Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Albert Memmi on the Jew-of-the-Left

As part of my summer reading (basically, this summer I committed to do zero work on my dissertation and instead just ... read. Doesn't matter what, just read things. I'd say my success in this endeavor has been middling), I've picked back up the work of Albert Memmi. He's a fascinating figure -- it's no accident he's been a regular feature of my periodic philosophical musings about Jews on this blog -- and much of his observations on Jews and the Jewish experience remain resonant a half century after publication.

One of the things I like about Memmi is that he is an unimpeachable member of the left -- he made his bones, after all, as an advocate for Tunisian decolonization and his most famous work, The Colonizer and the Colonized, is part of the anti-colonial studies canon -- but he is not blind to its faults or its perils. He simultaneously believes the left is the only reasonable path for the Jew and is well aware of the betrayals the left has regularly foisted upon its Jewish comrades. A chapter in his The Liberation of the Jew ("The Jew and the Revolution") remains an outstanding exploration of how Jews relate to the left, and is worth diving into in detail.

First, we should place an important preliminary front and center: Memmi states outright that a reasonable, thinking Jew "can only be of the left". "[A] Jew," he writes, "is conservative only out of blindness or some short-sighted caution." While money or economic success may provide some measure of security in certain cases, "it is in the final analysis an illusory shelter; the Rothschilds themselves supplied their quota to the deportation camps. Whatever kind of insurance he has, the Jew remains a dominated person." And while right-wing politics occasionally gestures towards a sort of facile inclusion of the Jews, "[t]he government of the Right, cultivating the myth of the homogeneity of the nation, of the people or of the race, naturally rends to exclude the Jew, or at least limit his participation" (228-29). This echoed a point he made in his earlier Portrait of a Jew, where he said:
How can a man be a Rightist when he is a Jew?. . . The alliance of Jewry with Right wing movements can never be anything but temporary . . . To preserve the existing order, the Right has to stiffen and emphasize differences while at the same time having no respect for what is different. To preserve itself as a privileged group, it must repulse, restrict and repress other groups. Now it may be that a Jew may desire the survival of a given social order in which, by chance, he is not too unhappy. But in addition, he wants the differences between himself and the non-Jews in that class to be forgotten or at least minimized. The Right, either openly or covertly, drives the Jew back to his Jewishness and can only condemn and burden his Jewishness (218-19).
As Daniel Burston fairly observes, this argument doesn't hold in a case where Jews can themselves form the government and realistically attempt to cultivate their own myth of the homogeneity of the nation -- that is, it doesn't hold in Israel (surely, the nation-state bill is very much an illustration of how Jews, too, can genuinely indulge in this sort of right-wing exclusivity when they'd be the beneficiaries of homogenization). In its way, Israel is what has allowed the emergence of genuine right-wing Jewish politics. This isn't itself an argument against Israel (there's no time to go into that here, but see my post on strength, repentance, and diasporaism for hints on where I'd go), but it does reveal the potential for a sort of complacency in the Jewish world that thinks it is our destiny rather than our work to remain democratic, egalitarian, and a light-unto-nations. They're more committed to the slogan of "Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East" than they are to the reality of it.

Anyway, I digress. Memmi thinks that Jews -- certainly, at least those in the diaspora and under conditions of domination from non-Jews (a condition not solved simply when some Jews have money) have to be on the left. And on that I agree, and anyone who thinks that the Trumpist Republican Party or Orbanist Hungary or Austria's Freedom Party or any of their compatriots will be reliable friends of the Jews is deluding themselves. All the seeds of nativist resentiment stand ready to blossom against the Jews, now as they ever had, and if you think past attendance at a CUFI rally is going to stand as even a speedbump to embracing it going forward you haven't been paying attention to contemporary politics. The right is not and will never be a friend of the Jewish minority.

