If the progressive community was truly concerned about the fate of historically oppressed minorities and sincerely moved by a passionate desire to find the social and economic remedies to ameliorate the condition of the marginalized, the example of Jews in the late 20th and early 21st centuries would serve as a model for all future campaigns.
Progressives who are unburdened by the fetishization of victimhood and misplaced faith in ‘systemic’ root causes would have to be inspired by the example of world Jewry – a community which not only survived the Holocaust, but quickly re-established their communities and, within a short period of time, could boast of social, economic and political success (in Israel and the diaspora) quite ‘disproportionate’ to their miniscule numbers.
Howard Jacobson has forcefully argued that the world has never forgiven Jews for the collective guilt driven by memory of the Holocaust. However, it seems equally as urgent to acknowledge that the progressive movement seems not to have forgiven Jews for a success born largely of their own perseverance.
It’s as if Jews are resented for having emerged from their immemorial weakness and, once free from the yoke of European and Arab political oppression, demonstrating that they possessed the spiritual strength and cultural capital necessary not only to survive, but to thrive – thus betraying the historical role of victim which had always been assigned to them.
The continued achievement of Israeli and Western Jews – including millions of descendants from the Nazi genocide in Europe and the Arab ethnic cleansing in the Middle East – seems to represent an unbearable burden for those who define their political identity in terms of their relationship with the poor and downtrodden. It’s not that progressives’ resentment towards Jews is necessarily antisemitic – though there is indeed an element of this hatred – but that their favored moral paradigm of “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable” has no need for Jews whose success suggests that historic racism, austerity and capitalism may not in fact be responsible for the problems of underdevelopment.
As long as Jews – be they be ‘white’, ‘brown’ or ‘black’ – continue to achieve in in such astonishing numbers it’s difficult to maintain the edifice that there are impenetrable economic and political barriers to minority success or that, for instance, Arab underdevelopment in the Middle East has a European, colonialist root cause.
Though most within the left may no longer seriously embrace Marx, the economic determinism inspired by Marxist thought – which denies the role of faith, culture and individual initiative in the lives of ethnic, racial or religious minorities – continues to influence progressive thought, and stifles long term social progress.
Old Judeophobic canards regarding the danger of ‘Jewish power’ may still prey on some within the progressive community, but the movement’s most tragic vice is not ideological antisemitism per se, but an emotional, moral alienation from Jewish communities which are clearly in no need of their ‘activism’, thus challenging their belief in their own political agency in the lives of the dispossessed.
Whilst the failure of minority communities across the globe may indeed have various and multi-layered explanations, the Jewish example must create a dissonance for some which is impossible to bear: evidence which seriously questions root economic and political explanations for the inequalities they so abhor.
The stubborn reality of a Jewish state vaunting impressive human development figures poses a life-threatening challenge to the progressive world view.
If the failure of the Arab Spring has taught us anything, it’s that our initial faith that freedom and prosperity will inevitably be the reward once Arabs are free from despotism is indeed misplaced. While groups suffering from tyranny and under-development in the Middle East and elsewhere should continue to strive for political freedom and independence, they must look inward and strive to transcend the culture of fear, authoritarianism and scapegoating into one of openness, initiative and responsibility.
Genuine progressives need to understand that ‘afflicting the comfortable’ doesn’t in fact ‘comfort the afflicted’, and (to turn Margaret Mead’s observation around) should never doubt that thoughtful, committed communities can – by their own initiative – change their world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.