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What if nothing changes?

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Flowers or Princess Diana's Funeral

Keith Kahn-Harris

How can we not see this present period as a hinge point, or a crack in history, or a gamechanger? For British-born Jews like myself who were born after the Second World War, no other national event has impacted on our lives so dramatically, so profoundly, as the pandemic has. Within the organised Jewish community, the multiple challenges that the pandemic has posed and will continue to pose, touch on existential questions: The ‘excess’ deaths, the vulnerability of the old and immuno-suppressed, the financial survival of Jewish institutions, how we pray together, how we build community together, how we produce Jewish culture together, and so on. All this and persistent antisemitism too.

That British Jewish culture has changed during the pandemic is undeniable. The rush to put events and services online has enabled a more global Jewish conversation at the same time as it has change what being together in communal spaces means. The financial pressures have raised difficult questions about the viability of communal institutions. Some Jewish voices have become more prominent, others have been muted. Some forms of Jewish cultural production have been silenced and their long-term future put into question, others have shown their worth like never before.

In this context, to raise the possibility that this radical short-term transformation will not result in fundamental long-term change might seem absurdly contrarian. In fact, my strong suspicion is that we will indeed see long-term changes. Yet it seems essential that we do not make assumptions here and that, amidst the long-termist speculations we also give space for the voice of ‘deep time’ to be heard.

It may be that part of the experience of living through shock, trauma and rapid change is speculating about long-term transformation. And sometimes the sense that ‘nothing will ever be the same’ – for good or for ill – is justified. The Black Death and the two World Wars, for example, did transform the world in multiple ways, as many of those who lived through them expected. Still, amid the eerie experience of accelerated time that historical shocks bring about, it is not always easy to distinguish a historical blip from a historical step change.

I hope it doesn’t trivialise the discussion to bring up the death of Princess Diana at this point. It seems absurd, perhaps obscene, to compare the consequences of a car crash in Paris to a pandemic that has taken hundreds of thousands of lives. But during those strange days during the late summer of 1997, not only did Diana dominate the news and bring thousands of mourners into the streets, there was feverish speculation that, after this, the media and the royal family would never be the same. Moreover, the overflowing of publicly-expressed emotion was treated as a sign that something profound had shifted within British culture. Those speculations all turned out to be completely wrong. The death of Diana only had trivial long-term consequences.

I raise the death of Diana not to provide a cautionary tale against punditry and public hysteria, but to suggest that, as a species, we may not be particularly well-adapted to understanding how historical conjunctures intersect with the longue durée, particularly when we are in the midst of experiencing those very same conjunctures. The reason for this may have something to do with our desire to find patterns within and make stories out of the chaotic flux of time. Yet, if we do not do so, we risk anomie and chaos. As in Walter Benjamin’s meditations on Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus, the act of abandoning historicism requires that we find the bravery to see history as ‘rubble’, whose implications for the future cannot be known.

Judaism’s relationship to time is as paradoxical and ambivalent as Walter Benjamin’s relationship to Judaism. The certainty of the Messianic telos coexists with an earthier focus on the here and now, and a deliberate vagueness about the hereafter. At the same time, Judaism venerates the process of return, teshuvah, to a past of innocent cleaving unto God; we remember, and we stand again and again at Sinai. In the modern world, Jews have embraced revolutionary fervour, Zionist rebirth, liberal incrementalism, the recreation of the shtetl, and simple stolid endurance – sometimes in the course of an single individual Jewish lifespan.

The answer to the question of what Jewish culture will look like after the pandemic depends on which of these multiple tendencies wins out. It may be that something revolutionary and transformative may take place within some sections of the Jewish people. Ironically, this may happen out of conservatism rather than radicalism: Synagogues and other institutions that have put all or much of their offerings online may find it too much work to put everything back offline and their members may simply have got too used to the new way of doing things to demand a return to the old ways. The ability of online Jewish events to bring together Jews across the world will not be abandoned without regret at the very least. Some of those Jewish institutions that are unable to financially withstand the pandemic may never be replaced. Those older and more vulnerable Jews who pass away will not be replaced like-for-like. Neurodiverse and isolated Jews who find in online Judaism a way of resisting their own marginalisation may be reluctant to return to an alienating offline community.

Yet against all of this transformatory potential, I wonder whether the call of teshuvah will prove strongest. The power of nostalgia and grief for what we have not been able to experience should not be underestimated. Against the pandemic’s embodiment of infection, disease and death, return promises purity and prelapsarian innocence.

To return though, is always to return to an imagined past, when the real past incubated the disease. So it is that if Jewish culture post-pandemic looks similar to what it looked like pre-pandemic, then it will only be because of an act of will. Just as Haredi Judaism today represents radical transformation of observant Jewish life cloaked in the robes of what always was and always will be, a return to Jewish culture as it was in January 2020 will depend on the degree to which we are willing to engage in such collective myth-making. In this sense, continuity and change, deep time and temporary effervescence, conjuncture and longue durée, are in fact the same things.


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Dr Keith Kahn-Harris is a senior lecturer at Leo Baeck College, runs the European Jewish Research Archive at the IJPR and is an Honorary Fellow of the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism at Birkbeck College. His most recent book is Strange Hate: Antisemitism, Racism and the Limits of Diversity (Repeater 2019).
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