Theorizing Modernities article

Unasking Europe’s Jewish Question

Arch of Constantine, Rome, Italy. Photo Credit: Flickr User Carole Raddato. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

1. “Oh, What a Tangled Web We Weave”

The Last Europeans”: a tantalizing and enigmatic title for an exhibition! The subject is brought into sharper focus by the subtitle, “Jewish perspectives on the crises of an idea,” along with the description on the Jewish Museum Hohenems’ website: “75 years after the end of World War II, Europe is threatened by a relapse into nationalist and xenophobic ideologies.” This is the selfsame crisis to which Romano Prodi alluded in a keynote address which, as President of the European Commission, he gave in February 2004 at a seminar in Brussels. “The European idea,” said Prodi, “was based on the firm determination to make sure the Europe of the future would be different—a Europe of peace, tolerance and respect for human rights.” Different from what? Different from the Europe of the past, the old Europe of war and atrocity. “The horror of the Shoah and the terrible loss of life caused by the Second World War,” Prodi explained, “deeply marked Europe’s founding fathers …” (That is to say, the founders of the new Europe that he represents.) “The Europe of today,” said Prodi towards the end of his Brussels speech, “is not the Europe of the 1930s and 1940s.” He added: “We must never forget what happened then, because remembering the past is a way of ensuring that such terrible events never recur.”  So, if “the European idea” is in crisis, it is because Europe is in danger of not remembering its terrible past—and forgetting that it has rejected it.

But remembering can also be problematic; a lot turns on how we remember. In his keynote address in Brussels, Prodi recalled that “the first thing I did after my investiture as President of the European Commission was to visit Auschwitz.” Not for one moment would I criticize this; quite the contrary. But if there is a crisis of Europe today, it is due in part to the way in which Europe—new Europe, Prodi’s Europe—remembers Auschwitz and, more generally, remembers the Jewish Question. Moreover, Europe’s Jewish Question leads, via Zionism, to the question of Palestine and Israel: this is one of the threads in the tangled web we weave.

The crisis of Europe into which Jews are woven is simultaneously a crisis in Judaism: this is the wager of my argument. But I should warn you that the argument presented here is a work in progress. My thoughts on the subject are somewhat raw and not yet fully organized. A remark of Rabbi Tarfon’s from the Mishnah comes to mind: “You are not obliged to complete the task, but neither are you free to give it up” (490). It takes more than one lecture to disentangle the web in which all of us—including Jews and Palestinians—are caught.

2. Europe and the Jewish Question

I am writing these words from my home in Hackney. Given that my focus is on Europe’s Jewish Question, Hackney is not an inappropriate place to be. Having been kicked out of England by King Edward I in 1290, Jews had to wait until 1656 before Oliver Cromwell let them back in. Within 20 years, a certain Isaac Alvares, a Sephardi Jew, bought a house in Homerton, which today is part of Hackney.[1] Hackney also includes the district of Stamford Hill, which has the largest population of Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) Jews in Europe. Strolling on the local streets and in Clissold Park, you discover that Yiddish is not a dead language. What is more, my mother was born in Hackney and my father probably too. (When we were growing up, my parents spoke Yiddish to each other—but only when they didn’t want the children to understand what they were saying!) The school they went to (Newington Green) is up the road from where Reva and I live. My life is here. In short, if I can call any place on this planet heim (home), it is, precisely, here.

