I don’t usually pay much attention to diatribes against Israel, and one of the reasons I have remained loyal to the New Republic despite its unrelenting obsession with the latest forms of radical chic is its support for Israel, inherited from longtime owner Martin Peretz. But John Judis’ recent piece condemning the Gaza operation (“Who Bears More Responsibility for the War in Gaza?” July 25, 2014) is of interest however we judge Israel’s action. Judis’ fundamental point is that Hamas’ savagery, whatever we think of it, should be understood on the model of colonial revolution, that of French Algeria, for example; Israel is so to speak the last “Western” country to have “colonial” subjects. However unjust this analysis, we cannot deny that it corresponds to the sentiments of the Palestinians themselves and of many of Israel’s critics, and that pronouncing the word colonial helps to explain the apparently irrational hatred of Israelis and Jews in general both throughout the Arab world (albeit checked and even reversed by fear of radical Islamism in a number of countries, such as Saudi Arabia) and in the West. I have no desire to discuss whether this hatred and its often ugly and certainly unproductive manifestations are “justified,” not to speak of whether the Gazan economy wouldn’t be many times more efficient if it didn’t squander all the funds it extorts from its various “donors” on armaments and tunnel construction. But I think Judis’ conceptualization can provide a point of departure for broader reflection.
From a long-term historical perspective, the emergence of “capitalist” industrial European society in the 19th century created a crisis of firstness on a world scale that has gone through several stages and has yet to be resolved. The idea that one of the world’s great civilizations, all of which Westerners even in the 18th century were still able to see as essentially comparable (e.g., Montesquieu’s Lettres persanes, Voltaire’s tolerant internationalism—in sharp contrast to his hostility to the Jews), had now acquired a form of social organization unequivocally superior to the others, created an imbalance that persists to this day.
For one thing, the appearance of this new level of innovation provoked reflections on human difference that went to the point of denying, for “scientific” reasons, the fundamental human equality of what I have called the “moral model.” On the other side of the ledger, despite decades of ritualistic condemnation of racism and other –isms, the extent to which the fundamental moral equality assured by the possession of human language and culture extends to the distribution among ascriptive and cultural groups of the talents valued by advanced civilizations is anything but “settled science,” and remains an important source of resentment.
The West, the first postritual industrial society, imposed its civilization on most of the world through overt and subtle colonization, the creation of de jure or de facto empires in which Europeans enjoyed privileges that the locals did not. Colonialism was the first and most obvious way to spread these innovations to the rest of the world, and the arrogance of such things as “Orientalism” and the “white man’s burden” reflected real differences that had to be dealt with. The West had not yet acquired the suicidal tendency of Robert Frost’s liberal who never takes his own side in an argument, or put in GA terms, who finds it immoral to assert his own firstness. If my country has modern technology and yours doesn’t, perhaps you can show me the easy way to share this technology with you without some form of conquest or imposition. This is not a matter of “whitewashing the crimes” of the West, but of understanding world history from an anthropological rather than the childishly moralistic perspective of the victimary era. Real morality must deal with firstness, not just equality. John Rawls may not be perfect, but adoption of his criteria as rules of thumb would already be an enormous sign of progress.
The convulsions of the first half of the twentieth century, sparked by the unexpected slaughter of WWI, culminated in the “impatient” attempts by the totalitarian utopias of Nazism and Communism, stimulated by war and depression, to transcend the resentments generated by the market. WWII and its aftermath demonstrated, at great cost, the futility of these attempts. Perhaps the lesson had to be learned, but what was learned was that it was all ultimately unnecessary: the bourgeois marketplace cum parliamentary democracy was the best we could do.
In contrast, the colonial problem, which in the wake of the WWII we thought solved by its victim-centered abolition, is showing itself to be more tenacious. This is not the place for a history of 19th-century colonialism. We can skip to the post-WWII era because, as I think most agree, the Holocaust, by demonstrating the danger inherent in the “colonial” doctrine of racial superiority that transforms firstness into ontological difference and opens the way to treating humans first as “expendable” a la King Leopold and finally as “vermin,” delegitimized all de jure distinctions among ethnic and other groups, and hastened the demise of the colonial system. Where colonial-native had not been scandalous, the imposition on it of the model Nazi-Jew made it so.
