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Mein Kulturkampf

By Michael Oren



The Holocaust, it might have been presumed, put an end to the Jews’ role as the means through which Western societies defined themselves, the mirror they held up to decide “Who are we?” But no, well into this century...  ‌ ‌ ‌            

“I have only one passion, that of light, in the name of humanity which has suffered so much and which has the right to happiness.” So concluded J’Accuse, Emile Zola’s 1898 attack on the French judicial, military, and political establishment. His purpose was to expose the serial perjuries and forgeries that led to the conviction, of spying for Germany, of army Captain Alfred Dreyfus. Zola railed against official corruption and deceit, but also against the antisemitism of those who framed Dreyfus, the hatred that Zola saw as threatening not only to Jews but to the entire nation. “When a society is there, it decays,” he wrote.


Zola understood—as did many of his contemporaries, consciously or implicitly—that the great struggle over the Dreyfus trial was not really about espionage, not about Jew-hatred, or even the Jews. It was, rather, about France. Would it be a conservative, militant, autocratic, Catholic county or a liberal, tolerant, democratic, and secular republic? Would its character be determined by the army and the Church or by the intellectuals, the free thinkers, and the Fourth Estate? Far more than a French Jewish officer on trial for treason, the Dreyfus Affair formed the cutting edge of a vast kulturkampf over the meaning of France if not the soul of Western civilization.


I couldn’t help recalling Dreyfus last December 5, while Congress questioned the presidents of three elite universities about their response—or non-response—to campus antisemitism. Ostensibly, Harvard president Claudine Gay, Elizabeth McGill of University of Pennsylvania and MIT’s Sally Kornbluth, were being asked whether calls for the genocide of the Jews constituted harassment against their schools’ Jewish students. None of them could be likened to Dreyfus, nor was their key inquisitor, Republican firebrand Elise Stefanik, a Zola. America’s establishment, in contrast to France’s in 1898, was leftwing and its challengers, conservative. And yet the issue, once again, was Jew hatred and the degree to which it permeated some of the state’s most venerated institutions. At stake was far more than the safety of Jewish students at Ivy League schools or even the meaning of the slogans “Globalize the Intifada” and “From the River to the Sea.” The issue was not even the broader one of free speech. Beyond any of those weighty considerations was one far more momentous: the soul of America and the civilization on which it rests.


Would the United States be a meritocracy in which citizens advanced financially and socially solely on the basis of their abilities or would advantages be granted as “compensation” for being born into a race, gender, or ethnicity deemed disadvantaged by the left? Would armed force, whether in the hands of the police or the military, be an evil to be circumscribed if not eliminated or a moral imperative that must be upheld? Is the right to free speech absolute and unqualifiable or should it be applied selectively and, if so, by whom and under what circumstances? Is this country, despite its considerable flaws, a force for good in the world, inherently benevolent, and worth both serving and preserving? Or was America from its inception malign, an oppressor of large portions or its own population and an opponent of freedom and justice abroad.


These are fundamental questions that impact all Americans—indeed, the entire Western world—but why should they once again be posed in terms of the Jews? The canned answer evokes the canary-in-the-coal mine cliché, the observation that what happens first to the Jews eventually occurs in society as a whole. What began in October 2000, for example, with Islamist suicide bombers killing Israelis in the Second Intifada, reached America less than a year later in 9/11. Still, it is hard to explain why the Jews who championed French nationalism should, in the person of Dreyfus, become its principal target, or why American progressivism should betray the Jews who largely founded it. Perhaps its not about the usual reasons for antisemitism—the jealousy, the fear, the conspiracy theories, and the basic human need to hate. Maybe it’s not about the Jews at all but about the way societies define themselves. Not merely canaries, we Jews are mirrors.


That has been the case ever since antiquity. Antisemitism existed in the Greek and Roman worlds. Jews were accused of ritually killing Greek babies and intentionally spreading disease, according to the 1st Century Jewish chroniclers Philo and Josephus Flavius. “Among the Jews all things are profane that we hold sacred,” wrote their Roman contemporary, Tacitus. “they regard as permissible what seems to us immoral.” Yet violence broke out not when the Jews grew more dissimilar to their surroundings but rather blended with them. The anti-Jewish edicts of King Antiochus IV in 168-167 BCE were aimed, first and foremost, at the Hellenized Jewish elites. Similarly, the riots in Alexandria in 38 CE targeted Jews who, culturally if not religiously, were indistinguishable from their Greek neighbors. The issue was not so much the meaning of Jewishness but of the basic nature of polis. Would it be multicultural, tolerant, and religiously pluralistic or chauvinistically Hellenist and pagan?


Greeks and Romans were gazing into a Jewish mirror and trying to discern, “Who are we?”

