A perverse feature of the Jewish people is that they make one particular mistake over and over again. They are persecuted. They frantically try to assimilate into their host community in the belief that this will avert future persecution. They are persecuted again. They frantically assimilate again.
This week saw the publication of the first collected works of Theodor Herzl, the founding father of modern Zionism. The set initiated the Library of the Jewish People, a new series of works by classic Jewish writers issued by the Koren publishing house.
Publishing this now is particularly fitting because of striking similarities between Herzl’s time and today.
Gil Troy’s masterful introduction to the collection draws attention to the complexities of Herzl’s tortured life. This rings a loud contemporary bell, not just about the persistence of antisemitism but about the current attitudes of Diaspora Jews.
Assimilated and sophisticated, Herzl had an ambivalent attitude towards his Jewishness. Infatuated with the German high culture that was dominant in Europe, he refused to circumcise his son and lit Christmas tree candles for his children.
Jews had risen to the highest levels of German and Austrian political, professional and cultural society. Yet at the same time, Germany and Austria were becoming more and more pathologically hostile to the Jews.
Herzl was caught in a permanent identity crisis—a conflict between his “enlightened” Europeanized self and the Jewish culture whose fundamental importance he only gradually came to understand.
As he reeled from one antisemitic shock after another, he repeatedly tried to reconcile the high degree of assimilation achieved by European Jews with the fact that, for non-Jewish Europeans, the Jews were unassimilable.
In 1895, he was shattered by the conviction in Paris of the Jewish officer Capt. Alfred Dreyfus on a trumped-up charge of treason, with the profound Jew-hatred of the French on naked display. That year, he was further unnerved by the election of the vicious antisemite Karl Lueger as mayor of Vienna—a city described by Amos Elon in his book The Pity of It All as culturally dominated by Jews.
Realizing after the Dreyfus affair that the Jews would never be safe except in their own homeland, Herzl’s thinking nevertheless remained framed by his assimilationist mindset. As Elon writes, he thought the site of the new Jewish national home would be chosen by a committee of rational and scientific geographers and economists, and it would be a multicultural, multilingual state like Switzerland.
The echoes of all this today are unmistakable. In Britain and America, antisemitism has reached record levels. Yet their Jewish communities have their heads in the sand or are looking the other way entirely.
In America, a majority of Jews have embraced universalism and intersectionality. Although these ideologies are antithetical to the inherently particularist values of Judaism and fuel antisemitism and anti-Zionism as a result, “progressive” American Jews tell themselves they represent Jewish values.
For days, there’s been uproar over former President Donald Trump hosting two profound antisemites at his table: the rapper Ye and the white supremacist and Holocaust denier Nick Fuentes. Such criticism of Trump for helping legitimize antisemites, not least through his failure to denounce them and admit the magnitude of his error, is entirely justified.
But progressive Jews gloating over Trump’s behavior have themselves connived at the promotion of antisemitism. In particular, they have failed to condemn the “Squad” of Jew-bashing congresswomen.
Ye draws upon the ideology of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who has spent decades vilifying the Jews as “satanic.” Yet former President Barack Obama had previously helped with Farrakhan’s organization, former President Bill Clinton shared a stage and a smiling handshake with him and the Democratic establishment has remained silent about his Jew-bashing.
In Britain, Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer has gone to great lengths to demonstrate his commitment to rid the party of the antisemites who openly infested it under the former hard-left leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Yet Starmer had previously campaigned vigorously for Corbyn to become prime minister. Starmer’s current deputy, Angela Rayner, was a leading Corbyn acolyte. His foreign affairs spokeswoman, Lisa Nandy—who says she is a Zionist—has promised in the past to oppose what she called “the illegal occupation of Palestine” and the “blockade of Gaza,” and supported the Palestinian Arabs’ “right of return.”
Starmer has been extremely careful to press all the right buttons in his charm offensive to reassure Britain’s Jewish community. It’s worked. “Progressive” British Jews now think it’s safe to vote Labour again.
This is wishful thinking. Anti-Zionism and antisemitism still course through the left.
This week, the journalist John Ware won his third victory in the libel courts. He had sued the Labour party and certain individuals who falsely claimed that in his 2019 BBC “Panorama” program “Is Labour Antisemitic?”, Ware had knowingly exaggerated the scale of antisemitism in Corbyn’s Labour party.
In this week’s case, Ware had sued a retired TV producer named Paddy French.
Among French’s supporters were the hard-left film director Ken Loach and Roger Waters, the co-founder of Pink Floyd who was French’s main financial backer. Waters, who has a long record of antisemitic remarks, said that Ware was “entirely controlled by the oligarchs … bought and paid for.”
On the contrary—Ware’s stand was heroic, particularly because he acted alone and with no financial support from the BBC or anyone else. Despite the record damages of £90,000 awarded to him this week, Ware risks being left badly out of pocket if French is unable to pay up, due to the high costs of the case.
Ware’s victory won’t stop French or Waters—with the rocker’s 550,000 Twitter followers—from pushing vicious falsehoods about Israel and the “world Zionist conspiracy” on social media.
Antisemitism will still roar out of control because it’s being fueled by defamatory lies about Israel. It’s not just the hard-left but the softer “progressives” who push this narrative, which is the cause of causes for Western liberals.
In both Britain and America, the Jewish community seeks ways of denying this reality in their overwhelming anxiety to fit into the dominant power structure. In order to pretend they aren’t different from everyone else, they tell themselves there are no barriers between them and non-Jewish Brits or Americans.
In a similar vein, Herzl and the Jewish communities of Germany and Vienna tried to rid themselves of characteristics that made them separate, telling themselves that assimilation made them as German or Austrian as everyone else. Such acceptance wasn’t true then and it’s not true now. The Jews are in the Diaspora on sufferance.
Last month, Israel’s Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs discussed a report published by the London-based Institute for Jewish Policy Research. It showed that between 1970 and 2020, Europe lost 59% of its Jewish population through a combination of antisemitism, the collapse of Jewish communities and assimilation.
The committee’s chairman, David Bitan, said, “In Europe, Jews are forced to conceal the Jewish characteristics. They are afraid to walk through the streets wearing a kippa, and the synagogues are guarded by local police.”
Dr. Dov Maimon of the Jewish People Policy Institute said, “There is no positive scenario for European Jewry due to the economic decline and the rise of Islamization.” Yet more than 80% of European Jews aren’t even thinking about leaving.
Antisemitism may be more widespread and violent in mainland Europe than in America and Britain, but the same baleful trends are all too obvious there too. Obvious, that is, for those with eyes to see.
If Herzl were around today, he would surely marvel at the astounding strength and vigor of the State of Israel; but he would also surely grieve that, for “assimilated” Diaspora Jews, little seems to have changed.
Melanie Phillips, a British journalist, broadcaster and author, writes a weekly column for JNS. Currently a columnist for The Times of London, her personal and political memoir Guardian Angel has been published by Bombardier, which also published her first novel, The Legacy. Go to melaniephillips.substack.com to access her work.