And the Walls Come Tumbling Down

This is a thought-piece that I wrote for the Wexner Foundation. I consider the meaning of the 25th anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall for contemporary (American) Jewry.

See the original here. Full text below:

Twenty-five years have passed since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Erected in 1961, it stood less than a kilometer from where I sit now. The end of the Cold War destabilized Jewish identities and politics around the world. I still recall marching on Washington in 1987 to “free” Soviet Jewry.  In a matter of moments, that sacred mission, which had been a cornerstone of American Jewish life, no longer demanded our attention. Berlin also reminds us of the Second World War and the Holocaust. The legacies of genocide still mark the city’s topography and its culture.

During the last Gaza War, the media reported pervasive public expressions of antisemitism in Berlin; not anti-Zionism or Israel criticism, antisemitism. Just a few weeks ago, I had the privilege of attending a public debate about contemporary antisemitism in Germany, organized by the Center for Research on Antisemitism, where I am currently a post-doctoral fellow. How should we – and Germans – think about the relatively unexpected re-emergence of public antisemitism here? Are we witnessing something new or simply the unwelcomed return of the repressed? What is the relationship between anti-Zionism, criticism of Israel and antisemitism?

Regrettably, I cannot recount here all of the night’s arguments. I would like, instead, to meditate on the implications of a single line of inquiry. The Israeli philosopher Omri Boehm suggested, based on years of observation, that the single core component of contemporary, secular Jewish culture in America is a relationship with Israel. This, he contends, has had the unhealthy effect of transforming any criticism of that state into a perceived anti-Semitic attack – an offense to the basic stuff of American Jewishness. If Boehm is correct – and I believe that he is – secular American Jewry is facing a crisis of meaning and it is having a disastrous effect upon our capacity for political nuance.

In a discussion after the debate, a noted professor of Jewish history rejected Boehm’s premise. She pointed to the richness of secular Jewish life in America. I do not deny this, but would instead direct you to James Loeffler’s piece in Mosaic Magazine, “The Death of Jewish Culture.” An efflorescence of cultural production alone cannot replace the transcendent meaning that religion and nationalism once provided to our community. Is it any wonder that so many committed nonreligious and non-Zionist Jews express their identities primarily by subverting religious and Zionist narratives – the old cultural cores? What if we could grab hold of something else – something constructive?

For that, I return to Berlin. Had American Jews remained engaged with Jewish life in this city we might have experienced, rather than merely witnessed, the emergence of a playful and porous post-Soviet/Russian-Ukrainian/German/Jewish cultural sphere. The postmodern avant-garde was ours for the taking, provided, of course, that we allowed the word “ours” to change its meaning in the process. Instead, we basked in self-confident, post-Cold-War triumphalism. Fears of demographic collapse followed shortly thereafter, with the release of the first Jewish Population Survey. Our institutions sought to combat this, in large part, with Israel experiences.

Perhaps we can celebrate Berlin’s anniversary by tearing down the walls of twentieth-century identity politics which continue to constrain our communities’ creativity. A people so invested in history, in the commandment to remember, must also understand that it is subject to history. In Berlin, the absence of a wall does not testify alone to the transformative inevitability of globalization. So too do the city’s many Israeli residents who cross daily the former boundary between East and West. Labeling them traitors or cheapskates is to miss the point entirely.

The historian Charles Maier has noted that moral and structural narratives of history rarely map neatly onto one another. Globalization, a structural phenomenon, has taken its toll upon our community and yet I still find myself yearning for the aesthetics of moral and cultural certitude which characterized the previous two centuries. I wish that I could restore our community’s lost transcendent center, but I cannot. I invite you instead to join me in playfully acknowledging our shared nostalgia for the foreclosed future that it once promised, but can no longer deliver (see Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia). What a privileged and terrifying position it is to sit on a wall that no longer stands and to look into the future! Let us open ourselves to the possibility of radical transformation for our new world, twenty-five years after the Fall of the Berlin Wall.

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“The Community has Stolen my Birthright”

This is an address that I delivered alongside at Central Reform Congregation in St. Louis on 6 August 2014, alongside four allies from the local chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace.

