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Shoah's What Jew Got

The critique of antisemitism has been emptied of its utopian content.
Joel Schalit

Issue #33, September 1997

Sufficient social order within the gentile world is supposedly achieved through their adherence to the seven commandments specifically given to the heathen, meaning gentiles....Beyond this minimal list of seven laws, the gentiles-"Noahides"or "Noahites," the descendants of Noah-are not supposed to go in their inquiry into the ethical requirements of Old Testament law, which belongs exclusively to the Jews.... Rabbi G.N. Johanan said a heathen who studies the Torah deserves death, for it is written Moses commanded us a law for an inheritance, not theirs. Resh Lakish (third century A.D) said that a gentile who observes the Sabbath deserves death. The ethical goal of both Masonry and Talmudic Judaism is the same: to keep gentiles from reading and applying Old Testament law in society.
— Gary North, Political Polytheism, Institute For Christian Economics, 1989

Below The Borscht Belt

The critique of antisemitism has been emptied of its utopian content. This is supposed to be a good thing, because the rationale for that critique has largely been dismantled by the successful Jewish struggle for equal rights in North America. To decry antisemitism today is to engage in an act of deliberate self-marginalization because the economic and cultural prohibitions which once denied Jews access to equality and power in Europe and America have now been eliminated. Just look at how much has been achieved since the gates of Auschwitz were shuttered and the corridors of power in North America were opened.

Nevertheless, many American Jews allege the persistence of antisemitism because it is a crutch that they cannot live without. To be discriminated against is to remain authentic. Remaining marginal means that despite the fact that Jews have become structurally equal to their gentile peers, they are still somehow different. This is supposed to make Jewish culture a distinct commodity in the pluralistic and tolerant world of capitalist multiculturalism. Such an ideology of discrimination, with its soft nationalist undertones based on self-victimization, lives in direct contradiction with the material truths of Jewish life in the other Zion. You don't have to wear a yellow star anymore, you can wear a Polo or a Patagonia icon instead.

But many Jews still yearn for the old signifiers of holiness because the new ones are so empty. Somehow there is something far more compelling about projecting Jewish identity through the lens of discrimination then through symbols of assimilation, like expensive wrist watches, country homes in Colorado, pleasure yachts and BMWs. For one thing, assimilation is never complete. No matter how hard Jews try to straighten their hair, learn how to sail, play golf, or god forbid, go backpacking, the gentile symbols of racial equality which Jews have adopted as their own cultural signifiers have no serious precedent in Jewish history because there are no corresponding archetypes in the Jewish historical unconscious. This creates an identity crisis. Conservative Jews need to appeal to an eternal racism because it gives them the right to claim the kind of moral autonomy snatched away from them when they assumed the responsibilities of social equality and class privilege. Remaining eternally victimized becomes a form of collective denial, a symptom of Jewish inability to accept having become members of the class that they once hated.

This identity crisis makes Jews into a people without history. This partially explains the appeal of Deconstructionism, particularly that of Derrida and to a lesser extent Judith Butler and their anti-essentialist critique of ontology. As much as leftists criticize such positions for reifying the persistent instability of the commodity form in capitalist culture, the post-modern Jewish rejection of identity profoundly articulates the Jewish experience of domination, and the alienated ways in which many Jews have sought out strategies to avoid being religiously interpellated by that experience in the way ultra-orthodox Jews have. But history always has a habit of sneaking in through the backdoor because without it we would lack an unconscious. So secular Jews try to reject interpellation in every possible form, even if they end up reinscribing identity onto themselves by identifying with other forms of cultural marginality. Or, conversely Jews fetishize the only things that they can remember about themselves before they were assimilated, and that means they fetishize racism, if not genocide, in the manner that the ultra-orthodox do.

