James Kirchick introduces us to one of the arch-villians of his new book, The End of Europe, with a characteristically witty flourish:
Try to imagine a Christian being fed to a Coliseum full of lions (but make the Christian a fusion of John Cleese and Colonel Blimp and the lions all herbivores), and you begin to capture the essence of Farage’s regular performances before the European Parliament.
This is, of course, Nigel Farage, the long-time leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). But cranks make history too. Farage was never able to secure a seat for himself in the House of Commons, but since British representatives to the European Parliament are elected through a system of proportional representation, he succeeded in being re-elected as a member of the parliament amid ever-larger numbers of fellow UKIP militants. In 2014, the last European elections in Britain before Brexit, UKIP “earned more seats than any other British party.” Now that this “perpetually tanned and pinstriped, chain-smoking former London City banker” has won his campaign to get the United Kingdom out of the European Union, he may be “the most consequential British political figure of the past quarter-century second only to former prime minister Tony Blair.”
To turn to another part of Europe, and a different Kirchickian blend of derision and insight, take the story of the Palestinian schoolgirl and the chancellor. In the summer of 2015, German Chancellor Angela Merkel joined a group of schoolchildren in the city of Rostock for a televised discussion. Rostock is in the poorest part of the former East Germany and has a high concentration of non-European asylum seekers. One of the students Merkel met there was a Palestinian teenage girl named Reem Sahwil. She told Merkel that her family, who had been in Germany for four years, was now facing deportation and asked whether they could stay. True to her image as the no-nonsense “iron lady of Europe,” Merkel replied, “You’re a very nice person, but you know that there are thousands and thousands of people in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and if I say ‘you can all come,’ and ‘you can all come from Africa,’ . . . we just can’t manage that.” Anybody could have predicted that the girl would burst into tears, creating a public relations disaster—that is to say, anybody but the chancellor. Within six weeks, Merkel had reversed her stance, regarding both the Sahwil family and the “thousands and thousands” (actually more than a million and mostly male) refugees seeking asylum in Germany. Moreover, she suggested that all EU nations should do the same, in proportion to their population.
What has hurt Merkel, Germany, and the European Union more, her icy arrogance in Rostock or her reckless policy surrender in Berlin? In a fascinating coda, Kirchick notes that in a subsequent interview young Reem explained that her life’s dream was, in fact, not to stay in Germany but to return to Palestine once Israel no longer exists.
Why does Europe, the late 20th century’s greatest success story, now look so chaotic? How could a figure like Farage wrestle the second European power out of the European Union? And how could Angela Merkel, of all politicians, lose first her temper and then her sense of geopolitical balance? Just how dire is the European crisis?
Kirchick’s subtitle provides his own bleak answer to these questions: Dictators, Demagogues, and the Coming Dark Age. We’re back in the 1930s again, but instead of fascism and Stalinism, we now have authoritarian populism of both right-wing and left-wing varieties. Instead of a German-led assault on the Versailles treaties, we have Russian-led revisionism. And instead of the good old anti-Semitism, we have new brands of racism and xenophobia, including anti-Semitism, now (at least on the left) rebranded as anti-Zionism.
As a European reader, and more specifically as a French Jewish one, I must, very unfortunately, agree with much of what Kirchick says—but with some reservations. For Kirchick is too unsystematic in some ways and too oversystematic in others. The End of Europe is, he explains, organized “geographically and thematically into eight chapters, each a case study of a nation in crisis. None of these crises, however, are exclusive to the nations where they predominate,” so that “worrisome trends that are most visible in one country spill over borders and reverberate across the continent.” This makes for a brilliant but uneven, sometimes messy book (the chapter on a “France without Jews,” for instance, does not say very much about France); it might have been better to make a more linear, synthetic argument. On the oversystematic side, Kirchick may make too much of some of the parallels he draws with the 1930s. Nobody can deny, however, that he is right that populism is on the rise.
In all its forms, populism posits that the ordinary citizens, “the people,” have been betrayed, impoverished, and dispossessed by the system, and the nefarious predatory “elites” who run it. In its present European incarnation, populism is primarily directed against the European Union and globalization, and very frequently, albeit not always, against the United States and the Jews. Some of today’s European populists are anti-Muslim; some are not. Most are pro-Russian, though, again, some are not.
