By Ben Cohen
As regular readers of my column will know, I am not an admirer of the analogy between the situation that Jews faced in Europe in the 1930s, and the trials and challenges we face now.
I don’t like it because, quite simply, the differences far outweigh the similarities. First and foremost, since 1948, there has been a Jewish state ready to absorb any Jew fleeing from anti-Semitism – a lifeline that was glaringly absent during the period of Nazi persecution.
The position of Jewish communities vis-a-vis their governments has also changed. In the 1930s, European leaders didn’t say that their countries would be irredeemably damaged by the exodus of their Jewish populations; even after the Holocaust, it took several years for there to be anything like a moral reckoning with the fate of the Jews in the countries that were occupied by the Nazis. But in the days following the recent Paris terror attacks, both the French prime minister and the British home secretary delivered emotional speeches declaring that France would not be France, and Britain would not be Britain, without their long-settled Jewish populations.
Nonetheless, I do understand the appeal of the 1930s analogy. During both that decade and the one that followed, the lethal potential of anti-Semitism was driven home with a darkness previously unknown. Therefore, it’s hardly surprising, now that we are living in the most dangerous period for Jews since the Second World War, that the Nazi period has become the yardstick against which we measure and judge our current woes.
I also expect the use of the 1930s analogy to grow in the coming months, as Europe further succumbs to the temptations of populism and nationalism, at a time when the United States is led by an administration that has made its disinterest in – even contempt for – the old continent painfully clear. Under President Barack Obama, Europeans have been rudely awakened to the fact that they no longer have a privileged relationship with an America that variously appears to them inward-looking, or trapped in the Middle East, or desperate to tilt its foreign policy towards Asia.
Politically, Europe looks very different now than it did in 2008, when Obama was elected. To many Americans, it seems as if Europe is gripped by menace and vulnerability, and by the widespread fear of a future dominated by conflict and social discord. How Europeans actually see their future depends, in strong part, on where they live, how they vote, how financially secure they are, and what opinions they hold on the Middle Eastern and Afghan wars that have defined the post-9/11 period.
While a visitor to one of Europe’s metropolitan capitals will meet any number of sensible, reasoned people who will make a very convincing case that the continent’s current difficulties are unlikely to lead to a 1930s-style convulsion, it’s getting harder and harder to ignore the alternative explanation: that Europe’s political foundations are coming apart, with grave repercussions for societies that have not (at least in the Western half of the continent) directly experienced prolonged armed conflict since the middle of the last century.
The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), an outfit known for its sober and dispassionate analysis, says that a “crisis of democracy” now prevails in a Europe where the voting public feels great remoteness from the political class. And there are approaching elections in the U.K., Denmark, Finland, Spain, France, Sweden, Germany, and Ireland – all these polls will demonstrate the degree to which the new parties and movements of left and right can shake the established political parties.
The first test of that will be in Greece on Jan. 25, in an election that pundits are predicting will result in a victory for the leftist coalition Syriza. Current polls show Syriza with 35 percent of the vote, ahead of the much more familiar, much more establishment New Democracy Party by 4 percentage points.
I was more shocked by what I saw at the other end of the scale: PASOK, the former governing Socialist Party, with 5 points, Golden Dawn, an organization of violent neo-Nazi thugs and vandals, with 6 points. All in all, there is a strong chance that Greece will go into this year with the most left-wing government in the history of post-war Europe, with a large contingent of far right criminals itching for a fight as well. (If you’re wondering what that means for Israel, it’s not good. The current Greek government has a decent relationship with Israel; a Syriza government will be distinguished by the fact that most of its far left constituent parts don’t think Israel has the right to exist in the first place. Alexis Tsipras, Syriza’s leader, doesn’t share that view, but he is a harsh and hyperbolic critic of Israel even so.)
A Syriza victory could rebound across Europe, with benefits for both the far right and the far left, just at the moment when the public has again been reminded of the bestial depths that Islamist terrorism can sink to. No wonder, then, that growing numbers of European Jews are seeking a future outside. As the EIU says in its study, “There is a gaping hole at the heart of European politics where big ideas should be.” The absence of big ideas is compounded by the presence of some very bad ones.
An important aspect of the threat that Jews in Europe face lies in the fact that they are closely associated with the political class that the EIU says is now in danger. Over many decades, their communal representatives have cultivated the leaders of the main parties; they are consulted by ministries and think tanks; they have advanced relations with Israel in culture, business, and politics. They share the foundational conviction that the disaster of Nazism can never be repeated. That is why the current French prime minister and the current British home secretary speak as they do. That is why Frans Timmermans, the European Commission vice president, said this week that Jewish fears pose “a huge challenge to the very foundations of European integration.”
But we have no certainty, even 10 years from now, that their successors, of potentially very different political stripes, will say the same.
Ben Cohen is the Shillman Analyst for JNS.org. His writings on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Ha’aretz, Jewish Ideas Daily and many other publications.