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We Might Miss Liberalism When It’s Gone

Not all postliberals are pleasantly illiberal. In fact, some are scary as hell
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Sorry for the light posting — I’ve been traveling back to Budapest from Jerusalem, and now I’m in the Budapest airport on my way to Brussels for a speech. I’ve not had much time. I did a series of wonderful interviews with people I met on my week in Jerusalem. I’m going to transcribe them and roll them out here over the next few days. I think you’ll find them all interesting.

Despite some unpleasantness, which I wrote about on this blog, the trip to the Holy Land was overwhelmingly positive, and I cannot encourage you strongly enough to visit. I did have a philosophical moment on the way to pray at the Western Wall on Sunday. As most of you know, the Western Wall is all that remains of Herod’s Temple. It is the holiest place on earth that is freely accessible to Jews. The Temple Mount is the holiest place, but Muslim places of worship are there now, and it is not easy for Jews to get there. You will have seen images of pious Jews praying at the Western Wall. Some Christians go there to pray too. I did, first to pray for the intentions of a Jewish friend, and then to pray for the Jewish people, and for the peace of all God’s children in this holy land.

The Old City is difficult to navigate, and I was having trouble with my GPS. I saw an Israeli soldier escorting two younger women dressed like religious Jews. I asked them if they could show me the way to the Kotel (the Hebrew word for the Western Wall). They said they were going there, and invited me to follow them.

The women looked to be in their mid-thirties. One was white, the other black. The black woman comes from continental Europe, and is in the process of converting to Judaism. She comes from a non-observant Catholic family, and explained how happy she was to have found Judaism. The joy on her face was palpable. She talked about how life back home had so little meaning. Not anymore.

The white woman, who I think had an English accent, was very intense. She told me that she had spent a decade in a Hindu religious cult, but came out of it a year ago. Now she was in Israel, embracing the faith of her ancestors. Yet she was very, very angry. She kept engaging the soldier in conversation about how horrible the Muslims were, and how disgusted she was with the Israeli government for going so soft on non-Jews. We reached a promontory overlooking the plaza in front of the Western Wall, and the white woman scowled.

“Look at them,” she said, referring to Muslims milling about on the Temple Mount. “That doesn’t belong to them. It’s ours. It’s ours! We should push them off of it. Why is the government so weak?”

The soldier didn’t really disagree with her, but his tone was more moderate. The angry white woman kept cutting him off to denounce Muslims and Gentiles. I kept wondering if she could see that I was wearing a visible cross. I don’t think she noticed me at all. A year ago, she was praying to Ganesh, but now, she had adopted the persona of a militant settler. The black woman with the cheerful face kept chiming in to echo the extremism of her friend. It was as if she was learning that to be a Jew was to want to drive non-Jews off the land. I mean, this was the catechism she was imbibing from the Jews she had gone to for instruction in the faith.

I liked the soldier, if not his opinions. He told me he came to Israel eight years ago from Canada. He got tired of anti-Semitism back home, but more than that, he wanted to do something meaningful with his life. He said that his family back home had no real interest in Jewish culture and heritage. I could tell that this caused him pain.

“Those Jews in Tel Aviv,” he said, “the only thing they care about is pleasure and spending. But God gives us only one life, and we have a responsibility to use it to do important things.” He went on like that for a bit. I agreed with him wholeheartedly on that point.

Down on the plaza, the soldier asked the women if they wanted him to wait for them to finish praying, and escort them back to the Jaffa Gate. No, said the white woman, half-snarling; “I know how to treat them if they give me any trouble.” Then the two women went over to the women’s side of the wall to pray, and I said goodbye to the soldier, and went to the men’s. After I left, and meandered over to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, I started thinking about the meaning of what I had witnessed.

All three of these Jews — and the Jew-in-training — had reacted against vacuous liberalism. They understandably found a life of hedonism and consumerism to be vapid and not worth living. And they’re right! But they had chosen paths that brought them into harsh conflict with those who didn’t share their ultimate commitments. This is unavoidable. Nothing like the Holy Land brings that into such sharp focus.

To be clear, not all Israeli Jews are so militant. But the demographic future of Israel favors the hardliners.

We all know, of course, how intolerant and hateful Islamic extremists of the city and the region are. That hardly needs elaboration in this space. When I was last in Jerusalem, in the year 2000, I interviewed a couple of Arab Christian men in their twenties. They told me that they hated the way Israel treated them, but that they would rather live under Israeli government than Palestinian government, which they feared at that time would mean Hamas. Christians would have no chance at all under Hamas, they said. To paraphrase the great Walter Sobchak, say what you will about Hamas’s insane, murderous Islamist ideology, but at least it’s an ethos.

