As I have complained too many times, Adam Katz’s and my book, The First Shall Be the Last: Rethinking Antisemitism (2015), although sponsored by the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy (ISGAP), was received by ISGAP itself with an utter lack of enthusiasm, has been reviewed only in Israel by GASC friend Roman Katsman, and has remained wholly absent from recent discussions of antisemitism.
Documenting antisemitism is surely important, yet thinking antisemitism is taboo. Most accounts of antisemitic acts treat their motivation as both eternal, hence unnecessary to discuss, and irrational, as a “disease” that is both like all other racial/ethnic/religious hatreds, yet somehow unique—the one “phobia” excluded from “intersectionality.” So unique that its uniqueness itself remains outside the realm of polite discussion. For to insist on this uniqueness all too clearly provides a “justification” for antisemitism. As people used to say more freely than today, the Jews are hated because they claim to be the chosen people. So do lots of other peoples, but if only the Jews have forever been hated for it, this can only mean that their claim of chosenness is somehow true—and condemnable for its very truth.
To attempt to explain antisemitism to those who presumably oppose it is to encounter a resistance so firm that it does not view itself as an article of faith, but merely as a consequence of the simple fact that antisemitism cannot be explained otherwise than by the long series of false accusations—blood-libels, conspiracies, “protocols” and the like—on which it has been based for two millennia. Jews enjoy the thought that transparently absurd accusations, such as the source of the term blood libel, bleeding non-Jewish children to make matzoth—the least bloody-looking flatbreads imaginable—demonstrate Jew-hatred’s irrationality. Suggesting that there is some real basis for hating the Jews must therefore be simply unthinkable. And thus, the accused once proved innocent of these charges, there is nothing more to be said on the subject.
Which is, however unoriginal, a curious attitude indeed for an Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy. Particularly when today’s version of antisemitism is focused on a new Jewish atrocity: Israel’s crime of acting as though it were a legitimate nation-state. Let it then prove its legitimacy to those who deny it!
I write these words on Tisha B’Av, the most solemn day of the Jewish calendar, on which we mourn as one the destruction of the two ancient Temples in Jerusalem. It is no coincidence that the recently reemphasized Muslim claim on Jerusalem has been focused on the Temple Mount, the holiest Jewish site. Imagine that the Jews are in charge of the Kaaba in Mecca, which they insist is a uniquely Jewish shrine from which all non-Jews should be barred, and you will begin to understand something of the paradoxical chosenness of the Jews.
Just as this chosenness is so localized that it can only be universal, it is so universalized that its localization must be denied. Thus it is an inevitable consequence of the Jews’ firstness that—unlike our “Native Americans”—they have no right to a worldly home of their own, even in the land to which they gave its name. Aside from Donald Trump, so frequently compared with Hitler, no contemporary Western politician has fully affirmed their right to this territory, which is uniformly considered as “originally” belonging to the Palestinians, whose roots in the area were no more than a generation or two old, and who had never had a nation of their own, or even a name. Yet their brief residence provides them with roots, unlike the “wandering Jews.”
This having been said, the fact that the Jews continue to survive, I being one of them, is in itself a sign that, so far at least, not only humanity as a whole but Judeo-Christian Western culture possesses a persistent anthropological viability, one that may survive the decline or even the destruction of the major Western and Western-inspired polities, perhaps even of Israel itself—despite its exceptional demographic status as virtually the only advanced economy that more than reproduces itself over time.
A decade ago, I drew an analogy between the paradoxical status of the Jews and the classic paradox of the “barber who shaves everyone who does not shave himself” (see Chronicle 405). The Jews, or Hebrews, as the first people of any importance who declared the uniqueness of the One God, are the people who shave away everyone’s particular gods, yet not their own, because by being the first to do so, it is their God who becomes the One God. Although the Hebrews, as the plural term elohim demonstrates, must once have conceived gods as a plurality, nonetheless, by writing the Torah and passing it down to the Christians (and the Muslims, but that is another story), and thence to the entire world, they are the only people who can claim a familial relationship not only with Jesus but with the patriarch of the Old Testament.
Readers of these Chronicles may recall that in response to Adam Katz’s article “Remembering Amalek: 9/11 and Generative Thinking,” I removed from my description of the originary event the assertion that the group spontaneously reinterpreted the aborted gesture of appropriation as a sign. Adam had pointed out that, given that this was an act of reflection rather than a reflex, it must have been grasped individually by each member of the group, and in such a situation, one or a small number would be first to reconceive the aborted gesture as an intentional sign.
This first signer would be in the same position as the Jews in relation to God: it would be his sign that the others would be repeating. But under the circumstances, there would be no collective memory of this priority. The first use of a sign is only a useful act to the extent that others can imitate it, not as a model but as a template without priority over its manifestations. The supplement of firstness here has a purely serial quality. Although the idea of the sign is precious, however deeply the signers understand the roots of their action, it can function only by being shared “equally.” Indeed, in a sense, we don’t “understand” speech at all; we merely note that it works, the proof being that no one to my knowledge had ever previously attempted to describe its worldly origin in an event, as an element of human history.
In contrast, the historical transmission of the concept of the One God necessarily involved a communication of intentions, not to speak of scriptures. God’s self-definition in Exodus 3 is both universal and specifically addressed through Moses to the Hebrews. There are no other holy books that contain anything like Ehyeh asher ehyeh, or that can be compared as wholes to the Torah. This firstness is a historical, not an archaeological fact: the Jews influenced the other peoples of the Middle East and their Christian sect colonized the whole world.
