Nowhere Man

Confessions of a Jewish Cosmopolitan Nowhere Man

I’m a Jewish cosmopolitan. (Not all Jews are cosmopolitans, and not all cosmopolitans are Jews, but we are quite a large subset.) I was born in Uganda, a British citizen of South African Jewish descent, and grew up in a small Dutch town where there weren’t many other Jews or cosmopolitans. Like small-town gays, small-town cosmopolitans tend to leg it to the metropolis the minute they are old enough. I lived in Berlin, Boston and London before ending up in Paris, largely because I managed to buy a ridiculously cheap apartment here when you could still do that. Along the way I’ve found fellow cosmopolitans who share my beliefs (the usual elitist Rainbow Nation, cafe-latte, naïve multicultural liberalism). It’s been a mostly happy life. 

But being a Jewish cosmopolitan has always been confusing, even before 2016 when it suddenly became clear that we were living in a nativist era. What makes us different? Do we belong anywhere? Do we even want to? How vulnerable are we?  

The best guide I’ve found to these questions is The Jewish Century, published in 2004, by the Russian historian Yuri Slezkine, who teaches at Berkeley. I’d heard great things about the book, and finally read it after meeting the author in Moscow last summer. One of the pleasures of life is a long dinner with someone with a beautiful mind, especially when the venue is an excellent Georgian restaurant overlooking the Moscow botanical gardens. Slezkine is only half-Jewish (the other half being Russian aristo) which helps him see the Jews from that classic Jewish vantage-point of insider-outsider. His book helped me locate myself in the modern Jewish tradition. 

Slezkine’s central argument is that what always set Jews apart is that most of them were “service nomads”. Throughout history, native-born people in almost all countries were generally farmers or soldiers. The Jews, though, had neither land nor means of violence. Instead they valued education, and lived by their wits. They were meritocrats before the concept existed; they prized status by achievement over status by birth. One main measure of achievement was education, and the other was wealth.  

When modern professions developed, Jews rose to the top of them, especially in medicine, law, science, and my trade of journalism. (“Mercury’s original job was that of a messenger”, notes Slezkine. Though Jews don’t control the media, we are massively overrepresented among commentators, probably because we instinctively see our societies from the outside.) 

Even when Jews lived in a place for centuries, they typically remained strangers there. They kept their own religion and food taboos, and often spoke a foreign language amongst themselves: Yiddish, or Ladino.   

None of this makes the Jews unique, argues Slezkine. There are many other non-violent “stranger” tribes who lived as service nomads in foreign lands: the overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia (“the Jews of the east”), Armenians, East African Asians, overseas Greeks, the Lebanese in West Africa, the Parsis in India, etc. Like the Jews, these tribes have tended to be multilingual (so that they could talk to their hosts, when necessary) and highly literate. Typically, they worked as self-employed merchants, moneylenders, entertainers, craftspeople or professionals. Being outsiders, all they could rely on was their own tribe, and so they valued tribal solidarity. Their businesses were generally family affairs.   

A matter of terroir: The Author on his home ground, (Paris)

Slezkine groups these tribes together under the term “Mercurians”. They are the spiritual descendants of Hermes, or Mercury, “the god of all those who did not herd animals, till the soil, or live by the sword; the patron of rule breakers, border crossers, and go-betweens; the protector of people who lived by their wit, craft, and art.” Also, crucially, Hermes was physically weak. 

By contrast, the native farmers and soldiers among whom Mercurians lived are what Slezkine calls “Apollonians”. Apollo was the Greek god of archery, patron of agriculture; he protected soldiers and sailors. For most of history, Apollonians lived in villages, and Mercurians in the nearby towns. 

The way to become intimate with other tribes is to eat their food, and marry them. The Jews – and other Mercurians – did neither. They always kept themselves apart from their Apollonian neighbours. They and the Apollonians regarded each other as impure. (The word “shiksa”, Slezkine points out, means “filthy”.) Mercurians and Apollonians each saw the other tribe as their opposite: “mind versus body, head versus heart, outsider versus insider, nomadic versus settled,” sums up Slezkine. Mercurians tended to stereotype Apollonians as dim; Apollonians stereotyped Mercurians as crafty.   

