The notion that Jews are an endangered minority can be hard to fathom on a campus like Harvard’s. After all, who here doesn’t have a Jewish friend or professor? Indeed, living in a country like the United States, with its historically unprecedented low levels of anti-Semitism, the idea that Jews might face discrimination due to their national identity or religious beliefs seems like a relic of the distant past. But outside the Harvard bubble, Jews comprise just roughly 2% of Americans and only 0.2% of the world’s population. And unfortunately, discrimination against this tiny minority not only exists but is commonplace in many parts of the world.
Consider: Jews are fleeing Malmo, Sweden, where a local rabbi has been the victim of more than fifty anti-Semitic incidents in the six years he has lived there. In France, synagogues and Jewish community centers have been repeatedly fire-bombed. Amsterdam’s police force has resorted to using decoy Jews to track down anti-Semitic attackers because in many neighborhoods wearing a skullcap is reason enough to be assaulted. Elsewhere in Europe, anti-Semitic inscriptions on building walls are once again becoming frequent sights and Jewish cemeteries have been ransacked. In the 2009 Ukrainian elections, prominent academics blamed “the Zionists” for famine and poor economic conditions. In the former Soviet Republic of Moldova, where religiously inspired mobs have destroyed menorahs in the public square, the Jewish population has dwindled from 66,000 pre-World War II to 12,000. As we write, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez is employing anti-Semitic invective for political purposes, going so far as to Photoshop a Star of David onto an opponent’s lapel in the state-run press.
Some Harvard students have experienced anti-Semitism abroad personally: one of us, Anna, spent her high school years in Belgium and can attest to the hatred that thrived there. In the most striking instance, camp counselors watched passively as four teenage boys assaulted her for daring to wear a Jewish star. Ironically, some thirty years earlier, her parents had emigrated from the Soviet Union as political refugees in part due to rising anti-Jewish sentiment under an oppressive Communist regime. Her father recalls defending his smaller Jewish classmates from beatings and being himself barred from Moscow’s best universities despite having been awarded a medal of highest academic distinction upon graduating high school.
And the depressing list goes on. Facing such pervasive intolerance, Jews from around the world seek refuge in Israel--the only country with an open Jewish immigration policy that guarantees asylum to a population that so desperately needs it. Indeed, the vast majority of Israel’s early immigrants either faced persecution or were expelled from their homelands, both in Europe--where Zionist pioneers like Theodor Herzl advocated statehood in response to harsh anti-Semitism--and throughout the Middle East. In 1947-8, for instance, Arab countries expelled 800,000 Jews in retribution for the establishment of Israel, cruelly uprooting centuries-old communities. These Jews were absorbed by the nascent Jewish state. More recently, almost a million Russian Jews fled to Israel to escape the persecutions of the Soviet Union, while tens of thousands of other endangered Jews were airlifted by Israel out of Yemen and Ethiopia. And of course, countless Israelis are descended from Holocaust survivors. It is thus with some justification that the great Israeli author and peace advocate Amoz Oz has written that “Nocturnal Israel is a refugee camp with more nightmares per square mile I guess than any other place in the world. Almost everyone has seen the devil.”
Israel, in other words, is a haven for the most persecuted population in human history. It is the civilized world’s answer to the reality of rampant anti-Semitism across the globe. At a time when some on this campus would seek to turn the world’s only Jewish state into a binational non-Jewish state, rather than support a just two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians, this point cannot be stressed enough. For while there are many formidable arguments for Israel’s right to exist, few so starkly express the consequences of a world without a Jewish Israel. After all, if Israel did not exist, who would have saved the Jews of Africa, Europe and the Soviet Union? And who will provide guaranteed refuge for those now seeking to escape anti-Semitic oppression?
Of all peoples, Americans have traditionally supported Israel’s right to exist because we intuitively grasp its utter necessity. As an early ardent American Zionist once put it, Israel would be “a home for the homeless, a goal for the wanderer, an asylum for the persecuted.” That Zionist was Emma Lazarus, who also wrote the words inscribed upon our Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” What America has been to the world, Israel is to the Jews. Let us never forget that, even in the comfortable confines of our Harvard campus.
Anna V. Gommerstadt ‘13 is a computer science and mathematics concentrator in Mather House. Yair Rosenberg ‘11-’12 is a contributor at Via Meadia at The American Interest Online. Rachel E. Zax ‘12 is a mathematics concentrator in Adams House.