A Letter from London - A decade of Jewish cultural pessimism
By Antony Lerman | 04/02/2010
In the competition I ran in my head for the phrase that best characterises the Jewish state of mind in the past decade, ‘Jewish cultural pessimism' won hands down. For an optimist like me, that's an awful admission. I can list many reasons to be cheerful about the noughties, but they are easily swept away by the tsunami of slights, calumnies, insults and disasters experienced by Jews, which any good Jewish neo-con can recite in his sleep. An old campaigner like me will continue to battle over whose inventory is truer but it's already too late. Cliché it may be, but perception trumps reality and only a future historian can now produce a corrective to the Jewish collective consciousness of our time that sees defamation dripping from the wider cultures that envelop us. A book I'm reviewing on the history of antisemitism in England is called Trials of the Diaspora. The author believes ‘the closed season on Jews is over'. That says it all.
In the vocabulary of Jewish cultural pessimism, Israel is the Jew among the nations, according to the lawyer and former Canadian Minister of Justice Professor Irwin Cotler, who coined the phrase. But Europe is Medea, still devouring her Jewish children 65 years after the Holocaust. For this image of an irredeemably antisemitic Europe we have the Israeli journalist Ari Shavit to thank. While Cotler's Israel is uniquely vulnerable—an astonishing conclusion to reach, which implies that Zionism failed—at least it bristles with weaponry and can defend itself. For Shavit's poor European Jews, if the antisemites and the antisemitic anti-Zionists don't get us first, assimilation, demographic decline, Muslim intimidation and loss of Jewish identity will see to us by the end of the century, if not before.
I grant that the first decade of the 21st century has not been a barrel of laughs. There are enough examples—from 9/11 to the Haiti earthquake, from the world financial and economic collapse to the explosion of the internet—to support an argument that we're living through a time of extraordinary ferment. We have, however, been here before. The years around the beginning of the 20th century were also a time rapid change in the arts and sciences and deep-seated fears of the destructive power of terrorism. Joseph Conrad captured the mood in his 1907 novel The Secret Agent in which the central character, Mr Verloc, an anarchist, tries to blow up the Greenwich Observatory. By destroying the site of the meridian, the anarchists are trying to destroy time itself, or perhaps reset the world's clock. The symbolic parallels with the acts of the 9/11 Islamist terrorists are uncanny.
I suppose that it's not surprising that we Jews should be buying in to the apocalyptic mood and placing ourselves at the centre of it. On the one hand, messianism grips a significant section of the Jewish people. On the other hand, Jewish cultural pessimism leads to the anticipation of a grim, final, historical denouement. Two sides of the same coin of the ‘impatient expectation for imminent cosmic upheaval which would transform the nature of Jewish existence', in the words of the historian Maurice Kriegel. But being gripped by frenzy or paranoia is no frame of mind in which to run a modern state or lead a Jewish community.