There are two basic approaches to the question of antisemitism. This duality reflects, as might be expected, the paradoxical nature of the phenomenon; why is there a single word in our vocabulary for a specific hostility against a specific ethnic-religious group? And can it be a coincidence that the word fails to designate the real object of this hostility, but describes the Jews in “racial” terms, so that, at least until the present-day proliferation of virulent antisemitism in the Muslim world, Arabs would claim that as “Semites” they could not be accused of antisemitism? Does not the simple existence of this anomalous term connect the specificity of hatred’s target with the necessary denial of its universal necessity? Jewish firstness must be reduced to a biological quality precisely because it is just the opposite, the “discovery” of the unique centrality of the cultural world of religion and language.
Since antisemitism requires at the minimum an antisemite, the first approach is to concentrate on him. The classic statement of this emphasis is Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1946 Réflexions sur la question juive. Appearing right after WWII, the book makes no effort to examine Jewish reality. Its thesis is that the antisemite is the responsible subject not merely for antisemitism but even for Judaism; the Jew is whomever the antisemite designates as such. Absurd as a general rule, this formulation was less so in the era of Nazi persecution, which defined as “racial” Jews many persons who had never thought of themselves as Jewish. And that the Sartrean attitude is not confined to non-Jews nor to the immediate postwar period is demonstrated by “The Suicidal Passion” (Weekly Standard, November 21, 2011) by Ruth Wisse, professor of Yiddish and Comp. Lit. at Harvard, who insists that antisemitism is not a Jewish problem but a sentiment that invents its own “Jew” to hate, and that ends up damaging the antisemite more than the Jew. Wisse, unlike Sartre, is very much aware of Jewish reality; she merely thinks that this reality has rather little to do with antisemitism. Or at least, it should, for the more we “understand” antisemitism as a reaction to Jews, the more we seem to be blaming the Jews for it.
Most works on antisemitism try to avoid arousing this fear, not so much by insisting on the total independence of the antisemite’s beliefs from Jewish reality as on the irrational nature of his hatred. Robert Wistrich’s books, Antisemitism, the Longest Hatred (1992) and A Lethal Obsession (2010), probably the most thorough recent documentations of antisemitism, list in what rapidly becomes a highly repetitive fashion the various manifestations of anti-Jewish ideology in different times and places. Each of the 25 chapters of the latter book contain much the same material, as Wistrich compiles with great conscientiousness such things as accusations of the “blood libel” from dozens of countries throughout the centuries. Wistrich is writing about antisemitism, not about Jews, and he is concerned with showing the virulence and generality of the “obsession” rather than explaining why specifically it is Jews who are its objects.
Given all this, I find it reassuring that what appears to be the most widely read and assigned book on antisemitism takes a strong, explicit stand on the “Jewish question” diametrically opposed to Sartre’s. Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin (PT), authors of Why the Jews? (1983, 2003), entertain no doubt that antisemitism is a reaction to specific, fundamental Jewish traits. However fantastic some of its accusations, the basis of antisemitism is the specific role of the Jews in history. Readers of these Chronicles know that I am in full agreement with this position. (The obvious source of the book’s title, although it is not mentioned in the text, is an old joke whose original form probably goes back well before Hitler: At a Nazi rally Hitler is screaming, “Who causes all of Germany’s problems?” A man in the crowd shouts back, “The bicycle riders.” Hitler’s taken by surprise and asks, “Why the bicycle riders?” To which the man replies, “Why the Jews?”)
The four elements of Judaism cited by PT as provoking antisemitism are: (1) the unique God introduced by the Jews, (2) the Torah or Jewish law, (3) Jewish peoplehood (the Jewish “nation”) and (4) the belief in chosenness. The authors present this list on pp 8-9 in a somewhat confusing way as combining to provide a different set of four answers to the question of what has provoked anti-Jewish hostility: (a) worship of a unique God and obedience to his revealed laws (i.e., 1 and 2); (b) belief in their chosen status (i.e., 4); (c) the moral imperative to “repair the world”; (d) the achievement of higher-quality lives than their neighbors as a result of Judaism, the latter two being loosely connected to (3), Jewish national unity.
