There is a growing debate within the American Jewish community about whether the external threats to the Jewish community worldwide are similar to those just before the outbreak of World War II. The challenges now facing world Jewry, however, are not remotely similar — because of the creation of the State of Israel, because of the lessons learned from the Holocaust, because of the integration of Jews into Western societies and, critically, because the most profound challenges facing Israel and world Jewry are shared by the wider world.
To act on the proposition that the threats today are equivalent to those in 1938 would lead to inappropriate and counterproductive policy responses. Nevertheless, there are significant dangers now facing world Jewry.
In 1938, Adolf Hitler had been in power for five years and had begun to apply anti-Jewish laws while planning the invasion of Europe. His “Final Solution” became official policy later, as a result of both his vehement antisemitism and the failure of the Allied powers to agree to take any additional Jewish refugees, a failure he took as a clear signal that the world’s democracies put a low priority on saving Jewish lives.
In 1938, Palestine was still under the British Mandate, and there was no independent Jewish state to afford a refuge to Jews in danger. Public opinion polls in the United States showed some 40% of the American public held antisemitic stereotypes of Jews and that in Europe there was rampant antisemitism, much of it church-based.
Hitler had a largely free hand in perpetrating the Holocaust, and indeed, in several Eastern European countries local residents facilitated the Nazi genocide. In France, a Vichy regime would soon be created that passed its own anti-Jewish laws and cooperated with German authorities to deport tens of thousands of French Jews to their deaths.
Today, however, there is a third Jewish commonwealth, a state that over the years has been a sanctuary for Jews in distress, from Arab nations to the former Soviet Union.
Israel has one of the world’s five most powerful military capabilities. It can defend itself against any conventional attack. Israel has signed peace agreements with two of its most powerful foes, Egypt and Jordan, and they have been scrupulously followed. While it is not the warm peace we might have wished for, it is a peace nevertheless, and it takes pressure off Israel’s military forces.
In 2002, and again just a few weeks ago, Saudi Arabia proposed a peace initiative, accepted by the entire Arab League, offering normalized relations with Israel. While the conditions are clearly unacceptable, the willingness to recognize Israel by some of its most vociferous foes is noteworthy. I likewise believe an agreement with Syria could be reached that protects Israel’s security interests.
Moreover, while antisemitism has not been extinguished, the gravity of the Holocaust has been imbedded on world opinion. Levels of general antisemitic attitudes have declined sharply. There has been a successful decades-long Catholic-Jewish dialogue, with important statements by the Vatican that diminish religious-based antisemitism.
Indeed, intermarriage rates have soared in the United States and in Western Europe — a clear and present danger to Jewish continuity, to be sure, but a symbol of the acceptance of Jews by general society. Most Western European countries have Holocaust remembrance days, and several have Holocaust memorial museums, commemorations that were both initiated by the United States during the Carter administration.
While it is sad that it is needed, virtually every major European nation provides police protection for Jewish synagogues and religious schools. Antisemitic actions are met with firm responses, as in France, albeit belatedly. To its credit, the French anti-hate crimes law was amended to include antisemitic actions.
Our work during the Clinton administration raised the implications of the Holocaust back onto the world agenda, with belated justice for Holocaust victims and their families — some $8 billion in compensation and restitution overall. Of long-term significance, more than a dozen countries undertook official reviews of their role in misusing confiscated Jewish property, the most searching being the Swiss and French reports. And the Holocaust Education Task Force, initiated by Sweden and now including more than 20 nations, is promoting Holocaust education in school systems around the world, under the guidance of Yad Vashem in Israel.
Likewise, the Jewish community in the United States, largely quiescent during World War II, has learned the lessons of its silence and has vowed “never again.” Jewish organizations are active, public and vocal in defending Jewish interests both at home and abroad.
Yet there are genuine external threats to Jews around the world. The difference is that the Jewish people and Israel today have allies in combating those threats.
The major external challenge in the United States, beyond sporadic antisemitic incidents, is actually symbolic of the clout held by Jews in the American political arena: the canard that the so-called “Jewish lobby” controls American policy in the Middle East in ways that are disadvantageous to America’s national security interests. There is a troubling growth of anti-Israel sentiment on American college campuses, stemming primarily from the Israeli occupation of territory captured in self-defense following the Six Day War.
There is a fine line — which is at times being disturbingly crossed — between legitimate criticism of Israeli government policy and the de-legitimization of Israel as a Jewish state. But troubling as these incidents are, there is little resonance among the general American public, which by overwhelming numbers is supportive of Israel compared to the Arab world, even more so since the September 11 terrorist attacks.
European Jews face a situation of greater concern. In Europe, public opinion is sharply anti-Israel, with recent Eurostat polls finding Israel, along with the United States, to be the greatest threats to world peace, ahead of Iran, North Korea, Syria and Iraq. In the United Kingdom, one of the two largest academic unions passed a motion last year to boycott Israeli academic institutions.
Of even greater concern is the radicalization of a small-but-dangerous part of the European Muslim community, which was underscored by the tragic 2006 murder of Ilan Halimi in Paris. There are some 20 million Muslims in Europe today, with the number likely to grow to 50 million in the next 25 years. The overwhelming majority are peaceful and want a better way of life, but there may be a growing number of radicals at the fringe feeding on the Palestinian conflict and on the lack of jobs and education in their adopted homes in Europe.
European leaders, it must be noted, recognize the need to crack down on the radicals. The French Muslim riots in 2005, the bus and subway bombings in London the same year, and the train bombing in Madrid in 2004 were attacks on Western societies, not against Jews, and therefore elicited responses from political leaders to defend broader national interests. As the Islamic influence grows in Europe, leaders throughout key Western European nations are trying to fashion policies that better integrate Muslim immigrants into society while maintaining traditional European values. European Jews are not alone in facing the challenge of the Islamization of the European continent.
The external challenges facing American and European Jewry, however, pale in comparison with the external threats facing Israel — namely, the growth of Hamas in the Palestinian territories and of Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the rise of Iran, a major financial, spiritual and military supporter of both radical groups.
The United States and the European Union both list Hamas as a terrorist organization, and the diplomatic quartet of the United States, E.U., United Nations and Russia refuses to recognize Hamas until it recognizes Israel’s right to exist, forswears violence and accepts all previous peace agreements. The United States takes the same position regarding Hezbollah. While both organizations are very troubling, neither is a threat to Israel’s existence.
Iran is a different story. It poses a potential existential threat to Israel. Its president has vowed to wipe Israel off the map and denies the Holocaust, and the country has both a medium-range missile capacity and a voracious appetite for nuclear weapons. But again, Israel’s concerns are widely shared.
Moderate, pro-Western Arab leaders are as concerned as Israel about the possibility that a nuclear-armed Shiite Iran will dominate the region and destabilize their regimes. Acting on findings by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United States has gotten strong support from the E.U. and from the U.N. Security Council for economic sanctions against Iran.
The view that it is unacceptable for a radicalized Iran to possess nuclear weapons is shared by Western nations, most Arab countries and even Russia. How Iran will be deterred remains to be seen. But what is critical to remember is that Israel is not isolated in its grave concerns, and should not unilaterally initiate military action at this time.
World Jewry and Israel do indeed face external problems. But it does no good to suggest that these problems are equivalent to those that an essentially weak Jewish community faced in 1938.
Stuart Eizenstat is a former American ambassador to the European Union, deputy secretary of the Treasury, under secretary of commerce for international trade, and under secretary of state for economic, business and agricultural affairs. He served as President Carter’s chief domestic policy adviser and as President Clinton’s special representative on Holocaust-era issues.