No discussion of firstness can be complete without a mention of the Jews. The uniqueness, for better or worse, of the “first nation” needs no demonstration. Nowadays it is infelicitous to say anything positive about any group that cannot identify as a victim. But the Jews have been victims aplenty, yet saying good things about them is rarely well received, certainly not by those who pride themselves in their White Guilt toward “real” victims.
The very existence of the term antisemitism, which has no equivalent for other nationalities, allows us to predict that the Jews would not be included in today’s “intersectional” coalition of victimary identities. As for those who thought that the crimes of the Nazis were so terrible that antisemitism would never raise its head… well, we still hate the Nazis, and therefore, we hate the Israelis as the new Nazis, remorselessly committing genocide against innocent Palestinians.
Clearly the unique envy directed against the Jews, the mention of whose uniqueness merely reinforces it, is a sign that they have committed a crime unique and irreproducible, a felix culpa from which the whole world profits and that can be expiated only by following in their footsteps while condemning those who did it first—the crime of having their God declare himself the One God. Today it is considered bad form to credit the Jews with the invention of monotheism; most secular Jews will do anything to avoid taking responsibility for this innovation. But if indeed Akhenaton, or the Zoroastrians, or whoever, “really” inaugurated monotheism, why then is the entire West dominated by the Hebraic/Abrahamic family of religions?
A couple of years ago, Adam Katz and I put together a book of essays entitled The First Shall Be the Last: Rethinking Antisemitism (Brill, 2015) that for a change proposed an explanation of antisemitism rather than merely detailing its horrors. For the many books on antisemitism, seemingly without exception, describe it in the same metaphoric register that the Nazis used for the Jews: antisemitism is a “virus,” a “disease,” an “infection” such as might have been spread by the “vermin” of our “mixed race” among pure-blooded Aryans.
Yet although our book was published under the sponsorship of an organization dedicated to studying and fighting antisemitism, it was virtually ignored by that organization itself, as well as by all the others. Experts on antisemitism want to know everything about it, except what causes it, and the reason is that the “mark” that distinguishes the Jews, unlike the victimary minorities that the intersectionalists diligently ferret out, is not a simple sign of “discrimination.” The Jews are considered to be more skillful than others, more able to learn and excel in the various professions. As writers from Edouard Drumont to Louis Farrakhan are eager to inform us, it is precisely their sinister “cleverness” that makes antisemitic vigilance necessary. But the further one develops this theme, the more antisemitism is made plausible.
Could things have happened differently? The Romans found the Jews repellent in their intolerant refusal to fit into the polytheistic ecumene, but one could hardly say they envied them. And yet the Romans’ sophisticated polytheism, so civilized in comparison with the intolerant religions of today’s Western and middle-Eastern world, has not survived into the modern age.
The history of East Asian religion is very different. Buddhism is happy to include previously existing gods within the scene of consciousness whose empty existence in itself is the real locus of the sacred. Nor did a One God appear to reveal this to the Buddha. His revelation is of a Oneness without subjectivity, into which individual human consciousness and its illusory objects dissolve. No doubt the societies generated by the “axial” religions of Buddhism and Judeo-Christianity had different dynamisms, and modernity could hardly have been the product of the Buddhist world-view. Yet Asian societies have adapted quite well to modernity, and bid fair to surpass the West in this respect, demonstrating thereby the advantages of secondarity, for which neither a sacrificial figure nor a hubristic assertion of firstness is necessary.
It seems strange that 200-odd years after the Enlightenment, one is obliged to point out that the central problems of the human have no “rational” solution but remain in a state of permanent instability, for that is the human condition, and that is why we postulate paradoxical entities like gods, whom we now realize can best be understood as partial visions of the One God that the Jews gave to the world.
This is not mysticism but common sense. It is the attempts to deny it that have led to the current state in which the most absurd nonsense has become in many domains of knowledge a criterion of academic respectability. I need not burden this Chronicle with examples of the “math is white” variety; they are today the rule rather than the exception.
If the Jews serve one purpose on whose utility all can agree, it is that they embody the paradoxical status of humanity better than any other human example. God is the most powerful paradoxical concept, but God is smart enough not to “exist” as a worldly being, whereas the Jews, not having acquired this talent, despite many inducements over the centuries to disappear, are often hated and occasionally admired, but never leave the world at rest. The late Jewish thinker Jacques Derrida expressed this paradox by the term différance or “deferral,” an insight that lets us excuse his perverse deformation of Sartre’s pour-soi freed by the néant from its worldly objects into what he describes as language’s failure to be “present” to its worldly referents.
Différance, deferral is what makes possible the linguistic function that pour-soi and freedom attempt to characterize. What is deferred is what René Girard called violence, which is nothing but a synonym for nature at the moment in which it threatens our existence. Nature, whether or not red in tooth and claw, is violent in that it allows for no deferral of instinct, but at best, the conditioned arousal of an inhibitory counter-instinct. Whereas humans defer nature/violence through culture, of which language and its related representational activities are the instruments.