But, Memmi continues, this does not and has not meant that the left has reciprocated in protecting us:
It is true that the parties and governments of the Left very quickly gave us reason to doubt their ability to resolve our problem. Relatively speaking, we had certainly furnished the different parties of the Left with the largest contingent of hard-core militants, but this did not put an end to the hesitations and muddling of the European Left with respect to us. The Left did not defend us against the vile racist aggression with the complete strength and decisiveness which we had a right to expect from it. I have already spoken of the enthusiasm with which many of our youth movements followed the Soviet experience.... Did all this prevent an anti-Semitic brochure from appearing in Kiev as late as 1964? Did it prevent Russia from feigning ignorance of the kibbutz, the only true collectivist experience in the world? I will never be able to rid myself of a terrible doubt: would the Red Army have stood immobile at the gates of the Warsaw ghetto if it had not contained Jews alone? (Liberation of the Jew, 229)
And then Memmi writes a passage that rang very familiar: a "portrait" he drew of the prototypical "Jew-of-the-Left" -- or at the very least, of its most devoted foot-soldiers:
A portrait of the Jew-of-the-Left would be easy to paint. Under a dogmatic and assured exterior, he would be emotional, easily disturbed, both Manichean and Rousseauist; determinedly logical, but blind to the obvious, a mixture of desperate intellectual severity and annoyingly naive sentimentalism; stubbornly insisting on seeing as friends people who would watch him being tortured with indifference; believing in the fundamental goodness of man and in the irremediable evil of some men; clearly dividing humanity into two imaginary lot: on the one side the dirty skunks--reactionary, racist, incomprehensible monsters, or those reduced to thoughts of their wallets alone; on the other, their victims--the good and the pure who happily make up the great majority. Though they are at present mystified, one day they will certainly carry out the revolution because they have already done so in their hearts. Then, that which comically betrays, better than all the rest, the Jewish note: a touchy disinterestedness. On no condition can anyone suspect him for a moment of thinking of himself or his people. He fights unconditionally for all humanity; a trait which everyone uses and abuses; perfectly abstract, in reality laughable and touching; in the final analysis always ridiculed and in fact he is a sort of cuckold (231).
Why yes, I am familiar with the type (and again, for the right-wing Jews crowing in the bleachers -- scroll back up, because he thinks you're even more ridiculous).

Memmi proceeds to delineate and critique a particular pathology of the Jew-of-the-Left, who can abstractly agree that Jews are among the people he or she is fighting for but is squirmy and uncomfortable to do so with any specificity. It feels too provincial, too parochial, to back those distinctively their own -- a logic which ends up concluding at the absurd demand that people "fight only against an injustice of which he is not a victim" (234). And then you get the plea that the silence about Jewish issues is a tactical one -- yes, we must fight for Jews, but not in a "provocative" way; yes, we must fight for Jews, but doesn't speaking of antisemitism just "give substance to [its] delirium?", yes, we must fight for Jews, but we don't want to divert attention from "more decisive battles" (234-35).

He even identifies a particular form of comfort this sort of Jew-of-the-Left can create for him or herself by encrusting themselves in the body of the left so wholeheartedly that antisemitism and the Jewish question really do cease to be a problem for them (this is how you can get the Jews who proclaim that their entire careers have been spent inside the belly of leftist politics and yet they've somehow never once experienced antisemitism -- almost always, they're Jews whose Jewishness starts and ends at that sentence). Here Memmi is alluding back a prior chapter on "encystment", a condition of ghettoization where the ghetto itself provides a soothing, comfortable (but ultimately quite brittle) shield against the dangers and anxieties of the outside world. The left can be its own ghetto, albeit of an inverted sort where instead of being entirely Jewish the Jew instead is asked to be not Jewish at all: To be comfortable in the left,
the Jew-of-the-Left must pay for this protection by his modesty and anonymity, his apparent lack of concern for all that relates to his own people. In the hope of a future victory he must first agree to lose everything. Like the poor man who enters a middle -class family: they demand that he at least have the good taste to make himself invisible. As if this obligatory discretion were not already a very nasty symptom of the real meaning of this admission (236).
Here there is at least a bit of a more modern complication, in the form of a racial capitalism which very much values and demands that its "good Jews" speak as "good Jews". But the point still generally holds.

