As an indication that René Girard’s intellectual influence has in effect outlasted that of French Theory, an article by Andrew Doran entitled “Christians Need to Confront Anti-Semitism” in the February 2 Wall Street Journal under their Houses of Worship rubric cites Girard’s thought as the explanation for today’s renascent antisemitism:
… Antisemitism is resurgent on the political right, which feels alienated from governing institutions. And the most refined anti-Semitism continues to be taught on university campuses.
By rejecting the right of the Jewish people to exist in political community—that is, the modern state of Israel—campus anti-Semitism implicitly rejects the humanity of Jews everywhere. . . .
Anti-Semitism at a more primitive level finds its roots in the scapegoating mechanism, the impulse in humans to seek a culprit for communal ills. As the French historian René Girard (1923-2015) explained, once the mob’s lust for violence is satisfied by the sacrificial victim, communal health is restored—an evolutionary adaptation that seems nothing short of diabolical. Girard believed that Christ’s sacrifice should deliver Christians from the scapegoat urge. Yet too many Christians have descended into scapegoating and anti-Semitism over the centuries, and sadly even today. . . .
We cannot but be struck to see that, even in the WSJ, a writer can blithely attribute antisemitism to the Right, citing as his sole example its presence on university campuses. Claiming that today’s professors who “[reject] the humanity of Jews everywhere” are on the Right is about as accurate as affirming that Hitler was a member of the Communist Party. But as we shall see, Doran’s concern is not really political.
This aside, what concerns me here is the, shall we say, vulgar-Girardian notion of scapegoating in relation to antisemitism. Girard’s explanation of the scapegoat mechanism emphasizes the arbitrary nature of the choice of the victim. In recognition of the source of the term in Leviticus 16, the essence of scapegoating for Girard is discharging the public’s anxieties in a “mimetic crisis” upon a marginal member of the group who will neither be able to defend him/herself nor is likely to be avenged by others. As Doran naively remarks, our supposed scapegoat urge is “an evolutionary adaptation that seems nothing short of diabolical.” Whence the Christian article of faith that God sent Jesus to earth so that this diabolical side of humanity might be purged.
If explaining scapegoating by the “scapegoat mechanism” begs the question, explaining antisemitism by this mechanism does so even more egregiously. As the old joke goes:
—It was the Jews who caused the war!
—Yes, the Jews and the bicyclists!
—Why the bicyclists?
—Why the Jews?
(adapted from Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism)
The Jews are the one people in the entire world who serve as default scapegoats when one is needed. They have played this role for two thousand years, wherever Christianity and/or Islam have become known.
We should appreciate the recent efforts of the Catholic Church to consider the Jews as Christianity’s “elder brothers,” but the Church’s undoubted sincerity in this has not prevented Israel from remaining the constant target of UN resolutions for which the majority of “Christian” countries have voted, as well as of innumerable hostile NGOs based in these countries, recently exemplified by Amnesty International’s report on “Israeli apartheid.”
If I have hope for the Abraham Accords, it is because these agreements counteract the propaganda generated by such NGOs and set an example for the nations of Europe. Today, the original Muslim reaction to Israel as an inadmissible Jewish invasion of Dar-es-Islam, like that to the Spain of the Reconquista, has subsided. The Palestinian irredentists who remain the pretext for the survival of European antisemitism are no longer representative of Sunni Muslim sentiments—nor perhaps those of Shiites either, given the unpopularity of the Iranian regime with its own population. The success and extension of these Accords cannot but increase the pressure on the still nominally Christian nations of Europe to end their resistance to Israel’s existence as a Jewish state.
As I pointed out in Chronicle 721, unlike Judaism or even Islam, Christianity obliges its faithful to accept the worldly presence of supernatural phenomena in the historical present. No doubt supernatural elements are present in the other Abrahamic religions, and in most others as well, but the salience of miracles in the Old Testament or the Koran is marginal. Dictating the latter to Mohammed or the Torah to Moses is hardly more than a metaphor; even delaying the sunset, causing a great flood, saving Daniel from the lions, or keeping the lamps lit for the Maccabees—or for that matter creating the universe—are ways of describing or tweaking natural processes. Whereas taking Jesus from his tomb—and Mary before death—up into heaven is not, and the “scandal to the Jews” is that these events are presented as taking place not in illo tempore but now. Unlike either Judaism or Islam, the compatibility of Christianity with what we call anthropology is thus made intentionally paradoxical, or as Paul put it, “folly to the pagans.”
