|In Chronicle 527 I spelled out a point about antisemitism that everyone knows who writes on the subject, yet that is virtually never mentioned: that the term was not invented to stigmatize the biased but to proudly assert the scientific validity of what risked being considered an antediluvian religious prejudice against “Christ-killers.” No, Semites, which really meant Jews, were an inferior race, a mongrel mixture of European/Aryan and African, and efforts to limit their influence jusques au feu inclusivement were on the contrary not only rational but urgently necessary.
Thus our habit of accusing people of being antisemitic is largely dependent on the universal recoil from the Nazi horrors, and the sardonic retort that Jews “always” paint as antisemites those who point out their iniquities is in its way justified. The term “antisemite” is essentially dead because it can no longer serve its original function, which was to justify rather than stigmatize hatred of the Jews. Jews who know this all too well but are reluctant to make this point, having found a shibboleth they think will protect them from “prejudice” as the word “racism” seems to protect so many others, should spend some time on a university campus.
The fascinating quality of antisemitism, the thing and the word, and the inextricable ensemble they form, a fascination which is in no way separable from its virulence, offer a valuable opportunity to reflect on the Girardian notion of the Scapegoat.
If there is any archetype of the Scapegoat in Western and now in world history, it is certainly the Jews, or better, The Jew. Yet antisemitism is a subject touched on by Girard only peripherally, notably in reference to accusations of well-poisoning during the Black Plague (see Le bouc émissaire, Grasset, 1982, Ch. 1, “Guillaume de Machaut et les juifs”). And the reason for this is obvious. For Girard, the essential quality of the scapegoat is that he is arbitrarily chosen. No doubt the scapegoat can be characterized by a borderline relationship to the community, a lack of powerful connections who might avenge him, stigmatized personal qualities such as Oedipus’ swollen feet, and so on. But it is precisely the “so on” that is essential; the uniqueness of the scapegoat cannot be a quality preceding his choice, for that choice, although Girard never associates it directly with that made by the linguistic sign, is the very moment of hominization, the origin of the human. Whence the ambiguity of his presentation of “the” emissary murder, which is both a unique event with a unique victim and a pattern repeated in a thousand crises sacrificielles.
I have often pointed out that Girard finds the resolution of this conundrum of the multiple and the unique not in scientific rationality but in his Christian faith. John’s In the beginning was the Logos says it all, for the Logos is both language and Christ, both the faculty for referring to “anything” and the unique being for all time who was both Man and God. The Jews have been blamed for too much already, so I won’t blame them for Generative Anthropology, but clearly one cannot be a Jew and accept the uniqueness of the Incarnation. (This recalls my conversation with René described in The Girardian Origins of GA [Amazon Digital Services, 2012]: in response to my expression of disbelief that this man was the Son of God, he answered, Nous sommes tous fils de Dieu. Not only does this reply explain how Girard’s faith informed his anthropology, it also poses a challenge to GA to interpret this anthropology in a maximally secular fashion.)
Whether the arbitrary but unique choice that resulted in the first word and the first deity fell on the carcass of a mammoth or a bison was no doubt of little consequence to the future of humanity, save in the “chaos theory” imagination where the wings of a butterfly can cause a tsunami. But that it was the Hebrews who uniquely discovered/invented the One God is surely not arbitrary. Akhenaton had the intuition of a single god, but as Martin Buber pointed out in his Moses (Humanity, 1988), henotheism is not monotheism in the Hebrew sense. The One God of the Egyptian empire was not only charged with a people’s destiny but weighted with its prior worldly status—an “Apollonian” god, to use the pregnant dichotomy of Yuri Slezkine (The Jewish Century, Princeton, 2011). In contrast, the “Mercurian” Hebrews were a people that began without a land and who, still in Biblical times, lost the land they had conquered while nonetheless remaining a people, while the Egyptians have remained in and of their land even when conquered by others.
