|Review by Stephen Glantz|
It was unexpected. My family hadn't been anywhere in the Pale for over 100 years on my father's side and my mother's family left Odessa in 1912. Standing on the tarmac, staring at the prison like terminal and wondering if anyone would tell me even which door to go through, I felt for the first time as if I was wandering no more.
You can take the Jew out of Europe, but you can't take Europe out of the Jew is just one of the many provocative arguments made by Jehudah Reinharz and Yaacov Shavit in their book Glorious Accursed Europe, which documents the Jewish debate about their life and role in Europe during the 150 years before the war - as well as the influence of European thought and culture on the creation of Israel and whether Europe as a cultural, ethical and intellectual phenomena should be embraced or disdained.
One of the consequences of the Holocaust is that it reorganized our collective sense of Jewish history. The rise of Nazi Germany, the war and it's immediate aftermath has pushed into the shadows the rich history of the previous 2000 years since the onset of the Diaspora. This period, so robustly sketched out in Yiddish Civilisation: The Rise and Fall of a Forgotten Nation by Paul Kriweczek, has been re-contextualized as the very stepping stones that led straight to the Shoah. No doubt the loss of a sense of history pales next to the suffering and loss of six million dead and the pain of the survivors. Ironically without the malediction of the Shoah, the lives of so many of the Jewish people that had become rootless, existentially amputated from our history, both personal and communal in its wake, would have surely engendered its own vigorous area of study. The Holocaust has generated a necessary intellectual industry that has captured many of the best minds of the last several generations that might have addressed other time periods in Jewish history. Therefore when I read that Glorious, Accursed Europe would be addressing the political, religious, ethical, ethnic, cultural debates that raged among Jewish intellectuals in the 100 or so years running up to Hitler's accession to power in 1932, I was intrigued.
What I was not prepared for and what the book so dramatically reproduces is the passion of the debate, using language that might be considered both hyperbolic and poetic at the same time. The first part of the book raises the argument - in a way that counters the general feeling among most Jews that we are the perennial and perpetual outsider - that there would be no Europe without Jews and Jewish thought. It was the Old Testament itself which created the cultural, spiritual and ethical beating heart of Europe as an idea. Consider the words of Zeev Jabotinsky, an Odessa born writer and ideological mentor of revisionist Zionism, written in 1926, "Perhaps more than any other nation, we have the right to say that Western Culture is bone of our bone, flesh of our flesh, spirit of our spirit. To renounce Westernness...signifies denial of ourselves. I, of course, refer to moral Europe."
Once they document the veracity of Jabotinsky's position, the authors take us through a cross section of Jewish writers and thinkers who debate whether or not Jews belong in Europe at all; whether it will prove to be a utopian Promised Land or a dystopia of anti-Semitism with continued pogroms or worse; whether Jews can be Jews as well as citizens of individual countries retaining their Jewish identity; whether or not anti-Semitism is ingrained in the European character and if that is the case, will there always be a Damoclean sword over Jewish heads; and finally, is assimilation a necessary component of Jewish survival in the modern age or is it the beginning of the end of Jewish identity as we know it. The debate raged then as it does now, but with the added poignancy that the Shoah imposed on the debate. In addition, the historical antecedents and roots of the debate continue to be relevant today as one realizes that these critical questions will never be resolved and that Jews will continue to live within the anxieties of these questions, even if they live in Israel.
