Europe at a ‘Cross’-roads

By Jeffry Mallow

Published July 16, 2004, issue of July 16, 2004.
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Scarcely noticed in this country, the European Union took a giant step forward last month toward the consolidation of Europe as a unitary power, with the approval at a mid-June summit in Brussels of a draft E.U. constitution.

The constitution, which still faces the enormous hurdle of ratification by all 25 member states, contains one clause that is fraught with importance for Jews in Europe and worldwide: the reference in the preamble to the “cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe.” The inclusion of the phrase represents a defeat for a broad coalition, including Poland, Italy, Portugal, Greece and other nations, that wanted an explicit acknowledgement of the “Christian roots of Europe” in the constitution. Despite continentwide lobbying and a direct plea from the pope, the clause was rejected by the summit.

Jews have good reason to welcome the news. The era of Christian dominance in European life prior to the Enlightenment was a time of great suffering for Jews. The rise of secularism has largely been a blessing.

And yet, the ending of the discussion on Europe’s Christian heritage is in some ways a missed opportunity. A frank, explicit discussion of that heritage would benefit Europe and enrich its relationship with the Jewish community and with itself — provided the E.U. were willing to probe deeply, talk openly and examine just what those Christian roots have produced and continue to produce today.

An honest constitution would devote an entire section to making explicit the role that Christianity has played in the shaping of European civilization, its evolution through the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, and the spread of democracy and universal suffrage. It would look, too, at the role that Christian heritage still plays in the establishment of equitable socioeconomic institutions, and in support for oppressed peoples around the world.

At the same time, that discussion would make explicit the role that Christianity has played in Europe’s attitude toward and treatment of Jews. A good starting point would be the recent report of the E.U.’s own Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia, or EUMC. That report, widely and, to a degree, wrongly maligned, included in its historical sections important summaries of the long and sordid record of anti-Jewish prejudice in the nations of Europe, both “old” and “new.”

Much of the European record is wellknown: the Crusades, those religious wars against the Muslim East that were accompanied by mass killings of innocent Jews; the expulsions, the blood libel, the tortures of the Inquisition, the ghettos and “Jewish streets”; the pogroms and Chmielnicki massacres in 17th-century Poland and Ukraine; the Dreyfus trial and the rise of “modern” racialist antisemitism in late-19th century Europe. All these are part of the heritage of Europe, predating the Holocaust and arguably building up to it.

Then there are the less well-known, particularly in countries that often present themselves as free of antisemitism. The Scandinavian peninsula, for example, banned Jews from residence following the Nordic conversion to Christianity in the 10th century. The ban was still Norwegian law well into the 19th century. Swedes systematically massacred Jews during their 18th-century sweep across Eastern Europe.

How much can Europe’s Christian heritage be blamed for the Christian Europe’s antisemitism? That is a matter of intense debate. The Vatican, in its historic 1998 document on the Holocaust, “We Remember,” expressed regret for the acts of Catholics over the centuries but denied that Catholicism or the church bore any responsibility. A film produced for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, detailing the history of antisemitism leading up to the Nazi era, provoked a political firestorm and was ultimately withdrawn after conservatives protested its suggestion that the antisemitism of the Nazis had Christian roots.

The EUMC report does not resolve this dilemma. It seems to imply that Christian antisemitism is unrelated to later versions, dividing antisemitism into categories roughly corresponding to historical periods, only one of which is “Christian.” (The others are the “ethnic” Jew-hatred of the ancient world, the racial antisemitism of the 19th and 20th centuries, and today’s “political,” ostensibly Middle East-related prejudice — sometimes known as “the new antisemitism.”) At the same time, the report seems to recognize the seamless nature of the phenomenon; it makes clear that while the latest wave is “new” insofar as its “manifestations in politics, media and everyday life, new forms of discrimination, new groups of antisemites, or a new quality or quantity of antisemitic acts,” at heart the “new antisemitism” is “not new in that it uses the traditional negative stereotypes of ‘the Jew’ already present in ‘traditional’ antisemitism.”

A full examination of Europe’s Christian roots surely will entail discomfort. Many, particularly northern European secularists and Protestants, think that they have somehow transcended Christianity. But they are wrong. The Scandinavians have only to look at their flags.

European Christianity has much to be proud of, especially in recent years. Christian churches and Christian political parties have played an important role in bringing social democracy to western Europe. Even those leftist Europeans who disclaim their Christian heritage are products of societies in which Christian humanist values are embedded in the educational system.

The story is not that different in Eastern Europe. Poland’s Solidarity Movement drew sustenance from Roman Catholicism, and explicitly from the Polish pope. The Czech Republic, a supporter of including Christianity in the E.U. constitution, has provided many models of humanism both during and after the Communist repression.

But together with the recognition of Christianity’s positive role in current European society, there should be an acknowledgment of its dark side.

In his May 1 address to the 10 new Eastern European E.U. members, Pope John Paul II proclaimed that “Europe should conserve and rediscover its Christian roots in order to be prepared for the great challenges of the Third Millennium.” Jews should agree. An explicit acknowledgment of Christian Europe’s history just might lead to some serious discussion and reflection on its current behavior. So let the E.U. constitution include Christianity — all of it.

Jeffry Mallow is immediate past president of the Labor Zionist Alliance.

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