General Topics

World In Crisis


According to Bartelby in the Economist last week, we are heading towards a global disaster. Political instability at a moment of another industrial revolution and ideological turmoil. Once again. Does history repeat itself? After the so-called Enlightenment followed by the French Revolution and the upheavals of Napoleon, Europe and the 19th century went through decades of instability and dramatic change. The bad old systems of aristocracy and the church gave way to an industrial and ideological revolution and then nationalism. That produced two World Wars and the Holocaust, at the cost of many millions of lives. Progress and regression went hand in hand.

Entering this unstable period, the Jews of Central and Western Europe were optimistic that they would be granted rights that they never had before. And even if after Napoleon’s defeat in many countries those rights which he had insisted on, were withdrawn, there was a feeling in Vienna, Berlin, Paris, and London that the Jews could have the freedom to enjoy access to power, finance, and success. Never mind that the vast majority of Jews were living in abject poverty in the East subject to pogroms and horrific discrimination.  In the capital cities of Europe, most Jews responded to emancipation by welcoming assimilation to join the social and religious hierarchies of the host societies, and, where possible, Jews raced to divest themselves of their religious tradition and sense of inferiority. And yet instability and upheaval had always brought a rise in Jew hatred. From Egypt to Rome to the Crusades the Reformation and on to modern times.

What came to be known as “ The Jewish Problem” led to re-thinking how Jews could survive as Jews in the modern world.  One response was to flee. More than 3 million Jews left Europe in the Nineteenth century. As empires collapsed and nationalism rose to replace them, one of the answers Jews adopted was a Jewish homeland. To be recognized as a nation like any other.  Of course, Jews had always desired to return to the land of Israel. Repeating it three times a day in their prayers, at every festival, on every occasion. Days mourning the loss of Jerusalem dotted the Jewish calendar. But the obstacles seemed insurmountable.

The impetus to be proactive came initially from rabbinic leaders, rabbis Alkalai, Kalischer, and Mohiliver helped found the movement known as Hibbat Zion ( The Love of Zion) which then became Hovevei Zion ( The Friends of Zion). As more secular socialists like Leon Pinsker,  who wrote the book Auto Emancipation, began to get involved. In response to Russian antisemitism, the movement expanded but also fissured. Jews, as always, split and divided. Those who had begun to assimilate into secular societies wanted to feel part of those societies. They did not want to be identified with a nationality that might in their view raise questions of dual loyalty. They threw themselves into their new societies or tried to change them. 

What became known as Zionism started slowly but with the support of some wealthy Jews who began to invest and encourage Jewish settlement in Palestine (and Argentina). Small groups of Jews began already in the 18th  and 19th centuries to move from Eastern Europe to the Holy Land. Some were animated by religion and others more politically minded started to come to help build a homeland.

The Viennese Theodore Herzl galvanized these disparate groups and formed the first Zionist congress in Basel in 1893. He had assimilated himself.  With plans to encourage the Jews to go en masse to Saint Stephen’s cathedral in Vienna and convert to Christianity. But as a journalist at the Dreyfus trial in Paris, he saw how much the Jews were hated for all their integration into French society. In his  Vienna too where Jews thrived in every area culturally, commercially, and socially, and yet the virulently anti-Semite mayor Lugar was re-elected three times. There is still a statue of him in Vienna today!

Herzl’s dream was to create a State where Jews and Arabs could live together as equals instead of inferior subjects of the Muslim Ottoman Empire. Unfortunately, the rise of Jewish nationalism conflicted with Arab nationalism which is why the Palestinian wars have continued to this day. Although there were some leaders like the impressive Emir Faisal who wanted to accommodate and cooperate with the Jews, others resorted to violence and assassinating the moderates. Meanwhile, the Industrial Revolution and the economic upheavals of the nineteenth century led to two World Wars, the Holocaust, and the needless deaths of many, many millions.

In reaction, it became fashionable to memorialize the Holocaust with the banal cliche “never again.” Museums, education programs, and visits to Auschwitz led us to believe that teaching the dangers of anti-Semitism would prevent Jew-hatred.  We were deluded. Some of us actually thought we could distinguish between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. 

 Educational and political institutions have been bribed and infected by animus towards Israel that has gone mainstream. It is now acceptable across the Western world to call in public to kill the Jews. And millions of migrants brought up to hate Jews are changing the complexion of Western societies.

Today too we are experiencing global political instability, a power struggle between East and West, democracies and dictatorships, mass migration and social upheaval, economic instability, inequality, climate change, and unpredictability. Many of these are factors that led to instability and devastation in the past. 

The current wars in the Middle East have burst open the floodgates of anti-Israel hatred directed at us all. And they have highlighted many failures on both sides. We should care deeply about the mistakes and the suffering of everyone, even when it is self-caused. And I do believe Israel has to do more to cultivate a humane, non-violent Palestinian culture and leadership, just as I believe violence must be combatted everywhere. 

You might think I am exaggerating and alarmist. I don’t think that in the Diaspora at least it is an existential threat. Certainly not to be compared to Nazism. But it has shaken the assumptions and securities of generations of diaspora Jews who never had to face such a challenge before. And maybe that’s a good thing. We have learned the danger of complacency. Past powers, revolutions, and eras have risen and fallen, and we Jews have survived all of them. I believe this hope, the Hatikva, will enable us to survive this one too. 

Of course, we can’t just say that God will take care of us.  We have to be proactive and dynamic and look for people on the other side that we can work with. Not everyone sees violence as the solution. 

January 2024