European Jewry: Stay Or Go?


Should European Jewry stay or go?

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s statement in the wake of the latest incident of European anti-Semitic violence, a shooting at Copenhagen’s Great Synagogue, seems to have touched a nerve in the collective Jewish psyche.

“We say to Jews,” Netanyahu declared, “to our brothers and sisters: Israel is your home. … We are preparing and calling for the absorption of mass immigration from Europe. … I would like to tell all European Jews and all Jews wherever they are: Israel is the home of every Jew.”

Repeating a sentiment expressed after last month’s Paris attacks, Netanyahu’s declaration was understood to be a not so subtle warning that the writing is on the wall for European Jewry.  Copenhagen would not be the last anti-Semitic attack, and the European Jewish community would do well to leave its hostile environment and come home to the Jewish homeland. 

Netanyahu’s remarks provoked a series of rebuttals from the Jewish world. Danish Chief Rabbi Jair Melchior expressed his disappointment with Netanyahu, explaining, “Terror is not a reason to move to Israel. … People from Denmark move to Israel because they love Israel, because of Zionism.  If the way we deal with terror is to run somewhere else, we should all run to a deserted island.”

Or, in the pointed words of Anti-Defamation League National Director Abe Foxman: “I don’t think he [Netanyahu] should urge them. … No, I don’t think we should so easily grant Hitler a posthumous victory.”

Stay or go? Should the collective will and resources of the Jewish world be directed towards supporting Jewish life in Europe, or should those funds go towards facilitating the immigration of European Jewry to Israel. It is an internal Jewish debate that has spilled out into the open — a debate reflecting the angst of being a diaspora Jew.

The terms of the debate are not entirely new. We need look no further than the story of Esther, to understand the tensions at hand. Purim is the only Jewish holiday commemorating a struggle against anti-Semitism in the diaspora. “There is,” explains Haman to Ahasuerus, “a nation, apart and scattered from those of every other people of your empire. Their laws are different from those of every other people, and they do not keep the king’s laws. It is not in your majesty’s interest to leave them alone.” [Esther 3:9]

In a single verse, Haman gives expression to the neurosis of diaspora Jewry. A minority population that is vulnerable to the whims of the majority population. A people who are suspected of dual loyalties, fumbling as they seek to redress their exposed condition.

Esther is not overly preachy, it is supposed to feel like a fairy tale, but like all great narratives, it is filled with vexing questions. Was Esther right or wrong to hide her Jewish identity? Is the scroll’s take-home message one of assimilation into non-Jewish culture, or to maintain boundaries between the Jewish and gentile population?  Purim celebrates a diaspora victory, but why does it do so without mention of God or a return to the land of Israel? Is its message one of revenge or accommodation? Is it a defense or a critique of diaspora life?

The answers aren’t clear and are not meant to be. Esther forces us to squirm on the needlepoint of these and other questions without offering tidy answers. But the most enduring challenge of all is the one that we have never shaken off and continue to struggle with today — the haunting specter of Haman. Is it always just a matter of time before another virulent Haman-like expression of anti-Semitism rears its head, and we, like the Jews of ancient Persia find ourselves waiting on a miracle for salvation? 

One need not go back to Esther to trace the intellectual pedigree of Netanyahu’s call for mass immigration. It was the 19th-century Zionist thinker, Leo Pinsker, who, in the wake of the anti-Jewish Russian pogroms of the early 1880s castigated his diaspora co-religionists for deluding themselves into thinking that they would one day be accepted by their enlightened hosts. “Since the Jew is nowhere at home,” wrote Pinsker, “nowhere regarded as a native, he remains an alien everywhere.” Pinsker’s most famous essay was entitled “Auto-Emancipation,” in which he argued that the only remedy to the diaspora Jew’s degraded status was to stop depending on the good will of a host country and create a Jewish refuge and homeland of our own. It was the prime minister’s late father, the great historian Professor Benzion Netanyahu, who, in his writings about 15th-century Spain, Pinsker’s 19th-century Russia, or 20th-century Europe, subscribed to this lachrymose understanding of Jewish history. It is a view perhaps best summed up by the elder Netanyahu’s one-time employer, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, who prophetically proclaimed to his Jewish brethren in 1937: “Eliminate the diaspora, or the diaspora will surely eliminate you.”  Important as the gravitational “pull” of the Zionist dream, for Netanyahu (father and son), it is also the diasporic push of anti-Semitism that undoubtedly informs the Zionist vision. 