And the Muslims did them the honor of taking virtually all the material of the Koran from the Bible, all the while claiming that this was the true original that the Jews and then the Christians had distorted. If one day the Abrahamic religions can genuinely commune with each other, this can only be done by finessing this claim of firstness. Given that Roman Catholics, after millennia of anti-Judaism, now see the Jews as their “elder brothers,” there is no reason why a similar development cannot take place with Islam. Muslims have every right to assert the greater authenticity of their version of the Biblical revelation, without denying the Jews’ temporal priority.
I hesitate to say it, but it is not altogether a bad thing to witness the rebirth of left-wing antisemitism after generations brought up in the mythology that antisemitism is strictly a phenomenon of the “right.” I was struck how upon Trump’s election in 2016, liberal Jews, and even more, liberal “friends of Jews,” spoke of it as a calamity on a level with Kristallnacht, although Trump has never to my knowledge uttered a single word suggesting anti-Jewish sentiments, not to speak of his unique record of friendship to Israel—and the fact that, as the joke goes, the difference between Trump and a Jewish liberal is that Trump has Jewish grandchildren. Antisemitism is endemic to Judeo-Christian society, and the Nazi brand was modeled not on rightist snobbery but on leftist hatred of conspiratorial bloodsucking Jewish capitalists. If people would take more seriously the fact that Hitler’s party was called “socialist,” they would see the Hitler-Stalin rivalry as more of a contest of evil twins than of light and darkness, however much gratitude we owe the USSR for bearing the brunt of the war on the European continent.
I certainly do not look forward to seeing Jews become objects of discrimination or physical violence, but learning to fear such possibilities is a welcome education. I must say that in my nearly 80 years in the US I have never been subject to antisemitic insults, let alone physical violence or economic discrimination. In the course of my academic career, being Jewish was almost certainly more of an advantage than a handicap. Hence Jewish friends from Europe are scandalized by what they interpret as my “sheltered” or “privileged” existence, although my life is quite typical of the lower-middle-class children of the Bronx that I grew up with. But in addition to their American setting, these conditions reflect the unusual circumstances of growing up in the shadow of the Holocaust, and it is better to realize that such favorable conditions should not be expected in the future, and certainly not awaited as the result of future catastrophes.
Which leads me to speak of Israel.
It would be nice to be able to say that Israel’s overall success demonstrates the ultimate viability of the Judeo-Christian West, and that the latter’s current domination by ever more extreme forms of victimary thinking is only a temporary aberration, as a different result in the (hardly transparent) 2020 USA presidential election might have suggested. Israel’s emergence as an independent power capable of forging alliances with the traditional Sunni Arab states is a considerable achievement, and a sign that the endemic Palestinian problem is now more of an obstacle for the West, including the US Democratic Party and university campuses, than it is for Israel’s Arab neighbors.
The situation is still too unstable to permit Israel’s success to become an established element of the world-historical dialectic, as Hegel might have put it. The intensity of Muslim hostility remains high, and the durability of the Sunni alliance may well depend more on the threat posed by Iran and its terrorist non-state allies than on any sense of cultural affinity. However, let us stipulate that these fears are unjustified and that the Middle East is indeed undergoing a major realignment in which Israel is respected for its economic and military strength and as a useful ally whose Jewishness does not offend the surrounding Muslim states in the way that it does Iran and its satellites.
We are familiar with the Christian Zionist enthusiasm for Israel as the return of the Jews to the Holy Land that is to signal Jesus’ second coming. The obvious reaction of the Enlightened is to pooh-pooh this idea as one more ancient superstition. Yet the centrality of the Jews to the West’s current decline and possible renaissance is demonstrated by the Holocaust, the key act of WWII all the more by its apparent gratuitousness, followed by the Jews’ return after two millennia to the land of their ancestors.
As for the apocalyptic Second Coming, observing Iran’s anti-Israeli propaganda and its race to acquire atomic weapons, we must agree that the Jews’ “return” and the hatred it inspires among fundamentalist Muslims, for whom Jerusalem even more than Mecca is the focal point of their promised world-conquest, is not without major world-historical, if not world-terminal, consequences.
The utter lack of enthusiasm expressed by, Trump excluded, the leaders of the West concerning Israel’s “right” to Jerusalem, not to speak of the “occupied territories,” is a tacit postwar endorsement of Hitler’s intuition that Jewish national ambitions, however modest, are secretly incompatible with the survival of Western civilization.
None of this is inevitable, of course, but in our media-enveloped world, we are so insistently coerced to pay attention to the narrative that the media and their woke “influencers” constantly stream at us, that we must make a real effort to discover for ourselves what is really important. Jews would be greatly aided in this quest by daring to consider themselves as, if not the “chosen” people of the West, then its exemplary, characteristic, totemic, bellwether, canary-in-the-coal-mine people, and not just in the vulgar sense that “first they came for the Jews…”—as though this would deter the perpetrators of the next pogrom. The fact that there is no really appropriate word for the Jews’ particular role in Western civilization is only one more indication of their uniqueness.
And the conclusive proof of the truth of these words is the degree to which they would stimulate the antisemite’s hatred—the Jews’ small numbers making their drive to control the world all the more diabolical. If only Hitler had finished the job… as so many are no longer ashamed to regret.
Where do these reflections leave us? With the sense that the world-historical problem embodied by the Jews, the problem of firstness, is indeed the key to human history. Humans are happiest in shared reciprocity, in Thanksgiving and Seder feasts, but it is not in these moments of celebration that their creativity is demonstrated. Such creativity is normally the work of an individual or a team working together toward a goal, always at least implicitly in competition with others.
The seemingly eternal blessed/accursed sacrality of the Jews, whose discovery of the oneness of God, the unity of the sacred, is the most fundamental of all contributions to human self-understanding, demonstrates on the highest level that humanity’s problem of firstness is both necessary and impossible to solve—that although there can certainly be an end to the human race, there can never be a metaphysical closure, an “end of history.”