“And you shall guard your lives exceedingly” (Deuteronomy 4:15)
Long before this past weekend’s terrorist attacks in Paris, French and other Western European Jews acutely felt the conflicting pulls of an instinctive empathy for the plight of refugees but also of a particular vulnerability to the security risks accompanying a substantial, let alone uncontrolled, influx of migrants and others from the Middle East. These Jews bear memories of not only the Holocaust but also, often, their own immigrant experiences originating in North Africa and elsewhere. On the other hand, the eventual arrival in Europe of a very large Arab-Muslim population was marked by the dwarfing of domestic Jewish communities’ relative size; much more importantly, the growth in numbers of the Middle Eastern newcomers, rarely as well-integrated as their counterparts in the United States, correlated directly with a continuous intensification of anti-Jewish hostility and violence.
As a result, the focal point of continental anti-Semitism has decisively shifted from Eastern Europe, where “traditional” religious and ethnic animus long pervaded, to Western Europe, to which the Middle East’s toxic anti-Zionism was, already well prior to the recent waves of asylum-seekers, imported in significant volume by the immigrants. Critically, moreover, many of these immigrants were the product of societies that make little distinction between “Zionists” and Jews in general: stark Pew Research Center surveys have found negativity rates of over 90 percent toward Jews--not even simply Israelis—in most Muslim-majority countries the group examined.
And so, with publicly wearing yarmulkes or Star of David pendants having increasingly become a genuine safety hazard in much of France and Western Europe, Jewish anxiety over the expanding presence of Islamic radicalism predates the current moment of collective European alarm. What has over recent months fragmented and stymied European officialdom as a massive humanitarian, socioeconomic and political challenge—the flood of Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans, Libyans and others crossing Europe’s shores and borders—could easily have been recognized by many European Jews as also being a signal security crisis. Over recent months and years alone, after all, they experienced shootings at a Jewish school in Toulouse, the Jewish museum in Brussels and a bat mitzvah celebration in Copenhagen; open expressions of anti-Semitism in Malmo, London and elsewhere; and a litany of attacks in the French capital, whose large Jewish population has slowly declined through aliya, that included the gruesome kidnapping and murder of Ilan Halimi, a synagogue besieged, a Jewish woman raped and (in the shadow of the Charlie Hebdo killings this year) Hyper Cacher grocery shoppers slaughtered.
Meanwhile, the one Western European country where, for obvious historical reasons, overt bigotry toward both “Zionists” and Jews still remains substantially inadmissible, Germany, is for those same and additional reasons bearing the lion’s share of European absorption of Middle Eastern refugees—refugees that, at some 800,000 this year alone, will alter Germany’s demographic landscape, quickly constituting around 1 percent of the country’s populace. If history and the fundamental rules of politics are any guide, many of these immigrants will not so easily depart even if the severe upheaval in their homelands is ever settled, and they will inevitably exert influence on their adopted countries’ societal culture and political policies—including those impacting to what degree Jews still consider Europe a viable and hospitable home, as well as those with regard to the unceasing jihadist onslaught faced by Israel. Sadly, too many French and Belgian policymakers, whose countries were most directly impacted by this week’s tragedy, have frequently failed to afford the Jewish state the principled, unwavering support and solidarity that they have received following atrocities that lack any legitimate justification.
But if the latest carnage in Paris has provided searing affirmation for those fearing the “overrunning” of Europe by people who might include more of those committed to striking Western civilization from within, Jews in particular could not and cannot help but be indelibly impacted by other images that have emerged from the Middle Eastern exodus to Europe over recent months. The sights and sounds of refugee families traversing hundreds of perilous miles by sea and on foot, desperately cramming into overheated trains or reception camps—in one country, migrants even briefly had numbers written on their arms by local officials—have been, plainly, unbearable. And the photograph of three-year-old Syrian refugee Aylan Kurdi’s lifeless body washed up on a Turkish beach cried out to the collective conscience of humanity.
Reports now indicate that at least one of the perpetrators of this past weekend’s Paris attacks may indeed have infiltrated Europe on the pretext of (or hidden among those) seeking asylum. But, real security threats notwithstanding, international unresponsiveness cannot be the lot of all those genuinely seeking nothing but to escape their hellish circumstances at home and to find for their families a better life. The solution to their predicament, and that of those responsible for the welfare of the migrants’ intended destinations, is not at all clear. It should be remembered, though, that while many Middle Easterners do hail from settings where antagonism to various Western values, and certainly to Jews, is common, the vast majority of these individuals are not themselves disposed to engage in violence. And, certainly, a deep divide between people will not be overcome simply by ignoring or wishing away immense human suffering, especially that of innocents.
However it ultimately grapples with next-door calamities that continue to spill over onto its terrain, Europe—not enjoying the distance provided by oceans that bring some security even in an age of air travel that is easy and online communication that is even easier—is not likely to be the same as it was five or 25 years ago. And, with enduring implications for the vital and historic Jewish presence on this continent, Jews are likely to continue to be the first to experience trends that stand to remake Europe as a whole.
In striving to preserve both their societies and essential human values, European leaders cannot be envied for the policy dilemmas that they face. It should by now be clear, though, that morality and security alike require equally confronting the scourge of violent fanaticism irrespective of whether it targets Israelis or Frenchmen, Jews or simply anyone. In a globalized world, ideological wildfires cannot easily be contained in someone else’s domain.
David J. Michaels is Director of United Nations and Intercommunal Affairs at B'nai B'rith International, where he began working in 2004 as Special Assistant to the Executive Vice President. A Wexner Fellow/Davidson Scholar, and past winner of the Young Professional Award of the Jewish Communal Service Association of North America, he holds degrees from Yale and Yeshiva University.To view some of his additional content, Click Here.