Have you heard about Europe’s Jewish exodus? Amid growing tensions and tough economic conditions, tens of thousands of educated middle-class Jews are fleeing every year – not out of the continent, but rather from Israel into Europe, and especially to Germany, which has become the chief destination (after the United States) for the half-million Israelis who have left the country amid its much-discussed “brain drain.”
This has taken both Israelis and many Europeans by surprise – and offended some Israeli leaders. Last month, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, during a visit to Budapest, took to Facebook to denounce the growing wave of Europe-bound Jews who have become known in the Israeli media as the New Yordim (emigrants, or literally, “fallen”).
“A word to all those who are fed up, and are leaving for Europe,” he wrote, then described his family’s tragic history in the Holocaust, concluding: “Forgive me if I’m a little impatient with those who are willing to throw away the only country the Jews have because it’s easier to live in Berlin.”
Easier to live in Berlin? That would not, even a generation ago, have been a common Jewish sentiment. Among North American Jews, even visiting Germany on vacation remains a matter of controversy and distaste. The black years of the Shoah are too fresh in many family histories.
Yet for this generation of Israelis, the shift to Europe is surprisingly uncontroversial. Last year, I had a conversation with a successful Israeli historian who had taken up residency in Germany. “That move must have shocked a lot of your friends in Israel,” I suggested. She looked askance, as if this was an unheard-of notion: “No, of course not,” she said. “My friends are all just jealous that I can get a visa to live here. Every Israeli academic of my generation wants to move to Europe.”
Much of this emigration has to do with Israel’s impossible economic conditions – writer Ruth Margalit recently noted that 87 per cent of Israelis over 25 are financially dependent on their parents.
But it is also political: European countries are seen by Israelis as stable, egalitarian and safe, while in an Israel governed by hard-line regimes, the zealots and the Orthodox seem destined to prevail. “With all due respect,” Jerusalem Post columnist Susan Hatis Rolef recently wrote, “I think it is physically safer for a Jew to live in Berlin these days than in Jerusalem, though I do not belittle the emotional difficulty involved for a Jew to do so, given the not-too-distant history.”
She listed the reasons for the exodus: “loss of hope that peace will ever prevail … discomfort with the lack of determination of Israel’s leaders to make a serious effort to separate religion and state … and the feeling that life in Israel frequently feels like life in a pressure cooker.”
Still, it might seem more logical that the Jewish exodus would be out of Europe, not into it. Here in Austria, a party with an anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi background won nearly a fifth of the vote in the Sept. 29 elections. In Hungary, France, Greece and the Netherlands, parties based on religious and racial intolerance have had strong showings (although they govern nowhere). In a recent survey, 76 per cent of European Jews said they believe anti-Semitism has increased over the past five years. In France, home to half of Europe’s Jews, almost half said they had considered emigrating out of Europe.
So which is it: a Europe safe for Jews disenchanted by Israel, or a Europe Jews are seeking to flee? It’s important to understand that there are really two Europes.
The most comprehensive recent study of cross-European attitudes toward religious minorities was conducted two years ago by Andreas Zick of the Institute for Interdisciplinary Resarch on Conflict and Violence. It found a huge divergence in attitudes.
On the statement “Jews have too much influence in my country,” a staggering 69 per cent of Hungarians and 50 per cent of Poles answered yes, compared to far smaller numbers in Western Europe (14 per cent in France, 20 per cent in Germany and 6 per cent in the Netherlands) Likewise, majorities in Poland, Hungary and Portugal agreed with the statement “Jews in general do not care about anything or anyone but their own kind,” while this was a small minority view in the larger economies.
In Europe’s centre and east, where hardly any Jews remain to be found, public intolerance has risen to dangerous proportions. In the larger economies, Jews are largely seen as fellow citizens with a different religion. Unfortunately, the places where people of any religious minority are free from annoying zealotry are becoming fewer in number.