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Judaism's Encounter with European Culture and Totalitarianism

Raya Epstein
Policy Paper No. 114, 2001


The roots of the totalitarian elements in Israeli politics and culture lie not only in a historical genealogy that is familiar to every member of the Israeli radical Left, but also in modern Western culture. Thinkers and scholars have addressed in one way or another the existence of a totalitarian potential in Western thought. Some of them propound an alternative of embracing the Christian tradition, viewing the dissociation from this tradition, and the struggle waged against it by the followers of the different totalitarian trends, as the source of Western totalitarianism.

This outlook is also manifested in classical conservatism and in the neoconservative ideology of today, and though it certainly has strong positive features, a Christian alternative will not withstand the test. When Christianity and totalitarianism are compared, not in terms of their explicit ideas but in terms of their modes of thought, it emerges that the roots of totalitarianism lie precisely in Christianity itself. On the other hand, it is precisely in authentic Jewish modes of thought that there lies a real alternative to Western totalitarianism. Therefore, the definition of Western civilization as "Judeo-Christian" is fundamentally erroneous.

However, how can the well-known fact of the disproportionate participation of assimilated Jews in the totalitarian experiments be explained? The article tries to prove that this resulted from the phenomenon of the Jews' flight from their Jewishness, in the course of which the fleeing Jews bring about the realization of the latent totalitarian potential in Western culture.

It should be noted that the very intellectual codes that, in their authentic form, constitute a Jewish alternative to Western totalitarianism, become in themselves a destructive factor that brings out the totalitarian potential once they are entered into a foreign cultural context that is, the context of a Western culture that is based on Christian tenets. Thus, the Jews' flight from their Jewishness becomes a threat both to Jewry itself and to the non-Jewish world. And perhaps, here, an inverse conclusion may be drawn: namely, that it is precisely the Jews' return to themselves that can free both the Jews and the non-Jews of the totalitarian threat.

Nevertheless, providing a Jewish answer to totalitarianism is not a simple matter. Such an answer is rooted in Judaism as it was for generations, but the problematic aspect involves the Jewish encounter with Western culture. There have been, of course, encounters between Judaism and a foreign cultural environment in every period of the thousands of years of the Jewish people's existence, fluctuating between high and low points. To be sure, in the modern era the encounter engendered not a few positive results. But we are also forbidden to ignore the tragic encounter that was manifested in the Holocaust and in the spiritual apostatization of Communism. Although the factual results have perhaps been well learned, we are still evading the difficult and painful question of the Jews' participation. We need to cope with it and begin to rebuild the encounter, from a standpoint of awareness of the risks entailed, together with full consciousness of the Jews' responsibility.

It is commonly believed among us that the conservative ideology, like the liberal ideology as well as the intellectual underpinnings of the Israeli judicial system, can be sought only outside of the Jewish framework, and in this regard "left-wingers" and "right-wingers" are no different from each other. Indeed, how many are even capable of conceiving that it is precisely in our "primitive" Judaism that a real and perhaps sole alternative to totalitarianism can be found?

For the complete article (in English), click here.