As the specter of European anti-Semitism raises its head once again, a global community hungry for answers turns its weepy eyes to … Bill Nye the Science Guy? Nye had the misfortune to be on the panel for HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher on Friday when the topic came up, raised by the host and addressed most ably (relatively speaking) by guest Rob Reiner. Reiner explained that anti-Semitism, like racism, really never goes away, but ebbs and flows over time depending on the political climate. Maher then notes with a tinge of melancholy the invitation from Benjamin Netanyahu for Jews to “come home” to Israel, which is when Nye decides to interject his historical cliché into the conversation:
MAHER: Yeah, I mean, Netanyahu is asking European Jews to come to Israel and …
NYE (wryly): Come home to Israel — that’s what he said, right?
MAHER: Well, I mean, he is the …
NYE (interrupting again): But you never, the people have never been there. They live, grew up in whatever, in Germany or France.
MAHER: It’s a shame that they should have to move, uh …
NYE: Well, they probably won’t either, ’cause it’s not their home, you know.
REINER: But you can understand it. There were German Jews that lived in Germany during the Second World War and that was their home. And, you know, at a certain point, you know, if your live is in danger, you want to go to someplace where you’re going to be protected.
NYE: So, what do you do about it? I think you get to know your neighbors. And it’s gonna take, what, does it take a century, something like that?
There are multiple layers of irony in this conversation. First, in no part of this conversation does the threat from militant Islamists arise as the primary issue in today’s European anti-Semitism. Unlike the 1930s, the governments in Europe are not imposing anti-Semitic laws or are particularly hostile to the presence of Jewish communities. In fact, where the violence has occurred in France and Denmark, the governments have gone out of their way to declare their Jews to be integral to their culture, although it’s not a sentiment shared universally in Europe. Instead, one of the other panelists remarks on the rise of far-right political parties, which tend to be more anti-immigrant in general, and of course which had nothing to do with the targeted violence against Jews over the past few weeks — the catalyst for Netanyahu’s invitation.
It’s difficult to tell in that context whether Nye’s hostile to Jews or just ignorant. Reiner doesn’t seem particularly happy with Nye’s suggestion that Israel isn’t home for Jews (he looks pretty incensed about it in the video), and neither is Jeff Dunetz, who explains further:
It’s a basic tenet of Judaism, that Israel is our home and that ultimately all Jews will return to the holy land. In fact, one of the themes of the Passover Seder is that as Jews we can never be truly free unless we are in Israel. …
During the Holocaust hundreds of thousands of Jews, maybe even millions could have been saved but no country wanted to take us in…not the U.S. (FDR thought the country had enough Jews), not the U.K. who not only banned more Jews in England, but also banned us from the holy land.
It is one of the roles of the Jewish State, as long as there is an Israel, Jews have a place to go. As long as there is an Israel, there will always be someone to protect the Jews.
If only the engineer turned climate expert looked at the history of Europe, that Jews have been living there for over two thousand years getting to know their neighbors, perhaps he wouldn’t have blamed the Jews for the Antisemitism in Europe.
Is Nye’s response anti-Semitic, blaming the victim? Your mileage may vary, but at the very least it’s a Summer of Love cliché that ignores centuries of attempted integration by Jews in Europe, with sometimes disastrous results. In one breath Nye says that Europe is the only home they know, and in the next suggests that they aren’t really part of Europe at all. Furthermore, the problem of insularity isn’t so much a Jewish problem as it is with the Muslims who only recently began emigrating in large numbers to Europe — perhaps especially so in France and Germany. Oh, if only those silly Jews would be more friendly with their neighbors, Nye’s argument goes, then no one would have an irrational hatred for them — which suggests that anti-Semitism is the Jews’ fault, and that it’s their responsibility to crack the insularity of whatever communities are generating it.
In large part, the problem exists because Europeans allow for that kind of insularity from every group but the Jews. Barack Obama got it right when he scolded Europe over their lack of cultural pressure for assimilation, an expectation of which gets placed on Jews (as this video shows pretty clearly) while multicultural tolerance gets expressed to everyone else.
Finally, most European Jews probably have never lived in Israel, and many may never have traveled there. But if that’s the only place where they can feel free to live safely as Jews (although the US and Canada are certainly among the alternatives), then that will most definitely be home to them.