Those Jews who have sought to reconstruct their religious identity in response to the secularizing challenges of assimilation have done so in order to deny the fact that they have become integrated. Like the strategy of turning to deconstructionism as a means of escaping the burden of history, the strategy of resurrecting Jewish religious culture is alienated. Because it also denies the importance of history in identity formation, it assumes that like Evangelical Christians, Jews can adopt personalities and worldviews which were created in response to persecution.What they don't seem to realize is that becoming historical in a religious manner is also form of denial, because it implies that the historical process which brought Jews out of the ghettos and the concentration camps is now terminated. And it also denies the present. Instead of expressing how assimilation has eliminated the possibility of maintaining a traditional identity, the ultra-orthodox insist on reinvigorating the historical process by returning to a sectarian way of life in order to experience history all over again. That means preparing to experience the possibility of another Holocaust in all of its sado-masochistic, self-inflicted glory.

naomi However, there are even more profound reasons for turning the Holocaust into a historical commodity. Genocide also allows a guilty conscience to transcend its own class boundaries. If you want to deny your newly acquired class status, there's no more powerful or coercive symbolic means with which to annihilate it with than by invoking, like a shaman, the constant specter of potential annihilation. By turning the Holocaust into an eternally returning creation myth, conservative Jews are allowed to live with the fact that they were only emancipated because they were forced to join the ranks of an economic system and a corresponding cultural framework which naturally sought their destruction. Logically speaking, in order to live with that kind of compromise you have to find a way to repress all of the accumulated collective knowledge about capitalism which that kind of persecution instills in you. So you begin to identify with your own culturally over-determined death wish. By recycling the Holocaust, by claiming that the potential for its repetition lies dormant in the present, conservative Jews are allowed to construct identities which are necessarily incommensurate with the hollow and empty symbols of assimilation because they can't accept the fact that they've been forced to identify with what they once were able to discern as something radically evil.

This kind of pathological identification with victimization is the only way Western civilization's most highly publicized scapegoats can cope with the horror of denying the reality of what they were forced to become: their own executioners. This repressed history can be traced from the early right-wing Zionists such as Ze'ev Jabotinsky and Josef Trumpeldor to their self-destructive, homicidal contemporaries such as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Cabinet Minister Ariel Sharon and the various ultra-orthodox political parties which inspire young Russian immigrants like Tatyana Susskind to intentionally incite Muslim rioting in the former Occupied Territories by making posters that depict Mohammed as a pig trampling on the Koran.

Eretz America

This is why when American Jews cry discrimination, many of us on the Left tend to dismiss it as either being strategic or paranoid. We have good reason. It's hard to trust Hasidic cries of antisemitism when Lubavitchers inspire Jewish immigrants to shoot Palestinian civilians in the West Bank with their Uzis, despite the fact that those immigrants have settled on land that was forcibly expropriated from families that had lived there since well before the birth of Christ. Analogously, it's hard to give credence to cries of antisemitism when Jews occupy some of the most important and powerful positions in the American economic and political establishment. Consider Alan Greenspan, head of the Federal Reserve Bank, Robert Rubin, Secretary of the Treasury, former Labor Secretary Robert Reich and countless others.

Despite the new Jewish power, the rhetoric and thoughtfulness of 19th and early 20th century Jewish socialism continues to live on in feel-good-despite the-pain Clinton-era liberals. One such figure is Tikkun's rabbi-cum-publisher Michael Lerner, who claims to espouse pluralist values but at the same time subscribes to neo-Evangelical communitarian ideologies which propose that the only practical solution to the destructive effects that assimilation has on minorities is to create traditional communities that are separate but equal. Talk about an oxymoron. What intellectuals like Lerner seem to forget is that solutions of this sort to the decline of tradition in modernity are the same ideologies being espoused by right-wing Christian nationalists who feel polluted by any minority presence in the American moral community. But this kind of abstraction is always difficult to see through, particularly when many of the most outspoken and erudite secular proponents of the new conservatism are also Jewish, such as the Israeli immigrant philosopher Amitai Etzioni, as well as one of the most famous contemporary American critics of welfare state liberalism, Irving Kristol.

Scholars and politicians, bureaucrats and publishers from Greenspan to Kristol, to Lerner and beyond are among the most important economic and intellectual architects of the new conservatism, one which sides with the old gentile establishment in maintaining the racist and classist divisions which once held Jews back. This is the cruel logic of assimilation. Jews are only emancipated insofar as they now have to assist in systemically holding other minorities back by virtue of their complicity in the rationalizaion of the establishment's own racist economic and cultural policies. The new Jewish capacity to both administer these policies and theorize their legitimacy and its concomitant cultural support for a soft and friendly separatism signifies the degree to which the new Jewish presence in America's political and economic hierarchy has created the economic and cultural preconditions for the emergence of a reinvigorated antisemitism.