As long as the criteria were wealth and learning, Mercurians invariably outdid Apollonians. But this made them vulnerable. Slezkine pinpoints “‘the Jewish problem’ of excessive success”. As well-off unarmed outsiders, Mercurians were always vulnerable to pogroms: the 1916 genocide of the Armenians, the massacres of Chinese in southeast Asia, or Idi Amin’s expulsion of the Ugandan Asians.  

Unusually, The Jewish Century tells the Jewish story from the vantage-point of Russia. Slezkine starts in the late 1800s in the Pale of Settlement, the western fringe of the Tsarist Russian Empire, where Jews were permitted to live. (The area covers parts of today’s Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltics, Poland and western Russia.) Arguably, the Pale rather than Israel is the modern Ashkenazi-Jewish homeland. It was certainly home to the large majority of the world’s Ashkenazis until the 1880s. Then the Tsarist state began to industrialise, ruining the old small-time Jewish Mercurian economy, but not letting the Jews participate fully in the new one. Also, there were pogroms. After centuries in the Pale, Jews resumed their wandering. They began emigrating, mostly to the US, and some to western Europe, where, in Hannah Arendt’s phrase, they were “very clearly the only inter-European element in a nationalised Europe”. My ancestors took a route less travelled, from Lithuania to South Africa.  

Service nomads: A wagon train of Jews fleeing Rovno (Rivne) in northwestern Ukraine after a wave of pogroms

By 1900, only 4.7 of the 8.7 million European Jews remained in the Pale. Many had dropped Yiddish in favour of Russian. Younger Jews adopted the Russian cult of Pushkin. They also cherished an ancient Jewish dream: that the country they lived in would become a neutral (or at least “semi-neutral”) space where they would be accepted. Then they could stop being strangers. Inevitably, many Jews, from Bialystock to Brooklyn, fell for a rising cosmopolitan ideology that promised to erase their strangeness: Bolshevism.  

Marx’s ideology said that it didn’t matter what ethnicity you were; only class counted. In the words of the Communist anthem: “The Internationale unites the human race.” All this had an obvious appeal to beleaguered Mercurians, especially those who were embarrassed by their small-trader, Yiddish-speaking parents. (Slezkine doesn’t say it, but the enmity between “book Jews” and “money Jews”, often within the same family, is a historical constant into our time.) Better yet for Jews, the way to become a Bolshevik was through a recognisably Talmudic study of the Marxist creed’s sacred texts.  

When the USSR came into being, writes Slezkine, it “was neither an Apollonian empire not a nation-state”. In fact, it “was almost as strongly committed to cosmopolitanism as it was to mass violence”. In addition, the USSR needed educated people, and after the Revolution and the civil war, what remained of the Soviet intelligentsia was largely Jewish. Jews were welcomed into the USSR’s pre-war elite – and were overrepresented even in the NKVD secret police and the staff of the early gulags. 

In Slezkine’s 2017 tome, The House of Government, a study of the Bolshevik elite who lived in a single building on Moscow’s embankment, he notes that “Jewish women were more strongly overrepresented among socialist sectarians than Jewish men”. Many non-Jewish party officials married Jewish women in their first, second and subsequent marriages. Vyacheslav Molotov, the Soviet foreign minister, who put his name to Hitler and Stalin’s Nazi-Soviet pact, was frequently influenced by his Jewish wife Polina.   

