Wolfe, “At Home in Exile”

In October, Random House released “At Home in Exile: Why Diaspora is Good 9780807033135for the Jews,” by political scientist Alan Wolfe (Boston College). The publisher’s description follows:

An eloquent, controversial argument that says, for the first time in their long history, Jews are free to live in a Jewish state—or lead secure and productive lives outside it

Since the beginnings of Zionism in the twentieth century, many Jewish thinkers have considered it close to heresy to validate life in the Diaspora. Jews in Europe and America faced “a life of pointless struggle and futile suffering, of ambivalence, confusion, and eternal impotence,” as one early Zionist philosopher wrote, echoing a widespread and vehement disdain for Jews living outside Israel. This thinking, in a more understated but still pernicious form, continues to the present: the Holocaust tried to kill all of us, many Jews believe, and only statehood offers safety.

But what if the Diaspora is a blessing in disguise? In At Home in Exile, renowned scholar and public intellectual Alan Wolfe, writing for the first time about his Jewish heritage, makes an impassioned, eloquent, and controversial argument that Jews should take pride in their Diasporic tradition. It is true that Jews have experienced more than their fair share of discrimination and destruction in exile, and there can be no doubt that anti-Semitism persists throughout the world and often rears its ugly head. Yet for the first time in history, Wolfe shows, it is possible for Jews to lead vibrant, successful, and, above all else, secure lives in states in which they are a minority.

Drawing on centuries of Jewish thinking and writing, from Maimonides to Philip Roth, David Ben Gurion to Hannah Arendt, Wolfe makes a compelling case that life in the Diaspora can be good for the Jews no matter where they live, Israel very much included—as well as for the non-Jews with whom they live, Israel once again included. Not only can the Diaspora offer Jews the opportunity to reach a deep appreciation of pluralism and a commitment to fighting prejudice, but in an era of rising inequalities and global instability, the whole world can benefit from Jews’ passion for justice and human dignity.

Wolfe moves beyond the usual polemical arguments and celebrates a universalistic Judaism that is desperately needed if Israel is to survive. Turning our attention away from the Jewish state, where half of world Jewry lives, toward the pluralistic and vibrant places the other half have made their home, At Home in Exile is an inspiring call for a Judaism that isn’t defensive and insecure but is instead open and inquiring.

Guerres de Noël

US-LIFESTYLE-HOLIDAY-DECORATIONS

I used to think that the annual Christmas Wars were strictly an American thing, like corn dogs and and attorneys’ contingency fees. Only in America, I thought, do people seriously argue about whether to allow Christmas trees in public parks or to permit public school choirs to sing “Silent Night” at holiday concerts. The issues become more and more bizarre. This year, a Maryland school district decided to remove even a reference to “Christmas” in the school calendar–as though the reference amounted to religious oppression and removal would make people forget what holiday comes round every 25th of December.

Our Supreme Court, whose Establishment Clause jurisprudence focuses on factors like the presence of plastic reindeer and talking wishing wells, bears much blame for this state of affairs. But judges in other countries seem eager to replicate our model. Last week, a French administrative court ruled that the town of La Roche-sur-Yon–located, appropriately, in the historically royalist, counter-revolutionary region of the Vendee–must remove a Christmas crèche from its city hall. The court held that the crèche violates the 1905 French Law on the Separation of Church and State, which, according to the court, forbids religious displays like crèches on public property. According to news reports (in French), the court concluded the display was incompatible with the principle of state religious neutrality, or laïcité.

I don’t know enough about French administrative law to evaluate the decision. What I find fascinating, as an outsider, is how closely the French debate tracks the American. The lawsuit seeking removal of the crèche was brought by a secularist group called the “Fédération de la Libre Pensée,” which, I gather, is analogous to American groups like the Freedom from Religion Foundation and American Atheists. The group argues that the crèche “fails to respect the conscience of the citizen” by “imposing” on him a religious display whenever he enters city hall. In response, the town’s supporters evoke cultural traditions more than Christianity. Religious neutrality, they say, does not require abandoning longstanding French customs. What’s next, they ask? Church bells and Christmas lights? They’ve started a popular hashtag campaign, #TouchePasAMaCreche.

Each side has to live with its ironies. Notwithstanding the rhetorical commitment to laïcité, French law allows a great deal of entanglement between church and state–more, in some respects, than we would tolerate in the US. (Guess who owns Notre Dame and all other church buildings that existed as of 1905? Hint: it’s not the Church). On the other hand, the defense of tradition in this case rings somewhat hollow. La Roche-sur-Yon only began displaying the crèche 22 years ago.

The city has vowed to appeal the decision. I’ll keep you posted. Meanwhile, here’s a thought. If France has adopted the Christmas Wars, can Black Friday be far behind?

Photo: Le Figaro