What has made the Jews a privileged object of collective hatred is their paradoxical place in the history of religion. Their historical role as the first people to worship a unique, universal deity imposes on them the blessing and the curse of defining the one God in terms of their own sacred history. However careful they may be to avoid naming him in any language, the Jews’ humility before God cannot but be experienced by others as a transcendental arrogance. The New Testament and the Koran stand in an unavoidably mimetic relation to the Hebrew Tanach, whether as transformative supplement or wholesale replacement. The Jews’ continued presence is an eternal reminder that all monotheism derives from, and therefore still is, worship of their God.
Every hegemonic spiritual movement in the Western world from Christianity to Nazism has presented itself as a solution to the “Jewish question,” whether religiously by converting the Jews or nationally by eliminating them. Those in the first group expected the Jews willingly to exchange their paradoxical tribal privilege for membership in a universal community more apparently consonant with the one God’s universal authority. Just as Luther thought his renewed Christianity would succeed in converting the Jews where Roman Catholicism had failed, Marx, in his early On the Jewish Question, by associating capitalism with the universalization of “Jewish” values, links the overcoming of capitalism to the elimination of Judaism. In each case, the conversion attempt was not wholly unsuccessful, but partial success is tantamount to failure, the scandal of the Jews’ resistance being not its reality but its mere possibility. So long as it remains possible for Jews to remain outside the ecumenical community, the one God remains indistinguishable from the tribal god of the Hebrews. The late nineteenth-century ideologues who created and adopted the term “anti-Semitism” thought the good society depended explicitly on the elimination of those whose very existence is an affront to any attempt to begin anew. The Jewish question had become the central political issue, which only the Final Solution could settle for good.
Conversely, the revelation of a given movement’s roots in Judaism debunks its claim to constitute a new beginning. Nietzsche traces Christian victimary rhetoric to its “genealogical” Jewish source in order to denounce its resentful hypocrisy; Marx denigrates the political liberalism that emancipated the Jews by explaining it as a secondary consequence of the domination of bourgeois society by the “Jewish” value of money. The Jewish nation survives by institutionalizing either its national resentment or its nomadic insubstantiality, as manifested in its devotion to value-free exchange. In either case, the inadequate transcendence of Jewish values must be replaced by a more radical one–communism or the Superman–that will finally overcome the binding force, money or resentment, that sustains the Jews’ mysterious cohesion.
The Holocaust turned the Western world away from the antisemitic solution to the “Jewish question.” But we should likewise reject the philosemitic solution. Instead of looking forward to the day when antisemitism, along with every other form of identity-based resentment, will have disappeared, we should rather work toward an ethical maturity that allows people to overcome these resentments. The best Christian tradition considers the continued existence of the Jews a test: the true Christian is one who masters his resentment of the Jews.
The Jews have long been hated as the first nation; today the United States is hated as the ultimate nation. To proclaim the one God is to proclaim the equality under God of all humanity, yet at the same time to foreclose all others from making the unique asymmetrical gesture that establishes this universal symmetry. The position of the USA as the hegemon of the global marketplace engenders a similar paradox; how can I be an equal world-citizen if one country alone exemplifies world-citizenship?
Modern antisemitism already blends resentment of the originary with resentment of modernity; the Jew’s historical independence of other traditions is blamed for the corrosion of these traditions. Here again, Marx’s critique is exemplary: it is “Jewish” capitalism that makes “all solid things melt into air” (Communist Manifesto). The Jews’ association with money is not a historical contingency of their debarment from owning land but the essence of their rootless national existence; their economic values, like their Torah, exist in the form of portable signs. The triumph of exchange in the modern global economy is the triumph of portability over rooted stability, and this triumph is doubly incarnate: in the United States, as the capital of the global marketplace, and in Israel, whose existence signifies that the nomads’ conquest is so complete that they now dare to return to the land, even the sacred land of Dar al-Islam.
It is no coincidence that the United States is the only country in the world where large numbers of Jews have lived for several generations in no real danger of expulsion or persecution. Because the USA is a nation of immigrants, the Jews differ from the rest of its “hyphenated” population only in the peculiarity of their nation of origin, not in the fact of having one. Nor, since WWII, are they under pressure to deny their Jewishness. On the contrary, the oft-discussed danger of assimilation is mitigated by the fact that, in a society that grants prestige to ethnic particularity, Jews who marry Gentiles are as likely to bring up their children as Jews as not. To be a Jew in America is to exult in the universal triumph of “Jewish” fungibility while retaining one’s Jewish identity. This identity is affirmed by American support of Israel, which for antisemites proves the domination of American policy by Jews, but which simply reflects the kinship of the only two countries where being Jewish is normal.
Since September 11, what both Jews and Americans alike fear most is the hatred of Islam. That Islamic violence toward Jews has not come anywhere near that perpetrated sixty years ago in Christian Europe gives little reassurance in the nuclear and bioweapon age. Islam has become once more what it was in the beginning, the religion of the margins of Western civilization, but it can no longer dream of conquering the center, only of destroying it.
The fruitless debate about whether the conflict of the extreme forms of Islam with the West constitutes a “clash of civilizations” founders on the asymmetry of the two parties to the conflict. Islam and the West are universalist in two very different senses: in the first case, one joins a potentially universal religious community; in the second, one participates in a virtually global exchange system. No doubt, to the extent that the Islamists themselves are part of that system, they already belong to Western civilization. But they are able to reject this participation even while it is taking place by defining themselves as representatives of a religious counter-civilization whose other-worldly virulence feeds on the impossibility of this-worldly liberation. The more world civilization becomes one, the more its alternatives must be founded outside the world. The fact that the imposition of the Islamists’ version of civilization on the planet at large would be an incalculable disaster is less an obstacle than a stimulus to action.
In the conflict between Islam and the West, the Jews are a synecdochic focus; although one cannot conceivably kill off the entire Christian population, Hitler showed that one can make a pretty good try at killing off the Jews. The Islamists, however, do not share Hitler’s illusion that it suffices to exterminate the Jews to recreate what Eric Voegelin called a “compact” community. As 9/11 showed, American economic and military power are their principal targets. Nor is it clear that, in imitating the dénouement of the neo-Nazi Turner Diaries by flying a plane into the Pentagon (Turner’s, however, was nuclear-armed), they share the book’s ideological aim of freeing the USA from Jewish domination. Moslems have no vested interest in Aryan liberation.
Globalization knits nations together through a complex variety of institutions, legal, financial, and political, on the model of the slowly but steadily proceeding integration of Europe. Yet this process of supranational integration does not abolish or even weaken national identity; it merely forces it to redefine itself in cultural rather than politico-economic terms. Under these circumstances, the “first” and “last,” Jewish and American nations become the exemplary targets for the resentment generated by the national idea: the latter, because, as the world becomes more global, world culture becomes increasingly that of the United States; the former, because the originators of monotheism are, better than any other people, adapted to globalization.
As resentment of Jews becomes conflated with resentment of Americans, it becomes more widespread and seemingly more respectable. Yet there is a perverse comfort for the Jews in this conjunction: nearly three hundred million Americans now share the historical burden of the “chosen people.” Under these circumstances, a second Holocaust is inconceivable, although not, alas, impossible.