Off the Cuff: Leonidas Donskis, Lithuanian scholar of philosophy and politics, human rights advocate and member of the European Parliament


Courtesy of Jolanta Donskiene

Leonidas Donskis is a member of the European Parliament and a philosophical and political scholar.

Rosemary Boeglin, Editor-in-Chief

Leonidas Donskis is an author, politician and leading Lithuanian public intellectual. A strong advocate for civil rights, Donskis sat down with the Review to discuss his thoughts on European politics and on the lecture he gave Thursday, titled “Antisemitism Old and New: East/Central European Nationalism, Western Anti-Zionism.

How did you come to Oberlin?

Well, I knew many good things about Oberlin. I knew it was a major place in terms of liberal arts education [and] music. Incidentally, I had a very, very good friend of mine who is a noted Lithuanian pianist, and he won the pianist competition at Oberlin. That was Petras Geniušas. He was one of the award-winners and he won the pianist competition, and he told me many good things about Oberlin. At the same time, I had some friends among Lithuanian émigrés in the United States who were part of Oberlin College, like Professor Silvedores, who was once part of faculty and he was [a] Russian professor, professor of Russian Literature. So I knew many good things about Oberlin, but by and large, of course, my visit would have been unthinkable if Professor Sidney Rosenfeld hadn’t been kind and gracious enough to organize my public talk. So that was the primary move behind the whole thing, and of course I’m delighted to be here.

What was the main thrust behind your lecture?

IthinkIwilltrymybestasan academic, as a human rights defender, as a European and as someone who could describe himself as an Eastern European with several planes of identity, including Jewish. I will try my best to describe anti-Semitism as a profoundly European phenomenon; at the same time I will show some dangerous consequences and dangerous implications of constant anti-Semitism for present politics. So that’s why I will try to show something that is related to history. I will define terms, I will show something that is simply unthinkable without historical horizon showing some present phenomena or implications for politics. That’s why I think anti-Semitism is very important to deal with. It is taken for granted sometimes. It’s taken as a phenomenon of the past or something that belongs to exclusively nondemocratic, tyrannical, autocratic regimes, which is not the case, I have to say that it’s everywhere. It’s everywhere. And it comes in many faces. It may assume one shape in democratic societies, it could be very different in dictatorships. But the fact remains that antiSemitism is something inseparable from modernity.

What, in your opinion, is the relationship between nationalism and anti-Semitism? What might be the origins of that relationship?

It will be very important to show that during the nation-building process in Europe, of course, the Jews were perceived as a threat. Sometimes [they] were a kind of target group, which were perceived as aliens or people who had little, if anything at all, to do with the mainstream of society and culture. But, at the same time, what was interesting [was] that even nationalism in Europe had many faces and many forms. Nationalism is quite problematic when it becomes radical or very conservative, because it becomes exclusionary. And exclusion was a problem not only vis-à-vis the Jews, but the same applied to, for instance, Germans in the Baltic States, Russians, Roma who suffered in almost every single Central and Eastern European country. But the Jews were very special because they either belonged to the elites of those societies, or they were outcasts. Meaning that people were equally hostile or enthusiastic of them, and they showed some important changes [in the] political and social dynamics of those countries. But I would say that as long as nationalism is possible to reconcile with the logical flavor of democracy, it doesn’t pose a serious threat. It becomes a real threat when it becomes exclusionary, radical, and when it gets accustomed to the formula: one language, one nation, one state.

How does anti-Semitism function in the modern geopolitical order?

In America, anti-Semitism was reactionary. They were simply reacting to some trends. But what would be a problem even in the modern political setting would be that we live in the age of propaganda. People don’t examine reality, and they don’t examine words and concepts. They take words like Zionism, for instance, in such a way that they project very serious forms of contempt on them. For some people Zionism is a form of colonialism, or imperialism, which is nonsense. Historically it is very easy to prove that that was a dream of the Jews in Europe: to have their homeland. When Jews got disappointed in European politics and when they thought that even assimilation was not sufficient for them to live with Europeans, only then Zionism became viable. When I see people project such a strange contempt, [such as] some forms of colonialism, or even apartheid, on Zionism, it’s nonsense. The danger is that we are unable to distinguish between propaganda and rational forms of discourse.

As a member of the European Parliament, do you have thoughts on the state of the EU, or specifically current challenges or Ukraine?

Up until now, their standing was very decent, and very democratic. They didn’t hurt minorities. If we assume that there is no international law, and that those who exercise power successfully and efficiently can do anything they want, Europe is finished. It’s not only about Ukraine. What’s happening in Russia is very, very scary because they tolerate racism, xenophobia and homophobic vocabulary. I’m quite optimistic about Ukraine, but I’m really worried about complacency and sometimes political impotence about the European Union.

Can you speak to the relationship between your philosophical training and your political practicioning?

It allows me a point of departure in dealing with my infatuation with human rights. Partly, I’ve been interested for a long time in dissent, in social and cultural criticism, things like that, which brought me very close to the study of dissidence and dissent all over the world. But as a human rights defender myself, I owe a great debt of gratitude to Russian and Lithuanian dissidents who are my friends. Part of them were émigrés in the United States and Britain, and I have to say that [it’s] just a kind of cosmic debt; I have to do something about it because for a long time I was vocal, and now I have to be practical and efficient. When I became a member of the European Parliament, I started working almost immediately with Chinese, Russian, Tibetan dissidents. I’m the coordinator, or spokesperson, on behalf of the fifth largest group in the European Parliament. On the one side, I am just able not to be cynical, because I apply my ethical convictions and sometimes my ethical modes of reasoning, but at the same time I’m not disconnected, because I realize that, had I relied solely on my work as a philosopher, I wouldn’t have achieved much in the field of human rights defense. You have to be very practical.

Interview by Rosemary Boeglin, Editor-in-Chief