Interestingly, 19th century Europe was called among other things, the Judenjahrhundert, the Jewish century, as it saw the emergence of the Jews from the ghetto for the first time permitting them to rise for prominence in trade, finance, science, art and culture. This was a dynamic and revolutionary experience for a people with a disaporic history of rootlessness and marginalization. Even Nietzsche argued in his Dawn of Day, that the century was a "Jewish conquest" and that Jews "distinguished themselves in all departments of Jewish distinction." Of course this positive experience, ironically, added fuel to the very anti-Semitic myth that Jews were obtaining these achievements not on behalf of the countries they called home but rather as part of a broader conspiracy to control and damage non-Jewish interests. Their assimilation was viewed as a plot and feared by the masses, even while being manipulated and distorted by certain political and economic interests. Typical of the reaction to Jewish success was Wilhem Marr's Der Sieg des Judenthums uber das Germanthum. The title itself displays the paranoia of the text: The victory of Judaism over Germandom, as the authors argue, "presented a vision of Jewish control over society, politics and religious thought in which 1800 years of attempts to conquer and enslave the Germans had resulted in victory for the Semite Jews." Similarly, Eduard Dumont argued that Jews had taken control of France. In yet another, Polish writer Jozef Ignacy Kraszewski, in his book Metamorphosis, declared that Jews had imposed their values on European culture and Jewish bankers were masters of Europe.
The emergence of the modern Jew, Reinharz and Shavit point out was a matter of necessity. It was the only way for Jews to integrate into European society, exposed as they were to European culture, urbanization, nationalistic movements and various forms of political and social radicalization. Many Jews were prepared to identify themselves first as belonging to whichever country with which they held citizenship before calling themselves Jews. Part of this identification was due to what Stefan Zweig described in his World of Yesterday, as "longing for a homeland, for rest, for security which urged them to attach themselves passionately to the culture of the world around them." After almost two millennia of peripatetic and anxious wandering, Jews were longing for a land that they could call home, even if not their own. As a consequence, many of the writers who embraced this idea did so with a euphoria that might seem rapturous at the time, only to be viewed as delusional in the aftermath of the Jewish catastrophe that was the Second World War.
Again and again, Jewish writers heralded this new status of European Jews as if they were blowing on the Shofar, heralding not only a new year in which all past sins have been cleansed but one in which a new covenant was established, not with the Desert God of their Fathers, but with their countrymen and fellow citizens of Europe.
The authors find for us the most passionate of these beliefs and introduce us to a host of writers, both novelists and essayists, that pique further interest and study. In Mendel Mokher Seforim's novel, Fathers and Sons, his ex-patriot Russian protagonist yearns for his homeland: "On beholding another man, whether Jewish or not, I rejoiced at the sight of him as I would at the sight of God: I touched his clothes and their smell was the scent of those God-blessed fields."
The German politician Walter Rathenau declared, "My ancestors and I were raised on German soil and we have given the German people all that we had to give." The same sentiment is express a different way by Franz Oppeneheimer, who said that if he were to examine his own sensibilities he would find he was "99% Kant and Goethe and one percent Old Testament." As late as 1939, Martin Buber talked about a "special cooperation between the German and Jewish spirit." Even Theodore Herzl, while he was busy campaigning for a Jewish state in Palestine saw the rise of science, technology and progressive Jewish assumptions of modern European values as the harbinger of his idea paradise: A modern European cultural Mecca in Palestine.
Then as now, every advance in Jewish acculturation was met with a dedicated pessimism by some. Assimilation, some said, was an illusion that at best erodes one's sense of Jewishness and at worst, activates, no matter how dormant, the anti-Semitic beast hidden in the cave of nationalistic psyches. Polish Jewish poet Uri Zvi Greenburg described Europe as "a forest of afflictions" and that a "poison gas would seep into its castles; Europe was a place whose inhabitants dreamed of the destruction of all Jews
Perhaps the most fervent harbinger of the Holocaust was German poet Heinrich Heine. The authors argue that because of Heine's status as one of Germany's most notable writers of the 19th century, his warnings are elevated to prophesy. Writing in German, not Hebrew or Yiddish, his poem "Deutcheland, Eine Wintermarchen" a hundred years before the implementation of the final solution, foretells the abyss ahead.
The future of Germany before your eyes
like a billowing phantasm:
But do not shudder if from the mass
exhales a foul miasma!...
But the scent of the German future
Was ever so much stronger
Than anything I ever smelled,
I could bear it no longer."
