The following is the first half of a talk given at the annual meeting of the Colloquium on Violence and Religion in Ghost Ranch, New Mexico, June 4, 2004:
Although it might seem that our mimetic nature makes identity a dubious concept, each individual’s and nation’s desires being mediated by others, defining identity in this manner eliminates from one’s anthropological model humanity’s most essential trait, which is that of historical singularity. Regardless of where or around what humanity emerged, the first sign designated some specific thing, and every subsequent human event is only such because it leaves traces of its specificity. Thus one can explain why there should be a scapegoat nation and even what some of its characteristics might be, but in order to explain just why it is the Jews, one must invoke the historical particularity that is the touchstone of all human universals and therefore of all authentic anthropology. This criterion is not always fulfilled. There is a line of thought that focuses on the scapegoating behavior and refuses to pinpoint any particular Jewish traits that might provoke it, claiming that antisemitism is a problem for the antisemite, not for the Jew. At the radical limit of this position we find Sartre’s Réflexions sur la question juive, where “the Jew” is defined simply as someone others see as a Jew. At the other pole is thought so impregnated with Jewish identity that it views antisemitism as not merely evil but fundamentally unmotivated. Cynthia Ozick, in an eloquent article entitled, “The New Hep, Hep, Hep!” pointed out to me by Sandy Goodhart, tells an old joke:
– Why the bicyclists?
– Why the Jews?
… Ah, but it is never the bicyclists, and it is always the Jews. There are innumerable social, economic, and political speculations as to cause: scapegoatism; envy; exclusionary practices; the temptation of a demographic majority to subjugate a demographic minority; the attempt by corrupt rulers to deflect attention from the failings of their tyrannical regimes; and more. But any of these can burst out in any society against any people – so why always the Jews? A metaphysical explanation is proffered: the forceful popular resistance to what Jewish civilization represents – the standard of ethical monotheism and its demands on personal and social conscience. Or else it is proposed, in Freudian terms, that Christianity and Islam, each in its turn, sought to undo the parent religion, which was seen as an authoritative rival it was needful to surpass and displace.
The defining singularity of the Jews is the invention/discovery of monotheism. The one God is not a “Jewish God,” but once the world has been apprised of his existence, no unique deity can be revealed without reference to his original revelation to the Jews. This is the original source of the anti-Jewish resentment we call antisemitism.
In “What Kind of Religion is Islam?” in the May 2004 issue of Commentary, the distinguished French historian Alain Besançon offers an illuminating description of the difference between Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. Besançon has a thorough knowledge of the three religions, but his discussion is wholly based on their respective theologies and neither order of appearance nor social context figures substantively in his exposition. To my mind, such a discussion cannot lead to an explanation of antisemitism, nor can it even explain the differences among the theologies it compares. Why does Christianity have a “New Testament” whereas Islam has an “uncreated Koran”? Because after the New Testament, a “newer” testament would hardly do. The Book of Mormon is such a “newer testament,” but Mormons are Christians, and Mohammed certainly didn’t want to create a new Christian sect. The only thing that trumps historical supersession is eternal uncreatedness. Mind you, this doesn’t mean that Islam is somehow less valid than Judaism or Christianity; perhaps the notion of a historical covenant, by the very fact that it is subject to supersession, is not the definitive way to establish the relationship between God and humanity. Relative validity is measurable only by historical success; meanwhile, the resentment engendered by historical priority is the point of departure for each new revelation, successful or not. This resentment alone can account for the phenomenon of antisemitism. If Christianity and Islam are so sure of their superiority to Judaism, why don’t they react to it with garden-variety ethnocentrism rather than with envy? We would not call a text antisemitic unless it purported to demonstrate the evil of the Jews by showing how clever and powerful they are.
Some years ago, in a book called Science and Faith, I discussed the “Mosaic revelation” of monotheism as depicted in Exodus 3 in the scene of the burning bush. My point was that what distinguishes monotheism from previous religions is less the uniqueness of the One God than the way in which we are to address him. When Moses asks God’s name, he receives the answer: Ehyeh asher ehyeh. The various translations of this phrase as “I am who am” or “I am what I am” or “I shall be with you because I shall be with you” are less important than the fact that instead of a name that can become an imperative/vocative command to call someone for help or to dinner, God offers a declarative sentence–and a tautological one at that. The origin of monotheism is the transformation of the imperative/vocative into a declarative. One can distinguish two gods with different names, but there can be no meaningful distinction between two gods who can only be designated by a sentence. “I am who I am” is, so to speak, adefinition of God rather than a name.
