In a number of Chronicles (notably #749 and #797) I have drawn a parallel between two taboos: that on alluding to the firstness of the Jews (the “chosen people”) as an explanation for antisemitism—the theme of Adam Katz’s and my Rethinking Antisemitism (Brill, 2015)—and that on defending the originary hypothesis, which I have been refining for several decades since the publication of TOOL in 1981, as a minimal model of the origin of human language and the sacred/scenic/representational culture that derives from it.

The outpouring of antisemitic resentment in response to the pogrom of last October 7 awakened a sleeping monster thought to have been destroyed after the revelations of the Holocaust. We suddenly (re)discovered that the Jews’ sacrificial role in Western culture remains as real as ever, in Europe and the US as well as in the Middle East.

Antisemitism is the West’s and by extension the world’s Ur-model of intergroup resentment. Its reemergence should be no surprise, given the progress of the Woke ethic as the extreme form of what I have called the epistemology of resentment: the acceptance beyond all other considerations of the moral legitimacy of the resentment of members of the “intersectional” alliance of recognized victims of the (patriarchal, racist, colonialist) social order.

Discussing the current crisis in terms of public political attitudes offers little hope of helping to turn the political-moral equilibrium away from resentment toward love, as has been the aim of these Chronicles from the outset. Yet the originary hypothesis’ grounding of the human in an egalitarian transcendence of the hierarchy of prehuman society, which at the same time sets no individual or people above or below others, provides a primordial model of the human community that exemplifies the anthropological priority of love.

Orthodox Jews write G-d, not because the English word “God” is sacred, but because the name of God in any language is something to know (as a word) but not pronounce (as a name). That is, the Hebrew God must not be called by name, addressed in a naming locution that has the force of an imperative. We might ask why God himself, who sees into our hearts, would not allow us to distinguish his name from the word “God” used as a descriptive term, say in a work of anthropology. But although God himself would understand the difference, human third parties would risk becoming confused, for language is an operation of the human scene, and God as the creator of this scene must remain outside it. That we should know The Name (Hashem is the word used to refer to God in common Orthodox speech), and even write it in abbreviated form, but not be able to pronounce it reminds us that, as the originary hypothesis insists, Hashem was first revealed to us through interdiction. For the core of the sacred—to use a meta-word, a term of anthropology—is not, as René Girard thought, violence, but rather interdiction, conducive to the forestalling or deferral of violence, given as a command to our human conscience rather than to our reflexes, so that we first know God as the Subject who wills this interdiction.

Thus Hashem reveals to us his name, and writing it (in English transliteration) as YHVH—that is, as an in principle unpronounceable group of consonants—makes us understand Derrida’s great intuition that writing is, concerning the sacred, the source of language’s possibility, the only medium in which language, and the human in its distinction from the rest of the universe, can be fully cognized. Which, however, does not mean that we should fetishize this instrument of understanding by setting it in an Orphic sense prior to language, as so to speak the pre-originary form of the deferral of violence through representation.

Thus we must know that summoning God by using his name (taking it “in vain”) as an imperative is indeed within our power, but that we have not the right to pronounce it; that to claim such a right is blasphemous, and yet that we can write the name of God in such a way as to be a reminder that we must refrain from pronouncing it. Thus the naming of God is not impossible but interdicted, as we have seen the sacred is from the beginning.

We cannot know if this is the first time in history that the sacred was thus understood, but we can be certain that world civilization, that of the West in particular, first learned this from the Hebrews.

Significantly, neither of the other two Abrahamic religions have maintained this interdiction. Muslim prayer on the contrary insistently repeats the name of Allah, and uses it along with Mohammed as a privileged element of human names. This suggests that the interdiction on pronouncing YHVH, which at first sight grants no privilege to the Jews over other peoples, is in fact an implicit affirmation of their election that their brother religions could not retain; certainly not Islam, for which the Torah is not a canonical text and which on the contrary emphasizes its own election as the universal religion by making the declaration of faith in Allah sufficient proof of one’s identity as a Muslim.

