Supersessionism and Status Production

Paul Berman gets at something important in this interview:

We like to think of hatred of the Jews as a low, base sentiment that is entertained by nasty, ignorant people, wallowing in their own hatefulness. But normally it’s not like that. Hatred for the Jews has generally taken the form of a lofty sentiment, instead of a lowly one – a noble feeling embraced by people who believe they stand for the highest and most admirable of moral views.

In the Middle Ages, Christians felt they were upholding the principles of universal redemption, and they looked on the Jews as terrible people because the Jews had refused the word of God – had insisted on remaining Jews. And so, the loftiest of religious sentiments led to hatred of the Jews.

In the 18th century, the Enlightenment philosophers looked on the Enlightenment itself as the loftiest form of thought – the truest of all possible guides to universal justice and happiness. The Enlightenment philosophers detested Christianity because it was a font of superstition and oppression. But this only led them to despise the Jews even more – no longer because the Jews had refused the message of Christianity, but because the Jews had engendered the message of Christianity. And the damnable Jews insisted on remaining Jews, instead of repudiating religion altogether.

The religious wars wreaked all kinds of damage on Europe. But the Treaty of Westphalia came along in 1648 and put an end to religious wars by establishing a system of states with recognized borders, each state with its own religion. The new Westphalian system embodied yet another Enlightenment idea of lofty ideals – the grandest guarantee of universal peace and justice. But the Jews were scattered throughout Europe, instead of being gathered together in a single state. The new state system was supposed to be a comfortable shoe, and the Jews were a pebble. And they insisted on remaining Jews, instead of helpfully disappearing. So one hated the Jews for failing to conform to the new system of states.

Today we have arrived at yet another idea about how to bring about universal peace and justice – the loftiest, most advanced idea of our own time. Instead of looking on well-established states with solid borders to keep the peace, Westphalia-style, we look on states as a formula for oppression and war. Lofty opinion nowadays calls for post-state political systems, like the European Union. Unfortunately, nowadays the Jews possess a state. Thus one hates the Jews in the name of lofty opinion, no longer because the Jews lack a state but because, on the contrary, they have a state. They seem keen on keeping their state. And once again the Jews are seen to be affirming a principle that high-minded people used to uphold but have now rejected as antiquated.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, people with advanced ideas began to look on Christian hatred of the Jews as a retrograde prejudice – and the advanced thinkers embraced, instead, the pseudo-science of racism. They no longer hated the Jews on religious grounds – they hated the Jews on racial grounds. The word “racism” originally applied to hatred of the Jews. Racial hatred seemed up to date. Today, however, racism itself has come to seem like a retrograde prejudice. And so, people with advanced opinions hate the Jews on anti-racist grounds, and they regard the Jews as the world’s leading racists.

And so forth. The unstated assumption is always the same. To wit: the universal system for man’s happiness has already arrived (namely, Christianity, or else Enlightenment anti-Christianity; the Westphalian state system, or else the post-modern system of international institutions; racial theory, or else the anti-racist doctrine in a certain interpretation). And the universal system for man’s happiness would right now have achieved perfection – were it not for the Jews. The Jews are always standing in the way. The higher one’s opinion of oneself, the more one detests the Jews.


To be sure, lofty disdain comes in different versions. In its respectable version, lofty disdain right now adopts a position of long-faced sadness over Israel for being such a reprehensible place, for existing at a moment when states ought to fade away, for being racist, for perpetuating religion, for being an example of European imperialism, and so forth. One shakes one’s head in sorrowful regret that the Israelis are the way they are.

But the disdain takes another shape, too, which is cruder, though it follows more or less from the first version. In the cruder version, the Jews are not just regrettable for being retrograde. Much worse: the Jews have done something really terrible. By forming their state and standing by it, they have set out actively to oppose the principle of universal justice and happiness – the principle that decrees that a people like the Jews should not have a state.

This, I think, helps fuse together points I made in my Superseded Jew post,  and the ones I explored in I Think You’re Insulting Me Wrong.

The point of the superseded Jew argument was to note that Jews were always seen as this relic of the past, something obsolete, a barrier to progress. As Berman demonstrates, this is one of the reasons why left-wing anti-Semitism has always been distressingly robust: When you want to move forward, and Jews are seen as backwards, Jews become automatically cast as a stumbling block on the path to human progress. In this context, any positive assertion of Jewish identity or legitimacy becomes extraordinarily dangerous, because it transitions Jews from being passively (unfortunately, accidentally) primitive into being actively so — actively seeking to promote injustice and unfairness.

Meanwhile, in ITYIMW, I tried to look at why — if the root cause of the uptick in anti-Semitic violence recently is economic — the perpetrators are tieing their actions not to supposed Jewish control of the economy, but as a collateral attack on the policies of Israel. My answer then was that, in contrast to Jew-hatred based on economic scapegoating, the perpetrators see attacks tagged as anti-Israel criticism as being socially legitimated. They view it as “okay”, in some sense, to attack a Jew — particularly a Zionist Jew — in “protest” of Israeli policies (or existence) in a way that it would not be to attack them on the basis of other stereotypes or beliefs. From there, I said we have to look at why these persons are receiving the message that this particular motive is permissible.

But I still framed the actions as being “low” and “base” — naked scapegoating. The switch to “anti-Israel” motives is merely a response to incentive; it doesn’t signify anything else. Berman raises another possibility, however: that the anti-Semitic activity is more directly fueled by the idea that doing so represents just struggle.

All persons crave status. We want to feel valued and important. Contemporary culture marginalizes huge swaths of people along this axis. Capitalism does this to persons who are deemed unnecessary or unimportant to the functioning of the market. White Supremacy does it to Black youth who are told, time and again, that they are worthless to society and their lives meaningless. There are, unfortunately, innumerable ways in which people can be and are told in modern society that they are an irrelevant entity.

Persons who, due to economic circumstance or anything else, feel as if they are marginal look for avenues by which they might raise their esteem. One way is to do something heroic; to commit a high profile act of justice; to serve a cause greater than themselves. This provides a status-substitute that they cannot find through the socially “legitimate” avenues of worth. There is strong evidence indicating, for instance, that inner city youth join gangs primarily because gangs provide them with a sense of status and importance that isn’t otherwise available to them. Richard McAdams’ research on status production as a motivating factor behind racist activity is another example.1

In this light, the motivations behind anti-Semitic-as-anti-Israel acts take on a clearer light. The perpetrators may not pick that as their reason merely out of some inchoate sense that it is a “less bad” motivator, or one less likely to precipitate retaliatory sanction. Insteady, they may be quite consciously seeking to produce status in themselves by “striking a blow for justice” — in this case, by resisting an entity which they are told and are constantly being affirmed is evil and worth lashing out against.

But of anti-Semitism of this sort is status-seeking behavior, the question is where these persons believe they are getting status from? I reiterate my suspicion that moral hatred directed against Israel — and by extension its supporters — is the cause. Something that is worthy of moral hatred is something that you are “free to wage war [against], to lash out and crush … unrestrained by considerations of proportionality.” To do so not only is not wrongful, it is heroic. It is righteous. Jews, after all, continue to stubbornly position themselves as enemies to the progressive cause. They refuse to see the light. The policies they support, the politics they represent, are a relic of that which we seek to overcome. And for that, they are a worthy object of hatred and scorn, until they are finally superseded and assimilated like they always should have been.2

I also reiterate my position that intention is not a necessary component to creating this effect, nor does lack of intention necessarily absolve moral culpability. I believe criticism of a state can be detached from criticism of that state’s citizens; I am less optimistic that criticism of a state can be detached from that state’s supporters. Placed, willingly or nor, in a morally salient relationship with supporters (particularly Jewish supporters) of Israel, the critics have an obligation to be mindful of the known and predictable effects. When they are reckless with the lives effected by their speech, they bear some measure of responsibility for the consequences.

Again, there may be no intention to “green light” anti-Semitic violence. But because the perpetrators have already received the message that they are engaged in a morally righteous struggle, the muted reaction against their behavior — and the unabated continuance of the messages which led them to believe that their acts were heroic to begin with — is easily interpreted as consent or support.3 Focusing nearly exclusively on defending their words, policies, and procedures from the possibility that they are anti-Semitic, or might produce, ratify, legitimate, or sustain it, the purveyors of criticism as moral hatred unintentionally but dramatically weaken the ability for committed anti-racists to break the connection between criticism of Israel and anti-Semitic activity. Focusing on intent, they are blind to effects. And by refusing to allow even the barest interrogation into the connections between what they are saying and doing, and the historical and current manifestations of anti-Semitism worldwide, it is impossible to create a competitive counternarrative based on principles of justice, fairness, or progressivism; as these terms are all monopolized by the very actors who are unwittingly undermining them. In this world, the only space for a counterstory is on the right, and that is a world I refuse to accede to.

This is one of the many reasons why I am so fervent in speaking up on behalf of those who in good faith speak out against anti-Semitism on the left. Until it is affirmed that interrogating the potential anti-Semitism (in intent and in effect) of progressive speakers (on Israel and on other topics) is a fundamentally legitimate activity for progressives to engage in, it will be impossible to battle against the wave of anti-Semitic violence which seeks status through a perverted pursuit of justice.

