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Thursday, October 23, 2003


Martin Jay, who has spent his life dissecting and explaining the texts of some of the 20th century�s most dialectically challenging thinkers (Adorno, Benjamin), is a strangely hamfisted writer. In this season�s Salmagundi, he has a long, and rather depressing essay entitled "Ariel Sharon and the rise of the new anti-semitism." The newness of the anti-semitism is, we suppose, that there are less accusations of ritual murder this time around � but otherwise, it seems pretty much the old story of Jewish conspiracies, traced by Norman Cohen all the way back to the first century.

First things first. The most depressing part of the essay � depressing because it is so plain silly � is the end.

�One place to begin on both sides would be to declare a total moratorium on comparisons of the actions of the others with the Nazis, which does nothing but close off any possible discussion of real grievances and how to resolve them. Playing the Nazi card discredits the one who resorts to it more than its target. Another would be the recognition that for all its centrality to Jewish identity, Israel as it is presently constituted does not translate into an automatic synonym for Jews in all their variety. Even within Israel, there is, after all, significant opposition to the policies of the present rightwing government,37 as the courageous "refuseniks" in the army who resist service in the occupied territories demonstrate. The identification of all Jews with Israel, which seems to be an excuse for antiSemitism in some quarters, is as troubling as the menacing insistence on the part of some of Israel's defenders that all Jews must rally behind it, right or wrong.�

Does Jay really think that, from the sandbox of the Salmagundi, he can declare a moratorium on Nazi comparisons? This is the dinnertable statement unworthy of being articulated as a serious suggestion. The �sides� are not organized to do things like declare moratoriums. The very idea of some intellectual fatwa is fatuous. The other suggestion is more interesting, but as Jay approaches an idea here, he spins off at a tangent and never quite reaches it. And the reasons he never quite reaches it are spread throughout the article, creating the copula that entitles it: Ariel Sharon and�

We really are experiencing a wave of anti-semitism in the world. The last time the anti-semitic frequency was this loud was in the seventies, when it became ugly in Poland and the U.S.S.R. And surely what is happening in Israel is bound up in the current wave. Jay begins the article with a quote � and of course it is an insulated quote, insofar as we are told that it comes from a Jew:

� "No one since Hitler," my dinner partner heatedly contended, "has done as much damage to the Jews as Ariel Sharon. For the first time in half a century, anti-Semitism is once again legitimated on a worldwide scale." This stunning accusation, made during a gracious faculty soiree in Princeton while the far less convivial occupation of Jenin was underway halfway around the world, was leveled by one of the most admired poets of our day. A man who weighs his words carefully, he is also proudly identified with his Jewish heritage. His sentiments do not sit easily with the truculently pro-Israeli consensus that dominates American Jewry, but they are worth taking very seriously nonetheless. Contained in his charge is a double provocation. First is the assertion that anti-Semitism has indeed returned to become a serious, perhaps even lethal threat to Jews everywhere, including America. And second is its placing the blame squarely on the shoulders of Israel's political leader, whose actions have produced the very insecurity for his people that the founding of Israel was designed to end.�

As so often in the discussion of anti-semitism and Israel, Jay begins by tying the Gordian knot instead of slicing through it. He then proceeds to tug ineffectually at the loops.

When it comes to any analysis of a prejudice, I find it invigorating to ask: why should the speaker be considered free from the prejudice? Why, for instance, should I assume that you assume I am not a bigot, an anti-semite, a homophobe, a sexist? Personally, I have moments in which it would be fair to say all of those things about me. My Grandfather was a traditional anti-semite. That it is possible that my Great Grandfather was passing for Gentile gave my Grandfather�s anti-semitism that tasty pathological twist. On the other hand, he lived in a ninety percent Jewish neighborhood in Syracuse. My father�s inherited this prejudice, but it rather broke down with my Dad. He believed Jews were good with money, and the old story about Jewish bankers. Unlike his father, however, these opinions didn�t really have much to do with his life. If his kids had converted to Judaism, it wouldn�t have made my Dad turn a hair.

Raised in a Georgia suburb, I rather resented the lack of Jews in our lives. To me, as a kid, Jews represented culture. They represented urbanism. They were on the other side of the divide from Southern Baptists and the jock rednecks of my high school.

Because of this upbringing, because of my absurd philo-semitism and the absence of experience that nurtured it, I was simply unaware of certain prejudices against Jews, and really remained so until I moved North, to New Haven, years ago. It was in New Haven that I heard, for instance, that Jews were stingy. I�d never heard that one before. Remarks about Jews being this way or that were shockingly common in the North.

On the whole, anti-semitism is not the prejudice for my subconscious. That prejudice is against blacks, which is the overwhelming and archetypal lesson for a white child in the Southern suburbs. To be less manichean about it -- there was also a lesson in the success of the civil rights movement when I was a kid. So there are two mental energies, there. My mental life, as a product of civilization, is constituted by the biases I overcome. They come back, and I overcome them again. So I have overcome a bias against blacks, a bias that was put there by the whole history of apartheid in this country, but the only way I can say that I am not a racist and make it true -- make it something I believe about myself -- is to continue that struggle. Those whites who segregate themselves into a world of snow whiteness and then condemn the bigotry of rednecks have no sympathy from me.

