Towards Shared Identities

Quillette. November 12, 2020.

When Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812, many Jews in the Russian Empire hoped for a French victory. Napoleon had eliminated barriers to Jewish integration and advancement in France; the Russian regime and its policies, by contrast, were thoroughly infused with anti-Jewish discrimination and hostility. But one prominent Hasidic leader disagreed with those cheering Bonaparte. Schneur Zalman of Liadi, founding Rebbe of the Chabad-Lubavitch sect, fervently supported Russia’s Tsar Alexander I. Publicly, Schneur Zalman argued that the Tsar served God while Napoleon served only himself. Privately, however, the rabbi had another reason. Writing to a friend, he explained that if Napoleon were victorious, conditions would greatly improve for the Jews and this would weaken their commitment to God, whereas if the Tsar prevailed, Jews would suffer but remain religiously committed as a result. Closing his letter, he quoted Psalm 119: “‘Princes have persecuted me without cause; But my heart stands in awe of Your words.’ And for God’s sake: Burn this letter.”

I thought of Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s secret reasoning while reading Ezra Klein’s 2019 book, Why We’re Polarized. There’s a parallel between the Hasidic master’s conviction that repression of Jews strengthens Jewish commitment and some of the social science Klein discusses. Schneur Zalman’s focus was piety, not identity, yet in a way he seems to have known a truth that research later confirmed, and that all sides of today’s culture wars would be wise to remember: when you attack an identity, you make it stronger.

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