The genius of Girard, to which GA owes its point of departure, is to have had the chutzpah to face up to this anomaly and dare to naturalize Christian redemption in what he called “fundamental anthropology.” Which is to say that, although Girard as a good Catholic would not have questioned the Resurrection or even Mary’s Immaculate Conception, he wanted to show that these miracles could be understood in anthropological terms—in the same way as GA’s originary hypothesis.
As I pointed out in Science and Faith, in provoking Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, Jesus “miraculously” appears in the heavens and asks Saul why he is persecuting him. If the reality of Jesus’ resurrection can be understood as equivalent to his persistent presence in the minds of his persecutors, given that persecuting someone arguably implies being obsessed by him even after his death, then the Christian “folly” can be placed on the same level as the Old Testament miracles. Whence Girard’s insistence, in the absence of anything like paleontological evidence, that repeated scenes of human sacrifice in the form of emissary murder brought about the origin of the human.
The vital core of Girard’s hypothesis, and of its anthropological defense of (Judeo)-Christianity, is its intuition that the fundamental element that made humanity what it is was not simply increased intelligence along with bipedal posture and the opposable thumb, but crucially, the incompatibility of this increased intelligence with the serial hierarchy of ape society (see Chronicle 534). Mimetic desire is indeed the key to hominization, but not in the direct way the emissary murder scenario implies. Frenzied lynchings may take place at moments of panic and plague, but the problem of dividing up the food supply is one of everyday survival. If the old Alpha-Beta system can no longer function in the face of mimetic conflict, scapegoating cannot furnish a substitute. The Aztecs didn’t start out by eating each other before discovering the advantages of consuming slaves and prisoners of war.
Whereas the emissary murder is presented as a response to an extreme situation, sacrificial rituals take place at regular intervals. In a typical feast in a hunter-gatherer society, a large animal or stock of other food is consumed in common—the equal distribution of food being a universal practice in pre-hierarchical societies. The idea that sacrificial animals emerged as a substitute for human scapegoats is simply perverse; what were these protohumans eating in the meantime? Nor would they have acquired through such murders any need for symbolic language. Killing the scapegoat involves no interdiction, no deferral: the discharge of aggressive energy is precisely its source of satisfaction—which however provides no basis for energetic renewal.
In Leviticus, the scapegoat was an arbitrarily chosen animal expelled from the human community into the desert, something quite different from the human victim of a lynching. The goat, the embodiment of a need to purge the community’s sins, is not itself guilty of any crime. Like the virgin thrown into the cauldron to improve the sound of a newly-cast bell, the scapegoat bears the community’s sins without being guilty of them; it is thus that sinless Jesus plays this role.
But the term scapegoat as we understand it today transforms the originally understood arbitrariness into its misunderstanding by the frenzied crowd; we alone recognize that the point is simply to discharge the crowd’s resentment, whereas the latter are presumably convinced that the scapegoat is really to blame for the community’s (and its own) sufferings. What is curious is that now that the term has taken on this accusatory meaning, there remains no simple way of referring to its original conception—which not insignificantly involved an animal generally killed for meat and consequently, unlike the virgin in the bell, not expected to generate compassion among the sacrificers.
How is this relevant to antisemitism? When a Jew claims that his people are being used as scapegoats for the ills of Christian and other societies, he is making the claim inherent in the modern use of the term: the Jew is blamed for the ills his sacrifice is meant to relieve rather than having been arbitrarily chosen as a souffre-douleur. Antisemitism can indeed be defined as the tendency to choose Jews either collectively or individually as scapegoats in the modern sense. At the same time, the curious double meaning of the term explains why Jews themselves, when they seek to understand their unique status, are seemingly blind to the obvious explanation for why they are so chosen—so much so that denial is the only reasonable diagnosis.
This explanation is the Jews’ firstness (see Chronicle 530). Mocking them as God’s “chosen people” is quite obviously double-edged. While deriding their pretensions, the mockery rather overrides than hides a sentiment of envy: perhaps the Jews aren’t really chosen, but why then do we think of them in such terms? Suppose an African tribe considered themselves to be “the chosen people”; would Europeans take their claim seriously? Seriously enough, for example, to expend vast quantities of time and energy in attempting to exterminate them in the midst of a world war?
The Jews are, after all, the kinsmen of Jesus; the people of the Old Testament, the foundation of the New. Which is to say that antisemitism, itself one of those holistic terms that cannot simply be analyzed as Jew-hatred—and its etymological sense as a “racial” term is no more enlightening—is, like scapegoat, constructed on an internal paradox. To be an antisemite is not simply to hate or dislike Jews, as if they were Frenchmen or Germans, or for that matter blacks or whites, but to resent their unshakeable firstness, their originarity, the fact that Christianity is dependent on their status as the “elder brothers” of Christians.
