The disappearing kippot of European Jewry

In the face of rising antisemitism, we can't abandon the Jews of Europe.

A man wearing a yarmulke looks at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A man wearing a yarmulke looks at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
After the horrific attacks in Barcelona, the city’s chief rabbi said that there was no future for the Jews there. The next day, the leader of the Jewish community in that same city rebuked the rabbi and asserted that Jewish life in Barcelona was thriving, that Jews were not afraid and would not be driven from their homes by fear stoked by Islamic fanatics.
Having just returned from a Holocaust educational tour of Europe with my children, which was followed by large numbers on social media and during which we visited the scenes of the greatest horrors that have befallen my people, my views have come down firmly on the side of the community leader’s position. Not only is he correct that we require robust Jewish communities in Europe, but Europe, for all its historical horrors, remains essential to the future of the Jewish People.
The terrorism in Barcelona was only the most recent manifestation of the danger posed by radical Islam. The rabbi’s words echoed those of Jewish leaders in other parts of Europe who have similarly argued that the rise in antisemitism has made life, especially in Europe, intolerable. Israeli leaders have reinforced this sentiment and encouraged European Jews to make aliya.
Should Jews stay or should they leave their homes in Europe? Two of the greatest Jewish leaders of the 20th century had opposing views on the subject.
Theodor Herzl concluded that antisemitism was irradicable and the only hope for Jewish survival was the establishment of an independent Jewish state. He insisted on the necessity of using diplomacy to persuade the world that Jews have the right to self-determination in their homeland, Israel, and helped turn the centuries-old dream of returning to Zion into reality.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, affectionately known as the Rebbe, believed that Jews should have no fear, and communities should be expanded to all parts of the globe. To assist in this goal, the Rebbe sent emissaries around the world to establish and strengthen Jewish communities.
Paradoxically, my trip to Hitler’s birthplace in Austria, Braunau-am-Inn; Wannsee, where the Final Solution was plotted; Warsaw, Krakow and Lodz, where Jews were confined to ghettos; and the concentration camps where Jews were exterminated have convinced me the Rebbe was correct.
How can I say this? Doesn’t the fact that six million Jews were killed while the world watched prove Herzl’s point? No Jew was spared. Even the most assimilated Jew, and non-Jew with only a distant Jewish relative, was sentenced to death. The world’s leaders shut the gates to their countries, offering few Jews an opportunity to escape.
If Israel had existed at that time, Jews would have had a safe haven and they would have had a government that would have done everything in its power to save them. In fact, even without a state, Jews in Palestine did what they could to rescue their brethren. The Mossad was first created to organize illegal immigration to Palestine, bringing Jews to their homeland despite the objections of the British mandatory government. Heroic figures such as Hannah Senesh, whose torture dungeon we visited, put their lives on the line to fight the Nazis.
In many of the towns my family visited, including Lomza in Poland where my grandfather was born, few if any Jews remained.
Hitler won. He eradicated whole Jewish communities.
When we walked through these places, with me wearing my kippa and tzitzit, we were stared at by some as though we were unicorns. If synagogues survived, they were often museums rather than places of worship, because no one was left to pray in them.
Is this what we really want?” I thought, “for Jews to be historical oddities like the dinosaurs?” And then there were the Israeli tourists, extremely numerous in cities like Venice, Rome, Warsaw and even Munich and especially Berlin. Did we want Israelis, and especially former IDF soldiers doing a year abroad, to arrive in a continent bereft of Jews? No shuls to visit and feel at home in? No Chabad Houses? No mikvehs to use, no kosher restaurants to eat at? I absolutely believe that every Jew who wants to live in Israel should go there and be encouraged to do so. It is our eternal homeland.
Despite terrorism and the threats of radical Islam in the region, Israel is strong and safe. They are defended by a powerful army comprised mostly of courageous Jews with a fighting spirit. The government is a flourishing democracy and all citizens enjoy the freedoms we often take for granted in the United States.
Many Jews, however, will not make aliya and they should not be made to feel lesser Jews for that. Rather, they must be encouraged, inspired and obligated to build Jewish life in their cities and to support Israel vocally and publicly from their respective countries.
The world Jewish community, as well as the State of Israel, should be investing in their welfare. Philanthropists should participate in reinvigorating Jewish communities in Eastern Europe, providing educational opportunities to build Jewish identity, and restoring synagogues and other Jewish institutions.
Similarly, Israel should invest in these communities, just as it has committed millions of dollars to assist American organizations to strengthen Jewish education in the United States and to support Birthright. I want to see living, flourishing communities throughout Europe where Jews are proud, strong, and committed to Israel and Judaism.
An example is the recent tension between the local Jewish community of Hungary – numbering 100,000 – and the visit of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this past July.
The local community expected the prime minister to speak out forcefully at what is perceived to be an antisemitic campaign labeling George Soros a Jewish banking manipulator out of New York who is trying to influence Hungarian immigration policy.
When it comes to support for Israel, Soros is a jerk. Still, he is a fellow Jew and an attack against him as some sort of Jewish elder straight out of the Protocols is obviously unacceptable. Netanyahu did address it, but clearly he also felt the need to build a strong bilateral relationship between Hungary and Israel, one which would have been impeded had he arrived as a guest in the country lecturing them about antisemitism. But there is arguably no Jew alive more eloquent and more passionate in defense of his people than Netanyahu and he should rise to the occasion.
Israel should always see its own interests aligned with that of world Jewry.
A political argument can also be made for strengthening Diaspora communities. In the United States, especially, the support for Israel of the Jewish community is vital to ensuring the US-Israel alliance endures. Jewish communities elsewhere may have much less influence, but how much will any government official care about Israel if they no longer have Jewish constituents? I can understand the fear many Jews feel, especially in countries such as Sweden where antisemitism has surged and the Jewish community is small and lacks the infrastructure to defend itself or to be politically influential.
The recent poll indicating one-third of British Jews are thinking about emigrating demonstrates how serious the problem has become in Europe. If a large, prosperous and relatively powerful Jewish community feels so threatened, what hope is there for Jews in places such as Barcelona, let alone towns in Eastern Europe where remnants of prewar communities are struggling to survive? The Rebbe’s message was not to give in to fear. Instead of hiding their Judaism, as so many European Jews do today by taking off their kippot and concealing their Star of David necklaces, we must walk openly and proudly as Jews. It is up to the leaders of Europe to ensure that no Jew is endangered because they identify as Jews.
The outlooks of the Rebbe and Herzl now intersect. This is not the 1940s. Today, there is a Jewish state and, as the representative of the Jewish People everywhere, the Israeli government must say to the leaders of Europe: “If you do not defend the Jewish People within your borders, we will take steps to ensure they are safe.”
I understand the Israeli government has economic, political and security interests and it must take those into account in its international relations. There can be no compromise, however, when it comes to Jewish welfare. Securing the well-being of Jews must supersede bilateral ties.
The Jewish philosopher Emil Fackenheim formulated a 614th commandment that we should not give Hitler a posthumous victory.
Abandoning the Jews of Europe, especially those who survived Hitler’s genocidal war, is unacceptable. Allowing or encouraging Europe to become judenrein would violate that commandment and betray the ideals of the two towering visionaries of 20th century Jewry, both Herzl and the Rebbe.
The author, “America’s rabbi,” whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous rabbi in America,” is founder of The World Values Network and is the international best-selling author of 30 books, including Judaism for Everyone. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.