Enlightenment and Its Discontents

In thus projecting a doctrine of human dignity, Rassvyet [published 1907-1934] did not only confront the Czarist regime and Russian society. It threw down the gauntlet to the Jewish liberals, socialists and assimilationists whose conventional policy was one of apology and self justification, accepting by implication the notion that if the Jews were not ultra-virtuous, not ultra-talented, and not ultra-blessed with ultra-civilized ancestors, they would not be entitled to the ordinary rights enjoyed or striven for by their non-Jewish fellow citizens. They thus openly accepted the double standard which was (and has remained) one of the hallmarks of anti-semitism throughout the world.

Standing alone among the organs of Jewish opinion, the Rassvyet editors applied their extraordinary intellectual resources to warn the Jewish community against the illusion that the "emancipation", which all demanded, would solve the essential Jewish problem. Emancipation had come to progressive Western Europe and what had been achieved? Virulent German anti-semitism, "scientific" Austrian anti-semitism were as alive as ever. Most dramatically of all, its monstrous face had appeared in France precisely in the age of vaunted liberalism: Dreyfus languishing on Devil's Island was a very recent memory. The idea that precisely in Russia, Russia of the pogroms, an emancipatory sun would melt the hearts of the endemic Jew-haters was a snare and an illusion: those who preached it were leading their people to the edge of despair.

- Shmuel Katz. Lone Wolf: A biography of Vladimir (Ze'ev) Jabotinsky.

When the winds of Emancipation began to blow through Europe, Jews were presented with a choice. They could become equal citizens but only by keeping their Jewish identity restricted to private life. Many Jews, understandably eager to break free of generations of persecution, embraced the offer. Judaism was reformed to meet the demands of this civic invisibility, with the German Reform movement leading the way. By instituting a number of significant changes, from translating the Hebrew liturgy into German to celebrating the Jewish Sabbath on Sunday rather than Saturday to abolishing traditional dietary restrictions, Reform leaders hoped to help the Jews become full partners in German life, to be what one Enlightenment thinker would later call "a Jew at home and a man on the street." Significantly, the German Reform movement did not see Jews as a separate nation but rather considered themselves to be "Germans of Mosaic persuasion."

But the Enlightenment strategy of fading out of view was deeply and tragically unsuccessful. Enlightenment and emancipation promised to treat Jews as equal citizens provided they remained invisible as Jews. But what started with eliminating Jewishness from the public square culminated in an attempt to eliminate Jews altogether. The country where Reform was born would also be the country that would condemn the Jews to extermination.

Europe's democratic ideals would leave no room for Jewish identity. On this point, there was little that separated the philosophical ends and ideologies associated with the Right or the Left. Each had a dream of sameness and unity, whether it entailed a fascistic single identity or imagined the dissolution of all identity.

- Natan Sharansky. Defending identity.

In Europe, and not just there, a new kind of politics did seem to be stirring, which sometimes called itself left-wing and sometimes right-wing -- a demagogic politics, irrational, authoritarian, and insanely murderous, a politics of mass mobilization for unachievable ends. Mussolini had embraced the word "totalitarian" to describe his own movement; and "totalitarian" in its stuttery sharp syllables seemed to fit the new kind of politics in each of its versions, right-wing and left-wing alike. The implications did seem fairly obvious. During the whole of the nineteenth century and the first years of the twentieth, a great many enlightened and progressive thinkers had supposed that a main danger, perhaps the principal danger, to modern civilization came from a single political tendency, which was the extreme right, and mostly from a single country, which was Germany, the sworn foe of the French Revolution. But that sort of outlook seemed hopelessly antique by 1950. In the new era, no one doubted that political movements on the extreme right could still make you worry. No one felt much confidence in Germany and its political traditions.

But the midcentury writers saw all too plainly that a danger to civilization had meanwhile cropped up in Russia and among the hard-bitten Stalinists, and among other people, too. The writers worried about the many mush-headed liberals and fellow travelers all over the world who, without being Stalinists themselves, managed to admire the Stalinist enterprise. ...

- Paul Berman. Terror and liberalism.

Cross-posted at DiL - TypePad.