Europe killed God and eradicated its own nationalism. It didn’t happen in a single day; we’re talking about lengthy historical processes. The removal of the religious dimension, which had been dominant in European culture, became more prevalent during the Renaissance. Fascinatingly, Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity in 15th-century Spain and lived as conversos [secretly practicing Judaism] contributed to this. Because of their tenuous social standing and questions about their identity, these Jews existed in an ideological no man’s land. Many became agnostics, who cast doubt on the truths of the old religions. Since they were more educated than the average person, they had a profound influence on the European elite. The process was bolstered by the French Revolution, which separated church and state, and grew more powerful in the 19th century as science gained ground and increasingly freed itself from the church.
As religion weakened, the idea of separate nations grew stronger. The Spring of Nations in the mid-19th century caused ethnic groups to band together as nations and reappear as modern states. The Austro-Hungarian Empire crumbled into nation-states after World War I. But without being reined in by religion—the supreme authority that oversaw a ruler (not necessarily via the church establishment, but rather a simple belief in God that translated into moral behavior by the political leadership)—there were places in which national sentiment gave rise to nationalist offshoots that burst out into fascism and Nazism.
On the other hand, the militant and anti-religious atheism of the Soviet revolution replaced Christianity with communism, which acted like a new religion, crossing borders and nations, with its members united around Marx and Engels’ theories of class warfare. Soviet communism aspired to break down the nationalities of Europe and free them from class exploitation and promised equal distribution of human wealth. These romantic axioms sounded wonderful but were used to justify a regime that denied freedom to the masses and enslaved them to an establishment even more corrupt than the religious establishment that was wiped out.
World War II gave a tremendous push to the elimination of nationalism in Europe. The trauma of the war sowed the seeds for a process that dismantled the idea of nationalism, as the intellectual elite now had “proof” of the inherent evil of the concept of national feeling. Humanities and social sciences faculties served as a hotbed of ideas to demonstrate the poisoned fruit of nationalism—fascism, Nazism, and simple xenophobia—as an almost direct and necessary result of it, rather than a temporary aberration. That is the idea that formed the basis of the European Union—if national differences could be melted down, they thought, we could stave off the danger of the nationalist monster rearing up again in the form of evil regimes like the ones we suffered under in the first half of the 20th century.
But like the Soviet revolution, which kept its mind on ideas rather than people, the intellectual elite in Europe, which brought the European Union into being and served in its various political leadership roles, also denied humans’ basic need to belong to a bigger group, a people or a nation, that not only meets their defense and economic needs, but also gives the group members a collective identity that unites them around their shared historic ethos, linking them to their own countries.
The denial of national feeling was a replay of the denial of religious feeling, which had been banished after the secular and scientific revolutions. Even atheists can acknowledge the organizing function served by faith and religion. Religion gave meaning to individuals’ suffering and put their joy into orderly ceremonial frameworks; it helped them confront the threat of death and other fears; it raised the individual from an insignificant molecule to a person whom the God of the universe looked upon and whose belief he desired.
At a certain point in history, which lasted only a few decades, it appeared that Europe was managing fine without religion or nationalism. “Imagine there’s no heaven … no hell / no countries … nothing to kill or die for,” John Lennon sang in the 1970s. He also wanted us to imagine that there was no religion and even no property.
Europe did imagine it. And fell asleep. It threw off its religious and nationalist defenses, and while it was sleeping, tens of millions of Muslim immigrants, who refused to partake in Lennon’s dream, entered its borders. They clung to their faith and saw themselves as belonging to the Islamic nation. The immigrants weren’t buying the European package deal which offered economic security in exchange for the loss of their identity. Analysts who ascribed riots in European cities to unemployment alone were talking about their own dreams and their own private lives, and (again) ignored people’s need for a national and religious identity.
These immigrants hear what is being preached in thousands of mosques throughout Europe, where the era of Christianity is over and it is now Islam’s turn to spread its beliefs across the old world. The spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood movement, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, declared a decade ago: “The conquest of Rome, the conquest of Italy and Europe, means that Islam will return to Europe. Does that conquest have to take place through war? No! … Islam will conquer Europe not by the sword or battles, but through the call to Islam.”
It is no coincidence that al-Qaradawi mentioned the conquest of Rome. Rome is a legend and a symbol of heretical Western civilization that gave birth to Christian civilization. That is how Europe was left bereft of armor and sword to face warriors who wield two swords. Christian civilization in Europe lacks not only defenses; the intellectual elite continues to fight the return of the concept of nationalism and religious tradition. Nearly all national awakening is branded as “far-right” nationalism while strengthening traditional values is perceived as reactionary and a return to the darkness of the Middle Ages.
The new governments in Europe are not necessarily “old right” or “extremist.” A lot of the political leadership in European countries is starting to recognize the need to strengthen national feeling and religious tradition as a bulwark and a defense against a crumbling society and loss of identity. Anti-immigrant speech and actions in Europe don’t necessarily stem from sheer xenophobia. It’s about a different religion, one that opposes Europe’s years-long liberal and religious ethos. In London, in Sweden and in Berlin, people are talking on camera about making Islamic law (Sharia) the law of the land. The immigration to Europe is coming from Muslim countries that are breaking away from the artificial nationalism that European colonialism forced on them after World War I. The Middle East is reverting to tribal constructs, which were more stable than any other social structure in the history of the region. (Only in Israel do the gullible insist that a stable Palestinian national entity be established on the hills of Judea and Samaria, and that it will not fall prey immediately to the forces of Islamism.) The national breakdown in the Middle East has led to immense anarchy and bloodshed. The result is huge waves of refugees being thrown up on the shores of Europe.
The new European governments aren’t “reactionary,” or necessarily “anti-Semitic” or “fascist,” as they are traditionally called by the left, which handles reality by calling names. They represent responsible political leadership that has woken up in time to meet the danger posed to their societies and wants to return to traditional values. The irony is that there are plenty of Jews—some of whom belong to the European Jewish establishment—who are pushing their societies to re-embrace Christianity and bolster national sentiment along the way. The end of days: Jacob is encouraging Esau to come home. Time will tell whether it’s too late for Europe.
Dror Eydar has been appointed Israel’s next ambassador to Italy.