Modernity and Negations

Against the Current, No. 194, May/June 2018

David Finkel

The End of Jewish Modernity
By Enzo Traverso
Translated by David Fernbach
Pluto Press, 2016, 132 pages plus notes and index, $24 paperback.

What is Modern Israel?
By Yakov M. Rabkin
Translated by Fred A. Reed
Pluto Press, 2016, 187 pages plus notes and index, $27 paperback.

TWO CHALLENGING BOOKS, from differing vantage points, offer complementary perspectives on some of the tragedies confronting today’s world, and their historical backdrops.

Enzo Traverso is a scholar of European history for whom the fascination of Jewish history “is the prism it offers for reading the history of the world.” By “Jewish modernity” in this study, he means a phenomenon now fading away, “a phase of Jewish history that is inextricably intertwined with history in general, and the history of Europe in particular.” (Traverso, 6, 7)

Where Traverso views the Jewish experience as a window, Yakov Rabkin, professor of history at the University of Montreal, writes within a dual framework as both an analyst of geopolitics and a critic of Israel steeped in Jewish history. Rabkin’s perspective combines modernist liberal critique with sympathy toward a tradition, rooted in pre-modern conditions, of Jewish religious anti-Zionism.

Jewish modernity arose in what Traverso calls the “long” nineteenth century (1750-1950, from the beginning of European Jewish emancipation to the aftermath of the Nazi holocaust). He believes “has reached the end of its road” in the stunning sequence of upheavals, from the Nazi genocide to post-holocaust events, in which “the striking features of the Jewish diaspora — mobility, urbanity, textuality, extraterritoriality — have extended to the globalized world.”

While this development has undercut the traditional social basis for antisemitism, ironically the Israeli state “has reinvented the ‘Jewish question’ against the grain of Jewish history itself, in a statist and national form.” Furthermore, antisemitism itself has been supplanted by Islamophobia as “the dominant form of racism in the early twenty-first century,” while “Jews today find themselves, by a kind of paradoxical reversal, at the heart of the mechanisms of domination.” (Traverso, 3)

Traverso’s focus is naturally on Jewish thinkers, writers and political actors, not on the sociology of the lives of ordinary Jewish workers, petit-bourgeois or the ultra-Orthodox sectors who sought to live outside Jewish or any other “modernity.”  Needless to say, however, the fate of this entire population in the Nazi genocide underpins not only the changes in Jewish thought but our transformed understanding of the catastrophes immanent in the modern world.

At the outset I’m somewhat guarded about over-generalizations. In truth, for a long time Jews have been prominent in both the “mechanisms of domination” and resistance to them.  Despite this cautionary note, as an illustration of Traverso’s point I can’t help contemplating the spectacle of Jewish figures in Donald Trump’s court like former economic advisor Gary Cohn and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin — shilling for the big twit even while cringing as Trump praises the “very fine people” among the white nationalists (Nazis) marching in Charlottesville — to say nothing of the arch-racist Stephen Miller, architect of Trump’s Muslim travel ban and author of his menacing address to the United Nations.

Yakov Rabkin’s Introduction concisely presents his thesis of Zionism’s inherent contradiction: It “would have been impossible without the emancipation of the Jews of Europe, founded upon the principle of equality that underlies the Enlightenment ideal. But on the other hand, Zionism marks a clear break with the Enlightenment by postulating the eternal character of anti-Semitism and affirming ethnic exclusiveness.” (Rabkin, 1)

As one expression of Jewish nationalism in Europe, then, Zionism from its inception partakes of both modernist and anti-modernist elements. At the same time, Rabkin (like a number of other authors) points out the important fact that “Jews came to Zionism long after the Christians.” (39) The notion of a Jewish “return to Zion” as a fulfillment of God’s promise and Biblical prophecy was a Protestant theological construct going back to the 17th century.

Arising from a Christian view of Jews as a remnant people whose continued existence testified to the coming return of Jesus, Christian Zionism would take on more practical significance in the colonial era as enabler of a settlement project — and it was in that context that early secular Jewish Zionist leaders quite consciously looked for the patronage of rival colonial powers. (The explosive rise of a Jewish-messianic dimension of Zionist thought is a later, and especially since 1967 deadly, development.)

