Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Restoring the Right to Hate

The good folks at Engage pointed me to a new paper by CUNY professor (not of law, incidentally) Kenneth Marcus, Jurisprudence of the New Anti-Semitism, 44 Wake Forest L. Rev. 101 (2009). It's pretty good, though there are some things (mainly organizational) that annoy me about it. I really like its overview of the events at UC-Irvine which sparked one of the first high-profile complaints about institutionalized anti-Semitism in the United States -- and the willful inability of American law to take it seriously (114-123). I think it does important work in terms of linking anti-Semitism study to broader currents in anti-discrimination law and scholarship, including the more progressive anti-subordination fields that I identify with, though its analysis could be stronger. In general, I think it's an article that doesn't quite have its identity (Genealogy? Legal doctrinal? Normative argument?) nailed down. But so few folks are writing articles like this that I recommend it anyway, with a grade of 7/10.

One quote he gives, from Bernard-Henri Lévy, really did strike a chord with me, relating off my earlier Why Israel post. Lévy argues that the "New Anti-Semitism" has three main pillars: anti-Semitism-denial, Holocaust-denial, and anti-Zionism. He claims that, after the Holocaust decisively delegitimized older, more overt forms of anti-Semitism these elements are necessary
for people to feel once again the desire and, above all, the right to burn all the synagogues they want, to attack boys wearing yarmulkes, to harass large numbers of rabbis, to kill not just one but many Ilan Halimis--in order for anti-Semitism to be reborn on a grand scale. [136, quoting Bernard-Henri Lévy, Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism 155 (Benjamin Moser trans., 2008)]

As I've said earlier, I can't speak to the state of mind of the various persons who promulgate views I and many others find hateful. I can only state my own sentiment and feeling as a Jew -- that when I hear these words, it sounds to me like the speakers are thirsting to resume the old hatred; and questing for a renewal of the long-standing social sanction to enact hatred against the Jews. For most of history (in the locations Jews have lived), there has been an explicit license to the general people that it is permissible to discriminate against and detest Jews. Anti-Jewish bigotry was a birthright of the people; it was something that they were owed. Outside the United States, Jews have filled the role of being the Faces at the Bottom of the Well; the group that every other group was allowed to despise and inferiorize.

The repercussions stemming from the Holocaust deprived the community of a substantial right they had hitherto enjoyed. It was yet another case of the Jews stealing something that was rightfully possessed by another. Hatred directed at the "Zionists" seems to be an endeavor to restore the property interest Gentiles have long enjoyed in hating Jews. If they can't hate us as Jews, perhaps they can still hate us as "Zionists".

The evocation of those sentiments alone has tangible impacts on my ability to participate as an equal in the public sphere. It means I have to be alert about when and how I identify myself as a Jew. It makes me presumptively wary of certain spaces -- spaces I should have every right to participate in -- as being potential hotbeds of those who would reject me and mine as full members of the human community. And perhaps most damagingly, because the persons propounding these ideologies have focused so much of their attention (to great effect) at rendering any discussion of anti-Semitism facially illegitimate, the lesson I've taken when I feel threatened or aggrieved as a Jew is that identifying the problem is the gravest breach of discursive norms imaginable -- indeed, it is a insidious power play meant to mask a hidden and evil agenda by playing on public egalitarian attitudes which have deigned to treat Jews as equals (formally, at least).

Do I know that this is the explicit or even subconscious motivation of any given speaker? No. But bluntly put, I'm not sure why "innocent" intentions should be held to render the aforementioned concerns irrelevant. The reinscription of anti-Semitic dogma back into the polity, the chilling and silencing effect on Jews worldwide, the nourishment of violence against Jews -- these don't become any less bad just because their sources have good intentions. Much the opposite -- I think these realities make it incumbent on the speakers to re-evaluate what good intentions mean, and impress upon them a greater obligation to understand precisely what their ideology is doing. Despite tremendous pressures to be silent, Jewish voices have spoken loudly and eloquently on the effects they are facing which flow from these ideologies. Their targets, for their part, have distinguished themselves by an abject refusal to accord any legitimacy to these critiques -- proceeding apace without missing a beat, weaving the critique itself into their original song (namely, the verse about spurious claims of anti-Semitism).

At some point, ignorance starts become willful -- a conscious refusal to engage with the Other in order to preserve the right to hate irrespective of its material effects. And then I have to ask -- why do I care about your intentions anyway? You don't seem to have any intent on hearing my voice, refusing to do so threatens my security -- to me, from my vantage point, that's a bad intention.

1 comment:

Luci said...

Small world - I know Ken. His wife, Stephanie, works for my dad. He was the director of the Commission on Civil Rights & did most of his work on issues relating to anti-Semitism on college campuses. He left for Baruch College in 08.
I hear he'll be writing more frequently now that he's left gov't work - he's definitely someone to watch.