This is why the American Left ought to rid itself of the residual after effects of its old Leninist antipathy towards Judaism. Leftist antisemitism is a legacy of Communist anti-clericalism, one which made use of the same ethno-cultural scapegoats that the ancien regime in Europe always made use of, first during the Inquisition and the Pogroms, and then during the Holocaust. Leftist antisemitism is racist, not anti-religious, because instead of criticizing religious ideology for being an inverse of consciousness of reality, it targets a whole ethno-cultural group of people as though it were a hegemonic social formation. This is wrong. It represents an enchanted form of historical materialism because it replaces religion with class while claiming to still be scientific. Leftist antisemitism epitomizes the kind of idealism which its own vulgar Marxist proponents have always railed against, one which mistakes reality for ideology, or in this case, victim for executioner.

The Left has to rid itself of its anti-Semitic tendencies because it cannot have a universal program for human liberation that fails to take into account how minorities have to struggle with their own socialized death instincts. It is these death instincts, acquired over centuries, that make "invisible" minorities like Jews culpable in their own marginalization. This is what Gershom Scholem wanted Hannah Arendt to understand when he criticized the lack of mercy in her coverage of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann's trial in Jerusalem for The New Yorker in 1961. Only Scholem put it in terms of having a naive love for one's people which allows one to remain empathetic as well as critical, all at the same time. However, what Arendt understood that Scholem did not was how extremely complex and hypocritical the moral dilemmas are which accompany a persecuted people's adaptation to normalization, particularly when that people has found a way to punish those individuals who were responsible for one of the most morally repugnant acts of barbarism in human history.

Roll Out The Gun Barrel

But as astute as Arendt was in anticipating the moral inconsistencies of Jewish nationalism, she probably never anticipated how reactionary the Left's critique of Zionism would become after the Six Day War, and later, during the Intifadah. That is what is missing here. One of the primary reasons the Jewish Question has been excised from the Left's emancipatory imaginary is its hatred of Israel. Sympathizing with the plight of the Palestinians under the yolk of Israeli military domination is one thing, but making world Jewry responsible for their plight is an entirely separate issue. Not every Jew is an Israeli, nor is every American Jew a Zionist. Unfortunately, since the Six Day War the American Left has consistently conflated Judaism with nationalism. This has made it very difficult for Jews to feel comfortable participating in Leftist political circles. That is the cruel irony of the situation.

nut On the one hand, many American Jews fought valiantly in American labor and civil rights struggles to expand the potential scope of American democracy, not just for themselves but for everyone. On the other hand, under the weight of the anti-Semitic purges of the late forties and early fifties, Jews were singled out by the American political establishment for their complicity in spreading the gospel of international socialism. The establishment was partly right. Socialist politics helped American Jews analyze the structures of domination which prohibited them from having any kind of social and economic mobility. Subsequently it played a major role in the emancipation of American Jewry. However this was not viewed as an exclusively ethnocentric task. Socialist politics also helped contextualize the Jewish struggle for recognition and rights in light of other people's struggles in this country. This partially explains why there was such a predominance of Jews in labor unions and civil rights organizations which dedicated themselves to all kinds of political conflicts.

But the Jewish affinity for socialism also made Jews obvious targets for Cold War-era American conservatism. Aside from the obvious, one of the main reasons why Jews were re-elected as communal scapegoats during the early years of the Cold War had to do with the kind of propaganda that the State Department used to combat Communism. Always portraying the conflict as though it were a struggle between the forces of God and the power of Satan, the American government relied on extremely religious rhetoric which portrayed America as a Christian nation fighting the forces of fascist atheism. This translated itself into covert government funding for Christian broadcasting organizations headed by fiery right-wing Evangelical propagandists like Billy Graham and Pat Robertson who provided the struggle against Communism with a particularly parochial culture, a struggle that emphasized the exclusively Christian character of American political institutions and citizenship. This kind of religious characterization of the conflict between American and the former Soviet Union transformed what was essentially an economic conflict between two competing imperialist nations into a religious war between the forces of light and the powers of darkness. Once again we were sent back to a Manichean world of polar opposites, where the metaphysical basis for classical antisemitism could be nurtured and reinvigorated. This is precisely what happened, and why Jews, with their identification with revolutionary politics, became emblematic of that Satanic other which clings to this world instead of renouncing it in favor of a non-existent other world.