But Benjamin Netanyahu, the former Prime Minister of Israel, begs to differ. He thinks I am under a misapprehension. He said as much in January 2015, following the deadly attacks that took place in Paris at the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and, two days later, at the Jewish supermarket Hyper Kasher (Super Kosher). Speaking on television from his office in Jerusalem, Netanyahu cordially extended an invitation to his Jewish audience: “To all the Jews of France, all the Jews of Europe, I would like to say that Israel is not just the place in whose direction you pray, the State of Israel is your home.”  Home: that is to say, the place where, as Jews, we belong. He warmed to his theme. “All Jews who want to immigrate to Israel,” he said expansively, “will be welcomed here warmly and with open arms.” (This, of course, depends on whether they meet the criteria used by Israel for determining who is a Jew; but let’s put that to one side.) A few days later, having got back from attending the funeral in Paris for the four French Jews murdered at the supermarket, he expanded on his offer, making it clear that it was more than a mere offer. He did concede that “Jews have the right to live in many countries,” but went on to say: “But I believe that they know deep in their hearts that they have only one country, the State of Israel, the historic homeland that will accept them with open arms, like beloved children.” “Today, more than ever,” he continued, “Israel is our true home.” “Our” meaning Jews in general; for example, me. “True” implying that any other place that a Jewish person might call “home” is not really home; for example, Hackney. His cordial invitation to “all the Jews of Europe” is more like a directive than an invitation. He is saying, in effect: “Pack your bags and take the next El Al flight to Ben Gurion Airport” (which I, by the way, remember as Lod Airport; that shows my age!). On this view of the Jewish future, Hackney and Hohenems, Paris and Vienna, and every other place on the map of Europe, are but staging posts on the road to Jerusalem. If Netanyahu had his way, we European Jews would end up being the last Jewish Europeans. Coming home to Israel, we would be the last Jews to bid Europe adieu.

Haredi man walks in Stamford Hill, Hackney, N16. Photo Credit: Flickr User Dario. CC BY-SA 2.0.

But would we leave Europe behind? What is Europe? Zygmunt Baumann, at a session in the first of the Vienna Conversations (hosted by the Bruno Kreisky Forum), defined Europe as the “north-western peninsula of the Asiatic continent.” That is a pretty nifty definition of where Europe is located on the globe. By this definition, the strip of land on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean that used to be called Palestine and which today is called Israel is not part of Europe. But there is another way of defining Europe, which has led important figures in the Zionist movement to a different conclusion. Their concept of Europe is not about geography but about culture or civilization. This is a huge subject and I am at a loss as to where to start. Needing help, I turn, of course, to that classic Jewish source: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The Sound of Music.”

“The Sound of Music,” to be frank, is not one of my favorite musicals. But the song “Do Re Mi,” irritating as it is, asserts a useful maxim. In the opening line, Maria (played by Julie Andrews in the 1965 film version) intones: “Let’s start at the very beginning/A very good place to start.” Applying Maria”s maxim, I shall start with Theodor Herzl”s Der Judenstaat (“The State of the Jews” or, as it is usually translated, “The Jewish State”), published in 1897. There were earlier Jewish writers who anticipated Herzl, but it is not unreasonable to treat his pamphlet as “the very beginning” of political Zionism. Now, everyone is familiar with the title. But the subtitle, “An Attempt at a Modern Solution of the Jewish Question,” tends to be overlooked. Yet it is the key that unlocks the whole text. It tells us that the text provides an answer to a question that it asks: the so-called Jewish Question. It is my contention that in asking this question, Herzl legitimized it, and in legitimizing it he went wrong from the very beginning. For the purposes of thinking about the Jewish political future, it was a very bad place to start. A better way to start would have been to question the Question; to query the process that led to Jews being constituted, collectively, as a question or problem. But Herzl took the Jewish Question at face value; and one writer after another, Jewish as well as non-Jewish, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries fell into this trap. We are, I believe, still ensnared by the Jewish Question—a point to which I shall return later.

If Netanyahu had his way, we European Jews would end up being the last Jewish Europeans. Coming home to Israel, we would be the last Jews to bid Europe adieu.

Despite its name, the Jewish Question was not a Jewish question as such; it was a European question, whose subject was the Jews. Herzl, a child of the Austro-Hungarian empire, wrote about it precisely as a European. Moreover, he saw the world through late-nineteenth-century European eyes. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the section “Palestine or Argentina,” where he weighs the pros and cons of each of these two locations as alternative sites for his Judenstaat. It is clear which he prefers: Palestine, and he muses, “We should there form a portion of the rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism.” (He continues: “We should as a neutral State remain in contact with all Europe, which should have to guarantee our existence” [96]. With hindsight, this seems remarkably portentous.) To the ears of European chauvinists, his rousing words would have been the sound of music.

