According to just-released FBI statistics, hate crimes in 2020 reached their highest level in 12 years. Of religion-based hate crimes, 57.5 percent of them were targeted at Jews, who only make up 2 percent of the U.S. population. These figures, along with disturbing attacks this summer on Jews by anti-Semitic thugs in New York, Florida, California, and other places, have rattled many American Jews. Though American Jews have long been comfortable in America, the sad history of world Jewry suggests that no home for the Jews can be considered permanent. Yet, as the countries that have expelled Jews or encouraged them to leave have learned, things usually got worse, not better, after Jewish populations departed.
Anti-Semitism has a long, ugly history, going back thousands of years. In the fifth through seventh centuries, for example, the Visigoths in Iberia mistreated Jews in various ways, including enslavement and restrictions against intermarriage. These restrictions redounded negatively upon the restrictionists. As Violet Moller writes in The Map of Knowledge, “an increasingly oppressive attitude to their subjects (especially Iberia’s large Jewish community) resulted in stagnation in almost all areas of life. Trade reduced dramatically, there was widespread urban depopulation, and culture shrank to such an extent that some historians have nicknamed them the Invisigoths.”
As Jews moved across Europe in the Middle Ages, expulsion became a repeated occurrence, with a multi-century discharge of Jews from England starting in 1290 and France driving out Jews in several waves in the 1300s. The most famous exodus in Christian Europe happened in Spain in 1492, under the monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella. Spanish Jews until then had been a flourishing community, producing poets, philosophers, and physicians. All that ended, to the eventual regret of both Christian Europe and Spain. Many of the expelled Jews moved to the Ottoman Empire, which, at the time, took a more welcoming attitude toward Jews.
Christians in other countries noticed their loss, and their rival's gain. In 1571, when Venice weighed expelling the Jews, a Venetian diplomat named Giovanni Soranzo successfully argued that doing so would benefit an enemy. As Soranzo put it, “Do you know what it may cost you in years to come? Who gave the Turk his strength, and where else would he have found the skilled craftsmen to make the cannon, bar, shot, swords, shields and bucklers . . . if not among the Jews expelled by the Kings of Spain?”
The twentieth century saw several examples of this phenomenon. Obviously, the most infamous example was Germany, which first discriminated against and then exterminated its Jewish population. Tens of thousands of Jews left Germany in the aftermath of the Nazi takeover—37,000 left in 1933 alone—including many top writers, professors, artists, and scientists. Losing many of the nation’s top minds hurt Germany in the war effort, including in its quest for an atomic weapon. As Scott Anderson wrote in The Quiet Americans, “It is one of the great ironies of history—an irony for which the world should be eternally grateful—that the malignant anti-Semitism of Adolf Hitler had caused more of these German-Jewish scientists to flee abroad by the mid-1930s, thus ending Germany’s lead in nuclear research and development.” As we now know, the United States—with the help of European Jewish scientists who fled Nazism such as John von Neumann, Leo Szilard, and, of course, Albert Einstein—won the race for a nuclear weapon and eventually the war.
The Holocaust ended in 1945, but state discrimination against Jews didn’t. After the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, Arab countries that had harbored Jewish populations for millennia began forcing out their Jews. They did this via expropriation, intimidation, and outright expulsion—and they did it with malice aforethought.
In 1947, an Egyptian delegate to the United Nations warned that if the UN went ahead with the partition plan creating a Jewish state of Israel alongside an Arab one, “The lives of 1 million Jews in Muslim countries would be jeopardized.” He was right. Egypt had a long-standing Jewish population of 75,000 people after World War II. Following the creation of Israel, Egyptian Jews endured arrests, property confiscations, bombings, and outright evictions. By the 1970s, the Jewish population of Egypt numbered in the mere hundreds. In Libya, where Jews had lived for 2,500 years, 38,000 Jews left amid pogroms and the burning of synagogues. Similar occurrences happened in Iraq, Tunisia, Syria, Yemen, and Algeria. All told, approximately 900,000 Jews were driven out of the Arab world.
The results, though, were arguably much worse for the expellers than the expelled. The journalist Lucette Lagnado, who herself fled with her family from Egypt, described what happened as a “cultural Holocaust.” The Jews were often multilingual business owners, with ties to Western countries and economies. The Jews had made Arab societies more open, and their departures brought with them significant losses in human capital and connectivity to the rest of the world, with damaging consequences for Arab economic development.
Another nation that lost out because of how it treated its Jews was the Soviet Union. The Communist regime mistreated, discriminated against, and imprisoned its Jews, leading them to clamor for expatriation. The era of glasnost and the fall of the USSR led more than 1 million Jews to leave in the late 1980s and 1990s for Israel, where they have helped create Israel’s “Startup Nation” economic miracle. Israeli tech leaders with Soviet origins include Demisto’s Slavik Markovich, Twistlock’s Dima Stopel, Luminate Security’s Leonid Belkind, Guardicore’s Pavel Gurvich, and Lightricks’s Zeev Farbman. Another Soviet Jew, Sergey Brin, came to America and cofounded Google.
Even North America, for all the benefits it has provided its Jews, is not immune to this negative development. In the 1970s, Canadian Jews, wary of the Québécois movement and its less-than-friendly attitude toward Jews, left Montreal for Toronto. An estimated 10,000 Jews decamped from Montreal to Toronto from 1976 to 1985. They weren’t the only ones. Many non-Jewish Anglophones left, too, and a number of major financial institutions relocated as well. The institutions did not openly admit that the Québécois challenge led to their moves, but the reason for the Jewish migration was clear. As the late political scientist Stephen Clarkson wrote in Uncle Sam and Us: Globalization, Neoconservatism, and the Canadian State, “no one denied that Montreal lost a large part of its anglophone, and particularly its Jewish population which emigrated westward to what they felt were politically safer sites.” Toronto has surpassed Montreal in population and GDP and is now Canada’s leading city.
Despite the problematic recent rise of anti-Semitic violence, America today is clearly nowhere near emulating these previous examples. Yet, as the Canada experience shows, Jews are willing to move not only between nations but within nations if they feel the need. The three states with the largest Jewish populations at the start of the twentieth century were New York, Pennsylvania, and Illinois. New York remains at the top, but California and Florida are now second and third, respectively. These shifts came largely because of the attractions of better weather and economic opportunity, but future shifts could result from more negative reasons. Should Jews feel unprotected in urban environments where public officials don’t take anti-Semitic incidents seriously, they might begin leaving those areas for more welcoming places.
The new hate crimes figures, as well as the recent and insufficiently denounced anti-Semitic incidents, are worrisome to the Jewish community, and should be disturbing to the nation as a whole. America’s Jews will continue monitoring the situation closely. It doesn’t take concentration camps or expulsion orders to send Jews looking for happier pastures. All that’s needed is for a government and its police forces to look away as Jews get attacked in the streets. We should all hope that the day never comes when the U.S. has to say, as other countries said before it, “We should have kept those Jews.”