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Antisemitism: From Paradox to BS
No. 429: Saturday, August 4, 2012
1. Antiquity: the ungraspable paradox
It is problematic to speak of antisemitism in antiquity. The Jews’ adoption of monotheism does not appear to have impinged upon the discourse of the philosophers, who never remarked on the common reliance of both metaphysics and Judaism on the declarative sentence as a model for an objective, non-ostensive relationship to (sacred) reality. In antiquity, the idea that the sacred was a universal human phenomenon that linked each specific community to a common origin was not so much denied as granted only secondary importance in comparison with the "ecumenical" necessity of accepting the sacred of other communities. That is, "polytheism" is less a matter of insisting on the essential plurality of gods than of showing deference to other communities and "their" gods. We may allege in its defense that it exemplifies a tolerance that modern ecumenism cannot equal; the polytheist does not claim that "his" god is superior, nor even that the gods themselves are fundamentally different, but rather that we all deal with the sacred in our own way and that no one need assert the superiority of his own, rooted as each set of rituals and customs is in a particular history. In this context, the Jews’ One God seems merely to be their god whom they churlishly claim to be superior to everyone else’s, not the embodiment of a superior insight into the nature of divinity/humanity itself.
Judaism’s offense in antiquity was to "diplomacy." The truth of the One God undiplomatically asserts Jewish firstness, we might say, in two ways: (1) we realize that there is only One God; you don’t; (2) we worship the One God, who has chosen us, not you, as his focus of revelation among the communities of the world. The One God is not a particular God, but he can only be experienced in the particularity of being. Whence the sacrificial setting of the "burning bush," where God does not appear but where his human interlocutor must be present. To be present to God is an act of particularity whose exclusivity the Hebrews cannot but attribute to themselves as "God’s own people." The Greeks could not proclaim Zeus the One God, not merely because worshipers of Poseidon and the others would protest, but because they could not conceive themselves as limited to the community in which Zeus was worshipped, as he presumably had been in the past at Dodona and elsewhere, if not as the One God, then as the Only God.
This hostility to the Hebrews is not quite "antisemitism," since it cannot clearly see the Hebrew violation of protocol as a historical claim of firstness. The Jews were seen simply as intolerant, placing their tribal god over all others. A philosopher such as Xenophanes, author of the famous lines about horses and lions—as well as Scythians and Ethiopians—creating gods in their image, could conclude that there was one (greatest?) god inconceivable in anthropomorphic terms. For philosophers even today, such a god is more sophisticated than the One God of the Jews, whom they often call "Yahweh" (as Jews in principle never do) to suggest that he is "really" just the god of a local community. But the "unique god" of Xenophanes is a mere abstraction, cut off from ritual worship, a concept of god rather than the One God himself. Or to put it a bit differently, this god’s historical link to the origin has been severed because it does not reach back to the originary moment where there was indeed only "one god" at the center of the originary scene. What the Jews affirm on faith is that their God is the One God, not because they can trace his history to the moment of human origin, but because his and their very existence implies the existence of such a filiation. This is inconceivable for the Greeks, who could only "deduce" the Unique God from the generality of gods. To decide whether Xenophanes’ god was really unique or just greater than the other gods is unimportant, since in any case he would be an abstraction standing over the "real" gods worshiped by specific communities. In an ecumenical world, the only "supreme god" is one who usurps the role of the pantheon and takes all the godly roles for himself. He cannot be, like the God of the Jews, the unique god of a community discovered/revealed to be the One God, not because he is "superior" to others but because the specific community realizes that it is a model of the entire human community and that the scene of worship is ontologically unique since it derives in each case from the unique originary scene.
