When I try to understand the besetting problems of what can still be called Western civilization, I am brought back to the unsettling fact that they tend to focus on the Jews.
The recent conflict in Gaza offers one more example of the postmodern media-intelligentsia’s readiness to question Israel’s legitimacy. Two universities in Southern California, UCLA and UC Irvine, have in the past few weeks put on “scholarly” panel discussions of the Middle East that were in fact one-sided condemnations of Israel, including denials of its right to exist, cheered on by chanting mobs.
To whatever degree the 19th century emancipation of the Jews was central to the transition from medieval to modern European society, it is impossible to deny that the Holocaust was the key event of this same society’s 20th century’s attempt to return to what Voegelin called “compactness” from the dissolving effects of the market. Nor is it any less evident that the Nazi oppression of the Jews provided the template for the new mode of thought, victimary thinking or White Guilt, that defines the postmodern era. For the postmodern intellectual, the shadow of Auschwitz looms over every potentially unequal relation.
Yet the claim that Auschwitz provides sufficient justification for the state of Israel provokes the charge of raising a historical contingency to the level of ontological necessity. The anomalous phenomenon of Holocaust denial testifies to the depth of the refusal of this necessity; absurd in historical terms, Holocaust denial takes a coherent stand against the “intolerable” idea that extermination was the logical culmination of Western resentment of the Jews, thereby justifying the establishment of a separate Jewish state. For the less irrational, accusing Israel of crimes against humanity diminishes the unique significance of the Holocaust: whatever the Nazis may have done to the Jews, the Jews are doing “the same thing” to the Palestinians.
The familiar refrain that the Israelis are the new Nazis is no simple hyperbole. It illustrates the Holocaust’s paradigmatic status and, by turning the paradigm against the Jews themselves, ironically confirms the Nazi view of the centrality of the Jews and the resentment they inspire to Western civilization. The original point of Zionism was to put an end to the exceptional aterritoriality of the Jewish people, in the hope that Israel would become a state and the Jews a national group like all the others. But whatever efforts the Jews have made to settle in Palestine without conflict, the local population has been constantly stirred to hostility. Like the Gaza incursion of 2008-09, the “Nakba” of 1948 began with Arab aggression against the Jews but has served ever since the propaganda of those who would deny the legitimacy of the Jewish state.
To understand the roots of this implacable hostility to Israel, we must step back not only from the media-fed outrage but also from the resentment it inspires in Israel’s defenders. The general disinclination to view the problem in its broadest context parallels the sorry failure of the “peace process” between Israel and the Palestinians over the past decades. These constant fiascoes reflect something more than the intransigence of either or both parties. Beyond the concerns and desires of either group lies a civilizational interest in leaving the Palestinian problem, and consequently the Jewish problem, unresolved.
“The chosen people”
The One God is the theological expression of the uniqueness of human origin. The Jews’ “election” as the “discoverers” of the One God is a historical contingency that confers on them no privileged ontological status. The Jews can claim only to be the first heirs of the originary scene to grasp its uniqueness and consequently its universality. As I pointed out in Science and Faith, when God reveals himself to Moses in Exodus, he names himself with a declarative sentence: Ehyeh asher ehyeh, I am that/what I am. The universal God has no ethnic particularity. Were “chosenness” the heart of Judaism, God would have given Moses a secret name that the chosen could use to call on him. This is not the case in either the biblical text or Jewish custom, where God’s traditional name is considered unpronounceable and unspeakable. (It is not the Jews who call “their” God Yahvé.)
The Jews benefit and suffer from discovering the universal anthropological truth of the One God and becoming ipso facto the “chosen people.” It matters not that the priority conferred by the Jews’ election is chronological, not ontological; mortals have no certainty of surviving until the last catches up to the first. The resentment aroused by Jewish firstness is a lightning rod for every other resentment, including, most crucially, that generated in the marketplace. Global antisemitism is the inevitable underside of the West’s own firstness in the creation of modern market society.
Perhaps the Hebrews’ discovery of the One God was indeed inspired by Akhenaton’s “henotheism,” as Freud speculates in Moses and Monotheism; almost certainly, it was a product of the historical experience that has come down to us as the “exile in Egypt.” But a society can only be built around a monotheistic as opposed to an imperial-henotheistic ritual practice if it is assured of a stable and reliable means of consecrating the historical contingency of its discovery. The sacred book that enshrines the Hebrews’ firstness and that has ensured their survival in the absence of political power was an achievement neither necessary nor possible for the tribes and empires around them. The Torah and its supplements conflate the history of the Hebrews with the universal history of mankind. The biblical account of the creation emphasizes the event-nature of human origin as a point of departure for its own subsequent revelation/discovery. This casting of a historical narrative as the embodiment of universal anthropological truth is the model against which were composed the later “Abrahamic” holy books of the New Testament (historical supersession) and the Koran (return to the timeless original).
The Jews’ survival in the absence of a national territory, or as it tends to be viewed, their essential homelessness, is indissolubly linked to their “chosen” status. As the first to discover God’s universality, the Jews had also to be first to renounce familiar intercourse with their own divinities. In worshiping a universal God, the Jews discovered the portability of the scene of sacred ritual, as embodied in the Ark of the Covenant. The burning bush on Mount Sinai was holy ground only while God spoke to Moses there; it did not become the center of a cult. Although in the biblical account, the Hebrews’ discovery of the One God was followed by their settlement in Canaan, the de-localization of their religious practice prefigured their detachment from any geographical entity. Zionism is scandalous because, given their “election,” the Jews are not supposed to require a territory of their own. Although a Palestinian nationhood has existed only since the creation of Israel, the Palestinians’ “autochthonous” link to the land is in principle more authentic than that of the Jews, even those Jews who lived in Palestine many generations before Zionist settlement.
