Should Jews Be Wary of All Transnational Institutions?

May 15, 2017 | Shalom Carmy
About the author: Shalom Carmy teaches Bible and Jewish philosophy at Yeshiva University and is an affiliated scholar at the university’s Cardozo law school. He is also the editor emeritus of Tradition, a journal of Orthodox thought.

When first founded in the aftermath of World War II, the United Nations endeared itself to many Jews, especially after its 1947 approval of the partition of Palestine made possible the creation of the state of Israel. Since then, it has shown itself time and again to be corrupt, ineffective, and best suited for issuing condemnations of the Jewish state. Shalom Carmy finds in rabbinic literature a basic skepticism toward transnational and supranational governments, a category embracing not just the UN but the European Union as well:

[T]he 14th-century [sage] Rabbi Nissim of Gerona . . . took the Tower [of Babel] to be a symbol of the royal seat of sovereignty, which made the builders of the tower advocates of world government run by human beings. This centralization of power, in Nissim’s opinion, need not be a bad thing, as long as political power is held by the righteous. Alas, the dispersed descendants of Noah were, [according to rabbinic tradition], ruled over by [the wicked] Nimrod. Under these circumstances, it is better that the wicked fall short of centralized power, so that the righteous will have a place of refuge. Nissim goes on to remind his . . . audience how often the lack of unity among the nations of the world has allowed Jews to escape persecution, going sometimes from Muslim countries to Christian ones, and vice-versa. The desire for political unity is not inherently sinful, but its consequences in a corrupt world are deplorable. God was acting benevolently when he fragmented the human race into many languages and peoples. . . .

In recent years we hear more and more about the intrusion of the European Union into the laws and social arrangements of its member nations. Jews have particular reasons to be anxious. Animal-rights advocates have pushed for restrictions on religiously required methods for slaughtering animals, and this threatens the observance of kosher laws for meat. Regulations have been proposed that outlaw infant circumcision. If passed, they would make the practice of Judaism illegal. As a small minority, [Jews] cannot prevent individual nations from adopting such policies. . . . But in the absence of centralized EU control, we can hope they will not become continent-wide.

Then there is a broader worry. Progressivism has a strong universalistic trajectory. It also tends to be hostile to traditional religion. . . . It’s not hard to imagine a tightly knit European polity undertaking aggressive means to secure the universal triumph of progressive ideals. Jews and others whose religious practices are deemed “unprogressive” are likely to feel the pressure.

Read more on First Things: