The End of Jewish Modernity?

La fin de la modernit? juive
Enzo Traverso
?ditions la D?couverte, Paris 2013 (French)

According to Traverso, the exclusion of Jews in Europe before WWII led them to struggle against preconceived ideas and thus develop an exceptionally creative state of mind (p.26). But once accepted, after the holocaust, Jews ceased to be counter current thinkers.

Jewish modernization began with the disintegration of the shtetl in eastern Europe and the migration to central Europe (p.35), mainly to German speaking countries, where they represented a cosmopolitan culture, characterized by universalism beyond national or ethnic identities (p. 30-31). However, between WWI and WWII the ‘assimilated’ cosmopolitan Jews faced the rise of a violent anti-Semitism of racial rather than religious nature, which led to destruction (Shoah) and massive emigration to America and Israel (p. 34-35, 45).

The process of Jewish modernization was not homogeneous in Europe, as it was related to heterogeneous national contexts. In tsarist Russia, Jewish modernism took a nationalist form in the renewal of Yiddish culture (p.38). In Germany, the study of Judaism took a rational and scientific form (p.38) (see Julius Guttmann, Die Philosophie des Judentums, 1933). In France,  the study of Judaism divorced itself from Jewish tradition (see Emile Durkheim, Les formes elementaires de la vie religieuse, 1912)(p.39) [as well as Claude Levi-Strauss].  

Universalistic  characteristics adopted by European Jews distinguished them from nationally grounded cultures (i.e., sittlichkeit in Germany) from which they remained excluded (p.39-42). This exclusion reinforced universal tendencies expressed in adherence to socialism from Marx to Rosa Luxemburg, a search for comfort in Zionism (a combination of nationalism and socialism) (p. 42-44), as well as, a massive intellectual and cultural transfer to America (p. 45-47).

Exclusion and marginality led to trespassing the borders of both Judaism and national cultures into post-national cosmopolitism and atheism among those defined as ‘Jewish non-Jews’(p.51-53).  A noticeable  explosion of creativity which characterized avant-gardes currents from Spinoza through Claude Levi-Strauss, was also marked by exclusion (p.57).

While in Germany Jewish ascent was marked by institutional exclusion, other models of modernization characterized Jews in France who integrated into the republic  and identified with it in a rather conservative fashion, while  Jews in Italy, whose assimilation coincided with that of other Italians, became active participants in state building in a unified Italy (p. 58-61). Conservatism was noticeable elsewhere in England with Disraeli, Rathenau in Germany (but murdered) and Kissinger in USA. Further, with the decline of anti-Semitism, Jewish intellectuals  became respectable and even ideologues of the dominant order (i.e., Leo Strauss and Hans Morgenthau) (p.70-73) and supporters of the status-quo (p.74, 77).  In this context, Israel is sometimes perceived as the avant-garde protector of the West and Americanism (p.77). After the holocaust, anti-Semitism was replaced by admission of guilt, giving Jews the opportunity to take their place, but the end of exclusion led to reduced critical thinking (p.76).
Hannah Arendt symbolizes the transition from exclusion through neo-conservatism. She borrows concepts from Bernard Lazare (Fumier de Job, 1927) to describe her own social milieu, in which the Jewish Pariah does not submit to his exclusion, but uses it to express his rebellion (p. 84, 86).
Interestingly, Arendt transposes the exclusion concept into the political sphere, where the excluded,  (Jewish or stateless refugee created by a historical condition in an Old World in crisis (p.88)),  assumes the struggle against his oppressors (i.e., a fighting Jew) (p. 89-90), not for the realization of national rights (such as in Zionism) but rights in an international context (p.90-91).  In this sense, her perception of exile and the holocaust is not from the point of view of a Jewish ‘national’ tragedy but a human rights historical tragedy (p.93-94). This view is made clearer in Eichmann in Jerusalem,  (2000) where Arendt points out that although an Israeli court is not illegitimate in prosecuting Eichmann, an international court would have been more appropriate to render justice to the scope of human rights violation (p.100).
Arendt’s underlying concepts linking liberty and rights to pluralism serves as the foundation of Les origines du totalitarisme, (1951) in which she proposes that exclusion from political rights implies reduction of pluralism, i.e., destruction of political expression, a human condition leading to totalitarianism (p.94). By extension,  Arendt points out that violation of human rights may be a built in fault line in Western political systems (i.e., the tyranny of democracy) which may produce not only a totalitarian regime such as Nazism, but also the domination of others as in imperialism (p.96-97).
Anti-Semitism is no longer acceptable. Expressions of anti-Jewish sentiments are still voiced, but they tend to be discredited. As much as anti-Jewish sentiments should not be taken lightly, they also should not be over-estimated (p.109-111). The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has given birth to a new form of ‘leftist’ anti-Semitism, which must be condemned, even if remaining marginal (p.113). However, a mutation of anti-Semitism occurred in recent years due to the marginalization of groups, many of Moslem background, who express their revolt through a Judeo-phobia, identifying Jews as oppressors (p.115).  The Israeli-Palestinian conflict appears to transcend its context, in that other traumatic experiences are projected into it. Any criticism of Israel is sometimes considered anti-Semitism, while Palestinians and their allies in the Arab world and elsewhere, project into  the Israeli-Palestinian conflict protest sentiments that ought to be placed elsewhere (p.117-119).

