On January 27th, the International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust

Alessandro Cavalli
 Professor of Sociology at the University of Pavia, Italy


We all need to reflect on the 'Jewish question', not only for its relevance in European and world's history, but also because it has to do with the horizon of the goals of the present and the future. Let me say first that I am not Jewish and I am not a believer, but I am not trivially an 'atheist'. I think that religions are human constructions, that is, of a species that makes man aware of his own mortality and therefore wonders if there is a 'beyond', a world beyond death, that is, an eternity, something that has no temporal or spatial boundaries.

All human societies have developed some form of religious thought. Of the many forms, the one that is closest to us is monotheism, and the first monotheistic religion is the Jewish religion. It is not excluded that other religions may also boast this characteristic, but as far as our history is concerned, the Jewish people is the first to have postulated the existence of one God, after their expulsion by the pharaohs from Egypt (the dating of the event is controversial).

A people (i.e. a population that recognises his own leader, in this case Moses) that believes in the existence of a single God, if surrounded by other populations that believe in multiple gods, tends to consider itself the 'chosen' one, if only because of the irresistible fascination exerted by the idea of 'unity' and 'oneness'. On the meaning of 'chosen people', i.e. chosen by God, even in the Jewish tradition there are many interpretations. There is no doubt, however, that the 'Jewish question' stems from the claim of each population believing in one God that their own is the 'true one', while that of the others is a 'false' deity. This explains how the fiercest religious wars have been fought between peoples of monotheistic religions. The Jewish question arose from the clash of different monotheisms, that nevertheless found their common origin in the Jewish religion.

The Jewish question has outlived its religious origin, and concerns not only believers, but also all atheists and agnostics, both Jewish and non-Jewish. How much anti-Semitism has contributed to the survival of the Jewish identity is a question that deserves to be taken up again (I suggest re-reading illuminating pages by Marx, Sartre, up to Edgar Morin).

There is no need to emphasise the contribution of Jews (religious and otherwise) to European and world culture. However, it should not be forgotten that anti-Semitism has been an essentially European phenomenon, stretching from the Urals to Portugal, and reaching its extreme manifestation in Germany, in the Shoah and National Socialism. The 'blame', if one can speak of blame, lies not only with Germany, but with the whole of Europe. Anti-Semitism reached its peak when nationalism reached its peak, and in a sense forced a people belonging to many nationalities to construct a nationality of their own. Zionism and the creation of a state of Israel in the land of Palestine is hardly conceivable without the anti-Semitism fueled by nationalism. The nationalism of European states fueled the nationalism of the Jewish state, that would have probably never come into being.

European Jews had enjoyed (so to speak) the uncertain 'privilege' of maintaining their own identity as one people despite belonging to many 'homelands'; they were at the same time 'citizens' but also 'foreigners', Italians, Germans, French, Spaniards, Poles, Russians, etc., but also 'Jews'.  In a way, we can say that the Jews could have formed an original nucleus of a European people in the making, if the European nationalism had not forced them to become nationalists themselves.

Until the Shoah, the vast majority of Jews lived in Europe. After the Shoah, they scattered all over the world. Today 45% live in Israel, almost as many in the USA and Canada, the rest in Latin America; in Europe there is a small minority left, mainly in France and Britain, a few communities resist in North Africa, Iran and Turkey. We can hope that Jews, who could have become the vanguard of the European people in the making, can now become, following the example of Albert Einstein, the vanguard of a global citizenship.

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