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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Paul Berman on Gaza and lofty anti-Semitism:

Oh, as Irving Howe said, "There is no heart so warm that it doesn't have a cold spot for the Jews." We like to think of hatred of the Jews as a low, base sentiment that is entertained by nasty, ignorant people, wallowing in their own hatefulness. But normally it's not like that. Hatred for the Jews has generally taken the form of a lofty sentiment, instead of a lowly one - a noble feeling embraced by people who believe they stand for the highest and most admirable of moral views.

In the Middle Ages, Christians felt they were upholding the principles of universal redemption, and they looked on the Jews as terrible people because the Jews had refused the word of God - had insisted on remaining Jews. And so, the loftiest of religious sentiments led to hatred of the Jews.

In the 18th century, the Enlightenment philosophers looked on the Enlightenment itself as the loftiest form of thought - the truest of all possible guides to universal justice and happiness. The Enlightenment philosophers detested Christianity because it was a font of superstition and oppression. But this only led them to despise the Jews even more - no longer because the Jews had refused the message of Christianity, but because the Jews had engendered the message of Christianity. And the damnable Jews insisted on remaining Jews, instead of repudiating religion altogether.

The religious wars wreaked all kinds of damage on Europe. But the Treaty of Westphalia came along in 1648 and put an end to religious wars by establishing a system of states with recognized borders, each state with its own religion. The new Westphalian system embodied yet another Enlightenment idea of lofty ideals - the grandest guarantee of universal peace and justice. But the Jews were scattered throughout Europe, instead of being gathered together in a single state. The new state system was supposed to be a comfortable shoe, and the Jews were a pebble. And they insisted on remaining Jews, instead of helpfully disappearing. So one hated the Jews for failing to conform to the new system of states.

Today we have arrived at yet another idea about how to bring about universal peace and justice - the loftiest, most advanced idea of our own time. Instead of looking on well-established states with solid borders to keep the peace, Westphalia-style, we look on states as a formula for oppression and war. Lofty opinion nowadays calls for post-state political systems, like the European Union. Unfortunately, nowadays the Jews possess a state. Thus one hates the Jews in the name of lofty opinion, no longer because the Jews lack a state but because, on the contrary, they have a state. They seem keen on keeping their state. And once again the Jews are seen to be affirming a principle that high-minded people used to uphold but have now rejected as antiquated.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, people with advanced ideas began to look on Christian hatred of the Jews as a retrograde prejudice - and the advanced thinkers embraced, instead, the pseudo-science of racism. They no longer hated the Jews on religious grounds - they hated the Jews on racial grounds. The word "racism" originally applied to hatred of the Jews. Racial hatred seemed up to date. Today, however, racism itself has come to seem like a retrograde prejudice. And so, people with advanced opinions hate the Jews on anti-racist grounds, and they regard the Jews as the world's leading racists.

And so forth. The unstated assumption is always the same. To wit: the universal system for man's happiness has already arrived (namely, Christianity, or else Enlightenment anti-Christianity; the Westphalian state system, or else the post-modern system of international institutions; racial theory, or else the anti-racist doctrine in a certain interpretation). And the universal system for man's happiness would right now have achieved perfection - were it not for the Jews. The Jews are always standing in the way. The higher one's opinion of oneself, the more one detests the Jews.

The political left has always been of two minds on these matters. An opposition to anti-Semitism (and to all kinds of bigotry) did use to be one of the pillars of the modern left. But the left has always rested on more than one pillar, and some of those pillars are a little wobbly. And there is the left-wing conceit that, today at last, the system for universal justice and happiness has been discovered, and should be embraced by all advanced thinkers. The cosmopolitan abolition of states, let us say. And here are the Jews resisting it. In short, nothing leads more quickly to a disdain for the Jews than a feeling of smug loftiness.

More....



8 Comments

Thank you, Mary, for posting this excellent excerpt! Truly insightful and wise. And alas, all too timely and true ...

Your fan,
Seva

Isn't it interesting?

Look at all these post-statists arguing for the demise of the Jewish state - yet simultaneously arguing for the establishment of the Palestinian Arab state - ideally in place of the Jewish state -

Hello? This makes sense?

Within Berman's historical panorama, Jewish individuals and communities appear to be found in two categories only: 1) victims and 2) surveyors and analysts who somehow stand apart from or stand over and above the historical fray. Where does he allow historical concretion for Jewish communities/individuals other than within those two general categories? Such an abstracted vantage point effectively serves as the obverse side of the conspiracy theorist cum deluded anti-Semite coin. In the latter case an overt demonization, in the former case an implied total innocence, whether by virtue of the victimhood itself or by virtue of some presumptively superior survey of the historical procession.

This dichotomized view would seem to receive additional support when taking note of surveys which are not remotely anti-Semitic or anti-Judaic in character and which do situate Jewish communities more concretely/responsibly within history - and which analyses are marginalized if they're recognized at all. Yuri Slezkine's "The Jewish Century" was among the most notable volumes in that category within the last two or three years. With very few exceptions, there was an arms-length approach to Slezkine's work at best and more commonly his work was not recognized at all, though it was a worthy examination.

Obviously, if a restricted historical scope were being examined, Berman's approach might well be more applicable, but he is encompassing a great expanse, and includes nothing along the lines of what Slezkine brings into view. That reflects a huge historical elision, one that is arguably epochal in nature, and that's one noteworthy example only.

To me, Berman seems to be saying that smug, lofty bullies/idealists have, throughout history, been annoyed by the Jews because the Jews uphold their traditions and hold their ground.

Mary, special pleading and a reinforcement of my primary and most elemental criticism. For example, you did not respond to my question whatsoever.

I do not deny that that aspect, and others, within Berman's piece are worthy considerations, as such. But it's presented and seemingly assumed to be some type of authoritative piece, virtually monolithic and not to be questioned.

(In fact, I don't know and I'm not presuming so, but I can't help but wonder if you're intimating that I'm being a "smug, lofty bully/idealist" - or at least being grossly insensitive in that same sense - simply by criticizing Berman's piece in the manner I chose. Is Berman's piece too lofty to be subjected to criticisms, much less such elemental criticisms?)

if you're intimating that I'm being a "smug, lofty bully/idealist" - or at least being grossly insensitive in that same sense - simply by criticizing Berman's piece in the manner I chose..

No, I'm not intimating that at all. I agree with Berman sometimes, but not always. His is just one analysis of anti-Semitism, not authoritative at all. I don't mind criticism of this or any posts, but sometimes I don't understand, exactly, what your question is. So, I just try to explain the point of the post.

Well, I suppose there's a level of complexity involved in the general perspective presented in my earlier comment, though I don't believe it's that difficult to comprehend. Regardless, the single question asked is much simpler:

Where does Berman situate historical concretion for Jewish communities/individuals other than as 1) victims and 2) surveyors and analysts who somehow stand apart from or stand over and above the historical fray?

The answer is: he doesn't - and that reflects a vast historical elision given the historical expanse he's covering.

Could be. Berman's observation was still pretty unique and insightful. But if you think he's leaving stuff out here and there, it's good to note that.

"Syme: It's a beautiful thing, the destruction of words. You wouldn't have seen the [Newspeak] Dictionary 10th edition, would you Smith? It's that thick. [illustrates thickness with fingers] The 11th Edition will be that [narrows fingers] thick. Winston Smith: So, The Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect? Syme: The secret is to move from translation, to direct thought, to automatic response. No need for self-discipline. Language coming from here [the larynx], not from here [the brain]" -1984 (film)


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