Sympathy for the European Devil


European Parliament President Martin Schulz provoked an uproar last week in a speech before Israel’s Knesset, citing in passing a Palestinian claim that Israelis get four times as much water as Arabs in Judea and Samaria. The Jewish Home party delegation (led by my favorite Israeli politician, Naftali Bennett) walked out on the German politician in protest; Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz called the protest “disproportionate.” In this case I think Steinitz is right: Schulz is not an anti-Semite. He’s the sort of German who loves Israel in a peculiarly German way. By and large, Germans do not hate Israel; on the contrary, they love to love the Israeli left. They really, truly, sincerely want to be philo-Semitic (that brings to mind the old definition of a philo-Semite: an anti-Semite who likes Jews). The Germans are post-Christian and post-nationalist. In more than forty years of traveling (and occasionally living) in Germany I have not met a single German who can abide religion, except for full-time clergy. Their experience of nationalism, like the experience of most Europeans, has been unrelentingly horrible. They cannot help but identify with the “post-Zionist,” existentially addled Angst of the Israeli Left.


Zeruya Shalev, the Israeli novelist who dissects the disordered lives of disappointed utopians, is a bestseller and a cultural icon in Germany. Her last book was the subject of a gushing review by Adam Kirsch, book critic for the Jewish webzine Tablet and a stalwart at The New Republic. Every major German news publication has profiled or interviewed Ms. Shalev. In 2011, the popular weekly Stern asked her whether the then-ongoing “social justice” protests portended a “New Israel,” that is, an Israel more to the liking of Stern and Ms. Shalev; the Israeli writer was hopeful. The German interviewer simply took for granted that Stern’s readers would identify with the lefty literati against the Netanyahu government. Shalev writes the sort of introspective fiction that I find less tolerable than gum surgery; the great Israeli novelist in my view was the Nobelist S.Y. Agnon, whose masterwork Only Yesterday is not available in German translation. It is a wrenching, difficult book first published in Hebrew in 1945, and I am not surprised that the German public would avoid it. Today’s Germans have sensibilities hardly distinguishable from those of Adam Kirsch and prefer the Freudian meanderings of Ms. Shalev. (Of course, I’m the wrong person to ask about such things. I don’t like fiction.)

The socialist utopians of the Israeli Left cling to a vision of Israel as a nation-state like any other, liberated from the notion that there is anything special about the Jews. Israel in this view should become a Levantine Belgium or Holland, dissolving into the postmodern cultural muck with its European peers. As Israel becomes more Jewish, and more religious, and its continued success draws an ever-sharper boundary against the failed states that surround it, the utopians go into panic. To salvage their position they propose to ally with the Europeans, the way that Antipater of Idumaea allied with Pompey the Great to establish the Herodian dynasty. For background on Pompey, I recommend Lucan.


Here, for example, is journalist Ben Caspit writing in Al-Monitor:

For 40 years, Israel has entrenched its hold on the West Bank, in a belief that the problem would resolve itself somehow. It hasn’t been resolved. We can’t continue to fool everyone, all of the time. At some point, we will have to make the difficult decision, and undo this Gordian knot, not to be dragged with it into the depths.

It seems that as time passes, our ability to reach this decision is diminishing. As time passes, it turns out that we might need someone, or something, that will force it on us. And so, I don’t think we need to call on the Europeans to boycott us, but if and when they do so, we will be able to understand their position.

Of course (as Caspit observes) Kerry is using the Europeans to threaten Israel with boycotts. Does that mean Kerry is an anti-Semite, a charge that his Jewish brother bitterly disputes? It brings to mind the old Viennese joke: “Anti-Semitism was getting nowhere until the Jews got behind it.” Suffice it to say that the Israeli Left hopes that Kerry and the Europeans will batter Israel into a peace deal. Anti-Semitism is not the issue, unless we want to call the Israeli left anti-Semitic.