The difficulty with GA’s reception as a “new way of thinking,” although it has not yet led to pogroms, is that it has much the same effect as the Jews. Just as antisemitism with all its horrors is easier to bear than even the most preliminary explanation of what antisemitism is really about, it is much less stressful to trade insults about the existence/non-existence of God than to seek to resolve the dispute through the acceptance of our paradoxical nature by both sides.
As in all other species, some humans are healthier, smarter, stronger, etc., than others. But in the human world, as much as these differences are appreciated on the one hand, they are accursed on the other, since they generate resentment, which uniquely human emotion provides the reason why the human exists in the first place. For to defer the resentment of such differences within the human community on whose maintenance its members depend for survival, we have developed representation, and this invention has kept us going, however precariously, for a pretty long time.
The Declarative Sentence
Once you start looking for truth in the outside world, truth in the correspondence between both sides of an equation, it is the world, not ourselves, that offers the response. Whence at the origin of the modern era, in the so-called “axial” moment that coincides with the last centuries before Christ, the two innovations of Hebrew religion and Greek philosophy that led to the creation of Western culture and its subsequent discovery of the scientific method and the market system both involved the foregrounding of the declarative sentence or proposition.
One of the key tenets of GA is the non-originarity of the declarative sentence, which is for philosophers not just originary with humanity, but so to speak prior to the universe itself. Just as Platonic thinkers believe that mathematics exists independently of the humans who “discover” it, so they unconsciously assume the virtual existence of propositional language, independently of the intelligent creatures capable of making use of it. But although philosophers are not shy of making this claim about mathematics, they never speak of the virtual reality of language. For to bring it up at all would raise the question of its non-existence, whereas the very existence of philosophy depends on never putting that of language into question.
What about the Jews? In Exodus 3, God gives his “name” as a declarative sentence: ehyeh asher ehyeh, “I am that I am.” You don’t have to believe that God himself spoke these words to Moses to understand the significance of this revelation, or why the people who received it would come to be called the “chosen.”
In comparison to the founding of philosophy by Parmenides and Plato, what is striking about the Hebrew revelation is its paradoxical nature. If God is simply Being itself, why does he use (human) language at all? Spinoza’s deus sive natura doesn’t speak to anyone. Why does Moses have to ask his name before God reveals it? And how can this self-identical God nevertheless promise to stand by “his people”? There are no independent criteria that would permit us to answer these questions. God’s definition of his own being must take precedence over any rules of logic or usage.
The discovery that objective knowledge can be built on verifiable predications about the real world and their logical/mathematical consequences is the foundation of modern civilization, even if it took a couple of millennia to radically change people’s lives. There is nothing paradoxical about predication and logic, so long as we take its possibility for granted, which is what philosophy has done since Parmenides conceived the idea of the Way of Truth, in contrast to that of the doxa whose signs are ungrounded in Being.
Whereas the Hebrews understood that the declarative sentence is not a tool of knowledge available from all eternity that men had simply to download from on high, that it was in the first place a gift of the sacred, and that the sacred was in the first place accessible only through our not-yet-declarative signs, which in its sacrality it allowed us to discover as means of addressing it—and through which it would at a moment in historical time inform us that its reality was not that of nameable things, but of self-identity itself.
And most crucial of all, unlike Parmenides and his followers, the Mosaic “us” that was so informed was an interlocutor to the revelation, so that for the rest of human history, the people so addressed would be singled out for envy above all others, and despised as unworthy of the envy they inspire.
As a shortcut to all this, we can say that the Hebrews were the first nation under God, to whom the God whose name is a declarative sentence revealed his un-ostensive being and promised its freedom and assigned the role of “light unto the nations”—the sole nation of world-historical importance to survive without a territory of its own for two millennia.
To be a Jew obliges one to face this historical role, and hopefully to face up to it. Sadly, many if not most American Jews have reconceived their role in the framework of “repairing the world” by joining the victimocracy of the Democratic Party, often to the point of supporting BDS and deploring Trump’s move of the US embassy to Jerusalem. I think that the Jews, as the one group that has the most suffered for firstness, are the group that has the clearest duty to defend it against the victimocracy. We have paid our dues.
White Guilt is a lie, and we if anyone should be smart enough to see this. Our role in the world is not to be the new Nazis, as the Jew-haters assure us we have become, but rather to demonstrate by thought and act that firstness is not equivalent to Nazism. It was not firstness but victimary thinking, antisemitism’s fellow remedy for resentment’s excesses, that produced “national socialism,” and socialism as well. Whatever we think of Jesus’ offering of himself as a sacrifice to human fraternity, the Jews cannot but affirm the necessity that humanity continue to live with the paradox that gave it birth.