For background information see the original posting on Jew School.

For commentary see reposting on Mondoweiss. The views expressed are not mine.

Transcript:

When I was a boy, my dad bought me a cap gun. It felt real. It was blue-steel, heavy, and bore no orange, protective bits. Sparks flew when I pulled the trigger and smoke followed. I had the gun for about ten minutes, until my mother saw it, shrieked at my father, and grabbed it away. Just one year later, in Israel, my mother stood by smiling and taking pictures as a soldier handed me, a child of eleven, his unloaded but very real M-16. He carried that gun to defend Israeli citizens. In 1988, that meant repressing the first intifada, the first popular uprising against the Israeli Occupation–against checkpoints, collective punishment, statelessness, and national subordination. At the time, my heart filled with pride to be associated with the young man. Today, I’d likely call him a boy. Today, undone by witnessing acts of ethnic violence and oppression carried out in my name and without my consent, that memory shatters my youth.

My parents raised me to love Israel and I did. I wanted to move there, to serve in its army, and to raise children in Hebrew. I still remember singing ha-Tikvah, the national anthem, with prayer-like devotion. And then, slowly, I learned that our promise land came at the expense of others. I learned about the Occupation, which is now in its forty-seventh year. I am thirty-seven. If I were Palestinian, I might never have known anything but occupation at the hands of a Jewish state. We have invested so much love, so much of who we are into the institution of a particular state that to criticize it can be terrifying.

And so I turned to our community, which I have loved and to which I have dedicated my life. I found there only silence and exclusion. I faced accusations of antisemitism. I lost friends and relatives and I worried for my career. In the 1960s, a divided American Jewish community came together around three issues: Israel, Soviet Jewry, and the Holocaust. The Soviet-Jewry issue fell away with the Cold War. The Holocaust, though recalled annually with reverence, is passing from memory into history. It no longer speaks to our younger generations as it did to ours. And we are thus left with Israel as our sole uniting factor. As Rabbi Michael Lerner noted, the State of Israel–an institution of political power–has replaced Judaism and Jewish culture at the center of our Jewish lives.

We all know the birthright program, which sends young Jews to Israel for ten days at no cost. Its founders learned from a survey in the early 1990s that our younger generation held weaker attachments to our community and also that participating in an organized trip to Israel reversed that trend for individuals. But can the solution to a crisis of meaning in our community really lie overseas? Data also show that our youths tend not to identify strongly with Israel. Its simple nationalism alienates those of us who think about belonging on more nuanced terms. Israel has driven us into the streets to protest atrocities carried our in our name and without our consent. And there, heartbreakingly, we face counter-protests from our own community in defense of occupation, in support of the ethnic division of society, and, this time, in favor of a bloody war of choice. If we have placed Israel at the center of our identities and if Israel now stands on the wrong side of history, what future can we expect? Support for Israeli politics–even if accompanied by prayers for peace–threatens to extinguish much of what is worthy of preserving in our tradition. If we do not speak, we risk not only complicity, but the alienation of future our generations.

We should be able to discuss this within our own community–and I appreciate the welcome here tonight–but instead we find silence and exclusion. Hillel International, the organization for Jewish life on college campuses, prohibits working with anyone or any organization which dares to criticize Israel at a fundamental level. This includes former Israeli soldiers who speak against the Occupation. NexDor, a local group which brings together Jewish young adults refused an offer from Jewish Voices for Peace to present its mission. Whether we love Israel or not, we made a mistake when we forgot about the richness of our heritage and its temporal and geographical breadth. We made a mistake when be believed that association with a state, an institution of political power, which is temporary and flawed by necessity, can stand in for meaningful Jewish identities. Let us not make the mistake of alienating those of us who love our traditions and our communities but who also question the morality of political nationalism and who stand against Occupation. We are a people composed of smaller sub-ethnic units, each with its own rich history, and we are sacrificing this heritage on the alter of quotidian politics.