As I have discussed in previous Chronicles, I find the key to Jewish difference (and firstness) in the paradox that the Jews proclaim One God for the universe but who has “chosen” the Jews to reveal himself. PT’s third point about “repairing the world” (tikkun olam) is a reflection of the moral nature of the One God, on which the authors insist: this is not a God who can be influenced to neglect justice for the sake of his people’s material interests. The One God is a “Jewish god” to the extent that he has revealed himself to the Jews and has made a covenant with them as “his” people, but his universality guarantees his embodiment of the originary moral model of human reciprocity. The coup of declaring “their” God universal permitted the Jews to consider their defeats as divine chastisements directed at them rather than demonstrations of the superior power of “other gods.” But this is just another way of saying that the Jews understood themselves as subject not to divine whim but to a universal moral law. Finally, category (d), however subjective, reflects the added responsibility that comes from the “tribal” sense of chosenness. After all, the idea of the One God did eventually catch on, because it corresponded to a greater anthropological insight than that which led to “pantheons” of local gods. The human is made up of many separate communities, but all human beings share a common historical origin. The different gods all derive from the originary god and Judaism thus allows us to return from the many to the One. It should not surprise us that this procured the Jews an advantage with respect to most other social groups, although we should not neglect the constant testing of Jews through persecutions that would presumably impose greater selection pressures than on other groups.
What is the “truth” of monotheism? “Believing in God” is certainly not the proof of anything but its own possibility, no small thing but hardly a proof of existence, although the “ontological proof” is not (pace Kant) refutable either: how can we claim to know that the capacity to formulate ideas in language is within the purview of “natural,” uncreated creatures? In the matter of the One God, when we speak of Jewish “firstness” we draw a parallel between the discovery/invention of monotheism and an objective discovery such as the laws of gravitation or the Pythagorean Theorem. For an atheist, One God is just as absurd as many gods, yet even the atheist is obliged to note that the history of the West, at least, has “selected for” One God quite radically over polytheism. I’ll let the philosophers argue over whether it is illogical to have many omnipotent beings, or whether God can be both omnipotent and omniscient at the same time.
The crucial question, which cannot be resolved a priori, but which nevertheless invites intelligent speculation, is why the devolution from Judaism to other religions was necessary to spread the Jewish message. One could say that the fact that it happened not once but twice, and that two thousand years later, the two resulting religions are the world’s largest, while the Jews remain scarcely more numerous than in antiquity, is certainly the sign of a (pragmatic) paradox inherent in proclaiming the universal God in a “tribal” covenant.
When the only rivals of the Jews were polytheists, monotheism could be singled out for its “intolerance” and the Jews, as a scandalous exception to the entire mutually tolerant system. Knowing that history has shown the “superiority” of monotheism, one might imagine that this opposition would endure for many centuries and eventually result in a universal conversion to Judaism. But as we know, things didn’t work out that way; or rather, they did, except that the universal conversion involved new variants of Judaism that, as it would in retrospect be difficult to imagine otherwise, came into conflict with Judaism in its original form. And Judaism itself, needless to say, no longer remained the same in opposition to what had not previously existed, a universalizing version of its own belief in One God. Each of the subsequent monotheistic offshoots, from (Catholic) Christianity to Islam to Protestantism, not to speak of Mormonism, saw itself as the natural successor to Jewish monotheism to which Jews could be expected to convert. As did many, but never all. The problem of Jewish firstness proper begins only with the “successor religions,” whose beliefs have Jewish monotheism at their core and which are all obliged in different ways to present themselves as “new” versions of Judaism, if only through denial. This is itself an homage to Jewish firstness, since even the Muslim claim of atemporal (“uncreated”) superiority is all the more a demonstration of historical dependency, as even the most superficial reading of the Koran makes clear.
To say the Jews discover that there is only one God involves in fact two discoveries: (1) they discover that their previous, tribal God alone is God, or rather, their belief in their “tribal” God leads them to the understanding that the very idea of God implies uniqueness and consequently (2) they discover the universal truth that “God is One,” which makes no reference to any tribal connection. No doubt there is no logical requirement that 2 depend on 1, but there is certainly a historical requirement with a clear basis in the originary hypothesis, where the “universal” god is born in a specific, “first” community, but with no conception of “extension to other communities” that would permit some kind of ecumenism, let alone monotheism. It has been the purview of the successor religions to resolve the paradoxical tension between the two discoveries, by either with Christianity historicizing the evolution of God’s relation with humanity from the Jews to the rest of us, or with Islam de-historicizing the election of the Jews as a failed attempt at divine revelation that the Koran rectified.
