In the previous Chronicle, I tried to find in the recent history of Israel a source of optimism concerning the future of the West’s Judeo-Christian heritage as a necessary, if not necessarily dominant, ingredient in the next stage of the world’s political history. I say “tried to find” because there are clearly negative trends that could just as easily be cited. But if Israel be taken as the bellwether of the Western nation-state concept, then despite its many problems, its fortunes, metaphorically and literally, have greatly improved over the years, not least in its gradually improving relations with its Arab neighbors, in spite of the seemingly undying enmity of all the elements of the Palestinian leadership, and of most of its public.
Jewish firstness is one of those revelatory historical nodes that shed light on the world in which they are implanted, like the fabled “canary in the coal mine.” And one seemingly unchanging aspect of the phenomenon is the semi-voluntary opacity of the Jews themselves to the nature of antisemitism. I have recounted more than once Adam’s and my disappointment at the lack of impact of our Rethinking Antisemitism, whose ideas have simply been ignored, just as the ideas of The Origin of Language have been ignored by linguists. Well, linguistics can wait, but we felt that the Jews, and those who are sympathetic to their cause—in the US, religious Christians are a better bet than the Jews themselves—could really benefit from an enhanced understanding, not of the history of antisemitism, which has been studied in great detail by a number of highly respectable scholars, but of its fundamental essence, which derives from the Hebrews’ historical role of bringing a coherent monotheistic religion to the West and the world.
The other day I attended a showing at a junior college of a segment of Claude Lanzmann’s Les quatre soeurs, a follow-up to his epoch-making Shoah in which he interviews four women miraculously spared from the Holocaust. After the showing, a Jewish professor held a brief Q & A about the film, in which the audience was less concerned with seeking further information than with expressing personal feelings about the protagonist’s life story and about the Holocaust in general. Needless to say, the spectators were moved by this woman’s experiences, and expressed sympathy for the victims of the Holocaust and more generally, for the victims of prejudice and persecution everywhere.
Yet the one thing that was never discussed, and that indeed could not be discussed without dissipating the sympathy for the Jews that the film had presumably generated, was, very simply, Why the Jews? Some of us are familiar with the joke about WWI, quoted at the start of Hannah Arendt’s On Totalitarianism, in which an antisemite tells a Jew that it was the Jews who started the war. “Yes,” he answers, “the Jews and the bicyclists.”—“Why the bicyclists?”—“Why the Jews?” But once the paradox has been enunciated, i.e., that it is somehow expected that the Jews will be the ones blamed for anything unpleasant that might occur, it is simply dropped, and the “oldest hatred” continues unexplained, attributed to habit, or to a sui generis mental disease.
Yet the really significant thing about the Holocaust remains not that it was history’s most horrible example of “man’s inhumanity to man,” but that it happened to the Jews. No other people in history has been the object of this kind of hatred, and not at one particular historical moment but over millennia. And no other people has consequently had to deal with the paradox that the very act of reminding people—including many of the Jews themselves—of this fact, along with the sympathy it forces its hearers to feel, arouses some of the same resentment that the millennial persecution of the Jews has reflected from the outset.
This is the tragedy of “the chosen people,” and it explains more about antisemitism than references to “scapegoating” or recitals of its long and varied history. It is as though antisemitism is simply a set of two mutually dependent propositions: Jews are special <-> Jews are hated. The only thing missing from this definition is the specific reason for this “specialness,” this “chosenness.” And this reason is the foundational role of the Jews in what has been until now the world’s dominant civilization.
This is not a new idea. I bring it up now because, in the light of the previous Chronicles, it seems to me to have acquired additional importance from what I am not afraid to call its revelatory status with respect to our current cultural crisis. However difficult it is to get beyond the vicious circle of this mutual implication, it can only become less difficult once we face up to it, the better to transcend it.
For the “specialness” of the Jews is that of firstness in general. The correlation between the current revival of antisemitism and the continuing advance of victimary politics is anything but coincidental. And yet, like antisemitism in general, this correlation itself is not only generally misunderstood, but given an interpretation wholly contrary to the correct one, as though some great conspiracy existed to make the fight against antisemitism a weapon against rather than for the overall battle for human justice. The Jews are the only “discriminated minority” who are not included among the “intersectional” victim groups, or in no more than nominal terms. And what is most revelatory of all in this situation is that this contrast has become, I believe for the first time in history, an overt contradiction, albeit one that both Jews and non-Jews are loath to remark upon. What Hegel called the “ruse of reason” (die List der Vernunft) is gradually making unmistakably clear what should have been clear through all time—even if this “clarity” remains obscure to virtually all of those whom it stares in the face.