As for Christianity, the abandonment of Hebrew as the language of prayer may be said to have made the question moot, while tacitly admitting the unique “election” of the Jews as those who continue to pray in the language in which God’s name was first interdicted. For Christians, indeed, there is no sacred name for God, only words designating God in different vernaculars. A term of address such as “Heavenly Father” has the same valence as “God” or “Lord,” and can be paired with “Jesus Christ” and “the Holy Spirit” as designating the different “persons” of the Trinity. Needless to say, the notion of a Trinity, which depends on and signals the progressive, historical nature of the Christian revelation, as well as its acknowledgement of Hebrew precedence, would be inconceivable in Islam; but it is clear that the lack of reticence in pronouncing the name of Allah is in its own way equally a reaction to Hebrew precedence.

On this point, refusal to recognize established historical facts such as the millennial presence of the Hebrews in the territory of Israel is a highly significant feature, if not of Islam as such, then certainly of the atavistic “Islamist” temptation of Islam that makes its voice and weaponry heard so loudly today. We have tended to be surprised that a number of nominally Christian nations, and many institutions such as NGOs and newspapers within these nations, have been so ready to take the side of Hamas against Israel. These Westerners would not if pressed deny that the ancestors of the Jews lived in what is now Israel millennia before the Palestinian Arabs, but they are willing to accept the latter’s version of history as a “Christian” gesture of concern for victims whose recent sufferings at the hands of the Jews “deserve” to be projected into the historical past.

The question for us is then to ask whether this matter of The Name that offers evidence of Hebrew priority in the revelation of the sacred is not, as the marker of Derrida’s différance, related to the taboo on the firstness of the originary hypothesis. We can pronounce a word to designate a thing, and this speech act reflects the deferral of our quest to possess it; but the embodiment of the sacred will that obliges us to this deferral must never be framed as our potential possession.

One need not be a fan of Hitler or Hamas to point out that the typical Jewish response to antisemitism, that it is simply absurd, is—and the term is quite pertinent—in bad faith. In Chronicle 805, I quoted this classic WWI joke, immortalized by Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism:

An antisemite claimed that the Jews had caused the war; the reply was: Yes the Jews and the bicyclists. Why the bicyclists? asks the one. Why the Jews? asks the other.

Pretending that blaming the Jews is no more logical than blaming the bicyclists is certainly valid enough in terms of rational causality, but it begs the question of why the Jews rather than any other collectivity tend to be accused of such things. And even if we need not argue the case with the antisemites, the joke mocks not only them but (tacitly) the Jews’ own failure to explain why indeed they are the default group that gets blamed for disasters.

We all know that the reason is not some “racial” or even simply historical peculiarity; the reason that the Jews are the unique people so accused is that Western civilization cannot be understood independently of the notion, whether believed or rejected, that the Jews are those to whom God first chose to reveal himself, his “chosen people” (le peuple élu—which, interestingly enough, still comes up in French ironic or crossword-puzzle references to the Jews, although I can’t recall seeing any recent examples in English).

The situation is complicated by the fact that “Jewish jokes” are meant for internal consumption, and the Jews cannot really pretend to be ignorant of what has made them the Western world’s sacred/sacrificial people. No doubt they are entitled to their little ironies, but when it comes to serious discussions of antisemitism, whether for internal or external consumption, Jews find themselves in the embarrassing position of pretending not to understand the causal link between their historical status and their history of periodic pogroms on various scales.

In this context, for the Jews to openly admit that, although their special status does not justify hatred and persecution, it is indeed a mark of cultural difference that is normally borne with pride, is a delicate matter indeed. Throughout most of their history, they had been obliged to maintain a low profile as a minority in Christian or Muslim society; for the first time in eighty years I wonder if this status is making a comeback.

