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  • The End of Enlightenment?
  • David Biale (bio)

The Bible had it wrong: the Jews are not "a people that dwells apart, not reckoned among the nations" (Numbers 23:9). On the contrary, their history, especially at crucial turning points, is deeply, inextricably entwined with the fate of "the nations." The reunification of Spain in 1492 was causally bound to the expulsion of Jews (and Muslims) who refused to convert. The French Revolution's creation of the category of citizen meant that the Jews had to be emancipated. Conversely, the Nazi revolt against the democratic and egalitarian ideals of the Enlightenment necessarily entailed the reversal of Jewish emancipation, whether as a prelude to genocide or otherwise. And finally, the defeat of Nazism led directly or indirectly to the defeat of antisemitism and to Jewish sovereignty.

The question facing us with the election of Donald J. Trump is twofold: 1) Has an event of the magnitude of those just mentioned in fact taken place? And if so, 2) does this event portend an epochal turning point in Jewish history? The tentative answer to both of these questions is yes. To be sure, the tea leaves are not yet dry enough to read, since, as Hegel taught us (pardon the mixed metaphor), the owl of Minerva only flies at dusk. Is the global—or, at least, European and American—turn to nativism and authoritarianism akin to the fascist and quasi-fascist regimes of the 1930s? There are certainly family resemblances: in both cases, the embrace of ethnonationalism and disdain for democratic norms have deep historical roots in the rejection of the rationalism of the Enlightenment and the politics of the French Revolution. It may well be that, like [End Page 141] the Roman Empire, which retained the outer trappings of the Roman republic, these new ethnonationalist regimes will maintain the veneer of democracy while the real power resides in those who reject the universal values of science and human rights. If we want to see a possible future, we need only look to Vladimir Putin's Russia, so admired by Trump.

It is a truism, but one worth repeating, that modern Jews are all products of the Enlightenment, regardless of whether they endorse its precepts. Even ultra-Orthodox Jews are products of the Enlightenment, which serves primarily as a foil for their own equally modern antimodernism. And Jews of the Middle East and North Africa were also, willingly or not, products of the Enlightenment's colonialist project. The Enlightenment was not always an unmitigated blessing for the Jews, but their success in integrating into modern societies as a minority was predicated on the Enlightenment's promise to erase religious and ethnic barriers. This was a hard-won battle that took the better part of two centuries. We should not forget that even in the United States, arguably the most egalitarian of Western democracies, Jews did not win full social acceptance until after World War II. In France, the forces of reaction were, if anything, stronger, in the guise of clerical antirepublicans in the Dreyfus Affair and the Vichy regime. There, too, full Jewish integration only came after the Nazi genocide. One could multiply these two examples, but the point should be clear: the Enlightenment project did not end with the French Revolution but continued, contested, until recent times.

The famous phrase the dialectic of Enlightenment suggests that revolts against the Enlightenment are themselves the products of the Enlightenment. We are witnessing today a new epoch in this dialectic, in which countries such as Turkey, Poland, Hungary, and now the United States embrace antimodern, völkisch, antiscientific, and antidemocratic ideologies in reaction to Enlightenment globalism. Although the current form of globalism—multiculturalism, inclusion of minorities, universal human rights, erasure of national boundaries—is not the same as it was in the interwar period, the revolt against it looks eerily similar to the rise of European fascism.

What might this revolt portend for American Jews? If one can judge from exit polling, around one quarter of the Jewish electorate voted for Trump, a number not inconsistent—give or take—with generic voting for Republican presidential candidates. For many of these voters, Trump no doubt represents...


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