Monday, February 25, 2019

What if Everything is Antisemitic?

We've been talking a lot about the avoidance of antisemitic "tropes" when criticizing Jews or Jewish institutions. Aside from very obvious expressions of antisemitic hate, there are lengthy lists of words or concepts to avoid when talking about Jews, because they are linked up to historical antisemitic beliefs about Jews -- e.g., Jewish wealth, Jewish conspiracies, Jewish cabals, Jewish bloodlust. It's fine to be critical of Jewish institutions, but if you use such words or concepts (tropes) in doing so you start to wander into antisemitic territory. So just avoid the tropes!

This makes sense, in its way. But there's a big lurking problem nobody really wants to grapple with: what negative or critical assessment hasn't been attached to an antisemitic ideology at one time or another?

The almost-infinite mutability of the content of antisemitic ideology as one of the most striking features of antisemitism over time. Moshe Lilienblum's 1883 remarks, where he described how Jews were cosmopolitans to the nationalists and nationalists to the cosmopolitans, radical free thinkers to the religious and close-mindedly superstitious to the atheists, conservatives to the liberals and liberals to the conservatives ... on and on forever, is compelling illustrations.

I think all "-isms" display this mutability to at least some degree -- think of racist iconography of Black men as happy-go-lucky simpletons right up until they're bestial brutes -- though it's possible that antisemitism represents an extreme case. The fact of the matter is, though, that for pretty much any negative (or potentially negative) human characteristic you can name -- greed or miserliness, violence or cowardice, close-minded religiosity or arrogant secularism, univeralism or particularism, licentiousness or frigidity -- somebody has associated with the Jews.

One upshot of this is that it gives a hint as to the causal story of stereotypes: it's the hate that drives the stereotyping, not vice versa. People dislike Jews, and so associate Jews with things they dislike. If the hatred stays constant but the dislikable characteristics change, the stereotype shifts to match.

But if this is true, it creates a practical dilemma for the "just avoid antisemitic tropes" advice. Because if any negative evaluative concept has been imputed to Jews in an antisemitic way, then there might not be a clear way to speak in negative evaluative terms about a Jewish institution.

And that's a dilemma; one I haven't quite figured out how to solve. Obviously, the answer can't be "we can't speak negatively about Jewish institutions, because it will always be antisemitic." But it also seems wrong to say "antisemitic tropes are so omnipresent that it's unfair to cite them in a particular case." So what to do?

One potential solution is to say that, just because a given concept has been used as an antisemitic trope, that doesn't mean its usage in a particular case is motivated by antisemitism. It could just be happenstance, and indeed if every negative evaluative concept is associated with antisemitism, but only some usages of that concept are motivated by antisemitism, by definition there is a significant set of cases where a given evaluative concept, assessed against a Jewish actor, only by happenstance is associated with antisemitism.

This, I imagine, is what many of those who are charged with relying on antisemitic tropes wish to rely upon -- "yes, I said AIPAC was greedy and money-grubbing -- but it has nothing to do with their association with Jewishness! Sometimes greed is just greed!" -- but it comes with problems. The most immediate issue is that, if the prevailing question is one of intent, under normal circumstances the use of an antisemitic trope is among the most probative bits of evidence we have as to motive. We can't see into the hearts and minds of men, and so if we decide that the use of tropes associated with antisemitism are no longer evidence about one's heart or mindset towards Jews, we're left with a situation where antisemitism's ubiquity paradoxically makes it virtually impossible to prove (outside a small set of cases where the perpetrator admits to the crime).

The bigger problem is that this entire outlook depends on motive being the dispositive question. Yet antisemitic tropes still retain their antisemitic power even when used innocently. Antisemitism is familiar and in tune, it makes things "ring true". Those who argue -- fully free of antisemitic intent -- that AIPAC is greedy and money-grubbing nonetheless are more likely to have their argument "taken up" because of the antisemitic trope that Jewish-identified institutions are greedy and money-grubbing. It fits into our web of belief better than a comparable claim would in a epistemic network where such a stereotype was not present.

This, to me, suggests a need for a more fundamental reframing. Rather than trying to divide up our discourse into kosher and treyf -- this statement is permissible, that one is antisemitic; this phrasing is fine, that one is a no-no -- we would do better to think of antisemitism as permeating the social sphere. Or put differently, instead of asking what antisemitism is, better to ask what antisemitism does. Antisemitism mobilizes, unifies, and encourages. It makes the unreal real and the implausible plausible. The practical consequence of this is that it is simultaneously true that there will be plenty of cases where a given "antisemitic trope" deployed critically against a Jewish institution will be both validly arrived at through non-antisemitic motivational pathways while also being true that even in those cases the antisemitic character of the trope alters how that trope is received and the impact it has on the deliberative community.

Ultimately, the "everything is antisemitic" dilemma is a dilemma primarily because we think we can successfully create a sort of "clean room" in our discourse about Jews where antisemitism can't infect, and that such a discursive state is the success condition of a proper epistemic state of affairs regarding Jews. The goal is to cordon off antisemitism, demarcate and isolate it, so that we can stay away from it and for the remainder of the conversation no longer think about it. I suspect the solution will ultimately run in the opposite direction: we will have to think about antisemitism a lot more often and in a lot more depth, because it really is everywhere. There is no "clean room". The flip side is that we also need to develop criteria for talking about Jews in a world where antisemitism has not and cannot (for the foreseeable future, anyway) be extirpated. If antisemitism is everywhere, it also lies in the places and cases where Jewish actors are doing bad things that need and deserve criticism. The fact of the latter doesn't negate the former, but the fact of the former can't delegitimize the latter.

1 comment:

Mikhail Turkhan said...

This sounds rather nitpicky - while it's true that hyperbole against Jewish orgs (AIPAC is the worst thing ever to happen to America!) is antisemitic the way other hyperbole isn't, what's antisemitic in simply stating "AIPAC is quite a malign organization"?