The assumption, whereby the rising tide of populism across the globe is triggering the waves of anti-Semitism we are seeing in many places, ignores the fact that both ugly phenomena stem from the same place. The waves of populism and anti-Semitism are currently creating a new liberal utopia known as essentialism, which is a fresh form of communism that aspires to end human suffering caused by inequality.
Communism purported to end this suffering by eradicating the bourgeoisie and nationalism, and to this end, it stole private property and stripped people of their national heritage. Anti-Semitism was used to erase Jewish culture, which was perceived as a foundation of the world’s old moral structure. The communist threat toward the bourgeoisie and nationalism was the main culprit behind the flood of populism in the previous century, which instead of sparking a defense of nationalism gave birth to the rise of fascism, which culminated in Nazism. In order to impose their “morality,” the Nazis sought to eradicate Judaism by perpetrating genocide against the Jewish people.
According to the essentialism of today, humankind’s distress is caused by borders separating states and nations, but also cultures, ethnicities and genders. Because these borders are human-made and do not reflect essential differences, essentialism strives to tear them down. To realize the vision of kneading society into a mush of borderless humanity, essentialism has also conjured a new morality: Love of the “other” precedes love of oneself.
Similar to communism, essentialism cannot come to terms with the existence of the old moral order.
The principle of altruism, as stated in the old commandment to “love thy neighbor as thyself,” is altruism created by nature for all its creatures, which protects not only the needy but the generous and helpful as well. But there is a point in which giving ceases to be a moral act. Essentialism turns this useful and rewarding generosity into an act of suicidal altruism.
The politics of multinationalism, multiculturalism and free immigration obligate the giver to surrender his identity in terms of gender, nationality, culture and history. In response, waves of popular resistance have swelled to create the Brexit crisis in the United Kingdom, the wall controversy in the United States, and “yellow-vests” protests in France, and have strengthened right-wing nationalist parties across Europe.
For now, the nature of this populistic wave is oriented towards the defense of the nation-state and therefore is also friendly to Israel. But with the continuing ascent of essentialism, it is also possible that it, too, will become offensive in nature and attack, with its leaders propagating utopian illusions akin to Nazism.
Similar to communism, essentialism cannot come to terms with the existence of the old moral order. However, since classic anti-Semitism is currently out of fashion, it’s channeling its hatred of Jews to the State of Israel, whose insistence on constitutionally defending itself as a nation-state is a veritable call to arms.
Just as anti-Semitism functioned as a bridge between the contrasting utopias of communism and Nazism—today, too, it bridges between enlightened essentialist liberals and boorish Muslim extremists in their joint struggle to delegitimize Israel. Jews weren’t able to defend themselves against these previous utopias and the waves of anti-Semitism they produced.
The fight against the current wave of anti-Semitism needs to be spearheaded by Israel. It must focus this fight on essentialism, which is breeding populistic and anti-Semitic backlashes. Formulating a strategic plan to wage a cultural battle of this sort is an unprecedented intellectual challenge shared by Israel and Jews in the Diaspora.
Dr. Hanan Shai is a lecturer in the political-science department at Bar-Ilan University.