I need only refer to the Jewish Democrats mentioned in Chronicle 639 who recently declared Donald Trump “the greatest danger to Jews” shortly after he modified US policy to no longer refer to Israeli habitations on the West Bank as “occupied territory.” To read the statements that accompany such declarations, there is inevitably a reference to the unfortunate death of a woman in Charlottesville in 2017, when a white supremacist demonstrator drove his car into a crowd, and to Trump’s reference, not to white supremacists, but to those opposed to tearing down a statue of Robert E. Lee, as including “some nice people,” which has justified ever since tagging the American president historically friendliest to Israel as an antisemite.
Beyond the outright stupidity of this accusation, what is most revelatory is the resolute blindness of Jewish liberals, in spite of the increasingly open hostility of the Democratic party to Israel, to the domination of American antisemitism by the Left. There are no Nazis in Antifa or in the Students for Justice in Palestine. If David Duke encourages them, he is the one seeking allies, not they.
But the deeper point is that antisemitism, which was originally a left-wing movement to the extent that it could be located on the political spectrum, seems to be uniting the Left with the “extreme right” three generations after the street fighting between Stormtroopers and Communists led to Hitler’s rise to power. In relation to American’s “minorities,” Jews are “white”; in relation to Germany’s Volk, they were not even human. They are history’s most persecuted minority by a long shot, and still the victims of most acts of religious prejudice in modern countries, far out of proportion to their numbers. Yet it is intuitively clear why they are not included in the intersectional list of victimary minorities. Adding antisemitism to racism, sexism, transphobia… is done, if at all, for diplomatic reasons; it is not a “natural” assimilation.
The difference is—and this is what gives antisemitism its persuasiveness—that one cannot consider the Jews as inferior. Antisemites may view Jews as sub-human or some variant of it, but never simply as inferior. And that is not simply because, on any scale of human abilities, Jews tend to do rather well. It is because, from the beginning, the Jews were hated for their firstness, and this has never changed. Hated for their firstness, but one may say with some historical justification: hated for firstness itself. Whether or not something like this was implicit in the human as such, given the inevitable tension between the necessity of both firstness and moral equality, history has made the Jews the eternal world-wide scapegoats for firstness.
If you dare try to get experts on antisemitism, or just an average group of Jews, not necessarily to agree but merely to entertain this idea, you will receive a demonstration both of its truth and of its paradoxical character. It is an accusation that is demonstrated by the accused’s rejection of it. I wonder when was the last time when a Jew in the West proudly asserted that his was the “chosen people.” The only place you will find in recent times, in the West at any rate, an unabashed assertion of firstness is in Mussolini’s or Hitler’s speeches—although you will also find in the latter a great deal of railing against the Jews’ usurpation of that firstness, starting with the “proof” supplied by the Dolchstoss that lost WWI.
The other day Adam sent me an October 9 article from the online publication Tablet, “The Case for Building a Synagogue on the Temple Mount” by Matthew Ackerman (https://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-news-and-politics/291962/the-case-for-building-a-synagogue-on-the-temple-mount). Even Adam was shocked by this suggestion—which, pointedly, did not involve closing, let alone demolishing, the Dome of the Rock which currently occupies part of the area. I’m sure Adam is correct that it will remain unthinkable for quite a while for the Israeli government to contemplate such a step. Yet how many synagogues are there in Mecca or Medina, or in the whole of Saudi Arabia? And the Saudis are among the friendlier of the Arab countries toward Israel.
This is la rançon de la gloire, the dues the Jews are still paying for their firstness 70+ years after the (re)founding of the state of Israel—and a couple of millennia since Ehyeh asher ehyeh. In their own capital city, building their own place of worship on their holiest site, next to a mosque left undisturbed, would be considered a scandal, not merely by the Arab/Muslim population of Jerusalem, but by the majority of the Jews themselves. I think I can say with confidence that the mere fact of putting this suggestion into words and out on the Internet is already a major step toward “normalization”; Mr. Ackerman deserves credit for writing, and the editors of Tablet for publishing it.
The ultimate paradox that accompanies this situation is that attempting to explain it appears to benefit no one and is therefore futile. One gets no brownie points for the best explanation; the only acceptable situation is for antisemitism to remain inexplicable. Unlike other ascriptive (racial, sexual, …) prejudices, which can all be assimilated to the victimary paradigm, with in the opposite direction only the modest benefits of affirmative action (particularly offensive to Asians as “people of color”), antisemitism is a resentful reaction to privilege rather than a presumption of inferiority.
Of course everyone really knows this, yet in saying it, I always have the feeling that I am violating a taboo. As well as the deeper feeling that, even if this violation has for the moment no effect, the very fact of committing it is making a mark on history that cannot be effaced, and that at some point will be recognized as marking a turning point. Just as I still believe, after four decades, that the originary hypothesis of the origin of language, first published in 1981, will one day be so recognized.
The history of the Jews, and in some way or other of every Jew, is a demonstration that firstness is not always recognized, nor is it always welcome, but it is inevitable, and it is necessary, and it does not go away.