The lost contract

Írta: Szombat - Rovat: English

Europe and her Jews (or vice-versa)


András Kovács

The relationship between Europe and her Jews has deteriorated. Complaints of a new European anti-Semitism are voiced increasingly more loudly and ever more often on various Jewish forums – which then re-surface in European public discourse with the mediation of Israeli and North American media, often even more vociferously. European reactions tend to be a mixture of surprise and barely concealed offendedness

While European politicians hasten to reassure the representatives of Jewish organisations about their commitment to combat anti-Semitism and Fascism, and the unchanged nature of European policies in this respect, they also tend to voice their incredulity, their offendedness and, occasionally, their suspicions that behind the provocation of Jewish apprehensions lurk powers intending to upset European political harmony. One might contest whether anti-Semitic phenomena are indeed more frequent and more threatening in contemporary Europe than earlier, or whether European states are indeed doing everything to restrain and keep in check acts of anti-Semitic violence. We have no reason to doubt that authoritative and leading European politicians are not anti-Semitic and they are not particularly pleased if local or immigrant radical groups disrupt social peace with anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic acts. Most European Jews would probably agree with the above. However, Jewish fears are not roused by these phenomena alone. As a matter of fact, what is new is not anti-Semitism, but the context in which it appears.

In the past few years, the framework defining the relation of European Jewry and of European states to the Holocaust has changed fundamentally. It would appear that an unwritten contract, which more or less successfully regulated the relationship between European Jews and Gentiles after the Holocaust until recently, has been annulled.

Although the Jewish survivors of the Holocaust were fragmented into different groups along a diverse range of divides – religious observance vs. secularism, assimilation vs. dissimilation, loyalty to the majority nation vs. minority consciousness – they all had to face the consequences of a cold sober decision, namely that they began rebuilding their lives on the continent where the death camps had been built, often in countries whose population had collaborated with their persecutors or had “only” turned their heads when the trains to Auschwitz were dispatched. This was neither a simple, nor an easy decision. There has been a proliferation of studies on individual strategies – and their psychological consequences – with which these survivors attempted to resolve the rising conflicts. In addition to individual identity strategies, however, there was need for a public and collective legitimation to take on such a serious decision. This legitimation was provided by the unwritten contract between the Jews and the European states after the war.

This unwritten contract essentially meant that European Jewry had – mutatis mutandis – reverted to the paradigm described by Hannah Arendt: instead of the European aristocracy, the Jews placed themselves under the protection of the European states. They expected not only direct protection from anti-Semitic aggression, but also that European legislation and European policies guarantee that what had happened from the close of the First World War until the end of the Second World War would never occur again. They expected the European states to recompense them for their losses and suffering, both morally and financially. They expected help for ensuring that the victims of the persecutions again fit into society and, also, for the revitalisation of Jewish community life. Finally, they also expected that the European states maintain a special relation to the Jewish state, founded in 1948, which in the eyes of European Jews symbolized a final refuge if the need arose.

The states of Europe more or less fulfilled these expectations. Although the intensity of relations with Israel varied according to the political situation in individual Western European countries, the justification for the existence of a Jewish state and its defence agenda were never seriously challenged by the authoritative actors on the European political stage, no matter how strained relations became. As regards the protection and compensation of European Jewry, Jewish expectations were maximally fulfilled: European legislation enacted laws, which explicitly forbade Fascist and post-Fascist organisations, and in many countries – including also ones that did not have a Fascist past – anti-Semitic hate speech, post-Fascist revisionism and Holocaust denial and relativisation were punishable by law even at the expense of curtailing freedom of speech. (Laws of this type were also enacted in the Communist countries, even though in these countries the sense of danger was never dispelled in the Jewish communities owing to periodical anti-Semitic campaigns and anti-Zionist propaganda.)

The establishment of a special relation with the Jews also held out the promise of certain advantages for the Western European states. First and foremost, it became a powerful and eloquent symbol of their anti-Fascist and democratic legitimacy, and it also offered a means of avoiding an often painful confrontation with certain events of Second World War for a shorter or longer period of time (e.g. in France, Switzerland and Sweden) – a confrontation, which was not particularly insisted on by the Jewish communities of these countries.

