Citizens Of Nowhere – Jewish Identity After Brexit

“If you believe you’re acitizen of the world, you’re acitizen of nowhere.Theresa May

At roughly 2 a.m. on 24 June 2016, I experienced a deep sense of grief —it felt as if part of my identity had been cleaved from me. This attachment to Europe was more civilisational than generational, as the Ashkenazi side of my family had left over a century ago; but it was framed by the fact that the EU evolved partly in response to the Jewish experience on the Continent. I had always conceived of my identity in plural terms: deeply British (irredeemably so), with a strong internationalist outlook and a global lineage and heritage. So I felt chastened by the Prime Minister’s remark, and compelled to respond.

At around 1 a.m. on 9 November, many Jewish Americans experienced a similar trauma. In the hours after the presidential election, and after a sustained wave of antisemitic abuse on Twitter, Peter Beinart wrote in Haaretz:

“I’ve never felt less American and more Jewish … I still love America to my core. But I don’t trust it in the same way. And I don’t trust progress. I keep hearing my grandmother’s voice in my ear (She said: ‘A Jew must always know when to leave the sinking ship’)”

Beinart felt more Jewish because, in his discomfort, he was attuned to the struggles of his kinsmen over centuries. America held open the “golden door”, wrote the Jewish poetess whose words adorn Lady Liberty, and Beinart writes as if he is a spurned lover who is told he is no longer desired. In this, there is a cultural communion too, with the spirits of Paul Celan and Stefan Zweig—consider this anecdote, recounted in George Prochnik’s book The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World:

“One day in the 1920s when Zweig happened to be travelling in Germany with [the playwright] Otto Zarek, the two men stopped off to visit an exhibition of antique furniture at a museum in Munich… Zweig stopped short before a display of enormous medieval wooden chests.
“Can you tell me,” he abruptly asked, “which of these chests belonged to Jews?” Zarek stared uncertainly—they all looked of equally high quality and bore no apparent marks of ownership.
Zweig smiled. “Do you see these two here? They are mounted on wheels. They belonged to Jews. In those days—as indeed always!—the Jewish people were never sure when the whistle would blow, when the rattles of pogrom would creak. They had to be ready to flee at a moment’s notice”.”

It is important to comprehend this persecution as an act of self-sabotage on the part of the host country—nobody believed more deeply in German civilisation, or contributed to it more profoundly, than the Jews. “Europe committed suicide by killing its Jews”, remarked George Steiner in 1969. Later he reflected that, in the 1930s, the Germans wanted to be German, the Italians to be Italian—only the Jews aspired to be “European”. It took the Holocaust for the nations of Europe to realise the virtues of this common identity. The news that, in the wake of the Brexit vote, Jews with German ancestry are applying for German passports is not only laden with irony, but highlights why insular cultures so rarely thrive.

In every presidential election since 1992, over two thirds of American Jews have voted Democrat—a point highlighted by nativist nationalists of the “alt-right” And yet, despite a commitment to progressive values, Jews have learned to be wary of certain forms of mass democracy, particularly in its populist variants. The historian Tony Judt noted that many Jews in the early  twentieth century were drawn to communism both for its emancipatory promise and for its vanguardism—it presented no opportunities for politicians who, as in Vienna and then in Munich, had succeeded electorally by stoking antisemitism. In 1992, Leonard Cohen articulated this same unease, foreseeing the election of the tyrant king of bad television:

“Most of us from the middle-class, we have a kind of old, 19th Century idea of what democracy is, which is, more or less, to oversimplify it, that the masses are going to love Shakespeare and Beethoven. But that ain’t it. It’s going to come up in unexpected ways from the stuff that we think are junk: the people we think are junk, the ideas we think are junk, the television we think is junk.”

The dark energy of the demagogue is fuelled by fear, and the demonisation of vulnerable minority groups—Latinos and Muslims look at the fate of the Jews, the perennial Cassandra, as a warning from history. Only in recent decades, prior to the Trump phenomenon, have Jews been incorporated into the national consciousness as “white” or, as the census form puts it, “white +”. I always quite liked the idea of a “+”, an identity not contained by a single category, a formula disturbed only when one asserted itself at the cost of another. In this sense, the experiences of Jews, Italians and Irish in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries informs the challenges facing Eastern Europeans in the twenty-first, who in Brexit Britain find themselves subject to hostility.

