Rowan Williams on Jewish identity and religious freedom in liberal modernity

"The [French] revolution wanted to save Jews from Judaism, turning them into rational citizens untroubled by strange ancestral superstitions. It ended up taking just as persecutory an approach as the Church and the Christian monarchy. The legacies of Christian bigotry and enlightened contempt are tightly woven together in the European psyche, it seems, and the nightmares of the 20th century are indebted to both strands.

"In some ways, this prompts the most significant question to emerge from the [history of Jews in modern Europe].  Judaism becomes a stark test case for what we mean by pluralism and religious liberty: if the condition for granting religious liberty is, in effect, conformity to secular public norms, what kind of liberty is this? More than even other mainstream religious communities, Jews take their stand on the fact that their identity is not an optional leisure activity or lifestyle choice. Their belief is that they are who they are for reasons inaccessible to the secular state, and they ask that this particularity be respected—granted that it will not interfere with their compliance with the law of the state.

"This question is currently a pressing one. Does liberal modernity mean the eradication of organic traditions and identities, communal belief and ritual, in the name of absolute public uniformity? Or does it involve the harder work of managing the reality that people have diverse religious and cultural identities as well as their papers of citizenship, and accepting that these identities will shape the way they interact?

"Yet again, we see how Jews can be caught in a mesh of skewed perception. The argumentative dice are loaded against them. As a distinctive cluster of communities held together by language, history and law—with the assumption for the orthodox believer that all of this is the gift of God—they pose a threat to triumphalist religious systems that look to universal hegemony and conversion.

"The Christian or Muslim zealot cannot readily accept the claim of an identity that is simply given and not to be argued away by the doctrines of newer faiths. But the dogmatic secularist finds this no easier. Liberation from confessional and religiously exclusive societies ought, they think, to mean the embrace of a uniform enlightened world-view—but the Jew continues to insist that particularity is not negotiable. So we see the grimly familiar picture emerging of Judaism as the target of both left and right.

"The importance of [this history] is that it forces the reader to think about how the long and shameful legacy of Christian hatred for Jews is reworked in 'enlightened' society. Jews are just as 'other' for a certain sort of progressive politics and ethics as they were for early and medieval Christianity. The offence is the sheer persistence of an identity that refuses to understand itself as just a minor variant of the universal human culture towards which history is meant to be working. And to understand how this impasse operated is to understand something of why Zionism gains traction long before the Holocaust."

—Rowan Williams, review of Simon Schama's Belonging: The Story of the Jews 1492–1900


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