Our Good Mother Medea

Europe will bear a moral responsibility for generations to come

n 1895, when Theodor Herzl was the Paris correspondent of the Neue Freie Presse, there were about 10.5 million Jews in the world and 8.8 million of them were Europeans. At the end of the nineteenth century, 85 percent of the world's Jews lived on the continent that is today well on the way to becoming a single political and economic entity.

At the end of 2001 the world Jewish population is around 13.2 million, but only 13 percent of them - 1,583,000 - are European. Of these only 1,032,000 live in the countries of the European Union - Muslims now account for more than 4 percent of the EU population, but the percentage of Jews is less than 0.3 percent. From a European bird's eye view, there is no doubt - demographically, the Jews of Europe are now marginal.

In some countries - France and Britain - Jews still have considerable influence, but their total share in the fabric of European life is constantly shrinking. The Jewish element, which was so vital in the life and identity of Europe for a millennium and a half, has dwindled rapidly and dramatically in the past hundred years. If current trends are not reversed, if Europe is not suddenly inundated with a tidal wave of Israeli emigrants, it will be almost totally devoid of its Jewish element by the end of this century. Here and there a "nature reserve" of Jews will exist, here and there a ghetto of some sort. But in the big picture, 22nd century Europe will be a continent virtually devoid of Jews.

From Rashi to Freud

This is an almost incomprehensible picture. From the time Europe became a Christian continent, its life was interwoven with that of the Jews. Between Rashi and Heine, between Spinoza and Rothschild, and between Mendelssohn and Marx, Kafka and Freud, it is impossible to describe Jewish history without Europe, just as it is impossible to describe European culture without Jews. For since the Jews went into exile and since the baptism of Clovis, the continent was effectively the major territory of the Jewish Diaspora.

Even though Hebrew civilization antedated Euro-Christian civilization by a thousand years and more, Christian Europe was ultimately a host-mother for the Jews. It was within her geocultural womb they lived, were persecuted and built themselves up. For the vast majority of the second millennium, Jews lived within a European context and vis-a-vis a European context. Both Jewish self-definition and the Jews' concrete historical existence throughout this lengthy period involved deep, demanding and durable intercourse with Europe.

The possibility that all this will disappear, the possibility that there will be no more Jews in the Marais of Paris, or in the ghetto of Rome, or in the courtyard of the synagogue in Amsterdam, is truly appalling. The possibility that in the relatively near future there will be no more local students and scholars who possess a Jewish identity of the Other at the Sorbonne, at Cambridge and at Oxford is an almost inconceivable cultural development.

Nevertheless, quietly, consistently and invisibly, the possibility is being realized. With the exception of Germany, where the proportion of Jews is increasing, and France, which in the past few generations received a significant blood transfusion in the form of the hundreds of thousands who immigrated there from the North African colonies, the Jewish population is undergoing rapid decline in virtually every other country of Western and Central Europe. It is not just in Poland, where fewer than five thousand remain out of three million. It is not just Holland, where thirty thousand remain out of a hundred and fifty thousand, nor Austria, which now has nine thousand Jews where once there were two hundred and thirty thousand.

The situation in Britain is particularly grave - since the 1960s, it has lost nearly a third of its Jewish population. Although quite a few Israelis have immigrated to the United Kingdom, in the past thirty years the Jewish population there has fallen from about 410,000 to 275,000. So it's not surprising that the few Jewish-European newspapers that still survive are being read like lengthy obituary columns. A Jewish school has closed down here. The last ritual slaughterer has died there. Here they are - in a whole series of small Jewish communities you can almost call them by name - the last Jews. The last Jews of Romania. The last Jews of Bulgaria. The end of the road.

Vanished nation

Three separate and unlinked causes have voided Europe of its Jews - the American dream, Nazi tenacity, and the Zionist vision. Beginning in 1880, the American dream lured more than 2.5 million Jews out of Europe, and over the years they became five million. During those same hundred and twenty years, the Zionist vision attracted more than two and a half million Jews, who today number three million.

However, Nazi tenacity outdid both of those processes - the industry of death that the Nazis established and operated in the center of Europe between January 1942 and April 1945 made optimum use of European organizational capabilities, and European sense of order, and trans-European rail lines, to exterminate more than half of the ten million European Jews who up to the end of the 1930s still believed Europe was their home.

However, if we look a little more deeply, if we look at what happened from a broader perspective, it is impossible not to see that the three different threads that brought about the disappearance of the majority of European Jewry in the twentieth century were intricately interwoven. In the last analysis, both the mass immigration to America and the large-scale movement to Palestine were manifestations of a flight from Europe. At bottom, they were immense rescue moves, not necessarily planned, that stemmed from the growing realization that the period of the European Diaspora was at an end. At the beginning of the last century, no one could have imagined the living cargo that Europe would send on its freight trains less than fifty years later. No one could have then conceived the technological peaks of human engineering that Europe would achieve at the still unknown sites of Auschwitz and Dachau and Treblinka.

However, between 1880 and 1940, many Jews grasped intuitively that their host-mother was slowly going out of her mind. They understood that this great mother, Europe, which had given them protection in one form or another for more than a thousand years, could no longer bear them. This being so, there was no mistaking the strange glint in her eyes: it was the implacable gaze of Medea.