  1. Richard H. McAdams, Cooperation and Conflict: The Economics of Group Status Production and Race Discrimination 108 HARV. L. REV. 1003 (1995) []
  2. See Tony Kushner, Antisemitism, in A Companion to Racial and Ethnic Studies, (David Theo Goldberg & John Solomos, eds., Oxford: Blackwell 2002): 64-72, 64: “[I]t was assumed in the non-Jewish world that the Jews had brought on their own misfortune. In Christian tradition, the accusation of deicide, followed by Jewish ‘stubborness’ in not recognizing Jesus as the messiah, explained and justified the continuing pariah status and persecution of the Jews, typified by the construction in popular culture of the ‘wandering Jew,’ forever doomed to live in miserable exile. The Enlightenment and the growth of secular thought did not necessarily lead to a reassessment of the tendency to blame the victim. The continuation of Jewish particularity after the granting of political emancipation in the wake of the French Revolution was perceived across a range of Western and Central European countries as further evidence of Jewish obstinacy, and therefore the explanation of why anti-Semitism persisted.” []
  3. I am clearly influenced here by how Samantha Power described the path towards genocide in the Balkans: “Because so many individual perpetrators  were killing for the first time and deciding daily how far they would go, the United States and its European allies missed critical opportunities to try to deter them. When they ignored genocide around the world, the Western powers were not intending to ‘green light’ the perpetrators. But because the killers told themselves they were doing the world a favor by ‘cleansing’ the ‘undesirables,’ some surely interpreted silence as consent or even support.” []
This entry posted in Anti-Semitism. Bookmark the permalink. 

4 Responses to Supersessionism and Status Production

  1. 1
    Jack says:

    “In the 18th century, the Enlightenment philosophers looked on the Enlightenment itself as the loftiest form of thought – the truest of all possible guides to universal justice and happiness. The Enlightenment philosophers detested Christianity because it was a font of superstition and oppression. But this only led them to despise the Jews even more – no longer because the Jews had refused the message of Christianity, but because the Jews had engendered the message of Christianity. And the damnable Jews insisted on remaining Jews, instead of repudiating religion altogether.”

    This sort of leaves out the Jewish Enlightenment and the role of Jewish thinkers in the Enlightenment. If Enlightenment thinkers despised the religious that included Jews- but surely secular-Jewish Enlightenment thinkers felt the same way about the religious. Its like saying atheists despise the Jewish People because they believe in God. This makes no sense, not least of all because there are Jewish atheists.

  2. 2
    iamefromiami says:

    re: “In this world, the only space for a counterstory is on the right, and that is a world I refuse to accede to” Yes. It IS like there is a left-right chasm . Even amongst just the Jewish people it’s like “leftists” or “rightists” and the twain seldom meet. I think you are on your way down a lonely path and I commend you for it. Really words cannot express the rage and heartbreak I feel when I go to feminists blogs and there is NOTHING just nothing about the people walking in streets with swasticas calling for Jews to go to the ovens NOTHING. The only thing that equally enrages me is the racism, homophobia and utter disregard for woman hatred (except when they point out Muslim women hatred) that I see on the right. I think of women who say, “I am not a feminist but….” and I think I will have to be a woman who says, ‘I AM a feminist BUT… I believe anti-Semitism/Jew hatred MATTERS, that it is a HUMAN rights issue that affects us ALL and I CARE about it.” ( and not just because I think anti-Semitism is bad for the Palestinian cause) One thing though, re: your very last paragraph. Do you seriously think you can change the minds and hearts of MILLIONS? I mean,your talking about a hatred that has been around for what, thousands of years? You’ve assigned yourself a pretty massive task taking that on! What are you the Messiah? (by the way great work)

  3. 3
    Matt says:

    Regarding the left-right chasm, something I had written a while back. One of the major themes of Shulamit Volkov’s workhas been that what grew in pre-Nazi Germany was not so much explicit or salient Jew-hatred — but a fault line where politics were understood singly through the Jewish Question.

    I think one of the reasons many Jews are anxious today is because they recognize this process more clearly.

  4. 4
    Eccaba says:

    Wow, thank you so much for posting this. I think Berman really shed some new light on the issue of antisemitism. Your expansion of the subject is also very helpful.
    @iamefromiami Yeah, the silence with regard to the recent antisemitic uprising on all my favorite feminist/progressive blogs has really disturbed me. I keep trying to believe that the progressive community really is open to me. It’s really hard though. It seems every time I try to get involved with any activist causes, at some point or another my Judaism comes up. (This is hard for me to exclude in conversations with people because I used to be Orthodox and even lived in Israel for a spell, so its a big part of my history and identity.) Once they find this out at least one individual immediately reacts with righteous moral indignation. It seems as though they’re offended that I’ve mentioned my Judaism without immediately coupling it with an apology. I am immediately suspect and they begin to interrogate my political beliefs. I actually once had a woman respond to me, when she found out I had lived in Israel, “but don’t you think what the Jews are doing is WRONG!!!!??” You know, I would understand a negative reaction for making a political/anti-Palestinian statement that offends someone. But I often find that I’m seen as transgressive just for being openly Jewish in the first place. What’s worse is that usually it’s only one or two people who decide to accost me. No one ever speaks up against the behavior though, so presumably it’s acceptable. I hate feeling afraid to mention my Jewishness around people who I want to believe are allies, and I hate that I’m not currently involved in any activism because of these fears. I think this article really nailed why those behaviors exist.
    Anyway, the point is, I’m in school for women’s studies/philosophy, and I’ve been really concerned about how I, as a Jew, will be able to be the progressive activist I want to be.
    Unfortunately this article, while illuminating, has made me feel less than optimistic.