June 08, 2008

How (not) to spot antisemitism

At the request of (a crucial part of) the audience, I raise my last comment to an entry.

According to Answers.com anti-Semitism is

  1. Hostility toward or prejudice against Jews or Judaism.
  2. Discrimination against Jews.
This is a very common definition. I think it is complete bull, even without the frequent scandalous addition of opposition to zionism. Moreover, it is a deeply ideological definition that takes a word coined less than 150 years ago in Germany and uses it to refer to phenomena that took place before the word 'Germany,' let alone the modern German state, came into being. The effect is to create a uniform but wholly imaginary history that effaces diversity and universalizes what is particular and tied to a time and a place. When that happens, one must asks as always, cui bono?

The priests of antisemitism often begin the history of antisemitism with Roman writers such as Pliny the Elder. This is ridiculous. privilege conscious Romans held unflattering opinions on Jews. Jews were one of the many dominated groups of the Roman Empire. They were occasionally rebellious; they thought highly of themselves, which was uppity. Romans saw themselves and themselves only as civilized. ( Actually, Romans thought of themselves as 'cives,' or citizens of Rome, a title that conferred many real privileges within the Empire. It was left to modern European intellectuals who fancied themselves Rome's successors to coin the term 'civilized' from the same root. From the get go, therefore, being 'civilized' meant a pretense to be something one wasn't.) In short, Romans' poor opinion of Jews and even the rare persecution had nothing to do with antisemitism. A much more pertinent (though still a-historical) comparison would be with the kind of attitudes American soldiers in Iraq have towards the native population.

From Rome, the priests of antisemitism take us to the next station of the cross (pun intended). Matthew the Evangelist not only tells the story of the crucifixion in a way that exonerates Roman authorities (who alone exercised capital punishments), but has the Jewish high priest take responsibility for the execution of Jesus on behalf of Jews universally. This is nasty. And if it were written today, it would probably be actionable. But it wasn't written today. Jewish authors of the time gave as good as they got. Not only does the Talmud contains unflattering references to Christians, but Jews wrote such texts as a mock "gospel" that described Jesus's mother as a whore and many other such blandishments. Jews and Christians were engaged in a family feud over who had the better key to the spiritual world of late antiquity. They vilified each other. They tried to get each other in trouble with the authorities. But they also emulated one another and many onlookers would have had trouble telling them apart. As late as the fourth century, many Christians and Jews would be unclear about the difference between Easter and Passover. Seeing that religious feud as antisemitism is reading history backwards. A closer fit would be the bad blood between Trotskysts and Stalinists.

In the fourth century, Christianity took over the imperial court. With their new found powers Christians wrote into law many limitations on their old nemesis. But then, for perspective, look at what they did to Pagans! Jews in The christianized Roman empire were not equal to Christians. If one wants a modern comparison, compare it to the status of Coptic Christians in Egypt, or the Falun Gong in China. To sees this as in any way like antisemitism is misguided, unless one is trying to promote a view of the world in which Jews possess some kind of a secret essence that makes everybody hates them through the ages.

From there, the story goes to medieval Europe and to the massacres of the First Crusade, conveniently passing in silence 600 years in which, except intermittently in non-Catholic Spain, hostility to Jews is practically non existent in Europe. In the 11th century, Jews and Christians in France can live in concubinage without being prosecuted (by either community), and the Bishops of German towns invite Jews to settle there because Jews have a good reputation. Later on however, beginning in the 12th century, Christianity bids to monopolize the political ideology of the nascent European state system. Europe then progressively develops an intolerant politics of otherness that affects Jews negatively, (but also and sometimes even more so lepers, "sodomites," heretics, etc.) The massacres of Jews along the Rhine during the First Crusade pale for example in comparison with the genocidal Albigensian Crusade, conducted in Southern France a hundred years later against the Christian countryside. At about this time, some Jews increasingly begin to function in Western Europe as agents of modernization, market penetration and centralization of royal power, and respectively as a fodder for exorcising the ill effects of this modernizing process. Here we can plausibly talk about the emergence of key elements of antisemitism, especially the association of Jews with the the abstract and community destroying power of money. But this is not yet antisemitism, just as the invention of the wheel is not quite the birth of the automobile.

What is missing? First, Medieval Europe is ordered by status. There are no universal subjects and therefore no uniform political community from which Jews can be uniquely excluded. Every person has rights based on where they live, their class, their profession, etc. Peasants have lesser rights than town folks. Master craftsmen have civil rights denied to journeymen. And tanners in Paris have different rights than weavers in Antwerp. Jews have their different sets of rights associated with their special status and usually negotiated between the community leaders and the local powers, just like everyone else. To call this discrimination is anachronistic. The concept of discrimination is alien to this political universe since it implies a standard of equality before the law. Second, the status of Jews is tied to their religious belief, not to their innate or even cultural character. And third, mass culture and mass politics are in their infancy. Kings occasionally whack their Jews to fake empathy towards their suffering subjects. And firebrand preachers froth at the mouth as they mention God's murderers. But the masses of industrial Europe can't be mobilized because they don't exist and neither does the political need for mobilizing them. There is no political public space that Jews can "contaminate". The people's Kingdom is still not of this world.

All this would have to change in order for antisemitism to be slouching towards Vienna to be born. In the 19th century, antisemitism emerges--not just the word but the thing itself--as a modern political tendency. Namely, it operates at the level of the newly constituted secular political community, the nation. This new body politic is born in a state of crisis, as an effect of the very economic development that threatens its cohesion. To this body in crisis antisemitism offers, just as all other modern political tendencies do, a universal (mis-)diagnosis as well as a cure. This is the essential modernity of antisemitism. What distinguishes it is the specifics of the (mis-)diagnosis--Jewish contamination of the political space of the nation (divorced from religious identity and reconceptualized biologically), and the cure--Jewish exclusion.

