Europe’s Eternal Jewish Problem

In the wake of the wave of murderous anti-Semitic attacks in Europe, Benjamin Netanyahu did something wholly unremarkable, given his position as Prime Minister of Israel: he called on Europe’s Jews to immigrate back to Israel. Considering the spate of violence in Europe in recent years and the more general surge in anti-Semitism, Netanyahu’s has a certain logic to it. And even if one were to disagree with him, his reasoning is at least understandable.

Yet these statements after the attacks in France and Denmark – the kind of comments previous leaders like Sharon made after other such killings – have invoked a bizarre outrage amongst many European pundits and politicians who pilloried not just Israel’s Prime Minister, but the very notion of Jews leaving. Europe revealed something intriguing – and disconcerting – about itself in the public responses to not just the terror attacks but to the Israeli response to them.

At first blush, the criticism of Israeli calls for emigration and pledges to protect “our Jews” come off as patronizing. Statements which were intended to display some kind of commitment to protect European Jews sound almost objectifying. Some might chalk this up to a deep-seated hostility towards Jews. But that’s a gross simplification.

Equality of Personal Rights – But Not of National Rights

There is, however, a discernable pattern amongst large swaths of Western Europeans; a sentiment that appears to be shared by the avant-garde of the American progressive left. It’s something more sophisticated than classic anti-Semitism and more complex than a blanket hostility. It can best be described as a stubborn refusal to recognize Jewish nationhood, one endowed with the same innate national rights expected by any and every other nation.

In this view, Jews are a religious group, not a national one, and individuals who happen to be of a Mosaic origin are entitled to personal rights, but not national ones. The State of Israel is an anomaly; a temporary necessity following the Holocaust, one that in no way should be construed as the realization of some longstanding rights. The Jews of Europe are “theirs” – theirs to protect and theirs to generously extend personal rights to.

This distinction is sometimes cited – correctly – as the cause of European antipathy towards Israel. But why is this so? Where does this need to undercut Jewish nationhood come from, particularly amongst those who display no hatred of Jews as individuals?

To some extent, this is an outgrowth of Europe’s liberalism, which, like its American counterpart, craves a mascot; a minority group with a history of oppression at the hands of the majority. Such mascots validate a narrative of righteous indignation and reaffirm the need for a vigilant, enlightened elite to protect minorities from the superstitious traditions of a benighted conservatism lurking in the wings. Jews as a perpetual minority everywhere, helpless and continually victimized, serve that narrative perfectly. Israelis winning wars refute it.

A Conditional Emancipation

But it’s more than just a need for Jewish victimhood. It’s no coincidence that the European model of liberalism, and the progressive left in America which emulate it, have spawned this disdain for the Jewish people, even while fully accepting Jewish people – as individuals. The importance of that little three-letter definite article is tremendous for the kind of liberalism which sanctifies a vision of a united, monolithic nation – the people.

When the continental form of democracy – which differed sharply from the American one – was christened with the French revolution, personal rights and equality were believed to flow from the state downward. Unlike the American vision of inalienable God-given rights, it was the individual’s association with the nation, with the people, which earned him protection and rights. As such, the French revolutionaries argued that “there cannot be a nation with a nation”. Ethnic separateness could not be tolerated as it was in America with its masses of immigrants, and would have to be surrendered.

Nowhere was this more explicit than in the handling of Jews in revolutionary France. Jewish society, which had hitherto existed separately in segregated ghettos, was reviled, even by the leading liberals of the day. Then, as today, the distinction between Jews as individuals and as a nation was clearly laid out, with toleration of the former and hatred for the latter. When Jews were emancipated in France, the offer of full rights was conditioned on the dissolution of any sense of Jewish peoplehood, based on the formula laid out by Stanislas de Clermont-Tonnerre: “The Jews should be denied everything as a nation but granted everything as individuals”.

European Hypocrisy

Despite pledges to protect “their” Jews from violence and the delegitimization which so often proceeds it, European governments and cultural elite engage in almost habitual delegitimization of Israel, knowing full well how their boycotts, bans, and verbal lashings will be understood by the young Muslim radicals and anti-Semitic fringe movements on the left and right.

For all of their nuanced distinction between the State of Israel and “their” local Jews, or between Zionism and Judaism, every politician, academic, or performing artist is fully aware that the hoi polloi make no such distinctions. Every lopsided condemnation, every disinvestment from Israeli businesses, every ban on Israeli academics, sports teams, or musicians, is further proof to the Islamist radical, to the hater, that he’s right and the Jews/Israel are wrong. Europe’s leaders cry crocodile tears today over the violence that they incited yesterday.

About the Author
David Rosenberg is a freelance writer and political commentator. He holds an MA in Israeli Politics and Society from Hebrew University. A California native now living in Israel, he also promotes joint Israeli-American educational ventures.
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