Whether Heine was a prophet or not, he was able to see the "truth in all its viciousness, heard the rustling of German mysticism, and understood the darkness in the nation's psyche." Other writers such as Heinrich Graetz felt that Germans would never allow Jews to assimilate into a German racial entity and that Germans were "a lowly contemptible race." Adolph Hess wondered in 1862, "Who can see foresee what catastrophes that may befall us." "What Jew", argued Aharon Aronson, "does not sense the danger that lies in Teuton-ism."
One of the questions raised by the Holocaust was how it caught Jews so unaware. The argument most prevalent in popular culture condemns them for not seeing the horrid writing on the wallets has been concluded by some that the quest for equality and to be seen as German blinded many to the backlash that was building in their beloved Germany.
What this book so ably demonstrates is how deeply Jews felt that they belonged to Europe and Europe belonged to them; that Europe was their home, even in Diaspora; and they owed allegiance to their home countries because (for the first time in centuries) they felt that their countries were indeed a home. What we in America may find hard to comprehend in its fullness and depth is how much this sense of belonging to the land was an answer to a prayer centuries old and one that Jews would not abandon, even after repeated threats of anti-Semitic violence A certain amount of anti-Semitism was what it meant to be a Jew. It was part of being Jewish, taken for granted as a force of nature as pervasive as gravity.
The Shoah influences almost every word and thought in Glorious, Accursed Europe. Nobody could ever have known just how important the debate among Jews in the 19th and early part of the 20th century would become. The predictions of Heine, Graetz and others who seemed to see into the darkest areas of the European character, could never have influenced the critical mass of Jews and alter history by spurring a mass exodus to Palestine. What the authors recreate in their book is the brilliance and passion of the debate. It animates an era that's been almost forgotten. It raises the ghosts of writers, many of whom died before the first Jew was slaughtered in the Holocaust, and who were condemned to be forgotten, overshadowed by the Shoah to such an extent that today's Jews are unaware of their fierce debate about the Jewish future. In addition to the writers quoted here, Reinharz and Shavit introduce the reader to scores of writers and thinkers who deserve our recognition and whose work deserves to be read by Jews today. Vibrant, eloquent, fierce, bitter and sometimes overwhelming in their irony, these men wrote with a sense of commitment and urgency as if they believed the future of their people depended on the strength of their language.
The last chapters of the book deal with the question of Europe and European-ism in Israel upon the founding of the State. The vision of Herzl and the early Zionist advocates was to bring all that was good in Europe -, science, culture, art, technology, the egalitarianism of thought and politics - to Palestine. Herzl rhapsodized of Viennese bakeries, German symphonies, French art, and British industriousness co-existing in Eretz Israel. Opposing the view promoted by Herzl were the voices, secular and religious, that called for a rejection of anything European. Some argued that European culture was decadent, inferior, nihilistic and inferior. The orthodox declared European values too "Hellenistic" and sought for "anything that contradicted the Old Testament& to be rejected." Others called for a nation derived from "the wells of authentic and native cultural traditions" which were almost archaic and Oriental in nature. Europe had atrophied and an Israel based on those values would become the "garbage can" of Europe. To the proponents of this view Jewish eyes had to turn East for its traditions and inspiration.
Since Israel was a new state, idealists and ideologues on both sides of the debate wanted to create a country in accordance with their views and beliefs. However, it's impossible to impose a cultural autocracy in a free state. The authors remind us that there is the Europe that is evil and demonic and also the Europe that is "noble and liberal, full of what is good and devoid of borders, nations and cultural identities-in other words, a Europe that is the fountainhead of universal enlightenment."
"Can we uproot our Europeaness?" asked Heinrich Graetz over a hundred years ago. It is still a question we live with today. The authors end with the question, "What parts of Europeaness are worth preserving and which parts need uprooting." They take this discussion and apply it to Israel today, not only culturally, but as an expression of its intent and relationship to Palestine and its other Arab neighbors both within and beyond its borders. To them, the Europe that most inhabits the Jewish psyche will, at least in part, determine the fate of Jews in the next two hundred years.
This book is exhaustively researched and tightly written. It provokes debate on almost every page. One cannot read it and resist wondering which Europe resides within.
|Review by Stephen Glantz|