As the adage goes, what a difference a year makes. Well in my case, it’s a couple of years.
When I started telling people I was leaving Washington, DC for Brussels, Belgium, I received one of three responses. My cynical Republican friends would ask why would you leave the greatest nation in the world for a bastion of communism? (Admittedly, I started to wonder that myself after I received my first tax bill). Others would simply ask where is it? (A question that speaks wonderfully to the inferiority complex that Brussels has towards its fellow European capitals). But the most common response was how cool – you get to live in Europe!
That was the summer of 2009. Today, the responses are completely different.
When I now tell people I live in Brussels, the why is asked in the context of why would a Canadian Jew choose to live in Europe and the how in relation to the level of danger I face every day. Even the where question is less common as Brussels has become rather familiar to friends and family across the pond: “that’s where the Jewish Museum was attacked, right?” It is a tragic legacy for a truly wonderful city.
I get rather annoyed by this shift as it underscores a serious conceptual problem of how some see Europe today. My life in Europe (and I would argue that Jewish life in general) has become defined by one issue and one issue alone – anti-Semitism. At least that is the case when back home in Canada or visiting the US.
The reality is so much more complex. I do question my long-term future here, but there are a range of reasons driving that assessment: Europe’s security infrastructure is beyond inadequate and has thus failed to deal with ISIS and the wave of fighters returning from Syria; it has failed to integrate immigrant populations; its economy is in shambles and the prospects are rather bleak; and, the EU is politically unstable and its future uncertain (I’m being kind here). I could go on.
Anti-Semitism is linked to some of these challenges and independent from others. It is part of the overall calculus, but it is not the single defining issue for me.
Why? I could speak at length about the reasons why the situation will eventually improve in Europe, but there is one constant that trumps all those arguments: anti-Semitism will never disappear. It remains nascent or near that at times, yet it is always present.
I was raised in Toronto, Canada, a generally peaceful place where Jewish institutions all take daily security measures and synagogues have a police presence on the high holidays (with regular security the rest of the time). I lived in Washington, DC for three years at a time when John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt published their conspiratorial book The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy (incidentally, I worked for two of the named organizations). I studied in Israel for two years, during the second Intifadah, where I was constantly in danger. Indeed, I wrote my dissertation on the use of anti-Semitic imagery in Egyptian political cartoons during the conflict. I’ve seen hatred everywhere.
Interestingly, the most anti-Semitic encounter I have had with a person in Europe was with an American – a fellow student – who repeatedly argues that Jews control the US government and that we are all rich (my student budget really wishes the latter was true).
Perhaps it is the Jewish historian in me (I’ve spent 6 years studying that field), but anti-Semitism has always been present. It has gone through its ebbs and flows throughout the centuries and it has taken many forms. I have no doubt it will continue to do so. Policies and laws can certainly be adopted to remove the most violent elements of the hatred, even curb its mass appeal. Yet the regrettable, simple truth is that it will always be there.
So when people tell me the Jews should leave Europe, I have trouble accepting it. It is such a simple response, but fleeing from Europe is not going to solve the problem. If the Jews leave, attacks will not stop. They will manifest in other forms and in other places. It is tragically only a matter of time.
Thus, I think the best way forward is to work towards improving the situation (undoubtedly you will hear more about efforts to do so on this site of the next few weeks). It’s scary and troubling, but it is not hopeless and it really is the only option we have.
I may well leave Europe one day, but I doubt that if you ask me why the response will be “because of anti-Semitism.”
Joshua Goodman is a Brussels-based radio host and an LLM candidate in Public International Law at the University of Kent, Brussels. He’s also a big hockey and rugby fan. Follow him on Twitter @lumber_josh.
(Image: The Jewish Museum of Brussels after the terror attack on May 24th 2014. Credit: skyfish / Shutterstock.com)