It is indeed puzzling that such a mindset should be prevalent again across Europe. Western Europe has enjoyed peace and stable democracies for more than 70 years, and its eastern half has spent the last three decades catching up. Thanks to the European Union, the Euro-American special relationship, and, yes, globalization, Europe as a whole and individual European countries have risen from poverty to affluence. Even taking into account an economic slowdown in some European countries since 2008 and the European Union’s transition from a redistribution agency to the budgetary and fiscal austerity enforcer it has become since the introduction of the euro currency in 2002, it is still a much better bargain to be in Europe than outside of it. So why are so many Europeans convinced that the opposite is true?
While Brexit is the most spectacular success story of European populism to date, it remains a limited one: UKIP did not take over Britain, and Theresa May succeeded David Cameron as prime minister, not Farage. If, after the surprising results of the recent snap elections on June 8, she fails to cobble together a stable majority, the beneficiary will be Jeremy Corbyn, a very unenthusiastic supporter of remaining in the European Union at the time of the vote who now says that he will support Brexit if he takes power. As Kirchick argues, Corbyn’s Labour Party shares many traits and positions with the authoritarian right (not least in its tolerance of anti-Semites and Putin’s Russia). But to see how 21st-century European populism truly works, one must turn to an EU country where the populists actually won a general election: Hungary.
Freedom Square in central Budapest, Kirchick points out, “teems with monuments attesting to Hungary’s turbulent twentieth century”: a huge obelisk dedicated to the city’s Red Army liberators; a bust of Admiral Miklós Horthy, the conservative regent who ruled from 1920 to 1944; a statue of Imre Nagy, “the executed hero of Hungary’s 1956 anti-Soviet revolt”; and a marching “bronzed Ronald Reagan” whose finger points to the United States Embassy. The most recent monument, dedicated to “the Victims of the German Occupation,” is also the most controversial. Its design is bizarre, an ugly, Teutonic eagle falling upon the luminous Archangel Gabriel, against a neo-Greek portico background, but its implication is worse: All Hungarians were equally victims of the Nazi occupation. Those who know (and care) that more than half a million Hungarian Jews were murdered either in Hungary proper or in Auschwitz, not to speak of the fact that many Magyars supported the invaders, cannot possibly agree.
The Victims of the German Occupation Monument was commissioned by the present Hungarian government, led by Viktor Orbán and his Civic Alliance party (Fidesz). A loyal if skeptical follower of the communist regime in his youth, a center-right politician in the 1990s, a classic conservative prime minister between 1998 and 2002, Orbán returned to office in 2010 as a populist-nationalist leader. He then undertook to turn Hungary in an authoritarian and, as he proudly defined it, “illiberal” and “national” direction, following the examples of Russia, China, and Turkey. The constitution was revised, with a clear view to making Fidesz rule permanent: Either “we want to prolong the two-party system with the ongoing division,” Orbán stated in a public rally, “or we assert ourselves as a great governing party, a political force striving after permanent government.” Kirchick admits that Orbán and the present Fidesz administration are nonetheless “genuinely popular.” And they owe their popularity, precisely, to their nationalism and the historical narrative they condone.
Orbán’s populism, some have argued, is a response to his powerful competitor on the right, the Better Hungary Movement or Jobbik. While Fidesz won 52 percent of the national vote in 2010 and 44 percent in 2014, Jobbik swelled from 16 percent to 20 percent. An openly neo-Nazi party, it envisions much more than a mere taming of the liberal “elites.” It longs for a racially homogeneous state that would exclude the Roma minority as well as “the Jews,” who, in its parlance, comprise not just the present community of some 100,000, but all the real and imaginary descendants of 19th-century and 20th-century Hungarian Jews who assimilated or converted. Some of Orbán’s supporters see him as preventing the further rise of Jobbik; his opponents see Jobbik as an unrestrained Fidesz. Whatever the interpretation, the unsettling fact is that this xenophobic, anti-democratic surge is supported by roughly two-thirds of Hungary’s population in the heart of the European Union.
In fact, more EU countries and more of their parties are emulating Hungary and Fidesz. In Poland, the conservative Catholic Law and Justice Party has been passing Orbánesque legislation since 2015; Miloš Zeman’s conservatives have become increasingly authoritarian and nationalistic in the Czech Republic. Nor is the phenomenon restricted to Eastern Europe: while Marine Le Pen, the leader of the sovereignist, “anti-system,” and anti-immigration National Front and a staunch admirer of Orbán, did not win France’s presidential election on May 7, she garnered an impressive 37 percent of the vote.