Dreyfus error

The young correspondent of the Neue Freie Presse understood this by more than intuition. When the affair broke out, he thought the captain was guilty - in his reports to Vienna, he wrote that Captain Dreyfus had apparently betrayed his country. However, in December he began to undergo a change of mind. The militant campaign of the anti-Semitic press made his blood boil. Nevertheless, it was only in January, on the morning of January 5, 1895, when he stood in this place, under that heavy sky, that he suddenly saw the glint of the Medea gaze in the eyes of Mother Europe. Only when he stood in that gloomy courtyard of the Ecole Militaire, the military academy, of the French Republic of enlightenment did he suddenly grasp what powers lay coiled in the depths of the continent of progress which he so loved and to which he wished so much to belong.

Four years later, in a letter to Arthur Schnitzler, he wrote the following - the Dreyfus Affair represents more than a legal error. It represents the aspiration of the vast majority of the French nation to convict a Jew and to convict all the Jews in the person of that Jew. Death to the Jews, the mob howled as the decorations were torn from the captain's coat.

Where? In France. In modern, cultural, Republican France.

Death to the Jews is in fact what happened. And it happened precisely after the ghetto walls fell, precisely after European modernity had offered the Jews a place in its midst, precisely after the Jews themselves allowed themselves to dismantle their ancient protective walls and to yearn after Europe and stream into its libraries and universities and opera houses. After they themselves became the great consumers and the great producers of its culture, the flag-bearers of its progress. For, just as the souls of these Semitic outsiders became enthralled by all that was beautiful and sublime in the works of the Mother Continent, she shut the gates of her heart to them.

Not entirely, of course. Britain stood fast, putting its life on the line, and across the Christian continent, there were those who put themselves at risk even in the darkest days to protect the persecuted Other. But at the end of it all, the mother still murdered her children. In a sequence of violent events and uncontrollable manifestations of revulsion - which began about a decade and a half before Dreyfus and reached their peak five decades after him - Europe sought to extirpate its Jewish roots. Europe caused its Jewish population to dwindle before the Holocaust, during the Holocaust and after the Holocaust, too. So intense was this process that today the number of Jews in Europe is far below the essential red line needed to maintain a demographic critical mass - one that alone can preserve European Jewry as a sustainable minority.

So now, with Europe moving increasingly toward unity on the one hand, while on the other hand, experts say it is experiencing a spastic attack of anti-Semitism which have not been seen since the World War II, there can no longer be any doubt about what the defining moment was. It was not Auschwitz, nor Treblinka, not Dachau - it was the courtyard of the Ecole Militaire. It was not the particular case of German Nazism, but the general European pathology about Jews.

The fact is that with the ice of Holocaust guilt now beginning to crack, the dirty waters of old are again becoming visible. And the old fire is returning, too. This time it is flickering not only in the eyes of the mob and in the skinheads on the right - this time it is flashing in the eyes of intellectuals, and journalists and television personalities - the new spokespeople of the new European enlightenment.

Debased coins

The single currency euro entering circulation on January 1 is meant to help avoid war. It is intended to save Europe from itself and from its past. From that point of view, its intentions are noble. However, precisely because this is the case, it is no longer possible to ignore the fact that, as it moves to unite, this is a Europe with no Benjamin Disraeli, no Leon Blum, no Albert Einstein. Europe is a political and economic and cultural entity with a rapidly vanishing Jewish presence and a Jewish future devoid of hope. Nor can we forget that Europe - as Europe - has never assumed responsibility.

It has never bothered to cultivate the same guilt feelings with the victims of anti-Semitism that are shaping its relations with the victims of colonialism. For a time, the Germans took responsibility for their deeds. The Spanish, for their part, took on themselves far-reaching guilt for what their bishops and cardinals and Catholic monarchs did to the Jews more than five hundred years ago. But Europe as a collective entity has never engaged in its full moral reckoning - it has never come to terms with the vast transfer of its Jews, the largest transfer of all, perpetrated in the twentieth century. To this day, Europe refuses to cope with the fact that by these and other means it emptied its ancient Jewish quarters of most of their residents.

To this day, Europe refuses to address the fact that, as a single comprehensive civilization (which is now transforming its cultural unity into the tools of political unity), it bears responsibility for a situation in which its historic Other was unable to go on existing within it.

Fifty-six years after the fires of the crematoria were extinguished, the would-be United States of Europe has not acknowledged that the shared responsibility it bears vis-a-vis the Jews is not one iota less than the responsibility of the United States bears toward the descendants of Native Americans and black slaves. The continent that wishes to be known as a paragon of morality and enlightenment does not recognize that with regard to the Jewish people (which it almost wiped out) and its civilization (which it almost eradicated), it will bear a moral responsibility for generations to come.

The Eiffel Tower looms above. On that morning in 1895 it was only seven years old, a monumental steel remnant of the great Centennial Exposition, a symbol of the century of iron about to be ushered in - encapsulating all that modern man was capable of, all that Euro-modern man could aspire to.

So Theodor Herzl was mistaken - the Jewish state was not founded in Basel. The Jewish state was founded here, below the Eiffel Tower, in the courtyard of the Ecole Militaire. The Jewish state is the direct and necessary offspring of what burned in European eyes in the courtyard of the Ecole Militaire. Death to that Jew. That ancient, enigmatic, obdurate European pathology about the life and about the death of the Jews.