I fear that a line has been crossed that only yesterday seemed unapproachable. The past weeks witnessed calls for ethnic cleansing in the Jewish press and the Israeli Parliament. In Israel, thugs beat anti-war protesters in front of the police and peace activists suffer intimidation. At the solidarity meeting here, I overheard one of our leaders explaining to his friend that the Israeli Consul had postponed the rally due to his schedule. This made my neighbor nervous. He did not want the war to end before the rally. Peace would have undermined its impact. There is a sickness in our community.

Some history. Political Zionism emerged as a liberation movement in response to antisemitism and nationalism. The foundation of Israel included anti-colonial aspects. Yet the settlement of Palestine by European Jews was itself an act of colonization carried out with–and in opposition to–world powers. The project as it unfolded was based in ideas of Jewish supremacy and in a particular interpretation of our traditions and history. It turned on the violent exclusion of the region’s indigenous population. After 1967, Israel established an occupation in the West Bank and Gaza. After 2005, it initiated a siege of Gaza, designed to undermine Palestinian statehood. I therefore cannot remain silent when people portray this month’s conflict in isolation from the context of forty-seven years of occupation, collective reprisal, settlement expansion, and siege. We can attribute each individual failure to achieve peace to one side, the other, or both. But we cannot ignore that despite any rationalizations, Israel has occupied Palestinians for nearly fifty years. Ask what else Israel could have done from its position of strength to pursue peace. Consider what it means to accept so many deaths and the destruction of a city as collateral damage. No matter how we judge Hamas, the assault on Gaza has demonstrated Israeli disregard for Arab life. This will not bring peace. The choices that may bring peace will present serious risks, but none more dangerous, physically and ethically, than preserving the status quo.

This does not mean that Israelis lack the right to equality in their native land. It does not mean abandoning our ties to that land. However, we must pay attention to how legacies of power make certain forms of exclusion and subordination seem normal. We must remain vigilant against our own chauvinism and listen to others. Do not believe that Israel lacks partners for peace and do not stand with those who demonstrate to Palestinians that they lack such partners.

Jewish progressives can and do enjoy many ties to Israel, but Jewish progressives cannot value Jewish lives and freedoms over the lives and freedoms of Palestinians. Our self-realization cannot come at the expense of millions without citizenship, rights, and the same prospects for their children as our own. Progressives must stand against occupation, siege, and settlement expansion. There can be no progressive support for a wars of choice. There can be no solidarity with the Netanyahu government or its representatives like Consul Gilad, which has undermined moderate Palestinians, rejected offers of peace, and expanded settlements to make a two-state solution–if it is desirable–impossible. There can be no progressive partnerships with organizations like AIPAC. Jewish unity cannot come at the expense of Jewish integrity.

Work for peace and justice, not an end to resistance. I have spoken about the damage that we do to ourselves, but that should not draw attention from those who suffer and die in Gaza and beyond. Support Palestinians in their efforts to achieve liberation and equality. Listen to their voices and follow their lead. Reconsider the campaign for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions. It is disingenuous to insist upon non-violent resistance and then to undermine its most effective form. BDS does not delegitimize Israel. The occupation does. Do not ask Palestinians to be Zionists. It is unfair and cruel. Ask how we can together create a society free and fulfilling for all.

Those of use who have been marginalized can come together. We can drop the illusion of Jewish unity and form communities of intention. You do not need to reject Israel–though some of us do–but I implore you to reconsider its place in our community and what it means to support Israel in its present form. I do not fear Palestinians. We can withstand European antisemitism. Yet the orientation of our community horrifies me. It is alienating our next generation and killing Palestinians. The community has stolen my birthright, because my birthright cannot come at the expense of others. No child’s birthright should be a photograph with an M-16. Stand with us for peace and compassion. Thank you.