The “contract” between the Jews and the Western European states provided a considerable legitimacy for both parties. It fulfilled the Jewish communities’ acute need for security and it provided the necessary guarantees for legitimising a new beginning of Jewish life on the European continent. Any study of European history reveals that European Jewry usually flourished in those very periods in which it had powerful political allies. This unwritten contract provided surviving Jewry with a mighty ally: the community of democratic European states.

It seemed for a long time that this alliance would not be shaken by anything – that the special relations between European states and European Jewry would be everlasting, regardless of political events or changes. In the early 1990s, following the fall of Communism, in the euphoria over the “end of history”, the final victory of liberalism and the re-unification of Europe, it seemed that the special relation to Jewry would be one of the key elements of the emerging, new European identity. It seemed that the new European identity, expressing a unity transcending East and West, Right and Left, would be defined from a primarily historic perspective, and that the two cornerstones in the definition of this new Europe, i.e. the “Other” necessary for any self-definition, would be two dates – 1945 and 1990, the dates of the collapse of European totalitarianisms. What the new Europe wanted to distinguish herself from was her own past. The most powerful and expressive symbols of this past were Auschwitz and the Gulag. This held out the promise that the special relationship forged by a democratic Europe and the Jews living here as a result of moral and political considerations would have a new, symbolic significance. Europe’s new identity would be expressed by her special relation to the Jews.

This process culminated in the Holocaust conference held in Stockholm in 1998. Following the joint statement made by European presidents and heads of state, the examination of national responsibilities for the persecutions of the Jews became a quasi-official part of the European political conscience, winning institutional confirmation through state-sponsored Holocaust education programmes. In this atmosphere, Jewish culture in Europe underwent an unhoped-for flourishing: Jewish schools were opened one after the other, a number of Jewish religious, cultural and social organisations were formed in countries, where in the not so recent past Jews strove to remain as unobtrusive as possible. But even more eye-catching and conspicuous was the nostalgia in Gentile society towards a Jewish past and a Jewish culture that was irretrievably lost and had vanished forever from Europe. Jewish museums, memorial places, finely renovated synagogues that were no longer used in the lack of Jews, Jewish cultural festivals attracting huge crowds, klezmer concerts, growing numbers of Jewish restaurants and Jewish souvenir shops in the one-time Jewish quarters became major tourist attractions throughout Europe – all virtual Jewish places, without actual Jews, as Ruth Ellen Gruber wryly noted in her book.

The idyll, which appeared to be eternal for a moment, was practically shattered as soon as it was born, and it swept away – or annulled – the unwritten contract, which had until then regulated the relation between the Jews and the European states. The changes can in part be traced to social causes. The post-war political “contract” did not turn into a “social contract”, but remained an affair between individual states and their Jews. It therefore proved virtually impossible for the new European identity option to become a self-evident, common reference point. The appearance of a new generation in European societies, in whose generational memory the war and the Shoah were no longer key elements in the vision of Europe’s future, undoubtedly played an important role in this shift.

Still, the main reason for the annulment of the unwritten contract was political. The determination of the new European identity against the background of the dark periods of twentieth century European history was just one of the potential identity strategy options. After the euphoria over the collapse of the Communist systems had died down, the political events of the next few years favoured another option: the cultural-civilisational construction of European identity. In this construct, the boundary of Europe lay between the Old World and North America on the one hand, and the Islamic world on the other.

There were several, indirect political reasons of why the “Other” became to be identified with America (or, better said, with the United States) in the construct of European identity. One of these was undoubtedly the disintegration of the Soviet Union and Europe’s diminishing defence needs. Under the Clinton administration – and especially since George W. Bush’s presidency – American activity on the global scene, which seemed to go against the direct interests of the countries determining European policy (the Yugoslavian crises, the Near Easter conflict and, more recently, the war in Iraq), prompted European politicians to carefully or more openly distance themselves from American policies. In his study of the rising new anti-Americanism, Andrei S. Markovits aptly noted that the image of America in the construction of the “Other” as the background against which Europeanness was defined, tended to be a reflection not so much of what the United States actually did or does, but what it was perceived to be (cp.

