The Jewish artist is responsive to this cultural reflex of depreciation. His work, when it does not take refuge in the decorative (which meekly protests: I am harmless, do not ban me), displays a creative scepticism not just towards art’s subjects but also towards its purposes. By creative scepticism I mean something like an art-making iconoclasm, that is, an art which turns against Art. The Jewish artist contests the illegitimate uses to which art has been put, either instrumentalized or idolized, either treated as a mere means or as the ultimate end. (Anthony Julius, Idolizing Pictures)
The give away is the throwaway comment on decorative art: it is the receptacle of all art by Jewish artists that does not fall within his definition.[i] Quite a lot, I would imagine. For the assumption underlying this passage, and the book generally, is that the Jewish artist is conditioned by the Jewish faith.[ii] Do we have to accept this assumption? Are secular artists conditioned by the Christianity of their grandfathers? Are all artists so saturated with its precepts that they cannot escape their culture’s orthodoxy, defined always in religious terms?[iii] This seems a rather large assumption too make; and appears based on a very narrow, indeed quite ideological, interpretation; which is reflected in Julius’ words: his is a religious reading against art. For why should art be illegitimate? Such a strong denunciation; that makes sense only if you believe art has a special power, a metaphysical aspect, that allows it to invade other more sanctified territory; the synagogue, the church and the mosque.
There are two categories of illegitimate art:
- Instrumental: Art as merely tool. To sell a product or person; or to sustain the cult of personality through its iconic representation.
- Idolized: art is itself a religion.
The first definition needs to be unpacked. There is good and bad propaganda, that can be judged on aesthetic criteria alone; though much of it will be condemned as formulaic and cliché ridden (the wide range of art quality in the Catholic Church). It can also be judged morally. Or at least the artist can: to paint sycophantic pictures of Stalin would suggest a weak character; who will be judged accordingly.[iv] But what about design? Industrial design is the single most important reason why art is so valued in our society today.[v] And surely the best example of art instrumentalized. Is this illegitimate? Or would Julius describe it as merely decorative? One can argue whether design is a form of art, which in the process loses something of the quality of its greatest works; but this is quite different from questioning its validity. That is the worldview of the aesthetic puritan.
The second definition is more problematic. There are dangers of turning art into a religion, with its outwards signs worshipped at the expense of a real understanding of the content. I don’t think this is what Julius means. Rather, it is the idea that art replaces religion as a new understanding of the absolute – a key tenet of Modernism. This can be disputed; we can argue this is a mistaken view; both of the underlying reality and the power of art. However, it is quite another thing to call it illegitimate; to say these ideas are not allowed. ‘Get off my land!’ shouts Julius, the irate farmer; for art is trespassing on his private property. He finesses this by saying Jewish artists are influenced by the 20th century culture of depreciation. This only elides the problem, by replacing the reaction to Modernism (later known as Post-Modernism), and its irony and satire of the religious pretensions of art, with its actuality.[vi]
The whole argument seems somewhat tendentious. It suggests the influence of a particular cultural background on some modern trends, and for this it is useful; but its narrowness of focus and interpretation gives the impression that the argument is being forced; that it wants to reclaim all Jewish artists for the faith. This doesn’t seem possible to me, and distorts a much richer picture; while including a controversial assumption, that needs to be challenged – that to be Jewish is to be part of the Jewish religion. There are no secularists here!
Julius has now written a large book on anti-Semitism in England, Trials of the Diaspora. One wonders if the same one-sided, narrow interpretations are going to be on show in this book too. Or will he illuminate the history, with nuance and understanding? The indications are not encouraging. In his largely appreciative review of the book (TLS 23/07/2010) David Vital argues that anti-Semitism
… [in] its blanket characterization of the Jews as an iniquitous, dangerous and therefore deeply undesirable people has remained remarkably consistent over time [from the Romans to the Reich and today’s Iran].
Comparing the treatment of Jews in different cultures and countries Vital makes the strange comment (apropos the tolerance of the Muslim world), “treatment is one thing, opinion is another.” As if the two have equal validity….[vii] We shall see where this leads, later.
