By Symi Rom-Rymer
When Helen Thomas declared recently that Jews have no place in Israel and should go home to Germany and Poland, she unleashed a current of outrage within the American Jewish community. How dare she suggest, they wondered, that Jews should return to the countries of ‘the Final Solution.’
From her comments, it was unclear if she meant that Jews should have been killed in the Holocaust or that they should simply go back to what she viewed as their ancestral homelands–never mind that Israeli Jews are from all over the world, including Israel itself. However, the reaction within the community to the suggestion of Germany and Poland demonstrates that for many American Jews, it amounts to the same thing. But, in fact, it is not. While her proposition is at best preposterous and at worst despicable, let us examine for a moment what exactly today’s Israeli Jews would discover waiting for them in Germany and Poland if they left Israel.
In Germany, they would find a progressive, stable democracy that has undergone an intense period of soul-searching regarding its Nazi period—an effort manifesting itself in all areas of society—from the arts to academia to politics. According to a recent American Jewish Committee (AJC) poll, 90% of “well-informed groups” (as defined by the AJC) as well as AJC leaders believe that Germany has made a “sincere effort to deal with the legacy of the Holocaust.” Even Holocaust survivors Elie Wiesel and former Knesset member Yosef Lapid have acknowledged Germany’s efforts. In an interview with Haaretz a few years ago, Lapid said, “it would be an injustice if Israel did not recognize that Germany has changed, that it is democratic and free.”
These hypothetical Israelis would also join the ranks of the roughly 60,000 (and growing) Israelis that already have German citizenship. Perhaps they, too, would choose to settle in Berlin, home of the largest Jewish community in Germany, and expand the ever-growing population of Israelis living there. They could worship freely at the numerous synagogues in the city, party with other Israeli Jewish expats in the hip Mitte neighborhood and be part of the flowering music and art scene. In Berlin, to paraphrase one young Israeli expat, they would be citizens of the world.
If Jews returned to Poland, they would find that it, too, has evolved over the past 7 decades. Its post-war history contributed to its significant difficulties in confronting its anti-Semitic past, but real change is discernable. Recent years have brought a rise in interest in Jewish life and culture, past and present, from the annual Krakow Festival of Jewish Culture to Polish-led Facebook efforts to commemorate the Holocaust. Many of these changes are being instigated by the younger generations who are acutely aware of their countries’ tangled Jewish-Polish history and are working to change the mindset of those around them. As Rabbi Michael Schudrich, the chief rabbi of Poland, said in an interview with The New York Times earlier this year, “The level of anti-Semitism remains unacceptable, but the image of the murderous Pole seared in the consciousness of many Jews after the war doesn’t correspond to the Poland of 2010.”
Thankfully, Ms. Thomas’ scenario will not come to pass. But if there is one good thing that could result from this incident, it would be the opportunity for American Jews to reexamine their worldview. The Germany and Poland of today are not the Germany and Poland of the 1930s and 1940s and do not deserve to continue to be treated as if nothing has changed since then. While the tragedies that took place there should always be remembered, American Jews should also recognize and celebrate the Jewish life that has risen from the ashes.
This is not to excuse the offensiveness of the comment or to paper over the real issues that do exist. Anti-Jewish and anti-Israel rhetoric occurs, especially in the wake of ongoing unrest in the Middle East but that does not mean that these countries have never evolved. Hateful incidents do happen but they are as contrary to the values of modern-day Germans and Poles as they are elsewhere in the West. Visiting or even settling in Germany or Poland as a Jew today is not a death sentence. So please, let’s stop treating it like one.
Symi Rom-Rymer writes and blogs about Jewish and Muslim communities in the US and Europe. She has been published in JTA, The Christian Science Monitor and Jewcy.