“Jews are not here permanently,” the chief rabbi of Catalonia, Meir Bar Hen, declared after the Barcelona terror attack. “I tell my congregants: Don’t think we’re here for good. And I encourage them to buy property in Israel. This place is lost. Don’t repeat the mistake of Algerian Jews, of Venezuelan Jews. Better [get out] early than late.”
Although he later tempered his comments as a result of community pressure, Rabbi Bar Hen hit a central nerve of Jewish Exile: the question of whether persecution is afoot and we should flee before doomsday.
My parents made the Algerian Jews’ mistake that Barcelona’s rabbi had in mind. They had moved to Algiers from Marrakesh, where the family had lived for centuries, to continue to do business with the French army following Morocco’s independence in 1956. They stayed through France’s ruthless colonial war in Algeria. Instead of leaving at the end of the war, in time to relocate their assets to the French mainland after Algeria’s own independence, my parents chose to stay and become suppliers to the newly formed Algerian army.
My father was on his way back to Algiers from a business trip to France in 1964, two years after independence, when he learned that he was no longer welcome. The choice was stark: “Your assets or your life,” he was told. He never made it to Algiers. My mother, who was there, fled immediately. As a result, my parents left everything behind, and had to start over in Paris, where I was born.
Although I left France more than 30 years ago, I never stopped thinking about the question of whether Jews, including my now 87-year-old mother and other relatives, should now leave our French host land.
Three years ago, Thanksgiving 2014, my wife and I wandered into a central Paris synagogue just as the rabbi started his drasha on the question. We should learn from Jacob our ancestor, the rabbi advised. He left Lavan’s land when the father-in-law whom he had known yesterday and the day before (mitmol shilshom) had changed so much that he was no longer recognizable.
France had not reached that stage yet, the rabbi concluded. As long as the French government stood in words and deeds against anti-Semitism, the Jews could stay.
The rabbi’s test came straight out of the history of the rise of Nazism. Germany went from enlightenment to murderous darkness. In hindsight, of course, all Jews should have left as soon as the German government endorsed anti-Semitic laws. The test also provides a departure roadmap for Jews living under unstable governments, like my parents in Algeria or the Jews of Venezuela.
Rabbi Bar Hen’s approach is different. He does not fear that the Spanish government will turn against the Jews. He fears that the radicalized fringe of Spain’s Muslim community will produce more terrorists like the swiftly indoctrinated Barcelona cells, with the local Jewish community in its crosshairs.
Rabbi Bar Hen’s view is more in tune with the reality of the non-governmental purveyors of anti-Semitic hatred in the 21st century. However, he too misses out on an essential truth of today’s Diaspora: when it comes to the danger of anti-Semitism in Europe, not all Jews are created equal.
In France, for instance, we can roughly classify the Jews into three groups: (1) the French Jewish professional, reasonably well integrated and secular enough to be “Jewishly invisible”; (2) the religiously observant Jew who can afford to live in the enclaves where Jewish life has concentrated, send her children to Jewish school, walk to synagogue, and work and dwell in relatively safe neighborhoods; and, (3) the identified Jews of the banlieues or public housing, known to their neighbors, whether or not they are observant.
For the first two categories, the Jewishly invisible and the sheltered Jew, it is possible to go through a normal day without a spit on the ground, a dirty look, a pull of the beard, or the fear of a horrendous attack, such as that which, most recently, took the life of Sarah Halimi.
The public housing or banlieue Jews, on the other hand, are front line targets for radicalized jihadists and the new anti-Semites. At any time, those Jews may be confronted with the indignities and dangers of Exile, not from the government but from homegrown attackers, whether they be “lone wolves,” ISIS-powered terrorist cells, or merely neighborhood thugs driven by hatred of the Jew.
It is high time for those exposed Jews to leave their beleaguered corners of France. Although the government of France does not endorse their oppression, the France that they live in no longer resembles that of yesterday and the day before.
Sadly, those who most need to leave likely have the least resources to do so, and find themselves stuck in hostile neighborhoods. We cannot speak in generalities about “French Jews” or “European Jewry.” We must focus on at-risk Jews; it is a Zionist and Jewish duty to lend them a helping hand.