Jewish Predicaments: 1939 and 2019
The American novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, not noted as a political thinker, nevertheless knew something about political paradoxes. Fitzgerald wrote: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
We may debate whether or not Donald Trump is “a first-rate mind,” but he does appear to be experimenting with Fitzgerald’s proposition by testing whether you can simultaneously operationalize two ideas that once seemed contradictory: de facto withdrawal from the post-1945 liberal global order, and strong support for Israel and Jews.
Israel was created immediately after World War II with the blessings of internationalists, albeit with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Great Britain was less enthusiastic for obvious reasons having to do with its pro-Arab alignment in the Mideast. But this was made up for by France’s sympathy for Israel until the 1967 war, and Russia’s short-but-valuable opportunistic support for the Jewish state after 1948.
Today, liberal internationalism is in disarray — opposed by Donald Trump and other right-wing and populist leaders throughout the world. Even the rightward turn of Israel’s Netanyahu regime can be interpreted as part of the same trend, which also extends to Putin’s despotic Russia.
Whether or not there is “collusion,” there is a rough congruence between Trump’s “Make America Great Again” isolationism and Putin’s highly nationalistic foreign policy that seeks dominance in the Middle East and across the world.
In a peculiar way, the world in 2019 is reminiscent of the world in 1939. There is no imminent likelihood of World War III — but UN-style internationalism is in retreat, just as it was back then, when the League of Nations disintegrated.
Also, the 2019 era shares the rising tide of nationalistic antisemitic movements that were openly embraced by governments before World War II.
The big difference is that 2019 lacks a dynamic, expansionist power like Nazi Germany to again set the world ablaze. China may have ambitions to become Asia’s new global hegemon, but its ideological rationale is not antisemitic or racist, and it does not seek to dominate people outside of its borders.
Of course, Israel-hating Iran wants to be an imperialist-expansionist power. But its realistic ambitions and capabilities to implement those goals are limited to its neighborhood (despite its bizarre forays into terrorist bombings in both Europe and Latin America). This is good news in a way for Israel, but also bad news because an aggressive antisemitic Iran, possibly armed soon with nuclear weapons, may be enough to ignite a region-wide war in the Middle East.
We will see in November 2020 if Trump’s isolationist rule will continue. Rather like Great Britain, where British Jews may soon have a Hobson’s choice between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn, American Jews will have to choose between Trump’s combination of pro-Israel policies — along with behavior that many Jews find dangerous to the world and offensive to Americans — and a Democratic Party in which some elements have displayed anti-Israel behavior.
Welcome to the twenty-first century!
Historian Harold Brackman is coauthor with Ephraim Isaac of From Abraham to Obama: A History of Jews, Africans, and African Americans (Africa World Press, 2015).