This was originally to be Part IV of my anti-Semitism series. I’ve mostly been side-tracked from it — I don’t think the rest of it flows organically from discussions we’ve been having. This post, though, I think remains important on its own merits.
When Christianity first came about, it did not see itself as a rival to Judaism. Rather, it viewed itself as its completion. The coming of Jesus was the next step in the natural progression of Jewish history. Early Christians were thus surprised when Judaism refused to die off in the face of its claims. This presented a problem: if Christianity is merely the new and improved form of Jews (as they like to see themselves, hence names like “The New Testament”), what does it mean if there continues to exist a live and vibrant Jewish community that rejects the divinity of Christ?
Christian theologians solved this problem by holding that post-Christ Judaism was vestigial, a dead tree that would bear no more fruit. This doctrine, of course, runs into trouble insofar as Jews still were running around making theological claims and arguments, and Christian rulers worked extraordinarily hard as a result to suppress Jewish religious practice and particularly the creation of Jewish religious scholarship. The goal was make the declaration of Jewish irrelevancy a reality, by force if necessary. Christianity could only be said to be complete insofar as it was totalizing; it could only be totalizing if it entirely incorporated (dominated, colonized) Judaism.
As the Enlightenment swept through Europe (and came to America), a similar problem emerged. Like Christianity, Enlightenment Liberalism was a totalizing ideology. Its assertions of universal human rationality were colored by the experiential backdrop of the persons making the claim. What was said to be “universal” was, in reality, primarily a reflection of the values of the dominant castes: European (later White), male, middle-class, and secular/Christian. Some Enlightenment thinkers were Christian, and others were not, but regardless of their religious affiliation they had to make allowances for the overwhelmingly Christian majorities they represented. Explicitly sectarian rules were abandoned, but they principles which replaced them did little to undermine Christian hegemony.
Once again, though, Jews presented a problem. Jewish difference was incompatible with the universalism that characterized Enlightenment thought. “Neutral” laws written with the Christian majority in mind did not fall equally upon the Jewish community – for example, Sunday closing laws, which are easily defended as neutral in purpose (to give people a day off) and selection (Sunday is the day most people would want off). Even the vaunted separation of Church and State, an enlightenment triumph and a hallmark of efforts to protect minority faiths, has been operationalized to perpetuated the social subordination of Jews. In such situations, once again the Jew was called upon to erase her or himself. Jewish requests for accommodation were shot down as special pleading or violations of equal treatment. But conditioning equality upon sameness, as Catherine MacKinnon argues, “simply means that…equality is conceptually designed never to be achieved. Those who most need equal treatment will be the least similar…to those whose situation sets the standard against which one’s entitlement to be equally treated is measured.” As Albert Memmi, a Tunisian Jew and one of the key figures in contemporary post-colonial philosophy, memorably put it in The Liberation of the Jew, Jewish inclusion into majority Christian “secular” institutions was done under the conditions of “the poor man who enters a middle-class family: they demand that he at least have the good taste to make himself invisible.” The idea that Jews could only become equal by abandoning their Jewishness was sometimes expressed in distressingly violent terms. In 1793, the German philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte wrote that “As for giving them [the Jews] civil rights, I see no remedy but that their heads should be cut off in one night and replaced with others not containing a single Jewish idea.”
In short, like its Christian forbearer, quasi-secular Enlightenment liberalism could only self-actualize by denying Jewish particularism as a legitimate source of political claims. In theory, the bargain was that Jews would secularize and in return would receive the protections of universal human personhood. In reality, in exchange for bartering away their independence, Jews received very little protection against anti-Semitic violence. There is an old saw amongst historically minded Jews that imagines telling a turn-of-the-century European that there would be a brutal, anti-Semitic genocide on his continent within the next 50 years. The listener would not be surprised – but he’d assume it’d be in France. France was just coming off one of its most virulent anti-Semitic episodes in recent memory in the Dreyfuss Affair. Germany, by contrast, was widely regarded as the single most open and tolerant community for Jews to live in. Moral of the story? Enlightenment values aren’t a check against deep-seated prejudice, and tolerance now doesn’t preclude violence later.
As an aside, hopefully this talk about supersessionism makes it clear why the establishment of Israel was so important to much of the Jewish psyche. Many people, it seems, can’t grasp why establishing Israel mattered to Jews aside from some romanticized Biblical claim. I don’t think reestablishing the reign of Biblical kings was a major motivating factor for (largely secular) Zionism at all. For nearly 2,000 years, Jews had been seen as a sort of living fossil – a relic of a bygone era that had no autonomy, agency, or even subjectivity. Its continued survival was interpreted along a continuum of amazement to fury, a long since obsolete people who by all rights should have just become Christian or French or European or American a long time ago. The establishment of Israel was a stunning repudiation of this mentality – in many ways, the first undeniable assertion of Jewish popular agency since entering the diaspora. Here was living proof that we created something, that we were live actors, not a dead relic. Israel was undeniably real and undeniably ours, and commanded the attention, at least, of the global community. In the wake of the Holocaust – when it was an open question whether this wound against the Jewish people was too deep, one we could not survive – this could not have occurred at a more important time.