To put it another way, Herzl wove Europe into the very fabric of “the Jewish state.” And one Zionist thinker after another, on the left as well as the right of the movement, reproduced this pattern of thinking. Here are a few examples. Max Nordau was even more strident than Herzl, his associate. “We will endeavour to do in the Near East what the English did in India,” he averred, speaking at an early Zionist Congress. “It is our intention to come to Palestine as the representatives of culture and to take the moral borders of Europe to the Euphrates River” (150). (He said nothing about the immoral borders of Europe.) Or consider the testimony of David Ben-Gurion, leader of the democratic socialist political party Mapai, the first Prime Minister of Israel (and the man after whom Lod Airport was renamed). Writing to George Antonius, the Arab nationalist, he clarified what the intentions of the Zionist movement were. He said: “We want to return to the East only in the geographic sense, for our objective is to create here a European culture ….” When Shlomo Ben-Ami, the former Israeli foreign minister, quotes this remark in his book Scars of War, Wounds of Peace, he comments:  “Ben-Gurion was expressing the core essence of Zionism, not merely a personal view” (19). That is to say, the “core essence of Zionism” places the “Jewish state” on the map of Europe—a cultural, not geographical, map. This “core essence” was encapsulated by Ehud Barak, a former Labour Prime Minister of Israel, in his trademark orientalist image of the State of Israel as “a villa in the jungle.” On the opposite political wing, a prominent Likud politician has made the same point, but more prosaically: “We are a part of the European culture. Europe ends in Israel. East of Israel, there is no more Europe.” The speaker was Benjamin Netanyahu, four years ago, at a meeting in Budapest of Eastern European leaders.

Despite its name, the Jewish Question was not a Jewish question as such; it was a European question, whose subject was the Jews.

So, it is not Herzl alone who weaves the thread of Europe into the very fabric of “the Jewish state.” It is a staple of Zionism as a political ideology, from the very beginning to the present day. This is why Israel belongs on the agenda of an exhibition called “The Last Europeans,” especially one that is mounted by a Jewish museum. Israel, in its own eyes, or in the eyes of its founding political ideology, is the last outpost of Europe. This makes its citizens the last (or at least the latest) Europeans—although some of its citizens, such as Mizrahi Jews from north Africa or Iraq, need to be “Europeanized,” while others are altogether excluded from the tent: the Palestinians. For there is one other thread with a place name that is woven into the fabric of “the Jewish state” and which is no less part of the “core essence” of Zionism: Zion. The intertwining of these two threads (Europe and Zion) is what led to the passage in 2018 of the Basic Law defining Israel as “the nation-state of the Jewish people,” a definition of Israel that leaves out about one-fifth of the Israeli population: those who are not Jewish. Thus, through Zionism, the Palestinians are caught up in Europe’s Jewish Question. It is tempting to say that, in Israel, the Jews have become Europeans and the Palestinians have become Jews. I shall resist the temptation—just. Nevertheless, the Palestinian predicament in “the Jewish state,” the “modern solution to the Jewish Question,” shows just how tangled is the web we weave.

3. In the Footsteps of Moses?

Zionism is a new idea. But “Zion” is, of course, an old word. It is a term of art in the Hebrew Scriptures, where, originating as the name of a hill (Mount Zion), it is used as a synecdoche or synonym for the city of Jerusalem and ultimately for the whole of eretz Yisroel (the land of Israel). In Philosophical Investigations, Ludwig Wittgenstein remarks: “Uttering a word is like striking a note on the keyboard of the imagination” (4). The name “Zionism” is a case in point. It does more than denote an idea or an ideology. It resonates in hearts and minds. It evokes an entire cultural heritage that goes by the name of “Judaism.” Moreover, it invokes this heritage: it hitches its wagon to the story of the Israelites told in the Tanakh (the core text of Judaism) beginning in the Torah (the core text of the Tanakh) with the exodus from Egypt and the trek across the wilderness to the land of Canaan. Zionism, which originally and predominantly has understood itself to be secular, tends to treat this story as a Jewish national epic, a mixture of history and myth. It positions itself as the latest episode in this epic story—as if the likes of Herzl, Nordau, Ben Gurion, Barak, and Netanyahu were following in the footsteps of Moses. None of this might be spelt out in Zionist texts, but it is how the word, across the religious-secular divide, plays on the keyboard of the Jewish imagination, especially for Jews since 1945, living in the aftermath of a Nazi genocide that almost wiped them—us—out.