Proof positive is the prime minister’s most recent campaign video in which he tells the story of his grandfather being beaten unconscious by an anti-Semitic mob in the heart of Europe. Before the older man passes out, the prime minister shares that his grandfather thought: “What a disgrace … the descendants of the Maccabees lie in the mud powerless to defend themselves.” If he survived, Netanyahu’s grandfather pledged, he would bring his family to Israel. At this point in the video the prime minister looks into the camera and declares: “I am standing here today as the prime minister of Israel because my grandfather kept his promise.” We can debate the sensitivity of the prime minister’s recent pronouncements, but there is no denying that Netanyahu’s ideological vision is remarkably coherent and consistent. It is a vision anchored in Jewish history, attuned to the present threats facing our people, and wholly invested in the future security of global Jewry.

Given the events of recent months, it is an assessment that cannot be ignored. As Deborah Lipstadt recently wrote: “This is not another Holocaust, but it’s bad enough.” Being Jewish in New York is an anomaly — our present comfort is the exception, not the norm. Ours is an era where large pockets of the Jewish world, in Europe and elsewhere live with physical insecurity. No different than the protagonists of the book of Esther, diaspora Jewry is holding its breath bracing for the next act of anti-Semitic violence.  Esther-like, we appeal to gentile powers for justice imagining our plea to have some effect, all the while aware that the forces seeking our harm grow closer and stronger.  

The difference, of course, between our era and that of Esther, is that we do have a home, we do have a State of Israel. Our diaspora is not one of forced exile; it is a choice that has been made. The question is not whether Netanyahu’s assessment is right or wrong — descriptively he is on point. The only question is the prescriptive one, namely, what shall we do about it? Netanyahu’s answer is mass immigration. If Netanyahu’s answer is not ours, then it is incumbent upon us to mobilize our resources to secure the safety and security of our at-risk brothers and sisters scattered around the world.

The turning point of the book of Esther comes in its fourth chapter when Mordecai, aware of the gravity of the situation, pleads to Esther to intervene on behalf of the Jewish people. Esther initially demurs, to which Mordecai famously replies: “Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will escape with your life by being in the King’s palace. On the contrary, if you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another place…”  [Esther 4:13-14]

It is Mordecai’s final word, makom / place — that is the subject of much debate. What exactly, the rabbis ask, is the “place” to which Mordecai was referring that could deliver Jews from their crisis?  While some understand makom to be a veiled reference to one of God’s many names, perhaps Mordecai was simply giving voice to a proto-Zionist mentality altogether resonant in our time. In other words, Esther faced the choice of either standing up to anti-Semitism or turning to a makom, a place — the Jewish homeland in which relief can be found.

This is the choice diaspora Jewry faces today. Either stand up to the present challenges or make aliyah. To do neither, to stand idly by with Jewish lives at stake, is simply not an option. To paraphrase Mordecai: Who knows, perhaps we have arrived at our position for this crisis? May we, like Esther, rise to the challenge of the hour, supporting global Jewry, supporting the Jewish state and living to see the day, please God soon, that the Jewish people know only “orah v’simcha, sasson v’yikar” “light and gladness, happiness and honor.” [Esther 8:16]

Elliot J. Cosgrove is rabbi of the Park Avenue Synagogue, Manhattan and host of “Righteous Radio” on SiriusXM121.

is the rabbi of Park Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan.