(Redacted from an in-depth must-read article in COMMENTARY February 2015)
The Existential Necessity of Zionism After the Paris Carnage
A COMMENTARY Editorial
By the Editors of COMMENTARY
The jihadist siege of a kosher grocery store in eastern Paris on January 9 was not the beginning of a new threat to French Jews and the Jews of Europe. Rather, it was the culmination of a decade of crisis. And it will not be the end.
The new era of deadly anti-Semitism in France began with the January 2006 murder of 23-year-old Ilan Halimi. Shortly after a Shabbat meal with his mother, he was lured to a Paris slum, where he was ambushed by a gang. They held him captive for 24 days, during which time he was beaten, stabbed, burned with acid, mutilated, lit on fire, and tortured to death. Halimi’s murderers were African and North African Muslim immigrants with ties to Islamic extremists. They called themselves the Gang of Barbarians. And they chose Halimi because he was a Jew.
France’s 5 million Muslims account for 10 to 12 percent of the country’s total population. It is the largest Muslim population in Europe; it is also the most problematic. Several factors contribute to this reality.
The first is radical Islam. Since the late-20th century, a Saudi-funded, anti-Semitic strain of Islamist radicalism has spread to all corners of the Muslim world. Many of France’s recent Muslim immigrants from North Africa have brought their Islamist and jihadist sympathies to Europe. Indeed, a 2013 poll found that a startling 27 percent of French Muslims younger than 24 support ISIS.
Second, nationalism is a foundational aspect of French life. Old nationalist allegiances have made it hard for well-meaning Muslim immigrants to integrate into society, as they have no direct ties to Metropolitan France. They live largely among themselves in banlieues, whose customs and norms closely resemble those of the inhabitants’ countries of origin—not those of their new home.
The doctrine of multiculturalism, the idée fixe of postwar Europe, has a strange relationship with French nationalism: Though it would seem nationalism’s ideological opposite, multiculturalism offers rosy-cheeked cover to France’s deep unwillingness to allow anyone without centuries-old roots to become “French.” And it allows some in France to entertain the belief that Jews, too, can never be French.
France is also home to Europe’s largest Jewish population. For decades after World War II, French Jewry thrived both as a vibrant community of co-religionists and as integral members of French society. While European anti-Semitism was far from extinguished, France seemed a living example of successful Jewish life in Europe after the Holocaust. Today, the Jewish population of France stands at approximately 478,000—the world’s second-largest population of Diaspora Jews (after America’s).
But France’s Jews are outnumbered by its Muslims 10 to 1. The unspeakable murder of Halimi in 2006 heralded a sharp turn back to Europe’s most notorious hatred, at the hands of its newest population. There have been thousands—thousands—of attacks on French Jews and Jewish sites in the years since Halimi was killed.
Muslim attacks on French Jews increased more significantly still in the summer of 2014, during and after Israel’s war with Hamas in Gaza. On July 13, dozens of North African immigrants stormed Paris’s Don Isaac Abravanel synagogue, chanting “Allahu Akbar” and “Death to the Jews.” The mob, wielding knives, clubs, and axes, tried for hours to get through the barricaded door to some 200 congregants on the other side. Police and representatives of France’s Jewish Community Protection Service eventually dispersed the attackers. In July and August, there were a total of eight attempts to destroy or burn various synagogues in Paris. And in Sarcelles, mobs set fire to Jewish-owned business. All told, anti-Semitic incidents in France shot up an estimated 90 percent in 2014.
From the Halimi murder to the attacks in January, the official French response has been one of sympathy for the victim and denial of the nature of the victimizer. On the afternoon of January 9, at the close of a week in which gunmen who claimed to be avenging the prophet Muhammad killed 17 French citizens, President François Hollande stood in front of television cameras and announced that the terrorists had “nothing to do with the Muslim religion.” (Huh!)
The ineffectual response of Hollande and his predecessors to the Muslim problem in their midst has sent many French into the arms of the National Front (FN). This far-right party, founded in 1972 and led today by Marine Le Pen, scored its biggest victory ever in municipal elections in March 2014. Le Pen is an outspoken opponent of Muslim immigration, but the FN is ultra-nationalist in every respect, and neither the party nor its supporters can be considered friends of the Jews. Far from it. Le Pen, daughter of FN founder and unabashed anti-Semite Jean-Marie Le Pen, supports a ban on the wearing of yarmulkes in public. Working-class French are increasingly drawn to both the far right and far left, both of which have a propensity to lay blame on the Jew.
Caught between the deadly reality of radical Islam and the potential manifestation of a neo-fascist revival, what are French Jews to do? For ever greater numbers, the answer lies in Israel. Last year, a record-high 7,000 French Jews immigrated to the Jewish state—more than double the year before. The Jewish Agency, which oversees immigration of Jews to Israel, now estimates that some 15,000 French Jews will make aliyah in 2015.
II. Theodor Herzl
In 1894, the Viennese journalist Theodor Herzl was on the scene in Paris to cover the official public degradation of Alfred Dreyfus, a French officer who had been convicted of spying for Germany and sentenced to life on Devil’s Island.
Jews should “not delude ourselves,” Herzl wrote in his diary. The cause “is a lost one.” The cause of which he spoke was the effort to secure equal rights to life and liberty for Jews as a minority population living among non-Jews. For Herzl, the Dreyfus case marked the conclusion to years of rumination about the existential condition of his people.
Eighteen months later, Herzl published The Jewish State. This pamphlet, which changed the world in 23,000 words, is startling even today, not because of the power of its rhetoric but because of its unprecedented practicality. It does not advance uniquely powerful or memorably polemical arguments against anti-Semitism: “I do not wish to take up the cudgels for the Jews in this pamphlet,” Herzl wrote. “It would be useless. Everything rational and everything sentimental that can possibly be said in their defense has been said already. If one’s hearers are incapable of comprehending them, one is a preacher in a desert.
III. Vladimir Jabotinsky
Although he is now considered the founding father of the ideological right in Israel, the revisionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky was dedicated to a pragmatic, not a religious or historic, need for a Jewish national home in Palestine. He called it “humanitarian Zionism.” As the anti-Jewish storm clouds over Europe gathered strength once again, Jabotinsky aimed for a simple goal: the rescue of as many Jews as possible. Jabotinsky, the most literate and literary of the early Zionist leaders, grew to disdain the arguments about what a “good” Israel ought to look like—thus, he dismissively called the project of other Zionist leaders an “amusement park for Hebrew culture.” What Israel needed was not to become but to be.
The pervasiveness of anti-Semitism throughout the world continued proving the need after the state of Israel became a reality. Arab countries either expelled their Jews or made it impossible for them to survive without leaving. This resulted in an immediate refugee crisis: 850,000 Jews fled the Arab world in the years following Israel’s independence. Nearly 600,000 settled in Israel. The Jewish state’s absorption of those refugees was unprecedented; the immigrants nearly doubled Israel’s nascent population. Such a thing was only possible because of practical Zionism—the organizations and the banks and the bureaucratic systems originally envisioned in The Jewish State.
The influx from Arab lands was not the only astounding wave of immigration. Soviet Jews, desperate for relief from institutionalized totalitarian hatred in the 1970s, found a crucial ally in U.S. Senator Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson and Representative Charles Vanik, who successfully moved legislation restricting U.S. trade with countries, such as the Soviet Union, that did not permit oppressed minorities to emigrate. Jews began, slowly, to find their way to the other side of the Iron Curtain. The trickle became a flood with the Gorbachev government’s liberalization and finally the collapse of the USSR in 1991.
Today, there are 1.2 million Jews from the former Soviet Union in Israel, the third-largest Russian-speaking Diaspora after the United States and Germany. The Jewish Agency is now led by Natan Sharansky, who spent nine years in the Gulag for the crime of wanting to live as a Jew. And it is the Jewish Agency that will be there to aid the Jews of Europe over the coming years.
IV. Zionism and Conditional Zionism
Zionism was not a utopian vision. It was a program, and remains a program—the means by which Jewry can and will survive into its fourth millennium. It is about providing Jews with a safe haven in the world and allowing them to exercise rights they have been denied almost everywhere on earth where they have been governed by others—save the astonishing exception of the United States. It is about letting Jews be. That is one of the many reasons Israel was established as a democratic state, and one that respects minority rights.
(And what is the alternative to Zionism for “Conditional” Jews who reject Israel by hiding behind unrealistic criticism that expects Israel and its citizens to be perfect?.)jsk
The conditional Zionists have a way of mistaking a lull in the waves for a permanent low tide. Consider this sentence Peter Beinart (a self hating deluded, to my mind, Jewish author) jsk wrote only three years ago: “For the most part, young American Jews don’t experience their campuses as hostile or anti-Semitic.” In fact, crude anti-Zionism is ruthlessly enforced both among the faculty and the student body across American higher education.
V. Dangerous (No, Ridiculous) Complacency
The conditions in France reveal the dangerous complacency of conditional Zionism. Israel was not established as a messianic project or a secular haven. It is not a socialist workers’ paradise. It is not a capitalist-imperialist outpost. It is, instead, a country, now 66 years of age, freer than most, fairer to minorities than most, in which 6.2 million Jews now live.
Alas, the promise Theodore Herzl offered at the conclusion of The Jewish State was dreadfully naive: “The Jews, once settled in their own State, would probably have no more enemies,” he wrote. In two months, Jews will gather for the Passover seder and sing: “In every generation they rise up against us to destroy us.” Anti-Semitism is a disease for which there is likely no cure.
The existential necessity of Zionism after Paris is not only a fact. It is a charge for the future.
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