Anti-Communists latched onto the Jewish overrepresentation among Bolsheviks and delighted in painting the entire movement as Jewish. That wasn’t true, but it embarrassed the Bolsheviks. That Lenin’s own maternal grandpa had been a shtetl Jew was kept a state secret. Still, until the late 1930s, the Bolsheviks mostly protected the Jews: from 1927 through 1932, writes Slezkine, “Soviet publishing houses produced fifty-six books against anti-Semitism.” The Jewish-Soviet embrace lasted only two decades. From about 1939 onwards, the Jews discovered that neither they nor the USSR were quite as cosmopolitan as they had imagined. First, Stalin made his pact with Hitler. Then, after Hitler invaded, the USSR mobilised Russian nationalism – which didn’t fully include Jews. The Holocaust, whose central location was the old Pale of Settlement, returned Soviet Jews to their Jewishness. In 1948, many responded with wild enthusiasm to the creation of the state of Israel. (The USSR was the first country to recognise the new state.) When the Russian-born Golda Meir arrived in Moscow that September as Israel’s first ambassador, “what followed was a series of improvised, spontaneous, and supervised political rallies – something the Soviet capital had not seen in more than twenty years,” writes Slezkine. That Yom Kippur, a crowd followed Israeli diplomats from the Moscow synagogue to the Hotel Metropole, chanting, “Next year in Jerusalem.”  

Stalin came to view the Jews as potential foreign Zionist agents. Soviet Yiddish writers were purged, Jews were the imagined villains of the purported “doctors’ plot” of 1952–1953, Molotov’s wife was among many Jews sent to a labour camp, and things might have got completely out of hand had Stalin not fortuitously died in March 1953. Afterwards, the USSR dealt with the “problem” of Jewish success through unofficial quotas to keep down Jewish numbers in the best jobs and universities.  

 Slezkine says the Jews suffered less in the USSR than did other suspect nationalities such as Poles, Greeks, Crimean Tatars or Volga Germans. Even so, in the postwar decades, Soviet Jews converted en masse from Communism to anti-Communism. Slezkine cites “the ‘Komsomoler of the 1920s’ and ‘pitiless’ collectiviser, Lev Kopelev, [who] became one of the best-known Soviet dissidents of the 1970s”. Most Soviet Jews no longer felt they belonged in the USSR. 

Until the 1970s, the Soviet and the American Jewish journeys had many similarities. Both the US and USSR claimed to be ethnicity-blind. In both countries before the war, Jews were overrepresented among communists. In both, they were purged after the war: the victims of 1950s’ McCarthyism were overwhelmingly Jewish. In the 1960s and 1970s, Jews were still massively overrepresented in American radical movements like Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement, the Weathermen, and the Freedom Riders who tried to desegregate the south. Even at Kent State, in the heartland, three of the four students shot dead in 1970 during anti-Vietnam protests were Jewish.  

But while American Jews continued to power ahead, the Soviet Jewish story began to wind down. From 1968, Soviet Jews (and Soviet gentiles pretending to be Jews) emigrated en masse, to the US if they could, or otherwise to Israel; passage of the 1974 Jackson-Vanick amendment to the US-Soviet trade bill turned a steady exodus into a flood. Perhaps the last major Jewish flourish in Russian history came in the early 1990s, when Jewish oligarchs were prominent among those dividing up the former Soviet Union’s mineral wealth. Afterwards many of them left, too. By 2004, Slezkine could write: “The Jewish part of Russian history is over.” In Russia’s 2010 census, only 157,800 people – a little over 0.1% of the population – identified as Jewish. The million or so Jews in the EU (centred around London and Paris) are a bit of a sideshow, too. Nowadays over 80% of the world’s Jews are distributed almost evenly between Israel and the US. Israel touts itself as the Jewish promised land of milk and honey; the US arguably has a better claim to the title. 

Israel, as Slezkine describes it, is the project of turning Mercurian Jews into Apollonian farmers and soldiers. The Israeli state conceives of itself as an ethnically homogeneous nation, so no wonder its best friends now are aggressively nationalist Apollonians like Viktor Orbán and Donald Trump. No wonder, also, that we cosmopolitan diaspora Jews are increasingly uncomfortable with the country. Aggressively Apollonian Israelis call us self-hating, but Slezkine slaps the epithet right back on them: after all, they despise the age-old Jewish diaspora Mercurian tradition.  