Traverso and Modernity

Enzo Traverso is familiar to readers of Against the Current from his essay Inside the European Cataclysm, part of our ongoing centennial retrospective on World War I and its legacy.*

Keenly attuned to the tragic dimensions of history, Traverso’s earlier books on Jewish themes also include a critical study of The Marxists and the Jewish Question (1994), The Jews and Germany (1995), and a powerful set of essays Understanding the Nazi Genocide. Marxism After Auschwitz (International Institute for Research and Education, 1999).

Traverso’s theme in regard to Jewish modernity is how and why “(i)t is precisely by adapting to the chorus of the world that Jews have changed. They have become a mirror of general tendencies, whereas during the long wave of Jewish modernity they acted above all as a counter-tendency.” (4)

Traverso identifies the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, and the imperial strategist (and major war criminal, from Vietnam to Chile to the East Timor genocide) Henry Kissinger, as archetypes of this transformation — from Jews as emancipatory rebels to establishment pillars.

This dissection of Jewish modernity and its demise pertains of course to Jews of Europe and North America, the focus of Traverso’s study, not to the age-old Jewish communities of Iraq, Syria, Morocco and Yemen whose worlds were turned upside down in the turmoil of regional crises, nationalism and the rise of Zionism; nor is it easy to apply to the unique case of Russian Jews in the Soviet and post-Soviet eras.

Particularly striking for me is Traverso’s chapter on Hannah Arendt, “above all a product of the ‘dark times’ of her century, an age of extremes of which Germany was the epicenter.” (62)

In Arendt’s explorations of Jews as a “pariah people” culminating in the inconceivable horrors of the Nazi genocide, the complexities of her engagement with Zionism (including tactical collaboration and sharp criticism of the Jewish state concept as what she called “a stupid and dangerous joke”), and her capacity to generalize from her own experience of exile, Traverso sees her in the 1940s as “one of the rare observers of European events capable of reacting as a true ‘citizen of the world.’” (72)

Arendt’s life experience spanned the genocidal consummation of European Jewry’s “pariah people” status, on which she reflected perhaps more profoundly than any other 20th century thinker, and the beginning of a new phase of Jewish acceptance and prosperity in a pluralist and liberal America — which, we must add, was infinitely more open to people who could become “white” than to African Americans or other people of color.

Ultimately, in her American period as a highly respected intellectual in the wake of her acclaimed The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt would undergo another transformation, “part of a wider metamorphosis of the German-Jewish exiles in the United States,” to high praise of American republicanism, although with a certain libertarian streak, and never entirely uncritical:

“In her eyes, the path to follow is not that of social emancipation, as she explains in her essay on revolution…contrast(ing) the American Revolution, aiming at liberty, with the French Revolution, ineluctably drifting towards despotism because of its quest for the ‘happiness of the people.’” (78, 79)

The Jewish establishment would never forgive Arendt for Eichmann in Jerusalem, with its distinctively iconoclastic attitude toward Israel’s claim to represent the world’s Jewish people, and she always remained a somewhat subversive thinker. But her perspective, which generated a view of the world and a celebration of America from the experience of the deprivation of rights and persecution of Jews in Europe, “could not grasp the deep imbrication of political discrimination, racial stigmatization and social oppression that lay at the heart of the Black question in the United States.”

In this crucial respect, Traverso emphasizes, “(t)he Jewish prism is not generalizable.” (80, 81)

In subsequent chapters, Traverso explores the themes of “Metamorphoses: From Judeophobia to Islamophobia,” “Zionism: Return to the Ethnos,” and “Memory: The Civil Religion of the Holocaust.” A sharp-eyed realist, he does not gloss over the problem of “a new Judeophobia that is widespread in the Islamic world (and among its minorities in Europe),” or the appearance of “a ‘left’ anti-Semitism, which must be condemned but remains the phenomenon of a small minority,” arising from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (87)

In European culture, antisemitism persists “as prejudice and social practice” (84) but is condemned and lacks respectability. On the other hand, speaking of what Traverso calls “postfascism,” Traverso observes that “Jews and the far right have ceased to be incompatible worlds, irreducibly opposed to one another…Nationalists have put their anti-Semitism in parentheses, and their Islamophobia is capable of seducing a section of Jewish opinion.” (92)