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Imploring and Questioning in the Face of Violence without End

To my Jewish friends who defend the occupation and the attacks on Gaza,

Consider for a moment that you may be wrong. I wake up with this thought every morning and it stays with me through the entire day. It’s more like a wish. Can you imagine the pain that so many of us feel protesting against our own people, fighting against a state which promises us protection and national self-realization? Do you understand what it means when the beautiful myths of your childhood shatter in the face of brutality and violence committed in our name? I do not love our heritage any less than you. What I cannot do, however, is to place a value on it greater than the welfare of other groups or the lives of fellow humans. I speak out against the occupation (and political nationalism of all kinds) precisely because it stains our history and our culture. It also threatens our future. Please, if I am wrong, educate me. Show me the error of my ways so that I can once again stand proudly by your side in advocacy for our people. Explain to me why others must suffer endlessly for us to build our own society. Bring me back into your fold, so that I can feel the joy of belonging as I did in my youth. But consider for the moment as well that you may be wrong, because you are asking for me, not to mention Palestinians, to pay a heavy price for the pride of infallibility and the guarantees of destiny.

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My Vegan-Jewish Response to Banning Ritual Slaughter

Jacob Ari Labendz, “Move to Ban Kosher Slaughter not about the Animals,” The Jewish Daily Forward (18 June 2014).

A number of European countries have recently sought, with some success, to ban the ritual slaughter of four-legged animals by Muslims and Jews. Denmark did so in February, following Poland in January. Proponents framed the discussion in terms of animal welfare. They have a point. Executed properly, animals suffer less when stunned — that is, rendered unconscious — before they are slaughtered. Mainstream interpretations of Muslim and Jewish law prohibit this practice.

Yet the bans on ritual slaughter, which are meant to protect animals from pain, have much more to do with excluding certain ethnic and religious groups and should therefore raise concern, even among activists who would normally support them.

As a vegan, I oppose industrial meat processing for its abject cruelty and indifference to animals. I should therefore support all initiatives that in any way ameliorate the suffering of those animals our society has deemed livestock. Just like the proponents of the ban, I, too, prefer that butchers stun cattle before they brandish their knives. I am even sympathetic to the Australian solution of “stunning” livestock immediately after ritual slaughter, to minimize suffering, while remaining within the bounds of religious law. Finland has provided a similar accommodation for its Jewish community since 1934.

Nonetheless, I strongly oppose banning ritual slaughter. For me, this has little to do with religious freedom. Though a bedrock of our society, religious freedom also has its limits. We outlaw female genital mutilation and compel parents to provide medical care for their children, even if they oppose doing so on religious grounds. Considered in isolation, if stunning is a “kinder and gentler” way to kill, I would insist upon its adoption despite the religious objections.

Yet we must first answer a few questions. What does it mean for predominantly Christian and post-Christian societies to ban Muslim and Jewish ritual slaughter when cruelty is inherent to the entire system of industrial animal farming, from birth until death? Why have activists seized upon this issue so fervently, and, more importantly, so successfully?

I stand with my European allies in their fight for the welfare of animals. But I am deeply concerned when they draw the lines of acceptable behavior along ethno-religious divides. They characterize Jewish and Muslim slaughter as barbaric, and their foodways — a centerpiece of cultural practice and identification — as lying outside the norm. In a time of rising ethno-nationalism on that continent, the attempt to ban ritual slaughter is yet another, tired volley in a discourse that says, simply and cruelly, “This is Europe: Assimilate completely or leave.”

Jewish and Muslim activists have joined together in opposing these bans, as they affect both communities. The bans, however, are aimed primarily at European Muslims and Muslims in Europe. They compose a far larger minority than Jews, and one less accepted by the majority. Indeed, the bans have arisen from the same hysteria that has, in part, ignited anti-circumcision campaigns in Europe. Some Finish anti-ritual slaughter activists have gone so far as to compare male circumcision and female genital mutilation, both of which they associate with Islam.

We should debate the merits of protecting young boys from potentially dangerous body modification without consent, just as we discuss all other areas of child welfare concern. Our conversation about ritual animal slaughter should proceed similarly and begin with the following question: Why draw divisive lines between communities already in tension when we can advocate for animal (and child) welfare by other means?

