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Jews Always Have a Bag Packed: Coping with the Perpetual Nearness of Destruction

03/19/2015 01:22 pm ET | Updated May 18, 2015

"Do you have a bag packed?" Jeffrey Goldberg asks this timeless question of a prominent French philosopher and Holocaust survivor in an interview for a feature article in the current issue of the Atlantic. A spike in dangerous, street-level anti-Jewish activity in Europe and a deadly attack on a Paris Jewish market and its customers formed the backdrop for his inquiry. The question has deep resonance and familiarity for Jews and has its roots in thousands of years of dislocation. It implies a series of other questions that continue to drive global Jewish identity: Will Jewish people ever be safe as a tiny minority in worlds that are primarily defined by others? When things go bad, what allies will be reliable? And if staying put is not a viable option, where is it safe to go?

The risk and fear felt by European Jewry is especially poignant against the backdrop of the Israeli election that just took place. For some, the election was about security and survival in the face of imminent danger. For others, it was not just about protecting their nation from destruction. It was about fortifying that which makes it worth fighting for, including social and economic opportunity and a commitment to negotiated peace. A robust national debate concluded at the ballot box, and at least for the moment the Israeli people have made their choice. In sharp contrast, a defining reality of most of Jewish history is the lack of control over either matters of physical safety or matters of equity and opportunity. In other words, it is a history of living only at the pleasure of others.

Not even the Holocaust can explain why nearly every modern Jewish crisis is experienced as existential. Episodes of massacre, forced conversion and expulsion from places that had previously been safe have been utterly routine for more than 2,000 years. The pattern has played out nearly everywhere Jews have lived.

In the first millennium of the Common Era, such locales included Rome, Alexandria, Cyprus, Gaul, Iberia, and Constantinople. In the second millennium, without even mentioning the Nazis, you can add the Rhineland, Morocco, Tunisia, Granada, France, Yemen, Baghdad, Brussels, and Strasbourg. England expelled all of its Jewish population two hundred years before the better-known Spanish Inquisition. Add too Austria, Sicily, Portugal, Lithuania, Florence, Prague, Ukraine, Russia, and Afghanistan.

The strident and sometimes myopic attitude about security that some of Israel's most passionate supporters hold to tightly reflects a simple reality that for many in the Jewish world, 'never again' must primarily mean "never again to us." From this point of view, concern for conditions in the world at large is either a means to an end whereby Jewish life will be safer, or it is a luxury that the Jewish people cannot afford to prioritize. But the existential question is not just whether failing to maximize Jewish security would ensure total destruction. It is also whether prioritizing immediate physical safety at the expense of a broad set of other values will ultimately undermine the people in an equally irretrievable way. Even more complex is the evidentiary question of whether either approach is likely to produce greater security; or actually more likely to lead to the people's demise.

Anticipating the worst is a deeply ingrained element of Jewish identity. After all, when we tell the Passover story in a few weeks - the story of our descent from neighbors to slaves in Egypt - and then our delivery to freedom - we will read and reflect on the words from Exodus: "A new king arose in Egypt who did not know Joseph." After generations of acceptance by their Egyptian hosts, the tide turned against the Israelites in what may have seemed like an instant. And it was time to go.

However, resilience and endurance are also core attributes of Jewish identity. In the United States today, Jews have security, power and self-confidence that comes to from believing they can control their own destiny. For the Jews of France, the response of their government and their neighbors to the current crisis - and the length of their own memories - may be the deciding factors in their collective response to Goldberg's question.

Jewish Israelis of all political parties are driven by distinct visions of self-preservation for their people. Elections have consequences so we know something about which one they'll be getting in the near future. Regardless of which faction's doomsday scenario or blueprint for safety predominates at any given time, the diverse constituencies who feel a sense of urgency about Israel's existence as a Jewish homeland ask not "do you have a bag packed?" but "where else would you go?"