On Brexit and Passionate Moderation

Commentators throughout the West have struggled to account for Britain's Brexit vote. Perhaps the most insightful have pointed to the politics of identity-by-rejection. In a sarcastic yet insightful piece, Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum put it this way:

Last week, the leader of the U.K. Independence Party, Nigel Farage, unveiled a poster that featured a threatening crowd of distinctly non-European-looking “migrants”... All of these messages are about identity, not reality: We English are disappearing; we English are being engulfed by outsiders; we need to “Take Back Control,” as the Leave campaign slogan has it; we need to fight back against foreigners/regulations/ globalization/modernity or whatever you personally find threatening.

The vote to leave, in other words, was not so much a calculated, balanced judgment in favor of exiting the EU. It was an assertion of British autonomy in an era of increasing anxiety over economic uncertainty, immigration and the future of the European continent.

Setting aside Applebaum's summary dismissal of the "leave" position, her larger point seems indisputable. It's hard to read otherwise the significance of Borris Johnson, former mayor of London, driving around in a bright red car featuring the words "Let's Take Back Control" written neatly across the driver's side door.

At this juncture it is almost superfluous to note that "Let's Take Back Control" sounds eerily similar to Donald Trump's slogan "Make American Great Again." Many have been quick to note the similarities between the two campaigns. Sensing his kinship with a movement he had never heard of just a few short weeks earlier, Trump was quick to try and capitalize on the leave vote, lauding the decision while visiting his newly opened golf course in Aberdeen, Scotland.

Of course, the identity-by-rejection politics do not exist only on the right. Young Americans have been "feeling the Bern" and have made the Democratic nominating process closer than nearly anyone had anticipated. Unlike Hillary Clinton's relatively listless campaign, Bernie Sanders has riled up his supporters with pointed messages about reclaiming America from Wall Street and the elites. As an alternative to rejecting the immigrant, Bernie demands that we wrest back our country from the 1%.

Apparently, while the politics of identity-as-rejection at times devolve into ugliness, they speak to profound truths about what inspires us as human beings. In 1940, trying to explain the Nazi party's success, George Orwell put it this way:

Human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene... they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flags and loyalty-parades."

Put simply, the politics of identity-by-rejection work.

Given the ugly history of antisemitic nationalistic movements, we might expect the Jewish tradition to be wary about such forms of identity. Indeed it is: we are expected to embrace the convert out of empathy, "for [we too] were slaves in Egypt" (Devarim 10:9). Yet even the Torah seems to have made space for these tribal instincts, albeit as a grudging concession. According to Torah law, under certain parameters the victim's close-of-kin is permitted to execute the murderer. The law seems to contradict outright the bedrock principles of the role of the Jewish court regarding penal matters. This led many commentators, including Shadal (Bamidbar 35:12) and Nehama Leibowitz (Essay on Parshat Shoftim), to interpret the law of the blood avenger as a concession to the intense tribal craving for retribution. The Torah challenges us to navigate the tension between appreciating the human instinct toward tribalism and holding ourselves to a higher standard.

All of this brings us to today's Jewish community. For many elements in the Haredi community, rejection of "the other," whether irreligious Jews or simply gentiles, is central to one's religious identity. To a great degree, this is also a fair description of the "Hardal" (politically right-leaning Israeli Religious Zionist) community. At times, this approach tragically devolves into xenophobia and even outright violence.

At the same time, there is something undeniably effective about this tactic. All traditional Jews agree that the Torah requires a certain degree of healthy separation from other communities. Moreover, fear of the other is a powerful motivator that we underestimate at our own risk. As the history of tribal warfare amply demonstrates - anyone who has seen Braveheart knows what I'm talking about - a willingness to sacrifice to protect a nation, religious group, or family is hard-wired into the human machinery.

This leaves more modern-leaning Jews in a real bind. We rightly wish to distance ourselves from the far-right nationalistic movements picking up steam in Europe and even America today. In doing so, however, we open ourselves up to being less successful at instilling a profound sense of Jewish identity.

As is manifest in the current political climate, maneuvering between these two extremes is easier said than done. The politics of hateful identity work but are morally repugnant. Overly cloistered religious communities run the risk of unnecessarily demonizing the other. Yet one still finds echoes of this attitude in our community. Even if Jewish support for Trump is far from impassioned, the temptation to see only enemies all around us is real.

William Butler Yeats' poem, so often cited by Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein ZT"L, continues to haunt us:

Things fall apart: the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned.
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Given the unseemly political climate and the difficulties of fostering deep Jewish identity, striking precisely such a balance is crucial. Crafting Jewish identities that are "thick," to adapt the term popularized by 20th century anthropologist Clifford Geertz, while avoiding the ugliness, remains elusive. But if the next generation is to vote for a profound Jewish identity we are proud of, it is a challenge we must tackle head on.