Hence it is not accurate to oppose the Jews’ One God to the anthropomorphic gods mocked by Xenophanes. The One God’s "invisibility" is not necessitated by the need to avoid offering a particular image. Christianity could never have emerged within the Jewish orbit had anthropomorphism been a key issue. The point is not that God cannot look like any given human being, but that he is both too great to look upon, to conceive of in material form, and yet only imaginable in human terms. And thus we imagine him with a name, yet we discover that his "name" is a declarative sentence. Whereas for Xenophanes, either we have specific, historically attested, named Gods such as Zeus, or we have an abstract entity who never bore a name, but which we can call "(the) God." This "classical" notion of the divinity is quite close to the Enlightenment theology of Deism. What makes the "Jewish God" a subject of resentment is precisely what makes him an "authentic" divinity; his connection with a real community. The paradox is the undefinable relationship between the originary community, which is both "all of humanity" and a specific group of (first) humans, and the "human community" as a whole, that of the subjects of the One God. The Greeks, and we may assume, polytheists in general, cannot fully experience this paradox, let alone explain it, since their way of transcending the particular gods of separate communities that were subsequently merged into "pantheons" is by abstraction, resulting in a God-in-General, but not in a One God.
2. Christian antisemitism: a case of BS
The history of early Christianity’s rivalry with Judaism is not coextensive with that of antisemitism. But this obliges us to sharpen our definition of precisely what "antisemitism" is, and in the first place, to help explain why such a term exists at all, why "hatred of Jews" or "rivalry with Jews" is somehow not good enough, why there is a phenomenon of antisemitism that has something of the status of an anti-religion. To speak of antisemitic resentment and hatred is at best to refer to Jewish firstness as an object of envy; it says nothing about how the antisemite evolves an antisemitic ideology, or in other words, about how he engages in a project of antisemitism.
Both Christianity and Islam deny the reality of Jewish firstness, although Christianity is willing to credit the historical (if not the theological) anteriority of the Hebrews in making known the revelation of the One God. But the overall theology of Christianity or even Islam is not what we mean by antisemitism, whatever the motivations of its creators. The point of Christianity is not to disparage Jews, but to gain adherents, even if it be at the expense of the Jews; to the extent that it is indeed an authentic religion, it is oriented more toward love than resentment, and its resentful details are not its primary focus. Whence the interest of examining doctrines that can be detached from Christian theology to become specific foci of resentment and motivations for anti-Jewish behavior.
The Gospels’ distortion of historical fact to make the Jews responsible for Jesus’ crucifixion is already "anti-Jewish"; it could only become antisemitic in the light of the established categories of Christian society. Since the branding of the Jews as "Christ-killers" is the archetype of all antisemitic accusations, we would do well to examine the phenomenon more closely. "Christ-killer" is not just a scapegoating accusation. No doubt the Romans, not the Jews, were responsible for the Crucifixion, and Pilate’s washing his hands is hardly a plausible historical event. But the point of the accusation is to transform Jewish monotheistic firstness, the object of the antisemite’s resentment, into itself a form of resentment. "The Jew" must be all the more resentful, second, the more his firstness is envied. Attributing to the Jews the responsibility for the Crucifixion is in effect accusing them of envy of Jesus' ontological, and eventually chronological ("before Abraham was, I am") firstness. The essential anthropological point that all humans are responsible for the Crucifixion, that all humanity is founded on the deferral of violence that is always at least minimally an act of violence, and consequently a mode of what Christians would later call "original sin," does not of course single out the Jews. But the New Testament does lend itself to this reading, and the Jews even in the most generous reading of these texts are the exemplary representatives of universal humanity, a point René Girard has emphasized. Calling Jews "Christ-killers" is thus the archetypal antisemitic move of making this exemplarity into a stigma, a mark of human inferiority. The contrast between the firstness of the Jews and the backwardness of the "pagans" is translated into the enviousness of the former at their supersession by the latter. The Crucifixion becomes a means of annulling and thus denying the original firstness that the continued existence of Judaism preserves.