He mentions the immigration of Jews into England with the Norman Conquest, and their expulsion in 1290; but doesn’t give any context for these events. Did the latter happen only because of opinion?[viii] He paraphrases Julius as saying that the ideas formed of the Jews during these 200 years provided the model for their representation when they immigrated to Britain in the 20th century (mostly poor people who lived in working class slums). Is this really plausible? That a series of folk tales and malicious caricatures,[ix] handed down and incorporated into English literature, could have so much power; could so determine the social relations of Edwardian Britain?[x] But the review (the book?) isn’t interested in this at all:
True, in general, public outbursts in the press or on the hustings or in the slums of London and one or two major cities in the early decades of the last century were sporadic and apt to pass without leaving too much of a mark… [though] the particularly English style of anti-Semitism took its most potent form in private or official, but at the time confidential expressions of opinion, articulated or written up behind closed doors… [and it is a] matter of detecting the tone that made the music.
He then gives an unpleasant anecdote from Keynes:
“Do you know Klotz?”… “A short, plump, heavy-moustached Jew, his shoulders a little bent in an instinctive deprecation? Lloyd George had always hated him… and despised him… Women and children were starving [LL.G.] cried, and here was M. Klotz prating and prating of his ‘goold’. [The Prime Minister] leant forward and with a gesture of his hands indicated to everyone the image of the hideous Jew clutching a money bag.”
Vital then mentions that Keynes “did more than most” to get German-Jewish scholars admitted to Britain in the 1930s; and concludes rhetorically: “Not very terrible?” No worse than Virginia Woolf saying bad things about her in-laws? The suggestion is yes they are worse, very much worse.
In this study of British Culture in the first half of the 20th century Ross McKibben quotes a number of anti-Semitic stereotypes of the middle classes; but relates them not to fairy tales and Christian iconography, but to prejudices against plutocrats (thought to be “cosmopolitan”), war profiteers and Bolsheviks. That is, the images relate not to literature but to economic conditions on the ground. The word “cosmopolitan” is telling. If a number of the plutocrats had been Lebanese or Armenian, and associated with the Lloyd George government[xi] were believed to have profited from the war, the new stereotypes would have been attached to them. Far from anti-Semitism being some timeless entity, that exists irrespective of the country, a metaphysical dislike hardwired into the culture, we can see that like any other racial or social prejudice it is determined in large measure by the social conditions and the physical relationship between the respective parties; and those attacked can be ethnic minorities or social classes. In the same book McKibben writes
Had middle-class hostility to wealth ‘illegitimately’ acquired been the only outcome of the First World War, its social and political implications could have been much more profound than they were, but it was always inhibited by an even greater hostility to the organized working class. The middle classes in 1920 and 1921, wrote C.F.G. Masterman, spend their leisure time ‘cursing the working man and cursing the profiteer’, and the order in which he placed these objects of anathema is almost certainly right. The intense, but diffuse, dislike of the profiteer was always secondary to an even more intense, but better directed, dislike of the ‘working man’…. [they] thought they had cause to fear the trade unions… [who] were endowed with an almost supernatural power: Masterman thought that the ‘salariat’ contemplated the programme of the miners ‘with something of the emotions’ felt by primitive people’s when they gazed at an eclipse of the sun. (Classes and Cultures, England 1918-1951).
Why? Because the middle classes thought that the trade unions would redistribute their wealth; and the miners, on which so much of industry then depended, where seen as a radical and powerful, and a very real, threat. Here we have a cluster of emotions and images centred around the main forces shaping a person’s life; and they are not Christian. But again we have to be aware of overplaying these issues. There was no demonic drive to eradicate the working classes, or wide-scale support for authoritarian politics to control them. This is a testament to the political culture of Britain at a time of rampant extremism elsewhere; of the world turned cannibal, to used Jabotinsky’s apt phrase.
There was certainly prejudice,[xii] but then what does this mean in practice? For David Vital the upper class anti-Semitism on which he concentrates was important because of its consequences in the real world. He lists three key ones:[xiii]
- No curiosity as to what Jews thought
- Jews inherently bad – thus a reason for their persecution
- Anti-Zionism is the new anti-Semitism.
Let’s take each one of these in turn.
No curiosity as to what Jews thought
He relates this to the colonial experience in the mandate period. He says the “Englishmen in Authority in Palestine were appalled” that the Jews didn’t treat them with the same respect as the Nigerians or Sudanese; that they treated them as equals. Is this anti-Semitism? Surely it has everything to do with colonialism, and its racist mentality. Menachem Begin knew what was going on:
For hundreds of years, you have been whipping ‘natives’ in your colonies – without retaliation. In your foolish pride you regard the Jews in Eretz Israel as natives too. You will not whip Jews in their Homeland. And if the British Authorities whip them – British officers will be whipped publicly in return. (in Colin Shindler. The Land Beyond Promise).