This suggests that the “legitimate” historical claim of antisemitism is that the Jews, although first in their discovery, fail to recognize the necessity of the successor religions to spread the monotheistic truth—without which, they would add, “monotheism” is an incomplete project, since if God revealed himself to the Jews, it is their responsibility to reveal him to the rest of humanity. But if other religions were necessary to spread this truth about God, to persuade not just a handful of Jews but an entire civilization of its validity, then how deny the “truth” of these religions themselves?
Needless to say, blaming the Jews for this situation is inappropriate. Even blaming the antisemites isn’t very helpful. But antisemitism reveals something essential about the very question of firstness and the impossibility of ever getting it “right.” The communal nature of Judaism, which makes it difficult to spread to others, or at the very least, leaves an opening “on the left” for a religion like Christianity, which can arguably claim that its greater persuasiveness reflects a more advanced anthropology (and Islam, in its own way, can make a similar claim), is not something the Jews could have thought to “transcend.” Even today’s secular Jews depend if anything even more than observant ones on the abstract sense of belonging to a community to establish their “Jewish identity,” which is endangered by their loss of attachment to the solidarity-producing Law and its related individual and collective ceremonial activities.
The people who had the intuition that God is One could only have had it in the context of belief in “their” God. Now we recall that the essential statement of this intuition is the revelation to Moses on Mount Horeb in Exodus 3 of God’s name as a declarative sentence, Ehyeh asher ehyeh. This corresponds to the de-tribalization of God, who no longer exists in the context of (imperative) prayer/invocation but in a self-contained objectivity. Yet this very declaration is contained, certainly not coincidentally, in the discourse most crucial to the establishment of the Hebrews as an independent nation through the Exodus. The universality of God functions within the national framework of the Hebrews as a new source of religious strength, and as a guarantee that God can be understood as concerned with their welfare whether or not they are victorious over their enemies: the One God need not prove his strength in relation to other gods. Perhaps the simplest way to understand this connection is as a guarantee of firstness; the Jews are not “better” than the Egyptians but their nation, however long-suffering, must be preserved as witnesses to the grandeur and stigma of being the first to grasp the universal truth about humanity.
The association of this universalization with the declarative sentence is clearly linked to the existence, or at least the awareness of the possibility, of writing. Of course we speak in declarative sentences, but the written word is in essence propositional, since it must subsist in the absence of its “speaker” and his real or implicit ostensions. The Torah, or written law, is a set of “tribal” imperatives that might seem inconsistent with a God whose “name” is to be what he is, but it is a universalizing set of laws by the very fact of being written down and consequently made available to anyone who would read them. This universalization was available to all, and indeed there was a good deal of Jewish proselytization in the centuries preceding the triumph of Christianity, whose preservation of the Hebrew scripture shows that it shares the connection between writing and universality—as does the Koran.
Christianity was successful, no doubt, but necessarily second, derivative of the originary moment where the One God was revealed to “his own” community. For the Christian, this second, universal moment is the key one, and Judaism is only a preliminary stage, the product of an “old testament” waiting to be superseded. Although the Jews are expected to remain as “witnesses” to the originary historical revelation, from a Christian perspective, this witnessing is fundamentally sinful, since Christ’s revelation of universality is not a supplement but a new revelation embodied in the Cross, which takes the place of the ritual center of communal sacrifice. In the latter, the (Jewish) community finds its shared nourishment. The Cross, in contrast, is a place of suffering where the Christian is invited to imagine himself. That is, instead of being a member of the peripheral community partaking of God’s central bounty, the Christian sees himself as aspiring to become a double of its unique, divine victim, of whom he is at the same time the sinful sacrificer, non-nutritively eating Christ’s flesh in communion, which involves a deliberate inversion of the nourishing role of sacrifice in a community.
