Post-Liberal Europe and its Jewish Problem

Strong ideological currents are turning Europe into a difficult place for Jewish survival.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel delivers her speech at a rally against anti-Semitism near the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Sept. 14, 2014. Photo by Markus Schreiber/AP.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel delivers her speech at a rally against anti-Semitism near the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Sept. 14, 2014. Photo by Markus Schreiber/AP.

Sept. 28 2014
About the author

Natan Sharansky was a political prisoner in the Soviet Union and a minister in four Israeli governments. He is the author of Fear No Evil, The Case for Democracy, and Defending Identity.

Recently, an article titledEuropean Idea will Die Here and Survive in Israel” appeared under my byline in the London Jewish Chronicle. Transcribed from my conversation with a reporter, the article offered a cursory sketch of my views on the deeper forces at work behind such developments as the dramatic rise in the number of French Jews moving to Israel. In brief, I expressed my judgment that Jews feel increasingly insecure in Europe and may no longer have a home there. I attributed this insecurity to three sources: the failure of Muslim integration; the resurgence of right-wing anti-Semitism; and the metamorphosis of European liberalism, which, in its embrace of what I call a post-identity culture, has turned decisively against the state of Israel and, implicitly or explicitly, against Israel’s European Jewish supporters.

The article received quite a bit of attention. Among the respondents was Barbara Spectre, the founding director of Paideia, a fine Swedish organization dedicated to promoting Jewish identity in Europe. What a pity, she wrote, that I should be predicting the death of European Jewry when I might instead have extolled the efforts of Jews across the continent to revive and renew Jewish life in their countries.

This criticism misses the point completely. I am not trying to demoralize European Jewry. On the contrary, I am deeply appreciative of those who strive to maintain their identities in the lands of their birth, and the Jewish Agency has been working hard to encourage, support, and amplify their efforts. I know from personal experience how inspiring the process of discovering one’s identity can be. I also know that the miracle of Jewish rebirth is happening today in places where, until recently, it seemed that entire communities had either assimilated or been destroyed.

Rather, the point of my remarks was otherwise: to call attention to historical shifts taking place in Europe today, and in particular the ideological currents that are turning the continent into a very difficult place for Jewish survival.

Of course, the most direct cause of European Jews’ growing sense of insecurity is the violence and terror perpetrated by extremist elements in the Muslim community. But at the root of even that phenomenon are changes within liberal Europe itself—specifically, the shift toward cultural relativism and away from a proud attachment to particular national identities, including the latter’s demand that newcomers adopt the norms and values of the majority culture.

Among its other consequences, this shift has created a profound dilemma for Jews, most of whom have long identified themselves with the older European liberal idea. While Israel has come to play an indispensable role in strengthening and preserving their Jewish identity, liberal Europe has become increasingly hostile to the very idea of a Jewish state. As a result, European Jews have been presented with a choice: they can either retain their attachments to Israel despite growing censure, or they can join the chorus of European critics at the expense of their own identity.


In some ways, to be sure, this dilemma is not new. Beginning with the civil emancipation of West European Jewry and the demise of the ghetto in the late 18th century, Jews faced a similar choice. They could remain apart, minimizing involvement in mainstream European society; convert to Christianity and become completely absorbed into the majority; or bifurcate their traditional identity as both a religion and a people by surrendering their political identity and understanding their Judaism solely in religious terms. This last choice was founded on a principle memorably expressed in the French National Assembly by Stanislas Comte de Clermont-Tonnerre: “The Jews should be denied everything as a nation, but granted everything as individuals.”

Many Jews, grateful to be welcomed into a world of freedom and opportunity, chose the last route. Adhering faithfully to the terms of the liberal bargain, they proceeded to acclimate themselves to the new reality. Whatever their level, if any, of private religious belief and practice, they became devoted citizens of their respective nations. What is more, they remained so even when, as happened repeatedly in the mid- to late-19th century, the bargain itself seemed on the point of being withdrawn thanks to political movements on both the non-liberal Left and Right. Through it all, most European Jews held fast to the liberal idea, for it was liberal Europe that had enshrined the concept of the rights of man as central to its vision of progress, and that saw the emancipation of the Jews as proof that Europe itself was heading in the right direction. No wonder that some of the best Jewish talents of the modern age poured their creative energies into sustaining the liberal order politically, intellectually, culturally, and through public service at every level.

Only with the rise to power of fascism and totalitarianism did the liberal order finally crash like a house of cards.


