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Israel, A Haven From Terrorism?

Benjamin Netanyahu in the midst of filming a television interview with Wolf Blitzer
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Photo courtesy the Embassy of Israel in Washington, D.C.

I happened to be in England during the Copenhagen attacks that first targeted a meeting promoting freedom of speech and then a synagogue. You could sense a collective shudder by Londoners at another violent assault so close to home.

Two men died, according to CNBC, one at each location. Police shot and killed the man believed to be responsible for both attacks the following day. Similar to the events in France last month, the first attack focused on a nonreligious symbol of free speech, and only the second was directed at Jewish people, which in some ways demonstrates the integration of Jews in democratic, secular Western society.

It may go without saying that such attacks are disturbing as well as tragic. And both observers and politicians have wondered whether increased anti-Semitic incidents in Europe represent just an unfortunate cluster of outliers or the signal of a rising trend. If it is the latter, it is certainly worth discussing realistic solutions to combat such a problem. But this problem is one for Europeans as a whole to face together, as a population that values free speech and democracy, and one into which Jews are welcomed and well-embedded.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s suggestion that Europe’s 1.1 million Jews collectively emigrate to Israel to be safe from terrorism is as cynical as it is, on its face, crazy.

Though Israel certainly works diligently to protect its citizens, it is a place where Jews are often targets of terrorist attacks specifically over their religion, certainly much more so than in Western Europe. Attacks from both Hezbollah in the north and Hamas in the south have resulted in three mini-wars in just the past decade. Where do civil defense officials maintain elaborate plans to outfit every citizen with a gas mask? In Israel, of course, not Europe. That fact speaks volumes about the relative safety of each.

Israel also offers the opposite of the democratic, secular society that Europe’s Jews inhabit. Although it has democratic institutions, it is an avowedly religious state, in which non-Jews play a subsidiary role, defined in law and in practice.

In truth, Netanyahu’s call for immigration is not a matter of safety. It’s a matter of numbers, specifically Israel’s demographics.

Immigration to Israel has slowed to a trickle in recent years, and many of those recent immigrants have tenuous connections to Judaism, according to a recent Bloomberg article. Israel is also struggling with rising emigration; many of those leaving the country are young professionals, who seek lower costs of living, better job opportunities and expanded cultural horizons in Europe and elsewhere.

A large influx of European Jews would not only help Israel’s population numbers, it would likely give the country’s economy a boost that it does not get from many of the immigrants arriving from former Soviet states. But European Jews will also come expecting the societal safety nets that are common in their countries of origin and services that Israel will not offer them. Netanyahu said to European Jews that “Israel is [their] home,” but for many of them, the transition would unlikely be as smooth as he suggests.

I have no particular quarrel with Jews who choose to relocate to Israel, either because it is the sort of place they want to live or because they have family there. But arguing that terrorism is a compelling reason for Jews to leave Europe today makes about as much sense as arguing that 9/11 was a compelling reason for Jews to leave the United States a decade ago.

As Jair Melchior, Denmark’s chief rabbi, observed in reaction to Netanyahu’s speech, “Terror is not a reason to move to Israel. People from Denmark move to Israel because they love Israel, because of Zionism but not because of terrorism.”

In most of Europe, Jews are equal players in societies that are committed to the welfare of all citizens. While rising occurrences in Europe of anti-Semitic violence are cause for concern, they reflect neither government policy nor larger societal values. Individual terrorists and organizations are a threat to be taken seriously, but that threat is also isolated, rather than systemic. The solution is not to immediately head for a place that has seen virtually unbroken ethnic conflict for its entire 67-year existence.

The argument that European Jews should escape terrorism by moving to Israel will self-destruct as soon as the next rocket falls there.

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