It is an aspect of human nature that we tend not to count our blessings very often, but to take them for granted.
Thus after several decades of waking up as a citizen of the only Jewish country in the world, I go about my life as an Israeli and don’t spend much time reflecting on how terribly significant that status is.
But it’s different this week. With the commemoration of International Holocaust Remembrance Day just past, it is impossible not to think of my own family members who died in the Shoah – grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, from both sides – and imagine what the existence of a Jewish state to which they could freely have gone would have meant to them.
And, consequently, what it means to me.
My mother and grandmother both survived Auschwitz; by what miracle is another story. But always with me is my mother’s description of the roundup of Jews from the small Hungarian village where they lived.
Neither of the women “looked Jewish,” and it seemed they would pass unnoticed. Until a neighbor shouted out: “Take them too – they’re Jews!” Returning after the war, she overheard a villager say, “Just look, more of them are coming back than they took away.”
My mother died, in London, relatively young; my father lived to his mid-80s. Several of my friends, themselves in their 60s, still have their parents, and sometimes I envy them and hope they appreciate this great gift, in spite of the difficulties of caring for the elderly.
But one thing makes me glad, and that is that my parents are not here to witness the resurgence in Europe of the visceral Jew-hatred that ripped their lives apart.
They weren’t Pollyannas, but they surely would have shaken their heads in disbelief at the uneasy existence – again! – of Jews in so many parts of contemporary Europe, at the assaults against Jews and Jewish property, at the real and present danger to Jews that, for them, would have recalled the 1930s.
On the other hand, with the wisdom of generations of Jewish ancestors part of their DNA, they would perhaps have nodded in sad agreement with the view that during the 50 years or so after WW2 the world remained chastened by the horrors of the Shoah; but after that period, well, “the general order of things” simply reasserted itself.
Which makes the existence of Israel a sine qua non – an absolute necessity – of Jewish life everywhere, quite apart from everything else that makes this country an extraordinary and challenging place to live.
After three days of Islamist terror attacks in Paris earlier this month in which five of the 17 victims were Jews, was it therefore appropriate for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other senior Israeli figures to urge that French Jews “come home” to Israel, where they would be welcomed with “open arms”?
Some people didn’t think so. Rabbi Menachem Margolin, head of the Jewish European Association, the biggest federation of Jewish organizations and communities on the continent, didn’t mince his words, calling on Israel's government to “cease this Pavlovian reaction every time Jews in Europe are attacked.”
Every such Israeli aliya campaign severely damages European Jewish communities that have the right to live securely wherever they are, Margolin declared. He expressed his regret that after every anti-Semitic attack in Europe the Israeli government issues “the same statements” about the importance of immigration to Israel, when what it should be doing is employing “every diplomatic and informational means at its disposal to strengthen the safety of Jewish life in Europe.”
This past weekend, veteran columnists in The Jerusalem Post Magazine
took sides in the debate.
In a piece cleverly titled “Return of the native,” Stewart Weiss went back to the fourth century to detail the long and often anguished history of the Jews in France and the persistence of popular Jew-hatred over the centuries, leading up to our own time, when the State of Israel has become the “collective Jew” and focus of active Jew-hatred throughout a Europe caught more and more in the grip of fundamentalist Islam.
Against this background, Weiss was incredulous at the fact that some European rabbinic leaders have been urging their communities to refrain from making “rash decisions” – i.e., to leave the continent for Israel or elsewhere.
He described his shock at hearing one rabbi tell a CNN interviewer: “I am asking the Jews of France to remain where they are, and to build up our community here.”
Weiss was unapologetically undiplomatic. When he closes his eyes, he wrote, he hears “the same tragic statements being uttered in the Berlin of 1934, the Warsaw of 1941 and the Budapest of 1943.”
He, too, didn’t mince his words, but called on his “dear brothers and sisters of Europe to ignore the false prophets – Jewish and non – gather up your belongings and your families, and come to Israel... your one, true home.”
In a piece on the facing page titled “Aliya: A matter of choice,” Reuven Hammer took a different stand, expressing his discomfort at the anger stirred in the French government by Israeli calls for French Jews to leave France and make aliya, and at the upset such calls caused “to European Jewish organizations and to individual Jews who feel that France is their home.
“There is something disingenuous about telling people to come to Israel because they will be safe here – when we have all seen that there is no less terror here than in France,” Hammer wrote. “How many Jews have been killed in France over the past year, and how many were killed here?” Referencing the recent slaughter in a Jerusalem synagogue, the three yeshiva students killed last June, and the murderous incidents in which Palestinians deliberately drove vehicles into lines of people standing at bus and light rails stops in the capital, he added that “it was not that long ago that so many were killed by suicide bombers in buses and elsewhere... Nor can we forget the rockets that rained down last summer.”
Nowhere, he pointed out with undeniable truth, can safety be guaranteed.
When governments themselves are anti-Semitic, where Jews are not free or are patently in danger, then Israel has the right to openly urge Jews to make aliya, he said.
“Otherwise, the encouragement of aliya should be left to indigenous Zionist organizations.”
Israel’s role should not be that of aliya instigator, but “to make aliya easy and attractive” for European Jews, for whom coming here should be one option among others.
The Diaspora has a right to exist, and there has never been a time in history when Jews did not live outside the Promised Land.
“I cannot envision a world in which Jews live only in Israel,” Hammer wrote. “What are we to say – that a Jew living elsewhere ceases to be a Jew?”
In a third Magazine op-ed, titled “Je suis Hyper Cacher,” Barbara Sofer gave an answer to the compelling questions of Jewish life and Jewish security with a sentence that, for me, pretty well summed up the debate.
“What we offer in Israel isn’t safety,” she wrote, “it’s meaning.”
I once described Israel as “the great Jewish adventure of our time.” In the current reality experienced by Jews in modern Europe, that description feels more authentic than ever.