World War II and the Holocaust would forever change the perspective of world Jewry. Political Zionism, which had earlier been rejected by much of the Jewish establishment, came to be seen as the only solution to the fearsome challenges of history. Many survivors of the war moved to the newly born Jewish state. And even for those who chose to stay in the Diaspora, Israel became an essential part of their Jewish identity. After the trauma of abruptly losing one’s entire family and the only world one has ever known, one is in need of proof that thousands of years of prayers have not been in vain; that a still-unbroken thread links the ancient past to the hoped-for future; that it is neither futile nor crazy to continue dreaming about the possibility of a better world. Israel became this proof. Even today, two generations after the Holocaust, the connection with Israel remains a cornerstone of identity for a large majority of Jews.

Just as the Jewish world was deeply shaken by the horror of the Holocaust, so too was liberal Europe. But its course took a very different turn. After centuries of religious and national conflict, culminating in two terrible world wars, liberal Europeans embarked on what they regarded as a definitive step away from their continent’s dark past: they would discard their national identities. In line with this ambition, they undertook to replace the modern ideal of a nation state, built on the firm basis of liberal democracy, with post-nationalism, which envisions a global society, and post-modernism, which regards all cultures and traditions as morally equivalent.

In fact, today’s multicultural Europe, the culminating reality of this vision, has been rendered, above all, post-liberal. In liberal democracy, one is called upon to respect the identity of one’s fellow citizens, and of the nation’s minority populations, as much as one loves one’s own. In post-liberal democracy, one is discouraged from loving one’s own identity; after all, strong national identities bring wars, and war is an absolute evil. In a liberal society, individual rights are an absolute value, worth fighting and even dying for. In multicultural Europe, the fact that a given culture or tradition respects individual rights makes it no better than one that does not; all cultures must be considered equal. At the entrance to liberal Europe stood the words often attributed to Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” At the entrance to post-liberal Europe one might find the words of John Lennon: “Imagine there’s no countries. . . . Nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too.”

Where does Israel, the Jewish democratic state, stand in this vision? Israel came into being at the very moment when, in Europe, the idea of the nation state was going out of fashion. Although, after the Holocaust, no liberal in the world could resist the idea of a Jewish state, today’s post-liberal Europeans increasingly see Israel as the last remnant of their wrongheaded colonialist and nationalist past. As Europe began to reject the claims of identity, it saw a state unabashedly rooted in a national-religious identity restored after 2,000 years of exile. As liberal Europe was concluding that control over sovereign territory was unimportant, Israel claimed territorial sovereignty based on Judaism’s sacred texts as well as on settled understandings of law. As Europe resolved that war was the greatest of evils, Israel stood—and stands—prepared to struggle, if necessary by force of arms, to secure its national existence.

This may at least partially explain why, in a world presenting many truly savage and horrific threats to Europe itself, post-liberal Europe sees Israel as among the greatest threats to global stability and is obsessed with criticizing the Jewish state more than any other nation. To members of this camp, Israel represents a betrayal by one of their own. In insisting on their own national state, Jews—whose acceptance was always a pillar of the liberal European vision of progress—have chosen to stand on the wrong side of history. All of which goes to suggest that even if Israel could successfully demonstrate that it does everything in its power to achieve peace and, in battle, to minimize the number of civilian casualties, it still could not satisfy those who see its very existence as problematic.

I first realized this in a conversation with a group of French liberal intellectuals twelve years ago during the second Palestinian intifada. I was making what I thought was a convincing case on behalf of Israel’s fight against terrorist suicide bombers. What I heard in response was that it was time for Jews to give up on the idea of having their own state. “The Zionist experiment has failed,” I was told, solicitously. “East is East and West is West. What do Jews have to do in the Middle East? In the end, Israel will cease to exist, at which point Jews should come back to Europe where they belong.” In other words, Jews are allowed to keep their Jewish identity as long as maintaining that identity doesn’t cause any trouble.

Unless one understands the ideology of post-identity, this logic can seem very strange. Allan Bloom was one of the first to warn against the dangers of a valueless society. In The Closing of the American Mind, he describes asking a group of American college students to put themselves in the place of the British in 19th-century India. What would they do if confronted with the custom of burning a widow on her husband’s funeral pyre? Would they have intervened to put a halt to it? The students responded by demanding to know what the British were doing in India in the first place.

The same logic is at work among post-liberal Europeans today. For them, no ideal can be worth fighting for. Why should “colonialist” Jews be in the Middle East at all? How many wars will it take—how many more Palestinian and Israeli children will be killed—in order to keep this nationalist project alive?


