Free to Be Jew and Me

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All discourse about transformative identities goes to the heart of Bad Subjects' criticisms of multi-culturalism: the critique of deliberately self-marginalized forms of social identity. The starting point for identity politics, we argued, was the fetishization of oppressed forms of cultural identification.
Joel Schalit

Issue #19, March 1995

(Jewish religion) associates hope only with the prohibition against calling on what is false as God, against invoking the finite as infinite, lies as truth. The guarantee of salvation lies in the rejection of any belief that would replace it: it is knowledge obtained in the denunciation of illusion.
— Horkheimer and Adorno, The Dialectic of Enlightenment, p.23
I wish there was a perfume I could sprinkle on myself to mask the Hebraic stench. I even have a name for it: Final solution. But the oppressive smell won't go away until I'm stone cold-dead, a lifeless Jewess in my own private Auschwitz.
— Debbie Goad, Answer Me!

From Here To Identity

All discourse about transformative identities goes to the heart of Bad Subjects' criticisms of multi-culturalism: the critique of deliberately self-marginalized forms of social identity. The starting point for identity politics, we argued, was the fetishization of oppressed forms of cultural identification. From there, we showed one could never develop a radical or progressive politics, because by fetishizing one's own identity in order to be emancipated, oppressed ethnicities and sexualities always end up recreating their own cultural selves in the image of a non-democratic, anti-pluralist official culture. If our project is to develop a comprehensive social theory, then we must also look at struggles to assert cultural autonomy that are not considered part of the debate over minority representation in mainstream American society: The Jews.

The Jewish question is as of paramount significance today as it was over a hundred years ago when Marx first wrote about the difficulties engendered by Jews' insistence on retaining their religious identity as a logical gift of emancipation by the Enlightenment in 'On The Jewish Question.' The gist of Marx's argument as it remains useful for our purposes is as follows: Why should Jews be allowed to retain their religious identity when the removal of the church from public life meant that traditionally Christian Europe could no longer hold on to its religious identity? Marx answered that Jews must be prepared to give up their religious identity too, not only as a favour to their gentile brethren, but also because retaining their religious identity was antithetical to their desire to be emancipated from being forced to worship at other Gods' altars.

Jews were and remain a central test case for identity politics because of the limited gains they have made in Christian society since the Enlightenment. Despite severe setbacks that harken back to medieval times such as the Dreyfus case in France, the pogroms in Russia, the Holocaust, and the execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg for stealing American nuclear secrets, Jews are now more integrated in Western society than at any other moment in history. Nevertheless, the danger of anti-Semitism still persists, and remains as threatening as it did 100 years ago when proto-National Socialist racial theorists like Gobineau declared Judaism to be unnatural. All one has to do is listen to Evangelical talk radio show hosts and activists like Bob Larson and the Reverend Lou Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition make arguments about the alien character of homosexuality to see the parallels and their potential for exploitation. The forgotten rumble of cattle cars can be heard again in the new Christian homophobia.

Obviously history has not erased the single most important factor in shaping minority identity, persecution. In Act and Idea In Nazi Genocide, Berel Lang made this point more clearly than perhaps any identity politics theorist does when he discusses the role of genocide in shaping Jewish identity in his description of how the Holocaust is the foundation of Jewish nationalism. Hannah Arendt made a similar point in Eichmann In Jerusalem, when she compared Israeli laws which define the essentials of Jewish citizenship with the Nuremburg Laws of 1933 which spell out who is and is not a real German.

Jews who continue to live in the Diaspora are forced to contend with an even more complex set of questions regarding the formation of their own identity than anyone has been able to anticipate. The problem that they face is of great importance because despite the limited gains that Jews have made since their first emancipation under Napoleon, they continue to have their identity shaped by a society which demands that religious minorities give up their traditional identities in order to participate in public life but nevertheless insists on the right of the dominant culture to preserve its own traditionally religious character. In this light secularization becomes a two edged-sword: On the one hand cultural pluralism demands a common understanding of social identity in order to forge a diverse society in which all participants recognize each other as equals. On the other hand, the requirement that mythological forms of identification be abandoned in favor of equality secretly disguises its own commitment to a religiously based form of cultural hierarchy because the dominant culture refuses to concede its own explicitly mythological identity.