I am speaking of the phenomenology of bigotry � not its social content. It is one of the oddities of our lives that the subject of prejudice so confusingly compounds feeling and social fact. It is as if social fact were a mere expression of feeling, a vehicle for it. So if the feeling ends � if, magically, Trent Lott wakes up one day and doesn�t feel bigoted against blacks � then the social fact must end. This is nonsense � the social fact is semi-autonomous, and persists for a whole set of reasons that are separate from feeling, including, simply, the systematic advantage conferred by the social fact � but it is very alluring to that American instinct for reducing problems to the dissatisfactions of the self.

So switching to social fact � there is something in the depressing fact that there is a growing anti-semitism on the Left. That is depressing because it is one of the great claims of the Left � really, its greatest claim on my affections � that the Left was especially responsible for freeing Jews from the civil oppressions to which they were subject in Europe. Historically, there wasn�t a rightwing movement on the continent, in the 19th and most of the 20th century, that wasn�t pervaded with anti-Semitic sentiments. They could be mildly Eliotic, or they could be rabidly Hitlerian, but they were certainly part and parcel of what conservatism meant. This, by the way, isn�t true of Britain � D�Israeli being the great counter-example. Why it wasn�t true of Britain is a curious story that, at least to my knowledge, hasn�t been sufficiently explored. When Mosley tried to import continental anti-semitism in the 20s, it flopped. That there was a fund of bigotry among the English upper classes is certainly true, and I think it probably grew in the first half of the 20th century, but it was never as ignoble and systematic as it was among the European elites.

But the truth about the Left is that there was a current of anti-semitism there from the very beginning � the Voltairian inheritance, you might say.

Jay devotes a part of his essay to analyzing a man who analyzed this history, an Albert Lindemann. Lindemann�s book, Esau�s Tears, seems to be about the way an intellectual can talk himself, by insensible stages, into maintaining a bigot�s position. We are going to quote three long grafs:

�Once the door is open to considering the complicity of those who suffer in their own suffering, so the fear goes, it is a short step to its justification. An understandable aversion to giving any satisfaction to the victimizers creates a taboo against even posing the question.
A recent example of this fear can be found in the overheated reception of a flawed, but provocative book entitled Esau's Tears:Modern Anti-Semitism and the Rise of the Jews by the University of California, Santa Barbara historian Albert Lindemann and published by the Cambridge University Press in 1997. Among its many disturbing conclusions, perhaps the most unsettling was the claim that "the rise of the Jews" after the Enlightenment-by which Lindemann meant the achievement of civil liberties, economic success, demographic expansion and intellectual distinction-had ignited the aggression against them, setting ablaze embers of resentment that had smoldered perhaps as far back as the invention of monotheism's jealous God. Although arguing that responses to that rise were by no means uniform in different contexts-Hungary, the United States, Italy and Britain, he shows, were relatively benign-and acknowledging the power of mythic imagery in the minds of anti-Semites, Lindemann nonetheless insisted that "whatever the power of myth, not all hostility to Jews, individually or collectively, has been based on fantastic or chimerical visions of them, or on projections unrelated to any palpable reality. As human beings, Jews have been as capable as any other group of provoking hostility in the everyday secular world."19
As his title suggests, Lindemann urged his readers to understand the point of view of "Esau," the son of Isaac and Rebecca who is tricked out of his heritage in the Bible by his brother Jacob and whose descendants, the Edomites, are figured as gentiles in Jewish lore. Although Jews tended to denigrate Esau as a coarse and hairy brute, anti-Semites often turned him into a hero against the wily and cunning Jacob. While acknowledging the danger in this simple reversal, Lindemann nonetheless wants to get inside of the skin of the Edomites and make some sense of their hostility in relation to a real stimulus from without.

One way Lindemann makes his argument is to employ precisely the same tactic Patai used in citing Ibn Khaldun in his critique of Said: reminding us of critical Jewish statements about their own people that anticipate or echo those of anti-Semites themselves. He notes that Zionists sometimes called diaspora Jews "objectionably detestable" and called for a "reform" of their offensive behavior, and recalls the well-known disparagement of Ostjuden by their German cousins. Whether or not such statements are expressions of self-hatred, to use the category that the German-Jewish writer Theodor Lessing popularized in 1930,(20) or betray identification with the aggressor, they show that a simple imposition from without argument fails to do justice to the complexity of the issue. Even Jacob, it seems, could adopt Esau's perspective at least some of the time.�

Jay�s discussion of Lindemann reminds me of a scene in The Demons. There is a meeting of a political group in the small town in which Dostoevsky�s story is set, and at the meeting someone gets up excitedly and reads paragraphs from a paper he has written that proves, by the iron laws of logic, that a society that is totally free (the revolutionary objective) is identical to a society in which everyone has become a slave. This conclusion is greeted with hoots, boos, and the unexpected approval of the organizer of the meeting.

We�ll talk more about Lindemann in another post.

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