The “democratic” nature of the Hebrews, a subject deeply meditated on by the 17th-century Puritans, and their creation of a script that allowed ordinary people to read the sacred texts (see Seth Sanders, The Invention of Hebrew,, Illinois, 2009), as is still done in orthodox synagogues where the Torah is read if possible by a member of the congregation rather than the rabbi, offer only a partial explanation of their “election.” But my burden here is not to explain why it was the Jews who gave monotheism to Western civilization but simply to point out that being thus “chosen” by history is very different from being selected as a pharmakos for a sacrificial festival. (Concerning Girard’s etiology of myths, we might note that in the Greek tradition summed up in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in which the gods are clearly anthropomorphic, unlike the theriomorphic gods that populate Lévi-Strauss’ Mythologiques, human pharmakos-like victims such as Daphne or Callisto are metamorphosed only into demi-gods; this origin is never postulated for the gods themselves who transformed them.) Antisemitism is anything but arbitrary; it attacks, precisely and apparently irrepressibly, the one group of humans in the ambit of Western and now planetary civilization who cannot avoid the historical fact that, having announced the One God to the world, they are willy-nilly his “chosen people” even if, indeed, particularly if, he does not “exist.”
Yes, of course, the Jew is a scapegoat, blamed for evils he did not cause, portrayed as the representative of evil whose misery and/or extermination demonstrates to the others their potential salvation. But what is missing from Girard’s scapegoat is precisely the “Jewish” category of firstness. The Jews’ great crime was to be chosen, not by a lynch mob, but by God, History, or Chance to be the annunciators of the One God, failing which there could never have been the other annunciation that is for Girard the maximally un-arbitrary revelation of the arbitrariness of the scapegoat. That great civilizations can do without such an annunciation is amply proven by the grandeur of Chinese and Indian culture and their offshoots. Buddhism internalizes sacrifice; Confucianism subordinates it to the human order; but in the West the centralization of the One God and then his human incarnation produced inarguably the most dynamic of civilizations, the only one whose techniques and discoveries can be objectively transferred to other societies independently of religio-cultural “meanings.”
I have always appreciated Girard’s insistence that Western culture is not simply Christian but Judeo-Christian, which would go without saying had Christian supersessionism not had its long history. It is not simply that Christianity is unthinkable without Judaism, but that even in the Christian era the Jews supply an essential counterweight (see David Nirenberg, Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition, Norton, 2014). To be able to “supersede” the Law, the people of the Law must continue to defend and live by it; the ups and downs of this functioning are one way of understanding what our departing president would call the “arc of history.”
In our world of ever-increasing practical rationality, the “irrational” hatred called antisemitism continues to make sense in the West and by now in the entirety of “global” civilization. For had the Jews not been “chosen” to make their revelation to the world, with all this implies of the resentment of everyone else, we would not possess the key to our historical liberation from mere ritual hierarchy that would eventually permit both the technological and the spiritual greatness of modernity. And in order for the discovery of the One God to be implemented in history, those who made it could not be worshiped in his place; au contraire. Their election as “a light unto the nations” could not give them power over others. Today it makes even their attempt to carve out a tiny country for themselves a scandal that, like all the other “reasons” for hating the Jews, is an expression of the originary envy of their firstness.
That the Jews, at least since the era of the Exodus, were the original inhabitants of Palestine can be denied by the Palestinians because it is incompatible with their Mercurian status; Jews can never be “natives,” only “colonialists.” Whereas the Apollonian Palestinians are natives by definition, regardless of their recent implantation in the region; their steadfast refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state and their insistence on a maximalist program of de-Judaization is their unquestionable right as possessors of the soil, a status the Jews by definition can never acquire. Hence when the Jews of Israel win defensive wars they alone do not gain a right to the territory they conquer, despite the fact that the “occupied” territory had never been part of “Palestine” but of Jordan or Syria, and before that, of the British mandate… and long before, of the ancestral Hebrews.
