An Earthquake in the Jewish World

A part of the Jewish organizational world today resembles the state of the Church before it was challenged by Martin Luther.

Screenshot: Project “Martin Luther – Here I stand” featuring 800 Luther multiples set up in the market square in Wittenberg, the City of Luther.

By Eva Illouz

Over the last few months, like many others, I have followed the news with an undefinable mixture of dismay, fascination and terror. When reality evades our grasp, we may reach for familiar concepts to cope with its elusiveness.

In 1919 Sigmund Freud wrote a short essay, called “The Uncanny” (“Das Unheimliche,” in German), in which he attempted to understand a particular kind of anxiety and fear elicited by art or literature (for example, the tales of E.T.A. Hoffmann) or events (such as recurring coincidences), the uncanny. Unheimlich is the opposite of Heimlich, the familiar, domestic and homey.

Freud’s stroke of genius consisted in understanding that psychically “unheimlich” is not the opposite of “heimlich,” but rather a sub-category of it: It is the strange that occurs within the home, as when a child looks at the face of his mother and suddenly senses that behind her face hides a ghost or a witch (countless horror movies tap into the feeling of the uncanny, turning grandparents, parents or children into possessed creatures). The uncanny is thus the very special form of terror we feel when we look at someone or something that is familiar, yet fail to recognize it. It is the anxiety that derives from actually seeing a foreign creature in the well-known body and face.

The world at the beginning of 2017 elicits the same feeling of the uncanny: It is the same old world we knew, yet we sense it has become inhabited by foreign ghosts, hybrid creatures never seen before.

The “leader of the democratic world” upholds undemocratic values reminiscent of the world that the United States crushed only 70 years ago (the name of Charles Lindbergh has been frequently evoked in the context of Donald Trump, with regard to the fascist path the U.S. could have taken then and did not). This man is far closer in leadership style, in ideology and in personal affinity, to the leader of Russia – a former KGB spy – than he is to his fellow citizens from the Democratic Party, since he himself encouraged Russia, a foreign and hostile power, to spy on Hillary Clinton. Russia’s interference in the American election was executed with the passive collaboration of the FBI itself – the apple of the American public’s eye, one of the presumed guardians of American power, revealing to all forces that undermine American sovereignty from within its epicenter. Two specters now haunt the United States, and seem to have taken possession of its soul: the defeated fascist Europe of the 1930s and Cold War Russia.

But perhaps most unheimlich of all are the new alliances that have materialized in the Jewish world. The end of 2016 brought, an alliance of a kind never seen before, between the Israeli government, a large percentage of Orthodox Jews (in both the U.S. and Israel), and Trump associates and supporters, the same who, during and after Trump’s campaign, winked mischievously at neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan, and Hitler admirers.

I belong to the generation for which the fight against anti-Semitism was paramount to Jewish moral, political and religious identity. The struggle against anti-Semitism has held entire Jewish communities together, helping different strands of Judaism to overcome their divisions; it has made the State of Israel the center of Jewish life; it has been the focus of Jewish historical memory worldwide. But for the first time in modern history, significant segments of organized religious Judaism in America – the most powerful Jewish community outside Israel – have sided with a political group from which emanates the stench of anti-Semitism. None other than Arye Dery, leader of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Shas party and minister of the interior, has claimed that Donald Trump’s election signaled the imminent arrival of the Messiah: “If such a miracle like this can happen, we have already reached the days of the Messiah, therefore we are really in the era of the birth pangs of the Messiah.”

If Dery, together with countless American and Israeli Orthodox (or professional organizational Jews, such as the leaders of the Zionist Organization of America), can hold their noses when smelling the anti-Semitic stench emanating from Trump associates and supporters, and pretend that stench is a rose fragrance, and if they can celebrate his accession to power as the sign of Messiah’s impending arrival – then unbeknownst to us, an earthquake has occurred in the Jewish world, opening a wide and gaping geological fault. This is a change of formidable proportions.

The meanings of this change are many: Nationalism has replaced historical memory as the nexus of Jewish institutions and Jewish identity. Israel and organized Orthodox Judaism are willing to legitimize and collaborate with anti-Semites, when the latter can help them promote interests that are entirely political, that is, that are about control and power. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants the United States to provide his undemocratic policies with a seal of legitimacy. The settlers want to annex territory in peace and quiet, without the fuss and noise of international bodies like the United Nations getting involved. And the Orthodox want to crush the Conservative and Reform strands of Judaism.

Future generations will remember this: Ultra-Orthodox and ultra-nationalists traded the historical memory of the Jewish people, and their own allegiance to the Jewish people, in a public market of political interests for the sake of raw power and territorial expansion. It also means this: The Israeli right wing’s incessant invocation of what it sees as the perpetual threat of anti-Semitism in order to legitimize its foreign and domestic policy is nothing but posturing. Now, only liberal Jews in Israel and in the democratic world can claim to be the authentic opponents of anti-Semitism, because one cannot fight against anti-Semitism without fighting for human rights in general. To disconnect the fight against anti-Semitism from human rights as the Israeli right and Orthodox Jews do, is tantamount to declaring that only Jews have human rights. Finally, these new alliances have created and will continue to generate rifts from which the Jewish people may never recover. There are historical precedents for this fear.

Religions and peoples have split over less fundamental issues. The Protestant Reformation was caused by the rejection of the Catholic Church’s mixture of religion, political intrigues and bottomless financial greed. I do not know if we are close to a Jewish Reformation, but I am sure that a part of the Jewish organizational world today resembles the state of the Church before it was challenged by Martin Luther. It displays the same mixture of fundamentalism, politics and money, a mixture that nowhere in the history of mankind has elicited respect or elevated the spirit.

Those of us, inside and outside Israel, who are committed to the memory of Jewish history and to the defense of the rights of Jews as human rights, must shout, like Luther, “Here I stand.”

Eva Illouz is a full professor of sociology at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Since October 2012 she has been President of Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy of Art and Design.