Christianity presents itself as the “new Israel,” the improved successor to Judaism, just as the post-Noahic world was an improvement over the one destroyed in the flood. But this historical honesty bears the burden of accepting the firstness of the Jews, and hence of not simply desiring their conversion, like that of all humans, to the true religion, but resenting those who refuse the offer. Pagans have no particular relationship with the Jews, but once they become Christians they become aware of these “hard-necked” rejecters of salvation. By rights they should only pity them, but the Jews’ faithfulness to their status as “the chosen people” cannot help but exercise, as Girard would put it, a mimetic attraction to which Christians are forced to react. Some become “Judeophiles” and a few even convert to Judaism, but the more natural, more common reaction is one of indignation, as though the Jews’ refusal to adopt their clearly superior religion were an insult to the Christians themselves.
Islam, in contrast, with its own kind of chutzpah, simply declares that both Judaism and Christianity, rather than its founding precursors, were inadequate early attempts at grasping its principles, for which reason Allah, tired of dealing with these inadequacies, decided to reveal to Mohammed his “originary” Koran so that it might replace the human-composed books of the Bible. As a result, and I think history confirms this, Muslims have remained less vulnerable to mimesis and able to feel superior to both Jews and Christians. The modernizing tendencies of such as Ataturk have had nothing to do with adopting Christianity, but only with adopting modernity, recognized as a value in itself independent of religion.
The birth of modern Islamism with Sayyid Qutb’s American sojourn in the late 1940s, which he experienced as morally scandalous, found its power in separating 20th-century technology from its social mores and rejecting the West’s secularism, which not coincidentally rekindled the original Islamic drive to expand Dar-es-Islam to the entire world. Unlike fundamentalist Christian movements such as the Amish, the Islamists are not hostile to modern technology—especially not to modern weaponry. Their movement is no doubt utopian, but its persistent potency demonstrates by contrast the spiritual weakness of today’s West, and most crucially, that of the pseudo-Christian susceptibility to the victimary to which Islam is invulnerable. How many admonitions did we receive after 9/11 against incipient islamophobia?
Might Islam’s invulnerability to the victimary become, in the context of the Abraham Accords, a source of the Abrahamic world’s renewed strength and incipient unity, of its ability once more to accept firstness as a goal rather than a pretext for resentment?
Returning to Doran’s article, we see that the fantasy of right-wing university professors indoctrinating their students in antisemitism cannot simply be dismissed as a careless error. Arafat’s genius was to grasp the potential of the Palestinian “independence struggle” as a means to restore traditional European antisemitism to its rightful place.
No doubt this required appealing to sentiments of the Left rather than the Right. The WWII Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, had told Hitler that he and the Arabs were “natural friends” as enemies of the Jews. But now that the Palestinians could present themselves as victims of Zionist colonialism, the Europeans who had survived the war and Nazism needed not for all that renounce their antisemitism, for it had been reborn with left-wing credentials. Which explains why all these Christian nations, Germany most of all, rather than seeking to help the Palestinians to rid themselves of their corrupt leaders and become Israel’s collaborators in modernizing the Middle East, lushly finance their efforts at “resistance,” hypocritically looking the other way when they turn to violence, whether in Europe or in and around Israel.
Doran wants the Christian world to face up to this rebirth of antisemitism, and to do something about it. After setting aside the usual claptrap about antisemitism “beginning with the Jews but never ending with them,” his article concludes:
. . . anti-Semitism is evil—not an abstract evil but very much in our midst. The problems of the Jews are Christian problems. The Christian response to this moment should begin with an honest inquiry into Christian anti-Semitism, without any fear of how widespread it may be.
The reader can now understand in what sense this conclusion excuses Doran’s blindness to the source of the antisemitism on today’s college campuses, most of whose perpetrators are, if not themselves Muslims, strongly identified with the Palestinian campaign to delegitimize Israel. For Doran’s point is that what matters to his American Christian audience, and one might add, to a good part of his Jewish audience, is their own recognition that the creation and survival of Israel is of the greatest importance, not merely as a symbol but as a demonstration of the continued firstness of the West, currently once more under challenge by what appear ever more clearly as less worthy forms of human social organization. Were ISIS and the Iranian mullahs to succeed in their efforts to destroy Israel, their fulfillment of Hitler’s dream would indeed be a black day for our civilization and for all humanity.