Because it begins from this “transcendence” of the community, Girard’s anthropology cannot understand the communal meal as the essence of religious ritual. The Jew reproaches the Christian with pretending not to eat, to nourish himself on spirituality alone. If we identify, as at the Last Supper, with the source of food rather than its consumer, then our worldly lives are without substance; to pretend to live thus is either folly or hypocrisy. But precisely this is the cost of a “universal” religion: it eats despite itself. Christians do eat, of course, and say grace similarly to the Jews, but these communal activities are not modeled on the exemplary ceremony of communion; on the contrary. It is no accident that Christendom’s best loved ceremonial feast is the Mardi Gras, a “pagan” preliminary to the fasting of Lent. Similarly, its other communal feasts, such as the traditional Christmas dinner, are, unlike the Jewish Seder, devoid of any exemplary link to the Christian model of the sacred.
The One God is universal but has a special relationship to “his” people. This relationship, as PT among others have noted, is not an exaltation; the Jews are not “better” than others. The inclusion of the prophetic texts in the Bible, and even the overall tone of the historical books, puts on the contrary particular emphasis on the Hebrews’ negative, unworthy qualities. The special attention of God to his people nevertheless corresponds to a specific communal value. The “suffering servant” in deutero-Isaiah who is the principal Old-Testament model for the Christ role is not so much an individual as a personification of the Jewish people as a whole.
I think the Christian notion of the “afterlife,” a conception with no original roots in Judaism, can be understood as what replaces the historical existence of the Jewish community when Judaism is transformed into a “universal” religion. The claim that the One God is concerned for “his” people is tantamount to the intuition that the contributions of individual members to the welfare of this people are sacred, and as such preserved from oblivion. In effect, if my life is focused on a community rather than my individual destiny, my quest for “immortality”—a desire implicit in our possession of the “immortal” signs of language—is not particularly concerned with the preservation of the contents of my individual “soul”; I am satisfied to leave my achievements and my DNA to my community. It is only with the creation of a “universal” religion that the individual becomes detached from the “tribal” community of those who follow the same customs and speak the same language. The Christian “afterlife” and the ultimate hope of “resurrection in the flesh” are supplements in the Derridean sense, unnecessary in pre-Christian Judaism, that reflect this emphasis on the individual’s relationship to God independently of his community.
Antisemitism is such a troubling phenomenon because it is both condemnable and “natural.” Our condemnation of antisemitism, like the atheists’ condemnation of belief in God, just raises the question of why it exists in the first place. Presumably, as opposed to belief in God, antisemitism has no legitimate defenders. Yet the current anti-Israel near-unanimity among the intelligentsia, including many “post-Zionists” in Israel itself, shows that it suffices to change its name. The “evils” of Israel are what they are, but boycotting Israel and not the 100 countries that commit crimes far worse is antisemitism pure and simple. What is shocking, and perhaps even for Judeophiles, is that the Jews have their own state. How can such a state be legitimate, when Jews are a “community” whose very continued existence is a reproach to the (Christian) world of nation-states, made up of the subordinate groupings within the “universal” Christian domain of Christendom. Thus the most objectively absurd assertions of the “original ownership” of Jerusalem by Palestinians or of Israeli “Nazism” never fall on deaf ears. Nor does the constant barrage of stupidly vicious lies about Jews, notably including the “blood libel,” produced by Middle-Eastern Islamic institutions, and which is virtually never alluded to in the West as evidence of the bad faith of its producers.
The difference with previous antisemitisms is that now there is a privileged (Palestinian) victim class, the true heirs of the Holocaust, who permit the Nazi-Jew paradigm to be maintained. Is this progress? We would do best to hope that in some as yet unclear way it is, that the focus on the Palestinians and their “peace process” with Israel, with all its false starts, truly promises to end not merely the Arab-Jewish conflict in the Middle East but the “Jewish question” and with it, the threat of antisemitism itself.
The follow-up to these preliminary remarks will follow PT’s brief history of antisemitism from Antiquity through Christianity and the bourgeois/Marxist/”racist” era to the present-day “Palestinian” version. I hope that these speculations may serve to raise a few questions, perhaps a few hackles, and demonstrate the need for non-specialized speculative anthropological—neither metaphysical/philosophical nor “social-science”—thinking about these questions of the sort that only GA provides.