By Michael Young
15 January 2015
If there is anything pure, unadulterated, transcendent in Benjamin Netanyahu, it’s his vulgarity. The corpses were still warm last week when the Israeli prime minister alighted in Paris to tell French Jews that their real home was Israel.
This reminded many people of Ariel Sharon’s efforts to exploit anti-Semitic attacks in Europe in 2004. At the time Sharon had declared, “If I have to advocate to our brothers in France, I will tell them one thing: ‘Move to Israel, as early as possible.’ I say that to Jews all around the world, but there [in France] I think it’s a must and they have to move immediately.”
Sharon had added: “In France today, about 10 percent of the population are Muslims ... that provokes a different kind of anti-Semitism, based on anti-Israeli feelings and propaganda.”
Sharon’s remarks offended the French government at the time, and Netanyahu’s comments must have done the same. The prime minister posted this thought on Twitter: “To all the Jews of France, all the Jews of Europe, Israel is not just the place in whose direction you pray, the state of Israel is your home.”
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls took a very different tack, telling a group of French Jews, “France without the Jews of France is not France.” Against a message of religious in-gathering and separation, Valls offered one of openness and assimilation.
We now know that the French president, Francois Hollande, did not want Netanyahu to attend the march against terrorism last Sunday. He was afraid that Netanyahu’s presence would only draw attention to the Arab-Israeli conflict and Jewish-Muslim tensions, a divisive topic when the French were looking to affirm national unity. Netanyahu came anyway, because other Israeli political figures were attending and the prime minister saw he could score political points before Israel’s forthcoming elections.
Adding to the pettiness of the scene, the French had also advised the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, not to be there. Like Netanyahu he initially agreed, only to reverse himself when the French, seeing that Netanyahu would make an appearance, had to extend an invitation to Abbas. So, the Palestinian leader donned his fur cap and trudged to Paris.
It was all very cheap, lacking in class. Netanyahu seemed unconcerned by the interests of the people most affected by his statements, namely France’s Jews. Here they were, looking for reassurances as French citizens, and here was Netanyahu telling them to pack their bags. Yet some of them responded pointedly to his invitation for French Jews to move to Israel. At a Paris synagogue where the prime minister had just finished speaking, many in the audience began singing “La Marseillaise.”
Two thoughts come to mind, the first practical, the second philosophical. In practical terms why would French Jews really want to leave France for Israel? Simply because they are Jews, or because Israel’s future is one of hope, peace and tranquillity?
If Netanyahu is counting on Jewish solidarity, he should wake up and realize that most people in the West, Jews or otherwise, remain reluctant to live in unmixed societies. The emancipation of Europe’s Jews under Napoleon was a historic moment in which they exited the ghetto and became full-fledged citizens of their countries. It opened the door for their gradual absorption into the societies where they lived, despite the differences.
Assimilation has long worried certain Jewish and Zionist publicists, who fear that it will lead to a loss of Jewish identity. Several years ago I was surprised to see that there was alarm among some American Jews with statistics showing that more young people in the community were marrying outside their religion. One would have thought this was a good thing. No one wants to see a community disappear, but in the West there is no risk of that. Most Jews have retained their Jewish identity despite integration, showing that it’s rarely an “either-or” proposition.
To surrender such an achievement to resettle in a country where the majority is Jewish, and where that majority continues to oppress a growing minority of Arabs, with no end or solution in sight, is a choice many French Jews probably have no desire to make. Europe not only offers greater long-term security, stability and social and cultural interaction under broad, consensual social contracts; it also allows Jews to pursue identities other than ones defined exclusively by religion or politics.
Philosophically, Netanyahu’s comments raised questions about the Jews’ future in the Middle East and the world. Israel is today a country increasingly criticized for its perceived unwillingness to resolve its conflict with the Palestinians. In the last 15 years Israel has built a wall around itself as a means of protection. In 2006, Hezbollah fired over that wall, as did Hamas on many occasions since then. Israel responded by developing an anti-missile defence. The Israelis will continue to adapt to new security challenges, but so will their enemies. The rockets will get better and the tunnels will become longer. Israel, as it insulates itself further, will never be fully secure until its neighbours have an interest in helping to make it secure.
Is this Israel the culmination of Jewish aspirations? Do the world’s Jews really want to be part of a state associated with conquest, hiding behind an iron wall of remorseless self-protection, as the Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Netanyahu’s spiritual father, dreamed? But Jabotinsky’s vision was static. It assumed Arabs would remain forever reconciled with Jewish military superiority and domination, and would not seek to reverse their own weaknesses.
Most people, including many Jews, can increasingly see this is an illusion. For Jews of the diaspora, their salvation and that of their children, is not to relocate to a country embodying such an illusion. Perhaps Netanyahu realized this when he heard La Marseillaise. He must have sensed that some French Jews didn’t appreciate the way their suffering was being manipulated to advance a political agenda, by a man who didn’t even have the decency to stay away from an event to which he was not invited.
Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR.