A few days before terrorists in Paris mowed down 12 people at the offices of the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine, and killed four more at a Kosher supermarket in the French capital, Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky told The Jerusalem Post that the discomfort French Jews feel in their own country should be a strong signal to Europe of the dangers in its midst.
And how does Sharansky know French Jews are feeling discomfort? Because more than 7,000 of them moved to Israel last year; because some 50,000 sought out aliya information in 2014; because the Jewish Agency is running two aliya seminars a night in France, compared to one a month a year ago; and because – according to his estimates – “hundreds of thousands” of France’s estimated 600,000 Jews are thinking about leaving the country.
Rather than all of this only being of interest to Israel and the Jews, those figures and that trend should also be of immense interest to the Europeans themselves, he maintained.
Whereas Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman declared this week that the biggest challenge facing Israel in 2015 is not Iran, Palestinians or Hezbollah, but rather western Europe, Sharansky took those comments a step further and said the biggest challenge facing Europe in 2015 is Europe. And to understand that challenge, it is important to understand the discomfiture felt by the Jews.
Sharansky is a thinker. If Plato’s ideal ruler is the “philosopher king,” the Jewish Agency – with Sharansky – has found itself in the grips of the “philosopher chairman of the Jewish Agency executive.” To hear him speak about Europe is to hear an intellectual discuss a topic he has obviously spent much time pondering.
During a late afternoon interview on Monday, Sharansky did not spew out someone else’s talking points, instead articulating a learned analysis of the various trends in Europe, and how they impact on both the Jews and European society as a whole.
Growing hostility there toward Israel – the challenge Liberman referred to – speaks more about changes in Europe than in Israel, Sharansky intimated, and those changes should send alarm bells ringing all across the continent.
“If I were a European politician, I would think day and night about why Jews feel uncomfortable in Europe, and what it means for Europe, what has changed in European society,” he said.
His words are a variation on the old theme that the Jews are the world’s “canary in the coal mine” – and what happens to the Jews today, happens to the world tomorrow.
If the Europeans are not willing to fight for the traditional values of the liberal national state they themselves brought into the world, which demands all its citizens accept without reservation the principles of human rights and liberty – and in light of the attack on Charlie Hebdo, one should also add freedom of expression – and if the Europeans “are not ready to close mosques where people are preaching hatred,” then Europe is “doomed,” Sharansky warned.
Linking the fate of the Jews to the fate of Europe, he said that “the Jews are leaving Europe. And in history, we always see that the Jews are the harbinger. Europe is losing the value [it ascribes] to the national state, and the first to feel the discomfort are the Jews – but in the end, it will be all of Europe.”
Sharansky said that in a recent conversation with French Jewish philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, he asked him whether he thought there was a future for Jews in Europe.
“He said that my question is more serious,” Sharansky recalled. “Is there a future for Europe in Europe, for France in France?” WHILE EUROPE’S worsening attitude toward Israel is a problem for Israel and the Jews, it also signals a larger, more fundamental problem for Europe – the loss of identity, the loss of a sense that there is anything worth fighting for.
“Why do Jews feels so uncomfortable in Europe?” Sharansky asked, launching into the first part of his analysis. “It is true that the first external reason is the big Muslim community, and the resulting increasing feeling of insecurity.”
Sharansky stressed that this insecurity is not only due to terrorist attacks, but also to Jews’ underlying feeling of estrangement and fear – a feeling concretized 12 years ago when Paris’s chief rabbi told students not to wear their kippot when they left school at the end of the day.
There is no doubt, Sharansky said, that Jews in Europe, especially in France, feel there are large neighborhoods near them – the “House of Islam” – which are “not friends.”
This alone cannot explain the Jews’ sense of discomfort, nor why French Jews are leaving in record numbers.
He noted that historically, Jews leave the lands of their birth – even when there is anti-Semitism – only if they sense that the authorities are not on their side. The French anomaly is that the Jews are leaving even though the French authorities are very much on the Jews’ side, having the toughest anti-Semitism laws in Europe, and being very cooperative with the Jewish community.
So why leave? This is because, according to Sharansky, in addition to the House of Islam, Jews are faced on the other side with the “House of conservative, traditional Christian Europe,” a house represented – at least in France – by Front National leader Marine Le Pen.
While at the moment this particular house is not overly unfriendly or haunted, Sharansky said historically, every Jew knows the denizens of that particular house see the Jew as the “other.” “You could live with them, you could work with them, but you don’t really at home with them.”
Alternatively, the Jews generally found their home in the warm embrace of traditional European liberalism, a home they helped build.
The problem is that now this home is chilly, as liberal Europe is increasingly turning its back on Israel.
“The liberals of Europe today have a very negative attitude toward Israel,” Sharansky said. And while for Jews who want to assimilate, and do not care about Israel, this might not be a problem – for those Jews for whom Israel remains important, it presents a huge problem.
“There are only two anchors that have prevented assimilation,” Sharansky said, “faith and Zionism, a connection with God and a connection with Israel. If you have two anchors, great; if you have one, you can manage. If you don’t have any one of them, you will assimilate in one generation. We have seen that everywhere.”
So among Jews who don’t want to assimilate, he pointed out, the link to Israel is very important. “And if Israel is very important to you and your home is liberal France, and every day you read the liberal papers in France giving hell to Israel, and your friends say you are a good guy but they can’t accept the awful State of Israel, it becomes unpleasant.”
Here, sharansky moves from an analysis of the Jewish condition in Europe, to Europe’s changing attitude toward identity and the nation-state.
Liberal Europe, he said, gave birth to the idea of the national liberal state, and nationalism and liberalism were connected. The national identity was the strong glue that kept everyone together, and everybody was guaranteed human rights.
“From Locke, Montesquieu and Spinoza before them, you can see how the idea of the nation-state was born in Europe, together with the idea of liberalism,” he said.
And then in one week in early November 1917, two key events took place: the Bolshevik Revolution, and the Balfour Declaration.
“In a way, the two events are opposite,” Sharansky explained. “The Bolshevik Revolution was about eliminating all identities, creating a universe of equal people – and they killed tens of millions of people to create this.”
And Zionism, represented by the Balfour Declaration, was the opposite – it was a national movement based on identity. Ironically, while Britain and much of Europe accepted the idea at the time, when nationstates were seen as natural and some 20 states were born, most of the Jews – from Orthodox to Reform, Bundists to Communists – were anti-Zionists. Only a small number of Jews pushed for Zionism.
And then came World War II, and everything was turned on its head.
The Jews turned to Zionism, while Europe turned away from nationalism.
“What is post-modern, post-national Europe about?” Sharansky asked. “It’s all about them saying, ‘OK, we had hundreds of years of religious wars, and then we had two horrible wars where hundreds of millions our own were killed, for the sake of what? For the sake of the prejudicial feeling that our religion, our nation, is better and should be in control.”
The ideal for the post-World War II European liberal, Sharansky said, is not the nation-state of the past, but the ideal put forward in John Lennon’s song “Imagine.”
“The ideal is the god of John Lennon,” he said. “Imagine a world without borders, without God, where there is nothing to die for. National states are things for which people are dying and killing themselves.”
The Lennon ideal helps explain the European antipathy for Israel – for while the idea of Israel was accepted in Europe after the Holocaust, as time passes, it seems a relic of a distant past.
The European goal is a new world without borders, and along comes Israel and all of a sudden the Jews – in the mind of the liberal Europeans – are leaving the progressive world and going east to build a national state, trampling on the rights of the Palestinians to boot.
Israel, in this analysis, is nothing less than a thorn in the side of Europe – which believes it has moved beyond all those quaint notions of national identity and the nation-state.
Thus, Sharansky said, the Jews in France are faced with a choice: They can either be part of liberal France, which “hates Israel”; be part of conservative France, which doesn’t believe the Jews are part of their culture; or become part of Islamic Europe, which is clearly impossible.
Or they can leave... which they are doing.
Sharansky recounted that following the terrorist attack at the Jewish Museum in Brussels last year, he met with a group of young Belgian Jews and asked them whether they saw a future for Jews in Belgium. No one wanted to say “no,” he said, nor were they willing to answer with an unequivocal “yes.”
“Except for one girl,” he noted.
“She said there is surely a future, if we succeed to convince people around us that we have nothing to do with Israel.”
The irony, Sharansky acknowledged, is that whereas liberal Europe rejects Jewish nationalism in the form of Zionism, it embraces Palestinian nationalism.
In post-modern Europe, he explained, national identity is a bad thing. “With one exception: people who suffered from colonialism, and whose identities help them fight and catch up with the free world.” This, for liberal Europe, is a positive identity.
Sharansky said that Marx and Engels were wonderful at identifying good and bad identities. “There were good nations who were advancing the development of the proletarian revolution, and the bad nations that were taking it backward.”
Similarly, he said, in today’s Europe there are good and bad identities.
“All the traditional identities which created colonialism are considered bad,” he said.
Post-modern, post-national Europe posits something else as well, he argued: The idea that all identities are relative, that there is no absolute value, that cultures which don’t value human rights have the same right to exist as cultures that do.
“Who are we to impose our values on these people?” Sharansky said, paraphrasing this attitude. “We have to welcome them, because we sinned against them. Who are we to impose our culture on them?” As a result, in something that seems true when looking at that part of Muslim Europe which refuses to integrate, “there is a huge population that didn’t join Western culture, and the West feels it has no right to impose it on them.”
In practical terms, Sharansky said, the ideal of living Lennon’s dream means there are hundreds of millions of people who like their freedom and liberty, but don’t believe in identity, nationalism or religion, and don’t believe there is anything to fight for.
On the other side, in Europe there is a not-insignificant segment of the population which doesn’t believe in liberty and human rights, but has a strong identity and is willing to fight for it. In that clash, he posited, those not willing to fight for their identity, because their identity has been blurred, are “doomed.”
Asked whether he was not perhaps exaggerating when saying Europeans don’t believe there is anything to fight for, and whether he did not think that at a certain point, people would push back and stand up for their way of life, Sharansky said he was an optimist who not only believed in the future of the Jewish people, but in the future of liberty.
“I believe that in the end, people will be willing to fight for their freedom,” he said. “The question is how far they are willing to retreat, and when they will wake up.
“The earlier liberal Europe will fight, the better chance it has to protect its liberal values,” he continued.
“Because if liberal Europe will not be ready to fight, then non-liberal Europe will be ready to do so.”
Noting the rise of right-wing parties throughout Europe, Sharansky added, “The longer liberal France will ignore the threat, and not be ready to defend its liberal and national values, the only defense will be ultra-nationalist and religious conservative forces.”
Sooner or later, he said, liberal Europe will have to fight for its values with full force. The more it engages in that battle, the more it will begin connecting its identity with its freedom, the more it will come to see Israel as its ally.
Or, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Thursday in response to the attack in Paris, “Israel is being attacked by the very same forces that attack Europe. Israel stands with Europe. Europe must stand with Israel.”
When it does, Sharansky might add, Europe will be returning to itself.
Sam Sokol contributed to this piece.