More than UN resolutions and historical details, the most important aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the absurdity of recognizing the Jews’ right to territory of any kind. Even those who accept that at least some parts of Israel are purportedly legally its own cannot help remembering that “Palestinians” once lived there, or might have lived there. Whereas the Jews who inhabited the region over the millennia could never thus put down roots in the soil: the wandering Jew who worships a “rootless” God is fated to wander forever.
If Israel is a scandal qualitatively greater than the statelessness of the Kurds, China’s absorption of Tibet, the Russian annexation of Crimea… it is because Israel is our scandal. Western white guilt is a distorted admission that the West shares (and profits from) the Jews’ firstness, that we are all Jews. For the inhabitants of the West, being hard on Israel is just a painless way of being hard on ourselves—which is why this position is attractive to so many Western Jews, even many Israelis. I needn’t point out to my readers that to thus serve as a marginal guilt-bearer is exactly what a scapegoat does.
Whence the extraordinary naturalness of the current international crusade against Israel. While deservedly condemning Obama for his refusal to veto Resolution 2334, the latest outrageous example of UN anti-Zionism, we should not forget that in addition to such “democracies” as Venezuela and Somalia, Britain, France, and Japan voted in favor of this measure. These are modern, democratic nations, the first two with considerable Jewish populations, fully capable of appreciating Israel’s delicate international position and the arbitrary nature of the UN’s obsession with the Israeli “occupation” of “Palestinian” territory—but not with the fate of the Jews driven out of the Arab countries in the region at the time of Israel’s creation—no “refugees” there.
Yet just as in its day the word antisemitism, however spurious its “racial” accusation, was, by supplying an “objective” term for prejudice against the Jews, a sign of growing self-consciousness, even more so is the fact that anti-Jewish hostility is now primarily directed at the nation-state of Israel, so that Jews are attacked in the first place as its citizens or partisans. This is, however unpleasant, a movement in the direction of normalization, a stage of demystification of the mystery of Jew-hatred into something closer to garden-variety xenophobia.
It is of the greatest importance that anti-Zionist activities in the UN and elsewhere have caused far less radical damage to human life than, not to speak of the Holocaust, the old pogroms, which were not amateurish terrorist attacks but wholesale slaughters with little cost to the attackers. And these activities can only with some credibility be presented as “criticisms” of Israeli “settlements,” etc., because, unlike pogroms or the Nazi death industry, they are directed at the inhabitants of a nation-state. Thus along with Iran’s desire to expunge Israel from the map comes a countervailing conciliatory evolution among the Sunni Arab nations that may one day lead to stable diplomatic relations. Of course, as normalization proceeds, so does the drive to bring about the apocalypse. One needn’t be a follower of Nostradamus to see the fate of the Jews and their country as the world’s, at least the Western world’s, central historical drama.
Like GA’s originary hypothesis, our explanation of anti-Zionism is simple. Too simple, no doubt, for those who would subject the latter, like antisemitism before it, to the event-phobic analysis of today’s social sciences, for which there can never be enough detail and “data,” the idea of seeking a master cause that stands ontologically above the detail being dismissed as “unscientific.” Yet Adam Katz and I proposed in The First Shall Be the Last (Brill, 2015) a simple explanation of antisemitism by the Jews’ firstness in the revelation of the One God, just as GA’s originary hypothesis offers a simple model of the originary event of human language.
The West is anti-Zionist because in a world where the Apollonian nations of Europe have had at least until recently the luxury of thinking themselves “post-national,” the nation-state of Israel, where the Wandering Jew comes to rest, is both an admission of guilt and a contradiction in terms.
One need not be a prophet to predict that Western civilization will be, in all the term’s ambivalence, fulfilled on the day that Israel’s survival and legitimacy are no longer in question. Much as I might pray for this day, I cannot face the prospect of such fulfillment without the disquieting sentiment of ambiguity that has characterized the Jewish psyche since time immemorial. To call the Jews the chosen people is to call them the people of paradox.