Chapter IV: The Romantic Relapse of Europe

a painting of a group of people sitting in a room
8 min.

From Chapter 4: “The Romantic Relapse of Europe” in Ismail Raji al Faruqi, “Islam and the Problem of Israel”, Islamic Council of Europe (1980)

A. Russian Pogroms

The prognosis of the last paragraph (Chapter III) was the reality on the American scene. Most of the rabbis ministering to the Jews of America were educated in the Reform seminaries of Europe, and the first seminary in America (Cincinnati, Ohio) belonged to the same group. The absence of persecution and of ghettos and the religious freedom guaranteed by the American Constitution promoted acculturation and assimilation of Jewish immigrants from Europe. In America, it was hard to be anything but a Reformed Jew. The voice of orthodoxy, of traditionalism, was certainly present; but it was overwhelmed by the universalism and secularism of American society in the matter of religion. The situation radically changed in the nineties when a wave of pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe sent a flood of Jewish immigrants to America. The demography of American Jewry was turned upside down. In a decade, American Jewry became overwhelmingly orthodox and the voice of Reform Judaism became that of a minority. What happened in Russia to bring about this Jewish exodus happened in various degrees in the rest of Europe.

The Enlightenment never took root in Russia. Enlightenment ideas relevant to science, to trade and industry, did. These ideas mixed with deep mystical hopes for national restoration and produced the Europeanising industrialisation of Peter the Great. The outcome of this nineteenth-century process was a surge of “Mother Russia” feeling coupled with a secularising will to progress. As to the Jews who up till then were living as strange aliens in city and village, the surge could only lead to their Russification. The movement produced some strong advocates — Peretz Smolenskin, Leo Pinsker, etc. — to persuade the Jews to russify themselves — a transformation as difficult to achieve for the Russian Jews, as it was for Russian Christians to promote perseverently.

The main reason why the Enlightenment proved to be a very indigestible novelty was the unpreparedness of the Russian mind. Russian experience was radically different from that of Western Europe. At last as far as the intelligentsia is concerned, if not the majority of the people, the Russian Church was as guilty as the Catholic Church in the exercise of her dominion. That is why the forces of progress could countenance neither courtship nor alliance with the Church. Moreover, the Church – saw – and did so rightly – that the new movement for progress threatened her own power and therefore did everything it could to oppose and retard it. That is why the new movement leaned farther away from the Church, toward secularism. Furthermore, Christian Russia had no tradition of religious reform, no tradition of Renaissance, scholastic, Cartesian or Enlightenment rationalism. Whatever Enlightenment ideas the Russians of the nineteenth century had were borrowed from Western Europe. And since the whole of Napoleonic Europe was pitted against Russia, the borrowed ideas had to be adopted if and only after they have been fused into the overall “Russia” feeling. As for the Jews, the overwhelming majority of them were, like their Christian neighbors, still living in the crass ignorance of the Dark Ages. It was as if modernity had suddenly burst upon them. It is not surprising therefore that they neither understood nor accepted the Christians’ half-hearted emancipation of them. The event of modernism was dazzling to both Christian and Jew.

This context explains why the Russian Christian’s demand for Russification was not an “invitation,” not an “emancipation,” but rather an ultimatum. When heeded, it brought quick results, as when Jews quickly rose to highest rank in the service of Czar and country. But when it was received with hesitancy, no time was lost in patient acculturation. The Enlightenment’s ideas of tolerance and reasonableness were quickly transformed into resentment and hate. In little time, even as the Jews were russifying themselves, the most violent pogroms broke out against them without apparent reason or cause. This sad Russian outcome was equally that of Jewish emancipation in Western Europe, but not for the same reason.

B. European Persecution

1. The Ideational Groundwork

Ever since it triumphed over paganism, the Christian Church had stood for the ideal of the universal community. It expanded itself as religion as well as wordly dominion under the aegis of that ideal; and, in fact, it was well suited toward that objective ever since Jesus had decreed: “God is indeed capable out of these stones to raise children unto Abraham” and Paul, “By one Spirit are we all baptised into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free”Matthew 3:19; I Corinthians 12:13. The Reformation gave the coup de grace to Christianity’s ideal of the universal community. In fact, the Reformation was the result of a storm which, gathering long before, was only triggered by Luther’s proclamation of the 95 Theses. The numerous peoples of Europe rallied around their princes in order to shake off the authority of the Catholic Church, an authority which had become a “Byzantine” yoke, full of corruption, full of evil, bearing little or no resemblance to the universalist ideal it claimed itself to be.