In extrapolations of the Christ-killer accusation, the Jews have typically been accused of acts of spiteful envy that express resentful fantasies projected onto them, fantasies that not only have no historical basis but are wholly contrary to the spirit of Judaism. The idea that the Jews desecrate ("bleed") communion wafers is one obvious example. The most extreme accusation commonly reported is the "blood libel": the absurd idea, repeated since the Middle Ages, and never more frequently than in the Islamic world today, that the Jews kill non-Jewish children and collect their blood for use in preparing Passover matzoth. Despite its utter lack of foundation, this accusation has remained popular ever since it was "discovered" in twelfth-century Britain. In the antisemitic fantasy-world, the matzoth becomes a Jewish communion wafer in which the Jews, having failed to recognize Christ’s divinity, nevertheless require a substitute for Jesus’ blood. The child must give his blood because the Jews have refused to be washed in the blood of the Lamb. The Zionist theorist Ahad Ha-Am, as quoted in Prager and Telushkin’s Why the Jews? (Simon & Schuster, 2003, p. 84; the Ha-Am quote is from his Selected Essays, Meridian Books, 1962, p. 203-04), cites the blood libel as a source of Jewish self-confidence, since the inconceivability that it was a reaction to real Jewish behavior shows antisemitism to be motivated by resentment pure and simple.
In Des choses cachées…, Girard classifies the medieval texts that indict Jews for such things as bleeding Christian children as "texts of persecution." The one example Girard provides of such a text (in Le bouc émissaire, 1982) in fact accuses the Jews of poisoning wells during the Black Plague. His point is that these narratives are no longer myths, yet are not simple evidentiary documents. The victim is not transfigured into a supernatural being; he is simply accused of a crime within the framework of the legal system. Yet the accusation is so fantastic that it is easy for "us," as heirs of the Enlightenment, to see that it is baseless and that the accused is a victim of "scapegoating." This paradigm can be extended to all antisemitic accusations in the Christian era. The Jews are the scapegoats par excellence in Girard's scheme. They are marked as factors of instability by their insistence not merely on rejecting Christianity (although they were the only inhabitants of medieval society that did so) but on maintaining their historical firstness as the true Israel, rejecting by their very existence as a people their "supersession" by Christendom. The scapegoat is always accused of refusing to adhere to the fundamental values of the society. But only the Jews could be accused not of naïve attachment to "uncivilized nature," as in the case, for example, of the black lynching victim, but of adherence to a prior religious order, the object of an arrogant affirmation that could be punished only by profound humiliation.
Alas, the idea that these "texts of persecution" are transparent to us and therefore no longer effective is a postmodern effect of Auschwitz that appears sadly naive today, when antisemitic literature has never been either more plentiful or more fantastic. This literature’s flagrant irrationality only makes it the more obvious that "rationality" is not as objective a criterion as we might think. "Texts of persecution" vary according to the standards of their respective societies. In today’s Middle East, professors at major universities offer "scholarly demonstrations" of the Blood Libel. The West does not endorse such discourses, although the Western intelligentsia displays no particular hostility toward those who produce them, in contrast to its antipathy for Israeli and Zionist academics. But more sophisticated indictments can be drawn up that are at bottom no less irrational. For example, many Western intellectuals seem convinced that Israel is the only country in the world that does not deserve to exist, or whose products should be boycotted. Is this a "rational" idea independent of the old antisemitism? The fact that we can see through medieval "texts of persecution" but hesitate before modern ones implies that not so much Girard's category itself as its intentional structure needs further exploration. For we can assume that there was no more "proof" in the Middle Ages that the Jews poisoned wells and desecrated communion wafers than that Israel is committing "genocide" in the Palestinian territories today.
Harry Frankfurt's quasi-humorous philosophical category of "bulls***" (henceforth BS), whose most visible version is a little book published by Princeton in 2005 (the text is available at various places on the Internet, e.g., https://athens.indymedia.org/local/webcast/uploads/frankfurt__harry_-_on_bullshit.pdf) strikes me as a useful category for understanding antisemitic accusations. In the terms of HF’s analysis, such accusations are not lies. One asserts them because one finds it advantageous to do so, in anticipation of the effect they will have on others and on the society at large, unconcerned with whether they are true or false. But whereas HF’s etiology of BS is essentially narcissistic frivolity and the individual’s desire for prestige, antisemitic accusations have an important public function. Resentment against Jewish firstness is an undecidable combination of preexisting resentment of Jews and an independently provoked supplement of "scapegoating" or originary resentment that finds its pretext in the Jews, whose monotheistic firstness unites the two causes in a way impossible for another stigmatized group. Be that as it may, the category of BS is clearly applicable. Did the medieval Christians "really" believe that the Jews bled Christian boys? or did they just want to believe it, to enforce this belief? Qui veut noyer son chien l'accuse de la rage [He who wants to drown his dog accuses it of having rabies], to quote good old La Fontaine.
