Lately there is a controversy in the US about demands by students for “safe spaces,” which apparently are places where like-minded folks can vent their prejudices without having to worry about hearing dissenting opinions. It made me think about a different kind of safe space, a place where a Jew doesn’t have to constantly look over his or her shoulder.
In California, where the Muslim population is less than 1%, the thought that my pro-Israel activities might endanger me or my family was never far from the surface. I was comforted by the thought that I was so ineffective in combating the anti-Israel propaganda flowing from multiple directions that they wouldn’t bother to beat me up, but I still always looked around carefully after pulling into my driveway. I don’t think I could have imagined what it is like for Jews today in France.
In France, Jew hatred is at unprecedented levels. Apart from the major terror attacks, many Jews have personal stories about harassment and beatings in the street, in schools, and elsewhere, which have increased “exponentially” since the attack on the Hyper Cacher supermarket in January. Although last week’s attacks didn’t specifically target Jews like the Ozar Hatorah or Hyper Cacher shootings, it would be natural for someone to think “if they can’t even protect themselves, how will they protect us?”
In Israel, despite the terrorism and constant threat of war, a Jew has a sense of security that exists nowhere else, even in the Jewish paradise of America.
It’s paradoxical. Here we are surrounded by Palestinian Arabs, presently in the middle of what has been called the 3rd intifada, and there are daily incidents of terrorism against Jews. From October 1 to November 13, 14 Israeli Jews have been murdered by Arab terrorists and 167 wounded.
Hezbollah has more than 100,000 rockets aimed at the country, and Hamas has tens of thousands. I have heard the booms of rockets blown up in the air over my head by Iron Dome, and when I go to Jerusalem or even Tel Aviv, I am very careful crossing the street or waiting at bus stops (probably a good idea in any event). And yet I’m less tense than I was in California.
One obvious reason is that Israel is much better prepared to deal with war and terrorism than the rest of the world. It has one of the world’s best air forces, and a nuclear deterrent with second strike capability. Security checks at the airports and bus and train stations are better. Even shopping malls have guards; every car trunk is looked into at the entrance to the parking lot. But it still doesn’t fully justify the feeling of safety.
Having done reserve duty, I know that the army is not always what it is cracked up to be. The police are like police anywhere, some competent, some not. Security guards, well, let’s just say that they tend not to be highly paid former commandos.
But there are psychological factors. Israel’s Jews mostly see themselves as in it together. They are each as much targets as the next one, and they look out for one another. It’s their state, their imperfect state with its imperfect army and imperfect police that is charged with protecting them. This is comforting in a way that similar institutions in the Diaspora cannot be.
When I lived in the US, the strenuous efforts of the Obama Administration to define Islamic terrorism as anything other than what it is created feelings of helplessness and frustration in those who saw themselves as possible targets of it. In France, there is the simple fact that, although they appear to be trying, the authorities are unable to get ahead of the rising tide of Jew hatred.
Here in Israel the government is taking strong action (see Naftali Bennett’s Facebook post) against incitement and terrorism, including destroying the houses of terrorist murderers, outlawing the Northern Branch of the Islamic movement (which has been responsible for promulgating the very dangerous lie that Israel intends to destroy the al-Aqsa mosque), and other steps. Perhaps a little late, but moving in the right direction. The latest wave of terrorism isn’t over, but it seems to have crested.
It’s possible for an Israeli to appear very cynical about the motivations of politicians and other officials. There is a small subset of the population that despises the whole enterprise, many of whom are media personalities, academics and journalists, that makes an outsize impression to observers outside of the country. But this segment is taken much less seriously by the people that live here. Most Israeli Jews do identify with the state and its institutions, especially the army. And that makes them feel secure.
On the other hand, news reports suggest that French Jews are made to feel more anxious rather than less by the armed police posted outside synagogues, because they are reminded that at any moment they could be under terrorist attack.
By far the greatest number of Western Europeans emigrating to Israel in recent years have come from France. In 2014, some 7,000 French Jews made aliyah to Israel, while 3-5,000 went to other places, like Canada. One of the reasons is that the immigration process to Canada is slower and more complicated. It’s not a simple decision, because professionals face difficulties getting comparable jobs in Israel, and housing is expensive here also.
But I suggest that European Jews who chose to leave Europe take into account not only their physical security – although it is likely to be as well-protected in Israel as anywhere else in the world – but the psychological security that comes from living in the Jewish state.
Israel will emphatically never be the kind of “safe space” that the American students are looking for, a place in which they will not have to listen to anyone that disagrees with them. The opposite is true; in Israel disagreements are ubiquitous and eloquent. But maybe it is the kind of safe space that European Jews need today.