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The World’s Oldest Sickness

Posted By David Solway On June 7, 2010 @ 12:02 am In FrontPage | 44 Comments

The world is sick again with an old disease for which no cure has ever been found. It tends to go into remission here and there at various times but it invariably reappears, as virulent as ever, developing new strains as the bacillus adapts to the antibiotics of reason, shame or distraction. The disease is called anti-Semitism and it can afflict even those who would seem best prepared to resist it. Few are immune.

It can assume racial forms, the Jew regarded as a quasi-human deformity, as rodent, monkey or untermensch. International jurist Jacques Gautier, who finds it “shameful” that under the dispensation of the Human Rights community it is understood that Arabs will have legal and political rights in Israel while it is accepted that Arab countries can be judenrein, concludes that Jews do not enjoy human rights because they are not reckoned as human. Why extend the norms and principles that presumably govern human behavior and the relations between states to a people and a state tacitly considered as beyond the pale, as not quite “like us”? This is how double standards are implicitly justified. Judaism has also been condemned as a cultural and economic perversion that contorts the structure of society. This is a very old story. Indeed, whatever manifestation it assumes, anti-Semitism has been with us almost as far back as human memory goes. What historian Robert Wistrich has called the world’s longest hatred is also the world’s oldest sickness.

It is, in fact, best construed as a universal epidemic, the emotional and intellectual equivalent of the Black Death that decimated Europe in the fourteenth century. The difference is that those who have contracted this septicemia of the mind do not die, except inwardly. Ironically, their victims are precisely those who do not suffer from the plague that has contaminated its bearers—except, of course, for those apostate Jews who are sick with the same morbid distemper. The list of such despicables would fill the devil’s Rolodex. But they too must eventually succumb to the fury of the demented carriers of the pathology. Unfortunately, the Israeli pharmaceutical firm Teva, one of the world’s largest suppliers of antibiotic medicines, has no psychic or endocrinal equivalent to treat the malady.

In Anti-Semite and Jew, Jean-Paul Sartre argues that anti-Semitism is not an idea but “first of all a passion” that is akin to hysteria. This passion connects schematically with “the idea of the Jew” to which individual Jews are made to conform irrespective of their personal attributes. For Sartre, anti-Semitism is founded in the “fear of the human condition”—of solitude, responsibility for oneself, and the terror of contingency. The Jew is made responsible for the inescapable distress of being human along the entire spectrum from the empirical to the ontological—an excuse for failure, a means of false absolution and a convenient repository of all we are unwilling to acknowledge about ourselves. As such he has been zoned for apartheid, whether metaphysical or social. Sartre concludes that “If the Jew did not exist, the anti-Semite would invent him.”

For all his innovative phrasing, Sartre is really playing variations on the grizzled notion of the Jew as scapegoat, derived from Leviticus 16, which is true enough—witness the current U.S. administration’s treatment of Israel which, as historian Moshe Dann suggests, is a species of collective scapegoating to cover its own foreign policy failures. Philosopher René Girard adds a certain twist to the etiology of this recurrent sickness and proposes the concept of “ritual mimesis” or “mimetic victimage,” an ironic conflict-management elucidation of the scapegoat philosophy. In Girard’s thinking, the violence between groups in a given society is resolved by projecting it upon a third party—the Jew—who is then expelled.

In T.S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism, and Literary Form, Anthony Julius suggests an interesting comparison/contrast between Homeric mythology and anti-Semitism. They both “offer explanations intended to make sense of puzzling misfortunes in human life, the one by the intervention of the gods, the other by the intervention of the Jews.” The trouble is that “Jews are not malign Olympians who dispose of humankind by manipulative wizardry.” But tell that to the anti-Semite, who craves an easy explanation for what he does not comprehend in the larger world or cannot resolve in his own circumscribed life. By making the Jew responsible for all he cannot clarify, come to terms with or vanquish, the anti-Semite forfeits both courage and morality. What will he do when the Jew is no longer there? He would be like the parasite that has devoured its host and now faces starvation.

