Stop Stopping

“Each generation doubtless feels called upon to reform the world. Mine knows that it will not reform it, but its task is perhaps even greater. It consists in preventing the world from destroying itself. Heir to a corrupt history, in which are mingled fallen revolutions, technology gone mad, dead gods, and worn-out ideologies, where mediocre powers can destroy all yet no longer know how to convince, where intelligence has debased itself to become the servant of hatred and oppression.”

— Albert Camus, Nobel Prize acceptance speech, 1957

Pierre Rosanvallon is an historian and political philosopher extremely influential in France and almost unknown in America. And that’s a shame, because his analyses are always poignant and, in many cases, prophetic. Among his many contributions to political theory, he coined the term “negative democracy” to describe a turn in the political discourse that started to appear in the mid-90s and has become prevalent today. He says that the process started with the European Left, which stopped talking about revolution and utopian social dreams. They became, he says, “the resistance” to the “neo-liberal” socio-economic model of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, and they rallied to save the welfare state. Slowly, the Left lost its vision, focusing only on negating and resisting what they perceived to be a nefarious socio-economic model, but without providing a compelling alternative vision. To make things worse, the fall of the Berlin Wall meant that they couldn’t point to communism as a viable model. The right underwent a similar process. The discourse of the right became one of “values under siege”. In their view, religion, family, and capitalism are under attack and need to be ferociously defended. While some on the far right revived dystopias from the 1930s, the bulk of the right’s political platform is, in fact, an opposition to liberal values that they perceive as corroding both national identity and the productive forces of capitalism. There doesn’t seem to be an encompassing political vision besides cutting taxes, protecting social mores from change, and opposing multi-culturalism.

So we have, says Rosanvallon, politics that don’t articulate a compelling vision for the society. Without a “picture of the promised land”, politics becomes a fight between two conservatisms: one seeks to preserve civil rights, welfare programs, the environment, and social advances, while fighting the tides of change that are rising inequality and rising sea levels; the other seeks to preserve religious freedom, sexual and gender norms, the Second Amendment (in the USA), and the rights to free enterprise, while fighting the tides of change that are globalization and cultural mixing. Both see themselves as “under attack” and the “defensive democracy” that they produce is one clearly bereft of a compelling and optimistic view of the future.

In 2018, the prophetic nature of Rosanvallon’s analysis is evident. Elections have almost stopped being a choice between comprehensive—and positive—visions of society, becoming instead a competition of grievances in which the only assembling force is the fear of the other side. The question for voters is not so much, “What project do you choose,” but, “What do you want to stop”. It is as if, in the 21st century, something essential to the modern era has been forgotten: a positive ideal of the future, the notion that there’s progress towards an ever-improving tomorrow. It seems that the capacity to formulate ambitious and inspiring political ideas is lost or, at least, dormant. There seems to be a vicious cycle between a lack of inspiring social ideas and rampant individualism: the lack of collective projects pushes us towards more individualism, and individualism makes it harder to formulate compelling collective dreams.

This zeitgeist of “negative politics” strongly influences the Jewish world. We, too, put far too much of the energy of the Jewish body politic into stopping rather than creating,  defending rather than proposing a bold vision for the future.

We aim to stop assimilation, to stop antisemitism, and to stop the disengagement of our youth from Israel. In Israel too, the political discourse seems negative in essence. The government policy is framed around protecting security, preventing BDS, forestalling Iran’s designs. In the opposition, the discourse focuses on preserving Israel’s democracy, saving the two-state solution, and so forth. Haredim want to maintain their draft exemption and the Rabbinate’s monopoly on family status issues. Israelis of many ideologies want to safeguard “the status quo” on the Temple Mount. These goals are indeed important and even vital, but we are a far cry from those 19th-century Zionist thinkers who envisioned a “New Society” (that’s the name of the Jewish State in Herzl’s vision), a “New Jew”, and a Jewish State that is a moral and scientific “light unto the nations”.