The construct of a European identity is based less on a critique of American policies, than on the differentiation of the cultural and civilisational essence of the two continents, in which politics only play a role as far as they are perceived as an expression of a substantial difference. Markovits, Dan Diner and others have demonstrated that this European identity construct brought the resurgence of European anti-American sentiments not only among the élite groups (as earlier), but for the first time in history, on the streets too. The main reason for this was that the driving force behind the new anti-Americanism was not the cultural elitist European Right, but the Left, which suffered a grave identity crisis since the collapse of the Soviet systems and found a powerful and clear code in Uncle Sam, portrayed as an uncivilised, threatening, predatory and egoistic bogeyman, which could act as a common denominator for blending the otherwise far too abstract and far too ideological post-colonial, anti-imperialist, pacifist and anti-global left-wing discourses into a coherent system, offering – as an added bonus – an opportunity for emotional identification.

Although anti-Americanism does not necessarily go hand in hand with anti-Semitism, the quoted analyses of anti-Americanism have shown that the two ideologies became inextricably intertwined during the course of history. The stereotype of associating or even equating quintessential “Jewish” and “American” interests is well known. It is therefore hardly surprising that from the very moment that anti-Americanism began to figure prominently in the construct of the new European identity, European Jews felt that the world in which they had rebuilt their lives after the war was shattered, and that the unwritten contract was no longer valid. This feeling was not fuelled by the anti-Semitic connotations of anti-Americanism. The main reason for the intensification of Jewish fears and the evaporation of their sense of security was that with the changes in the European identity strategy, the special presence and function of the Jews’ presence in Europe as a collective seemed to come to an end. It seemed that the European identity in which the special function of this presence could flourish was supplanted by an identity construct in which the Jews appeared as representatives of the “Other”. This was perceived as a threat that the Jews would be cast into the same role in the forging of a European identity as they had been at the creation of national identities: they would be the ever-present, but outcast “significant Other”, against whom this identity is conceived.

The feeling that the unwritten contract had been annulled and Jewish fears were further aggravated by the fact that the Jewish presence appeared as a dilemma in European political discourse, as a problem that needed to be solved. The integration of Muslim immigrants is in itself an immense challenge to Western European politics – this problem is further exacerbated by the infiltration of the Near Eastern conflict into Europe: the spread of anti-Semitism among radical Islamic groups and violence against the Jews in several countries. One does not have to be an anti-Semite to reach the simple conclusion that if Israel did not exist, Europe would be rid of a major problem and the world of a potential war conflict. It is therefore hardly surprising that the simple conclusion that the decision to create the State of Israel was perhaps mistaken is often voiced even in respected European political circles (even if only as private exchanges), and there is a serious interest in the demographic projections, according to which the Jewish state will simply cease to exist in the not too distant future.

This reasoning, together with the political movements for whom anti-Americanism and anti-Israeli sentiments are not a political issue, but a question of Weltanschauung, affected a basic element of European Jewry’s identity. For most European Jews, the relationship to Israel is not political in nature, and neither can it be likened to one between a national minority and the fatherland, for which several European examples can be quoted. The overwhelming majority of Europe’s Jews live in Europe as the result of a conscious choice and tend to view more-recent Israeli politics rather critically. However, this does not affect their emotional attachment to the Jewish state, or the public demonstration of their affection, for it is this attachment (and the preservation of the Shoah’s memory) that allows them to define themselves as Jews and as part of the Jewish collective, irrespective of whether they have a Jewish spouse, whether they are observant, whether they keep Jewish traditions, or whether they are familiar with Jewish culture. This relation is the common denominator of the most diverse range of Jewish identities.

The post-war unwritten contract between European Jewry and the European state has been replaced by a gaping chasm. The Jews are now undecided about their place in Europe, especially if they regard themselves as a collective and not merely as a religious denomination – they are uncertain, whether Europe accepts them on their own terms. Moreover, the replacement of the annulled contract with something new is not in the interest of certain – not at all insignificant – forces occupying various positions of the political field. In contrast, their interest dictates that the alienation of the Jews from Europe continue. Considering the present situation, we may assume that the new “contract” will not be created by political necessity, for these tend to work against it. There is need for a conscious decision by Jewish and Gentile public figures and politicians – and, also, the acceptance of serious conflicts – in order to restore the harmony between Europe and her Jews. If the conflicts surrounding the European identity does not bring the victory of those, for whom a Jewish presence on the continent is desirable, the spiral of fear, incomprehension and short-term political calculations may well lead to conflicts, which will forever disrupt the symbiosis between the peoples of Europe and the European Jews, which gradually emerged in the decades after the Shoah.