Jews and Europe in the Twenty-First Century: Thinking Jewish

February 28, 2008

In offering us the distilled essence of interviews he has conducted with prominent Jewish intellectuals, academics and parliamentarians in Western Europe, Nick Lambert presents us with two books in one. The first attempts to disentangle some of the threads of Jewish identity in the modern post-Holocaust and post-Zionist worlds. The second, which is the more interesting, asks why Jews have not played a more prominent role in the forging of a 21st-century "European" identity that transcends national boundaries.

A century ago, the Jews were the only true Europeans. Spread out unevenly across Western and Eastern Europe, they saw themselves (for the most part) as Jews first, and Englishmen, or Frenchmen, or Germans, or Russians, or Italians, second. In Northern Europe, they spoke a common language (Yiddish), and it was no coincidence that the inventor of what he hoped would become a truly pan-European tongue (Esperanto), Ludovic Zammenhof, was also a Jew. Anti-Semites accused Jews of being "cosmopolitans", but in truth this was a strength, not a weakness. In Western Europe at any rate, the Jews crossed national borders without any cultural misgiving or hesitancy.

But to what, precisely, did these Jews owe allegiance? For some, the commitment was to a religious, almost mystical set of goals, Zionist or anti-Zionist. For others it was to a new European order, and to the overthrow of absolutism, no matter how benign. To yet others it was to a species of benevolent despotism, affording the advantages of democracy without its concomitant dangers. Had the Jews agreed among themselves on the broad shape of the European polity they wished to create (even if it were simply a Jewish state in a multinational Europe, as Theodor Herzl seemed to envisage), they might have had some success in creating it. But by nature quarrelsome and disputatious, the Jews of Europe could not reach such an accord. And while they were quarrelling and disputing, a malignant ultra-nationalism crept up on them almost unawares, and almost swept them off the face of the earth.

This lesson, at least, has been well and truly learnt. If there is one feature of post-Holocaust European-Jewish identity that Lambert's analysis does well to bring out above all others, it is surely the psychological impact of the Holocaust on the thought of Europe's thinking Jews. Democracy, in the wrong hands, is as dangerous as autocracy. The multinational state, in the wrong hands, is as dangerous as the nation-state. The secular state, in the wrong hands, can be as dangerous as a theocracy. And it is these realisations that have done most to keep a respectable distance between Jews and the "new" European order. One can, to be sure, name individual Jews who have contributed to the notion of European integration - a Pierre Mendes-France here, an Isaiah Berlin there - but there has been no specific "Jewish" input into the creation of the European Union, and I can detect no specifically "Jewish" involvement in its working. Indeed, I can think of only one contemporary Jewish body with a superficially pan-European outlook. Its name is the Conference of European Rabbis and, rightly, it plays no part whatever in the story Lambert has to tell.

This is not an accident. Badly organised and lacking anything remotely resembling inspired leadership ("dysfunctional" is a considerable understatement), Jews manage to live in post-Holocaust Europe without actually being Europeans. Lambert describes this as the "precarious condition" of a "minor, anxious and divided people". I do not have the heart to disagree with him.

Geoffrey Alderman is Michael Gross professor of politics and contemporary history at the University of Buckingham and author of Modern British Jewry

Jews and Europe in the Twenty-First Century: Thinking Jewish

By Nick Lambert
Vallentine Mitchell
£47.50 and £19.50
ISBN 9780853037606 and 7613
Published 25 October 2007

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