Back in 2003, as some readers will recall all too clearly, the noted historian Tony Judt penned a searing critique of Israel in the New York Review of Books. Titled “Israel: The Alternative,” Judt, whose impressive scholarship was largely focused on Europe, depicted the Jewish state as a reactionary outpost of 19th century nationalism that bucked the trend elsewhere—exemplified most of all by the European Union (EU)—toward “individual rights, open frontiers, and international law.”
Judt’s argument struck a wide-ranging, resonant chord. Insofar as an article can be said to have gone viral during a year when most people were still accessing the Internet through dial-up, and “Twitter” and “Facebook” sounded like nonsense words, this one did. Its most memorable and damning line read as follows: “Israel, in short, is an anachronism.”
That line sounds ridiculous in 2015, but it was equally flawed in 2003. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein’s Nazi-like Ba’ath regime was battling for survival, the Taliban was wreaking havoc and terror in Afghanistan, and North Korea dumped the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. In those countries, and in many others, “individual rights, open frontiers, and international law” might as well have been concepts from another planet.
Yet there was one important difference: Judt was writing at a time when the EU as an institution, along with its underlying post-nationalist political vision, was very much in the ascendant. One year after his article was published, the EU expanded its membership with 10 new states, from Central and Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean. Then, in 2007, Romania and Bulgaria joined the roster. In 2013, Croatia entered in the EU, just 20 years after the devastating war in the Balkans that followed the disintegration of Yugoslavia. Most of all, the deepening and strengthening of the Union was exemplified by the adoption, and subsequent expansion, of the Euro single currency in 2002, which resulted in established currencies like the German mark and the French franc being consigned to the history books.
By 2009 and 2010, though, as profound economic crises hit Ireland and Greece, doubts about the Euro’s efficacy in a region composed of economies that were at dramatically different stages of development started to multiply. And now Greece, an EU veteran that first entered the Union in 1981, is experiencing the worst economic crisis on the continent during the post-war period. Whether the Greeks leave the Euro (“Grexit”) or find a way to stay inside the currency, they face years of mass unemployment and crippling debt.
So intense is the Greek crisis that Gideon Rachman, one of the leading columnists at the Financial Times, wrote last week about “the failure of a European dream of unity, peace and prosperity”—all those goals that Tony Judt said that Israel could never achieve, because of its obsessive clinging to Jewish nationalism.
As the BBC’s Katya Adler pointed out, the Greek crisis works on two levels: one, a complex dispute about debt rescheduling and the degree to which austerity measures should be imposed, and two, a far simpler contest that is rooted in politics. Competition between nation-states, and therefore nationalism itself, has returned to Europe with a vengeance. One has to wonder whether Tony Judt, who sadly passed away in 2010 following a devastating illness, would be describing the European idea as an “anachronism” were he still with us.
Of course, partisans of Europe’s grand unifying ambitions always had a tendency, for ideological reasons, to exaggerate the influence of this project upon European national politics. (In the early 1970s, the terrorist Irish Republican Army used a Judt-like argument when it sneered that Britain, in contrast to its European neighbors, was a “recidivist nation, psychologically vulnerable, unstable, and mentally immature.”) Even so, the case for Europe as the locus for what the Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant termed the “perpetual peace” now seems decidedly shaky.
We are seeing the disintegration everyday on the streets of Athens, Thessaloniki, and other Greek cities. The sight of pensioners jostling outside banks to withdraw their meager savings is one of the more distressing aspects of this entire episode. The Greek government, locked in a bitter fight with Germany over the 68 billion euros it owes to Berlin, invokes not the European idea, but the heavily nationalist, anti-austerity political platform which its far left Syriza government was elected on.
That’s why Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras called on his fellow citizens to vote “no” in the referendum over whether to accept the EU’s punishing conditions for a fiscal rescue operation. (Ultimately, the people of Greece decisively rejected the bailout in Sunday’s vote.) It’s also why the violently anti-Semitic, neo-Nazi Golden Dawn Party, which finished third in the last Greek election, backed Tsipras. For too many Greeks, the EU is no longer a symbol of wealth secured through regional integration, but rather—in the words of Tsipras himself—the originator of “absurd” and “unrealistic” proposals that will leave his country at the mercy of Europe’s Central Bank.
It is far too early to say whether Greece will reverse the course of European history by reviving the ugly political traditions that the EU thought had been vanquished after World War II. But with the collapse of the European idea there, along with the severe disillusionment in other EU states (the U.K. will soon hold its own referendum on whether to leave the Union), there is every reason to worry that both the far left and the far right will reap the rewards that will flow from Europe’s shattered consensus.
In such conditions, anti-Semitism flourishes. In his recent book, “The War of a Million Cuts,” the Israeli political analyst Manfred Gerstenfeld quotes a rabbi in Greece as telling him, “Greece is a very traditional society, and they blame the Jews for killing Jesus. There are still people who believe that Jews drink the blood of Christians on Passover.” A just-released poll from the Anti-Defamation League reveals that a whopping 67 percent of Greeks “harbor anti-Semitic attitudes.”
Greece is not alone. Similar discontent, expressed through communal chauvinism and exclusivist nationalism, is visible in the east and west of the continent, from France to Poland. Rachman, the Financial Times columnist, candidly expresses the stakes involved. If Greece departs the Euro, he argues, that would “undermine the fundamental EU proposition: that joining the European club is the best guarantee of future prosperity and stability.”
Again, I don’t want to sound apocalyptic. This isn’t 1933, when Hitler came to power, nor (in a date that will be more familiar to U.S. readers) is it 1861, when the slave states seceded from America’s Union, ushering in four years of civil war. Nor is Europe’s crisis a Jewish crisis, though you can be sure that the “blame the Jews” chorus that invariably accompanies financial meltdown will grow louder. Hence, if Europe has proved anything, it’s not that Israel is an anachronism. It is, rather, a necessity.
Ben Cohen, senior editor of TheTower.org & The Tower Magazine, writes a weekly column for JNS.org on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. He is the author of “Some of My Best Friends: A Journey Through Twenty-First Century Antisemitism” (Edition Critic, 2014).