preventative solution is Aliyah, although there are also plenty of positive reasons to make that move! For various reasons, though, that is not a possibility for some. But no matter how comfortable it seems, the spectre of antisemitism is now clearly visible on the horizon for anyone willing to use their binoculars. Perhaps it’s important to remember, as Golda notes at the end of Fiddler on the Roof:
“It’s just a place; our forefathers have been forced out of
many many places at a moments notice.”
And, as Tevye responds:
“Maybe that’s why we always wear our hats.”