To be fair, some partial visions do exist. But they are, well, partial. We do, for example, strive to make Israel a technological beacon for the world. But why? Those partial visions are not part of a comprehensive view of what kind of country and society we want. It’s fine to say that high-tech is the new Zionism, but that confuses a tool with a goal. The same problem applies in Jewish communities of the Diaspora; we want to stop assimilation, but why? Just to merely continue? As Leonard Fein said many times, do we want our rallying cry to be, “Come survive with us”?

That paucity of positive ideas, of compelling visions of the future, seriously affects the quality of Jewish life and our capacity to attract and engage new generations of Jews. Being a red traffic light is nobody’s idea of a meaningful life. To compound this problem, the structures that could be vehicles for collective projects are weakened and in “defensive” mode themselves. The crisis of civil discourse in the Jewish community that we so much decry is not only linked to eroding civility (although that’s a big piece of it) but to the absence of a substantive debate between positive ideologies. Lack of literacy in Jewish thought and philosophy is also a big factor. Ideas are never built from scratch, but stand on the shoulders of past ideologies. Maimonides builds on Aristotle and Sa’adia Ga’on; Martin Buber builds on Kant and Kierkegaard, and also on a deep knowledge of Jewish mysticism; Herzl follows Pinsker and Pinsker follows Graetz, who, in turn follows Mendelsohn.

It’s hard for Jews to tackle this problem because, as Rosanvallon shows, it’s linked to the dominant trend in world politics and societies. But tackle it we must if we want to Judaism continue to be a source of meaning and belonging. And, because it’s a global problem, there are no simple recipes to apply. I think, however, that we can and must gradually change the conversation and the general tone of our debate.

We can’t engineer positive and compelling ideologies; they emerge organically in spaces of intellectual effervescence. We can, however, create those spaces that could be conducive to their emergence. In that sense, it’s critical to fund the venues in which ideas are discussed and produced. Valuing our scholars and thought leaders instead of deriding them as “idle intellectuals” is a prerequisite to having the best and brightest embark on these pursuits.

Simultaneously, much of the focus of the Jewish community needs to shift from frameworks to content. As I’ve written before, the Jewish community has generously invested in frameworks—content-neutral venues for Jewish togetherness—while directing much less of its resources to spaces that are content-rich and intellectually challenging. We thought that “lowering entry barriers” would provide more gateways to Jewish life. That proved to be true, but those frameworks should be gateways to content, not beautiful doors that lead nowhere.

Finally, no compelling ideas can emerge from an environment rife with repression and fear—whether that fear is achieved by force of law, threat of violence, threat of job loss, or even just the social pressures of extreme moral panic. Discussions about free expression often get bogged down in arguments over precise definitions of censorship or legal rights, but the legalistic angle is secondary. Here’s what matters: people can’t be creative if they’re afraid to speak. So if we want energized, positive visions to ignite the Jewish community, then our community needs to learn to be braver and more tolerant of expressions that may seem radical. Remember that, in Jewish history, only times of openness have generated new ideas. Maimonides fled persecution, but those who educated him had emerged from the ideological experimentation of Spain’s golden age; Zionism reacted to antisemitism, but antisemitism was everywhere, and that creative reaction to it emerged in the most cosmopolitan parts of Europe; and Reform, Orthodoxy, and Conservative Judaism may have all reacted to various pressures, but they also sprang out of the free-ranging ideological ferment of 19th-century Germany. We should also remember that most ideological innovations were once considered scandalous. Rabbinic Judaism was considered heretical by Temple priests; Maimonides was considered dangerous to Orthodoxy and so was Hasidism. Zionism was called sinful, to the point that some ultra-Orthodox voices sustain to this day that the Holocaust was a punishment for the sin of Zionism. Those of us in the “mainstream” will do well to remember that our own ideas were considered beyond the pale at their origins, and look more kindly on those experimenting with different systems of thought.

As a Jewish world and a general society, we tend too much towards the path of least creativity, which is to say, the path of most resistance: the negative ideologies of stopping and preserving instead of the harder, but much more rewarding, way of crafting positive views of the future.

It’s time to stop stopping and start dreaming.