Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Not-Bernard Lazare on anti-Semitism

Daniel Lazare (any relation to Bernard?) writes in The Nation:

In The Jewish Century... Yuri Slezkine, a Russian-Jewish historian now ensconced at Berkeley, mounts an elaborate counterargument. Jews are not unique, he maintains in his fascinating new study, and it is only European provincialism that makes them seem that way. Otherwise, they are of a type that is very common the world over: border crossers, ethnic transgressors and other nomadic and seminomadic elements who enter into complicated relations with host nations that are complementary and symbiotic.

Interesting argument. But is it only "provicialism" that makes Marilyn Monroe the ultimate sex icon, or the Beatles the ultimate band? Or Hitler the ultimate criminal? Sometimes entities are unique, even if they have parallels in other cultures or even within their own. But what makes Jews unique is that, even in remote places where there are no Jews, places far from the universal center that is the Upper West Side, there are opinions about "the Jews." Lazare, however, seems to understand this. As I have not (yet) read Slezkine's book, I should only comment on Lazare's review itself:

But while he regards the Soviet experiment as a failure, [Slezkine] believes "the Jewish century" presented the Jews with a series of choices, none of them completely satisfactory. They could lose themselves in the Mercurian transformation of imperial Russia. They could immigrate to the United States, a country founded by Protestant Mercurians in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and take their place alongside all the other Mercurianized immigrant groups as part of a general celebration of American "diversity" and "ethnicity" (however bogus those terms may be). Or they could turn Zionist, move to Palestine and become tillers of the soil, Apollonian peasant warriors in a world struggling to leave all that behind.

The first choice led to a dead end when Stalin's neo-Apollonian Russification policy led to a resurgence of anti-Semitism. The second has led to Bush, while the third has led to permanent warfare in an ethno-chauvinist state that Slezkine describes as "the sole Western survivor (along with Turkey, perhaps) of the integral nationalism of interwar Europe." The very concept of a Jewish state, he adds, is the contemporary equivalent "of such politically illegitimate concepts as 'Germany for the Germans' and 'Greater Serbia,'" while "the rhetoric of ethnic homogeneity and ethnic deportations, tabooed elsewhere in the West, is a routine element of Israeli political life." American and Israeli Jews should not automatically assume that their choice was the right one.

And then:

If Jews benefited from the good will shown toward Israel before the 1967 war, the question is whether they will suffer from growing revulsion felt for it afterward. Anti-Semitism is the anti-Zionism of fools, but there are a lot of fools in the world, and all too many of them are falling into it already. It is morally catastrophic that a people who once allied with the most advanced, democratic currents in the world should now find themselves in bed with the most backward, e.g., all those "Christian Zionists" running around in Bush's America. Remarkably, the Jewish question is no closer to resolution at the start of the twenty-first century than it was at the start of the twentieth.

In other words, who are those crazy Jews, those Zionists and Israelis, who would give up being special and progressive and avant-garde intellectuals/peddlers/moneylenders in favor of being just another racist, nationalistic, ordinary country? Why not embrace your membership in the people to end all peoples, or, if not that, then in one of the many peoples whose uniqueness will lead us to the future and beyond?

Lazare, it seems, misses the appeal of Israel. Or at least what I find appealing about Israel. While everywhere else, Jews are and have for millenia been identified as "special," in Israel, Jews can be boring, or, if interesting, they are interesting merely as individuals, or, at the very least, for some reason other than being Jewish. While people will always be put into boxes no matter where they live, there's something admirable about a drive to move in the opposite direction, about a desire to be recognized (and liked or disliked) as yourself, rather than for mere facts of your birth. This, as I have said before, is the same reason that I am in favor of same-sex marriage, or more specifically, why I am against the left-wing critique of same-sex marriage, which is that gays are interesting/subversive/"special" and marriage will ruin all that. My feeling is, let marriage ruin all that, and let those gays who actually are creative/artistic/"special" prove that by doing something more interesting than expressing their sexual and companionship preferences. Why should anyone be born with a duty to be interesting? So maybe Israel had to take a step back (i.e. be more ethnocentric than other "Western" countries) to take a step forward. I happen to believe Lazare exaggerates the extent to which Israel stepped backward, but that's for another post. But for "Jewish" to become no more "special" than "French" or "German" or "American," and thus to allow Jews to be impressive as individuals if they happen to be impressive individuals, and to lead quiet, mundane lives if not, Israel's existence is a step in the right direction.


joe said...

It works from this side of the fence too. Having an extraordinarily ordinary demographic profile, it's always been my yen to be unique. I'm pretty sure that when I was young I thought I was Jewish and was pretty disappointed when I learned that, no, I wasn't one of the chosen people we just read good stories about them. But I might be constructing that memory in an effort to be unique; I'm not sure.

Phoebe said...

And it's always been my "yen" to be Japanese. Go figure.

joe said...

It's really too bad that we don't pronounce 'j' as 'y' like in German because then "been my yen to be Japanese" would retain the phonic ring of "been my yen to be unique" while adding the pun layer as well. Well, on second thought the first syllable stress on 'Japanese' doesn't work as well as the second syllable stress of 'unique.'

Here's another phonically nice phrase: uniquely annoying. Yes, at long last I have found it, my original characteristic.

joe said...

p.s. Obviously I should have made clear that I was referring to the secondary stress on the first syllable of 'Japanese' since the primary is on the third.

Yes, I'm beginning to get a feel for what you were talking about. Now that I've discovered my original characteristic I'd really rather just be non-annoying like everyone else.

I should really restart my own blog instead of just spilling out all over these pages.

M. Duss said...

I agree that Lazare overstates in his criticism. Nationalist/ethnic chauvinism is still a part of politics in most states, and there are countervailing forces to it in Israel just as there are in other modern democracies.

The only respect in which I would agree with Lazare is in his reference to "the rhetoric of ethnic homogeneity and ethnic deportations, tabooed elsewhere in the West, is a routine element of Israeli political life," from Slezkine. This is something that, again, is certainly not unheard of in modern societies (Huntington, anyone?), but during my visit to Israel I was struck by the very overt and near-constant references to "the demographic threat", in newspapers, on TV talk shows, in graffiti. I understand the impulse behind it, but I did find it disturbing, especially since I was there as a guest of Muslim friends.

Anonymous said...

But for "Jewish" to become no more "special" than "French" or "German" or "American," and thus to allow Jews to be impressive as individuals if they happen to be impressive individuals...

1) Isn't this part of the problem in France, that one cannot so easily remove the conflation of nationalism and ethnicity in some places?

2) This much less so in the US, but then, there's no "American" ethnicity since Americans rejected one of the main ethnicity-based traditions in favor of ruling themselves, then buying/stealing lots of land from a second and engaged in genocide upon a third quasi-grouping and importing/enslaving some others. Ethnicity is important, but not in the same way as this comparison implies; the closest one could come is the legacy of slavery (also known as let's-forget-about-those-other-groups and-fight-amongst-ourselves). Instead, we've chosen as a bunch of sub-national groups to engage in other types of stupidity.

3) Just how far am I from the original point of the post?