A Nation Through its Faith

'It is easy to denigrate democracy while enjoying its benefits'

Theodore Herzl  In My Crazy Century, an excellent new memoir by the Czech writer Ivan Klíma (Grove Press, £16.99), the author recalls a visit to Britain in the mid-1960s. As a journalist on the magazine Literární noviny he took full advantage of the slight thaw that preceded the Prague Spring in 1968, soon to be crushed by the Soviet invasion. In London Klíma went to see the Leftist guru Isaac Deutscher, politely explaining that as a Czech Jew he had “barely survived one bloody dictatorship only to begin serving another” — hence his efforts to promote democratic reform. Deutscher would have none of it, proposing instead the slogan: “Never return to the old democracies but do return to the regenerated Soviets of the people’s representatives.” Klíma was aghast: “He was recommending this to me, someone who had come from a country where we had to argue with the censor over every semi-intelligent article, while he was living in a country where he himself enjoyed all the freedoms offered by a system he referred to as a bourgeois democracy.”
It is easy to denigrate democracy while enjoying its benefits. This phenomenon is most obvious in relation to Israel, still the only liberal democracy in the Middle East. It is easy to demand that Israelis take risks for peace from the safety of a Western capital. While Obama administration officials tacitly concede Putin a free hand in Ukraine and ignore European indignation at their contempt for their allies (Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland’s leaked comment “Fuck the EU!” might be forgiven in any other context), the Europeans themselves are even more vitriolic about Israel and its supporters. Ever since Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer’s The Israel Lobby delegitimised defenders of the Jewish state by grossly exaggerating their influence, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories have become the default position of liberal elites. Professor Walt now enjoys more access to the Obama White House than any Aipac lobbyist. 
But it is in Europe that the double standards are most glaring. When in January Scarlett Johansson resigned as an ambassador for Oxfam rather than submit to the charity’s policy of boycotting Israeli settlements, the actress was deluged in bile. Last month a British Labour MP, Yasmin Qureshi, compared Israel’s treatment of Palestinians to the Nazis’ extermination of European Jewry in a parliamentary debate. Such enormities have become commonplace in Europe. No wonder Jews are leaving the continent where the Holocaust took place in unprecedented numbers, fearing a new wave of persecution. France has now become the largest source of Jewish emigration to Israel, with some 20,000 having applied to leave last year alone. Denmark, having bravely saved its Jewish population under Nazi occupation — a story brilliantly told by Bo Lidegaard in Countrymen (Atlantic, £22) — now seems determined to drive them out by banning ritual religious slaughter and circumcision.
Europeans have made little progress since the Nazi occupation exposed the moral cowardice of a continent. In his magnificent new biography of Theodor Herzl (Weidenfeld, £20), Shlomo Avineri points out that the founder of Zionism rejected racial theory at a time when it was de rigeur even among liberals. Herzl, a secular Viennese journalist, came up with a formula that acknowledged the formative role of religion in the unique nature of Jewish identity: “Wir erkennen uns als Nation am Glauben” [“We recognise ourselves as a nation through our faith”]. Yet do Europeans today behave as though they accepted Herzl’s formula? The growing moves to ban ritual circumcision and kosher slaughter deny the basic tenets of Judaism, while the boycott movement denies Jews the right to nationhood. When Israelis warn against the threat of a nuclear Iran, Europeans turn a blind eye — though they are grateful for Israeli intelligence about their own jihadists now being trained along the Turkish-Syrian border. We expect Israelis to stand idly by as their enemies bombard them at home, isolate them abroad, and prepare for a war of extermination. Yet Israel, not its enemies, is demonised as the great threat to peace.
Who pioneered this demonology of Israel? Prominent among the demonologists was none other than Isaac Deutscher, whose hypocritical denial of democracy so disillusioned Ivan Klíma. Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six Day War was, he declared “worse than a defeat” — though defeat would have meant annihilation.
In her magisterial Israel: A History (Weidenfeld, £25), Anita Shapira concludes with the sombre reflection that Herzl may have been mistaken that a nation state for the Jews would abolish anti-Semitism. Yet she is right to observe that “the great Zionist adventure was and is one of the most astonishing attempts ever made at building a nation: taking place democratically, without coercion of its citizens, during an incessant existential war, and with no loss of the moral principles that guided it.”
In spite of this miracle, Europeans still deny Israel’s right to be recognised as a Jewish state by its Palestinian neighbours. I recently listened to a British elder statesman, himself a pillar of Anglo-Jewry, telling a senior Israeli minister that any insistence on such recognition was bound to be seen in Europe as a tactic intended to wreck any chance of peace. It seems that Herzl’s dream of a Judenstaat, a Jewish state, is still not fully accepted in Europe. 

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