Across the thousands of years of Jewish history no large group of Jews has,
willingly and of its own choosing, uprooted itself from wherever it considered
home. In all the very numerous instances wherein Jews were involved in a mass
emigration, they had to be pushed out – or else they wouldn’t have gone. No
matter how inhospitable the legal and bureaucratic environment they were
leaving, no matter how inimical and aggressive popular sentiment was toward
them, they were never ready to leave and had to be driven out, whether by decree
or by “persuasion” on the part of private persons or agencies.
prototype for this behavior was the Exodus itself, as the Bible records. At the
hour of supreme crisis, following the smiting of the first-borns, the Egyptian
public were – unsurprisingly – panic-stricken and insisted that the Israelites
depart their midst, instantly. In the words of the King James Version of Exodus
12:33, “And the Egyptians were urgent upon the people, that they might send them
out of the land in haste; for they said, We [be] all dead [men].”
subsequent departure was so hasty, the Bible stresses, that the Israelites had
no time to make bread for their impending journey and had to make do with
The commandment to eat matzot on Passover is, in fact, a
commemoration of the circumstances of the exodus – for which the key word is
“bechipazon, in haste.”
The reverse situation, however, in which Cyrus
proclaimed that the exiled Jews in the Persian (formerly Babylonian) empire
could return to their ancestral homeland and rebuild the Temple, did not spur
the Jews to depart en masse, not in haste nor even in a leisurely manner. Some
of them – scholars debate what percentage of Baylonian Jewry the 42,000 or so
emigrants recorded in the Book of Ezra actually represented – took up the offer.
The others, probably the large majority, preferred to stay
Fast-forward to modern times and you find the Exodus syndrome still
very much in action. Despite poverty and overcrowding in the Jewish areas of
Eastern Europe, as well as anti-Semitic laws and attitudes, it took actual
pogroms and widespread, systematic violence against Jews to trigger the mass
emigration of the late 19th century.
Conversely, the Balfour Declaration
and the official establishment of the British Mandate for Palestine, failed to
motivate many Jews to leave their countries.
Throughout the interim
period, Jews kept moving, earning their (anti-Semitic) title of “wandering
But they didn’t wander out of choice, they went because they were
forced out. In medieval Europe, the pattern of expulsion was mostly from city to
city, or from province to province. This pattern was especially suited to
Central Europe, where no large political entities existed.
beginning in England in 1290, followed by France (repeatedly) and culminating in
Spain in 1492, expulsion on a national scale and as national policy became a
standard feature of European Jewish history.
The response was, perforce,
to move to the nearest available country that offered refuge.
as national policy re-emerged on a wide scale in Central and Eastern Europe
after the First World War and, in the German case, would have culminated in
expulsion – except that the Reich ended up conquering almost all of Europe and
hence ruling over its Jews, with no practical options for expelling them, in the
geographic sense. Hitler’s alternative was the Final Solution.
although anti-Semitism in Europe is a permanent and chronic condition, with only
the style changing – from religious, to cultural or racial – but not the
substance, it is clearly not always at the same level of intensity.
does it remain dormant and largely quiescent for long periods and then abruptly
explode into overt and large-scale violence? The simple answer is that for
latent anti-Semitic feelings to be activated on a large scale, the general
population has to become seriously unhappy – so that they seek, or can be sent
to find, a victim to vent their anger on. The most common cause of widespread
unhappiness is a protracted economic crisis, which generates high and rising
unemployment, exacerbates underlying tensions between classes, ethnic or
religious groups and other mutually-antipathetic sectors of society and exposes
all the fault-lines in a society – especially multi-ethnic
That explains why, at least in the modern period for which we
have good records, and probably in the premodern period, too, outbreaks of
widespread and prolonged anti-Semitic violence come in the wake of economic
crises and the sociopolitical upheaval that they trigger. The rise of the Nazi
party and its eventual seizure of power (Hitler never won an electoral majority)
is, in many respects, the classic example of this process.
In light of a
historical record stretching back over 1,000 years and repeatedly confirmed in
recent times, and given that Europe is today in the grips of a very severe and
protracted socioeconomic crisis, there is no basis to expect any other outcome
than the usual one.
Anti-Semitism across Europe, in various guises, has
anyway surged over the past decade, but the socioeconomic collapse underway sets
the stage for the move to the typical denouement. Fortunately, this time the
emigrants/ expellees have where to go.[email protected]