The Jews’ original sin
What Adam learns by eating of the tree of knowledge is that although language can create the world, it cannot foreclose human action, since the freedom embodied in language entails the possibility of disobeying any interdiction. Because Adam’s understanding is implicit in language itself, God fears that Adam’s self-consciousness will make him his rival. Adam’s sinfulness is analogous to the Jews’ firstness in discovering the One God. Although, like human freedom, God’s uniqueness is a universal truth, just as Adam’s originary assertion of freedom is the source of all sin, so the people who first affirms the One God ipso facto brings upon itself the resentment of the others.
In response to the historical contingency that makes the “chosen people” the collective equivalent of the sinful Adamic self, Christian revelation relies on a transhistorical contingency, the earthly life of the Son, whose being as a person of God preexists Adam’s fall. The Crucifixion (for Paul), and retrospectively, Jesus’ coming itself (for the Gospels), transcend the historical contingency of the Jews’ reception of the One God’s original revelation by making God the Son visible to all; henceforth humanity can worship the One God without accepting the guarantee of the Jews’ firstness (“the Law”). In Jesus, every human is “first”; whatever hierarchies Christianity tolerates, it remains fundamentally omnicentric.
In the person of the Son, God reveals himself as the Other whose resistance to our desire provokes unanimous persecution, but whose suffering on the Cross solicits the overcoming of resentment by love. Adam’s sin is redeemed because the sinful specificity of his knowledge has been superseded. Yet the continuing presence of the Jews reminds us that Jesus’ revelation, whatever its ontological claims, is epistemologically secondary; the new covenant is an episode in Jewish history, a follow-up to the original revelation of the One God. Firstness can be transcended, but it cannot be undone or forgotten.
Jews and the Market
The connection between Jews and money has historical roots in the Jews’ exclusion from the largely nonmonetary agrarian economy, open only to those who possessed real property and/or participated in Christian religious life. Nineteenth-century European societies emancipated the Jews, allowing them to participate in the market economy on a near-equal footing with Christians.
Just as there are no chosen among the faithful, so there should be no chosen in the marketplace, the extension of Christian omnicentrism to economic exchange. But because the market does away with the visible ritual center of pre-modern economies, the opacity of its outcomes inevitably generates the suspicion that it is secretly manipulated by a central group. The Jews are accused of exercising a firstness in the free market homologous to their firstness in the religious sphere. Whereas for the medieval Christian, the abjection of the Wandering Jew gave consoling proof of God’s rejection of Jewish election, the modern antisemite resents Jews as undeservedly successful. The waning of the theological argument of supersession makes Jewish firstness appear ever more clearly an anthropological reality. Whence the increase in the salience and virulence of antisemitism in secular market society, which bestows on it its “racial” name, transforming cultural difference into a biological stigma.
In contrast with Jewish firstness, Islam derives its power from mobilizing lastness, the resentment of the excluded, in order to claim worship of the universal God as an a priori right. Unlike Christianity, Islam denies any debt to the historical contingency of Judaism. The Jews do not play a major role in Islamic theology, where they are considered a dominated “people of the book,” acceptable only as dhimmis. While taking most of its content from the Judeo-Christian tradition, Islam claims the ontological priority of the “uncreated” Koran to the Bible, which it audaciously interprets as an inadequate paraphrase of the Arabic original. Rather than supersession, this is a relationship of denial. That denial is less obsessive than rivalry is the grain of truth in the familiar tale that opposes Muslim tolerance of the Jews to Christian persecution.
All this changes, however, with the Jewish settlement of Palestine. Islam cannot ignore the Jews’ claim of firstness when they not only occupy land that was a source of identity in the traditional culture of the local Arabs but use it to demonstrate their superiority over their Islamic neighbors in administering a modern economy. The Jews of Israel arouse resentment not so much for their religious priority as for creating a bastion of military and economic modernity in the heart of the Islamic world, where the religion of lastness presents a clear obstacle to constructing an advanced industrial society.
Early Arab hostility to Israel already borrowed its antisemitic ideology from the West, particularly through grand mufti Al Husseini’s close connection to Nazism. Islamic antisemitism takes over European themes and texts (Mein Kampf, The Protocols…), recounts medieval fairy tales (the “blood libel”), accuses Israel of genocide, denounces the control of the United States by the “Jewish lobby,” while quoting the Koran’s anti-Jewish texts and calling for the elimination/extermination of the Jews. Its incoherence is a sign of its syncretic function of feeding the energy of local resentments into a globalized anti-Judaism. Muslim antisemitism resonates with the Western variety, which has largely returned to its original political locus on the anti-market left. Together they seek Israel’s eradication or its absorption into an “Isratine” dominated by the local Arab population.
Antisemitism is the historical residue of the Jews’ discovery of the One God. Although it cannot simply be abolished any more than can the resentment generated by the market, the stigma of firstness is weakest when its achievements are shared most widely, both on a social and on a personal level. With respect to geographical nationality, the world as a whole and the Middle East in particular would be far more peaceful and productive if each of its constituent nations saw its territory as a local base of operations in the global economic and cultural marketplace rather than as the source of a ritually consecrated identity.
In these respects, as in all human affairs, the primary ethical imperative is to convert occasions for resentment into instruments of love. Unfortunately, there is no simple formula for effecting this conversion in a given case. Meanwhile, we should put away all complacency that Western antisemitism ended with the Holocaust. The vacation has been over for a while.