To that end, the attempts to ban ritual slaughter (and circumcision) are actually counterproductive. They amount to the projection of the very real concerns that we rightly have about the inherent cruelty of our own societies onto its internal “others.” This sort of activism stifles and diffuses important discussions, because it does not encourage the majority to re-evaluate its own choices. It offers, rather, confirmation to Christians and post-Christians alike that their culture is already more enlightened than others. How will banning a set of practices in which most citizens do not engage encourage those same individuals to think critically about their own behaviors? We must choose a different starting point. We can win tougher battles and achieve more profound results.

What is to be done? Those of us who identify as Jewish and animal-welfare/rights activists should oppose the efforts to ban ritual slaughter wherever they arise. Yet we should also avoid joining forces with Jewish and Muslim activists who see no problem in ritual slaughter and seek its perpetuation. They are not our allies.

This is a time for us to raise our voices as Jews within the animal-welfare/rights community, to stand firmly against bigotry and the easy solutions that it seems to offer. This is also a time for us to encourage our own Jewish communities to cease the practice of ritual slaughter voluntarily by refraining from consuming animal products.

To the public, we must speak as particular universalists, interested in constructing a more inclusive and just society. The perception of Jews as a people that have endured millennia of discrimination will add weight to our voices. Within our own communities, we must build avenues of influence for our many talented rabbis, philosophers and teachers, who articulate our values in a Jewish vernacular.

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A Carnival of Stability: Re-Response to Derek Sayer

Please pardon my delayed reaction… Life, my dissertation, and a mildly aggressive Pit-Bull Terrier named Charlie often get in the way of things I’d rather be doing.

I want to thank Derek Sayer for responding to the open letter that I posted on my blog and emailed to him personally. I wrote in reaction to an op. ed. that he published in the New York Times, in which he lauded the political progress achieved in the Czech Lands since 1989. He did so with reference to the recent fall of the Nečas government. As Professor Sayer reiterated in his response to my letter, he celebrates

the fact that the fall of a government does not [anymore] entail a revolution in the whole political system: that politics no longer swallows up civil society [emphasis in original].  Above all, I celebrate the fact that today’s Czech public is entertained by the sexual shenanigans of Mr Nečas and Ms Nagyová, not the grotesque political show trials of Milada Horáková and Rudolf Slánský.

He also noted the important fact that “that the police had sufficient independence from that government to be able to investigate and expose that corruption.” In other words, Professor Sayer celebrates the passing of the twentieth century and totalitarian rule in Central Europe.

On these points, I cannot but concede – and on another as well. I criticized Professor Sayer for making light of the similarities between the political cultures of contemporary Czech Republic and Berlusconi’s Italy. Yet, as the Professor quipped, “I [too] prefer Berlusconi’s Italy, repugnant as it might be, to Mussolini’s.” Was it not Silvio Berlusconi, after all, who brought us the laughable, if impressive, embarrassment of former Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek?

I would like to suggest, however, that where Professor Sayer and I part ways is in our temporal orientation. Rather than comparing the present with the past, I must insist that contemporary moments speak first and foremost to themselves and then, perhaps, gesture towards the future. Indeed, the past is all too often invoked in the service of contemporary oppression. (See the 6th of Walter Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of History.) This applies precisely to this case. Just because new states replaced reprehensible, totalitarian-style regimes, does not make them automatically worthy of our praises. And so long as the past remains a symbol of evil and the present a model of redemption, they will always render contemporary dissent muted, equivocal, and ineffective. Fortunately, at least in scholarly circles, the Czech obsession with “uncovering the crimes of communism” is yielding to more nuanced readings of the past, which speak volumes to the present moment as well – if only through implication. (Ex., see Michal Pullmann’s recent work, Konec experimentu: Přestavba a pád komunismu v Československu.) With this in mind, I consider it to have been a rhetorical misstep when, in my original letter, I gave into nostalgia. It was nostalgia for a moment that I know only from books – for a time of illusory potential between one regime and the next.

