Perhaps no cosmology lacks for its devils, evil spirits–personifications of a wrongness so unacceptable that it can be granted no legitimate space if the community is to survive. Indeed, if famed French literary critic, René Girard, is correct, then what he terms “the scapegoating mechanism” is nearly universal. Around the world, pagan mythologies monotonously record its workings–as seen from the perspective of those who cast out demons, and thereby restore order. What is unique about the “event” of the Bible in human history, however, which distinguishes it from myth’s self-serving rationalizations, is that, from Genesis to Revelations, the “befuddled victimizers” (Joseph’s brothers, Jesus’s followers, et al.) manage to stop blaming the victim long enough to record their own complicity in founding acts of violence. According to this reading of the record: To be civilized is to have “dirty hands.” Yet this gloomy insight is hard to bear and so, understandably, gets repressed. With each new evasion on the part of those “Beautiful Souls” (Hegel) who would think themselves “pure,” additional projections give rise to fresh sightings of familiar monsters.1
So, is contemporary human rights discourse following this pre-Abrahamic sacrificial logic? Has it become “the new secular religion of our time”? And has this faith–in the guise of post-metaphysical successor to postcolonial Europe’s evanescent Godhead–“increasingly singled out Israel as a sort of modern-day geopolitical Anti-Christ”?2 In other words, does the richly moralized, even sacralized, language of universal human rights–as necessary and laudable as it often is–turn out to fail us at times, precisely when it comes to a particular group of nudniks? What happens to the “passion of compassion” (as Hannah Arendt termed the modern obsession with human rights) when it encounters a pariah people seen at once as both uniquely embodying and yet, at the same time, stubbornly resistant to, the claims of universality?3 Could a once innocent scapegoat be deemed truly guilty after all? What if there were a “retrial” of Europe’s Jews–or their moral-symbolic legatees–and this time they turned out justly to “deserve” what they unjustly suffered last time?
What if there were deep “structural” historical and psychosocial reasons why Israel’s Jews in particular–understood as responsible for the memory of those who fatally, if unwillingly, offered up the “founding sacrifice” that gave rise to our post-Holocaust human-rights centered culture of present-day international law–should just happen to be the ones demonized by the post-Cold War world’s latest neo-pagan substitute for “religion”? Has that peculiar status conferred upon the victims of the one-and-only “eliminationist genocide” begun to backfire on the Jewish state in the court of world opinion–where the existential burden of “never again” leads to “Holocaust fatigue,” “Holocaust resentment,” and even “Holocaust envy”?4 Is this “the end of the Holocaust” that Alvin Rosenfeld–a leading expert in Holocaust Studies, Jewish Studies, and the study of contemporary antisemitism–worries about?5 Moreover, will such an uncanny telos prove not only an end but a new beginning as well, providing essential cognitive-affective support for what has already been termed a “new antisemitism”? These are complicated and deeply troubling questions, which I will explore inadequately in a few brief speculations. Most of what is of value in the following are insights I have gleaned from my sources–perforce insufficiently acknowledged by individual footnotes, which cannot do them justice–and so I suggest that interested readers consult these texts for themselves.
If, then, as a former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, Irwin Cotler, has said (new “religion,” same old “Anti-Christ”: cited above), in that case, appreciating the significance of these facts about the crooked tent-poles supporting global civil society’s moral canopy-of-many-colors should go a long way toward explaining the empirically observable convergence of antisemitism with anti-Zionism in our day. For, can there be any doubt that the “convergence” of these two “-isms” is at the very root of what every rational person open to evidence acknowledges is a palpable “resurgence” of the former, felt perceptibly during the first two decades of the new century?6 Honestly, where is the daylight now (surveying the news from Europe and the Middle East in particular) separating a more traditional bigotry that stigmatized Jews per se, leading to the attempted destruction of the Jewish nation outright in the Twentieth Century, and a more recent stigma campaign aimed at deligitimating and dismantling the Jewish nation-state (where roughly half of last century’s surviving Jews, by coincidence, just happen to reside) in the Twenty-First?
The answer to this question–a question of discriminating meaningfully among ways of targeting millions of Jewish people, in each case for being “out of place” where they happen to be found–must become all the more difficult to specify, without blushing, when one bears in mind that any concrete deconstruction of Israeli statehood would stand a good chance of signing a lot of Israeli Jews’ death warrants, perhaps even ushering in (the phrase itself is an obscenity) a “second Holocaust.”7 However airily imagined by philosophers like Judith Butler, maven of the absurd BDS campaign, the abstract idea of a post-Zionist future in which Jews are a minority in another Arab-Muslim majority country is not one that the majority of Israeli citizens would choose to improvise for themselves. For all practical purposes, utopian anti-Zionism of the “bi-nationalist” sort that Butler and others propose is understood by those who are serious as a threat to the six million Jews (that awful number) now living in Israel.8 So, if hairsplitting by such leading academics can’t show us how to cut things at their joints, in the case of today’s twin “globalized” anti-Judaisms, then perhaps a glance in the direction of a more frank medium, such as popular culture–Jewish humor, in particular–can help?9
That public consciousness indeed runs ahead of the intellectuals (many of whom, like Butler, insist that their own anti-Zionist sympathies are not antisemitic) may be modestly indicated in a small way (“merely anecdotal,” thus quite possibly symptomatic) by a recent installment of the celebrated HBO comedy series, Curb Your Enthusiasm. In an episode from 2011’s Season 8, titled “Palestinian Chicken,” the show’s Jewish-comedian creator/protagonist, Larry David (playing himself), anticipates aloud to a friend what it would be like were he to date the attractive Palestinian owner of the restaurant where the companions are enjoying lunch. 10 As a panning shot of the interior of “Al-Abbas Original Best Chicken” reveals that the show’s producers have festooned the walls of the place with fake, toned-down mockups of anti-Israel posters (slogans such as “Visit Palestine” are mild by comparison with the many more outrageous real ones in circulation), the comic commensals’ banter brings to viewers’ attention both that “no Jews” normally eat there and that “these people do not like the Jews.”
