The End of Jewish Modernity – A Review

Reviewed by Jim Miles

(Enzo Traverso. The End of Jewish Modernity. Pluto Press, London, 2016.)

Works of political theory, written within the sphere of intellectual/philosophical history, are generally a difficult read.  The End of Jewish Modernity would probably do well in an academic discussion within the pretensions of political science or general philosophy programs, but it certainly would not be accessible to a general public reader.

Many of its references are rather arcane and esoteric, at least for the North American reader, in particular within the opening chapters – as is understandable from its European/Jewish lense of focus (“prism”).  It tends to become more accessible as it works towards the era of current events (in this case, post-World War II) as it presents ideas more conforming to the description of what is said juxtaposed against what is done.  Contradictions and inconsistencies within the Jewish/Israeli paradigm or brought out by looking at “what you do speaks louder than what you say.”

In short Jewish modernity is defined within the historical space between 1791 and the end of World War II and the creation of Israel as a Jewish state.  The period of modernity is described as being within the framework of legal emancipation, but still excluded in general from society.  That exclusion took various forms within the political, social, and cultural diversity of Europe with different burgeoning nation states reacting differently.

The idea of being a pariah, of being an Other, with legal rights circumvented by various exclusionary practices based on an anti-Semitic ideas, is the undercurrent throughout the era of modernity.  While looking for ‘place’ within European society, the Jewish people provided much of its intellectual talent, for both the arts and the sciences as well as developing political philosophies.

This work’s emphasis on political theory resulted in two major strands.   The first is the developing nationalistic ideas as Europe itself became a group of nation states roughly aligned by language and religion, with obviously many irregularities along and within the boundaries.  The second idea is somewhat the opposite, an internationalism wanting to transcend boundaries of politics, language, and religion.  The former for the Jewish people became the Zionist expression of intentions.  The latter became – at least claimed by some – as the Bolshevik expression of Jewish thought.

After the Jewish people were no longer ‘pariah’, when they established their own state in Palestine, the ‘modernity’ – the philosophical, political, cultural, and academic intelligence that often acted against the establishment disappeared.  It was replaced by a new pariah – the Palestinians who became subject to the same ghettoization the Jewish people had contended with for centuries.  More broadly, the new ‘other’, the new pariah was all of Islam.

Israel became a new exclusionary power, propped up by an empire – the U.S. – that subordinates nation states to its own purposes. Israel supports its narrative with two main threads.  The first is the shoah, the genocide perpetrated by Germany in WW II and has become memorialized and sacralized not just in Israel but across Europe and North America.   The conflation of anti-Semitism and Israel as the singular Jewish state is the second thread, allowing the state to define anything that goes against it as also being against all of Judaism globally.

For the first, the shoah, it is not as if other ‘nations’ have not faced and suffered genocide, including within the constructs of Naziism and WW II.  Historical facts are generally not represented well including the ethnic cleansing of Palestine before the UN Partition Plan (which did not confer nation status to Israel as is also part of the narrative).  This ethnic cleansing reached its apogee during the war of independence and continues as a slow motion policy visible today through the many civic rules, ghettoization, military control, and settlement policies operating in Palestine.   Israeli actions account for four out of the five conditions that are indicated by the UN Convention on genocide.

The latter thread of the narrative also presents problems for Israel.  Being against Israeli actions because they are against humanitarian law is not anti-Semitism nor in any particular way is it anti-Jewish – yes there is a difference.  With the help  of their imperial supporter, the increasing significance of anti-Islamic rhetoric has created a new other to be detested, avoided, hated, maligned and made into a modern pariah  (okay, some of that is now trending towards Russia as the U.S. fears losing control of NATO and the EU).  So people claiming to be liberals can at once protest against anti-Semitism, against Islamic atrocities, and against Russian aggression.

Right, getting a bit off topic there but the singularity is that an empire, an ethnic state, needs enemies if they are to control the destinies of the other nations of the world.

Traverso discusses this transformation from Judeophobia to Islamophobia, then continues with his analysis of ‘modern’ Israel in contrast to its previous “modernity”.  His overall conclusion is strongly and clearly worded – no political science degree necessary:

Its [Israel’s] fate will then fatally follow that of South Africa under apartheid, and in the long run, neither the Bible nor the atom bomb will manage to save it….Israel put an end to Jewish modernity.  Diaspora Judaism had been the critical conscience of the Western world; Israel survives as one of its mechanisms of domination.

It took a while for the definition of Jewish modernity to become clear, but the latter statement presents it very concisely, no longer the conscience of the West, now one of its architects of control.

The End of Jewish Modernity will of course receive much critical political anger and it could simply be dismissed as being written by someone who is deluded.  Overall, in spite of some of the not well known references in regards to the general public, it grounds its arguments in the reality of what is occurring today in the greater Middle East and across Europe.  A challenging read with much food for thought.

– Jim Miles is a Canadian educator and a regular contributor/columnist of opinion pieces and book reviews for The Palestine Chronicle. Miles’ work is also presented globally through other alternative websites and news publications. He contributed this article to

(The Palestine Chronicle is a registered 501(c)3 organization, thus, all donations are tax deductible.)
Our Vision For Liberation: Engaged Palestinian Leaders & Intellectuals Speak Out