Turning to the case at hand, I think that a great danger lies in seeing the fall of the Nečas government, in all of its erotic absurdity, as an isolated incident. Taken as such, it should rightfully impress anyone familiar with Czech history – for precisely the reasons that Professor Sayer indicated. Yet to see it only or even primarily in that way is to err gravely. Indeed, the illusion of the instance blinds us to the structural corruption, violence, and oppression of the twenty-first century. We live in a time where power no longer adheres to individual politicians, parties, or even ideologies – but rather to transnational corporations, super-national organizations, and global banking and information networks. These systems pose dangers far less visible than those borne of the robust ideologies of the twentieth-century and their embodiment in powerful states that attempted to achieve totalitarian control over territories and populations through police power and other means. It therefore strikes me as oddly – and ironically – nostalgic to expect Nečas’ fall to carry the same sort of weight and significance as, for example, those of Novotný and Dubček in 1968 and 1969. Nečas simply does not matter in the same way as the latter did. That does not mean, however, that political-economic oppression and corruption has vanished.

And if Professor Sayer anticipated this reaction from me with his comment that “politics no longer swallows up civil society,” I would answer, with reference to Empire by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, that room for dissent – and in this case, juridical checks on the abuse of power – is built into the contemporary political economy and serves its preservation, rather than demise or true correction. In my opinion, the “banal” (per Professor Sayer’s original piece) fall of the Nečas government functioned – perhaps unintentionally – as little more than a pressure valve, which assuaged popular anger with the contemporary state of affairs in the Czech Republic. Nothing has changed there since the Prime Minister’s political demise and much is awry. This holds, I believe, even if I join Professor Sayer in preferring such a pressure valve to the show trials of the 1950s.

Along those lines, even if we can use Prague to think productively about the European twentieth century – as per Professor Sayer’s new book – we cannot speak of it in isolation. As Professor Sayer pointed out, the Czech Republic has become – for better and worse – something of a “banal” member of the European Union. Perhaps he is correct as well that I am nostalgic for the hope that I had once placed in the Czechs – vicariously, perhaps, as I was only twelve in 1989. It is foolish to think that they, alone, could transcend global systems of power, no matter how poetic their politicians once were. How much, then, has really changed in the Czech Lands since 1989?

Padraic Kenney wrote about the role of the carnivalesque in the toppling of Central Europe’s communist regimes in a book he entitled A Carnival of Revolutions. I might suggest that the present crisis represents, first and foremost, the carnival of stability. Nečas’ fall may well serve to perpetuate an inherently corrupt system by providing an erotic and captivating spectacle of progress and justice – rather than structural change. Remarkable as even this is, just twenty-four years after the fall of communism, I still cannot consider it a cause for celebration. The Czech Republic remains a bastion of political and corporate corruption and I do not believe that conditions will improve soon. The fall of communism has also reintroduced to the region mass (regional) poverty and a violent political-racism.

It is easy in the face of all this to grow nostalgic for a time when grand ideologies offered paths to salvation, when leaders promised a bright future for which it was worth both fighting and dying, and when clarity (officially) reigned. I celebrate the passing of those dark days alongside Derek Sayer. But I fear that we have only gone from nightmare to nightmare. And therefore I long for the comfort of ideology and hope – and I believe that it has an important place in contemporary society, when tempered with a historian’s perspective and persistent self-criticism.

- Special thanks to Elana Thurston-Milgrom, Kevin Wooten, and Zachary Levine for their help editing this post. The views expressed herein and any errors are strictly my own.

* * *

To that end, in my next post, I will explore some thoughts on nostalgia and its centrality to cultivating a moral aesthetic for the twenty-first century, one that might be considered something akin to an existentialist religion of history.

* * *

I would also like to call attention, once again, to Professor Sayer’s new book, Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century: A Surrealist History. He enticed me with his description of Prague as “an object-lesson in humour noir” and “as a repository of the dreamworlds of an era” – as an erotic locus within which to explore the twentieth century, its “sense-making grand theories and totalizing ideologies,” and the violence done in their names. This description this fits Prague in a very real and, indeed, entertaining way. I look forward to reading it.

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Professor Derek Sayer Responds to My Letter

Please see Professor Sayer’s thoughtful response to my letter on his own blog. I will react to his comments here shortly. He wrote:

I welcome debate, and think Mr Labendz deserves an equally public response.  His concerns are serious ones.  But so were mine.