This suggests another definition of anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism is a form of spiritual parasitism, the always tempting resort of the human leech who feeds his appetite for security, justification and self-acquittal from the life-blood of others—in this case, of course, from the body of the Jewish people. Put less offensively, anti-Semitism is blind ignorance, both of the world and the self. Psychologists like to call this psycho-reflex “projection” or “cathexis,” but these terms don’t even begin to cover the malice inherent in so invidious an emotional investment or to parry what Wistrich in his recent book, A Lethal Obsession, has identified as a “Judeophobic virus.”

Today, anti-Semitism has adopted a new expression, dubbed by Robin Shepherd in A State Beyond The Pale: Europe’s Problem with Israel as “neo-anti-Semitism” which is “virulently anti-Israeli”. The Neurozone is gravely compromised, but the syndrome is making significant inroads on this side of the Atlantic as well. While not entirely ridding itself of its racial and socioeconomic baggage, neo-anti-Semitism converges on the Jew-as-Zionist, associated with the state of Israel as the modern embodiment of a discredited colonial enterprise. The purveyors of this claim affect not to be anti-Semitic, but their protestations are not convincing. It looks more like lying by ancillary focus.

The proof resides not only in the fact that Israel is unfairly and disproportionately singled out for opprobrium while flagrant and undoubted human rights offenders are generally given a free pass. It is also evident in the fact that Israel is conceived as no ordinary colonialist power. Israeli Jews are regarded as reviving the pestilence of Nazism, cleansing, or approving of the cleansing, of ethnic populations, aka the Palestinians—which is nothing short of a gross misreading of the historical archive and a wrenching misrepresentation of the present circumstance. For despite the fictions of a perjurious world, there can be no question that the Jewish people enjoy a religious, historical and legal right to their homeland, as Jacques Gautier, who spent twenty years studying the issue of ownership, as attorney and legal specialist Howard Grief in his The Legal Foundation and Borders of Israel under International Law, and as many others have established beyond the slightest doubt. The effort to deny what is the cadastral address of the Jewish people is a pattern of what Melanie Phillips has called, in her new book of that title, The World Turned Upside Down.

Interestingly, the accusation that Israel is the new SS is the contemporary distortion of the theme of Albert Camus’ The Plague, an obvious allegory of the Nazi invasion of Europe and North Africa. The wrinkle added to this fabric of defamation is that Jews have no right to any kind of power or authority. As Bernard Lewis writes in Semites & Anti-Semites, Jews have no business being anything other than, at best, “a tolerated subject minority.” Therefore, “by appearing as conquerors and rulers the Jews have subverted God’s order in the universe.” This calumny, says Lewis, is both the Muslim and “the fashionable leftist or progressive line.” But it is only a symptom or manifestation of the same old sickness. To paraphrase Stephen Toulmin in Cosmopolis, it is, in effect, “the narrative of a past episode reflected in a more recent mirror.”

And yet the mystery persists. But whatever theory we advance to decrypt what may be largely unfathomable or at least not wholly explicable, one thing is certain. Anti-Semitism is here to stay. Jessica may elope with Lorenzo but she or her children or grandchildren will one day be forced to accept the indelible fact of origins. Anti-Semitism is not a contagion that, like Daniel Defoe’s description in A Journal of the Plague Year of the catastrophe that visited London in the year 1665, will ever be “enervated and its malignity spent.” This is because anti-Semitism is unlike other forms of irrational hatred and operates under a different set of laws, which appear to be immutable.

Indeed, today once again, as we confront a new world-generation of venomous and commissurotomized anti-Semites, we might plausibly conclude that anti-Semitic sentiments and irruptions, in virtue of their millennial repeatability, have become entrenched in human consciousness as a natural inevitability. As I have written before, “It is something that it is perceived in the depths of the psyche to have moved from the dimension of history over into the structure of nature. It is as if anti-Semitism has now become part of our synaptic equipment.”

As a result, the destiny of the Jew is to be eternally unsafe in this world, despite the narcotic of assimilation or the illusion of self-rejection. The time seems invariably to come when the Jew is thrown back on his identity and regarded not as a human being or as an ordinary citizen but as, ab ovo, a Jew. After which, measures are adopted. Of no other people can this be said. And this is why the Jewish people cannot afford the luxury of historical amnesia, self-betrayal or the hallucination of ultimate security, but must remain vigilant, conscious and always prepared for the resurgence of the plague.


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