Next, Memmi attacks what has become almost a shibboleth among the contemporary left that I am exceedingly skeptical of (it is a mainstay of the corrupted form of intersectionality): that all oppressions are connected such that every oppressed person is the natural ally of all other oppressed persons. Memmi takes a dimmer but I think more realistic view: "[A]n oppressed person must never expect others to hand him his liberation." He chides Sartre for thinking that the French Democrats would naturally be allies of the Jews or the Algerians in their fight -- why, exactly, would we think that other than romanticism? And this reliance -- never all that reliable -- can also end up being demobilizing and debilitating:
[T]he Democrat's fight for the Jew always had overtones of "in favor of the Jew." At best, he fights for the Jew because he fights for all the oppressed. But it is always graciousness on his part. The Jew must depend on the good will of the Democrats for his security, his safety. The Jew must hope for his salvation indirectly and the Democrat will give it to him indirectly.
Alas, that is not all: the history of our relations with the Left--of our messianic hope of being delivered by the Left--is the history of a great derided hope. Forty years after the Russian revolution anti-Semitism remains a fact in Socialist countries and among the militants of many political parties and unions of the European and American Left. When I pointed out this fact in Portrait of a Jew I was indignantly told I was repeating calumnies perpetrated by the adversaries of democracy. Except for a few tirelessly stubborn or blindly unconditional advocates no one denies this any more today. At most they try to explain that it is not exactly racism, that it is not a deliberate desire to hurt Jews, but a question of certain inevitable social and historical difficulties. Maybe so; in any case, it looks savagely like anti-Semitism to me (238-39, emphasis added).
That last italicized part reads far, far ahead of its time. A few pages later, addressing the Soviet apologists who say their government cannot be accused of "intentional anti-Semitism," Memmi concedes the point but rejoins "what follows is even worse: it has become, in spite of itself, objectively anti-Semitic, as if by some internal fatality" (243). The interceding pages were a critique of Marxism's impotence at answering "the Jewish question"; this same discourse could apply with considerable force towards UK Labour today (right up to and including the potential concession that "intentional anti-Semitism" is lacking so long as it is reciprocally conceded that this absence is utterly besides the point. Such reciprocity, alas, is never forthcoming).

Memmi concludes by suggesting that Jewish liberation, like American Black liberation or any other liberation, must occur in a specifically Jewish way. Generalities about liberation that claim to back them all in one fell swoop won't do the trick (this is where Marxism's over-reliance on class fails). That segues into the next chapter. But what I want to conclude with is that this critique of the Jew-of-the-Left -- bracing as it is -- works only because Memmi is, in his own way, very much a Jew-of-the-Left (as am I). It is not and should not be viewed as a cri de coeur for right-wing politics or even a rejection of Jewish leftism (anymore than, say, intersectionality's critique of left-wing feminism and anti-racism practices should've been viewed as a plea for conservatism).

It is a distinctive feature of Jewishness in its own right that, no matter how many bodies we contribute to the left, any critique we offer of the left is never perceived as coming from the inside -- it always demonstrates that we were at best a Fifth Column. It'd be hard to make that charge of Memmi (at least in his mid-century iteration); though I have no doubt that somebody is hard at work trying to pull it off.

 Albert Memmi, Portrait of a Jew, Elisabeth Abbott, trans. (New York: Viking [1962] 1971)

Albert Memmi, The Liberation of the Jew, Judy Hyun, trans. (New York: Orion 1966)

1 comment:

David Bernstein said...

It should go without saying, but apparently does not, that there are options for Jews that are neither the sort of left Memmi is discussing, nor nationalist right. Indeed, this is much of the American political spectrum, and every American presidential candidate from the 1950s thorugh 2012.