In the Age of Walls, the Bridgebuilder is King:
Referendums, Borders and the Work of the Rothschild Foundation Hanadiv Europe

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By Robin Nobel

Nationalism was a defining feature of my childhood. In the guise of Quebec separatism, it drove much of my family, and many of my friends and neighbours away from my home province, just as it pulled others to stay and work toward a new, sovereign and free Quebec. For those that believed in the cause, it was the righting of historical wrongs. Quebec sovereignty would throw off the yoke of oppression, freeing Francophones from centuries of linguistic, economic and cultural subjugation. For either side, the force was magnetic: it pushed and it pulled, but no one was left neutral.

Like the Brexit debate raging in the UK today, 1990s Quebec nationalism held sway over and above market forces. The economic toll was both grave and measurable. In the case of Quebec, no fewer than 700 businesses relocated to other Canadian provinces during the period. To this day, the stagnation of Quebec as compared to the financial success of Toronto can be traced to the Separatist movement.[1] It was the 1990s, after all. All the rest of the world seemed to be talking about the “global village,” where Quebec was still stuck on garrisons and protectionism.

The result? Yes to sovereignty achieved 49.4% of the vote; a narrow loss to the No side’s 50.5%. Voter turn-out was a record 93.5% . It was a population divided but a Canada united (at least for now.)

Fast forward two decades and I find myself on altogether different shores, but with a disconcerting sense of déjà vu.

As I type, Brexit is all-consuming and ever-infuriating for all sides. Politicians remain at loggerheads while Britain inches ever nearer to the no-deal cliff edge that threatens to send the country spiralling. And, the UK is not alone. The world over, countries find themselves gripped by the siren’s song of nationalism. The United States, Central European countries such as Austria, Hungary, and Poland, as well as Brazil and others have all seen the same spirit revived.

Welcome to what academic Tim Marshall terms “The Age of Walls.”

In a book by the same title, Marshall describes a World more bordered now than it ever has been, except on the eve of World War One.[2] More fortified national boundaries are in place now than during the Cold War, with two thirds of these having been erected since 2001.[3] Even at the level of personal relationships, we are told to put up borders between ourselves and others for the sake of self-preservation, though the effect might be even further retreat into our own echo chambers.

From the perspective of Jewish history, these developments are troubling to say the least. They come not even a century after philosopher Emmanuel Levinas implored humanity to acknowledge our infinite responsibility to the Other. And, within living memory of the Holocaust.

What has all this to do with Jewish history, or more specifically, with our work at the Rothschild Foundation Hanadiv Europe?

As the rest of the world seems intent on throwing up of fences and bolstering barricades, the Foundation continues to quietly and consistently insert gates into these otherwise impassable divides. Our work demands it. Put simply, the very mission of the Foundation – to preserve and promote Jewish heritage and the strengthen Jewish communities in Europe – dictates that it must work to overcome borders. The histories and connections linking the Jewish presence, both past and present, across the breadth of Europe are as intricate as they are complex and, at times, unexpected. They challenge the Foundation to build ever stronger links between the projects and people it supports.

For example, we demonstrate continuities through our flagship grants that span the breadth of Europe. The European Association of Jewish Studies, the SEFER network for Jewish Studies in the Former Soviet Union, the At the Source training programme and many other organisations besides are remarkable for rising above the fractious political environment of Europe today. Instead of being weighed down by difference, these grantees draw strength from the diversities in their membership and harness that energy toward an ever more accurate telling of Jewish history on the European continent.

Of course, scholars and heritage professionals are only human. They aren’t immune to nationalism’s divisiveness. I’m sure that a study of how ideologies are now reverberating through departments of history across Europe could keep social anthropologists busy for many years ahead. The Foundation has heard rumours of academics and organisations, even ones previously funded by the Foundation, playing party politics, cutting off ties to scholars on the opposite end of the political divide and kowtowing to the ruling elites.

However, on the whole, I have found the opposite to be the case: grantee projects seem to light up these dark times with rays of hope. For example, the Foundation has funded the preliminary work behind Marcin Wodzinski’s Historical Atlas of Hasidism, a sweeping, multinational and multidisciplinary account of how an Eastern Europe sect carved out a space for itself in every corner of the globe. Likewise, the YIVO Vilnius project straddles the gulf separating the Jerusalem of Lithuania in the 1940s from the New York City of today, uniting them into a seamless, shared digital repository. The Foundation’s flagship archival project, Yerusha, aims to chart the course between Jewish collections dotted right across the entire expanse of Europe – from Siberia to the East to Belgium in the West. Bringing descriptions of these records together for the first time will give researchers an unprecedented opportunity to track themes across countries and compare developments internationally. Whether speaking of the Footprints project that is mapping the journeys taken by Early Modern publications from when they were first printed in Europe to their current location, or the Epidat project which seeks to hold in one place records and locations for Jewish gravestones across Germany, time after time the Foundation’s grantees show the interconnectedness of the Jewish European story.

I could list many more besides, but the point is the same: Jewish history has led these scholars toward a breadth of field that allows us to see clearly the scope and contours of the Jewish European diaspora.

Back in 1995, my family breathed a heavy sigh of relief as the referendum results were announced. Our plan B – to relocate away from our beloved Montreal to Flint, Michigan where my father had an affiliate company – didn’t have to be actualised. It was a near miss. The irony that I am now living through that possible future – only twenty years later and played out in British rather that French accents – has not escaped me. Still, a childhood of living under the vagaries and tumult of nationalism has also left me well equipped me for the challenges ahead.

Just three days before Quebecers went to the ballot box, a “Unity Rally” was held in downtown Montreal. It was the largest political rally ever seen in Canada with an estimated 100,000 Canadians arriving from inside and outside of the province to show that Quebec was a valued, essential and loved part of a united Canada. And, like a giant valentine to the people of our province, the message was read loud and clear. We were valued and we were also part of network that would be incomplete without us.

The work of the Rothschild Foundation demonstrates the same to those working with Jewish Heritage across Europe. These professionals are not only essential for our mission, but it is vital that they be connected to colleagues across the continent and beyond in order for the true and complete story of European Jewry to be told.

[1] In fact, the case of Quebec’s “Neverendum” was deployed against Scottish independence during the 2014 referendum.
[2] Marshall, Tim. The Age of Walls: How Barriers Between Nations Are Changing Our World (London: Scribner, 2018) 210.

Robin Nobel is Senior Grant Programmes Manager at Rothschild Foundation Hanadiv Europe.