The rise of Christianity introduced new tropes to antisemitism, among them the accusation of deicide, and served to separate Jewish communities culturally and physically from their host societies. Nevertheless, Europeans persisted in gazing at the Jews in order to get a clearer image of themselves. The façade of many medieval cathedrals portray the twin figures of Synagoga and Ecclesia, personifying the victory of a majestic Christian queen over a subdued and blindfolded Jewess. Even during the Crusader period, after the Land of Israel had been rendered judenrein, European knights emblazoned the wall of their church in Abu Ghosh with the image of Christ evicting a cowered Jew.


Modernity, though, revived the challenge of the indistinguishable Jews who, emerging from the ghetto, could look and sound much like their countrymen. Rather than target practicing Jews, the Inquisition tortured the descendants of converts who appeared no different than other Spaniards. And what, besides a penchant for repayment in flesh, separates Shylock from Antonio and Bessaria, both of whom bleed and “hath eyes”? As James Shapiro, the Shakespeare scholar, observed, “The English turned to Jewish questions in order to answer English ones.” Looking into that Jewish mirror and seeing a reflection only of themselves could prove discomfiting for Europeans, if not maddening.


“The Jews are an ignorant and barbarous people,” wrote the 18th Century French philosopher Voltaire. “[They] have long united the most sordid avarice with the most detestable superstition and the most invincible hatred for every people by whom they are tolerated and enriched.” The Jews in France, as elsewhere in Western Europe, were becoming increasingly integrated into society and the economy. Not surprisingly, the full emancipation of the Jews, granting them equal rights and duties, became one of the defining debates of post-Revolutionary France and early Victorian England. Lawmakers in both countries once again regarded the position of Jews as a means of determining the nature of their respective societies—liberal or reactionary, parochial or open-minded, a state defined exclusively by one nation or a nation-state embracing all its citizens.

The same question confronted Germans in the aftermath of World War I, and one man claimed to have the answer. The Jew, Adolph Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf, “had only acquired the art of twisting the German language to his own uses and…his command of the language was the sole ground on which he could pretend to be a German.” The Jews “openly and impudently” assert their Jewish identity while “hypocritically pretend that they are German, French or English…” The remedy, Hitler posited, was a German state based solely on race, “For as long as a people remain racially pure and are conscious of the treasure of their blood, they can never be overcome by the Jew.”


The Holocaust, it might have been presumed, put an end to the Jews’ role as the means through which Western societies defined themselves, the mirror they held up to decide “Who are we?” But no, well into this century, during which I served in several diplomatic roles, I met with European parliamentarians from multiple parties who told me, without irony, that their harshest debates were about Israel and the Palestinian issue.


“Let me get this straight,” I pressed them. “You’re facing immigration crises, financial and environmental crises, and a warlike Russia on your doorstep, and your harshest debates are about Israel?”


“Yes,” they uniformly nodded. “Our harshest debates are about Israel.”


I had to experience similar conversations in several countries before I finally understood that the Europeans were not, in fact, arguing about Israel but in reality about themselves. The issue, once again, was the meaning of Europe. Was it still liberal, secular, and borderless or reverting to its previous nationalistic, Christian, and territorial form? Would the continent be open or closed to African and Middle Eastern immigrants, would its nation-states remain bonded in the European Union or reassert their economic, diplomatic, and cultural independence?


In Europe, as in United States, the supporters of Israel once came from the left, those who believed in universalism, secularism, Socialism, and legislated attempts to promote equality. Today, by contrast, Israel’s advocates are likely to back a nationalist, free market society in which people get ahead through sweat and talent. Then, as now, Jews served and continue to act as a mirror. And the image we still project—much like in France of the 1890s—can prove disturbingly familiar.


Why, after 2,500 years, in the shadow the Holocaust, this should be our role, is the subject of scholarly debate. “Anti-Judaism,” posited the brilliant historian David Nirenberg, “is a set of ideas and attributes with which non-Jews can make sense of and criticize their world.” And the practice shows no signs of going away. This week, in France, Rima Hassan, a young lawyer of Palestinian descent, who praised the Hamas massacres of October 7th and denied Israel’s right to exist, sparred bitterly with a French Jewish TV personality, Arthur (née Jacques Essebag). The debate, once again, was over antisemitism, but in reality about the role of gender, race, and age in contemporary society—in short, about France.


Faced with this pernicious phenomenon, there is little that we, as Jews, can do to combat it. We can only urge Westerners to work out their identity issues between and by themselves and keep us out of it. Der—their—kulturkampf should not be mein. We must resist the mirror-role in which society has repeatedly cast us and with the passion of Emile Zola’s final words: “My fiery protest is simply the cry of my very soul.”

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