The Being of the One God is the guarantee of the unity of the human race, defined by its common and unique possession of representation. The fact that we all have language is more important than the fact that we have different languages; the fact that we all have gods is more important than the fact that we may worship different gods. Language is one and the sacred is one; the declarative sentence that declares the fact of God’s being is fully translatable in a way that no mere name can be. Yet although this sentence can be translated into any language, the fact remains that it was first pronounced and written in Hebrew. However one wishes to apportion human and divine responsibility for these words, their language of origin is undisputable.
The One God who cannot be spoken to but only spoken about is very different from Amon-Re or any imperial divinity. Whatever may have been the influence of Akhenaton’s “henotheistic” theology on that of Moses, the crucial difference is that the divine power of the Egyptian One God reflected the worldly power of the Egyptian empire. The key revelation of Hebrew monotheism occurs with God’s election of Moses to lead his people out of that empire. The Hebrews are a nomadic tribe who cannot fight the Egyptian empire on its own terms but can only depart from it. Their innovation is to declare that their covenant with the one God is independent of their political power. When they prosper, it is God’s reward for their faithfulness, and when they fail to prosper, it is God’s punishment for their sins. God is both specially connected to the Hebrew people and universal. This paradoxical configuration, which could be invented only once in history, defines a people for the first time as a nation, distinguishing the Hebrews from the other long since vanished peoples of their day who did not share the Hebrew nation’s indifference to the continuous possession of physical territory. In order to form themselves into nations, the Christian peoples of Europe were obliged to worship the Hebrew God, who through the spread of Christianity had made himself the God of everyone else. The source of the bad conscience of institutional Christianity is that although it is the religion of the emergent nations it has no conception of a national covenant with God.
The envy of Hebrew firstness–antisemitism–in the Christian era may be divided into two epochs. The first, that of the nation-state, is that of Christian antisemitism; the second, that of the emerging post-millennial global economy, is that of “Islamic” antisemitism.
Christianity is a variant of Judaism made accessible to the Gentiles through the mediation of Christ, who realizes the Messianic dream by renouncing worldly power, as a radical extension of the Hebrews’ adoption of the One God independently of their worldly power. Christianity wants the world as a whole to adopt its modification of what began as the Hebrews’ national ambition. Christianity is not a state religion, but it becomes the religion of the world of nation-states, each of which takes its model from the original Hebrew nation. The Kingdom of God is a universal community, a “civil society” writ large, but this kingdom “is not of this world.”
The focus of Christian antisemitism is the Jews’ rejection of supersession, their desire to remain first ontologically as well as chronologically. The nature of Christian resentment changes with the passage from medieval Christendom to the modern world of nation-states and the market system. In the medieval world, the Jews were a nation before the Christian states had fully defined their nationhood. Medieval antisemitism grounds itself theologically on the condemnation of the Jews for their adherence to the Law that identifies them as an ethical community rather than an open-ended moral one. Antisemitism flares up at the time of the Crusades when the looseness of the transnational crusader community makes it all the more susceptible to being scandalized by the ritual unity of the Jewish communities encountered on the way to the Middle East. The well-poisoning Jewish scapegoat of the 1348 plague is accused of refusing to transcend the ethical toward the moral; his narrow community spirit supposedly makes him immune from, hence a likely fomenter of, the contagion that spreads through the less compact communities of Christendom. (In fact, closer-knit communities did fare better in the plague, because they took better care of their victims despite the risk of contagion.)
The plague is the archetypal stimulus of medieval antisemitism; that of the modern age is the chaos of the market. The plague is a carrier of entropy; the market is seen as a zero-sum game in which every loss is the Jew’s gain. In the medieval world, the Jew’s malevolence substitutes for non-human agents like plague bacilli; in the modern world, it is the will that moves the “invisible hand” of supply and demand. Instead of magical powers that cause punctual damage, to the Jews are attributed economic and political powers that provide them with constant profit at their victims’ expense. Whence the special viciousness of modern antisemitism, whose masterpiece is the Holocaust.