In an environment thus seamlessly figured as equally–utterly indistinguishably–an “anti-Zionist” and “antisemitic” one, LD’s sidekick, Jeff Greene (played affably by Jeff Garlin) prophesies confidently that, gesturing to the object of his buddy’s lust, seated nearby, “If by some chance she’s going to get over her antisemitism, odds are it isn’t going to be with you.” Yet, far from daunted by this pessimistic handicapping of a schlemiel’s chances with a beautiful woman, David’s character responds with perverse enthusiasm: “You’re always attracted to someone who doesn’t want you. Here you have somebody who not only doesn’t want you, but who doesn’t even acknowledge your right to exist!” How great! How stimulating! What frisson! As our spontaneous laughter implicitly acknowledges, confusion between a person’s right to exist, a people’s right to exist, and a state’s right to exist is both total in this scene and–the more telling–sufficiently taken for granted by both the show’s producers and its audience for the jokes to work “in the real world,” beyond the show’s verisimilitudinous mise-en-scene. Revealingly also, this perfect melding of twin prejudices is taken further still, to great comic effect, when Larry, pictured in his new lover’s embrace, is invited to “occupy” her (and other phrases not fit to print in the SPMEFaculty Forum).
Thus, HBO’s sophisticated audience is invited to traverse imaginatively, so to speak (to accept without even thinking about it), the distance between Jerusalem’s landmark King David Hotel (a stone’s throw from Arab East Jerusalem) and Larry David’s Westside LA residence (where Palestinian and Jew throw themselves at one another), for the sake of some ribald humor. Should we be careful not to “read too much into it”? Impossible! For, as witz and Auschwitz overlap in an absurd mental geography, one can’t help but reflect on the bases–the real and very serious conditions of possibility–of such irreverent jest.
Moreover, can these all-important background assumptions be composed of anything other than the insistent figuring of Israel as “geopolitical Anti-Christ”–the one United Nations member-state which some wish to see as having no “right to exist”? Prominent Israeli philosopher, Elhanan Yakira, argues convincingly that such claims literally make no sense in terms of political philosophy–where the legitimacy of policies, laws, and even criminal regimes can be questioned, but never individual states as such, once established inside some kind of borders. It would be like questioning my individual right to exist as a person (though I, too, like Israel, may have been born into a situation of conflict, and so have fuzzy boundaries as a result), in contrast to other individuals who may be more legitimate than me. Such questions simply do not arise because they cannot (at least not coherently). My conduct can be questioned, even sanctioned, by my fellow citizens. But my right to have existed in the first place, including the extreme case of those barbaric countries that still have the death penalty, is not the issue. I may forfeit my life in Texas or Florida, for example, but not my “legitimacy” as an entity that shouldn’t have ever come into existence. Job can wish he were never born; but his dimwitted interlocutors cannot impose this a sentence. Indeed, not even God can do that, it appears. My crime cannot be that I took up residence on earth with the rest of you. Not only in terms of social contract theory, but morally and practically speaking, the discourse of legitimacy itself–whether we are talking about Jewish individuals or the Jewish state–is what is out of place in these discussions. Indeed, it is meaningless, or more precisely, and to quote Yakira verbatim, “nonsensical” (“Antisemitism and Anti-Zionism as a Moral Question,” in Resurgent Antisemitism ).
The upshot? Even the Jews have a right to exist. Not more so than others, but no less so either. While our episode of Curb concludes with a protest by the local Jewish community over the precise location of Al-Abbas (right next to Goldblatt’s Delicatessen?!), nobody seems to say that in principle there should be no “Palestinian chicken” at all, anywhere on the map, for the reason that the whole idea of Original Best Chicken is “illegitimate”per se (non-indigenous, or a made-up restaurant, or the sort of place patronized by the wrong clientele for the wrong reasons). And one gets the feeling, although the show leaves it open, that the deli and the chicken joint will in fact find a way to coexist. In multicultural Southern California, each is bound to prosper alongside the other, as long as neither is found to serve food that’s unhealthy and obeys all “No Smoking” regulations.