The colonized were expected to be passive recipients of whatever contempt or brutality they suffered. But most of the Zionists were Europeans, Begin himself came from Poland, and therefore this kind of attitude was unacceptable to them; and not just to them, but to many in authority back in Britain, who also sympathised with Zionism, and their European pedigree. For there was a distinct difference of opinion between much of the government (Balfour, Lloyd George, Churchill and many more), who were on the whole favourable to Zionism, and the colonial administrators in Palestine, who reacted against the Zionists themselves.[xiv] This is almost the complete reverse of Vital’s argument; unless we say Lloyd George’s support for Zionism was really a form of anti-Semitism.[xv] Which of course it was not.[xvi] This makes the Keynes anecdote difficult to interpret: it doesn’t reflect Lloyd George’s wider views or his actions; thus his support for Zionism, which continued throughout his political career; in the late 1920’s he opposed Lord Passfield, when he recommended a more pro-Arab stance in Palestine. The anecdote doesn’t appear to be anything more than a private conversation about a third person they both didn’t like. And almost certainly related to the fact he was French; at a time of dispute following the war. But let us explore this a little more: dislike about particular people (and we all have them) will always take on a concrete form; the antipathy will relate to how they look, what they wear, and from where they come from. The dislike will look for signs of difference: it can be gender, sexual orientation, or it can be nationality. Which it will exaggerate and caricature. Within Britain all four nations have prejudices against each other. But although the ferocity of that prejudice has varied over time, and is now very lukewarm indeed, the stereotypes have remained; and are still in wide public use. Have you forgotten this old nursery rhyme?
Taffy was a Welshman
Taffy was a thief
Taffy came to my house
And stole a plate of beef….
What effect in the real world does anti-Welsh prejudice have today? Not that much, though it is still widespread.[xvii] There are plenty of Englishmen who don’t like the Welsh; although the number who think the Welsh are thieves is miniscule. I’ve never met one that has thought me so.[xviii] Although I have heard lots of Welsh stereotypes; many said as a form of endearment. For just as a negative stereotype creates a distance to enable the abuse, the same stereotype can narrow the gap between two strangers – it is the one thing they can share! And Vital is right; it is often a matter of detecting the tone that makes the music. Though even a positive stereotype can be annoying. Why? Because the recipient is treated as a commonalty (and its lowest common denominator) rather than as a living person. However, even the negative Welsh stereotypes rarely lead to ill treatment. For the social and economic relationships are such that the differences between Wales and England have lost all force; and the national stereotypes are less important that the iconography and national theology than binds the two countries together.[xix] It is the social conditions that will determine the nature and level of prejudice, and if we are serious about tackling it this should be the main area of concern. Politics is important too. Arab anti-Semitism in Britain is closely connected Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. If the British government wants to reduce this prejudice it should influence Israel to keep to international law.
During the Mandate Period groups like Irgun and Lehi made little or no distinction between the British and the Nazis. It was enough that the British opposed the maximalist aims of the Zionist extremists to be labelled as an evil that must be attacked; because the only thing that mattered was the establishment of Eretz Israel; and as quickly as possible. It seems we have the same kind of thinking here. All the various strands of prejudice and intolerance, all its shades and differences, are effaced – all is anti-Semitism. This is both wrong and unwise. For most people today anti-Semitism is associated with the Nazi Holocaust. To describe Lloyd George as an anti-Semite is link him with Himmler.[xx] Not only is this slanderous but it seriously misrepresents the history, as we have seen. And failing to understand the historical record, the reasons why Germany became a murderous state, and the true nature of its political language, could lead us to repeat these mistakes; with perhaps worse atrocities to come.[xxi] In the present case the rise of anti-Semitism in the Arab world is caused by the repression and occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip; if this is ignored the prejudice will only increase.
To make of anti-Semitism an entity of its own, different from all other prejudices, with its own special quality, a unique figure of hate, is to create problems for the Israelis themselves. It can lead to a lack of sympathy for the Palestinians, and to other groups that suffer discrimination, as their suffering can never match their own. For faced with eternal anti-Semitism (as defined purely by the Nazi pathology) all Jews live on the edge of destruction; every slight and slur a road sign to Auschwitz. Lacking sympathy their actions are not checked by common humanity, or even rational calculation.[xxii] It can also, by giving a special privilege to this prejudice, create a wider resentment: why should a comment in a little known diary be worse than the open intolerance against Arab Israelis inside their own country?[xxiii] It also fosters extremism. All the shades and nuances of meaning and feeling are lost, and thus a Liberal is reduced to a Fascist… this can raise the temperature of political debate, for an extremist is liable to create a reaction, and increases the likelihood of intolerance within the culture.[xxiv] It also means that charges of anti-Semitism can be used as a weapon, as we shall see.
