Anti-Semitism, an unlikely aid to Jewish survival? Plus tales of tribalism in France, Poland

Beneath the surface of polite conversation in the Jewish world there exists a disturbing (for me) school of thought that postulates the following: Anti-Semitism has not been all bad for Jews.

Yes, you read that right. Anti-Semitism has not been all bad for Jews because it has helped them survive as a living religious culture, one that otherwise might have disappeared via assimilation had Christians and Muslims, among whom Jews lived as minorities, been nicer about all those complicating theological details and cultural differences.

Or to put it another way, anti-Semitism forced Jews to cooperate among themselves for their physical survival, solidifying their tribal identity and encouraging them to fight to preserve their culture and faith.

I'm reluctant to embrace that proposition -- given the Holocaust, the Inquisition and the assorted pogroms and injustices Jews have endured across the centuries, and to this day. That's a heck of a price to pay for group cohesion.

Yet I can't utterly reject it; I'm too aware of the emphasis on anti-Semitism that Jewish organizations use to rally community solidarity. Yes, and to raise money.

So I wonder whether a similar circle-the-wagons dynamic is currently at play among French Christians, Roman Catholics in particular, who seem to be experiencing something of a public political revival? And not just French Christians, but also the entire backlash among more conservative religionists against globalization's massive and threatening demographic changes.

That backlash would include Indian Hindus, about whom I wrote last week, white British Christians (even if only culturally so) who backed Brexit, and American evangelicals who voted overwhelmingly for President Donald Trump despite strong misgivings about his lifestyle and temperament.

Although they stand in opposition to the above mentioned groups, I'd also include in this move toward increasing defensive tribalism those secular and moderately religious Muslims who chose to stand with their more devout, and perhaps more politically radical, co-religionists once the West began to conflate all Muslims with radical Islam.

My journalism angle? How does this affect work on evolving religion-beat stories?

Dig deeper to understand why believers, along with their cultural kin, increasingly see tribal politics as their best chance to preserve their pre-globalization place at the head of the table -- in what they consider their land. Hint: I believe that it has more to do with the fear of losing tribal identity and worldly power than bedrock doctrinal beliefs.

Let's consider this piece from The New York Times. It's a column that reflects on the propriety of injecting religion into the upcoming French presidential election.

(Religious claims are a hallmark of contemporary American politics, but France is altogether different. Please read this first if you're unfamiliar with the French political concept of laicite.)

Here's a big chunk of the piece, starting at the top (including its initial sentence that I think widely misses the mark):

PARIS -- Much to our surprise in Europe, religion wasn’t a big theme in the 2016 presidential election in the United States, a country that proclaims its trust in God even on its bank notes. It may therefore be puzzling to some Americans to learn that God is back in the political debate on this side of the Atlantic. And that he chose, of all places, France, the sacred land of “laïcité,” the local version of secularism.
The man who brought God -- or, more specifically, Christianity -- back is François Fillon, a former prime minister who is running in the presidential election in the spring as the nominee of the main center-right Republican Party. Mr. Fillon’s initial platform included a drastic proposal to cut back on public health insurance that caused widespread indignation and forced him to backpedal; to persuade voters that he did not intend to hurt the poorest, Mr. Fillon explained this month that “I am a Gaullist, and furthermore I am a Christian,” and said that as such he would never act against “the respect of human dignity.”
Christian? Did he say Christian? In the media, other politicians were promptly requested to react. The centrist François Bayrou, while pointing out that he was himself “a believer,” was appalled, adding that “in France, for more than a century, the rule has been that you don’t mix politics and religion.”
A former adviser to Nicolas Sarkozy, Henri Guaino, said that Mr. Fillon had committed a “moral error.” And Marine Le Pen of the National Front, sporting around her neck, in lieu of a cross, a heart-shaped silver pendant, said that Mr. Fillon’s “opportunistic use” of his Christianity for political purposes had created “unease.”
“It deeply contradicts secularism and our values,” Ms. Le Pen went on. “To justify a political choice with religious beliefs is shocking: How will we oppose those who, tomorrow, will want to enact policy in the name of their faith -- like, for instance, Islam?”

Le Pen may be aghast at the overt mention of Christian belief, yet she leaves little doubt that defending white Christian culture in France is the basis of her politics.

Now for one more paragraph from the column.

The debate will not go away. Catholics, who took part in mass demonstrations against legalization of gay marriage three years ago, are emerging as a political force in this campaign. In the Republicans’ primary in November, candidates discussed which one of them was closer to Pope Francis’ social views.

Should you prefer a news article to an opinion piece, here's a somewhat older article from The Washington Post that tells the same story about France's Catholic political resurgence.

But as I said, it's not just France.

Unlike France, Poland has not fallen prey to Islamic terrorism -- which, there's little doubt, is far more responsible for the defensive rejuvenation of Christian cultural values among Europe's indigenous ethnicities than are hijabs and other public displays of burgeoning, and unnerving, Muslim growth, and for good reason.

Poland has long been solidly Catholic, though thanks to Europe's creeping secularism the nation's piety, as measured by church attendance, has been slipping steadily.

However, as various now-departed members of my family, and my wife's family as well, could attest from first-hand experience, cultural tribalism is too often as much about demonizing those outside the group as it is about strengthening bonds between those in the group.

I'm referring to anti-Semitism, an unfortunate historically trait of Polish cultural Catholic identity. Because of this filial history, I have little doubt that an upswing in Polish denial of Holocaust-era violent anti-Semitism can be included in the shift toward the sort of tribal defensiveness of which I speak.

This feature from the Jewish magazine Moment tells this story in detail.

I think it's fair to suggest that this is another case of anti-Semitism serving to galvanize a people, however negatively.

Too harsh? Then let me hear from you in the comments section below.

Please respect our Commenting Policy