Sunday, December 07, 2003

France Falling – Alain Finkielkraut on Anti-Semitism

The Provincial Cosmopolitans

The irony inherent in the criticisms made against Jews by those in the party of the Vigilant is that the Vigilant now lay claim to a virtue that was once considered vice when attributed to the Jews: cosmopolitanism. For centuries Jews were attacked because their cosmopolitan wandering and lack of attachment to a particular nation, to a particular piece of ground, made them pariahs wherever they lived in Europe. It was the Jews who, with their propensity for making and obtaining capital, were responsible for the deracination of European nations. During the Dreyfus Affair, French vigilance dedicated itself to protect France from the wandering Jews.

But, as Finkielkraut notes, all that has changed. Today, it is the Jews with their Israeli state who are condemned for a lack of cosmopolitanism. The vigilance that once damned the Jews for their universal mission, now derides Jewry for its attachment to their nation and the defense of the nation. The Jew today is not cosmopolitan enough. At the precise moment when Europe is undoing the nation, the Jews are defending a nation. It seems that in the historical flow of European sentiment, the Jews are a nation out of sync.

Still, there are differing shades of cosmopolitanism. For Finkielkraut, today’s cosmopolitanism is not that of the refined and worldly gentleman or even bourgeois affirming a certain civilized code. Rather it is the cosmopolitanism of the repentant, of religious fervor seeking to make amends for past sins as it enters into a spiral of self-negation. In this regard, Finkielkraut refers to a remark by Italian journalist, Barbara Spinelli, who argued that the Jews’ failing was its lack of a mea culpa to inhibit the barbarism of modern Judaism. While western civilization and its institutions, especially the Christian churches, engage in endless apologies to those wronged by imperialism and Euro-centrism, the Jews, it seems, have nothing to apologize for. Whether or not this is true is a matter of historical detail (Jews were involved in the Slavic slave trade, and many of the intellectuals involved in the Russian Bolshevik movement were Jews), but what is most interesting is the fact that repentance has become the touchstone of civilized behavior. It is the repentant alone who sees the humanity of the Other, not the statesman or the philosopher, but the religious who reduces religion to nothing but self-deprecation. And in this self-deprecation, Europe mounts its moralizing high-horse. A feat easily managed for those living in pacified Europe; not so easy when your nation is surrounded by hostile, undemocratic powers.

And here is the main contention raised against Israel: its lack of guilt allows it to treat the Palestinians as less than human. That this is a ridiculous simplification rarely troubles the European critic. But, drawing on an article by American, Michael Walzer, Finkielkraut remarks that there are in fact four wars going on between the Israelis and the Palestinians: “The Palestinian war that seeks to extinguish the Israeli state, the Palestinian war aimed at securing an independent Palestine, the war for the security of the Israeli nation, and the Israeli war intended to reinforce Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.” To reduce the conflict to the simplified caricature of Israeli occupation is ludicrous. And yet, this is often the “root cause” of terrorism cited by many in Europe.

What’s missing in the simplification is, according to Finkielkraut, the political. And this is what lies at the bottom of the European self-delusion. As Finkielkraut reminds us, war is a political act which pits two or more enemies against one another. It is a violent event or string of events that can eventually result in a truce or armistice that secures peace between the two parties. In other words, war implies a degree of common ground between belligerents. Moreover, it gives political substance to the category of enemy. Politically, nations can quite justly be enemies.

The new vigilance, the new cosmopolitanism of negation denies this political possibility. It thinks only in terms of the Other, rather than of the enemy. And, by eliminating the category of enemy, we also eliminate the very act of war. All that is left is unjust oppression and absolutely justified resistance, regardless of the form. The religious replaces the political in the mind of the European critic. The cosmopolitan once recognized the possibility of nations going to war, and sought to civilize this with agreements regarding proper conduct in war. Today’s provincial cosmopolitans – provincial because all they see is the idea of the Other which informs recent European history and much of current academic life – speak endlessly of international law and multilateralism but view reality only as a struggle between the oppressor and the oppressed, with the oppressed justified in any barbaric action he may take. Contemporary anti-Semitism feeds on the extremism of the Other, demanding that every perceived historical injustice be compensated, though it’s a demand that will never be satisfied. It is the great sin of the Jews today, and of the United States, that they do not obsess about their transgressions, but instead go to war against their enemies.

Tomorrow: Finkielkraut concludes.

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