In the previous Chronicle I suggested that today’s “anti-Zionist” antisemitism represents a certain “progress” in relation to its earlier forms, directed at the medieval Christ-killer (well-poisoner, host-defiler, child-bleeder) and the bourgeois racially corrupt Protocol-conspirator. As opposed to the presumed murderers of little Christian children, at least the Israelis can kill you; as opposed to the “Elders of Zion,” at least AIPAC does have real influence.
Nor is it mere hypocrisy when contemporary antisemites deny their antisemitism. (This excludes those who shout “Hitler was right” or “Hamas, Jews to the gas.”) People like Jimmy Carter or Prof. Mearsheimer are not Hitlerians. That they are antisemites all the same is what we can call a “teachable moment.” For the fact that many people share without shame some of the views that lead me to call such people antisemites makes it easier for us to understand the social, indeed, the anthropological function of antisemitism, which is not simply limited to fringe groups or fringe historical conditions like that in inter-war Germany, hit by the Depression after Versailles.
Why, after all, are people so upset by Israeli violence when they pay virtually no attention to the violence exercised in dozens of other conflicts? I mentioned last time that the Jews were the West’s special “Other,” as opposed to the “strangers” in ISIS or Boko Haram or North Korea or the Sudan or even Russia… none of whose actions concern us intimately the way the Jews’ actions do. Of course hearing about, say, Putin’s near-obliteration of Grozny in 1999-2000, one regrets the death of women, children, and so on. But one doesn’t get upset about it, let alone demonstrate about it or express violent sentiments about it; these are just things that happen, whereas that Palestinian mother asking the camera why Israel needs to kill innocent children is worthy of all we can muster of righteous indignation.
The obvious answer is that the Gazan Palestinians, who show no interest in producing anything normally considered of economic value (tunnels?), are great at generating publicity, and that is not false. But let’s face it, such explanations are essentially tautological. We feel sorry for the Palestinian mother… because we see her on TV. But the fact is that she is on TV when the other mothers are not, and that is not simply a reflection of the greater media savvy of Hamas. On the contrary, their savvy consists in realizing that there is a market for Palestinian deaths that simply doesn’t exist for others, who only get our attention if there is a huge natural disaster that kills a few hundred at least. There is a market for those killed by Jews because, as opposed to Russians or Chinese or jihadis or whatever, a real satisfaction is procured by feeling righteous indignation against Jews. That is, whether we like it or not, the point of antisemitism, and as history has shown, it cannot be fought effectively with a countervailing righteous indignation.
No doubt the Holocaust protected the remaining Jews for a while and was instrumental in the founding of Israel—we can let the historians argue over that—but pity for the Jews, strikingly unlike pity for their victims (when was the last you heard of “compassion fatigue” for Palestinian mothers?) very quickly generates a resentment that is, in effect, a renewal of antisemitism. Holocaust denial, which is often accompanied with regrets about its failure to be total, might be considered an “extreme” phenomenon, but its extremism only says out loud what “reasonable” antisemites prefer not to think, that the Jews should be hated all the more for imposing on history a massacre so horrible that even they have to be pitied.
I am doing my best not to indulge in righteous indignation for its own sake, but to make the point that merely denouncing the outrageousness of singling out the Jews is of little value. Analyzing its anthropological basis surely would not have been useful against the Nazis nor will it avail against Hamas or even Noam Chomsky. But it will help us to understand antisemitism by obliging us to understand its power as it were from within.
Why then is it so satisfying to blame the Jews, as though somehow being able to pin on a Jew an act such as killing a child that, however it may be excused by circumstances, is “evil” in itself, adds one little bit of hope to the world, making it morally intelligible beyond the nebulous category of “original sin”? What makes “the Jew” the evil Other of all Westerners—including many Jews, whose special dislike for Israel mirrors in more paradoxical form the relationship of Christians (Muslims are a different case) to the Jewish Other?
