Five hundred years ago, the Jews of Catholic Spain were expelled from their homeland by the practitioners of a religious fanaticism who believed that they had God on their side. The talents and contributions of minorities, whether Jewish or Muslim, were unwanted in a religiously pure Iberia. Those Jews who did not prostrate themselves before the priests of
Ferdinand and Isabella left to seek new lands where they would be left in peace.
The Sephardi diaspora stretched from Amsterdam to Smyrna, from Brazil to Bombay. The Sephardim developed and managed the trade routes from the British West Indies to the Dutch East Indies. Some followed the Dutch in their economic expansionism to settle in New Amsterdam and become the founding fathers of New York Jewry. Others crossed the English Channel to take advantage of the republican tolerance of Cromwell’s puritan Commonwealth, thereby renewing Jewish settlement in England after a period of 250 years. In the countries of their domicile, they contributed to the lives of those amongst whom they dwelled and also enriched the world of Jewish learning.
Still others moved to the Balkan peninsula where they prospered as artisans and merchants under the benevolence of the Ottomans. By the middle of the sixteenth century, the first Jews settled in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Throughout the centuries, the Spanioles of Sarajevo lived in an atmosphere of comparative harmony with their neighbours. They somehow survived the attempt to exterminate them by the Ustashe fascists when the Bosnian republic was incorporated
into a Nazi-sponsored Greater Croatia, and a vibrant Jewish community was able to celebrate in 1970 the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the Jews in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Despite its historic infamy as the city where the slaughter of the Great War
made its debut, Sarajevo in general has been a model of understanding between peoples where Orthodox and Papal Christianity, Islam and Judaism came together, where to be different was the rule and not the exception, where ethnic co-operation triumphed over ethnic hatred. Indeed, in 1991, 29 per cent of Bosnians chose marriage partners from different ethnic groups. Thus, the attempt to extinguish Sarajevo in 1992 as a multi-national community is a dramatic reminder that the political heirs of Ferdinand and Isabella still live and breathe and have bequeathed their violence and fanaticism to new
inquisitors, the perpetrators of ethnic cleansing.
1992 was a year of unfortunate vindication for those many Jews who had warned about underestimating the potency of latent nationalism in Eastern Europe. For decades, the glamour of token internationalism, assiduously promoted by an ideologically
bankrupt Soviet Union has been all-pervasive. There had been a lack of understanding about Jews, Israel and the national question in general. It therefore came as no great surprise when so many popular commentators registered their disbelief at the rapid turn of events which followed the destruction of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The early cacophony of cheers for the
final triumph of Western democracy drowned out the few voices of caution.
By 1992, the thin veneer of civilization had been washed away to reveal ethnic fratricide and a murderous nationalism as the grinning reality in some of the newly emergent states of Eastern Europe. Jews have watched the unfolding of events in Yugoslavia with a studied fascination. The confused indecision of the Europeans, the high-sounding resolutions and the visibly sluggish movement of the United Nations all produce a resonance attuned – ironically – to the tragedy of recent Jewish
history. The ill-disguised haste of a United Germany in flexing its long unused political muscle to recognize Croatia and Slovenia – despite the total opposition of its European partners to do so before the problem of minorities had been resolved – is an indication that History may not have ended with the demise of Communism. Indeed, it may not even have stalled but could well have gone into reverse. Unfortunately, the end of the century is uncannily resembling its beginning when the imperial interests of large states and the incandescent nationalism of small ones led to the horrific futility of the killing fields of the Great War.
In an article in the New York Times earlier in the year, entitled “Rest Easy: It’s Not 1914 Anymore”, Francis Fukuyama, the author of The End of History and the Last Man, attempted to calm critics by stating that the conflicts in Yugoslavia,
Moldova and Nagorno-Karabakh were minor obstacles in the path of liberal democracy’s ultimate triumph, mere blips on the graph of unstoppable human progress. It, of course, remains to be seen whether the violence and terror are unimportant
fissures on the periphery of civilization or a cancer which will eventually threaten the entire organism, but Jews, however, are – to use that very Soviet word – vigilant. There have been too many times in Jewish history where logic and rational ideologies have proved to be dramatic failures. Yesterday’s certitude has repeatedly become today’s irrelevance. A transient truth to be ridiculed by the succeeding generation. Jewish life in one sense owes its longevity to humouring the “permanence” of host
societies and the passing “truths” of their beliefs.
