“Berlin My Hero”

Cartwright, Justin, “Berlin My Hero,” Jewish Quarterly, February, 2009.


“I can sum it up simply by calling myself a wannabe Jew. From my earliest days I have had the sense that Jews embody the distillation of what it is to be human. As if being Jewish were somehow a more extreme version of being human. Perhaps this sense I have is heightened by Jewish history with its unmatched defiance of the dual imperatives of time and place. For me, being Jewish embodies the triumph of ideas over events and the persistence of hope against overwhelming odds. As a student in South Africa I came across Two Concepts of Liberty by Isaiah Berlin. When I saw and heard him in Oxford later, I believed, and I still believe, that he was the greatest exponent of a broadly liberal, pluralist politics there has ever been. What he saw, and I think this must be inseparable from his Jewishness, is that fixed credos and closed systems of belief invariably lead to disaster. No one is the sole proprietor of knowledge. In his words ‘there is no incorrigible proposition.’ He understood that freedom is not an absolute: it cannot be guaranteed by subscribing to one political system. To my immense relief he confirmed that there are essentially only two freedoms; the first he called ‘freedom from’ which is the freedom to be left alone as far as possible to do what your inclinations tell you — essentially liberalism — and the other, very dangerous kind of freedom, is ‘freedom to’ which means that you achieve freedom only by total surrender to a state or closed system of belief. In South Africa we who were opposed to the apartheid state were supposed to want the alternative of Marxism, the path chosen by the ANC. It seemed madness to reject apartheid in favour of another absurd belief system, which had all the characteristics of a secular religion. Berlin’s simple distinction of freedoms shone a cool light of hope and truth upon the dark chaos of apartheid.”

Jewish Quarterly