In the last twenty years, a split has emerged between Apollonian Israelis and Mercurian diaspora Jews. Call it the divide between Benjamin Netanyahu and George Soros. Both sides acquired a new mission after the Holocaust: “Never again!” But cosmopolitan Jews and Apollonian Israelis meant different things by that. We cosmopolitans meant, “This must never happen again to anyone”, which is why, for instance, Jewish groups in the US were among the leading protestors against Donald Trump’s Muslim ban in 2017, and why Soros has become the main under of threatened minorities from Myanmar’s Rohingya to Europe’s Roma. But for Israelis like Netanyahu, and for many tribal Jews living in “Jewish communities” from Cleveland to northwest London (who generally aren’t cosmopolitans), “Never again” means “This must never happen again to us.” 

Everywhere people: The Jewish Century as seen (l. to r.) by its Polish, French and Lithuanian publishers

The last time I was in Israel, it felt like a foreign country – part Russian, part Arab, part Brooklyn Messianic, Apollonian by creed, and practising a form of apartheid against Palestinians that I recognised from childhood visits to my grandparents in apartheid South Africa.  

Mercurian Jews have been freest to be themselves in the ultimate Mercurian society: the US. Especially once leading universities dropped their Jewish quotas after the war, Jews were unstoppable. In 1949, one professor on the Yale faculty was Jewish; by 1970, 18% were, writes Slezkine. The classic Jewish progression goes: great-grandfather a schmatta trader, grandfather an orthodontist, dad a sociology professor, and his daughter an independent documentary filmmaker. But in the US last century, Jews completed the cycle in record time.  

That’s partly because the US, like all developed countries, is shedding its Apollonian roots. Factories have closed, farms no longer employ many people, and the military has lost power and prestige. Instead, wealth and status increasingly go to the best-educated, globally connected, urbanised service nomads. As Slezkine explains this process: “Modernisation… is about everyone becoming Jewish.” But, he adds, “No one is better at being Jewish than the Jews themselves.” He calls them the “model moderns”.  

So Jews have become the wealthiest, best educated and possibly the most influential religious group in the world’s most powerful country. Yet even in the US, they aren’t entirely welcomed as frontline politicians. Bernie Sanders, for decades a marginal figure in the US Senate, became, somewhat accidentally, an exception. For the most part, it’s still accepted that leading American politicians need to be male gentiles. When a Jewish friend of mine with a glittering CV and long service to the Democratic Party asked to run for Senator in his red home state, the party said no: where he came from, only Christians stood a chance.  

Instead, Jews have supplied American politics with brains, money, and commentary (not to mention Commentary magazine). When conspiracy theorists said that Jews were behind a certain American political movement, it was usually true; but then Jews were behind almost all American political movements. Jews have dominated the country’s post-war political debate, from old line conservatives (Ayn Rand) and neo-conservatives (Norman Podhoretz) through liberals (Paul Krugman) to the far left (Noam Chomsky). Among donors, Soros fought against Trump’s nativist-Apollonian backlash of 2016; Sheldon Adelson helped fund it.   

Now there is an angry Apollonian in the White House. Confusingly, after a life spent in the archetypally Jewish Mercurian domains of television and New York real estate, Trump is surrounded by Jews. His favourite child has become one. He has said that he only wants “short guys that wear yarmulkes every day” counting his money. Even so, Jews have learned over time to fear angry Apollonians. The great Jewish question is always whether it’s 1938 all over again. The new nativism – coupled with the upsurge in antisemitism among some European Muslims – is scary.

We rootless cosmopolitans are always going to be a small unpopular minority. David Goodhart estimates in his subtle, intelligent, anti-cosmopolitan book The Road to Somewhere (2017) that only three to five per cent of Britons are what he calls “ 

Global Villagers”, by which he means that they believe in “putting global before national welfare, being indifferent to national identity, and not caring whether Muslims integrate or not”. Even if Brexit is converting many younger Brits into Global Villagers, we’re still vastly outnumbered. 

