To attempt to analyze our current predicament in the terms of the originary hypothesis, we must rethink the Holocaust and its postmodern victimary outcome as an inherent consequence of the origin rather than a contingent historical sequence. No doubt one could not predict at the birth of humanity that one day monotheism would be invented/discovered, let alone by the Jews, but the course of Western history makes this discovery appear more or less inevitable, and it would certainly be a waste of time to speculate on what might have happened otherwise. On the contrary, history is understood most productively by assuming the inevitability of its major developments even when they have the appearance of contingencies. If we take our Western history seriously, then we must assume that the discovery of monotheism was a powerful advance in anthropological self-knowledge that made it a major step in the cultural selection process.
Hebrew monotheism embodies the paradox that I have described (see Chronicle 405) as that of the “Jewish barber,” who shaves away the historical contingencies of everyone’s God but in shaving his own only paradoxically confirms the uniqueness he appears to be abandoning. Thus the Jews took on what we can consider the necessary role of embodying ontological firstness. They didn’t merely claim their God was more powerful, etc., but that he was unique, the One God, the cause of everything including their own discomfitures, and therefore that everyone would eventually worship him, which, in the Western world, is largely true (particularly if we include in the Abrahamic orbit Enlightenment faiths such as Revolution or today’s victimary creed).
Now firstness, we should recall, is essentially self-abolishing; one is first only to the extent that everyone else eventually follows, and such trappings of advanced market society as intellectual rights protection exist both to reward firstness and at the same time end its absolute monopoly; the inventor holds the patent only for a time. The originary event is the ultimate model for these phenomena. The One God is the God of everyone and therefore no more of the Jews than of anyone else. But however closely they shave him, he remains historically attached to “his people,” whom he has “chosen.” Trilby’s famous epigram: How odd / Of God / To choose / The Jews, whatever its intent, is a manifestation of this paradox, since who else are the Jews but those who have been “chosen” by their discovery/invention of God?
Whence the inevitability of the all-too-familiar phenomenon of antisemitism, which so spectacularly confirms Jewish firstness, no other form of “prejudice” being comparable to it in historical tenacity, ferocity, intellectual energy, or any other measure of significance. It is no coincidence that aside from misogyny, no other prejudice even has a name dating back more than a few years. Racism, for example, means judging others by their race, presumably favoring one’s own; it says nothing about a specific target. Why, in the United States with its long history of slavery, is there no word explicitly designating hostility to Blacks? Because even in communities with deep racial prejudices, there is no systematic resentment of Blacks. The resentment of Black political power aroused in the South during Reconstruction (see Birth of a Nation) occupied a very specific historical moment whose very scandalousness was the contingent result of defeat in the Civil War. Jim Crow legislation was based on racist contempt, not on resentment.
Antisemitism has had a very different history. One might ask what would have happened if the Jews had been unsuccessful, unable to overcome the weight of hostility rather than always bouncing back. Was their “originary” firstness bound to lead, through an inevitable selection process, to high IQs? Let’s just assume it was, since we can’t do history over to test the contrary hypothesis.
Let us then simply stipulate that Jewish firstness is indeed associated with a greater general intelligence and aptitude for participation in the market, for “middleman” functions that as Yuri Slezkine among others has shown are generally most efficiently performed by extraterritorial minorities such as the Jews were for most of their historical existence. Following a poem by W. H. Auden, Slezkine opposes the Jews and similar groups to rooted local populations as the trickster Hermes is opposed to the serene singer Apollo. All such “Mercurian” groups are vulnerable to “Apollonian” hostility, and sometimes suffer the equivalent of pogroms, such as the massacre of the Chinese community in Indonesia in 1965-66 and again in 1998.
The Holocaust differs from these massacres only in its “philosophical” character as a systematic attempt to annihilate the bearers of firstness, no doubt in order to take their place (as the “Aryans” had taken their property) but above all to “normalize,” to “horizontalize” the tension between the first and the others (say, the Aryans and the Slavs), to create in the industrial era the illusion of what Voegelin would have called a “compact” world, where the masters rule the slaves serenely and have no reason to be envious of them. Of course the lesson of the originary hypothesis is that the transcendental is coextensive with the human, and that we are all equally its bearers, and that firstness is a necessary component of transcendence, but these truths, always “hypothetical,” have no power to enforce themselves, so that the utopian abolition of firstness, as embodied archetypically in the Jews, is a constant temptation.
