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Europe’s Last Jews

This has been a tough year for Jews.

But you’ve heard that before. I used to attend a synagogue where every Yom Kippur the rabbi, as part of his Israeli Bonds appeal, would begin by bemoaning what a bad year it had been. Each year things were worse than before. The problem? They weren’t.

The rabbi, however, may have Jewish tradition on his side. In 1948 Professor Simon Rawidowicz argued in his seminal essay, “Israel: The Ever Dying People,” that, while the world has many views of the Jewish people, Jews have but one view of themselves, “that of a being constantly on the verge of ceasing to be, of disappearing.” Rawidowicz argued that for millennia Jews have been pessimistic about the future. “Each generation grieved, not only for itself, but [for]…. the future.” Abraham, writers of the Mishnah, Talmudic sages, and Maimonides all thought themselves the last link in the tradition. Secularists felt similarly. The poet laureates of the Jewish Enlightenment Y. L. Gordon and Hayim Nachman Bialik both feared that in the future no one would be left to read their poetry and share their love for the Jewish people.

This may well be the Jewish default position. We worry about the worst. And by so doing we are always prepared for any disaster that might confront us.

Yet this year the pessimism may be justified. We have seen a precipitous rise in anti-Semitism, particularly — but not only — in Europe. As I related in these pages not long ago, I recently met with Jews from an array of European countries. Young, educated, multi-lingual, and well put together, they exuded an air of success and security. They all — to a person — expressed a common theme. They no longer felt as comfortable as they once had. Whether it was Belgium, the Netherlands, France, Germany or any other country, they all spoke of feeling less “at home.”

What scared these young people most were the doubts they harbored as to whether they could depend on the police and other authorities to protect them. If there was a major crime — such as the murders at the Brussels Jewish Museum — they knew then the police would take it seriously and react. It was the small daily indignities — getting screamed at in the street, pushed off the sidewalk, or assaulted in some fashion as they walk to a synagogue — which were beginning to take their toll. But there were other little stabs as well. The well educated colleague who made an anti-Semitic crack without even recognizing it as such.

They all knew the European campus scene well and, to a person, they reported the same thing. Students were choosing not to join Jewish student organizations. Affiliating Jewishly was increasingly becoming a burden. It meant, as one young woman observed, “defending Israel and being subjected to anti-Semitism.” For her and her friends, it’s not “the way they want to experience their years at university. It’s all about defending. There is nothing positive about it.”

Admittedly, most of these conversations took place as part of the Berlin meeting on anti-Semitism organized by the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe. The topic of the gathering was anti-Semitism. I stress that because it would be too easy to ignore the continued resiliency of many European Jewish communities. There are exciting things happening in these communities and it would be terribly wrong to write them off. These communities are not going away.

What then about the United States? Here there has been no upsurge in the open anti-Semitism we see in Europe. Jewish schools have not had to caution their students against wearing kippot.

The one place where things are unsettling is the university campus. I do not subscribe to the notion that the campus is a “hotbed of anti-Semitism.” That is hyperbolic and simply incorrect. Campus communities openly decry overt anti-Semitic acts and unite to condemn them. However, campus coalitions of those supporting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement are multiplying. BDS masquerades as being critical of Israel’s political position but it is, at its heart, calling for Israel’s destruction. (Many of the well-meaning adherents to BDS have naively blinded themselves to this reality.) BDS is not the only problem. The default position on campus is “Israel is wrong.” The variable is how wrong.

We won’t witness a rash of anti-Semitic acts on campus. That’s not how campuses operate. But I do worry that new students will simply opt out of joining Hillel or affiliating with other Jewish organizations because, like their European brethern, it will increasingly mean being on the defensive.

I may be unduly pessimistic but, if so, I will be adhering at least to a venerable Jewish tradition.

Deborah E. Lipstadt is Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies at Emory University. She chairs the US Holocaust Museum’s Committee on Anti-Semitism and State Sponsored Holocaust Denial.

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