Until recent times, Jews deliberately have stood outside the unravelling of history, but this did not always ensure their survival. And it is a chilling thought to reflect on what might have happened today in the Balkans if large visible Jewish communities still existed in the midst of this climate of nationalistic fervour. And yet, it is the ghost of the German past which has shocked many Jews into a new awareness. The mindless persecution of immigrants and refugees, backed up by an anti-Semitic rhetoric, by those who have emerged from the shipwreck of the German Democratic Republic has stunned many who believed that such behaviour ended in 1945. The courageous call of the small German Jewish community to the Kohl government to stand firm against racism was earnestly greeted with obliging platitudes-followed by the deportation of hundreds of Gypsies to hostile Rumania. The past is easily forgotten. Guilt can be off loaded onto the detested, discredited Communists. During the Rostock attacks on peaceful immigrants, one elderly German Jew pondered the indifference
of the bystanders: “My future is behind me and my past is in front of me.”
Nearly twenty years ago, Peter Berger coined the term “plausibility structure” to explain how people order the reality around them, how beliefs are maintained in the face of competing and often contradictory concepts of reality. In the countries
of the former Warsaw Pact, Marxism-Leninism destroyed the potency of religion as a means of constructing reality for a huge array of peoples. Now Marxism-Leninism has evaporated as an eternal truth. What is left for people to believe in? What
“plausibility structure” can they now inhabit? That space has been filled by the difference between a Croat and a Serb, an Azeri and an Armenian where the purity of hatred is the benchmark of identity. Tito’s intelligent manipulation of smouldering nationalisms ensured for a time that the firestorm did not break out. His successors were lesser individuals who were willing to stoke cooling national passions to build their careers. The rekindled fears of centuries have turned yesterday’s victim
into today’s perpetrator-and vice-versa.
Old assumptions have been regulated to a poor second place. “We do not want only to satisfy our needs for food, shelter, sex and comfort: we much more powerfully wish to establish ourselves as people to be reckoned with. . . . Mankind is much more powerfully driven by the desire for recognition than by desires for a high standard of living. The mastery of nature owes more to the spirit of conquest than to economic calculation.” (Alan Ryan, New York Review of Books, 26 March 1992.)
Although predictions of the shape of things to come are fraught with speculation, the emerging “plausibility structures” in the East mimic the worst features of the West, the Age of un-Reason wearing the mask of democracy. Aneurin Bevan’s claim that “the so-called affluent society is an ugly society still, a vulgar society, a meretricious society” has not lost its validity. What, then, should be the reaction of Jews who watch the unfolding drama? The tendency to remain there, to work only for the Jews of Sarajevo would have been a central plank of the official approach but a few years ago–and certainly the sentiment that would have been proclaimed by a Shamir government. Yet the revelations of the incarceration camps have propelled the hitherto silent into action. The new leadership of Israel and many diaspora leaders have vigorously condemned the murder
of innocents and the transfer of whole communities in the former Yugoslav federation. They understand that the Jews as an ancient people which has repeatedly suffered for its difference has a moral duty to raise its collective voice.
On accepting the peace prize at the Frankfurt Book Fair, Amos Oz pointed out that the construction of a polyphonic world would be preferable to a plethora of “separate selfish nation-states”.
Our human condition, our solitude on the face of a vulnerable planet, facing the cold cosmic silence, the unavoidable ironies of life and the merciless presence of death, all of these should at long last evoke a sense of human solidarity, overruling the sound and fury of our differences.
Jewish Quarterly Winter 1992-3