Simultaneously, Israel has “shifted the very axis of Jewish existence… (giving) Jewishness a state dimension…The end of Jewish modernity blends here with another metamorphosis, whose ineluctable character Hannah Arendt grasped very well: the creation of a Jewish state, presented as the only way of acceding to full rights, corresponded with the birth of a new pariah people, the Palestinians, deprived of political recognition and rights.” (98)

In a memorable closing reflection on holocaust remembrance as a “civil religion,” Traverso reminds us: “For Rousseau, civil religion was supposed to strengthen the solidarity of a collectivity (that) aimed at the future rather than looking back at the past.” Today’s “present division of labor in the governments of the European Union, however, entrusts one ministry with the commemoration of victims while another plans raids and expulsion of illegal immigrants…the memory of the Holocaust thus risks becoming the moral sanction for a Western order that perpetuates oppression and injustice.”

For Traverso Jewish modernity, whose rise “heralded an epoch of liberatory struggles,” has been “obliterated in Auschwitz; the civil religion of the Holocaust is simply its epitaph.” (126-7) Its fate then marks a transition from an historic Jewish tragedy to a new one, to be viewed in the context of worldwide unfolding traumas.

Rabkin and Modern Israel

Yakov Rabkin’s What is Modern Israel?  can be read as a response to the challenges posed by what Enzo Traverso calls “the end of Jewish modernity,” including the reaction that political Zionism represents against Enlightenment, liberal and democratic values.

Rabkin’s approach looks both forward and backward. He subjects Zionist theory and Israeli practice to a sharp democratic critique based on progressive universal criteria, while also harkening back to Jewish traditions that Zionism set out to obliterate. The result is a complex composite of modernist and pre-modern argument.

In Rabkin’s view “(r)eferences to Judaism and Jewish tradition are of little help in understanding contemporary Israel.” Amidst its multiple conflicts and contradictions, with fear and holocaust memory the glue preserving the fragile unity of Israeli loyalties, Rabkin observes that “(t)he question of Israel divides Jews far more than any other. The idea that Israel embodies God’s promise to the Jewish people is today far more widespread in American society as a whole than among Jewish Americans…This brings us back to the fact that Zionism [the idea of a mass Jewish return to Palestine —DF] has Protestant origins.” (183, 187)

Rabkin’s dual focus concerns both “the chasm between those who hark back to the Jewish moral tradition and those who have converted to Jewish nationalism” (170), and the geopolitical configuration in which “the state of Israel has been a vanguard and a barometer of changes that have taken place in international relations, in warfare, and in ‘the war on terror’ in the 21st century.” (183)

On one hand the author states, “As the founders of the country dreamed, the state of Israel should be treated like any other modern political configuration, without the fear of accusations of anti-Semitism: that is, by its acts and words, and not as the culmination of biblical history or a miraculous revival after the Nazi genocide.” (183)

On the other hand, his treatment of Jewish opposition to Zionism (chapter 7) focuses on its religious dimension, though not exclusively, in part because he feels that religious anti-Zionism has been given short shrift in the historiographical literature.

For the most part Rabkin’s discussion focuses on Ashkenazi (European Jewish) politics and practice, naturally so given that Zionism itself was a European phenomenon, although he points out the atrocities perpetrated by the new Israeli state against Yemeni Jewish immigrants, including the notorious kidnapping of their babies at birth, and its contemptuous attitude toward Jews of the Arab world. (120-121)

Unlike some romantics on the left, Rabkin doesn’t turn to the highly esteemed social justice stance of ancient Israelite prophets (to what extent this tradition is real or imagined belongs to an entirely separate discussion). Rather, he recalls conservative rabbinical doctrine warning against revolt and adventurism. For example, Rabkin’s account of the founder of Revisionist (militant rightwing) Zionism, Vladimir Jabotinsky, includes this striking passage:

“(T)his ideologue of Jewish military power is also the author of a romantic literary work based on the story of Samson who, blinded, kills himself and brings his enemies down with him in death (Judges, chapters 13-16). It draws on the same heroic spirit that the founders of Zionism, and later of the state of Israel, sought to inculcate into young people.