This has become increasingly apparent in recent years in North America, where the Evangelical resurgence in American politics makes this question of special importance for non-Christian citizens. By making theological arguments and taking political initiatives to reshape America as a Protestant theocracy, the Evangelical right does so at the expense of other religions. If Christians did make religious minorities partners in a real conversation about the future of this country, the religious right would be demonstrating something very significant about what it is that their attempt to politically re-enchant the new Zion explicitly denies: That the process of reestablishing religion in American public life is an ethnocentric and culturally specific discourse, which multiculturalists and religious minorities ignore at their own peril.

The danger inherent in refusing to acknowledge this emergency has already made itself glaringly obvious, but traditional multiculturalism has been unable to recognize it because of its self-marginalizing tendencies. At this crisis point in American pluralism we now have the vantage point by which we can observe the price paid by the Jewish community as a consequence of its having bought into the secular promise of equality: Either Jews understand themselves to be completely autonomous from all historically received prejudices, or in the case of the new traditionalists, incapable of being subservient to anything but tradition in order to be truly free. Those who insist on being emancipated from the constraints of society and tradition, and those who deny this possibility all together have one thing in common: Their self-conceptions are equally dependent upon a deeply mythological cultural hierarchy which will find any solution to eliminate all insistence on religious difference even if it does mean violating the Enlightenment strategy of demythologizing minority identities.

The Melting Pot Spits Back

The Jewish role in debates about multiculturalism has been limited to discussions regarding interfaith dialogue, most of which took place in Ecumenical and academic circles after the Second World War as a consequence of the Holocaust and Vatican II. By the time the multiculturalism debates started taking place on university campuses during the mid-eighties, Jews had already been absorbed into the upper echelons of the American workforce. The only reminder of Cold War interfaith dialogue was to be found in the pages of liberal Jewish journals like Tikkun, where editor Michael Lerner and Afro-American theologians such as Cornel West sought to actively overcome tensions between the Black and Jewish communities. When Jews did intervene in campus discussions they took whatever sides white Anglo-Saxon Protestants would have taken, ranging from Stanley Fish's assertion that the institutionally overdetermined prejudices of a reader creates the meaning that they find in a text, to Allen Bloom reminding us that we have forgotten the great white Greco-Christian heritage that made our country what it is today.

Fish and Bloom's contributions to the multiculturalism debate have much to teach us about what Jews think about their own identities, especially when they have nothing to say about it. Fish has little to offer in way of explanation as to why he believes it so necessary to assert that a reader fills a text with meanings that conform to their own institutional ideologies. Could it be that he wants to assert the legitimacy of a yeshiva student's reading of The Merchant of Venice? As for Bloom, what we have in his call for a return to The Bible and Plato's Republic is a muted call for a textually based historical consciousness that excludes his own historical background in its canon.

Fish and Bloom are representative of a generation of Jewish intellectuals who are responsible for the lack of a Jewish presence in the multiculturalism debate. Their complicity in its absence is lamentable, especially given their importance in the foundational questions that multiculturalism concerns itself with — the exclusion of historically significant ethnicities, religions and genders from the canon of texts considered to be integral to the tradition of Western thinking, and the attempt to either reconstruct or reify this tradition through the eyes of its own ethnically and religiously diverse inheritors.

As easy as it would be to target Fish for not being forthright about why he brackets out his own background from his call to be more sensitive about how reading great texts opens up different horizons of understanding for different peoples, it is more important to ask why Fish chooses to take such a cynical attitude towards the practice of reading. If a reader is simply an empty vessel that an institution pours itself into in order to legitimate itself, than there is no agency other than passively accepting the ideological construction of our own identities through education. Similarly, we must also ask Bloom why he chooses to decry the fall of American culture when the history he claims America is forgetting does not reflect his own particular heritage. Obviously Bloom is the kind of subject Fish is really speaking about.