And that is not all. Every time Israel is forced to defend itself, it invites not only new attacks on its own legitimacy but new pressure on its supporters in the liberal West to join the chorus. And the pressure works. Consider, as just one recent example, the widely reported case of Henk Zanoli, a Dutchman who had received a medal of thanks from the government of Israel for his courageous rescue of a Jewish boy during the Holocaust. This summer, during Israel’s war of self-defense in Gaza, Zanoli decided to return his medal. His renunciation was sweeping. Initially, he wrote, he had supported the idea of a Jewish national home, but eventually he came to believe that Zionism had “a racist element in it in aspiring to build a state exclusively for Jews.” Indeed, he added, the “only way out of the quagmire the Jewish people of Israel have gotten themselves into” would be to forgo Israel’s Jewish character completely. At that point, he would consider taking back his medal. 

If the very idea of a Jewish nation state can provoke such revulsion in a sympathetic non-Jew, it can prompt Jews, too, to distance themselves publicly from the Jewish state. Such Jewish critics often emphasize that their problem is not with Israel’s existence as such but rather with the policies of the Israeli government: its treatment of Palestinians, its methods of fighting war, and so forth. To this I reply that as long as our enemies continue to seek our destruction, every Israeli government will have no choice but to defend its citizens militarily. And as long as our enemies, in their avowed embrace of death, continue to deploy their own populations as human shields, pictures of civilian casualties will be broadcast in the global media. Regardless of which Israeli party is in power and of which specific policies it enacts, regardless of how much Israel is ready to sacrifice for peace and how much it does to prevent innocent suffering, Jews will remain under pressure to choose between their commitment to Zionism and their loyalty to post-liberal Europe.

In May of this year, shortly after the killing of several visitors to the Jewish museum in Brussels by a Muslim terrorist, I met with leaders of the local Jewish community and a number of young Jewish activists. I asked whether they saw a future for Jews in Europe. No one could give me a clear answer except for one young woman, who resolutely said yes, but on one condition: Belgian Jews must first convince the world that they have nothing to do with Israel. In response I offered simple but powerful statistics showing that Jews who are not part of a strictly Orthodox community and/or who are not connected to Israel are assimilating rapidly. Yet her answer confirmed what I have been arguing: unlike in the liberal Europe of the past, where one could be a citizen in the street and a religious Jew at home, in today’s post-liberal Europe it is exceedingly difficult to remain a confident European in the street and a proud Jew, connected to Israel, at home.


Why should European Jews, or anyone for that matter, choose to hold fast to their particular identity in the face of so much pressure to abandon it? Because identity, Jewish or otherwise, imbues life with a meaning and purpose beyond mere material existence. It satisfies a basic human longing to be part of something bigger than oneself, an inter-generational community that shares a set of values and a sense of overarching purpose.

Of course, there is another basic human longing: the desire to be free, to think for oneself and choose one’s own path. But these two basic desires—to belong and to be free—can reinforce rather than oppose one another. Freedom provides the opportunity to cultivate one’s identity fully; but freedom must be defended, and identity gives one the strength for that task. Just as it is a perilous mistake to sacrifice freedom for the sake of identity, it is a potentially disastrous mistake to jettison identity in the name of freedom, as today’s European post-liberals have done in their belief that nothing is worth dying for.

Indeed, the real issue here is not the future of the Jews; as so often in history, Jews are a litmus test. What is really at stake is the future of Europe. The attempt to liberate itself from its history and its traditional institutions has made Europe decadent and weak. Now that Islamic fundamentalism, an identity violently at odds with liberalism, has moved into the heart of tolerant, multicultural Europe, the question is whether a society that has run away from its identity in order to enjoy its freedom can muster the will to fight, before losing them both.

As one who grew up in the darker corners of Europe, and who garnered from the great European liberal tradition the strength to struggle against oppression, I can only hope that the democratic nation states of Europe will rediscover the capacity to fight for their freedom. But my task as an Israeli citizen is simpler. I must make sure that every Jew in the world who feels homeless will be able to find a home here, in this small island of freedom in a great ocean of tyranny, in this small oasis of identity in a desert of post-identity anomie. To these Jews I say: welcome to the Jewish democratic state.


Natan Sharansky, a human-rights activist who spent nine years in a Soviet prison, is the author of The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror (2004) and Defending Identity: Its Indispensable Role in Protecting Democracy (2008). He is the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel. 

More about: Europe, European Jewry, Holocaust, Jewish history, Post-liberalism