Published on The Times of Israel
Ideologies, “isms,” are holistic expositions of the universe. That’s why they’re so appealing. They cause scales to fall from eyes, revealing – apparently – how the engine of history truly operates. The catch, of course, is that ideologies are rigid, inflexible, deterministic. In turn, their adherents, in order to safeguard sacred truths, eventually stop responding to the here and now. That’s because it’s easier – or rather, less traumatizing – to mold reality to an elaborate conceptual framework rather than discard the framework and begin anew.
Alas, this captures the prevailing tendency of Jewry since the genesis of the Enlightenment. There’s no need to rehash the underpinnings of the Jewish people’s disproportionate and adamant affinity for liberalism in the modern era. It’s only critical to note that their readiness to replace the omnipotent and all-powerful Lord of Hosts with a secular faith in progress and reason blinded many of them, again and again, to darker, intractable facets of human nature. Indeed, civilization’s march toward utopia, contrary to their predictions and those of liberalism, has proven far from inevitable.
The dramatic resurgence of anti-Semitism, let alone a myriad of other forms of prejudice, in Europe should serve as a harsh reminder of this truth. Those on the left who swear by the perfectibility of man, however, will struggle to explain recent events. After all, postwar Europe is allegedly the apex of virtue and moral refinement, the closest humans have ever come to attaining heaven on earth. Pluralism, low-cost education, early retirement, and “free” healthcare reign supreme. What’s more, Europeans have been inundated with Holocaust education, human rights instruction, and anti-bigotry messaging for the better part of the past century. It’s difficult to walk more than several minutes on the continent without running into a plaque, memorial, or museum designed to slap Europeans across the face with their ancestors’ sins. And yet, despite all of this, indifference and evil remains.
The Jewish reaction to this state of affairs – naturally, given fidelity to the progressive spirit – has largely been bipolar, genuine anxiety peppered with an intense craving to envisage a brighter future. An illustrative case: David Harris’s February 15th blog post, “After Copenhagen, what next for Europe?” As a young American Jew who lived in Europe for a number of years, I’m led to contemplate whether Mr. Harris really believes what he says or – precisely because he’s an eminent representative of a broad swathe of Jewry – has convinced himself of what he needs to say.
True, Mr. Harris is far from starry-eyed about the prospects for European Jewry. “I’m not quite ready,” he declares, “to bet the family farm that the day after tomorrow will be all that different than the day before yesterday.” But lo and behold, he concludes by contending that it’s still worth fighting the fight – partnering with European leaders, pegging the source of anti-Semitism, expanding communications efforts, etc. – because “hope springs eternal.” As Jews should have learned by now, just because hope springs eternal, does not mean it needs to be eternally heeded.
I do sharply part ways with Mr. Harris when he echoes the sentiment of French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, avowing “anti-Semitism is not only an attack on Jews, but also an assault on Europe and its values.” Anti-Semitism is less an assault on Europe and its values than it is a product of (contemporary) Europe and its (contemporary) values. It’s tough, especially for the left-leaning, to admit that stripping from society historical sources of conflict – religion, nationality, tradition, and ethnicity – does not necessarily prevent conflict. The experiment of supranational multiculturalism undertaken by Europe after the crematoria and gas chambers has failed for the same reason that the bold enterprises of 1789, 1848, and 1917 failed: There are limits to the malleability of the human condition.
Mr. Harris, still grasping for rays of light, also refers to Europe’s “dazzling achievements” since the end of the Second World War. Tellingly, he neglects to cite examples. Perhaps it was implied that Europe not exploding for a third time in less than a hundred years has itself been a dazzling achievement. In that case, we set the bar far lower than I had imagined. So here’s the crux: The postwar European project cannot concurrently be both cause for extraordinary celebration and unprecedented fear.
Mr. Harris should stop beating himself up. “And yet, after 15 years,” he laments, more headway has not been made. It’s not the content of his messaging that’s off. He’s simply preaching to an audience that, in retrospect, was mainly unreceptive. A handful of European leaders have aptly acknowledged that Jewish departure from the continent will mark the insolvency of the postwar European project. The question now is whether Jews owe it to Europe to stick it out. In other words, is it worth waiting around on bloodied ground to prove the validity of liberalism, to prove that human nature and forty centuries replete with Jewish hatred will soon reverse course? I don’t think so.
Europe has many complex problems to resolve. Religion is dead (except for Islam), voluntary association is non-existent (except for football hooliganism), reproduction levels are far below replacement rate, and nihilistic behavior rages every night. If European Jews desire to pack their bags for Israel and America, I would encourage them to do so. For if the survival of the Jewish people is the ultimate goal, then we must reassess our priorities. This round, with the ominous, introductory notes to a familiar tune sounding, let us be brave enough to sacrifice our illusory beliefs rather than ourselves.