Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal has told the French Jews to pack up and get out before things — as he insists they inevitably must — get even worse.
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls openly worried about the possible flight of the country’s Jews, warning that if 100,000 (out of half a million) left, it would represent “the failure of the Republic.” That’s quite a statement when you recall that France gave birth to the first European mass antisemitic movement in the last quarter of the nineteeth century. The Dreyfus Affair was the most infamous manifestation of the Jew-hatred of the time, and the best-selling La France Juive by Edouard Drumont was its unholy text. It is still in print. Antisemitism carried on into the next century with a vengeance, from French collaboration with the Nazis to President Charles de Gaulle’s nasty anti-Israel remarks (“sur de soi, et dominateur”) after the 6-Day War.
The massacres in Paris had a decidedly antisemitic core. The Jew-killers were radical Muslims, who bragged of avenging the Prophet Mohammed. Nor were these surprising: the weekend massacres were part of a pattern of intensifying attacks against French Jews, a pattern that extends over much of contemporary Europe (here‘s a long, thoughtful treatment of the French situation).
So it’s remarkable when the French prime minister says massive Jewish emigration would be disastrous for his country. I can’t remember another top European government official saying anything similar.
The question for French Jews, as for those elsewhere in Europe, is whether they can remain and raise their families in peace, or whether they must get out.
For most European Jews, this question is aimed directly at their governments, and they will not have been encouraged by President Hollande’s insistence that the terror attacks had nothing to do with Islam. The French Jews, like most of their countrymen, have long since entrusted their security to the state, so if the state cannot protect them, they are likely to conclude that they must leave (Israel says that fully ten percent of French Jews inquired about emigration procedures last year).
Yet just across the Riviera lies Italy, like France a Catholic country with its own ugly history of Jew-hatred, from the Inquisition to the fascist era. There are far fewer Italian Jews than French ones — perhaps 35,000 in a country with roughly the same population — and yet the Italian Jews are flourishing. Those who look into the matter will find that Italian antisemites are physically afraid of the Jews, that Jewish holidays are publicly celebrated in the public piazzas and even soccer stadiums of the major cities, that Prime Minister Matteo Renzi is famously philosemitic (when mayor of Florence he ordered the illumination of the synagogue, and at the Paris rally he not only said “Nous sommes Charlie, nous sommes juifs,” but spoke of Italy’s “solidarity with France…and with our Jewish brothers so terribly attacked…”), and that the mayor of Rome recently accompanied more than a hundred high school students on an Air Force jet to visit Auschwitz. Rome is building a Holocaust Memorial Museum on the grounds of Mussolini’s former residence. Still more surprising, there is a small but persistent flow of Catholic converts to Judaism, especially in the south.
There are many reasons for the success of Italian Jews, and one of the most important is the widespread Italian distrust of the state. They don’t expect the government to protect them against their enemies, and so they’ve done a lot by themselves. Right after World War II, when there were many neofascist and neonazi groups in Rome, the city’s chief rabbi, Elio Toaff, quietly organized a Jewish self-defense organization. Over time, this group prevailed against the antisemites, and spread throughout the peninsula. Toaff was remarkably farsighted, and alongside the self-defense group, he created a “temple for the young” where Roman children were given a religious education that reinforced their identities.
With the emergence of a self-confident and physically effective Jewish community, the official security forces became more enthusiastic allies, and today state and community work closely together.
This suggests to me that European Jews are not faced with the stark alternatives of enduring murderous violence or packing up and leaving the country. Paradoxically, state support, as well as favorable public opinion may be more forthcoming to communities that fight for themselves.
The lesson is important for American Jews as well. Very few have organized effective self-defense; like the French, they depend on the police and other security forces to protect them. This isn’t good enough. The Italian case suggests that Jews can fight and win, and that the European and American Jews’ long term interests — both religious and security — are well served by fighting back.
Which brings us back to Bret Stephens’ insistence that the French Jews are doomed and that they must choose between emigration and slaughter. I’m reluctant to give them advice, preferring to try to help them, whatever they do. And my crystal ball isn’t as precise as Bret’s. Life is full of surprises, and our world is on the boil.
I do think more attention should be paid to Italy. If its tiny Jewish community can do so well, it seems to me the very much larger and wealthier French community — and the significantly bigger American one as well — ought to consider it a learning moment.