National happiness is good for the Jews — but oh so fragile

We shouldn’t fear celebrations of national identity, which can solidify our place in society — but history reminds us that the position of ethnic minorities can change with the mood


LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 11: Fans show their support as they make their way down Olympic Way during the UEFA Euro 2020 Championship Final between Italy and England at Wembley Stadium on July 11, 2021 in London, England. (Photo by Alex Pantling/Getty Images)

July 15, 2021 13:22

Last week I had two preoccupations which seem on the surface of it to be hilariously mismatched. The first, obviously, was England’s ultimately doomed but nonetheless exciting attempt to win the Euro 2020 tournament. The other was a book I was reading on the Scholem family, as part of my attempt to understand the life of the Berlin Jewish bourgeoisie between the wars.

I can confidently argue that I was alone in switching my attention back and forth between Gershom Scholem’s furious academic rows over the history of Kabbalah, and a mesmerising video of Mason Mount giving his England shirt to a ten year old girl.

As I did so I began to appreciate that, bizarrely enough, there was a connection between the two, and in my feelings about both. The football and the history of the Scholems were both studies in national identity. And they both brought to the surface the complicated relationship between Jews and the nations they live in.

Arthur and Betty Scholem, a moderately successful Berlin Jewish couple who owned a printing business, had four sons: Reinhard, Erich, Werner and Gerhard. In his book on the family, Jay Howard Geller points out that they represented the four strands of Jewish response to the crumbling German democracy after the first world war.

Werner became a communist, rose to prominence as a member of the Reichstag, split with the Stalinists and was later shot by the Nazis. Gerhard became a Jewish scholar and a Zionist, changed his name to Gershom and emigrated to Palestine. Reinhard and Erich became printers like their father, one a centre right liberal nationalist and the other a centre left one. They escaped to Australia just in time.

In their own way each was disappointed. Werner was rejected by his comrades, Gershom wanted a bi-national Palestinian state in which Jews and Arabs lived in harmony, while the other Scholem brothers believed in a German Jewry that was utterly destroyed. This is the tragedy of the Jews. There was no peace to be found in any of their approaches.

As liberal nationalism was my grandfather’s chosen path and is now mine, it is that to which I paid most attention. Was its failure inevitable? Were those who believed in it simply naive? Are we living, as Gershom thought of his brother, in the grip of a delusion?

Should we therefore be nervous as flags appear everywhere and we witnessed the tribal urge of English people as the football team rose? Is this nationalism a threat to the Jews?

I think even in the dark story of twentieth century German Judaism there is encouragement to be had. The rise of a sense of Germanness was part of modernity. It was linked to emancipation, the flourishing of German culture and German Jewish cultural and intellectual endeavour. And Jews played their full part in the commercial explosion and urbanisation of the late nineteenth century.

Liberal nationalism was not a delusion, nor were the Jewish people wrong to think that the forging of a national identity had something in it for them. Nation stood above ethnic identity and there was a role for everyone. There was a reason to believe that liberal nationalism would lead to the decline of an antisemitism that still, of course, existed.

What brought that to an end — and this is the warning — is that liberal nationalism curdled. When the state failed, many Germans turned on the Jews. In defeat there is a search for someone to blame, someone on whom to take out anger.

We can see with the football how quickly the sweetness of victories turned sour.

My conclusion is that we Jews are deeply invested in the success of national identity, with the confidence it brings. The entire nation coming together in a moment of happiness is something for us to celebrate. I don’t think it is naive to wave an English flag. I think we have much to gain by doing our best to secure a stable, prosperous nation.

But it is impossible to read The Scholems or see the social media about Marcus Rashford without appreciating how fragile the position of ethnic minorities remains. It is uncomfortable to feel dependent on a national mood of success that we are not in a position to guarantee.

Daniel Finkelstein is associate editor of The Times

July 15, 2021 13:22

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