The specific relationship between Judaism and Christianity may also be understood anew from the standpoint of firstness. The scandal of Jesus is that he is an ordinary human, and yet the son of God. The One God that the Jews did invent/discover as ordinary humans, Jesus is presumed to be. In Christianity, the paradoxical category of firstness is removed from ordinary humanity and assigned to, or better, incarnated in, a human-divine, that is, a paradoxical figure. No doubt, as Girard’s radical understanding of Christianity would have it, not simply can we all “imitate” Jesus but we all have the potential to be as perfect as he is, that is, to share in his firstness, in effect to “be” God; but, and here Girard passes from “quantity” to “quality,” in terms of practical reality, no ordinary human could possibly attain Jesus’ perfection in having no complicity with the “logos of violence” and the scapegoating-sacrificial institutions that derive from it.
This is not the place to adjudicate the quarrel between the two religions as to Jesus’ divine status. But Christianity’s success as a “world religion” is surely the sign of a more broadly effective method than Judaism for dealing with firstness. Before Christianity became dominant, Judaism too was a proselytizing religion, openly making its “tribal” firstness available to others. The ostensible superiority of Christianity in proselytizing was in not requiring circumcision or obedience to the Law. But the point is not that it is “easier” to become a Christian than a Jew; many early Christians accepted martyrdom. The Jewish relation to God is that of being heirs to God’s revelation to Moses, which is ultimately, and regardless of any mythical elements in the account, a historical event. Others can share in the results of this event, but because they did not “inherit” it directly, they can only be so to speak adopted children in the Jewish family. The heritage of firstness is transmissible to all, but it creates despite itself a hierarchy between those who were “chosen” from birth and the others. The genius of Christianity is to see that the principle of Judaism, that there is One God for all, must be separated from the firstness of its inaugurators without however losing the fundamental intuition of the historical uniqueness of God. The Trinity is the most elaborate means of disseminating the originary firstness of the Jews and permitting anyone to join the monotheistic faith as equal to any ordinary human and as both equal to and (only) transcendentally less than Jesus. Christ’s relation to human firstness is that of the Hegelian Aufhebung, his historical uniqueness being transfigured into Godhood itself, as though he became and therefore always was (“before Abraham was, I am” [John 8:58]) the (model for the) originary central object.
In Science and Faith, I suggested that the founding moment of Christianity as an independent religion was Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, the origin of not only the Epistles but the Gospels and the non-Jewish Christianity that they made possible. Saul sees a blinding light and hears the voice of Jesus ask him why he is persecuting him. I explained the substance of this revelation as demonstrating to Saul that to persecute Jesus through his followers was in effect to sacralize him by making him live on after his physical death, and that this explanation is also operative for the various appearances of the resurrected Jesus described in the Gospels. To supplement this understanding of Saul’s revelation from the perspective of firstness, one need only point out that Saul’s persecutory obsession reflected a resentful hostility that is quite analogous to antisemitism. Saul becomes Paul because, as himself a “secular” Jew, he recognizes the superior potential in the public sphere of a new mode of firstness to that of the Jews, the possibility offered by Jesus’ martyrdom of worshiping the One God without having to join the Jewish “family.” His revelation showed him that persecuting the Christians was nothing but a repetition of the Crucifixion, a sign that he and by extension all of us are virtual executioners of Jesus and can therefore accept his mediation with the One God. Jesus made firstness, in short, no longer a source of historical but of ontological envy; the Crucifixion set the ultimate example for Auschwitz. For Girard, this is the ultimate revelation of the emissary murder that is for him the foundation of the human. But in the more parsimonious realm of Generative Anthropology, we need merely say that it completes the humanization of the sacralizing/acculturating process of the originary event. To assimilate God to humanity is to permit a maximal level of self-understanding, a human-centered theology. Is the human really–as Girard would have it–nothing but the human? Is there no irreducible otherness in the sacred? The persistence of the Jews in continuing to give historical firstness priority over Christianity’s claim of “ontological” firstness, shows that the greater success of this assimilation is not a simple demonstration of its truth. Which is merely to restate the problem of antisemitism in new terms.
The Jews themselves had no pressing need to become Christians, since as the inheritors of human firstness they would have to renounce their “chosen” status to accept a mediator they did not need, and whose persecution would not produce in pious Jews the revelatory effect it had on Saul. They had no reason to accuse themselves of arrogance, since they worshiped not their own firstness but the transcendent uniqueness of God, whom their ancestors could hardly be blamed for having “discovered.” But this did not diminish the scandal posed by their “chosenness” in the eyes of others.
