Opinion: Is ‘civilizationism’ good for the Jews?

   A relatively new word has been increasingly circulating in European and U.S. political discussions “civilizationism.” What people mean when they use it appears potentially troubling, not least for the world Jewish community.

   In a quick Internet search, I have not been able to trace the word’s appearance beyond about 2007. The thinking behind it, however, may go back to 1992 or 1993.

Leon Cohen

   In those years, U.S. political scientist Samuel P. Huntington theorized that after the collapse of communism in the former Soviet Union and elsewhere, future international conflicts would be not so much between nations, but more between cultures and civilizations.

   Of those conflicts, Huntington predicted one of the hottest would be between the Muslim world and the Christian Euro-American countries. These two civilizations have religions many of whose followers seek to have all humans ultimately convert to them. That makes a battle between them inevitable. If true, this would also make a clash between them and Judaism equally inevitable.

   This formulation has moved from academic theorizing to legal, electoral and even street battles in Europe and elsewhere.

   Many European countries and European civilization-based countries like Australia have experienced a wave of immigration, some of it illegal, from Muslim nations in recent years. Reportedly, many – though by no means all –  of these immigrants do not want to assimilate into the cultures of their new countries, but seek to turn them into Muslim nations.

   In reaction, anti-immigration political parties have formed. Such parties are receiving increasing numbers of votes in some countries. In 2018, one such party in Hungary received 134 seats out of 199 in the country’s parliament.

   Daniel Pipes, U.S. historian and president of the Middle East Forum, analyzed this phenomenon in an April 14, 2018, article on “The Rise of Western Civilizationism” that can be seen on his website (danielpipes.org).

   He claims the term applies to such parties more accurately than do others like conservative-extremist, nationalist, populist, or neo-Nazi. “These parties are traditionalists with a pro-Christiandom, pro-European, and pro-Western [civilization] outlook,” Pipes wrote.

   Pipes acknowledged that many of these parties “carry a lot of baggage” that can alarm the Jewish world and others. “Staffed mainly by angry political novices,” he wrote, “they feature dismaying numbers of anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim extremists, Nazi nostalgists, power-hungry cranks, economic eccentrics, historical revisionists, and conspiracy theorists. Some proffer anti-democratic, anti-European Union, and anti-American outlooks.”

   Nevertheless, he believes that despite their faults, which he called “correctable,” such parties “are essential for Europe not to become an extension of Northern Africa but to remain part of the Western civilization it created. Their raising the immigration and Islamist issues makes up for their shortcomings. This assessment leads me to urge cooperation with civilizationist parties, rather than a horrified shunning of them. In my experience, they are open to discussion and to learning; they also have something to teach.”

   Everything I have read about “civilizationism” to date, including Pipes’ article, leads me to feel wary of the phenomenon.

   First, it slides too easily into unjust overgeneralizations about whole groups of people. To recall a formulation from semantics, Muslim immigrant #1 is not Muslim immigrant #2 is not Muslim immigrant #3, etc., and they should never all be lumped together and treated the same.

   Second, such overgeneralizing can all too easily shift to Jews. The libel that Jewish people constitute a threat to “Christian civilization” has been a longstanding trope of modern antisemitism, including that of the German Nazis. This cancer may lie dormant now, but the possibility exists that it could metastasize into wide social acceptance, especially when political movements appeal to fear.

   And yet… So much of the Muslim world despises Jews and Judaism and seeks the destruction of Israel. So could the rise of Western “civilizationism” movements present a “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” situation for the Jewish world?

   Perhaps the phenomenon is so new that it is too early to tell for sure. “Horrified shunning” does not appear necessary yet, but cooperation probably should be cautious and readily revocable should danger signs appear.

Leon Cohen is former editor of the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle. See also related stories by Rob Golub and Andy Palec.