Yehuda Bauer

Yehuda Bauer: Jews will suffer as the world gets less liberal

Antisemitism thrives solely in monotheistic societies, and is driven by the fact that Jews have a culture, religion and customs that is distinct those of their neighbours

March 23, 2017 10:12

There is no antisemitism in polytheistic cultures.

There was a rather large Jewish population in China during the Song Dynasty (10th-13th centuries), and Jews were not persecuted because they were Jews.

In India there were three Jewish population centers — one in the Cochin area, another near Mumbai (the Bene Israel), and a third, in more modern times, in north-east India, of mainly Iraqi Jews; Indian Jews were never persecuted.

For polytheistic societies, the Jewish God was just another deity, and that was fine.

Jews were craftsmen and traders, just like many of their Indian neighbours, and they were one of many Indian subgroups with their own social, religious, and cultural traits.

Antisemitism grows in monotheistic societies only, and is the result of the fact that Jews developed a culture, religion and customs that were different from those of their surroundings.

Peaceful co-existence of Jews with their non-Jewish neighbours was and is, therefore, contingent on a rejection, even if relative, of the view that sees in the Jew the stereotypical Other, the stranger, the competitor, and therefore, potentially, the enemy.

Jews can live peacefully only in relatively liberal societies. By that I mean societies striving towards democracy, rule of law and independence of the legal system, freedom of religion; societies that strive towards gender equality, that guarantee freedom of speech and expression, that defend minorities, and so on.

In the last few years the global trend has been away from this kind of liberalism. In China, a one-party dictatorship built on an ideology that has lost all relevance to the society which is supposedly ruled by it, is moving away from the relative liberalization under Mao’s successor, Deng Hsiao-ping.

Thailand is ruled by a military dictatorship. Burma is struggling between military rule based on an alliance with China and a movement for democracy that fails to deal with Muslims and non-Burmese ethnicities.

India is ruled by a nationalist-religious party that tries to perpetuate its control over a vast country with a huge number of ethnic and linguistic groups.

The Middle (or rather, Muddle) East boasts authoritarian or radically religious dictatorships locked in antagonisms and wars, from Turkey to Iran to Egypt, not to mention the butcher of Damascus, supported by a Lebanese Shiite genocidal and antisemitic movement, the party of God (Hizbollah).

And then of course there is Daesh, the Sunni version of a desire to control the world for murderous, genocidal, antisemitic fanaticism.

There is a virtual dictatorship in Ethiopia, a brutal autocracy in Eritrea, and similar systems control some other African countries. There are genocidal situations in Darfur and the Nuba Mountains in north Sudan, and a fratricidal war of mutual annihilation in South Sudan.

In Latin America, the Venezuelan dictatorship is another outgrowth of similar trends, as are somewhat less extreme situations in some Central American States.

Russia is a transformed Tsarist autocracy. And then there is the new administration in Washington.

One can easily become an extreme pessimist and repeat the mantra that humans are not very nice people.

Periods of advance towards liberalism seem to be followed by opposite trends. We are, clearly, in a down trend at the moment. Our view of all this has to be global, not local or regional, because all these developments influence each other. Jews certainly cannot remain indifferent in a situation like that.

The old divisions between right, left and centre, while still meaningful in some countries, are quickly losing their relevance. The current leader of European liberalism is Angela Merkel, head of a conservative party. The difference between the CDU/CSU and the Social Democrats in Germany is no doubt important, but in the end both major parties are committed to a democratic society based on a rule of law that protects minorities and strives for a minimum of social justice.

The same applies to the UK (Scotland, even if it leaves, will be committed to similar principles) despite clear differences between Conservatives and Labour.

In the Scandinavian countries it hardly matters whether Conservatives, Centrists or Social Democrats are in power, because no one intends to abolish the Scandinavian welfare state. The Canadian government is left-wing liberal. The Australian, conservative.

From the fringes, in liberal societies, a populist, right-wing anarchist element is penetrating into the centre and is part of the anti-liberal trend.

Israel, like some other countries, is unfortunately in the middle. Democracy still rules. But there are governmental attempts to gain control of the media, to deepen the gap between Jewish and Palestinian citizens, to diminish the independence of the justice system, and there is great disagreement over Israeli rule over a people who vehemently object to that rule.

In the background there is the genocidal war in Syria-Iraq and the threat of radical Islam.

Some political parties are little autocracies: the centrist party is ruled by Mr Yair Lapid, a right-wing party is ruled by Mr Avigdor Lieberman and the two strictly Orthodox parties are ruled by their leaders or rabbis, not unlike the extremist Dutch Freedom Party of Mr Geert Wilders.

The Jewish people’s civilisation is built on argument and controversy. There cannot be a united stand, and there never has been. We had two mutually antagonistic kingdoms, we developed two separate Talmuds, Jewish independence was destroyed by quarrelling and irresponsible messianic extremists, Chasidim and Misnagdim (traditionally Orthodox Jews) fought each other, often physically, Orthodoxy will not accord recognition to non-Orthodox groups.

Israeli Jews are split every which way – and, paradoxically, it is that culture based on controversy that produced a multi-faceted Jewish civilisation which we have to maintain. Unity would be utterly artificial. But the tendency of the majority is very important.

Conservative or socialist, Orthodox, Reform, liberal, or secular – whatever the particular point of view of Jewish individuals or groups may be, they all must defend liberal principles, because their very existence depends on them.


Yehuda Bauer is the world’s leading Shoah scholar. He is professor of Holocaust Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

March 23, 2017 10:12

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