Both Fish and Bloom's attitudes derive themselves from a commitment to a type of Enlightenment liberalism that they inherited from the Jewish move into the upper tiers of Western intellectual life. As a consequence of emancipation, Jews took on malleable identities that they mistook for the kind of cultural and intellectual freedom that accompanied secularization. What was forgotten in this struggle to achieve equality was that the official culture could legitimately intervene and replace those forms of identity which were discarded as being superstitious and counter-Enlightenment. Hence, for post-structuralists like Fish in the absence of an ontological grounding for meaning, other forms of identity that legitimate the status quo can intervene to fill up the vacuum of identity vacated by the renunciation of all meanings. We can look at Bloom's call for a return to classical education to substantiate the claim that with the renunciation of the hegemony of official identities, minorities are forced to seek some kind of order and stability in historical narratives and structures other than their own as Bloom does.

Ironically, Fish and Bloom's perspectives exemplify the type of universal citizen that Marx was encouraging fellow Jews to become. But the deficiency in Marx's own call for Jews to become equally secular is that in capitalist society post-religious forms of citizenship are only available to those who are willing to be remade in the image of the official culture. Assimilation paradoxically afforded an overcoming of pre-Enlightenment prejudices for Jews at the same time that Christian members of Western society were allowed to retain their tradition-bound identities in private life. Subsequently those Jews who could indeed afford to adopt social identities based on abstract notions of universal citizenship forgot how the historical and tradition-bound consciousness of the official Greco-Christian culture would always serve to remind them of their own ethno-religious identity in times of crisis and persecution.

The present historical juncture that America finds itself in with the ascendancy of the religious right to dominant positions of power in government creates an identity-forming crisis for Jews all over again as it has done during every period of renewed anti-Semitism since Rome's Fifth Legion started booting Jews out of Palestine after the Bar Kochba revolt. But mobilizing Jewish citizens to recognize this problem is difficult, because the new Christian anti-Semitism is subtle and self-denying. Instead of traditional anti-Semitism what we now have is an explicit anti-pluralism, whose anti-Semitism lies in its subtle and vague hostility towards all manifestations of cultural and sexual difference.

The options for consciousness raising are slim, because all attempts to point out the danger inherent in the new Christian prejudice requires spelling out to each and every minority group what is precisely at stake for them. The danger in even explaining what is at stake is that it risks interpellating minorities in the same manner that persecution does. An excellent example is a recent article in the New York Times on the use of Islamic iconography by Bosnian Army units. According to the essay, a dispute has surfaced between Bosnian President Alia Izetbegovich, Croatian Catholic and Serbian Orthodox parliamentarians over how these religious icons are being used to represent the Bosnian military when the army is also made up of Catholic and Serbian Orthodox soldiers. Critics charge that the use of Muslim icons denies the pluralistic makeup of not only the military, but also Bosnian society as a whole. Izetbegovich charged back that Muslim soldiers had a right to use such icons in order to boost their morale in what is for all intents and purposes a religious war designed to rid Europe of Islam once and for all.

This debate illustrates the extent to which persecution, no matter how it is experienced or taught has a similar effect, because it always fetishizes the identity of its victims. Hailed as members of distinctly illegitimate communities, minorities are forced to essentialize their identities in the mirror image of their oppressors because persecution seeks to deprive them of the ability to be cultural essentialists. Even when persecution is taught as opposed to directly experienced, the trauma of knowing what could happen based on a distorted recollection of past historical events can have equally devastating consequences for the formation of healthy oppositional identities. The construction of religious identities by post-war Jewish fundamentalists such as the late Rabbi Meir Kahane makes this all too clear.

Convinced by the experience of the Holocaust that Jews could never live freely in gentile society, Brooklyn ex-patriot Kahane founded a fascist religious party in Israel called Kach, which in English means 'Enough.' Kach's political platform calls for the forced expulsion of Palestinians from the occupied territories as part of God's promise to the Jewish people that they had the only right to live in the fabled lands of Judea and Samaria. As part of his effort to develop support for his party, Kahane and his emissaries from Flatbush engaged in public education campaigns within the American Jewish community to demonstrate why Jews could never live anywhere but in the land given to them by God. As a result, Kahane and his ilk were largely responsible through their outreach campaigns for creating an attitude of fear and paranoia among young post-war American Jews: That the experience of genocide in the previous generation had taught them that racial pluralism in the West was absolutely untenable.