I have offered the simplest answer, that the Jews invented/discovered monotheism, and the fact that we need a slash-mark to describe their relation to it is precisely the point. There is an anthropological truth to monotheism that transcends the non-question of “the existence of God.” (If there’s one thing God does not do, it’s “exist.”) But I should emphasize a bit more than I have in the past a corollary of this invention/discovery: the idea that the One God is the sacred center of all the world’s rites is a revolutionary idea that founds the first nation, in a world that was previously made up of tribes and empires. A nation, we may say, is a social organization founded on a covenant with a God who is considered not one among many but unique. Thus the relationship between the Jews/Hebrews and “their” God is not a tribal connection but an assertion of firstness; to be a member of “God’s chosen people” is to spread the word of the One God to the world and to be responsible for universal morality.
Hence in despising the Jews for “killing little children” one is expiating and deflecting one’s own guilt for belonging to a social organization in which one’s moral responsibility can be defined in terms that are both universal and particular, that is, in terms of firstness. Because by maintaining loyalty to one’s covenant with God, one claims at the same time to be obeying a universal moral law, one is in principle not to blame for asserting one’s national priority, which in contrast with personal advantage is a firstness wholly guaranteed by the national covenant. But at the same time, the moral law makes one aware of the necessary violation of reciprocal morality involved in such things as killing in defense of one’s nation. The assertion of national firstness requires the assumption of a certain burden of guilt.
If this national concept functioned flawlessly, there would be no reason for the members of other nations to project onto the Jews the guilt it generates. But since the Holocaust, the West has taken onto itself the “colonial” resentment of the rest of the world to the point where much of it appears to have resigned itself to not maintaining its own population. The inhabitants of most European nations vaguely view their own firstness as “forgivable” only to the extent that it will not be reproduced in the following generations; the “withering away” of their demography—which is implemented quasi-deliberately by draconian controls over the labor market that make it all but impossible for young people to get decent jobs and have enough children to replenish the population—allows their surviving members to enjoy life in preparation for leaving their economies to others, particularly to Muslim immigrants. As Jens Orback, a former Swedish Cabinet Minister, became famous for saying a few years back: “We must be open and tolerant towards Islam and Muslims because [so that?] when we become a minority, they will be so towards us.” This attitude explains a great deal, including the enhanced antisemitism of such social groupings: the Jews—unlike the Muslims—are a nation that has the gall to want to expand its population.
This explanation will not be complete until we make explicit the historical connection between today’s “advanced” Western White-Guilt-based antisemitism and the older varieties it is replacing. Today the Jews, in their new guise as Israelis, may be said to shame the old Europeans by their insistence on maintaining their nation. In the past, they played a more sinister imaginary role as an obstacle to (Christian) nationhood by the historical firstness of their landless nation with respect to Christianity. The latter, the “universalization” of the Hebrew monotheistic revelation, was in essence post-national, as would later be the case yet more radically (but politically, that is, imperially rather than spiritually) for Islam. But whereas Christianity became the source of the modern nation-state (an evolution in which the Reformation’s return to the Old Testament played a major role), Islam has never been effective in creating nations. We are witnessing this today with the jihadi attempt to revive, not a pan-Arab nation a la Nasser but a “world-wide” Caliphate.
The old anti-Judaism was fantastic because the object of its resentment was potential rather than real; the national unity of the Jews despite their dispersal showed the power of the national concept in a way that could not yet be implemented in the Christian lands where the Jews lived. Thus the Jews’ firstness with respect to the monotheistic revelation made their cultural difference something that could not be dismissed as simple otherness. We should see, for example, Voltaire’s “enlightened” diatribes against the Jews’ supposedly irrational and primitive customs as an apotropaic effort to dismiss the Jewish community of covenantal obedience that had provided the orignal model of the moral unity of the Christian nations, and eventually of the secular societies that would inherit this unity.
Antisemitism proper, as opposed to medieval anti-Judaism, is a product of the Enlightenment and, as the iconic Protocols of the Elders of Zion eventually made explicit, has for its central tenet that the Jews control the “free” market and from there, the world; that is, that market society is in its essence a Jewish conspiracy. Although all markets contain “cartels” that conspire to gain market share, etc., the Jewish cartel is different in that it really controls the market, just as, in the face of dozens of lobbies, including Arab lobbies, Walt and Mearsheimer could nevertheless conclude that AIPAC really controls US foreign policy.