Supersessionism occurs whenever Jews are set against a totalizing narrative constructed by non-Jews that seeks to violent or coercively absorb them into its schema. Along with Christianity and Enlightenment Liberalism, Marxism believed itself to supersede the Jew (along with all other religions). Islam, like Christianity, also has historically seen itself as a (or the) metanarrative. Because metanarratives always carry within them the cadences of the group that creates them, these metanarratives (not created by Jews) always exist in tension with the Jewish community. Though the “universal” is always really particular, it is never admitted to be such. Instead, Jewish difference from the universal norm is taken as just cause for its suppression.
Keeping the supersessionist claims in mind makes clear several realities about the Jewish condition. First, supersessionism interlocks with the hyperpower myth in an intriguing way that reinforces Jewish silencing. If the Jew is no longer a legitimate independent source of perspective – either because of its impermissible sectarianism, or because at root it is just a “quirky Christian sect” – then of course it is no problem when Jewish voices are absent. But even persons who admit the utility of a plurality of perspectives can still justify ignoring Jewish voices particularly, because they view it as incorporated within the dominant Western-Christian paradigm. These figures would never be so crass as to allege that The Jews are hyperpowerful – except that they end up reaching the same place by default by grouping them within categories such as “Judeo-Christian” that are supposedly the dominant caste in the modern world.
“Judeo-Christian”, of course, is a nonsense phrase that is 100% Christian and, where it does happen to overlap with Jewish perspectives, does so completely by accident. And where Jewish ideology clashes even a little bit with Christian hegemony, it is immediately jettisoned from the pantheon. So we get Katherine Harris telling folks that adhering to “Judeo-Christian values” means only electing Christian legislators (presumably, not Jews), and Duncan Hunter explaining that the reason Israel can have gay soldiers but America can’t is because the latter’s combat troops have, you guessed it, “Judeo-Christian values.” Effectively, the “Judeo-Christian” concept nails Jews from both ends: conservatives get to claim Jews (against our will) to obtain faux-diversity, liberals happily cede us to them so they can bash us as part of the oppressive Christian/conservative power structure they’re warring against. What’s lost in all of this is the simple fact that Christians and Jews are different. Ask 100 people about the “traditional Judeo-Christian position” on abortion or the death penalty. I guarantee 90% of the time you’ll get an answer reflective of traditional Christian conservatism – but one that will have nothing to do with the way those issues are treated in classical Jewish texts. Christians are relatively conservative on these issues. Jews are relatively liberal. But despite being one of the most liberal demographics in America, Jews are often assumed to be conservative, because they’ve been subsumed in the public mind as just a branch of the dominant caste. That’s why a Greek paper was able to applaud Obama’s election as “the end of the Jewish domination”, despite carrying the ballots of 78% of American Jews. Ultimately, the refusal to situate Jews inside their own narrative and experience, instead defining them as mere extensions of Whiteness or Europeaness or what have you, is a replication of the supersessionist ideology in which Jews were stripped of their subjectivity as human actors.
The second implication has to do with how we view liberal remedies for anti-Semitic oppression generally. Many proponents of a single, bi-national state “solution” to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict argue that this is the only remedy that is consistent with the liberal, multi-ethnic, and egalitarian democratic ethos. A “Jewish” state is impermissibly sectarian and partisan, thus illiberal. A bi-national state which is neither “Jewish” nor “Palestinian”, but where everyone is just “citizen”, is what our progressive commitment to liberality demands.
I believe the liberal prescription for how oppressed people ought to seek their liberation is deeply flawed, for at least two reasons. First, the “neutral” rules under which the oppressed are supposed to conduct their affairs were made by and for the oppressors, for the precise purpose of maintaining the status quo hierarchy. And second, the rules are ones that nobody but the oppressed are expected to meet: they are routinely and flagrantly violated by the very persons who are shocked, shocked, whenever the marginalized step even a toe out of line (the taboo against interracial sex thus rests quite easily with the White campaign of rape and terror waged against Black women).
In other words, the liberal burden puts the onus on the oppressed class to craft a liberation agenda which maps perfectly onto an idealized fantasy that doesn’t exist and adhere to systematized rules and procedures which were crafted with reference to the current oppressive reality — they have to be both the paragons of idealized justice which nobody else practices and meet technical hurdles designed specifically to ratify an existing power structure which keeps Jews at the bottom.