Nor, of course, is populism restricted to right-wing parties. As Kirchick shows, the left-wing Syriza regime in Greece is the clearest example of “the rise of a European hard left exuding the same authoritarian populism of the extreme right.” After five years of bankruptcy and negative growth in Greece, Syriza, led by an ex-communist named Alexis Tsipras, won a majority in the Vouli, Athens’s parliament, with the straightforward platform of promising that Greece could keep its welfare system, never pay its creditors, and, if necessary, renounce the euro. It was, at least in part, a bluff, the opening bid in negotiations with the European Union over fiscal austerity and financial aid. Underlining Kirchick’s point about right and left, Nigel Farage lauded “the courage of the Greek people in the face of political and economic bullying from Brussels.” Other fans include leaders of the French National Front and Hungary’s Jobbik party.
Similarly, in the first ballot of the recent French presidential campaign, Jean-Luc Mélenchon garnered 20 percent of the vote, coming in third place as a representative of the newly revitalized populist hard left. After losing, Mélenchon declined for 10 full days, in between the two presidential ballots, to endorse Macron or to take a stand against the National Front’s Marine Le Pen.
It is not, of course, from the right that the existential threat to the Jews of France has emerged, but from the very immigrants its rhetoric and policies have targeted (which is not, of course, to say that the National Front is philo-Semitic either). The “home to both the largest Jewish population,” as Kirchik writes, “and the largest Muslim population on the continent,” France has become a notoriously dangerous place for Jews. “Anti-Semitic attacks in France comprise 51 percent of all hate crimes even though Jews represent less than 1 percent of the population.” Most of this anti-Semitic violence, from harassment to arson, murder, and pogrom-like street violence, is perpetrated by radicalized Muslims. In 2006, there was the famous, horrific “kidnapping, three-week-long torture, and murderous dismemberment of twenty-one-year-old Ilan Halimi” in Paris by a Muslim-led gang who called themselves “the Barbarians.”
In 2012, Mohammed Merah, an Islamist activist of Algerian descent, murdered or maimed four soldiers in Toulouse and Montauban in Southern France and then killed a Jewish teacher and three Jewish preteen children in Toulouse at point blank. In 2014, “at the height of the Gaza War, what can only be described as a pogrom descended on the Don Isaac Abravanel synagogue” in Paris.
A crowd of several hundred people, chanting “Death to Jews” [in Arabic] and wielding iron bars and axes, tried to break into the building where about 200 worshippers were caught inside . . . Though French police rushed to the scene, one witness reported that, had it not been for members of the vigilante Jewish Defense League, “the synagogue would have been destroyed.”
In 2015, in the wake of a mass shooting of journalists at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in central Paris, an ISIS supporter of Malian descent shot a policewoman near a Jewish school in Montrouge in southern Paris, and then, the following day, killed four hostages at a kosher supermarket in eastern Paris.
As recently as April 2017, as we were about to elect a new president in France, a 66-year-old Orthodox Jewish kindergarten director was tortured for an hour in her home in Paris by a young Muslim neighbor who was heard shouting “Allahu Akbar.” After throwing her lifeless body out of the window of her third-story apartment, he prayed. Although police at the scene delayed storming the apartment while waiting for the anti-terrorist unit, there is currently a roiling public controvesy as to whether this will be prosecuted as a hate crime. These are but the headlines of daily life in France over the last decade.
No wonder then that the French Jews, in spite of their remarkable achievements as a community since 1945 and their no less remarkable contribution to French culture, are now leaving their country in large numbers. Two thousand French Jews emigrated to Israel in 2011. Four years later, Kirchick reports, the number had quadrupled. In fact, the decline is steeper than even these numbers suggest, for one has also to take into account those French Jews who settle in Israel as students or visitors without formally undertaking aliyah, not to speak of those who opt for other countries. Kirchick quotes the famous remarks of then–prime minister Manuel Valls after the January 2015 killing spree in Paris:
Manuel Valls, the son of Spanish immigrants, declared, “If 100,000 French people of Spanish origin were to leave, I would never say that France is not France anymore. But if 100,000 Jews leave, France will no longer be France.”
At the present rate of emigration, this will take no more than two decades, probably much less. And yet even if we Jews stay, France, and its Muslim communities, must figure out how they will be integrated into a modern democratic society if France is to remain a viable nation.