Instead of this worthy Christian ideal, the emerging Protestant leadership tilted toward Congregationalism to justify its breaking away from the Mother Church. But Congregationalism itself needed justification, and this was sought in something outside the Church when ecclesiastical history could not be found to support it. The Renaissance had already impressed the leadership with naturalism and the road lay open for a justification of the new religious autonomy with values intrinsic to the congregation as a distinct and separate human unit. These feelings constitute the germs out of which nationalism grew in Europe. In its prince and dynasty, each new autonomous Protestant congregation began to see a focus around which the people could rally to form the “nation” as a super-entity destined to carry out a “holy” mission of self-realisation. This contributed heavily to the growth of the centralised monarchies, and, in turn, gave the social cohesion necessary to keep the burgeoning European city together and its population attached to the “national” government. European nationalism grew as the universalism of the Church receded; and, by the end of the eighteenth century, it was strong and mature enough to give the Enlightenment and its political offspring — the world order of the French Revolution — the most violent counter-action.

The Enlightenment preached its rationalism to Europeans already committed to Christian dogma as well as to Renais¬¨sance naturalism. These were too ingrained in Europe’s consciousness for pure rationalism to succeed. Hence, practically all Enlightenment thinkers compromised rationalism to make room for both the Christian faith and naturalism. If this compromise could not be effected on the level of pure reason, then it was done on that of practical reason and judgment. Immanuel Kant, the prince of the Enlightenment, lectured on geography and international relations where universal rationalism did not stop him from predicating a “natural” inferiority to the Asian races, nor from asserting that to be black is an argument. Instead of purging it of such compromise or aberration and hence making the Enlightenment more viable and stronger, the next generation of Europeans suspected and repudiated it altogether. Theirs was a failure of nerve; for they could not countenance what lay at the end of the road the Enlightenment opened, namely rationalist repudiation of Christian dogma along with the Church’s authority which the Reformation had attacked, and universalist repudiation of ethnocentrism in favor of a world order founded on the equality of all mankind. Against the Enlightenment therefore, they levelled argument after argument which sought to redefine man in terms of ethnic history, language and race. Blood or life, the earth with its plains, mountains, rivers and forests, and a vague past in the myths and legends of the Middle Ages, became the elements out of which the new ideology was constituted.

Evidently, such elements are not properly conceived by reason. They are the object of feeling and human instinct. A worldview built upon reason has no room for them; but one built upon them cannot only satisfy the trend toward naturalism (what could be more empirical than nature?) but allow plenty of room for accommodation of Christian dogma on the experiential basis of immediate feeling. The genius of Friedrich Schleiermacher was one of exchanging a crumbling foundation of the faith — universal reason — for the solid one of personal experience, of ineffable feeling. The “Romantic” revolution was in full swing. The arts — literature, painting, sculpture and music — were already filling the European mind with visions of a new order in which each ethnic group saw itself as the vortex of human history, a manifestation of the absolute on earth. Pregnant with the hopes engendered by a century of rationalism and universalist humanism, the conscience of Europe welcomed the Revolutionary army of Europe as a genuine “emancipating” force. But it turned cynical when that force disclosed the ugly head of France’s imperialism, and surrendered itself with spite to its romantic enemy. The national wars which engulfed Europe in the sequel were the insane attempts of a sick man trying to cure himself of his disease with more of the same.

How could the Jew fit into this new order? Under a universalism based on reason rather than religious affiliation, the Jew was given a place where he could contribute to the public welfare, the commonwealth or universal utility. But under a nationalism based on the romantic feeling of unity, of sharing in a mystical experience of common history, of communion with a particular “mother earth,” of participation in a Christian tradition of values, he was most definitely an alien. The European Jew himself oft led and contributed to this romanticism, for its affinity with an age-old ethnocentrism of his own, the “Chosen People” complex. But his service only accelerated his own doom. For in the eye of the European Christian, the forces of a new rejection of the Jew as a foreign body were gathering momentum. It was only a matter of time before these would explode into political action. The transformation brought about by romanticism presented the European to himself as rooted in a given blood and soil and grown under a legacy of Christian values. Whether believer, secularist or atheist, he acknowledged the legacy to be constitutive, regard substance, nor to return them to their ghettos devoid of civic liberties, but of bringing about a “final solution” to their problematic existence in Europe.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here