Yet in the light of current events we are struck by the similarity between medieval and modern Christian antisemitism. In both cases, the Jew is accused of remaining behind in the “old” Israel rather than entering the New Israel of Christianity. It is by this suspicious archaism that he betrays his immoral preference for honoring the historical memory of his monotheistic discovery over its inherent promise of universality. Whether well-poisoner or Protocol-worshiper, the Jew is accused of refusing to “love his [non-Jewish] neighbor” as himself. The first community is “hard-necked” in its privileging of its irreversible chronological priority where its imitators claim only a virtually symmetrical spatial priority. Those Nazi rallies where each German province was represented are a demonstration of the ease with which separate “Aryan” communities can unite in a single nation once the Jewish parasite has been expelled.
The glory and Achilles’ heel of Islam is that is neither medieval nor modern; it is ahistorical, even anti-historical. The eternally created Koran is indifferent to historical evolution; Islam condemns as blasphemy the notion of progressive revelation. The intuition behind Islam is that the notion of history is the stumbling-block of the Judeo-Christian religious tradition. The Christians depend on history to “supersede” the Jews, but the Jews were already dependent on history–their holy book is a chronological narrative. A recent best-seller even purported to be a “biography” of the God of the Old Testament. The Koran, in contrast, claims to provide the eternally true version of the Biblical elements it contains. Islam supersedes the Biblical religions by denying the notion of supersession. There is no historically emergent destiny; it’s just a matter of getting things right. After seeing the failure of the historical method, God decided to take matters into his own hands by putting the pre-existing true scripture into those of Mohammed.
The Islam of the conquest, the Caliphate, and the slow decadence of the Ottoman Empire had no concept of antisemitism in the European sense. The Jews were looked down upon and occasionally persecuted as were the Christians, only more so because they had no armies to defend them. But as far as I know, the idea of systematically defining the Jews as the human agents of the natural forces of entropy, let alone of the laws of supply and demand, was foreign to Islam, which considered the Jews’ loyalty to their firstness not, like the Christians, a moral error, but an epistemological error, that not so much of maintaining a superseded doctrine as of continuing to revere a copy after the original has been discovered.
Where Hebrew monotheism is that of a small, relatively powerless minority, Islamic monotheism is that of a vast excluded majority. Judaism and even Christianity see themselves as minority religions that require special protection from the sacred; Islam is a mass movement that needs only a rallying cry to sweep all before it. The Hebrews left imperial civilization to become an independent people; the Muslims surrounded and conquered a good chunk of imperial territory. The Hebrews discovered monotheism as the source of communal harmony independently of political power; the Muslims discovered it as a means for mobilizing the margins of the decaying imperial provinces to overpower them. The One God could not be compromised by the sufferings of “his” people because it was he who empowered its enemies to put it to the test or to punish breaches of his covenant with them. For the Muslim, the Islamic community is a creation ex nihilo whose sacred guarantee is demonstrated by its very existence; Allah will reward the faithful.
The recent elevation of suicide bombing to the terrorists’ weapon of choice has led to talk of a peculiar relationship of Muslims to death. I don’t think it is necessary to speak of a mysterious death-wish. So many die in order to kill their enemies because they know they are more numerous; their act is an affirmation of the umma that increases its numerical superiority by killing the enemy and one’s moral superiority by killing oneself. The oft-repeated point that Westerners, and particularly Israelis, love life and cannot therefore defend themselves against Muslim terror depends on this sense of numerical disproportion, which is not coincidentally particularly critical in Israel. Islam’s sense of itself as the uncreated and miraculous majority religious community explains Muslims’ general reluctance to adapt to Western norms as well as their easy acceptance of the most violent reactions against any suspicion of such adaptation. I don’t believe there has ever been a public manifestation against terrorism in any Muslim country; on the contrary, large majorities cheered 9/11–and blamed it on the Jews.
The premodern umma was not antisemitic because it considered itself to have trumped chronological precedence with the ontological precedence of the Koran. Today’s Islamic world knows an antisemitism whose representations seem taken right out of Der Stürmer. Although its system of representations is borrowed from the West–one wonders where else it would have found them–this is indeed a new kind of antisemitism. Antisemitism is not just hostility to Jews, it is envy of their originary status and the power, real or fancied, that derives from it. Modern Muslim antisemitism is linked to the existence of Israel, whose creation was (remember Toynbee?) supposed to “normalize” the Jewish people. Islam claimed to have done away with the problem posed by the Jews’ historical anteriority. The creation of the only modern state in the Middle East is a scandalous sign of the power of this anteriority, guaranteed by the deliberate or unwitting complicity of the Christian states of Europe and America, over the Muslim umma, which has never succeeded in organizing itself into an effective entity in the era of nation-states.
To be continued…