What advocates of the single multi-ethnic liberal state miss is that this paradigm has never served to protect Jews, and there is no reason aside from misty-eyed idealism to suppose it will do so now. Moreover, it is a demand made of virtually no other nation. Not only has this “bargain” failed us before, but now like then, it is one made under implied threat: Jews who reject the particularistic nature of our identity do so under the watchful eyes of centuries of pogroms, burnings, torture, and murder that stand in silent testament to the alternative.
Asking Jews to buy into this model is a case of unilateral disarmament demanded of a people who have (as Richard Rubenstein pointed out) the least reason to trust in the promises of “abstract moral principles, human virtue, or international institutions.” How many more bullets can we be expected to take while we wait for you all to get this thing right? Anyone who has paid even the slightest bit of attention to the history of the 20th century cannot ask oppressed people to place their trust in the consciences of the international community and expect to be taken seriously. Maybe liberal multi-ethnic democracy is the shining path of salvation to the future. But I don’t think it is proper to make the Jews be its guinea pig.
Even the United States, historically one of the most tolerant locations for Jews to live in, can’t replicate the function of a “Jewish state”. Most obviously, Jews are still a minority here – still the other, still the strange – and depend on the goodwill and magnanimity of others to secure our equality. I take it as a basic principle of self-determination that no person should have to be a minority everywhere. There ought to be spaces where all of us get to be the center and not the frontier, the norm and not the marginalized. A liberal multi-ethnic state wouldn’t be a neutral baseline upon which all citizens can flourish, it would merely be a different baseline – one that would likely track the interests of the dominant or majority classes. There is no guarantee that either the dominaters or the majority will be particularly interested in crafted policies designed to insure that all citizens (much less minority groups) can flourish.
I don’t discount the great benefits that come from integration and multiculturalism – after all, I’m a Jew who was born in and plans to remain in America, so clearly I’m personally willing to give this deal a shot. But that’s my choice – you don’t get to roll the dice with my life. This can’t be our only option. Our efforts to remove racism from the University of Chicago do not negate the rationale for Howard University. The superstructure is still present, and believe me when I say I’m eyeing it warily.
But more directly, America has, when pressed against the wall, refused to serve as a substitute for the most important function Israel serves: a haven for Jews fleeing oppression. A poll taken in the United States after Kristallnacht asked respondents if they approved of the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews. 88% responded that they did not. They were then asked if they favored allowing more Jewish exiles into the country from Germany. 72% responded in the negative. And the American government’s policy was set accordingly, and remained consistent throughout the war. Coupled with Britain’s decision (under Palestinian pressure) to dramatically restrict the flow of Jewish refugees into the territorial mandate of Palestine, and Jews were bottled up and left to die. A great deal of Jewish support for Israel can be explained from this very simple sequence of events. Hitler’s “Final Solution” was brought into being because his previous efforts to rid himself of Jews (through expulsion) foundered on the fact that no state would accept them. Had Israel existed in 1928 instead of 1948, the Holocaust (of the Jews, at least – the 5 million others Hitler killed would likely have still met their fate) would not have occurred.
Meanwhile, the view of Israel’s statehood as somehow aberrational to the general proceedings itself betrays a specific and partial perception of which states are legitimate and which ones are not. I dare say that every modern nation has come into being wrapped in a shroud of pain and death. Israel is no exception, nor will the eventual Palestine. But in a world with French nation-states, Arab nation-states, Persian nation-states, Chinese nation-states, all manner of nation-states, only the Jewish-nation state is conceived as a request for “special rights”, because only the Jewish-nation state is seen as something external to the status quo state of affairs predicated on anti-Semitic domination (which of course, it was). Speaking only of the oppression created when Israel came into being, it pays no mind to the oppression present when there was no Israel and that Israel was created in response to. That oppression is instead taken as part of the neutral baseline, which Jews can be expected to absorb, or at best resist only in manners which affirm the deeper and more fundamental truth that Jews must always be a minority, must always be at the sufferance of others (I don’t have time to deal with yet another anti-Semitic myth, but I can’t help but think the presumed justness of this state of affairs is nourished by the idea of the “wandering Jew”). And that oppression cannot be plucked from its social location and placed in some sort of ahistorical abyss. It was done by Christians and by Muslims and by atheists; it was done by those who believed in theocracy and nationalism and Marxism and liberalism. The moral and political theories of the gentile world have one thing in common – they have been wretched failures at securing Jewish equality.
The basic line is this. When I’m told that a bi-national state will protect Jewish rights, ensure their flourishing, shield them from violence, and serve as a haven for Jews fleeing oppression elsewhere, I don’t believe you – nor am I obligated to. When I’m told that a liberal, multi-ethnic democracy will accomplish these things, I don’t believe you – nor am I obligated to. History, I think, is firmly on my side here.