Gentile On My Mind

Sandwiched first between a new Christian Right, and then an anti-Semitic Left, Jews were left with very few choices as to who they could politically align themselves with after the Six Day War. But that is not what concerns us here so much as the cumulative psychological impact of racist marginalization upon the collective psyche of the American Jewish people. First, European Jewry gets nearly exterminated by the Nazis. Then, it gets marginalized by both the Left and the Right in America, beginning with the trial and electrocution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg for stealing nuclear secrets on behalf of the Russians. Jews are blamed for being religious nationalists, blamed for undermining American democracy on behalf of atheism, denied symbolic membership in the American polity because Jewish culture is antithetical to the Christian culture which gave birth to American democracy. It's enough to make you want to commit suicide. You're permanently homeless no matter what you do. So you develop highly self-destructive complexes which involve the worst kind of self-loathing possible. You begin to identify with the source of your own suffering.

It all boils down to one common cultural denominator: religion. American political culture is Christian just like Robert Bellah and his school of so-called "public philosophers" said it was in the late sixties when they started to trace the presence of a civil religion in American politics, beginning with the way Americans mourned the loss of President Kennedy. The problem with Bellah's analysis and the Communitarian one which he and his disciples like Amitai Etzioni developed out of it during the eighties was that, while it recognized the persistence of religion in American politics, it never recognized the destructive effects of that religious influence. Its sectarian character simply eluded them. The lesson Bellah and his sentimental colleagues from Habits of The Heart seemed to forget was that you can't have religion in a democratic society without there being an official religion which safeguards the legitimacy of the state. In that kind of neo-theocratic cultural environment, you can't make much room for people who are different, particularly when religion, like any other kind of cultural commodity, is only friendly to monopolies.

New Clear Jerusalem

In such an environment it becomes impossible for those who do not espouse the official doctrine to ever feel at home. The only way that they can accommodate their own cultural difference in such a perpetual national climate of ideological homogeneity is to fetishize it. They just have nowhere else to go. This became extremely problematic for a people with an overwhelming instinct for survival, who had just survived a war of genocide. To be faced with being marginalized yet again in the Enlightenment's Zion right after the death camps were liberated must have been the straw that broke the camel's back, so to speak. It provided the impetus for a mistrust in the possibility of pluralism and democracy, a mistrust which in turn transformed a centuries old survival instinct into its opposite, an ideology of death. It should therefore come as no surprise that Jews would come to theorize and administer the legitimacy of the establishment. It's a symptom of the kind of sado-masochism which comes from identifying too closely with authority.

Nevertheless, resources of emancipation are still there. They lie in the terrible and yet potentially utopian double consciousness that Max Horkheimer once said Jews have always had to live with as "outsiders within the bourgeoisie." What Horkheimer meant by that insightful turn of phrase was that Jews are caught in a double bind. On the one hand they are allowed membership in the gentile middle class. On the other hand they are rendered permanently marginal within it because middle class culture remains culturally exclusive. No matter how it appears on the surface, deep down it is sectarian. It is Christian, more specifically Protestant. As a consequence, Jews experience this strange sense of displacement, one which perpetually renders them culturally marginal at the same time that they have achieved economic equality.

This, Horkheimer suggests, is why so many Jews are potential leftists. Their cultural marginalization remains a metaphor for identifying with economic inequality. In fact, it even provides access to the kind of "privileged" class consciousness which allows for identification with labor, the kind that American Jews, for the moment, seem to have lost. The point now is to exploit that cleavage once more, to get inside it and thematize it in social and economic terms all over again. This is the only way to combat a loss of memory and imagination which has allowed American Jewry to dissociate material reality from cultural equality and thus identify with the external sources of its own historical oppression.

Joel Schalit is a Ph.D. Student in the Programme in Social and Political Thought at Canada's York University. He is currently writing his dissertation on the critique of religion in the Frankfurt School. Aside from his work for Bad Subjects, Joel also serves as an associate editor for Punk Planet magazine, and is a member of Candy-Ass recording artists The Christal Methodists. He'd love to hear your comments on this article:

Copyright © 1997 by Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.