In the Preface to my book Capitalism and Modernity, dated 31 December 1989, I argued that Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution “was not the sort of revolution to which the modern world is used.  It was, for once, a revolution against those ersatz gods of modernity who have stolen, by divine right of ideology, decades of people’s lives, hopes and dreams; a refusal of the reduction of the personal to the political.”  I went on to suggest that “we may be witnessing, in Eastern Europe, not the return of the prodigal to the fold of ‘the West’ hailed by politicians from Thatcher to Bush, but something quite new: a ‘post-modern’ revolution…”

Three months later I visited Czechoslovakia for the first time.  One episode in particular from that trip stuck in my mind.  I wrote about it later in Going Down for Air (2004):

It is early in 1990, that uncertain time between the Velvet Revolution and the first free elections in forty-two years.  At a loose end one evening I decide to take myself to the local opera house, where [Verdi's] Nabucco happens to be playing.  Before the performance begins a man steps through the curtain to the front of the stage.  I expect to learn that one of the principals is indisposed.  Instead he makes a passionate plea on behalf of his fellow-artists for the audience to vote for Civic Forum, the opposition coalition formed in November 1989 around Václav Havel.

            If the communists steal the elections they’ll make Cambodia look like a dinner party, somebody remarks during the interval.  The tension is palpable, catching in the throat, acrid as the acid rain that hangs in the Ostrava air.

            Va, pensiero is heard in absolute silence—something I have never experienced at an operatic performance anywhere in the world.  No coughing, no shuffling, no whispering.  Nor, I think, have I ever heard a demand for a chorus to be encored.  When the last echo of the last note dies, but not before, the theater explodes.  People are on their feet, yelling for it to be played again.  Va pensiero was encored three times that night before the opera could go on.  I was later told that the same thing had happened in the National Theater in Prague after the Soviet invasion of 1968, leading to Nabucco being banned from Czech stages for the next twenty years.

Verdi’s Nabucco is set in the time of the Jews’ exile in Babylon, and “Va pensiero” expresses the Hebrew slaves’ longing for their lost homeland.   At the opera’s premiere in La Scala, Milan, on March 9, 1842, “Va pensiero” was repeatedly encored.  The performance ended in a riot.  Henceforth, the Austrian authorities decreed, no encores would be allowed in Italian opera houses.

Not for the first or the last time, my evening at the opera in Ostrava led me to ponder the myth of eternal return: the heresy, from a modernist point of view, that history might be better understood in terms of repetition-compulsion than onward and upward progress, or, as a Czechoslovak communist slogan of the 1950s once put it, “Kupředu, zpátky ni krok” (Forward, backward not a step).

I think I know where Mr Labendz—and Timothy Garton Ash—are coming from.  Faced with the sordidness of current politics in Bohemia, it is difficult not to feel nostalgia for those fearful, hopeful days of 1989-90.  But I wonder how much of the nostalgia is for the hopes that we invested in the Czechs, on which they have declined to deliver.   Not for the first time.  Friedrich Engels made a similar complaint when, after a promising start, the Czechs failed to play the role allotted them by the materialist conception of history during the revolutions of 1848-9.  The Czechs, he fumed, “are an absolutely historically non-existent nation.”

Almost twenty-four years have passed—as I said in my Op Ed piece, longer than the entire existence of Tomáš Masaryk’s First Republic—since the events of November 1989.  The democracy established by the Velvet Revolution has survived, even if it lamentably fails to live up to the hopes once invested in it by western “well-wishers.” Whatever we may think of present-day Czech political culture, the fact that a government can fall as a result of the implication of senior political figures, up to and including the Prime Minister, in graft and corruption—and indeed, that the police had sufficient independence from that government to be able to investigate and expose that corruption—is (perverse) proof of just how much has been achieved since 1989.  My point of comparison here is not the Utopian might-have-been of the unrealized dreams of that annus mirabilis, but what once was, the nightmares of the previous half-century.