In parallel, Islamo-phobia is taking the place of the old Judeo-phobia, relying on the same terminology used to exclude Jews, sometimes supported by neo-conservative Jews (p. 122-125). This mutation, which is often used by European Right wing nationalists,  who tend to rely on governmental practices  which exclude migrants and minorities, presents a fault line in contemporary democracies. Overcoming this type of racism may be a re-energizing challenge for Jewish modernity  (p.126-127).
The establishment of the state of Israel, according to Traverso, reconfigures the ‘Jewish question.’ While the tale of emancipation focuses on Jewish acceptation by gentiles, i.e., gaining human rights, the establishment of Israel implies gaining rights in a nationalistic context, on the expense of Palestinians, in other words: a situation where the oppressed become oppressors (P.129, 138).  By allowing the establishment of Israel, the West, according to Traverso, made the Arabs pay the price of the crimes perpetrates by Nazis/Europeans (p.134, 140). Further, the establishment of the state of Israel, according to Traverso, implies a triple negation: negation of the Jewish Diaspora, Palestinian Arabs, as well as, the cultural heritage of Jews of Arab countries (p.138). And yet, in spite of the triple negation, Jews remain enclosed in a ghetto, subject to the benevolence of a global super power, which is but a substitute for the royal protection in the Old World (p. 139-140). Israel, then, justifies its existence by claiming the memory of the holocaust, equating hostile Arab nations to Nazis, i.e., blood thirsty enemies aiming to destroy Jews (p. 144).
The reality, however, is that Israel must either acknowledge the necessity to establish a state that belongs to all its citizens, i.e., a bi-national state, or remain a ‘Jewish state’ based on domination, yet subject to a permanent existential threat,  that neither Biblical justifications or nuclear power can spare (p. 146). Thus, the intent of Zionism to emancipate Jews in the context of a nation state, paradoxically put an end to Jewish modernity, by subjecting it to a character of domination, rather than holding on to critical thinking (p.146-147).
Traverso claims that the memory of the holocaust defines a contemporary secular religion, in which Israel is presented as a redeeming act from a long standing history of victimizing Jews, thereby defining a moral code which sanctifies human rights and pluralism in Western societies (p.152-159). Unfortunately,   remembrance of the holocaust as a rite in a contemporary secular religion is rendered meaningless, if it does not intend to combat nowadays exclusions (p. 166). Traverso admits that Jewish critical thinking did not end, and yet, as Jewish exclusion came close to ending, Jews became identified with defenders of the status quo, implying that Jewish modernity ends when Jews do not combat exclusion (p. 168), which remains prevalent , as is the case of Islamo-phobia among other discriminations (p. 170).


While exclusion in the form of exploitation and victimization of Hebrews and Jews has been present since an ancient time, and led them to fight slavery (in Egypt), exploitation (by Rome),  as well as, subsequent forms of discriminations in Europe and elsewhere,  one can hardly claim that it has been the main mechanism of Jewish modernity.

Jewish modernity, as reflected in critical thinking and the pursuit of justice, has to do with the foundation of Jewish thinking, summed up in the underlying principle of reciprocity, ‘you shall love the other as you love yourself.’ Jews derived other rules from this underlying principle of reciprocity, the most important one is ‘the rule of the land is the rule,’ which may imply support of the status quo, but only seemingly. This come across more clearly in the distinction between contract law and human rights versus community rights. In private matters, contract law is sufficient to deal with differences, because damage is limited to material loss only. However, in the case of individual rights versus community rights, consequences for the community outweigh those of an individual. Pursuit of justice is fundamental, but it must take into consideration consequences not only for the individual, but also for the community. The war of the Jews against the Romans was certainly just in the sense of its rejection of domination, but its consequences were a community disaster, destruction, dispersion and enslavement and two thousand years of exile. Therefore, critical thinking as an underlying mechanism of Jewish modernity is a matter of weighing human rights against community rights. The process of consideration of one versus the other is not a matter of intellectual exercise alone (as Arendt and Traverso propose). It has to do with historical and empirical circumstances. The establishment of the state of Israel did not result from the holocaust or a long history of exclusion. These element were a catalyst, but more important is the dismantling of the old empires and the establishment of a New World Order based on nation states and citizenship rights. The League of Nations granted Jews one Jewish home while Arabs were granted several. In this sense, the establishment of a Jewish  home in Palestine can hardly be claimed as injustice on the expense of inhabitants of Palestine.

It is certainly an ideal to aim for the fulfillment of universal rights in an international rather than a national context. In this sense, a state of Israel based on universal citizenship rights is the ideal, but is it realistic in practical terms? Historical evidence, past and present, do suggest that Jews have good reasons to want a state of their own, rather than one in which they are subject to exclusion and domination, especially in the Middle East context. The establishment  of Israel may have created a Palestinian problem, but it is far from turning Israelis into oppressors.  Palestinians and Arab nations have contributed to their own oppression in that they failed to accept Jewish presence in the Middle East, negotiate a compromise and rehabilitate themselves( as Jews did).
There is more to Jewish modernity beyond exclusion and the principle of reciprocity, that is the mechanism of documenting historical heritage and transmitting it to younger generations. This mechanism requires critical thinking independently of exclusion. Reciprocity, documentation and education are then underlying principles of Jewish modernity. Exclusion is only a catalyst to critical thinking.