“The rabbinical tradition, however, places a high premium on life and condemns suicide. As a result, the majority of rabbis rejected both such novels and the glorification of suicide as foreign to Judaism. That is why it is at Masada, where Jews surrounded by Roman troops committed collective suicide almost two millennia ago, that future officers of the IDF for decades swore their oath to the state. Many Zionists are proud to have created a new nation by convincing millions of Jews, both in Israel and elsewhere, to abandon their traditions to adopt a new identity combined with a national language.” (67)

In this view the emergence of Jewish nationalism, particularly in its militant Zionist form, is a violation of the Jewish mission of piety, of religious study and of patient waiting for a messianic redemption of Jews and indeed all humanity, which it is forbidden to presumptively attempt to hasten by  human intervention. Rabkin extensively cites the views of the ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionist movement Neturei Karta, for whom “the state of Israel stands condemned as a violator of the global order, and all attempts to oppose God’s will can only lead to an equally global disaster.” (Rabkin, 159)

While Rabkin clearly feels an emotional sympathy for this particular religious form of Jewish anti-Zionism — which is obviously quite different from the anti-Zionism of Jewish leftists, socialists and solidarity activists, for whom by definition human action is essential! — I can’t quite tell whether it represents his own theological viewpoint.

Against Religious Zionism

Rabkin also quotes another religious scholar, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, whose work deserves to be much better known. Unlike the Neturei Karta, Leibowitz adhered to a different (Lithuanian-based) strongly anti-Hasidic Orthodox tradition. Also unlike the NK, from whose demonstrative public protests women are notably absent, Leibowitz championed women’s religious study and denounced their exclusion as the sexist relic of a bygone era.

Leibowitz, however, expressed the same loathing for the admixture of religion with nationalism:

“But there is worse, a sort of disqualification at once religious and moral, a spiritual corruption at the hands of lies and hypocrisy that borders on blasphemy, in the fact that a people could make use of the Torah to strengthen its national pretensions, while the majority of its members, as well as the social and political regime that it has adopted, have no connection with religious faith, and see in it nothing but legends and superstitions…And if there exist Jews willing to join the national-occupationist trend, and go so far as to make a ‘Greater Israel’…a religious commandment, well then, these people have become the heirs of worshippers of the golden calf (which) need not necessarily be made of gold. It may also be called ‘nation,’ ‘land,’ ‘state.’” (Leibowiz quoted by Rabkin, 57-8)

 Rabkin doesn’t mention, but it’s important to know in this context, that Yeshayahu Leibowitz in his own politics was a pragmatic Zionist, and an Israeli patriot. What he detested was religious Zionism with its mysticism, superstition and racism; the gross opportunism of leaders like Ben-Gurion who exploited religious symbolism and myth for nationalist purposes, when they were themselves anti-religious atheists; and above all, after 1967, the Occupation and the settler movement which he immediately recognized would be a moral and human disaster and an accelerant of what he did not hesitate to call “Judeo-Nazism.”

I have focused here on the religious side of Rabkin’s study, but this is far from the whole of this important work. His discussions of the complex roots of Zionism in European colonialism and anti-semitism, Zionism as a colonial-settler enterprise, and the hard truth that “the partisans of Israel, Jews and non-Jews alike, are today playing a leading role in the recolonization of the world” (182), are solid and valuable even if such analyses can also be found elsewhere. (If “the recolonization of the world” is unclear, see for example Jeff Halper’s War Against the People. Israel, the Palestinians, and Global Pacification for a book-length treatment.)

Despite a certain ambiguity in the author’s viewpoint — or perhaps because of it — this is a rich and detailed study with valuable thought-provoking material for entry-level readers, for sophisticated experts, or for the many like the present reviewer who are somewhere in between. Reading What is Modern Israel? together with Enzo Traverso’s work helps to complicate the picture even further.

*Traverso’s recent Left-Wing Melancholia: Marxism, History and Memory was reviewed by Michael Löwy (ATC 190). His major work on the European tragedy, Fire and Blood, was reviewed by Alan Wald (ATC 183), who also reviewed Traverso’s earlier work The Origins of Nazi Violence (ATC 112,).

May-June 2018, ATC 194