It is only during the past few months that I have been obliged to deal with overt manifestations of the stigma borne by the Jews over the centuries. The other day, the traces of the recent river-to-sea demonstrations having been mostly cleared away, I went to the UCLA library, and when the young lady at the counter wished me a good day, I mentioned that I was happy to be on campus now that no antisemitic demonstrations were taking place. This remark did not elicit a reaction, and I had to realize that it was by no means impossible that my interlocutor sympathized with or at least respected the legitimacy of the demonstrations and/or disapproved of my calling them “antisemitic.” The Overton Window is no longer where it was.

The parallel between the Jews’ role in transmitting the intuition of the unity of the sacred, or “monotheism,” and my theory of the origin of language is evident. Although to compare the importance of the two taboos would be absurd, they both follow the same pattern: claiming to have “discovered” the origin of language is the secular equivalent of having been first to receive a divine revelation. And the parallel is all the more flagrant given the originary hypothesis’ claim to reveal the origin of the sacred itself.

It is easy to explain the cloud of obfuscation in which the Jewish community has long preferred to hide the real essence of antisemitism. When Islamists refuse to accept that the Hebrews were present in the areas where their artifacts are still being dug up, one prefers to condemn their hostility as an irrational “prejudice” rather than to insist on facts that are flatly denied, since they are in any case irrelevant to the current accusation: that the Jews are committing “genocide” and all the rest. The residual horror of the Holocaust still allows us to find a response with some legal weight when we identify these accusations as “antisemitism,” which is why including “anti-Zionism” in its International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition is so important.

What then of the origin of language? Here no mobs are crying for my blood; simple skepticism suffices: “you can’t prove it!” But the underlying offense is the same. How dare X claim to be the first to identify the origin of human language, and along with it that of human conscience, of our sense of a sacred external will that orders us to renounce our attempt to possess what we desire, and as a consequence, to (at first involuntarily) represent it, that is, to reveal our renounced desire to our fellows through a sign?

This first revelation is hypothetical, not historical; it involves no specific claim of time or place, nor seeks to specify through how many stages the understanding of the sacred, signification, or interdiction emerged. It cannot, one might say fortunately, be associated with any specific human group, and in any case, the impossibility for its originators to create, as did the Hebrews, a written record—an inscription—of their deed means that no second sacrificial people need be elected.

Self-glorification is not my purpose. It is rather that what I believe deserves to be called the discovery of the fundamental process of the origin of language, of what Sartre named, perhaps under Buddhist influence, the néant within the pour-soi of human self-consciousness that separates the human subject from his object and allows him to point to it, is in historical terms no small matter. It has the virtue of making no claims concerning the status of the sacred save that it is accessible to us only through the mediation of the human community. Anthropology has no reason, no need to question the validity of experiences of religious revelation, nor need it choose among them, so long as they embody anthropological truth.

This does not imply, as Durkheim would have had it, that the sacred is somehow the creation of the community—nor, as Girard polemically put it, as though the scene depicted in the originary hypothesis were the equivalent of the signing of a “social contract.” (“If one accepts Gans’ hypothesis, then all other forms of social contract have also to be accepted.” Evolution and Conversion: Dialogues on the Origins of Culture, Continuum, 2007: 123-24.) It is rather the sense of the sacred experienced in common by the human group that creates it as a human community.

The structural similarity of the two taboos suggests why this latter revelation has made so little impact. In an era of pundits and influencers, but with no thinkers of the stature of Sartre in his day or even Derrida in his, there is simply no market for such a discovery; what would be its place in a society—and in an academic world—where the perpetrators of the atrocities of last October 7 have attracted more passionate sympathizers to their cause than their raped, tortured, mutilated victims?

That Anthropoetics and the Generative Anthropology Society and Conference have existed for so many years is as much of a miracle as I could have imagined. Our hypothesis, which puts love, not resentment, at the origin of humanity, sustains our hope that as we come better to understand ourselves, we will ultimately put this era of resentment behind us.