Moses parting the Red Sea. Photo Credit: Flickr User Bjørn Bulthius. CC BY-SA 2.0.

“Zionism as following in the footsteps of Moses”: it is a potent image. I would like to put it to the test by conducting a thought experiment based on the set of quotes from Herzl et al. discussed above. It is the summer of 1395 BCE. Moses, Hebrew prince of Egypt, is sitting in his royal chamber in Pharaoh”s palace, a large goblet of dark red Nile wine within easy reach, reed brush in hand, and a strip of bare papyrus laid out on the desk in front of him. In the manner of Herzl, he is composing a political pamphlet about the future of the Children of Israel. He proposes that the oppressed Israelites should leave Egypt and form a state of their own, free from the servitude that for centuries they have endured. As I peer through the mists of time, I seem to be able to make out the title of Moses’ pamphlet. Translated into modern English, it is: The Israelite State: An Attempt at an Ancient Solution of the Israelite Question. It includes a section “Canaan or Assyria,” where he weighs the pros and cons of each of these two locations as alternative sites for the Promised Land. We can imagine that he prefers Canaan. But can we imagine Moses writing (in the idiom of Herzl): “We should there form a portion of the rampart of Egypt against Asia”? I think not. Or this (in the idiom of Nordau): “It is our intention to come to Canaan as the representatives of culture and to take the moral borders of Egypt to the Euphrates River”? Or saying (like Ben Gurion) that in Canaan “our objective is to create an Egyptian culture”? Finally, are we able to contemplate Moses telling the Children of Israel (à la Netanyahu): “We are a part of the Egyptian culture. Egypt ends in Canaan. East of Canaan, there is no more Egypt”? The mind boggles.

For Moses, liberation from oppression in Egypt did not mean carrying Egyptian culture on the shoulders of the Israelites through the wilderness and replanting it in Canaan. The story of the exodus from Egypt is about a radical rupture from a dominant culture—not a project of importing that culture into another territory. The parting of the Red Sea signified a clean break with Egypt: it meant leaving Egypt behind, not just physically but culturally. (The Book of Exodus dramatizes this idea by stipulating that only the Hebrews, not the Egyptians, have safe passage through the channel.) Furthermore, for 40 years the people wander around in the wilderness. Why? They had basically one job to do, whether they did it simply by dying or by any other means: lose their Egyptianness. In short, Herzl was no Moses. The spirit of Zionism could hardly be more antithetical to the spirit of the biblical Exodus, the story that lies at the heart of the identity of am Yisroel, the Jewish people.

In Philosophical Investigations, Ludwig Wittgenstein remarks: ‘Uttering a word is like striking a note on the keyboard of the imagination.’ The name ‘Zionism’ is a case in point. It does more than denote an idea or an ideology. It resonates in hearts and minds. It evokes an entire cultural heritage that goes by the name of ‘Judaism.’  

I said earlier that the Jewish Question was not a Jewish question as such; it was a European question about the Jews. Zionism was conceived as an answer to this European question; and the answer, a political ideology configured along ethno-national lines, is as European as the question. But, over time, especially since the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, Zionism has come to be understood as an answer to a Jewish Jewish Question: the question “Who or what is am Yisroel, the Jewish people ?” Or “What does being Jewish mean?” Or “What is Judaism?” Britain’s current Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, calls Zionism “one of the axioms of Jewish belief.” In an op-ed for The Telegraph, he wrote: “One can no more separate it [Zionism] from Judaism than separate the City of London from Great Britain.” “Open a Jewish daily prayer book [siddur] used in any part of the world,” he wrote, “and Zionism will leap out at you.” It is as if Zionism lies in wait on the page, ready to spring out and grab a reader by the throat. It is a startling image, one that could keep sensitive Jewish children awake at night, or at least persuade them never to open a siddur! But Rabbi Mirvis is not unrepresentative of mainstream Jewish thought on both sides of the religious-secular divide. Judaism today, in much of the Jewish world, has recentred itself on Zionism.

