Over the centuries, Jews have periodically been sought — and shunned — as immigrants.
“Don’t leave,” Europe’s presidents and prime ministers tell their Jews following every new act of terrorism. “We’ll protect you and your synagogues from harm.” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offers opposite advice. “This wave of terror attacks can be expected to continue, including anti-Semitic and murderous acts. We say to the Jews, to our brothers and sisters, Israel is your home and that of every Jew. Israel is waiting for you with open arms.”
Europe’s leaders doubtless feel guilt at their inability to protect their Jews, and don’t want their countries to be branded as anti-Semitic. They would also feel shame if members of their storied families left — the Chagalls of France for example, or the Marks (of Marks and Spencer) of England.
But there is also an economic rationale for French president François Hollande’s insistence that “Jews have their place in Europe and, in particular, in France.” Jews tend to be well educated and affluent, often very affluent. Jews make up less than one 1 percent of the French population but have 8 percent of its billionaires. In the U.K., the ratio is even more lop-sided: the Jewish one-half of 1 percent of the population account for 14 percent of its billionaires. France, the U.K. and other European countries work hard to attract well-educated, affluent immigrants who can bring investments and jobs to their countries — every well-educated, affluent Jew who emigrates is evidence of an immigration policy in reverse.
Should Jews en masse decide to leave Europe — and half of them in the U.K. and France are already considering doing so — it could trigger an unsettling capital flight as well as representing a massive brain drain: Jews are disproportionately represented in academia, the sciences and the arts as well as in industry.
In the same way that it is the job of European governments to attract high-value immigrants, it is the job of the Israeli government to attract high-value immigrants. Israel more than any country in recent decades has prospered from immigration — the one-million Russians who arrived in the 1990s and 2000s, many of them highly trained in engineering and science, became a dominant factor in Israel’s meteoric rise as a high-tech Start-Up Nation.
A Jewish exit from European countries would be nothing new. The 13th century saw England expel its Jews through an Edict of Expulsion; the 14th century saw several expulsions from France. In the 15th century, Spain and Portugal expelled their Jews. In the 17th century, Jews were forced to flee the Ukraine and in the 18th, various Austro-Hungarian lands. In the 19th and 20th centuries, pogroms saw two million Jews flee Russia, and then millions more fled in the 1930s or perished in the Holocaust.
Attracting Jewish immigrants is also nothing new. In Biblical times, the great Babylonian monarch, Nebuchadnezzar, brought in thousands of Jews to further trade and commerce, and help administer his kingdom. In the 13th and 16th centuries, Polish kings issued invitations to attract Jewish immigration for much the same reasons. When Spain’s King Ferdinand in 1492 expelled Spanish Jews, who were renowned for their business acumen, the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire formally invited them to Constantinople, saying “Ye call Ferdinand a wise king he who makes his land poor and ours rich!” England’s Oliver Cromwell in the 17th century decided to attract Amsterdam’s affluent Jews, in order to improve England’s trading prowess.
Immigration has always been big business. At one level, today’s tug between leaders of Israel and European countries for European Jews is simply another chapter in a very old tale of attracting capital and skilled labour. But this tale is also animated by 21st century Middle Eastern politics, and by irony, too. The demonization of Israel over its conflicts with Palestinians in general and over the 2014 war with Hamas in particular has led to the rise of overt anti-Semitism now sweeping Europe. This Israel-bashing has overwhelmingly been led by European leaders and by NGOs funded by European governments. An upshot of the bashing will be the departure of Jews for Israel, strengthening it and making it better able to withstand pressure from Europe.
Lawrence Solomon is a policy analyst with Probe International and a fellow of the Canadian Institute for Jewish Research. Email: LawrenceSolomon@nextcity.com.