Postmodernism has been living down this scandal ever since. But just as it is all too easy to condemn the Nazis—and then, for example, call the Israeli army “worse than the Nazis”—it is too easy to simply condemn the victimary. Perhaps the best way to understand our era, an enterprise for which we can only suggest avenues of reflection from which hopefully may emerge new policies more effective than the old, is as a crisis of postcolonial firstness.
For by now everyone has also noticed that in most former colonies, decolonization did not lead to the resolution of the “crisis of firstness” that the industrial revolution originally brought about. However imperfect colonization may have been as a means of spreading Western industrial civilization to the “third world,” its demise has only shown that nearly all these nations were not ready for modern industrial society, let alone liberal democracy. In Africa, for example, modern liberal democracy is more of a veneer than an implanted reality. Nigeria is the largest economy in Africa, but it lacks an army capable of disarming and bringing to justice the outrageous ragtag Islamic militia Boko Haram, whose kidnapping of some 300 schoolgirls took place over three months ago as of this writing. In many if not most African countries, crucial medical sectors are staffed largely by Westerners. Because in the victimary paradigm moral stigmatization trumps socio-economic development, post-colonials see no contradiction in letting Africa’s health services be supplied by Western aid agencies, since the latter make no effort to control the political process. When, in a word, does Western firstness, shared with its former colonies, cease being “neo-colonial” (a term one curiously no longer hears very often)? Does firstness as temporary superiority work or not? I think the interest in the post-colonial in places like my own French department is essentially a function of the importance and difficulty of this question. A historically significant synonym for victimary might well be post-colonial.
(As I write, a meeting of African leaders is taking place in Washington to the end of integrating a majority of African nations into the US and world market. This is surely a more hopeful development than Boko Haram and Africa’s various wars; let’s hope it signals a turning-point.)
This suggests the thesis that, beyond the Holocaust, the source of the persistence of the victimary in the post-colonial era is the West’s inability to face up to the superiority, whatever its flaws, of Western society over those of their former colonies, almost all of which have so far failed to attain Western standards. I would suggest that until the disparity between the first and third worlds shows signs of disappearing, the world will remain in a state of crisis, unable to find a way of erasing on the one side the resentment of the “victims” and on the other, the guilt of the “oppressors.”
(This has echoes on the local scene as well; recent expressions of what might be called neo-feminism suggest a widespread resentful disillusion among “Belmont”-class women with clear post-colonial analogies. The remarkable absence of feminist indignation against Islam’s gender practices [cf. Ayaan Hirsi Ali at Brandeis last spring] suggests an unspoken intuition that the differences between Western feminists and Eastern Islamists are as nothing to their resentment of Western civilization. But that is a subject for another Chronicle.)
The Islamic Revolution is today the clearest symptom of this post-colonial crisis. Its ability to rally so many to its banner of barbaric refusal of modernity demonstrates the truth of GA’s definition of the human as the species that poses a greater threat to its own survival than does the environment, obliging it to channel its resentments before it can engage in pacific economic enterprises.
The crisis had remained in check since the end of the Cold War because the developed nations have retained a preponderance of military power. They hold a near-monopoly on the “weapons of mass destruction” that Iran is seeking; the exceptions, Pakistan and India, as former parts of the British Raj, have so far exercised “first-world” restraint, and North Korea is no doubt constrained by China. And Western armies and especially air forces, the American but even the others, are still invulnerable to those of the third world. Thus Western firstness, or what remains of it, is still backed by one-sided superiority in the means of violence. But this is dissipating, for as ISIS and Hamas have already shown, the crudest social forms can acquire highly destructive weaponry without the least capacity for manufacturing it or even purchasing it themselves. Meanwhile, the West, obsessed with Twitter and newscast images, has increasingly less stomach for “asymmetrical” counter-insurgency. And the recent aggressions of a semi-rogue like Putin, who senses the West’s fecklessness, and who does not lack sophisticated military equipment, suggest that the “second world” has returned for some challenges of its own.
For the moment at least, these contestatory movements can count on the West’s victimary paralysis. Is the West in the process of formulating the death-wish that “Spengler” (David P. Goldman), the most profound of contemporary pundits, and Mark Steyn, the most incisive, both see Cassandra-like as gradually paralyzing our will to survive? I think Spengler, like his original namesake, is correct that civilizations tend to be destroyed not from without but from within. Certainly the demography of most European nations, and even the European (“white”) part of the US, suggests this.