4. “The Nationalization of Judaism”

Let me illustrate the point with a domestic anecdote. When my partner Reva and I got married, I visited the Beth Din, the court of the Chief Rabbi, to deal with some paperwork. As I entered the building, my eye was caught by a framed poster on the wall that included a list of the six core “values” of the United Synagogue, the largest organization of Orthodox synagogues in the UK. Five items on the list were values that would have been familiar (in some shape or form) to Jews anywhere and at any time in history: “spiritual growth and practice,” “lifelong Jewish learning,” and so on. But the sixth stood out as something new: “the centrality of Israel in Jewish life”—as if this were on the same level as the other five values. Moreover, the United Synagogue evidently saw no tension between this item and the first on the list: “the welcoming of every Jew” into the synagogal community—as if necessarily every Jew puts the State of Israel at the center of Jewish life.

At the same time, the State of Israel itself has appropriated Judaism—or at least the Jewish people—to Zionism. So, for example, Netanyahu visited France a few years ago, in an official capacity, to take part in a ceremony commemorating the roundup of Jews by the police in Vichy in 1942. He presented himself as speaking “on behalf of the State of Israel, on behalf of the Jewish people,” thus conflating the two. (The conflation of the Jewish people and the State of Israel is the minimum definition of Zionism as a political ideology.) This conflation is, essentially, the meaning of the nation-state law, to which I referred earlier. Yaacov Yadgar, Professor of Israel Studies at the University of Oxford, sums this up as “the nationalization of Judaism.” His meticulous analysis exposes how this “nationalization” has created, in his phrase, “Israel’s Jewish identity crisis” (the title of his book published last year). But, as we have seen, the crisis caused by the interweaving of Zion and Europe is not Israel’s alone. It is also a crisis of Judaism. “Oh, what a tangled web we weave.”

5. Unasking the Jewish Question

The web we weave is even more tangled than this. For, if the thread of Europe is woven into the fabric of “the Jewish state,” the thread of Judaism (or the Jews) is woven into the idea of Europe—and has been from the very beginning. To get our bearings, I shall do the opposite of what Maria’s maxim advises: I shall start at the very end—in the present—and look back down the centuries. I shall paint with the broadest possible brushstrokes, not with the careful craftsmanship that a good historian would bring to the task. But I am no historian. I am trying to see the wood for the trees. I expect we all are. Inevitably, this means not seeing most of the trees; or seeing only enough of them to enable us to infer the contours of the wood, its overall shape. I am trying to get the hang of the larger picture, so we can see ourselves within it. And, seeing ourselves, plan our future. If we can get the so-called Jewish Question into focus, if we can understand what it is that has driven this Question in the past and what the Question itself is driving in the present, then we might be in a position to alter the course of history as it turns from past into future. Unless we intervene, this process happens automatically. Our future is the writing on the wall, and it is written by history. If we want to alter the text of the future, then we have to decipher the writing. If we want to unsnare ourselves from the Jewish Question, it is not enough to refrain from asking it, we have to unravel it and then repudiate it: we have to unask it. Ultimately, this is a collective and political project.

Panificio del Ghetto. Pitigliano, Tuscany. Photo Credit: Flickr User Eric Huybrechts. CC BY-ND 2.0.

Beginning at the end, let’s home in on a portion of the landmark speech that Romano Prodi gave in 2004. His subject is “the Jews of Europe.” He refers to them as “the first, the oldest Europeans” and as “Europe’s archetypal minority.” Everyone, he suggests, should emulate the Jews. “We, the new Europeans, are just starting to learn the complex art of living with multiple allegiances,” he says, whereas the Jews “have been forced to master this art since antiquity.” He is unstinting with his praise for the Jews: despite being persecuted, “they have made an immense contribution to European culture,” not only as individuals “but also as a community.” Thus, the Jews, collectively, are twice over a model. “The values that have guided them through the centuries,” says Prodi, “have provided a reference for us.” (Note that the entire passage is structured by the grammar of “us” and “them.”) Given the centuries of denigration and vilification, there is something wondrous about this testimonial to “the Jews of Europe.” But it is also somehow unsettling; it certainly makes me, as a European Jew, uncomfortable. Once again, Jews as a group, are being singled out. Where we Jews were once negated, now we are affirmed, lifted out of Europe’s gutter and placed on a pedestal. Setting out to right a wrong, Prodi reproduces the very essence of that wrong: setting us Jews apart as a group with a set of traits that we possess collectively by virtue of being Jewish and which make us larger than life. This is another variation on the theme of Jewish otherness.