So if both places have a right to do business, in the world of the show (if talk of one’s having simply “no right” would be nonsense at this point: both have lots of hungry customers to serve), then why is it that human rights talk in the real world unfairly excoriates the traditional “deli” (i.e., Israel) vis-à-vis its neighbor, the chicken place going in next door, imagined by Curb’s chief writer (Larry David) as on the verge of celebrating its Grand Opening (i.e., the Palestinians)? On this question of principle (the actual “shooting” going on in the course of a lengthy armed conflict aside), consider what the radical political scientist, Robert Meister, has to say. In a tour-de-force critique of human rights discourse as fundamentally muddled, ideological, and of dubious value to true progressives, After Evil: A Politics of Human Rights, Meister observes of the post-World War II modus vivendi:
In a world that has learned to feel good about itself by feeling bad about the Jews, one can take special umbrage at Jews who refuse to apply the Holocaust’s lessons to their own treatment of Palestinians. These Jews are to be criticized for thinking that they are the only real Jews, and that the Holocaust confers special privilege on actions they take to protect themselves from those who, as enemies of the Jews, become the moral equivalent of Nazis who would bring about the Holocaust again. This attitude has become a seemingly new offense that Jews, and Jews alone, can commit now that their victimary identity has been universalized.11
And there you have it. When, among all the world’s peoples, “Jews alone” can be conceived of as guilty of something (a); and when that which they are charged with (b) turns out as well to be something that, among all the nations of the world, the Jewish state and the Jewish state alone can be accused of: then, anti-Zionism has become antisemitism and vice versa. The two have converged, merged, and resurged.
Crudely summarizing the import of nineteen sophisticated essays by authors from a dozen countries, as presented in Rosenfeld’s exceptionally important volume (a genuine must-read for all anti-antisemites!), Resurgent Antisemitism: Global Perspectives: in today’s world anti-Zionism, as a matter of fact, is antisemitism and–modifying Larry David’s famous catch-phrase–it’s “pretty, pretty, pretty bad.”
Gabriel Noah Brahm Jr. is an Associate Professor of English at Northern Michigan University, a Senior Research Fellow at Brandeis University, and an SPME Fellow. He was awarded a faculty development grant from the Israel Institute to support his work in 2014-15, during which time his plans include the completion of a book manuscript, to be titled Dis-Orientations: Israel and the Cultural Left. His essays dealing with the critique of contemporary left-wing anti-Zionism have appeared in Democratiya, Journal for the Study of Antisemitism, Politics and Culture, Rethinking History, and elsewhere. In early 2011 he reported on Islamism in Turkey for Telos, and went to Cairo’s Tahrir Square to observe the first months of the Arab Spring for Dissent. His email address is: [email protected].
2 Irwin Cotler, former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, cited in Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, “Identity Politics, the Pursuit of Social Justice, and the Rise of Campus Antisemitism: A Case Study,” Alvin Rosenfeld (ed.), Resurgent Antisemitism: Global Perspectives (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2013), 496. Subsequent references to this edition appear cited in the text.
4 As Bruno Chaouat summarizes, “I believe that the transmission of the history and memory of the Holocaust has triggered a backlash against Jews and Israel…. The phrase ‘Holocaust envy’ or ‘Holocaust resentment,’ although somewhat distasteful, seems appropriate to describe this particular outburst” (“Antisemitism Redux: On Literary and Theoretical Perversions,” Resurgent Antisemitism [118-19]). See also Gabriel Noah Brahm Jr., “Holocaust Envy: the Libidinal Economy of the New Antisemitism,” Journal for the Study of Antisemitism, Vol. 3, No. 2 (March 2012): 489-505. And see Elhanan Yakira’s path-breaking extended study, Post-Holocaust, Post-Zionism: Three Essays on Denial, Forgetting, and the Delegitimation of Israel (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge UP, 2010).
6 Jeffrey Herf introduced the term “convergence” to describe how Nazi propagandists combined antisemitism with anti-Zionism in wartime propaganda directed at the Arab world. See Jeffrey Herf, “Convergence: The Classic Case, Nazi Germany, Anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism during World War II,” Journal of Israeli History 25, no. 1 (March 2006): 63. And Joel S. Fishman cites Herf’s concept in his own valuable essay on the subject, “The BDS message of anti-Zionism, anti-Semitism, and incitement to discrimination,” Israel Affairs, Vol. 18, No. 3 (July 2012): 416. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13537121.2012.689521
7 See, for example, Benny Morris, “The Second Holocaust Will Not Be Like the First” (2007), and Robert Wistrich, “The Holocaust Can Happen Again” (2010), both cited in Alvin H. Rosenfeld, “The End of the Holocaust and the Beginnings of a New Antisemitism” (Resurgent Antisemitism, 522).
10 Curb Your Enthusiasm, Season 8 Ep. 3, “Palestinian Chicken,”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Co_BhTxgWys
11 Robert Meister, After Evil: a Politics of Human Rights (New York: Columbia UP, 2011), 175-6. Meister, a Marxist radical, thinks that his argument is anti-Zionist and “pro-Palestinian,” but he is wrong.