Nativistic nationalism often strikes us cosmopolitans as absurd: why believe that the place where you happened to be born is better than any other place? Yet lots of people do believe it. No other ideology has the emotive power of nationalism. Slezkine explains: “Tribalism is a universal human condition, and the family is the most fundamental and conservative of all human institutions…. Nationalism needs no doctrine because it seems so natural.” Even in the western member-states of the European Union, nationalism usually triumphs. 

This means that cosmopolitan cities are always fragile. The ethnic homogenisation of long-time cosmopolitan hubs like Istanbul, Damascus, and Cairo is a warning to Paris and London today. Our lot have learned always to keep our eyes open for the next cosmopolitan haven. That might well turn out (with extreme historical irony) to be Berlin. Already there’s a rush of Western institutions opening offices in Hitler’s old capital, from Oxford University and the Wellcome Trust to Soros’s Open Society Foundation.   

Cosmopolitans are always ready to move. If things aren’t working out in one place, or if a country shoots itself in the foot and then starts celebrating “independence day”, we can just take our children and our Mercurian skills elsewhere. We never feel trapped. Since we have no warrior honour, we aren’t willing to lay down our lives for cosmopolitanism. But our mobility also means we seldom feel rooted in any particular place. The eternal Apollonian charge against us is that we have no loyalties, no sense of belonging. Theresa May mocks us as “citizens of nowhere”. (In the would-be global language of Esperanto, obviously invented by a Jew, the word for cosmopolitan is “Satano”.)  

As a child I used to worry about not belonging. Nobody wants to be an atom whizzing aimlessly through space. But I’ve learned over the years that cosmopolitan belonging is every bit as strong as the Mercurian variety. It’s just different, and arguably richer. I saw that in 2017 in Paris when my American wife and children became French. (When my wife began applying for citizenship years earlier, I hadn’t bothered. After all, as a Brit, I was already European. Since Brexit, I have spent my leisure hours collecting the lifetime’s worth of documents required to become French.)  

At the end of a long and boring ceremony, the 221 new French citoyens – with origins from Afghanistan to Argentina – sang the Marseillaise. My kids knew it by heart: they sometimes sing it at birthday parties, unselfconsciously, with their friends, who are the children of Greek and Senegalese and Ivorian and Portuguese immigrants, as well as the odd French Apollonian.    

After the ceremony, as our family celebrated their new status over croissants in a nearby café, I interviewed them about what it meant. My wife hadn’t noticed any extra Frenchness: “I was hoping I’d be thinner.” One son said he felt “normal”, and was disappointed President Macron hadn’t come. The other son shrugged, “I was already French. No need to become any more French.” They were all already French – but also American and British and cosmopolitan. They had what the philosopher Amartya Sen calls “multiple identities”. All humans do, but cosmopolitans most of all.   

We cosmopolitans aren’t simply what Goodhart calls “Anywheres”. As he himself admits: “Even the most cosmopolitan… members of the Anywhere group retain some connection with their roots.” In fact, the feeling is stronger than “connection”. It’s love. I’m extremely attached to certain people and places all over the world: I’m British and secular Jewish, and a Londoner and a Parisian who loves Dutch football, and I occasionally feel quite South African too. But as a card-carrying cosmopolitan, I understand that my particular attachments are just random. They’re not better than anyone else’s. They just happen to be mine.   

The writer Judith Kerr put all this much better than I could. In her autobiographical novel When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, about a German-Jewish family that flees Berlin and peregrinates around Europe, the daughter asks her father: “Do you think we’ll ever really belong anywhere?”   

“Not the way people belong who have lived in one place all their lives,” he replies. “But we’ll belong a little in lots of places, and I think that may be just as good.” As long as you always keep a suitcase packed.   

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