Radical Islamic brotherhoods and preachers seem to understand their migration to an originally non-Muslim Europe as part of a religious-political conquest, and many Muslims in France seem to accept this radical Islamist proposition at some level. On this understanding, Europe’s very acquiescence to a multicultural, multi-ethnic, and multi-religious societal model appears to be an admission of weakness. Ironically, they have a point. The political class has, too often, been unable to confront immigrant communities, even when basic legal and societal norms are challenged. Muslim neighborhoods have indeed been turned into “no-go zones,” not ghettoes where minorities are secluded, but areas from which non-Muslims have been de facto expelled. As I write these lines, in the first weeks of the Emmanuel Macron administration, there is much discussion of the “no women zones” that are spreading across northern Paris. These are places where women who do not dress and behave according to strict interpretations of sharia law are harassed and at times molested. France and its Muslim communities must figure out how they will be integrated if that country is to remain a viable nation.
One of Kirchick’s strongest points, emphasized throughout his book, is that a single powerful player is at work supporting almost all European populists: Vladimir Putin. Right-wing populists praise Putin’s Russia as the vanguard of the white, Christian civilization, against both the rising tide of Islam and American decadence. Left-wing populists, on the other hand, still hail Russia as they did in the Cold War days as the main adversary of American imperialism. Both sides are generously rewarded.
As Kirchick shows, even after the Soviet Union dissolved, its ruling elite stayed largely in place, especially in the very heart of the empire. The army and the secret police remained intact, the planned economy became a state-controlled oligarchy, nationalism was substituted for communism, and Mother Russia sought to regain what she had lost.
It was the Yeltsin regime that began the process, with its “Near Abroad” doctrine, according to which Russia retained “vital interests” in the neighboring post-Soviet countries, and the parallel doctrine of “the Russian World,” which envisioned the “reunification” of all Russian-speaking communities into a single nation-state. Putin merely accelerated the process. In 2014, following the takeover of Crimea, he complained that following the dissolution of the USSR “the Russian nation became one of the biggest, if not the biggest ethnic group in the world to be divided by borders.” “Presumably,” Kirchik observes drily, “it is the Russian government’s duty to reassemble it.”
A second explicitly stated Russian goal is to re-establish the former Soviet Union as a single geopolitical unit if not as a single state: a “Eurasian community” with Russia at its center. A concomitant third goal is to weaken or eliminate rival powers. Kirchick adapts the motto of NATO’s first secretary general: “Keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” Today, Kirchick writes, “Putin’s strategy can be understood as a slight spin on this formula: Move the Russians in, get the Americans out, and keep the Germans down.”
What Kirchik tells us about European populism and Russian revisionism is deeply alarming. But even as he points to the shortcomings of the European Union and the European political leadership in its major member-states, he demonstrates surprising confidence in the grand project of the European Union. Some may suspect that he confuses the Union as it is now with what it was supposed to have been. Certainly, he does not pay enough attention to what many observers or politicians, including committed Europhiles, call the Union’s “democratic deficit.” This describes the European Union’s steady drift from democracy, or at least an administrative framework under which democracy could flourish, to a bureaucratic system in which many if not most decisions are made by unelected officials, and, once made, are close to irreversible.
Indeed, just this democratic deficiency in our institutions may have prevented Europe as a whole, and many of the individual European governments, from identifying unavoidable political issues and dealing with them effectively, including fiscal problems and the refugee crisis. The European bureaucracy, as well as the various national bureaucracies, recognized these issues, and others, but did not act, often suppressing relevant information to legitimize their inaction. In doing so, they actually contributed to the rise of the populists and played into the hands of the Russian schemers.
Nonetheless, James Kirchick’s book is an impressive, deeply reported, and incredibly courageous report on the challenges Europe faces. If Europe were to come to an end, its demise would not be through the populism of demagogues or Russian aggression, nor through the continued rise of radical Islamism, but rather through the fossilization of its democracy.
Leah Sarna imagines Jewish and Gentile women doing their laundry on the banks of the Tigris, sharing tricks for keeping their headscarves tied and their bedrooms pure. She reviews Shai Secunda’s new book on just how Babylonian the Babylonian Talmud was.
Sharron Flatto and Allan Nadler exchange views the Prague golem, Kabbalah, and Ezeliel Landau.
Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, “the father of modern Hebrew,” famously raised his own son to be the first child in almost 2,000 years to speak only Hebrew. When Itamar Ben-Avi grew up, he was fascinated by . . . Esperanto. Esther Schor’s new book on L. L. Zamenhof, his would-be universal language, and those who still speak it inspired Stuart Schoffman to revisit the oddly parallel careers of Ben-Yehuda and Zamenhof.
“Good Shabbos—you’re sitting in my seat” takes on a whole new meaning when it’s your brother- in-law talking. From a Russian Jewish diary, with an introduction by Alice Nakhimovsky and Michael Beizer.