And even then, antisemitism was but a derided affectation, like the belief in the reign of black helicopters in some areas of rural America today. The virulent force that would stamp our mental image of this phenomenon would only come into being half a century later, with the Soviet revolution and the mass westward migration of Eastern Jews. Only then would antisemitism be reconfigured as a potent and serviceable mass mobilization strategy that could be harnessed against communism. Whenever we speak of antisemitism today, we inevitably bring up the specter of that mass folly, the first great experiment in the management of the modern demos. It is an experiment that went clearly astray. But it did not go completely in vain. The political classes learned from it a great deal. They learned to harness the energy of mass hatred and control it at about the same time, and according to the same technical principles, as they learned how to effect a controlled nuclear fission: simmer, but don't overheat!

After 1944, the particular content of antisemitism was therefore discredited. As a political tendency it is back to its pre-1917 state--a risible affectation of fools. It is even more marginal today than it was in 1870. Even neo-Nazis wash their hands off it. To be precise, we are talking about the core phenomenon, namely, about the specific antisemitic diagnosis of the ailment afflicting the body politic. The tropes of anti-Jewish sentiment, prejudice, etc., including the Christian elements such as the accusation of deicide and the proto-socialist tropes of the avaricious Jewish bankers survive, even though much discredited(1). However, these tropes were merely harnessed in antisemitism. They weren't invented by it and they did not constitute it.

We have a host of words to describe abusive inter-communal attitudes: bigotry, prejudice, stereotyping, racism, xenophobia, etc. These words apply universally. To suggest that Jews need a special word that cover these meanings only when the target is Jewish is to dehistoricize and essentialize Jews. Bigotry against Jews is just bigotry. Racism against Jews is just racism. Jews don't need a special word for it. What is good for everyone else should be good enough for everyone.

Antisemitism is a unique, self-described and self-labeled modern tendency with a shady beginning, a horrible climax and an ignoble zombie afterlife(2). Other political tendencies have borrowed themes made popular by antisemitism. Zionists adopted the image of the "wandering Jew" as it was fashioned by antisemites. Some Arab nationalists repackaged the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" as propaganda in the struggle against Israel. These borrowings reflect badly on their authors, but they do not make them into "antisemites." When Bush spoke of a "crusade" to bring democracy to Iraq, he did not become Pope Urban II, and the U.S. military did not become a column of horse-riding knights in dull armor. He was just borrowing and adapting a lousy historical theme. When John Edwards speaks of the two Americas, he is not being a communist, even if he briefly activates the communist imagery of class struggle.

If there is one true claimant to the title of antisemitism's heir today, it is "islamophobia". Islamohobia recycles images, visual themes, fears and fantasies that are recognizably drawn from the antisemitic repertoire: threatening immigration, contamination, secret bid for domination, even the crooked nose. But this is just the icing on the cake. Let's look at the more substantial similarities. Like antisemitism, islamophobia reconfigures religious bigotry in secular terms (but with "cultural" replacing biological determination.) Like antisemitism, it fuses together xenophobia against immigrants with resentments towards a small and rich comprador class--Arab oil Sheikhs replacing Jewish bankers. Like antisemitism, islamophobia is both mildly disreputable and highly serviceable to the dominant power in its capacity to fuse a marginal social group and a political threat (communism, islamism). Most importantly, islamophobia offers a comprehensive thesis about how to diagnose the body politic and how to cure it--"the clash of civilizations."

But also like antisemitism, islamophobia as a term essentializes and dehistoricizes its victims. Both antisemitism and islamophobia are coined words with a political agenda. Their very morphology puts the spotlight on the victims by center-staging the victim's identity rather than the politics of the perpetrators in the name itself. How we use words to divide the word into meaningful slices is not innocent of politics. When we use the same word to describe the Gospel of St Matthew and Mein Kampf, but two separate words for Mein Kampf and Daniel Pipes' 'Militant Islam Reaches America,' we solidify a mental furniture that makes sitting in some political places more comfortable than in others. For where I wish to sit, I would like to see the very opposite type of furniture. We need one word for designating what is common to Mein Kampf and Daniel Pipes's book, and a different one for referring to the Gospel of St. Matthew. We need a lexicon of abusive attitudes that captures the common elements of both antisemitism and islamophobia and registers their common difference from cognate forms such as racism and bigotry, but that like the latter, focuses the attention on the perpetrators and not on the victims. Suggestions are welcome.

1. Not all tropes that antisemitism used are unfortunately discredited. Some have had a new lease on life thanks to the sad fact that prominent Jewish figures have taken old prejudices and lies against Jews as ideals to measure up against. From the politicians and the intellectuals who create the enabling mood, through the soldiers who pull the trigger, and all the way to the supreme court justices who legitimize it, Israel is a baby-killing nation, not to mention the settlers caught on tape telling activists "we killed Jesus, we'll kill you too." Don't shoot the messenger!

2. The (un)death of antisemitism should not be confused with the thesis that Jews are now safe. Practically speaking, most Jews are safe. But once the liberal capitalist state learns how to harness the power of hatred, no group can feel certain of its safety (if indeed such desire for absolute safety as often ascribed to Jews can have any meaning other than the record of a death wish), nor is the habit of reenacting dead historical forms rare enough for comfort.

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