column

The Jews’ lesson for the West

Conservatism and the nation need each other to survive.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres addresses the opening of the 40th session of the Human Rights Council, Palais des Nations, Feb. 25, 2019. Credit: U.N. Photo by Violaine Martin.
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres addresses the opening of the 40th session of the Human Rights Council, Palais des Nations, Feb. 25, 2019. Credit: U.N. Photo by Violaine Martin.
Melanie Phillips
Melanie Phillips
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, in 2018. To access her work, go to: melaniephillips.substack.com.

What has the Holocaust got to do with the culture wars that are currently tearing the West apart?

Much more than many might think. Here’s an illustration.

Significant reverberations continue from last month’s National Conservatism conference in London.

The conference was the brainchild of Israeli-American philosopher and political theorist Yoram Hazony. He believes that the onslaught on the West and its cultural heritage, with various iterations of race and gender identity politics becoming ever more grotesque and harmful, can only be countered by putting the defense of the nation back into conservatism.

This is because, in recent decades, conservatism has lost the plot. Failing to acknowledge the cultural essentials that need to be conserved, many who call themselves conservatives have in fact adopted key shibboleths of the left.

So-called progressives use every means available to silence dissent from their ideological dogma. So, the fact that almost a thousand people—many of them eager twenty-somethings wide-eyed to discover that so many others thought like themselves—were able to listen to NatCon speakers utter such heresies as the need to stop mass immigration, promote the traditional family and uphold religious traditions sent the left into meltdown.

It also produced some rattled reactions from nominal conservatives who are profoundly unsettled by the implications of Hazony’s thinking.

In The Times of London this week, Danny Finkelstein wrote a column on why he thinks nationalism cannot form the basis of conservatism nor the basis of Britain’s future.

Finkelstein, a Jewish journalist who is also a Conservative Party member of the House of Lords, is a thoughtful, decent and civilized individual. His piece was typically measured and intelligent. It was, however, confused. That confusion illustrated why the central conceit of progressivism is so damaging.

Drawing upon his family’s shattering experiences in Nazi and Communist Europe, as recounted in his critically acclaimed new book Hitler, Stalin, Mum and Dad, Finkelstein emphasized that he does indeed appreciate the value of the nation.

As he has often written, his family had cause to be grateful that there was a Britain to take them in as refugees from the European slaughterhouse. He added that, as his grandfather appreciated, the experience of the Holocaust underscored the absolute necessity of the Jewish nation-state of Israel.

Yet he also said that the Holocaust showed that nationhood was not enough. The removal of citizenship from his mother’s family demonstrated that, since rights derive from being members of a nation, nobody took responsibility for them.

The rights of his parents, Finkelstein wrote, were tied up in their citizenship rather than their humanity. This proved insufficient. There is, he asserted, “a circle of obligation beyond the nation. An obligation to all human beings.”

After the Second World War, he observed, a new world order was created in which human rights had a claim alongside national rights. This was “a hard-headed response to the shortcomings of nationalism.”

That was indeed the argument behind the doctrine of international human rights law. That doctrine was created largely by Jewish lawyers—like the visionary Hersch Lauterpacht—who were aghast that the annihilation of millions was considered solely the business of the state involved.

These lawyers believed that international human rights law would place all of humanity under a legal shield. They thought the way to save Jews and others from future persecution was to trump national sovereignty by holding oppressors to account through international tribunals.

Others, however, such as the Lithuanian lawyer Jacob Robinson, fruitlessly warned that this was a trap, because only national sovereignty could safeguard the Jews. Robinson also understood that, by superseding national sovereignty, the universalist doctrine of human rights was innately hostile to Jewish particularism as expressed through the Zionist dream of recovering the Jewish national homeland.

Indeed, the great flaw in international law is that it is based on supposedly universal values. But the values that stand against savagery, sadism and dehumanization are not universally held. They are the specific product of Western societies and based on the Hebrew Bible.

As related in James Loeffler’s book Rooted Cosmopolitans: Jews and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century, this fundamental flaw inevitably turned the United Nations—the designated vehicle of international human rights—into a mortal enemy of Zionism and the Jewish people.

Transnational institutions such as the U.N. or the International Criminal Court fail to hold to account the worst human-rights violators in the world, such as Russia, China, North Korea, Iran and others. Instead, they train their sights on democratic, human rights-obsessed Israel.

This is where Finkelstein gets into a muddle. He correctly wrote of the nation that it is “a place where a people can belong, can commit themselves to a common defense, can forge a democratic understanding and enjoy a common culture.”

That’s precisely why the majority of the British people voted for Brexit. Transnational values embodied by the European Union undermine the nation by subordinating national parliaments, which pass laws rooted in the democratic consent of the people, to laws made in Brussels and enforced by a foreign court.

Yet Brexit was opposed by Finkelstein, who was a long-standing and passionate supporter of the U.K.’s E.U. membership.

The fact is that universal rights culture does nothing to stop tyrants abroad, while at home it undermines democracy and cultural bonds.

Tyrants can only be stopped if they are defeated. Vladimir Putin won’t be deterred from his atrocities in Ukraine by any human rights tribunal. He has to be beaten.

The idea that Hitler might have been stopped if universal human rights law had existed is risible. He was stopped only because Britain and the Allies fought and paid the ultimate price in order to defend the West against Nazism.

As Finkelstein’s grandfather understood, the Jewish people can only be protected by a State of Israel armed against its enemies. International human rights law will never protect Israel. Instead, that law is being used by Israel’s enemies as the weapon with which they intend to destroy it.

Today’s culture wars also have their origin in the Holocaust.

The greatest single crime against humanity took place at the very apex of Western culture. As a result, the West became profoundly demoralized, with a collapse in cultural self-belief. The resulting vacuum was filled by revolutionaries who seized their chance to remake the world by undermining normative values and the Western nation-state.

They set about replacing the particularistic aspects of Western and national culture with supposedly universal values that would usher in the utopia of the brotherhood of man.

The cultural precepts at the core of Western civilization were fundamentally Jewish values, mediated through Christianity. It was the Jewish people who, under King David, created the paradigmatic nation-state.

Identity politics, which are an outgrowth of universalism, are inimical to the intensely particularistic principles of the Hebrew Bible. From Christianity to Islam, from communism to fascism, Jews have always been in the cross-hairs of universalizing ideologies.

Unfortunately, many progressive Jews have bought heavily into universalism. This is particularly true in America, where the majority of Jews have told themselves that identity politics represent Jewish values, which they do not.

Last month’s NatCon event revealed a fledgling fightback to rescue both conservatism and the Western nation-state from the universalist assault.

Conservatism is the defense of essential values. The nation is crucial to defending those values. In order to put conservatism back into the nation, the nation needs to be put back into conservatism.

Jews helped create universalism. They had the best of intentions, but they were wrong. Far from addressing the limitations of the nation, universalism undermines it and erodes the values of a free and democratic society.

That is the real lesson the Jewish people can teach the West; and if  the West chooses to listen, this lesson can save it.

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