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Down and out in Paris and London

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that while the 2020s may not be the 1930s, they certainly feel like the 1930s.

A stop on the London Underground. Credit: TheOtherKev/Pixabay.
A stop on the London Underground. Credit: TheOtherKev/Pixabay.
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen, a senior analyst with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics.

In my previous column, I wrote about the rape of a 12-year-old Jewish girl in Paris at the hands of three boys just one year older than her, who showered her with antisemitic abuse as they carried out an act of violation reminiscent of the worst excesses of the Oct. 7 Hamas pogrom in southern Israel. This week, my peg is another act of violence—one less horrifying and less traumatic, but which similarly suggests that the writing may be on the wall for the Jews in much of Europe.

Last week, a group of young Jewish boys who attend London’s well-regarded Hasmonean School was assaulted by a gang of antisemitic thugs. The attack occurred at Belsize Park tube station on the London Underground, in a neighborhood with a similar demographic and sensibility to New York’s Upper West Side, insofar as it is home to a large, long-established Jewish population with shops, cafes and synagogues serving that community. According to the mother of one of the Jewish boys, an 11-year-old, the gang “ran ahead of my son and kicked one of his friends to the ground. They were trying to push another kid onto the tracks. They got him as far the yellow line.” When the woman’s son bravely tried to intervene to protect his friends, he was chased down and elbowed in the face, dislodging a tooth. “Get out of the city, Jew!” the gang told him.

Since the attack, her son has had trouble sleeping. “My son is very shaken. He couldn’t sleep last night. He said ‘It’s not fair. Why do they do this to us?’” she disclosed. “We love this country,” she added, “and we participate and we contribute, but now we’re being singled out in exactly the same way as Jews were singled out in 1936 in Berlin. And for the first time in my life. I am terrified of using the tube. What’s going on?”

The woman and her family may not be in London long enough to find out. According to The Jewish Chronicle, they are thinking of “fleeing” Britain—not a verb we’d hoped to encounter again in a Jewish context after the mass murder we experienced during the previous century. But here we are.

When I was a schoolboy in London, I had a history teacher who always told us that no two situations are exactly alike. “Comparisons are odious, boys,” he would repeatedly tell the class. That was an insight I took to heart, and I still believe it to be true. There are structural reasons that explain why the 2020s are different from the 1930s in significant ways. For one thing, European societies are more affluent and better equipped to deal with social conflicts and economic strife than they were a century ago. Laws, too, are more explicit in the protections they offer to minorities, and more punishing of hate crimes and hate speech. Perhaps most importantly, there is a Jewish state barely 80 years old which all Jews can make their home if they so desire.

Therein lies the rub, however. Since 1948, Israel has allowed Jews inside and outside the Jewish state to hold their heads high and to feel as though they are a partner in the system of international relations, rather than a vulnerable, subjugated group at the mercy of the states where we lived as an often hated minority. Israel’s existence is the jewel in the crown of Jewish emancipation, sealing what we believed to be our new status, in which we are treated as equals, and where the antisemitism that plagued our grandparents and great-grandparents has become taboo.

If Israel represents the greatest achievement of the Jewish people in at least 100 years, small wonder that it has become the main target of today’s reconstituted antisemites. And if one thing has been clear since the atrocities by Hamas on Oct. 7, it’s that Israel’s existence is not something that Jews—with the exception of that small minority of anti-Zionists who do the bidding of the antisemites and who echo their ignorance and bigotry—are willing to compromise on. What’s changed is that it is increasingly difficult for Jews to remain in the countries where they live and express their Zionist sympathies at the same time. We are being attacked because of these sympathies on social media, at demonstrations and increasingly in the streets by people with no moral compass, who regard our children as legitimate targets. Hence, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that while the 2020s may not be the 1930s, they certainly feel like the 1930s.

And so the age-old question returns: Should Jews, especially those in Europe, where they confront the pincer movement of burgeoning Muslim populations and a resurgent far-left in thrall to the Palestinian cause, stay where they are, or should they up sticks and move to Israel? Should we be thinking, given the surge in antisemitism of the past few months, of giving up on America as well? I used to have a clear view of all this. Aliyah is the noblest of Zionist goals and should be encouraged, but I always resisted the notion that every Jew should live in Israel—firstly, because a strong Israel needs vocal, confident Diaspora communities that can advocate for it in the corridors of power; and secondly, because moving to Israel should ideally be a positive act motivated by love, not a negative act propelled by fear.

My view these days isn’t as clear as it was. I still believe that a strong Israel needs a strong Diaspora, and I think it’s far too early to give up on the United States—a country where Jews have flourished as they never did elsewhere in the Diaspora. Yet the situation in Europe increasingly reminds me of the observation of the Russian Zionist Leo Pinsker in “Autoemancipation,” a doom-laden essay he wrote in 1882, during another dark period of Jewish history: “We should not persuade ourselves that humanity and enlightenment will ever be radical remedies for the malady of our people.” The antisemitism we are dealing with now presents itself as “enlightened,” based on boundless sympathy for an Arab nation allegedly dispossessed by Jewish colonists. When our children are victimized by it, this antisemitism ceases to be a merely intellectual challenge, and becomes a matter of life and death. As Jews and as human beings, we are obliged to choose life—which, in the final analysis, when nuance disappears and terror stalks us, means Israel.

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