Europe knows not evil

A conflict has emerged between today's Europe and my Jewishness, and I do not know how to resolve it.

October 17, 2006 20:12
4 minute read.
Muslims praying.

muslims europe 88. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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I, a French-born rabbi, have been sitting in a small synagogue in Brussels, celebrating the High Holy Days. Almost 200 years ago to the day, Napoleon convened an assembly of Jewish leaders to help him open the door of citizenship to French Jews. It was the Enlightenment. The Jews of France prepared to receive equal rights and become full partners in the affairs of state. They could call Europe home. Now I wonder if it was all an illusion. I and other Jews have begun moving toward the sad and frankly terrifying realization that ultimately we may have no home in Europe. It is not that I no longer identify as a European, or that somehow my sense of loyalty to the place of my birth has weakened. No, it is not me who has changed, but Europe. A conflict has emerged between this new Europe and my Jewishness, and I do not know how to resolve it. MUCH HAS been said and written about the reemergence of anti-Semitism in Europe, but all the discussion hasn't made the phenomenon any more comprehensible to me. I suppose that after the Holocaust, no amount of anti-Semitic madness should surprise us. Yet, I am surprised - and frightened. I am frightened not just by the anti-Semitism but by the collective European response of indifference and appeasement. Today, Europe worships compromise. It is "fanatical" in its non-violence. It is a Europe that, in the face of Islamist fanaticism, is ready to stay silent. This is the heart of the matter. By refusing to truly battle the Islamist ideology, by refusing to firmly and consistently oppose the dangers of Iranian nuclear proliferation, by refusing to support Israel in its battle against the menace of Hizbullah, Europe is saying everything is "negotiable." MY FAITH forces me to reflect on the eventuality of having to confront radical evil. It teaches that everything is not negotiable; not everything can be compromised. When I read in Deuteronomy that it is my religious duty to "erase the memory of Amalek from beneath the heavens," I frankly find myself frightened by the violence of the passage. How can we accept a religious commandment that necessitates us, under certain circumstances, to annihilate the Other? This dilemma is not only mine. There's a story about an Orthodox Jew who went to Martin Buber, the great German-Jewish philosopher of the 20th century, to tell him of his profound dilemma: "How is it," he said to Buber, "that when King Saul showed mercy in his struggle against Agog, the king of the Amalekites, he was chastised by the Prophet Samuel for showing himself capable of compassion and being ready to compromise?" Buber remained silent for a few moments before answering. "I think that Samuel was mistaken about God's intentions." BUT RABBI Emil Fackenheim, one of the great post-Shoah thinkers, strongly criticizes Buber's reply and tells us: "Through this answer, Buber disposes of the problem of absolute evil, because if Amalek is not its incarnation, then absolute evil does not exist. Here, we are therefore better served by tradition: Amalek continues to be recognized for what he is, but [also] as a symbol. "On the level of Jewish values, to distinguish between Amalek and evil in general is always a difficult task. To an extreme extent, one risks seeing a replica of Amalek in every enemy, while in fact the rabbis recommend trying to make a friend of every enemy. "However, our era has shown that the opposite danger is greater: that which consists in believing or dreaming that Amalek does not exist." This last sentence warrants further thought. The price of refusing to believe in the existence of evil and in the absolute necessity of confronting it is often very high. Indeed, the greatest danger would be to consider every enemy as a "potential Amalek." Peace is an absolute value and we must always make compromises to achieve it. But we cannot, however, escape one crucial question: If we have to make compromises, with whom? Compromise and dialogue are not values in themselves if the question "with whom?" is not asked. I fear that my religious tradition is indeed on a collision course with Europe, which seemingly refuses, on principle, all ideas of confrontation. Has Europe not learned that one day we have to confront what frightens and terrorizes us? Or is Europe still looking for a path to the laying down of arms and the dubious compromise? For us, the Jews of Europe, after witnessing the murder of 6 million of our own, we find ourselves today unable to see eye-to-eye with the political orientation of our old continent. And if what is happening today is not the ultimate wake-up call for Europe, it seems to me that our presence in Europe, 200 years after we were granted citizenship, is reaching its end. The writer is a member of the executive board of the European Jewish Information Center in Brussels.

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