Christian antisemitism was established on this basis. The Jews were guilty of asserting their firstness illegitimately, since the One God belongs to all of us, and now that Jesus (through the intermediary of Paul) had demonstrated this to us, he compelled our worship as the Messiah who had “abolished” the Law and put all men on an equal footing before God. The designation of the Jews as “Christ-killers” combined this guilt with an accusation of resentment, that is, of envy, of “lastness,” in keeping with Paul’s revelation: that the Jews killed Jesus gave proof of their recognition that his originary firstness (“in the beginning was the Word”) trumped their own merely contingent, historical firstness. The Augustinian idea that the Jews should be tolerated as witnesses to their no-longer-chosen status is understandable in the light of the success reaped by the superior effectiveness of Christian firstness in acquiring converts; the Jews had become the Brand X of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
The Jews were just doing what they had always done, but this was precisely their sin, acting as though nothing had happened when the messianic transmitter of their firstness to the rest of the world arrived, pretending that their “hereditary” firstness, as expressed in their traditions, was the only authentic kind. No doubt their God was universal, but they demanded he still be worshiped by their rules and only by those who expressed loyalty to their tradition by accepting these rules, embodied in the Torah’s historical narrative of Hebrew history whose account it was necessary to accept as well. Only thus could the convert be received within the original family of God’s worshipers. The firstness that attaches to the discovery/invention of the One God is accidental “ontologically,” but not anthropologically. The only way to accept someone as a Jew is to attach him to this historical discovery, which is that of a community that (re)defines its God. To become a Christian, in contrast, requires only that one “accept Jesus Christ” as one’s savior, a personal decision that does not affirm anyone’s priority over the newly converted, not even that of the priest who may baptize them. Conversion to Islam, despite the absence of a divine intermediary, takes place in much the same fashion; one declares one’s fealty to God and to Mohammed as his prophet, receiver of the “uncreated” Koran.
If we now turn to the new and more virulent form taken by antisemitism under the market society that developed after the Industrial and French Revolutions, this too can be rethought in terms of firstness.
The fate of antisemitism is bound up with that of the market. The “Hermetic” activities of the Jews in the larger society that reflected the growth of the market, beginning in the High Middle Ages but changing radically in scope in the modern era, gave greater salience to Jewish firstness and facilitated its association with scapegoating accusations such as poisoning wells during plagues and later, conspiring as the “Elders of Zion” to dominate the world.
Because the marketplace is acephalic, “the Jew,” whose fortune in the market need only be modest, can always be perceived as occupying its secret center. The “international Jewish conspiracy” of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion is a simple extrapolation of this idea, one heard with increasing frequency today, and not only in the Islamic world.
Success in the market system puts a premium on firstness. Although the exchange values of the market have as their destiny to circulate, the one who takes advantage of a trend in trading commodities, who creates a product that anticipates a need or desire, or who improves the process for producing an existing item, will reap the profits—as well, in most cases, as the losses when his anticipation is not confirmed by events. If we see the Jew’s role in Christian society as the witness to a historical firstness supposedly neutralized by belief in a human-divine mediator, then Jewish success in the marketplace has the scandalous effect of appearing to provide worldly confirmation of the persisting election of the Jews as a transcendental, but now diabolical, force. The various “scientific” theories that grew up in the 19th century to characterize the Jews in racial terms, and that not coincidentally produced the definitive name for the traditional hatred of Jews, may be seen as attempts to understand how the “primitive,” “tribal” attachment to a presumably transcended historical priority can not only survive into the modern era but, even more strangely, afford its possessors an advantage in the system of market production and exchange.
Given this context, the Holocaust was the inevitable attempt to eliminate this presumably transcended firstness whose ability, fictitious more than real, to dominate the modern marketplace and through it the world demonstrated its diabolical nature. The creators of the One God distorted the human competition for the things of this world, a competition that by all rights the Aryans (or “Apollonians”) would have won on a level playing field by virtue of their “natural” superiority. The contrast between the Gentiles’ authentic, justified superiority and the spurious tribal superiority conferred by Jewish firstness has been a staple of antisemitism from the first, in Drumont for example, and already in Marx’ assertion that the Jewish god was really money and that in modernity everyone has become a Jew, that is, a convert to Judaism, a latecomer with respect to the “real” Jews. Whence the inescapable logic of Hitler’s eliminatory antisemitism, which attempts to create an all-gentile universe where firstness is earned by merit and not inherited.
In sum, firstness is in principle self-abolishing, yet because humans live through historical memory, the historical trace of firstness is indelible, and consequently the resentment it generates is unending. Firstness would have been part and parcel of the human condition independently of the Jews, but given that it is not independent of the Jews, it can never become so short of their extermination (and even then…). The Holocaust is history’s most thoroughgoing, yet failed attempt to eradicate the paradox of firstness. Its enduring result has been to color all “victims” with the prestige of the discovery/invention of the One God.
In the following Chronicle I will deal with the “postmodern” consequences of the Holocaust along these same lines; what happens after the Nazi attempt to abolish firstness demonstrates its maximal inhumanity, and why this inhumanity appears to throw suspicion on all forms of human hierarchy while sacralizing its “subalterns.”