If we want to unsnare ourselves from the Jewish Question, it is not enough to refrain from asking it, we have to unravel it and then repudiate it: we have to unask it. Ultimately, this is a collective and political project.

The phrase “the Jewish Question” became current in the nineteenth century, along with equivalent phrases that refer to other groups; for example, the Armenian Question, the Macedonian Question, the Irish Question, the Belgian Question, the Polish Question, and so on. All such questions, including the Jewish one, tend to be lumped together under the broad heading of “the National (or Nationalities) Question.” But this is misleading. The Jews were not simply another case of a European nation whose future on the political map of modern Europe was the subject of a question. On the contrary, whether the Jews collectively are a nation in the modern (European) sense was moot: it was an integral part of the Question. And, while this also applied to certain other groups, the case of the Jews was radically different. Their collective status was seen as problematic by Europe for a thousand years or more before the political formations that were the subject of the National Question in the nineteenth century came into being.

6. The Jewish Question is a European Question

I noted earlier that the Jewish Question is a European question about Jews. But, although ostensibly about Jews, ultimately it is about Europe: it is about Europe via the question of the Jews. It always has been, ever since antiquity and the days of the original European Union (as it were), the one whose capital city was Rome. The very beginning of this story is the conversion to Christianity of Flavius Valerius Constantinus, otherwise known as Constantine the Great, emperor of Rome. Constantine converted on his deathbed, and his conversion was perhaps his most significant legacy for Europe—and for the Jews. From this point on, Europe (by any other name) uses the Jews to define itself. The question, which we might rename “the European Question,” was this: What is Europe? Answer: not Jewish. Down the centuries, as Europe’s idea of itself changed, there were variations on the theme of this answer. Prodi’s answer is the opposite: What is Europe? Jewish. Different answers, same question.

In short, the Jewish Question existed as an issue for Europe avant la lettre. Seen as being in Europe but not of Europe, the Jews were the original “internal Other,” the alien Them to the European Us. First, in antiquity, Judaism was the foil against which Europe defined itself as Christian. Later, in the eighteenth century, the Jews were (as Adam Sutcliffe puts it in his book Judaism and the Enlightenment) “the Enlightenment’s primary unassimilable Other” (254). Esther Romeyn explains: “For the Enlightenment, with its investment in universalism and civilization, the Jew was a symbol of particularism, a backward-looking, pre-modern tribal culture of outmoded customs and religious tutelage” (92). Then, in the following century, the symbol flipped: “For a nationalism based on roots, the distinctiveness of cultures, and allegiance to a shared past, the Jew was an uprooted nomad or a suspect ‘cosmopolitan’ aligned with ‘abstract reason rather than roots and tradition’” (92). That is to say, Europe saw itself as a patchwork quilt of ethnic nationalities and the question arose: “How do the Jews fit in? Do they fit in? If they do not, what is to be done with them or with their Jewishness?” This was the Jewish Question in the nineteenth century. The National Question was about ethnic difference and how Europe should deal with it. The Jewish Question was about the alien within —so deep within as to be internal to Europe’s idea of itself.[2] The title of the latest book by Adam Sutcliffe, What Are Jews For?, is apropos. We Jews have played the role in Europe of being the reference point for “the idea of Europe” in any given period, as if this is what we are for. We still play that role. Prodi and Project Europe have changed the answer, but not the Question.

