My heart sinks when I hear that phrase, ‘let’s be fair.’
‘Let’s be fair, George Bush had no alternative but to smash Afghanistan and Iraq.’
‘Let’s be fair, what would you have done faced with that massive hostile gathering at Amritsar on 13th April 1919 or that dangerous looking civil-rights march in Londonderry on 30 January 1972 (40 years ago on Monday, by the way)?’
‘Let’s be fair, the Jews needed a safe haven, and so they had to organise a transfer.’
Nevertheless, let’s indeed be fair! I’m thinking particularly about what used to be called ‘the Jewish question’. Once Jews had been emancipated in most of Europe in the nineteenth century, there was a debate both among Jews themselves, and in the wider host societies within which they lived, about what their role should be, and even about whether or not they should remain a recognisable group.
Theodore Herzl, the founder of modern political Zionism, recognised the problems which arose from remaining distinct within a host society, and at one point favoured the conversion of the mass of Jews to Catholicism. Many Jews today would also like to throw off the last vestiges of their Jewishness. Whether they succeed or not remains unclear.
But is it reasonable to ask a people with a long history and a recognisable culture to suddenly forget their identity? Is it even practicable? Of course not. Even those, the majority, who have abandoned all but the last vestiges of their religion, still have an awareness of being Jewish, and nothing non-Jews do is likely to change that. However much our modern identities may have multiple components, the parts which we inherit through our parents are always likely to be prominent.
In his book, The Wandering Who? Gilad Atzmon very clearly indicates the dangers inherent in aspects of Jewish culture today. He sees Jewishness as having become an ideology, and I suggested in my appeal speech a week ago that this ideology is also unsinkable. Whichever way you try to criticise it you end up in the wrong. This is a very effective survival strategy in the short term. But is it so in the long term?
Jewish history has indeed been one of periodic suffering. But it has also been one in which Jews have very successfully negotiated with the holders of power in their host societies. The two are not unrelated. There has been a wave motion in the fortunes of Jews, sometimes good, sometimes bad, with the bad being at least partly a reaction to what happened in the good periods.
We are living in a ‘good’ period for Jews. You need go no further than Mearsheimer and Walt to recognise the degree to which Jews, collectively, have been successful in controlling Western foreign policy, for example. But Jews and non-Jews alike know that this situation could turn nasty. How long will non-Jews tolerate so much power in the hands of a tiny minority?
So, let’s be fair. In all humanity, we don’t want a repeat of past pogroms. How, then, should Jews and non-Jews alike work toward a solution not solely based on all of us becoming universalists (an unlikely scenario). This will require a modification of Jewish culture, and where necessary also of non-Jewish cultures, in such a way that they can live in harmony with one another.
The role of non-Jews and Jews will be to criticise Jewish culture when they dislike what they see (just as Jews have very often criticised non-Jewish cultures), and not to be deterred by cries of ‘anti-Semtism.’
The task is not an easy one. But sticking our heads in the sand and treating the whole subject as taboo will get us nowhere.