Girard’s "text of persecution" may then be seen as a way of historicizing Frankfurt’s abstract conception of BS. The myths to which in antiquity we adhered "esthetically," in the context of participation in a culturally prescribed ritual sacrifice performed without overt resentment, are replaced in the Christian era by BS in the form of antisemitic accusations. In this post-sacrificial world, where only individual resentment remains for "sacrifice" to efface, only the BS accusation provides satisfaction.
It is in this sense of making resentment manifest, not in that of its mere presence, that Nietzsche and his Nazi followers were justified in associating resentment specifically with the Judeo-Christian world. Resentment is in effect a more evolved sentiment than the mindless "rage" of the participant in ritual sacrifice. In keeping with its common translation, the base meaning of menis, the first word of the Iliad, is indeed rage. But it is only because what the word refers to in Achilles is specifically motivated as resentment that there is a story, an epic rather than a liturgical myth, for Homer to tell.
Frankfurt’s analysis of BS is that of an analytic philosopher and bears the marks of the genre, in particular in its indifference to the historical stages of culture. His prime example of BS is a platitudinous Independence Day speech, where a politician spews patriotic clichés without concern for truth or precise meaning. Although this speech uses such phrases as "divine guidance" and "our blessed country," HF fails to make what seems to me the obvious and fundamental connection between BS and religious discourse. Such discourse is not itself BS. But if myth is the original form of which "texts of persecution" are the modern (that is, Christian-era) prolongation, then it is likewise at the origin of Frankfurt’s category (which, as I am suggesting, Girard’s texts of persecution exemplify). BS shares with myth the quality of affirming as true what cannot be verified as such—and of which the speaker knows, or at least surmises, that it cannot be verified as such. Such beliefs as virgin birth or transubstantiation can never leave the realm of faith to be verified, and consequently possess a different kind of truth from empirical statements. But in contradistinction to religious discourse, BS is produced in a world where verification is in principle possible. We are not in illo tempore but in the here-and-now, where wells can be poisoned and little boys bled to death. BS assertions are "acts of faith" that nevertheless pretend to be verifiably true.
The Jew’s presumed evil intent fantastically reflects his insistence on the chronological and therefore anthropological priority of his religious project, transforming his people’s historical firstness in revealing the moral law into the arrogant denial of this law—and thereby depriving it, and him, of priority in its revelation. But this transformation can be carried out only in the mode of BS, through the assertion of unverifiable "facts" by which alone human ontology can be redefined. Thus the antisemitic "text of persecution" that accuses a Jew of murdering Christian children for Passover is affirmed in public without any genuine expectation of confirmation, save through some kind of coerced confession. Such a confession, we should note, is itself a painful form of BS, indeed, its purest form, since it is made neither to tell the truth nor to lie, but simply to make the pain cease independently of empirical truth or falsity. Like all BS, it can be summed up as "telling people what they want to hear."
The next installment in this series on antisemitism will pursue the "Jewish question" in the post-Enlightenment era of Jewish emancipation and "racial" antisemitism, leading to the Holocaust. As in the present Chronicle, I intend to focus on antisemitic practices and accusations. Jewish "election," in which the Enlightenment saw an outdated prejudice whose abandonment was expected to put an end to anti-Jewish hostility, has never seemed more pertinent than today as an explanation of world history. This is true both for the antisemites, who are happy to attribute all the world's ills to the Jews, and for the friends of the Jews, who cannot find it a simple coincidence that the world’s one universally stigmatized people has created the world’s one nation whose very existence is considered illegitimate by an important fraction of the world’s population.