And that’s the point, isn’t it? Say what you will about the various extremisms going around — religious and otherwise — but at least they call people out of themselves and orient them to something greater than individual pleasure. But it should be obvious that not all higher causes are equally honorable or virtuous. There is no way that Muslims and Jews who hold those radical beliefs about the land and its righteous use can live together. The conflict between absolutisms is especially vivid in the Holy Land, but you can see various versions of it playing out all over. Among us, the Woke are best understood as zealots of a political religion. They are purists who will not tolerate any opposition. In my case, I would prefer to live in a classical liberal society governed by a Judeo-Christian moral framework, but I have lost faith that this kind of liberalism is even possible anymore. Certainly the kind of conservatism that is really nothing but right-liberalism has proven completely ineffective in staving off progressive illiberalism.

Liberalism exists in part to make it possible for diverse peoples with irreconcilable beliefs to live together in peace. But it’s fading away, in part because it doesn’t offer enough to hold people like that Canadian man who moved to Israel to devote his life to defending the Jewish state. It doesn’t offer enough to hold that angry white woman, who didn’t find what she needed in the Hindu cult, and was now trying on settler extremism. It doesn’t offer enough to hold the ex-Catholic black woman, who wanted something more than the vacant middle-class rituals of post-Christian European life. What was especially interesting to me about the black woman is that she seemed clearly motivated by the joy of discovering Jewish religion, but had fallen in with a friend whose experience of passion for Judaism had primarily taken the form of hating non-Jews. What a tragedy.

Liberals tend to believe that all illiberal commitments are inevitably going to become intolerant and militant. And so, to forestall that, they have become in recent years the same thing that they profess to hate.

Understand me here: I share the same disaffection from secular liberalism that this Jewish trio does. You’ll read an interview here in the days to come with a Jewish man — one I’m pleased to call a friend — who moved from Canada to Israel seeking a deeper life, and who is now building it in a way that is wholly admirable. (My thought after our lunch was like that of François, the protagonist of Houellebecq’s Submission, with regard to his Jewish girlfriend who escapes France: I envy him that he has an Israel to go to.) But I have no doubt at all that the angry English Jewish convert would never tolerate Christian me if she had the power not to. All I can figure is that she shared her sharp opinions so freely because she assumed that if I was going to the Kotel, I must be Jewish. I am also sure that there are Christians who are just as intolerant. I saw a distinguished Catholic priest, a theologian who supports integralism, on Twitter defending executing heretics. While there are far more cutthroat Israeli settlers and bloody-minded Islamist militants in the world than killer Catholics (or Orthodox, or other Christians), we ought to know by now enough about human nature to realize that the skull is always just below the surface.

After the long Paschal liturgy, I stopped by a shawerma shop that was open at five a.m. to break the Lenten fast. Others from the liturgy followed me in. We were all in a celebratory mood. I started talking to the Orthodox men at the table next to me.

“Where are you from?” I asked.

“Republika Srpska!” he said. “You have heard of it? In Bosnia?”

Yes, I had. This is the statelet that had waged war on Bosnian Muslims in the 1990s, and whose soldiers committed horrible atrocities. The next day, talking to a Serbian friend, I asked him if Republika Srpska sentiment was coming back.

“Oh yes,” he said, “and very fast.” Then he told me about how the Gulf Arab states are pouring funding into Albania and Kosovo to fund Wahhabi mosques, to turn the Muslims there militant. The Kosovar Muslims are going after Serbian Orthodox monasteries, he said, and showed me horrific videos of sacrileges and destruction. He said that the current Islamic government of Bosnia is working now to promote militancy among Bosnian Muslims, and the Bosnian Serbs are responding in kind.

He expected that we would see war in the Balkans again, before much longer. In fact, I had heard an international correspondent say the same thing two months ago over coffee in Budapest.

Liberalism is falling apart, because honestly, who can give a damn about what it has become? Silencing everyone who disagrees, mutilating children and alienating them from their bodies, sanctifying a certain kind of racism, valorizing pornography and transgressive sex, and all the rest. Good riddance to it.

But we are going to miss it when it’s gone, and people like that angry Jewish woman, and Madame Defarge of the Millennials, are in the driver’s seat. It’s coming.