But Spengler has faith in Israel, whose birth rate is in fact already superior to that of the Palestinians who were supposed to overwhelm it. Which returns me to the central theme of this essay—and it is definitely a GA theme, for the monotheistic revelation and its consequences has in effect always been at the center of GA as of Girardian thought. I say this not out of vainglory but in reaction to several thousand years of history that have produced a generally peaceful but intermittently violent world where, as Mark Steyn put it recently, killing children in war arouses revulsion only if the killers happen to be Jews.
As always seems to be the case, the Israelis face the cutting edge of the postcolonial crisis. Israel is the only state in the world whose fundamental legitimacy is constantly put into question, that is insistently referred to as an “apartheid state” and in scarcely less tendentious terms as a “colonial power.” And whatever its own intentions, Israel is clearly hated as a colonial power by the majority of its Muslim “subjects” on the West bank and probably by many, or most, in Israel itself. No doubt even now the majority of the Israeli population would be happy to live with a Palestinian state that would genuinely cooperate with them economically and that would resist the destructive forces of jihad that rage in the Levant and beyond. But whatever the obvious advantages of Shimon Peres’ model of Israeli-Palestinian cooperation, it cannot begin to happen when the majority of the Palestinian population constantly demonstrates that, to the vast advantages of being associated with a creative and technologically advanced economy, it would prefer that Israel, and all the Jews in it and elsewhere, simply disappear—and when a good percentage of the population is ready to endure great sacrifices, even unto death, to make the Jews disappear.
The trouble with comparing Israel with a colonial power is that, whatever the aptness of the comparison, the concept of colonialism implies a mother country. The term apartheid, for all its inaccuracy, has the advantage of referring to a somewhat similar situation, in which the Boers, although of Dutch origin, had become too acclimated to South Africa to consider themselves Europeans. But now that apartheid is over, and Nelson Mandela’s gentle statesmanship has given birth to a biracial society, however fraught with tensions and violence, it is obvious that South Africa cannot serve as a model for Israel. Not only do the Jews, unlike the former Boers, have an old and complex culture historically linked to this one privileged location, but they are objects of implacable hatred. A unified Jewish-Arab state on the model of the new South Africa would be possible only if the Jews could retain asymmetrical military control, which is to say that, whatever rights would be granted the Palestinians, the claim could always be made that they inhabited an “apartheid state.”
Righteous indignation is the easiest response to moral horror, but in today’s world, as in the time of Hitler, the flood of righteous indignation is going rather the wrong way. Whatever arguments Israel has in its defense, they are negated for most by the images the media continually present, with few bothering to reflect why it is they show so many dead Palestinians and so few dead Congolese, Iraqis, Nigerians, Syrians, Tibetans, Uighurs, Ukrainians… Let us try to understand this as dispassionately as possible.
The essential point is that the Israelis are considered “people like us, but…,” Others, but our Others, indeed, our “Firsts,” and this, even by most American Jews. When Boko Haram or ISIS massacres people in the most barbarous fashion (a fashion common among Palestinians, rare among Israelis), we don’t feel concerned because we know we would never do such things; to use Aristotle’s terms, we feel pity but not terror. But when “the Jews” do something violent, however involuntarily, we feel obligated to justify it despite whatever evidence is presented by the other side, and this offends us; how can they ask me to support killing women and children?—a question never even dreamt of when a drone explodes a bomb in Afghanistan, let alone when Assad bombs Aleppo. Because they are the exemplars of firstness, the Jews are taken to task for their exercise of it, even in defense of their own lives. How justify that one person should value his life over that of another? We do this every day, and we see others do it, sometimes with a certain disgust, but when the Jews do it, we—and this we includes all who are part of “Western civilization”—we are forced to recognize that we too, as the heirs of the monotheistic covenant, are complicit in this act. By “blaming the Jews,” that is, not to mince words, by practicing antisemitism, we absolve ourselves of this complicity. That only through such a defense can humanity’s innovations be preserved and shared is ignored; a dead child is a dead child, and so long as our own lives are unaffected, we are happy to exchange the whole miracle of Israel’s tolerant, affluent, high-tech civilization for that one human being—while implicitly thanking God or reality’s inertia that we can enjoy our own high-tech affluence along with our sense of moral outrage.
You may ask: but this all concerns Israel; antisemitism certainly didn’t wait for Israel to manifest itself. Whatever the injustice of blaming Israel for responding to rockets, at least one can say that they are really exercising violence and killing people, whereas in the past they were accused of absurd crimes such as poisoning wells and bleeding Christian children to make matzoth, about the most bloodless food that exists.
