“It is night, and the barbarians have not arrived,” the great modern Greek poet C. F. Cavafy’s “Waiting for the Barbarians” concludes. “And some people have come from across the border, and said that there are no barbarians anymore. And now what will happen to us without the barbarians? These people were some kind of solution.”
This is the fantasy in which American Jews have been living for the past 20 years. They believed, and many still believe, that the barbarians are not coming. That there are no barbarians anymore. We are safe. We are secure. Nothing can harm us. Even to fantasize that there might be barbarians, let alone that the barbarians might be coming, is irrational, silly, even offensive.
They were wrong. For 20 years, some of us, including myself, have been screaming at the top of our lungs that they were wrong. But nobody listened. Nobody cared. And now we are where we are, with something like a pogrom taking place in the United States — the one country about which Jews have always said, “It can’t happen here.” Now, it has happened here. Cavafy, we have found through terrible experience, was half right: the barbarians are indeed not coming, because the barbarians have already arrived.
Last month, across the United States, incited by 20 years of hate speech from “critics” of Israel, the barbarians took to the streets to intimidate, harass, and assault Jews both visible and not visible. They did what barbarians have always done and always do. They struck out physically and verbally at those unable to defend themselves, engaged in the cowardly game of mob violence and intimidation, and leveraged their very capacity for barbarism in order to oppress and humiliate those weaker and less numerous than themselves. And in the higher reaches, among the allegedly civilized, they pursued the work of barbarism on another level: engaging in an orgy of morally bankrupt defamation and deception to justify barbarism and even declare it glorious and heroic.
They are ecumenical, these barbarians. They come from all communities and creeds. They wear many masks. And it is time to name them: Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the pogromists on the streets of Los Angeles and New York are the barbarians. Bernie Sanders, Rashida Tlaib, Betty McCollum, Elizabeth Warren, Ilhan Omar, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are the barbarians. Students for Justice in Palestine and the Democratic Socialists of America are the barbarians. Those Muslim organizations that have defamed Israel and defended terrorism for decades are the barbarians. Those leftist organizations that have defamed Israel and defended terrorism for decades are the barbarians. IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace are the barbarians. The social media influencers and celebrities who give barbarism the veneer of heroic dissent are the barbarians. The New York Times and the apologists it publishes like Peter Beinart and Nicholas Kristof are the barbarians. Those academics in universities, high and low, who have imposed an insidious antisemitic ideology upon the minds of millions of young people are the barbarians. And it is very likely indeed that some of your neighbors and friends are the barbarians. And when the chips are down, they will show you that they are the barbarians, or at least stand aside and let the barbarians do their dirty work.
The question that faces American Jews, then — should they choose to confront it — is the opposite of Cavafy’s question. We must ask not what will happen to us without the barbarians, but what will happen to us with the barbarians?
There are only two possibilities: One is that American Jews can submit, be silenced, and be canceled. They can retreat into their synagogues equipped with armed guards and security cameras. They can walk the streets with their kippahs and Stars of David carefully hidden. They can outfit their homes with shatterproof windows and state-of-the-art alarm systems, with all mezuzot carefully removed. And when they are asked by the barbarians if they are Jews, they can reply “no,” and hope for the best.
Or they can realize that Cavafy may have been right about one thing — these people are some kind of solution.
They are some kind of solution because the barbarians’ arrival has exposed, once and for all, something that, for decades, has been obvious to those willing to see it: American Jews are dying of civilization. Middle class plenty and the headlong pursuit of an assimilationist fantasy have made them perfect victims. They are domesticated, castrated. And even worse, their own success at pursuing the American middle-class dream has made the hollowness of that success inconceivable. Despite all historical evidence, they have not once considered the notion that the Jews have never and can never be truly middle class — because, in the end, the middle class can always decide that they are Jews.
It was this, more than anything else, that convinced American Jews that the barbarians were not coming; and indeed, that there are no barbarians anymore. And for too long, many among their own leadership accepted this, and reassured them that it was the case. But it was not. Those leaders, who should have seen it coming, believed it was not coming because the alternative was too terrible to contemplate. The question now is whether the American Jewish masses will continue to pay the price for it.
If they choose not to, the tragic recourse may be to nurture our own spirit of barbarism — to release the ferocious energies, the drive that propels decisive action and which is the great advantage of the barbarians. Civilization, with all its virtues, tends toward enervation; while barbarism, with all its vices, can be a force, a terrible force, for renewal.
Without its barbarians, a civilization dies of civilization. For decades, American Jews have been scrupulously civilized, and it is killing them. Does our current moment, with all its horrors, demand that, on some level, we too become barbarians? This, at least, would be some kind of solution.
What precise shape this solution will take, I do not know. But I do know that I am tired. I am tired of the moaning of bourgeois liberals. I am tired of the endless excuses for quiescence. I am tired of seeing Jews beaten and harassed and slandered and humiliated. I am tired of the privileged violence of the barbarians in low places. I am tired of the moral arrogance, emotional blackmail, and discursive violence of the barbarians in high places. I am tired of hearing people say “never again” without meaning it. I am tired of seeing Jews die of civilization. And I believe with perfect faith that the vast majority of American Jews are tired as well.
There is a barbarian inside every one of us. It lies in the primal drives hardwired into our very existence. In moments such as this, those drives may be all that can save us. And, ironically, they may be the one thing that will allow us the possibility of one day being secure enough to be something other than barbarians. We must now, at long last, accept that releasing those barbarian energies — in this moment, at this hour — may be the only civilized thing to do.