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Where Will the Jews Go?

If there is no country in the world that is safe for Jews, the decision of where to live will need to be made on other terms.
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November 8, 2023
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A few weeks ago I wrote a column about a difficult decision faced by many olim—Jewish immigrants to Israel: should we stay or should we go?  

Today, in light of developments taking place around the globe, it’s time to ask a different question. Jews of the diaspora: will you stay or will you go? 

We are witnessing a wave of global antisemitism which feels unprecedented. Of course, it is far from unprecedented, but we grew up believing things were different for us. 

Things are not different for us. 

You have certainly already heard the stories. Paul Kessler, 69-years-old, dies after getting hit by a pro-Palestine protester in LA. A Jewish woman is stabbed at her home in France—a swastika scrawled on her door. A lynch mob in Russia storms an airport in search of a plane due to land from Tel Aviv. Pro-Palestine protesters in Australia chant “gas the Jews.” And countless other incidents—too many to list. 

These are not carelessly deployed antisemitic tropes. This is not a questionable prosthetic nose on a non-Jewish actor. This is not even antisemitism in the guise of anti-Zionism, though there is plenty of that as well. This is unapologetic, naked Jew hatred.

Since 1948, when antisemitism has made life for Jews intolerable where they are, they have often responded by moving to Israel—making aliyah. In 2015, for instance, after an attack on a kosher supermarket in Paris, around 7,900 French Jews immigrated to Israel—about double the amount of either the previous or the following year. 

We might therefore expect that the events of the past month will lead to a corresponding surge in aliyah from all four corners of the earth. 

Yet there is also reason to believe that such a surge will be tempered by the fear inspired by Hamas’ attack. Our ears are still ringing with the horror of the greatest security breach in Israeli history. Our faith in the IDF’s readiness is shaken. Our trust in the government’s ability to protect us is low. ,

Jewish life may feel increasingly untenable in the Diaspora, but life in Israel also feels precarious — our existence here like a knot that could be unraveled by a simple tug at one of the ends. 

Jewish life may feel increasingly untenable in the diaspora, but life in Israel also feels precarious—our existence here like a knot that could be unraveled by a simple tug at one of the ends. 

Scenarios that once seemed remote now seem plausible. Iran, drunk on the success of October 7th, decides to secure its position in the middle east by succeeding where Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria all failed—leading a renewed campaign to destroy the Jewish state once and for all. The world, awash in the colors of the Palestinian flag, cheers as the carnage unfolds. 

If there is no country in the world that is safe for Jews, the decision of where to live will need to be made on other terms. Perhaps a sense of duty will come into it. There are Jews who, like myself, feel it is their duty to be here in Israel. There are others who feel the same sense of duty towards the diaspora, dedicated to creating strong communities that can weather this storm of violence and hatred.

Not everyone is emotionally equipped for a life of running for cover at rocket sirens. Similarly, not everyone is emotionally equipped to live in a country where synagogues require armed guards.

The decision may also come down to psychological concerns. Not everyone is emotionally equipped for a life of running for cover during rocket sirens. Similarly, not everyone is emotionally equipped to live in a country where synagogues require armed guards. 

This dilemma is nothing other than the return of Jewish question of the 19th century, violently revived for our own time: what should be done about the Jews?

Zionism, it should be recalled, was posited as an answer to that question. Even after October 7th, I believe it still can be. The greatest of the Zionist thinkers understood that Israel as sanctuary, as fortress, and as refuge was not the most important thing. It was merely a necessary precondition for a greater vision, which is Israel as cultural center, as locus of spiritual renewal, and as the beating heart of Jewish peoplehood.

Security and survival must always be vital priorities for Jews in Israel and the diaspora, but in a world where there are no guarantees—where no land is truly safe for Jews—we may not want to make our decisions about where to live based the fear of Jewish death, but rather the love of Jewish life.


Matthew Schultz is a Jewish Journal columnist and rabbinical student at Hebrew College. He is the author of the essay collection “What Came Before” (Tupelo, 2020) and lives in Boston and Jerusalem.  

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