In line with the point made in the previous Chronicle that the “rationality” of antisemitism progresses through history as the Jews acquire new opportunities to implement their national firstness, one could say that modern bourgeois antisemitism had a more rational basis than medieval antisemitism, if only in that the “emancipated” Jews were now allowed to use their talents to compete favorably in the marketplace. Why Jews have generally shown themselves to be on average more successful, intelligent, gifted, etc., than others is a delicate question; but however caricatural Marx’s portrait of money-worshiping Jews, or Slezkine’s more nuanced depiction of “Mercurian” Jews operating outside the soil-based national limits of “Apollonian” cultures, their experience in the domain of exchange at least provided a clear advantage.
But along the lines opened by the previous Chronicle, I would like to suggest a broader perspective within which to understand the Jews’ advantage: the faith inherent in being the “first nation,” the “chosen people” of the One God. Jewish firstness is not simply an entry in an international competition, to be measured against, say, the Aryan belief that their “race,” in the persons of the “Dorians,” brought higher civilization to Greece. It is in fact a meta-firstness, an understanding that to be a nation one must assert one’s firstness.
Because this faith is grounded in history, in the unimpeachable connection between the Hebrew experience recorded in the Torah and Western culture as a whole, it is not susceptible to being destroyed by abstract conclusions about “the existence of God.” Even in the absence of a well-defined Jewish life based on the Torah’s supposed 613 commandments, the abstract faith in Jewish firstness alone—in being a member of the “chosen people”—provides, at least for a generation or two, a definite value. Whether such faith could long maintain itself in the modern world as a “secular” belief in national destiny in the absence of a nation-state is an unanswerable question, but now that Israel exists, the question has become moot. This faith in belonging to the Jewish nation is, if not a guarantee of superiority, a conviction that one’s own accomplishments are not “tribal” but national achievements, in fulfillment of the Jewish people’s task to be “a light unto the nations.”
It is surely no coincidence that the ancient sage Hillel is remembered in the popular mind for two sayings. One is the famous “Golden Rule,” do unto others… but the other, the Golden Rule’s crucially necessary precondition, is If I am not for myself, who will be for me? For in order to practice the reciprocal morality of the originary “moral model,” one must first consider the survival of one’s nation as guaranteed by a sacred covenant, and not merely as participation in a dog-eat-dog competition for the necessities of life. By calling themselves “the chosen people,” the Jews were pointing out that any nation must consider itself a chosen people, even the Palestinians. But once this is said, the Jews will still be remembered as the first to have adopted this self-definition. Monotheism, anthropologically considered, is really nothing else.
The sense of a national covenant that is the foundation of modern Western civilization generates guilt that is the internalization of the resentment it generates in others. The mutual resentment of European nations that led to so many wars was largely symmetrical; René Girard’s last major work, written in collaboration with Benoît Chantre, Achever Clausewitz (Battling to the End), looks past this symmetry to a vision of European reconciliation and mutual understanding embodied in the election of Benedict XVI—while underlining the apocalyptic danger posed by the rise of Islamism. But the loss of national tensions within Europe has so far produced not a symmetrical transnational European patriotism, but an asymmetrical “post-colonial” disaffection from Western civilization in general. Whence the rise of a virulent new antisemitism that unites European post-nationalism with Muslim transnational resentment. The Gaza war, as the Jewish population throughout Europe is rapidly discovering, has accelerated the emergence of a pogrom mentality, with an increasing number of antisemitic acts to its credit, unseen since the Nazi era. Increasing numbers are heading for the exits. If this persists, Hitler’s dream of a Judenfrei Europe threatens to become a reality.
In contrast, whatever the results of the current conflict, Israel, as the “last Western nation,” appears to be flourishing, demographically as well as economically. Let’s hope the Iron Dome doesn’t fall down on the job.