My answer is, shall we say, optimistic. The absurdities of past antisemitism that culminated in the Holocaust were much closer to Girard’s arbitrary scapegoating model, although even then the specificity of the Jews shows the defect in this model, which cannot account for the anomalous focus on one historically continuous community. Indeed, given that the Judeo-Christian matrix is anthropologically revelatory, we should say that the focus on the Jews was already a “step in the right direction,” an attribution of guilt to those who are after all responsible historically for the invention/discovery of the One God rather than to a victim chosen because, say, like Oedipus he has swollen feet. The invulnerability of non-Western civilizations to such culture-wide scapegoating has surely been a source of their romantic attractiveness to Westerners, but also of their lesser socio-economic dynamism. We shall see if these societies can remain successful (and demographically viable) after having borrowed the West’s historical optimism without its burden of exemplarity: that of the Jews, and of Jesus, the super-Jew.
Today’s hostility to Israel comes yet a step closer to a recognition of firstness that is both simple envy and grudging admiration—in a word, toward assimilating antisemitism to ordinary mimetic rivalry. Calling this a good thing would be going too far, but it is a further demystification, a waning of méconnaissance. Hating Jews who can really kill you is an improvement over hating Jews who can’t but whom you can kill with ease. The Christians in the Middle East are presently discovering the joys of belonging to this latter category.
As a country, Israel is an anomaly in that it is continually obliged to assert its firstness as such, without the usual excuses. The Jews have been in Israel for millennia, yet the Palestinians deny even the past existence of the Temples and of the kingdoms of Judah and Israel. And this doesn’t really bother anyone, because Palestinians are “colonial subjects”—with the additional edge that comes from hating the exemplarily marginal tribe of the successful, entrepreneurial, technologically proficient West. One imagines that those Palestinian mothers who raise their sons (and daughters) to be suicide bombers really believe that if they could just drive the Jews out of “Palestine,” some kind of millennium would arrive. This is a belief not dependent on Islamic jihad; the founder of the PLO, George Habash, was a Christian. It is a hatred of what for them is a diabolical conflation of Western, “colonial” firstness with the “national” firstness of the Jews that the West has in fact come to reject.
The resonant stimulation of old-fashioned antisemitism in Europe is chilling but should not be surprising. The most aggressive hatred directed at Jews in these countries comes from the growing Muslim population that is their most dynamic demographic group, while the native Europeans themselves are committing, in some cases with great speed, demographic suicide. The contrasting demographic vigor of Israel is experienced as a reproach; the Jewish national affirmation is occurring at a time when what Yuri Slezkine calls the “Apollonian” populations of the old nations of Europe—those attached to the soil in contrast with the “Mercurian” Jews—have turned against the national idea. Hence today’s European antisemitism, although it makes use of Nazi vocabulary, is not a simple repetition of that of the 1930s. It is above all resentment directed against the people who, so to speak, invented firstness and who have the gall to continue to assert it in the face of the hostility of the enemies of Western civilization and the fecklessness of its other defenders.
It is a revelation, unbearable to many, that at this time when the West seems unable to bear the burden of its own firstness with respect to its former colonies, the Jews remain, as they saw themselves in biblical times, a “light unto the nations.” But this light is not strong enough to shine indefinitely in the darkness. It is frightening that, faced with the open hostility of a terror organization grounded in a population whose major concern is not its own success but the destruction of the Jews, so much of the Western world can focus myopically on the violence carried out by the latter. At least the Nazis seemed at the start to be affirming their own civilization, including encouraging its fertility; only toward the end did the Nazi death-wish become apparent. Today’s West has not even the pretense of self-affirmation; in graciously allowing themselves to die out, the Jews would just be affirming their solidarity with the West as a whole.
But I have no desire to play Cassandra on this question. Israel must persevere and conquer the respect of those too feckless to attempt to control their own destiny. To be a “light unto the nations” means to set an example of the creativity of human firstness. Being first is not dominating and crushing others, but inviting them to share what the first had created. The irenic vision of such as Peres may indeed one day be realized, but only if Israel stands firm in its own defense. If Generative Anthropology has a political lesson, it is this one: not merely the progress but the very existence of human society depends on its acceptance of the necessity of firstness. That the Jews and their state have a historical role to play in this process will remain a source of ever-renewed resentment, but here as in all human affairs, what we call love is precisely the overcoming of resentment.