Sunday, November 8, 2015

Israel and Antisemitism

Does Israel cause antisemitism?

There's a pretty compelling narrative to that effect these days.  That's to say that it's what Israel does and what it represents that makes people hate Jews.  In other words, if only Israel wasn't occupying Palestine and mistreating Palestinians, people wouldn't hate Jews.  Carried to its logical conclusions, then, if only Israel didn't exist as a Jewish state (since the story goes that by its very existence it's depriving Palestinians), people wouldn't hate Jews.

Please note I'm recounting that narrative but don't mean by doing so to be affirming its accuracy.

The anti-Israel message tries to make itself true by dint of volume and repetition.  That is, the message is being broadcast loudly and often.  Its publicists reserve the right to judge who's been good and bad, and they say they're on the side of the weak and good against the strong and evil, thus claiming the moral high ground.  That makes the message difficult to rebut and itself can instill a defensive posture in those on the receiving end.

The Jewish state is an immoral entity.  So goes the narrative.

On the other hand, prior to the inception of modern Zionism and, later, the existence of the state of Israel, there was another compelling narrative, one that held forth the statelessness of Jews as the cause of antisemitism. Jews were a foreign people, aliens in their host countries.  There they competed unfairly, by their obscene success sucking the wealth out of those host countries and caring only for themselves at the expense of the generous hosts--in what for the Christian benefactors was a fatal embrace.

Can a thing and its opposite both be the cause of antisemitism?

Well, someone might say, maybe so, if the Jews were evil in both incarnations.

So, then: that would suggest the latter rendition remains as compelling as it was in its day, which is not likely to be the case.  In the latter version, we can all likely recognize some of the classic antisemitic tropes that have since been discredited.

Still, though, the latter message helped inspire the father of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl.  Believing that Jews as unwelcome interlopers in their host states were the cause of antisemitism, he thought antisemitism would disappear once the Jews were ensconced in their own state like other nations.

After a high point of acceptance for Jews, starting with their emancipation at the time of the French Declaration of the Rights of Men and of the Citizen and under Napoleon, things had been going backward for them over the course of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth (Ori Soltes, Untangling the Web: A Thinking Person's Guide to Why the Middle East is a Mess and Always Has Been, 2009). Horrific pogroms were occurring in Russia and elsewhere.  Antisemitism was on the rise even in France. Nor did better educated populaces prove immune.  In other words, antisemitism in both word and deed was a stimulus for Zionism, conceived by Herzl as an attempt to get out of Dodge while the getting was good.

But now that there is an Israel, the tune has changed.  In a sharp reversal of the former conventional wisdom, their being there is what's causing antisemitism.

Damned if you do, damned if you don't.

This has happened before.  When Jews were still in the ghetto they were considered degenerate and inferior--an example of what mid-twentieth-century American doctors might have called "piss-poor protoplasm."  But after they emerged and began to participate successfully in society, then they were considered clever and conniving and cunning (Emancipation: How Liberating Europe's Jews from the Ghetto Led to Revolution and Renaissance, Michael Goldfarb, 2009).  In other words, the narrative morphed.

The narrative has been rolling and morphing for a couple thousand years.

When there was a backlash against the new commercial societies that had emerged from the Enlightenment, Jews were blamed.  For Karl Marx, in fact, capitalism was "Jewdom."  Jewish involvement in capitalism was singled out as the cause of antisemitism.  But when some Jewish intellectuals attempted to remedy that by becoming communists, communism became in the minds of many the "cause" of antisemitism.  A thing and its opposite!  The misguided stereotype that all Jews were radicals eventually contributed to the Western liberal democracies' closing their borders to Jews not long before Nazism arose in Europe (Jerry Muller, Capitalism and the Jews, 2010).

The difficulty is that these purported causes of antisemitism are not causes at all, but story elements.  That is, although they are plausible, there is no causality to them.

It is a red flag when a story and its opposite are both touted.  Another clue is the simplicity of the stories.  Simple stories that pick and choose which (limited) facts to include tend to be plausible and to attract adherents--in particular, stories that target a common enemy.  Moreover, popular stories grow.  Most people aren't sociopaths, so it's advantageous for a story to become expansive about the alleged evil of those in the common-enemy role, to justify both hateful attitudes and misbehavior toward them.  Excuses are needed.

On the "causality" thing, it's difficult to predict the past.  If we see an ice cube at room temperature, we can readily predict the future: it will soon be a small puddle.  But if we see the small puddle, we can't say what "caused" it, for the possible causes are legion. There you have Nassim Nicholas Taleb's helpful ice-cube explanation from The Black Swan, 2007 and 2010.

That's just the tip of the iceberg regarding stories.  Stories are part and parcel of human existence.  But, as Barbara Brown Taylor (An Alter in the World, 2009) intuited, making another person into a character in one's own story is to become a fiction writer.  What I'm advocating here is that we learn to train the light of our consciousness on our stories, so as to illuminate aspects usually left in festering darkness.

In these particular stories about what "causes" antisemitism, I'm also suggesting that Jews especially could benefit from understanding that we're talking plausibility and not causality.  As the foregoing illustrates, Jews have been just as likely to hop on these bandwagons as anybody else.

Consider the old story, widespread in America, that goes Jews are persecuted "because you set yourselves apart." I'm thinking of the humorous line from Driving Miss Daisy (the play; it was left out of the movie): when Miss Daisy is told The Temple on Peachtree Street has been bombed, she exclaims, "Don't they know we're Reform?"  (meaning, "We're not that different; we are not supposed to have caused antisemitism.")

And consider those Jews who want to dissociate themselves from the state of Israel.  After all, there's the going narrative that to condemn Israel is the way to be a "good" Jew.

Do what's right for you, but whatever that is, don't do it in the blind belief in these narratives.

Comment re comments: Comments welcome, but I've been told in the past that comments have not posted appropriately and have been lost.  So save before posting.  You should be able to post by logging in with Google.  Someday I'll seek assistance in making these posts more comment-friendly.