At Jewish Book Week in London a few days ago, I took part in a panel discussion about the most pressing questions facing Jews today.
I raised one that has long been bothering me – whether Western secular values were undermining the ability of the Jewish people to survive.
Across the West, there has been a terrifying rise in anti-Jewish feeling. This is fueled by an unprecedented campaign of lies and libels against Israel aimed at destroying it through delegitimization.
This campaign displays the same signature motifs of classic Jew-hatred that go back through the centuries.
But some of its principal leaders are Jews. So Jew-hatred can’t be the whole story.
The core of this problem is the tremendous cultural shift that has taken place in the West. Centered in the intelligentsia, this ditched the Judeo-Christian moral codes underpinning Western civilization in favor of hyper-individualism.
“What is right” was replaced by “what is right for me.”
Feelings replaced authority. There was no longer any such thing as objective truth. Everything was subjective and relative.
With all lifestyles now claiming equal worth, there could be no hierarchy of values or groups. Western culture, identified with the oppression of the world’s powerless, was damned as discriminatory and racist. The only legitimate values were universal, signaling a utopian belief in the brotherhood of man.
This was bound to present a problem for Jews. For Judaism gets in the way of all universalizing creeds. That’s because Jews are, quintessentially, a people apart. Their unique form of identity ineradicably depends upon a unique history and moral precepts.
Those Jewish precepts were adopted and adapted by Christianity and underpin Western civilization. Secularism, which took an ax to the West’s religious foundations, tried to appropriate these values as its own. It did so by stripping them of their Jewish and Christian character and pretending that equality, human rights or loving others as yourself were instead universal precepts.
But they are not. Outside the Jewish and Christian world, they don’t exist. Denying their religious context strips them of meaning and seals their eventual demise.
They can’t be defended because, under the guise of everyone laying claim to them, no one lays claim to them.
Instead they turn against themselves.
Thus secularism has eroded morality by insisting that beneficial outcomes must be equally shared regardless of differences in behavior. Denigrating individual motivation on the basis that only consequences matter, it refuses to defend victim against aggressor but seeks to split the difference between them. Denying the notion of objective truth, it makes the West unable to recognize when it is being fed a pack of lies.
It is a desperate irony that some in the forefront of this universalizing trend – Spinoza, Marx – have themselves been Jews. The effects are all around us and apply to Jews and non-Jews alike.
Those with a secular outlook – and that applies to some who belong to churches and synagogues, as well as those of no religion – reject the Jewish particularism of Israel.
Denuding it of history and context, they view it falsely not as the victim of a war of annihilation but as an ugly and aggressive colonizer.
Among both Diaspora and Israeli Jews, universalism is having tragic effects. In the US, the “middle ground” of Jews who are committed to being Jewish in non-Orthodox ways is shrinking, and indifference to or suspicion of Israel is growing particularly amongst the young.
Universalist Jews want Israel to be just like any other country. With their shrunken knowledge of Jewish history and religion, they cannot understand why this can never be so. As a result, they are becoming increasingly demoralized, confused or hostile.
An example of all this damage surfaced this week in an op-ed for The Guardian by David Rieff, whose new book, In Praise of Forgetting, is about to be published.
His argument is that collective historic memory prevents us from living harmoniously alongside each other and leads instead to conflict and violence.
If he were saying merely that we should not be trapped into conflict by grudge matches but must move on, that would surely be a fair point. But he’s not saying that. He is questioning all collective historic memory.
Memory inescapably involves truth. You can’t remember something that didn’t happen. That becomes not memory but myth. Rieff fails, however, to distinguish memory from make-believe. And when it comes to the Jews, he repudiates their collective memory as myth and rewrites their history as lies.
He says, for example, that Israel’s “settlers” appeal to “as great a distortion of that [biblical] history as the Islamist fantasy about the supposed continuities between the medieval kingdom of Jerusalem and the modern state of Israel.”
But that is totally untrue. The Islamists tell demonstrable lies about their claim to Jerusalem. But the claim by the “settlers” rests upon the fact that (irrespective of any belief in God’s promises) this was indeed part of the ancient Jewish Kingdom of Judea and Samaria, in which the Jews – the only people for whom this was ever their national kingdom – lived for hundreds of years before Islam even came onto the scene.
This history is being excavated all the time in Israel’s archeological discoveries. This offers startling evidence of what is described in the Bible – King Hezekiah’s water supply built to defend Jerusalem, or coins and seals from the Davidic dynasty, or the Temple stones still lying where the Romans hurled them to the ground. Yet Rieff sneers at all this as a “manipulation of history.”
Well, that’s a claim that might be more properly be made about his own writing. He states that when Israeli forces encircled Beirut in 1982, prime minister Menachem Begin announced that they had the “Nazis surrounded in their bunker,” even though it was Yasser Arafat and Fatah that were trapped.
But as the Begin Center in Jerusalem has pointed out, this distorts what Begin actually said. He wrote to president Reagan that he felt “as a prime minister empowered to instruct a valiant army facing ‘Berlin’ where among innocent civilians Hitler and his henchmen hide in a bunker below the surface.”
His generation, Begin went on, swore that whoever threatened to annihilate the Jews sealed his fate “so that what happened once on instructions from Berlin will never happen again.”
So he wasn’t calling Arafat and Fatah Nazis, as Rieff claims. He was using the analogy of the Berlin bunker to stress that, unlike in the Nazi period, Israel now had a Jewish leader with the power to save Jewish lives.
“Collective historical memory,” writes Rieff, “is no respecter of the past.” But in Judaism it is all about respecting the past. For Jews, remembering their history is a sacred duty imposed by the Almighty so that they remain bound by the command to form a holy nation.
To deny memory is to deny Judaism. Which is what David Rieff has done, taking the universalist’s ax to the uniqueness of peoplehood – the guardian of Jewish values, now under assault from the very culture which rests upon Judaism at its repudiated core.
Melanie Phillips is a columnist for The Times (UK).