GRAVES DESECRATED by vandals with Nazi swastikas and antisemitic slogans are seen in the Jewish cemetery of Weyhers, near the western German town of Ebersburg in 2005.
(photo credit: FABRIZIO BENSCH / REUTERS)
In 2001, I was on shlihut representing Israel in South Africa (a speaking tour on behalf of World WIZO). My visit coincided with the Second Intifada as well as the so-called “Durban Conference against Racism,” where I led the WIZO delegation.
In Johannesburg, I heard my South African WIZO colleagues speaking to each other about how dangerous it was living there. Even though their homes were heavily gated with 24/7 guards outside, many were experiencing being followed into their garages, burgled, beaten up or even murdered. As I listened to these horror stories, l was somewhat surprised when one woman turned to me and said, “You must be very afraid living in Israel.”
Having just been subjected to the frightening reality of life in Johannesburg where I was warned not to walk the streets even during the day, my response was that in Israel I have no problem taking a walk alone, even at midnight.
When I returned home, I began to analyze my reaction. While my colleagues were talking about the challenges of living in Johannesburg, they were also viewing painful TV footage of the intifada in Israel, which included citizens being blown up by Palestinian suicide bombers. It became clear that wherever we Jews live, we have to justify our choice of home.
These thoughts were reawakened when I read Orit Arfa’s piece in the Magazine “Jews, stay the hell in Europe!
” (February 23). As one who left Israel and chose to live in Germany could it be that her article is justification for where she now resides? Arfa points out that living in Europe is more financially advantageous than residing in Israel, especially for a young person. The unacceptably high cost of day-to-day living and the likelihood of never being able to own a home here are but two of the negatives that I, too, have written about on these pages.
So why am I here and not there? Being older than Arfa, the past is not history but a reality to which I was exposed in Britain – and even more so for my husband, coming from Germany. I experienced antisemitism at school and felt different because the local state school I attended did not allow for Jewish Holy Days that my family observed.
But antisemitism is not the only reason I and other Jews want to be in Israel.
A fuller answer can be found in three weeks’ time when families gather around the Passover Seder table reliving the Jewish people’s deliverance from bondage to freedom.
HOW DO we, as individuals, define freedom? Freedom, for me, means I can openly criticize my government.
I can write articles complaining about how our government treats African asylum seekers (as I did last month). I can choose how to practice my Judaism and feel totally uninhibited. Some members of my family walk freely through the streets wearing kippot. Others consider formal practicing of Judaism unimportant as they are living in a Jewish state and, therefore, do not need to remind themselves of their Jewishness by observing rituals.
Is this freedom enjoyed by Jews living in Europe? Do they feel comfortable openly criticizing their government? Do they write articles in their national press pointing out all that they feel is wrong with their leaders? Is Arfa so content with the German government that she has no need to criticize them publicly? As a resident of Netanya, I wander through its main Independence Square and the language I most hear is French.
Why have French Jews chosen to come here? It is not because they expect to have a more affluent life or to live without the fear of the possibility of war.
They are here because they have the freedom to be Jewish.
Is a higher standard of living compensation for experiencing antisemitism in all its forms? Sadly, history has proven that a well-filled purse in the Diaspora is more attractive than starting life anew in a country with a strange language that requires its 18-year-olds to enlist in defense forces so that others may live. It is considerably easier for an 18-year-old overseas to ponder which university to attend.
Have we not witnessed time and again how Jews have chosen to stay in the economic comfort of their country of birth? Too many who initially had the chance to leave Europe prior to World War II chose, instead, to remain, ending their lives in the gas chambers.
Perhaps the paragraph of Arfa’s article that disturbed me the most was, “Unlike the 1930s and 1940s, Jews have a place to go that will always welcome them, and maybe because of Israel’s existence Europe will not repeat the Holocaust.
Now Jews have a state of their own that will have their back, ideally, and that should inspire them to bravely, confidently walk the streets with a kippa… fight court decisions that undermine Jews and Israel… and even bear arms.”
Confidently walk the streets with a kippa? I wonder what Europe Arfa is talking about. When the rabbinate there is advising Jews not to walk the streets with kippot and when it is quite possible that the next prime minister of the UK will be blatantly antisemitic, does she really expect Jews to bear arms in Europe? Most disturbing is the notion that it is okay to let the Jews in Israel ensure that the Jews in the Diaspora have somewhere to escape to without recognizing that a key reason that some young people are leaving Israel could be because they do not want to be the ones to sacrifice their lives for those who choose to live in greater financial comfort elsewhere.
Israel will soon turn 70. As we look back to the regeneration of this small strip of land, we recall early pioneers who chose to come to a swamp-covered country to reclaim the soil and provide a homeland for the Jews. They did not seek personal wealth or gain; it was a labor of love that contributed greatly to the beautiful country we are privileged to call home.
As part of the modern world, Israel is not perfect, but then which country is? We continue to endeavor to improve what we have from within, guarding and cherishing the gift of freedom – in the words of “Hatikva,” “To be a free people in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem.” The writer is public relations chair of ESRA, which promotes integration into Israeli society