This kind of public education had remarkable effects because of how it taught American Jews to inherit the trauma and anger of the previous generation's experience of injustice during the Holocaust as the basis for their own sense of communal selfhood. The only way that the teaching of such trauma is dealt with in the fundamentalist community has been by sublimating it through the practice of terrorism as a means of self-assertion. Only by getting revenge for the Holocaust through the performance of violent acts against Palestinians can Kahane's offspring truly feel Jewish. Much to our chagrin, the track record supporting such grim conclusions is far too long too ignore.

Since 1980 Jewish fundamentalists have done everything from attempt to blow up the third holiest shrine in Islam, Al-Aksa, to Baruch Goldstein's cold-blooded murder of twenty-nine Muslims at prayer in the Tomb of The Patriarchs in Hebron last year. The history of the Arab-Israeli conflict is insufficient to explain such pathological behavior because Jews traditionally faired much better under Muslim rule than they did in Christian Europe. It was only through the British colonial misrule of Palestine that interracial conflicts between Muslims and Jews were historically inaugurated. But it is easy to add fuel to the fire once you have been subject to the experience of industrialized genocide. Teaching that identity can be created through revenge on innocent victims for past injustices is, even without the rebuilding of human soap factories, sufficient enough to recreate the past in all of its glory all over again. Show Us Yer Matzoh!

When we speak of transformative identities, we hope to mean forms of social identification which resist not only fetishization and cultural relativism, but also identities that are not based on revenge for the experience of injustice either. This does not mean that we should be lead to conclude that our only alternative is to constantly reinvent fictional narratives upon which we can hold our disparate and malleable non-existent selves together. Nor should we entertain the false option of assuming defensive strategies of the non-violent kind in order to resist domination as Judith Butler's notion of performative identity suggests, because performance is no substitute for politics even if it is upsetting to the status quo.

In order for religious minorities to be able to transform their own identities to be something more than simply secular or fundamentalist, the dominant official culture cannot demand identities it will not give up itself. It would therefore be unfair to reiterate Marx's request that Jews give up their traditional identity when over a century's worth of hindsight has proven that Christianity was never fully removed as the official religion of public life. The persistence of religious anti-pluralism is here to remind us of that. Without returning blindly to tradition out of revenge for giving up what no one else will in order to become equal, religious minorities are faced with very few options short of becoming extreme traditionalists or naive liberals.

It is impossible to propose a theory of identity that totally transforms its own interpellation, because to do so would be to assume that we could actually conceive of a liberated subject in a post-capitalist world. Louis Althusser reminds us of this when he states that it is foolish to try to conceive of a non-ideological subject when the institutions that hail us will always continue to exist in one form or another even after the revolution. In Negative Dialectics, Adorno takes a similarly realistic position when he speaks of secularization as the transformation of the blind determinism of tradition into a critical self-consciousness of how we are constituted by it. Only then can we begin to dialectically work our way out of the constraints that tradition imposes on us in order to facilitate the only honest form of resisting ideologies that always render us identical with persecution: Through the practice of immanent criticism.

The new Jewish question forces us to ask how Western Marxism's understanding of tradition can be critically reappropriated. What we need to be able to do is wrestle the inevitable experience of tradition away from its own self-fetishization in the image of the official culture. The first step is to recognize, as Habermas puts it in his debate with Gadamer, that tradition must be dissociated from dogmatism. Rather than reconceive of tradition as a repository of non-identical otherness that is oppositional by virtue of its own marginality, transforming historically received prejudices into critique means isolating those aspects of tradition that are rendered pluralist in their attitude towards truth, justice and community as an unintentional consequence of persecution. Walter Benjamin first suggested this in his 'Theses On The Philosophy of History,' when he wrote about how during times of crisis tradition can and must be reinterpreted so as to bring about a real state of emergency for the establishment. Only after this is accomplished will minorities be able focus on transforming their own personal subjectivities, independent, as Herbert Marcuse says, of social existence.

Joel Schalit is a graduate student in the Social and Political Thought program at York University in Ontario, Canada; a member of the crank-call supergroup The Christal Methodists; and a member of the SCH club. He can be reached by email at the following address:

Copyright © by Joel Schalit 1995. All rights reserved.

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