Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Hobsbawm Exalts the Exile

Eric Hobsbawm, whose continued and quite conscious refusal to acknowledge the horrendous toll taken by communism in the twentieth century must mark him as one of the most corrupted intellectuals of our time, has chosen to sound off in praise of the Jewish Diaspora in the London Review of Books. Hobsbawm’s argument is not particularly original, others of his political bent have made the same argument for a century, namely, that exile is both good for the Jews and – perhaps more importantly – good for the world.
The paradox of the era since 1945 is that the greatest tragedy in Jewish history has had two utterly different consequences. On the one hand, it has concentrated a substantial minority of the global Jewish population in one nation-state: Israel, which was itself once upon a time a product of Jewish emancipation and of the passion to enter the same world as the rest of humanity. It has shrunk the diaspora, dramatically so in the Islamic regions. On the other hand, in most parts of the world it has been followed by an era of almost unlimited public acceptance of Jews, by the virtual disappearance of the anti-semitism and discrimination of my youth, and by unparalleled and unprecedented Jewish achievement in the fields of culture, intellect and public affairs. There is no historic precedent for the triumph of the Aufklärung in the post-Holocaust diaspora. Nevertheless, there are those who wish to withdraw from it into the old segregation of religious ultra-Orthodoxy and the new segregation of a separate ethnic-genetic state-community. If they were to succeed I do not think it will be good either for the Jews or for the world.
Now, I don’t think there is any likelihood of the Jews withdrawing from the world anytime soon. In fact, the very existence of Israel as a modern nation-state demands that the Jews engage themselves in the affairs of the non-Jewish world. Nor do I put much confidence in Hobsbawm’s historiography, since he claims that the Diaspora has “shrunk” in the Islamic world without mentioning that this was the result of a deliberate policy of ethnic cleansing for which the Jews of those countries have yet to be compensated. As for the “unlimited public acceptance of Jews” and the “disappearance of anti-Semitism”, this is simply a ridiculous assertion. Antisemitism is at a historically unprecedented level in the Islamic world and swiftly metastasizing in Europe. The only country where antisemitism has not substantially risen over the last few years – with the exception of extreme leftist circles – is the United States, a country for which Hobsbawm has expressed little sympathy over the years.

Hobsbawm’s dislike for the facts of history – odd for a historian – is less telling than the fact that, as even a cursory reading of this article reveals, he is not writing what he says he is writing. That is, Hobsbawm is not writing in praise of Diaspora, but rather in praise of assimilation. He is not writing about the achievements of Judaism in exile, but rather about the achievements accrued by the cessation of Jewish identity. Hobsbawm openly admits that he is interested only in the final two hundred years of the Diaspora – from the Empancipation to the Holocaust – and barely mentions the two thousand years of exile that preceded the end of the 18th century. He dismisses the Talmud and its attendant commentaries – the greatest accomplishment of the Diaspora, and a thoroughly unique cultural and religious achievement – does not mention the Kabbalah at all, ignores Maimonides – who was an Einstein before Einstein but who also, unfortunately in Hobsbawm’s eyes, did not abandon his faith in order to engage the outside world – and damns with faint praise the history of Halachic and exegetical thought which constitutes the lion’s share of Diaspora cultural and literary achievement. Nor does he mention the flowering of Hebrew poetry in the aftermath of the exile from Spain, nor the Hasidic movement. Even more interesting, he makes no mention at all of certain inconvenient phenomena of the period he is praising. There is scant mention of the development of Yiddish literature, the revival of Hebrew, or the development of Jewish sectarianism and modern Orthodoxy. Out of an extraordinary plethora of cultural and religious labor, created by the simultaneous embrace and rejection of modernism that typified the Jewish world of the 19th and 20th centuries, Hobsbawm is interested only in the cosmopolitan, secular, assimilated achievements of the post-Emancipatory Jews of Western and Central Europe, who constituted both a minority of the Jewish world and a very specific cultural-regional phenomenon.

Howsbawm is, in short, praising the benefits of becoming a gentile is all but name. Now, this may or may not be good for the world, but it is certainly not good for the Jews, for the simple reason that it involves the death of one’s self as a Jew in favor of an amorphous and – in my opinion – non-existent universalist identity. Hobsbawm is a man who has dedicated his life to the most extremist forms of universalism, and his studied inability to regard anything which steps out of that realm as being of any value whatsoever is quite telling. He seems to see nothing problematic in the phenomenon of assimilation, and to regard the pain of otherness and the loss of self as being of little consequence so long as it continues to produce great mathematicians and socialist intellectuals. Nor does he deal in any real way with the historical cataclysm which destroyed the appeal of assimilation in many Jewish eyes, the disaster which convinced many that there can be no universalism without the particular. He waxes rhapsodic, for instance, on the achievements of the German-Jewish assimilates, and then mentions the Holocaust which annihilated them without a single comment on the obvious irony inherent; he is too busy scurrying off to the next marvelous example of universalist triumph.

Hobsbawm seems unable to entertain the notion that the dichotomy he is posing is one which disproves the very point he is trying to make. Because if the Jew cannot engage the world as a Jew, it is not a problem with the Jew but a problem with the world. The Jewish experience of modernity – which Judaism, I believe, had a hand in creating – has proved that the only way for the Jew to engage the world effectively is not as a masked exile, pretending to be just like everyone else, but as what he is. Proudly and openly, and without apologetics. Zionism and modern Orthodoxy, among other phenomena, have proved this possible, and the vagaries of history have proved Hobsbawm to be terribly, catastrophically mistaken. They have proven that the embrace of Diaspora is nothing more or less than the embrace of death, the adoration of self-murder. It is a willful re-enslavement, a return to the wilderness.