Beyond the west, however, the trend is encouraging. For the first time in fifteen years, according to a poll by GlobeScan for the BBC World Service, a narrow majority identifies with global citizenship ahead of national citizenship. This is particularly marked in developing countries (Nigeria 73 per cent, China 71 per cent, India 67 per cent), but noticeably in reverse amongst European nations. This trend is pronounced in Germany, where pressure from the refugee crisis has exacerbated tensions, a factor reflected in the UK figure, which, within the margin of error, mirrored the Brexit vote (47 per cent vs 50 per cent).

As citizens of developing countries recognise, technology and the liberalised economy have bound up our futures together—a point made pithily by Jem Eskanazi in the Financial Times:

“Anybody with an ounce of intelligence understands that climate change, pollution or epidemics know no frontiers; that extreme poverty in one region has stability implications for the whole world; that terrorism is a global problem with global solutions; that wars are not started by citizens of the world but narrow-minded people with a blind belief of their superiority; that some of the greatest minds in any society are descendants of immigrants and refugees.”

The Prime Minister’s caricature of a rudderless individual with no civic commitments brought to mind the antisemitic term deployed by Stalin—“rootless cosmopolitan”. George Steiner points out the limitations of this metaphor: whereas trees have roots and are bound by them, humans have legs and prosper by using them. Indeed, the greatest periods of Jewish growth have come through cultural cross-pollination: not in the insular community of the shtetl, but in the cities of Al-Andalus, where Hebrew poetry and theology underwent a renaissance; and during the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment, which sowed the seeds for the thinkers (Marx, Freud, Kafka) that helped shape European modernity. As Amos Elon’s book The Pity of It All reveals, Jews flourished in part because of their peripheral status: denied the comfort and benefit of full integration, they found a perspective from which to comprehend and critique society. “It is likely that no one ever masters anything in which he has not known impotence”, wrote Walter Benjamin, who lived on the precipice, a painful but fertile territory.

In peacetime, Jews have benefitted from this legacy of learning. But what of those who are not equipped to adapt to profound social and cultural change, whether they be in Middlesbrough or rural Michigan? Simply asserting plurality as a virtue is insufficient without tackling the economic forces that create insecurity—forces that Jews once challenged through organised labour (e.g. the Bund). This reflects a broader problem for the left: capital has globalised, but labour has not—there are few international trade unions. Globalism is a problem only if the benefits are confined to the financial elite, not least because this narrative plays into the hands of antisemites. There’s a paradox here: it is possible to maintain multiple identities only by asserting solidarity with those whose autonomy is under threat.

There is a particularly beautiful exegesis of the concept of tikkun olam (“repair of the world”) in the cosmology of the Lurianic Kabbalah, as explained by Howard Schwartz:

“At the beginning of time, God’s presence filled the universe. When God decided to bring this world into being, to make room for creation, He first drew in His breath, contracting Himself. From that contraction darkness was created. And when God said, ‘Let there be light’ (Gen. 1:3), the light that came into being filled the darkness, and ten holy vessels came forth, each filled with primordial light.

“In this way God sent forth those ten vessels, like a fleet of ships, each carrying its cargo of light. Had they all arrived intact, the world would have been perfect. But the vessels were too fragile to contain such a powerful, divine light. They broke open, split asunder, and all the holy sparks were scattered like sand, like seeds, like stars. Those sparks fell everywhere, but more fell on the Holy Land than anywhere else.

“That is why we were created—to gather the sparks, no matter where they are hidden. God created the world so that the descendents of Jacob could raise up the holy sparks. That is why there have been so many exiles—to release the holy sparks from the servitude of captivity. In this way, the Jewish people will sift all the holy sparks from the four corners of the earth.

“And when enough holy sparks have been gathered, the broken vessels will be restored, and tikkun olam, the repair of the world, awaited so long, will finally be complete. Therefore it should be the aim of everyone to raise these sparks from wherever they are imprisoned and to elevate them to holiness by the power of their soul.”

Exile is not an accident of history—it is essential to our redemption. This calls us to stand in solidarity with the stateless (“since you yourselves know the feelings of a stranger, for you also were strangers”) and to nurture firmer civic bonds, in our local community, our city, our nation, our continent, our globe. To negate one in the service of another, or suggest they are mutually exclusive, is an act of sabotage, for the self and for the stranger. If anyone is deemed a citizen of nowhere, then we are all at sea.

This essay is featured in the Winter 2016 issue of Jewish Quarterly. To read more of the issue, subscribe here.

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