the meaning of Israel; the mnemonic ethics of Europe (… perhaps as it has been with Nature, the answer is to monetarize the Holocaust: how much is it really worth, excuse for bad behavour or not?)

[Timothy Snyder:] Today’s Europe the Jews have served in the role of something like a collective messiah: for a long time they were a considerable irritant – they caused a lot of trouble, they introduced a lot of troublesome revolutionary or liberal ideas. But when they died – were exterminated en masse – they taught Europeans a universal lesson which, after three of four decades of uncomfortable contemplation, Europeans have begun to make their own. For Europeans, the fact that the Jews are no longer with us – that we killed them, leaving the remnant to flee – has become the most important lesson bequeathed us by the past.

But this incorporation of Jews into the meaning of European history was only possible precisely because they were gone. On the scale of what once was, there really are not many Jews in Europe, and very few who would contest their role in Europe’s new mnemonic ethics. Nor, come to that, are there many Jews left to make a significant contribution to European intellectual or cultural life, at least not in the way they used to before 1938. In fact, such Jews as there are in Europe today constitute a contradiction: if the message that the Jewish people have left behind required their destruction and expulsion, their presence only tends to confuse matters.

This leads to a positive – but only conditionally positive – European attitude towards Israel. The meaning of the State of Israel for Europeans is bound up with the Holocaust: it points to a lost messiah from whose legacy we have at least been able to draw a new, secular morality. But the actually existing Jews in Israel disrupt this narrative. They cause trouble. It would be better – so goes this thinking – if they did not cause so much trouble and allow us Europeans to interpret them in peace – hence the focus upon Israel’s midemeanors among European commentators. Here, as you may see, I am defending Israel.

[Tony Judt:] Very well: in your Christian version of Jewish history, Jews – Christ-like – can only truly win when (or rather, after) they lose. If they appear to be victorious, to be gaining their ends (at someone else’s expense) there is a problem. But this otherwise elegant European appropriation of someone else’s story for quite other purposes raises complications. The first of these, as you rightly note, is that Israel is there.

This is rather as though – allow me to offend you – Jesus Christ had been reincarnated as a rather venal but otherwise talented version of his former self: installed in a Jerusalem café, saying much the same things as he always used to and making his erstwhile persecutors feel guilty for crucifying him – even as they resent him deeply for reminding them of it. But think what that would mean. It would suggest that within short order – a mere generation or two – the uncomfortable recollection of Jesus’ suffering would be altogether eradicated by the irritation aroused by his endless evocation of it.

And thus you would end up with a story looking like this. The Jews – Jesus-like – become the martyred evidence of our own imperfections. But all we can see in them is their own imperfection, their obsessive insistence upon living off our shortcomings to their own advantage. I believe we are even today seeing this sentiment emerge. In the years to come, Israel is going to devalue, undermine and ultimately destroy the meaning and serviceability of the Holocaust, reducing it to what many people already say it is: Israel’s excuse for bad behaviour.

– Tony Judt with Timothy Snyder, Thinking the Twentieth Century, Vintage Books, London, 2013, pp. 121-123