So yes, I believe there is much to celebrate in the current scandal in Bohemia.  I do not celebrate the corruption per se—though I have come to expect it in liberal democracies.  (I prefer Berlusconi’s Italy, repugnant as it might be, to Mussolini’s.)  I celebrate the fact that the corruption can be exposed.  I celebrate the fact that the fall of a government does not entail a revolution in the whole political system: that politics no longer swallows up civil society.  Above all, I celebrate the fact that today’s Czech public is entertained by the sexual shenanigans of Mr Nečas and Ms Nagyová, not the grotesque political show trials of Milada Horáková and Rudolf Slánský.

As regards the “end of history,” history can be seen as having an end—whether understood as a terminus or a goal—only when it is equated with progress toward some ideal end-state.  I do not make that equation, and I believe modern Czech history gives us every reason not to.  As I wrote in the introduction to Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century (available here), “The city’s modern history is an object-lesson in humour noir.  Where better to acquire an appreciation of irony and absurdity, an enduring suspicion of sense-making grand theories and totalizing ideologies, and a Rabelaisian relish for the capacity of the erotic to rudely puncture all social and intellectual pretentions toward rationality?”

My book, to which the Times article is a very small footnote, attempts to treat twentieth-century Prague as Walter Benjamin did nineteenth-century Paris—as a repository of the dreamworlds of an era.  I see Mr Labendz’s “lost political third way” (“a moral society that deployed the economic and cultural power of a Western-style capitalist-democracy to fulfill the utopian visions and social imperatives championed—miserably—by political Marxism”) as belonging to those dreamworlds.  It is time to wake up.

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An Open Letter to Derek Sayer

July 16, 2013

Dear Professor Sayer,

I read your recent opinion piece in the New York Times (“A Scandal in Bohemia“) with great interest and you did not disappoint. Nonetheless, I must take issue with your tone and encourage you to rethink your position on the current political crisis facing the Czech Republic.

You write, “In light of Czech history, the latest scandal should be celebrated for its banality, its absurdity. It might just as well be happening in Silvio Berlusconi’s Italy.” And you rejoice in the fact that the Czechs have weathered a serious political scandal – the fall of a government – without resorting to regime change and the willful transformation of the nation-state’s ideological foundation. (I will leave aside the fact that this may be the first fully domestic event of this sort since the foundation of Czechoslovakia.)

Somehow, though, I find nothing at all banal about the high tolerance for political and economic corruption that has plagued the Czech Lands and Slovakia since before 1989 – and certainly after Czechoslovakia’s hyper-liberal transition to capitalist-democracy. Indeed, as far as I can tell from the Czech press, even this scandal seems not to have provided the necessary impetus for civil society to demand (in any effective manner) a drastic change in the country’s political culture. What should be celebrated about the failure to do so, when change is so dearly needed?!

To that end, why should any country – and its well-wishers like you and I – celebrate its supposed political maturity into something akin to the little sibling of Berlusconi’s Italy? If I believed that this truly represented Europe’s potential, I would be forced to join former President Klaus in his opposition to that Union. Fortunately for me, I do not need to keep such ODiouS company.

In his reappraisal of the Czechoslovak revolution of 1989 (see his “Afterword” in the 1999 edition of Magic Lantern), Timothy Garton Ash penned a moving, if nostalgic, elegy for the lost political third way, between capitalism and socialism, that so many Czech and Slovak dissidents had hoped to achieve in 1989. According to Ash, they envisioned a moral society that deployed the economic and cultural power of a Western-style capitalist-democracy to fulfill the utopian visions and social imperatives championed – miserably – by political Marxism. Instead, the Czech Republic has become a bastion of political and economic corruption and – at least under Klaus – a poster child for the worst kind radical liberalism.

To my mind, the fact that one can characterize this crisis, with salience and integrity, as a banal event, should give us pause and force us to reappraise our praise. Evil banal must not remain evil unchecked. Or is this the terrible “end of history” – the point from which we can go no further? As an aspiring historian, I hope this not to be the case. What an awful way to conclude one’s book!

Sincerely,

Jacob Ari Labendz

Doctoral Candidate, Department of History, Washington University in St. Louis

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