7. A Double Whammy for the Palestinians

Inevitably, if subliminally, there is a knock-on effect experienced by the Palestinians: they tend to be cast as the negative to the Jewish positive. I ran into this in a rather vivid way in my encounters with the radical left faction known as the Antideutsch. The first time was when I came to Berlin to give a talk on antisemitism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A man in the audience stood up after I had finished speaking and, addressing me, said: “To me, everything you have said is antisemitic.” I was gobsmacked. I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or to be offended. The only way I knew how to answer him was to try to get him to see how weird the situation was. On the one hand, there was me: Jewish by any reckoning, with relatives who had perished in the Shoah. On the other hand, there was him: a White non-Jewish German denouncing me in Berlin as antisemitic! “I will dine out on this story for years,” I told him. And I have done so. My second brush with the Antideutsch came when The Jewish Museum Berlin invited me to give a public lecture on antisemitism to mark the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht (Pogromnacht). A certain campaigner against antisemitism—again White, German, non-Jewish, left-wing—launched an international campaign to get me disinvited. He compiled a 25-page dossier in which 17 handpicked, high-profile people took turns to say how reprehensible I am. What brought this about? The sole trigger in both anecdotes was my critique of Zionism as an idea and criticism of Israel as a state. That’s it, full-stop.

We Jews have played the role in Europe of being the reference point for ‘the idea of Europe’ in any given period, as if this is what we are for. We still play that role. Prodi and Project Europe have changed the answer, but not the Question.

What does this signify? To begin with, the Antideutsch are more Deutsch than they think. I am thinking when I say this of developments like the Bundestag passing legislation in May 2019 criminalizing boycotts directed at Israel. But it is not Germany alone. It seems to me that there is a wider tendency in Europe—new Europe—to ringfence Israel and Zionism, protecting them from criticism that goes at all deep, as if this were the way to reckon with Europe’s Nazi past; as if this were the lesson to learn from Auschwitz; as if this were how to obey the imperative “Never forget!” But actually it is just another way of failing to treat Jews collectively as normal human beings, with dire ramifications for others. In the old Europe, Jews paid the ultimate price for the Jewish Question with the Shoah. As the Shoah led to the Nakba, the cost was transferred to the Palestinians. Now the Palestinians are paying the price again. They pay twice over: once for Jews being the stigmatized Other of Europe and a second time for Jews being the valorized Other of Europe.[3] First they pay the price for the antisemitic exclusion of Jews in Europe. Then they pay for their anti-antisemitic inclusion. Heads they lose, tails they lose. It is a double whammy, where both whammies are the consequence of Europe’s immersion in its own Question. “Oh, what a tangled web we weave.”

8. To Be Continued

How do we disentangle this web? How do we overwrite the writing on the wall? How do we unask the Jewish Question? How should I end this essay? This time, Do Re Mi is no help: Maria has no maxim about a very good place to end. I shall simply have to stop in mid-air.



[1] He bought it in the name of his children Deborah and Abraham. See here and here.

[2] It is significant that the Question was essentially about European Jewry, which was (and is) predominantly Ashkenazi. The status and treatment of Mizrachi Jews—mainly Jews from southern Asia and northern Africa—was an appendix to the Jewish Question, just as it was for Zionism; and for the same reason: both the Question and Zionism are quintessentially European phenomena. (Events in the Jewish world after the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, plus the current demographics of the state, have affected the character of Zionism, but do not contradict the assertion that Zionism was planted and nurtured in European soil.)

[3]  Compare: “The rejection of anti-Semitism and the political integration of Jews into the Western world did not lead to a dissolution of their alterity but, paradoxically, to its valorization” (Enzo Traverso, The End of Jewish Modernity, 56).

Brian Klug
Brian Klug is Fellow Emeritus at St Benet’s Hall, University of Oxford; Hon. Fellow of the Parkes Institute for the Study of Jewish/non-Jewish Relations, University of Southampton; and Fellow of the College of Arts & Sciences, St Xavier University, Chicago. He is an Associate Editor of Patterns of Prejudice and a member of the Boards for “Negotiating Jewish Identity: Jewish Life in 21st Century Norway” (The Norwegian Center for Holocaust and Minority Studies), Islamophobia Studies Yearbook, and ReOrient: The Journal of Critical Muslim Studies. His books include A Time to Speak Out: Independent Jewish Voices on Israel, Zionism and Jewish Identity (2008, co-editor); Offence: the Jewish Case (2009); Being Jewish and Doing Justice: Bringing Argument to Life (2011); and Words of Fire: Selected Essays of Ahad Ha’am (2015, editor). He took part in The Vienna Conversations (Bruno Kreisky Forum) on “the missing sense of togetherness in Europe.” He is one of the drafters of the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism (2021).

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