Netanyahu’s invitation to French Jews was awkward. For many reasons.
On Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made an impassioned call for French Jews to immigrate to Israel, after a series of attacks that began on the day of the Charlie Hebdo massacre killed four in a kosher supermarket in Paris. To many, it seemed like the most natural response he could deliver. After all, this is Israel’s stated raison d’etre: to provide refuge to persecuted Jews, wherever they may be. Underlying this sentiment is a deeper one, shared by Israelis across the political spectrum. It is the idea that Jewish life is at its most meaningful, and relevant, if carried out in the Jewish state.
There are many holes in this narrative, of course. To start with, despite the Holocaust wiping out much of the world’s Jewish population, most Jews still prefer not to live in Israel. There is roughly the same number of Jews in the United States as in Israel. That’s not counting another half a million Jews in France, close to 400,000 in Canada and around 300,000 in the UK. Brazil’s Jewish population is bigger than Haifa’s. If nothing else, these numbers suggest that for most Jews, the reasons for making aliyah — the Zionist term for immigrating to Israel — are anything but self-evident.
Then there is the awkwardness of timing. On one level, packing up and taking off is a natural and sometimes absolutely life-saving response to having your community targeted. The hundreds of thousands of Jews who moved westward at the turn of the 20th century were doing just that. Tens of millions of refugees around the world are doing so now, desperately trying to get away from conflict zones like Syria and Sudan. Jews, many Israelis would point out, at least have a “home” country to go to, and should be using that.
Many French Jews will, undoubtedly, do so. France has been the largest “exporter” of Jews to Israel among Western countries in recent years, and the number is rising steadily — although the yearly migration rate has not yet gone above 10,000.
But calling on Jews to pack up and leave in the immediate aftermath of an attack has a strange ring to it. It sounds like calling them to give up and discard everything they have ever achieved in their own societies because of the actions of three goons in Paris. Whatever else it says, such a call gives little credit to the long and resilient history of France’s Jewish community, which has survived much worse than last week’s attacks, without being compelled to give up either their Jewishness or their Frenchness.
This stinging implication of Netanyahu’s call was picked up even in Israel, where aliyah is still seen as a profoundly sensible decision for any Jew to take, in any circumstances. Haaretz’s Washington bureau chief Chemi Shalev’s reaction was among harshest. In a tweet on Sunday he wrote: “Call for mass Jewish emigration helps terrorists finish the job started by Nazis and Vichy: making France Judenrein” — Jew free. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin was more diplomatic, but still pointed out that Zionism is meant to make Jews want to come to Israel by choice, not flee there at the point of a gun.
And quite apart from ideological considerations, calling on Jews to come to Israel for considerations of safety is like offering them a ticket from the frying pan into the fire. The numbers don’t lie. Since the end of World War II, Israel was and remains the most dangerous place in the world for a Jew to live in.
For Israelis, Netanyahu’s six years in power were the most peaceful ones in over two decades (not so much for Palestinians, whose civilian casualties in the summer’s war in Gaza outnumber those of Israelis by a stunning 253 to 1, according to UN figures.) But even those years saw many more Israelis killed than diaspora Jews worldwide — 60 Israelis died in the summer’s war alone. Whatever reasons Jews might have for coming to Israel, personal safety cannot reasonably be cited as one of them.
Zionism, of course, is predicated on the insistence that Judaism is not merely a faith, but also a nationality. This is the very core of its claim for self-determination, with Israel as the Jewish nation-state. It follows that Israel is the nation-state of all Jews, even if they have not yet immigrated.
But national identity, especially among minorities, is complex — much more complex than the simple Zionist binary of homeland and diaspora will allow.
This was illustrated neatly toward the end of Netanyahu’s visit to Paris, when he gave a speech at the city’s Great Synagogue. The Israeli prime minister was received with rapturous applause, and his call to emigrate was not met with jeers or protests. But when the visit was about to conclude, the crowd — overcome by the national tragedy, and wishing to defy the hatred and violence that was visited upon their community — broke out into the national anthem. Two national anthems, that is: Israel’s ha-Tikva, followed by a thundering rendition of La Marseillaise.
PHOTO: French President Francois Hollande (R) welcomes Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) at the Elysee Palace before attending a solidarity march (Marche Republicaine) in the streets of Paris January 11, 2015. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol