Monday, May 10, 2010

Literature and anti-Semitism, Part II

Yes, I've read it. Given that I'm fully capable of reading English, I know far too little about British Jewish history. Anthony Julius's book seems like a good intro, even if it's about representations of Jews and more specifically negative ones, given that I'm in the business of reading absolutely everything I can get my hands on about literary representations of Jews. So, my lack of authority on this subject established, along with my slightly greater authority on a vaguely related topic (catch a theme?), onto Harold Bloom's essay.

Bloom remarks at the start of the review that the book led him "to give thanks that my own father, who migrated from Odessa, Russia, to London, had the sense, after sojourning there, to continue on to New York City." I could see this if his father had gone to, say, Berlin, but I'm always wary of assessments by Americans that compare anti-Semitic There to safe-haven, Semitophilic Here. If we're talking Then, then we can go through the whole discussion of quotas and country clubs, but basically, Alvy Singer felt uncomfortable for a reason. (And don't Americans read British literature? I definitely encountered Shylock in high school English.) If we're talking Now? I'm often asked how anti-Semitic France really is these days, and my own "first, personal, reflection" is to consider Walt-Mearsheimer, that note, the Roissy commentariat... and just generally, the fact that Jew-hatred continues to exist in the US. That blacks are and were in an undeniably worse situation discrimination-wise than Jews in this country, and that the anti-Semitism that does exist in 2010 America is clearly zilch compared to 1942 Germany, makes this particular form of oppression less salient. But before pointing fingers, we might want to check on what's happening and has happened at home.

The rest of the review? I'm basically convinced, and it's refreshing to see it mentioned in a major publication that regular old anti-Semitism hides under the label "anti-Zionism." I'm not up on contemporary American or British literature enough to say whether the latter's more insulting to Jews than the former, but that could well be the case. There was a not-so-flattering portrait of a Jew in "The Group," one of the American novels I read most recently, but it wasn't written recently, so who knows.

What makes me slightly wary about the book being reviewed is the same thing as concerns me about all works devoted to representations of Jews in Country X between years Y and Z. The goal of these works is almost invariably to explain what understandings of "the Jew" can tell us about the non-Jews of a given time and place. Given that this is part of what I hope to do with my dissertation,* it's not something I disapprove of - hardly! But it needs to be paired with something about the existence of actual Jews during that time and in that country. Works that do this well (such as) avoid reinforcing the idea that Jews are merely an idea in the heads of the rest of humanity. Because any study with "Jews" in the title confronts this massive asymmetry - far more people have contemplated "the Jews" than have experienced being a Jew. This makes "the Jews" appear a important historical phenomenon than Jews themselves. But since there are plenty of ways to get at what Italians thought in 1850, or the French in 1820, etc., if this is the one you pick, it's only right to see how Jews represented themselves, and (as much as this is possible) to know the lives of Jews at the time/place. This is not only fair to these Jews, but also useful even if all one is interested in is how the Jews were imagined and what this tells us about Italy, France, etc. Because think about it. If 90% of representations of Jews were of peddlers, this means something quite different if 90% of Jews at the time were peddlers than if the novel's set on the Upper West Side in 1998.

*Which, oh lucky WWPD readers, you'll be hearing about in immense detail in the weeks, months, and I hope not years to come.

10 comments:

Miss Self-Important said...

So, why should we care if an author (or anyone in America, actually) is anti-Semitic? What does it matter?

I find myself pretty untroubled by the persistence of anti-Semitism in America, even in the form of anti-Zionism, to which I am somewhat more opposed. But since, in most general respects, you are very similar to me (Jewish, secular, educated-ish, etc.), I am puzzled by your concern.

Phoebe said...

First off, I think we're both more than educated-ish.

Anyway. Are you untroubled because you don't see anti-Semitism as a genuine threat to currently living American Jews? Or is this more of a principled stance against getting too worked up over discriminatory isms? I suppose anti-Semitism is unlikely to cause major problems for American Jews in the future, because its victims have historically been acculturated but not integrated Jews, the sort who can feel they're 'in' only to discover, not so much. Whereas in the US today, Jews that want out or don't care either way can easily enough blend in (and are doing so through intermarriage), whereas those who want in have more positive-in-the-sense-of-active Jewish identities, and so are not about to be outed and shamed by anti-Semites.

I guess I think asking of X is anti-Semitic matters less because OMG I am continuously offended than because I find it grating the way the phenomenon is discussed. As in, the quickest way to seem calm, cool, collected, and, more to the point, sophisticated in a discussion about anything related to Jews, particularly if one is Jewish, is to declare X-that-is-obviously-anti-Semitic 'not anti-Semitic in the least.' And everyone will congratulate you for not being whiny, for showing 'nuance,' but to what end? I'm not at all in favor of dropping everything and dividing the world into categories of anti-Semitic and acceptable. What I think is that we should be able to call a book or movement anti-Semitic if it is and then move on.

I also think it matters in terms of how American Jews understand this country versus others. I mean, perhaps the US is friendlier to Jews than, say, France. But I've found (anecdotally) that many American Jews have a mistaken sense that every other country (save Israel, maybe) is unlivable for Jews, and that all of the US is welcoming.

Matt said...

I find myself pretty untroubled by the persistence of anti-Semitism in America, even in the form of anti-Zionism, to which I am somewhat more opposed.

Interesting. Is this because you (Rita) don't think that anti-semitism is a serious movement or threat in the US today (that seems plausible to me, but I could be convinced otherwise) but think that anti-Zionism might actually pose a threat to Israel, and you care about that? Or something else?

Miss Self-Important said...

Are you untroubled because you don't see anti-Semitism as a genuine threat to currently living American Jews? Or is this more of a principled stance against getting too worked up over discriminatory isms?

Both, I guess. I suppose it might be a threat in some extremely abstract sense, in that some anti-Semite somewhere, by hating Jews, cosmically offends me. But my personal enemies--people who insult or oppose me directly--offend me a lot more. So I'm just not sure what the actual threat of anti-Semitism is. The big lesson of my grade school exercises in anti-prejudice education was that anti-Semitism causes Holocausts, and all the individual haters, if left uncorrected, will eventually get together and build gas chambers--the "First they came for...and I didn't speak up..." platitude. But I never found that claim convincing, and then I read Arendt and rejected it altogether. So while I acknowledge that fringe white supremacist ideologies sometimes lead to violence against Jews in the US today, I don't know what the kinds of social anti-Semitism you're interested in lead to.

Following from the sense of the non-urgency of the problem is the possibility that the kind of witch-hunting involved in exposing anti-Semitism and other isms will ultimately do much more harm to public life than rooting out anti-Semitism could ever do good. Destroying people's reputations and careers by accusing them of forms of racism so subtle that no one has ever noticed them in that person before doesn't seem to have done much to diminish these forms of racism (which I suspect is not really the aim of these condemnations anyway).

Are the sophisticated Jews who excuse anti-Semitism only unwilling to call a spade a spade? Or are they unwilling to permanently damage someone's reputation or initiate some kind of elaborate public examination of his consciousness that will never find its elusive object but will inspire a great deal of very un-elusive resentment instead? I just can't imagine a scenario in my social life where calling someone out for anti-Semitism would do anything but create discomfort and resentment. And if it's some third-party person or thing we're talking about--the Walt/Mearsheimer book, for example--I don't see how calling it anti-Semitic would be helpful in demonstrating its error. Even if anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism, as long as it's making political arguments about Israel, it still has to be countered with political arguments about Israel, not by pointing to secret motives which all its exponents will immediately deny.

What you say about the US v. other countries might be true, although I've never thought of most countries--certainly not European countries--in terms of how accommodating they might be to Jews. And none of them strike me as unlivable, although I have also never contemplated living in any of them, so maybe I am an insufficiently cosmopolitan data point in your sample. But it seems like a strange project to raise awareness of American anti-Semitism in order to make living in France more appealing--how many people could this dilemma really apply to? Or is it primarily a theoretical project in making distinctions between manifestations of anti-Semitism and tracing their sources?

Matt: Yes, I think political arguments and actions against Israel are more threatening to Israel than anti-Semitism is to Jews. But the meaning of threat is really obvious and concrete in the first case--suicide bombs, kidnappings, legal double-standards, etc. My question to Phoebe is what the nature of the threat is to Jews from present forms of anti-Semitism. What evil am I authorizing by remaining unconcerned?

Phoebe said...

I agree with you (along with Arendt, along with what I understand of contemporary European-Jewish historiography) that anti-Semitism didn't up and lead to the Holocaust. However, some explanation is required to get at why Jews of all people were targeted in that instance and others. It's possible to say there is something different about anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry beyond 5th-grade-level cause-and-effect.

And... I'm not all that interested in studying or thinking about contemporary American anti-Semitism. I don't think anti-Semitism is the most important ideology in this country today, or even in the top few. I'm interested much more in both who Jews were and how they were understood in 19th C France, including but not especially the anti-Semitism angle. But since this is an angle that comes up again and again, particularly (perhaps surprisingly) among those not studying Jews or 'the Jews' or anything of that nature, it helps to articulate where you stand if you are.

"Are the sophisticated Jews who excuse anti-Semitism only unwilling to call a spade a spade? Or are they unwilling to permanently damage someone's reputation or initiate some kind of elaborate public examination of his consciousness that will never find its elusive object but will inspire a great deal of very un-elusive resentment instead?"

Here we disagree. For one thing, I don't quite buy that someone calling someone else anti-Semitic permanently damages the reputation of the person so deemed - maybe that of the person who makes the call, who, if Jewish, will be deemed paranoid and hysterical. For another, the Walt-Mearsheimer book is anti-Semitic, and not in the sense that one might find a large-nosed Jewish character in a novel and say how dare the novelist do that, but as in, it's a full-on anti-Jewish text. This has nothing to do with "secret motives," but what they actually write. The book's principle "error" as far as I'm concerned is that aspect, and not their criticism of the US-Israel relationship - a critique they make shoddily but a version of which can be made in a reasonable manner, even if I wouldn't necessarily agree with it. If I thought using that term would adversely affect their careers, I wouldn't shed a tear over it, but I'm fairly certain it could more likely hurt me for pointing it out, and indeed I wouldn't do so if I hadn't read the whole book and weren't able to back up my assertion with quotes from it. (I think we differ on this in part because of where we are politically more generally, nothing specific to Jewish questions - I suspect I'm less concerned than you are that the PC police are stifling expression with haphazard accusations of racism.)

And... of course there are not masses of American Jews considering whether or not to move to France. (Whether or not to vacation in France, yes, these are probably decent numbers.) My point is that American Jews who are not particularly considering going abroad, for a week or as an expat or anything, have a certain conception of what America is and was like for Jews that's at least implicitly in comparison to other countries. We can return to your grade-school Holocaust-education example. Kids learn that the US was not only innocent but saved the day; the turning away of refugees, and the baseline anti-Semitism of pre-WWII America is very easily forgotten. My anecdotal evidence, which I'm now wishing I'd followed up on with some actual investigation, is that many American Jews are quasi-frightened for Jews living elsewhere, and that this sense of comfort ignores some key aspects of America then and now with respect to Jews.

Miss Self-Important said...

Ok, so, how about this: let's say the Walt/Mearsheimer book is anti-Semitic (which I'm open to believing)--is that enough to debunk it? If the Israel lobby really were some nefarious foreign-funded outfit bent on manipulating US power to its own ends and against American interests, couldn't an anti-Semite show that as truthfully as any neutral or Judeophilic writer? In other words, don't you have to ultimately argue against the nefarious-Israel-Lobby-out-to-destroy-America point to demonstrate their error to the public? Maybe an even more graphic example is Norman Finkelstein, possibly a jerk, probably an anti-Semite, and certainly an anti-Zionist, but speaker of some limited truths about the uses of the Holocaust in American culture. Does his anti-Semitism invalidate these very limited truths?

I think it's true that there is a certain cultural distaste for people who accuse others of anti-Semitism, or racism, or whatever-ism--they are thought to be whiny or hypersensitive or something like that. But I also think this arises because of the potentially damaging effects of such accusations. That is, these -isms are thought to be indicative of a deep and detestable character failing, and if someone really demonstrates this failing, he deserves social ostracism at the very least. Haters--with the exception of misanthropes who are "equal opportunity haters"--are not welcome in the comfortable spaces of our society. When the stakes are so high, people reasonably shy away from these kinds of accusations. You may be right that anti-Semitism is now a less damning indictment than it perhaps was 50 years ago, but I still don't want to destroy people for the sin of kidding around or entertaining occasional anti-Semitic suspicions. Again, I'm not sure what the danger of people occasionally wondering if Jews run all the banks really is, and it seems inhumane to publicize these errant suspicions when the cost of confronting them about it is so high for them.

About America v. France, you may be right. I do recall those Auschwitz-Israel trips that many kids took in middle school, and I imagine they may have inculcated or tried to inculcate some of this "Europe killed us, then America/Israel saved us" attitude. But those same kids all grew up to study abroad in college in the same Europe that killed them, and I can't imagine they didn't have a more positive (inebriated, hedonistic) experience the second time around. I wonder also how much of this fear for Jews abroad (at least those in Europe) is now connected to radical Islam instead of the older forms of European anti-Semitism? Does that make a difference?

Phoebe said...

Re: your first point. A pro-Israel book that explained how Jews are inherently power-gaining and money-making geniuses could be anti-Semitic. The argument and the Jew-hatred are not the same issue. To point out that the book is anti-Semitic is not one among several possible methods of debunking its argument. Its (ostensible) argument could be 100% sound and the way it was argued could still fit the bill. So, to anticipate your next question, the purpose of labeling it anti-Semitic is to show that one of its

"When the stakes are so high, people reasonably shy away from these kinds of accusations."

You're right that it makes sense not to throw around accusations just for the heck of it, but I think this goes beyond the reasonable in the case of wariness of referring to anti-Semitism as such. I mean, I'm not aware of any widespread movement among Jews (particularly not of our generation) to toss around this label. Much of the 'they'll accuse me of anti-Semitism but I speak the truth!' posturing is just that - it makes a certain type of (not necessarily anti-Semitic) speaker look brave to a certain audience to convey having withstood the pressures of the allegedly anti-Semitism-crying Jewish masses.

"I still don't want to destroy people for the sin of kidding around or entertaining occasional anti-Semitic suspicions."

See, this is where things get tough. Virtually all contemporary accusations of anti-Semitism are presumed frivolous or overstating the case. Which is why, I think, the question of reserving the term for serious cases has come up even in a discussion of whether to give this label to one specific book, with what I believe is good reason. The problem, which I know I've gone on about here and elsewhere before, is that we have no term for Jew-hatred that's not super-serious-and-scary. As in, the Harvard law student's email can be called "racist" without anyone assuming the woman's being accused of advocating lynchings and slavery, while there's really no way to convey that it's icky that Kagan's nose dips below her upper lip in a caricature without seeming as though one's accusing the cartoonist of urging genocide. Because I don't for a minute think the cartoonist has such sympathies, and yet I think there's a problem with the image that couldn't be called, say, agoraphobia.

"I wonder also how much of this fear for Jews abroad (at least those in Europe) is now connected to radical Islam instead of the older forms of European anti-Semitism? Does that make a difference?"

Among the more politicized, conservative, contingent, yes, it probably does make a difference - the problem for this set is radical Islam and its native-European lefty quasi-supporters. But I'd imagine for many (more?) American Jews it's all a bit mixed together - then and now, Muslims and (one of the silliest French words ever) lepenisation.

Phoebe said...

(Missed this...) So, to anticipate your next question, the purpose of labeling it anti-Semitic is to show that one of its angles is anti-Jewish, that this is one probable reading the book can have. So some people will read the thing and be inspired to think in new ways about the Israel-US relationship, while others will read it and shake a fist at those sneaky Jews. And both would be readings that 'get' what the book is about.

MQ said...

Like it or not, it's just a fact that Jews wield significant political power in the U.S. and self-consciously use that power to advance causes that they (we) view as "good for the Jews". Given the geopolitical salience of Israel (as opposed to other "homelands" that U.S. ethnic groups lobby about) it's perfectly reasonable for non-Jews to discuss this. It seems to me that calling such non-Jews "anti-semites" is simply a way of ruling their arguments out of the public discussion. Walt-Mearsheimer are not anti-semitic in any of the Jew-hating senses, so calling them that seems to be a way of refusing to engage with their arguments.

Phoebe said...

MQ,

We've been over this earlier in the thread. What I consider anti-Semitic about the book (which, as I need to keep repeating, I've read cover to cover) isn't that it asks that we question AIPAC or the Israel-US relationship, but specific remarks the book makes about Jews. I might as well link to where I refer to the specifics.