I have more sympathy for the European devil than for our own modern Antipaters. Established religion has been a curse in Europe; more to the point, the concept of Chosenness, central to Judaism, came to the Europeans in a perverse form that caused immeasurable grief over the centuries. As I argue in my book How Civilizations DieEurope was constructed from a twisted concept of national election:


The notion of eternal life beyond this world remained beyond the ken of the lightly-baptized European tribes. They did not want to be adopted as individuals into a new “tribe of Christians”–that is, into Israel, as the Church promised. Instead, they want to replace Israel and become the uniquely chosen nation. That is, they wanted to be eternal in their own skins—to be the Chosen Nation among nations that, like ancient Israel, would enjoy eternity in its own flesh. From the beginning of the seventh century onward, jealousy over Israel’s election inspired hatred of the Jews. Christianity made a fatal compromise with national idolatry, and the lightly-baptized peoples who coveted the Election of Israel proceeded to  persecute the original chosen people of God.

Genocidal nationalism was not a twentieth- or even a nineteenth-century invention. The unquiet urge of each nation to be chosen in own skin began with the first conversion of Europe’s pagans; it was embedded in European Christendom at its founding. Christian chroniclers cast the newly-baptized European monarchs in the role of biblical kings, and their nations in the role of the biblical Israel. The first claims to national election came at the crest of the early Dark Ages, from the sixth-century chronicler St. Gregory of Tours (538-594), and the seventh-century Iberian churchman St. Isidore of Seville.

St. Gregory’s History of the Franks conflates the deeds of the Merovingian dynasty in Gaul with biblical events, in a salvation history intended to persuade the Frankish kings of their divine calling as leaders of Christendom. “One can see the historico-theological drama in Book II of the Histories Gregory’s conception of Gaul as a holy land, a New Israel,” writes Notre Dame University historian Phillip Wynn. “Here the author comes to grips with events central to his contemporary society, the establishment by Clovis of a Frankish kingdom in Gaul ruled by the Merovingian dynasty. How this happened within the framework of a divinely-actuated history and what lessons this past had for Gregory’s present explain many of the peculiar aspects of his narrative in Book II, including its disordered chronology and historical errors.'”[i]

And the historian Réne Rémond  notes, “It was perhaps in France that the identification of religion with national destiny was oldest, because it was one of the oldest nations. At a very early date, a tradition accredited by the abbey of St. Denis presented the kingdom of France as the chosen nation, called upon, after Christ’s coming, to be the one to carry on the Israel of the Old Testament; hence the adage Gesta Dei per Francos—the deeds of God through the Franks.”[ii] The election of the Frankish king Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor in 800 C.E. provided a foundation for the French claim to chosenness.

If the Franks were the first European nation to discover their own national election in the manner of biblical Israel, the Spanish were not far behind. Seventh-century Spain was ruled by the Visigoths, “who considered themselves to be a chosen people with all the associated privileges and obligations. And in support of this proposition, the great Visigothic chroniclers such as St. Isidore, St. Julian, and Juan Biclarense argued that the Visigothic people was God’s instrument on earth,” literary critic Jack Weiner writes in his study of the theme of the “chosen people” in medieval Spanish poetry.[iii]… The contending French and Spanish claims to national election…were fought out at catastrophic cost much later, during the Thirty Years’ War of the seventeenth century.


It was not Voltaire or Rousseau or Nietzche who ruined Europe, but rather St. Gregory of Tours and St. Isidore of Seville who built the flaw into Europe’s foundation in the Dark Ages. I know that conservatives are supposed to hold high the banner of Western civilization, but I have an arm cramp at the moment. Just as Hanns Johst’s character in “Schlageter” could not hear the word “Kultur” (the banner under which Wilhelmine Germany fought and lost World War I) without releasing the safety catch on his Browning, today’s Europeans cannot hear the word “Chosenness” without flashbacks of all of Europe’s awful wars.

My European friends are too scarred by their own sorry history to regard any form of ethnic self-assertion with anything but revulsion. The Jewish notion of divine election, brought to America by the Pilgrim Fathers, reminds them of the horrors of their own history. It is pointless to explain to them that they got it wrong starting in the 7th century C.E. The Europeans are what their history has made of them, and there’s no replaying the tape. The Germans are ambivalent about being German. That I can understand. I have less sympathy for Jews who don’t want to be Jews.

[i] Phillip Wynn, “Wars and Warriors of Gregory of Tours’ Histories,” in Francia Forschungen zur westeuropäischen Geschichte Vol. 28, 2001 (Ostfildern 2001).

[ii]              Religion and Society in Modern Europe, by Réne Rémond (Wiley-Blackwell 1999), p. 110-111.

[iii] Jack Weiner, El Poema de mio Cid (Edition Reichenberger 2001), p. 6.


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