On the reverse side, to include social snobbery and mild dislike within the same definition that caused the Final Solution is to cheapen the term. The risk is that the horrors of the murderous Nazi or mob anti-Semitism will become disassociated from the description; that anti-Semitism will come to be seen as mere exaggeration and political expediency. Witness the Israel lobby’s unsuccessful attempt to call Jimmy Carter an anti-Semite; after he published his book, Palestine Peace Not Apartheid.
Jews inherently bad - thus a reason for their persecution
Vital quotes a high British official who, with a smile on his face, said to Golda Meir that the Nazis must have had some reason for carrying out the Holocaust. If he meant by this that the victims were in someway to blame for this terrible crime then it is a truly appalling thing to have said. Let’s assume this interpretation is correct; is Henry Gurney representative of the culture as a whole? Or is it more to do with individual stupidity? Christopher Sykes in his book on the Palestine mandate gives many counter examples of British decency and understanding.[xxv]
Anti-Zionism is the new anti-Semitism
A new set of cartoon images, the Jew is now the strong soldier, the SS storm-trooper…
In a discussion of this sort one has to realise that it has been a policy, at least since the late 1960s, of the Israeli government to label critics of its actions as anti-Semitic.[xxvi] Thus criticism of the real brutality of the IDF and the oppression of the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories can be dismissed as the ravings of madmen and fanatics. Anti-Semitism is used consciously as an ideological weapon (and not just by the government; but by writers, academics and other self-styled “supporters of Israel”) to silence dissent; and is used against Jew and non-Jew alike.
Here is the declaration of its goals from Independent Jewish Voices:
1. Human rights are universal and indivisible and should be upheld without exception. This is as applicable in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories as it is elsewhere.
- Palestinians and Israelis alike have the right to peaceful and secure lives.
- Peace and stability require the willingness of all parties to the conflict to comply with international law.
- There is no justification for any form of racism, including anti-Semitism, anti-Arab racism or Islamophobia, in any circumstance.
- The battle against anti-Semitism is vital and is undermined whenever opposition to Israeli government is automatically branded as anti-Semitic.[xxvii]
The response from a “supporter of Israel”? They are Jews for genocide.[xxviii]
What Vital misses, of course, is that the Zionists themselves changed the image – they wanted Israelis to be seen as tough guys, in a new kind of Sparta. So far from the soldier image being an anti-Semitic construction it is actually a self-portrait; created in part to separate the new Israel from its Jewish past.[xix] Inevitably the results of this make-over have affected its portrayal by others. The reviewer seems unable to understand this. For Vital (and Julius) a sign of this new anti-Semitism is a poem by Tom Paulin, where he has the “Zionist SS” killing a young Palestinian. I don’t think such imagery is helpful; for just as we must careful when we use the term anti-Semite we should also be careful with Nazi analogies.[xxx] It is one extremism replaced by another. However, the comment that follows is odd:
[here is] a poet presenting himself as a specialist on the inner drives of the (Jewish/Israeli) armed forces, the serial nature of their crimes having been “revealed to him, as if by miraculous intuition.”[xxxi]
Do we have to rely on intuition to know of the killings of Palestinians by the IDF? The documentation of this is extensive and very depressing.[xxxii] Vital further adds:
How much these and other circumstances matter in some ultimate sense and to whom precisely, is unclear. Nor how much of this is a product of fashionable application of over-simple political principles to the real world? There we are still up in the air.
The review is by a professor of history; and yet he has no idea where these images come from; he has no idea what causes these views; apparently the occupation of the Palestinians has no connection with the poem’s imagery; he believes perhaps that the occupation does not exist (is it all ideology?). No dead Palestinians, no invasions, no ruling by the World Court,[xxxiii] and no Goldstone Report… No, it is some “fashionable application of over-simple political principles!” One of the curious facts about human beings is that when they describe other people often they are really describing themselves. What better example than Emeritus Professor David Vital in this very review. Another common trait is to blame other people for all the wrongs committed against you; but to have no self-awareness to one’s own actions (and this is exacerbated if one is part of a group; the more extreme the bigger it gets: thus tribe, nation, the West…). Israel Shahak puts it well:
…the real test facing both Israeli and diaspora Jews is the test of their self-criticism which must include the critique of the Jewish past. The most important part of such a critique must be detailed and honest confrontation of the Jewish attitude to non-Jews. This is what many Jews justly demand from non-Jews: to confront their own past and so become aware of the discrimination and persecutions inflicted on the Jews.
And he goes on to write, and a point often missed in discussion on this topic, that the results of Israeli actions has resulted in the deaths of more Arabs than Jews since the end of the Second World War; and any talk about prejudice and its effects must be aware of this recent imbalance.[xxxiv] The lesson he draws is:
Although the struggle against anti-Semitism (and of all other forms of racism) should never cease, the struggle against Jewish chauvinism and exclusivism, which must include a critique of classical Judaism, is now of equal or greater importance. (Jewish History, Jewish Religion)
The point of course is about self-criticism – all cultures must look to their own failings. But professor Vital is not interested in looking at himself and his own culture; a common trait of most nationalists.
What is important about anti-Semitism – a fairly modern term for an ancient clutch of ideas – is that it has less to tell us about the Jews themselves than about their enemies.
Israel is not to blame.[xxxv] For him Tom Paulin’s poem is just one example that the liberal attitudes of Britain to the Jews have changed…
What does emerge from this important book is that English anti-Semitism has lost much (or all?) of the mildness that had set it apart from varieties of the genus most common across the Channel.
We now belong with the Action Française and the NSDAP, it seems: otherwise what does he mean by that “across the Channel?” He goes on to conclude:
Which suggests, in turn, that more might have been said about those of the country’s Jews who feel themselves battered these days in ways to which they had been unused for a very long time, if ever.
This is a very revealing passage. Who feels battered and for what reason? Do members of IJV feel under pressure, compared as they are to the Nazis? Do Liberal Jews feel uncomfortable with characters like Avigdor Lieberman in office? And if things have changed, why is that?[xxxvi] If anti-Semitism is on the rise in Britain, where is it coming from? From well-do Christians who read fairy tales; or amongst some Muslims who are reacting against the suppression of the Palestinians; and the anti-Arab racism of much of the comment that surrounds the conflict? For extremism breeds extremism.[xxxvii]
It is also revealing in another way: “if ever” they felt “battered” before suggests that there has been very little anti-Semitism in modern Britain; which undermines both the premise of the review and the book. Social snobbery, prejudice, racism, all need to be combated; and it’s a never ending task. However, we also must make distinctions as to the level of that prejudice, which in part will depend upon how the recipient feels they are treated. The cold-shoulder is different from murder; calling someone a “sheep-shagger” is not the same as denying that person work. Anti-Welsh racism can have effects – people still suffer because of it.[xxxviii] However, we should not compare this to the discrimination against Eastern Europeans, black people, and certainly not to the persecution of the Jews last century and before. If someone was to make these comparisons we should be wary of them. Likewise, when someone is called an anti-Semite because they advocate a two state settlement (based on the 1967 borders, with a just settlement of the refugee problem) we should look a little more closely at the accuser, and the motivations behind their accusations. For we can forget: they may be extremists too.
[i] He defines Jewish Art as having three modes: the iconoclastic, the decorative and the sublime. All three are wary of the image; which arises from the Jewish religion’s injunction against idolatry. Decoration was the one outlet for Jewish artists, before the modern period. The sublime is the need to reproduce the effect of the “Word”, the main force in Jewish religion, and can be seen in 20th century abstraction.
[ii] The present government of Israel appears to disagree with this view. See Juan Cole’s comments on the recent controversy around the loyalty oath, with a clear distinction drawn between religion and ethnicity – it is the latter that counts in Israel today. Although the influence and power of the religious parties continues to grow; which suggests that this religion is of a special quality, tied as it is to the state and to the land. See Israel Shahak’s and Norton Mezvinsky’s Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel, where the theology of the National Religious Party and Gush Emunim is shown to be closely connected to the idea of redeeming the land and the sanctification of the state. These are significant modern re-interpretations of Jewish faith; and are comparable to similar transformations in the two other monotheistic religions (Helen Armstrong’s Battle for God shows how modernity has made them more literal; and thus aggressive, and ‘hot’).
[iii] The Jewish religion is essentially one of ritual rather than belief; and one can argue, as with all cultures, that strong rituals can ingrain cultural traits into its members, which continue even after the ideas of that community, its cultural worldview, has changed. For an excellent discussion see Emile Durkheim in his The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. However, we have to separate out the ritual from the ideas, and must be sensitive to how those ingrained characteristics change in new environments. Since the 18th century there has been an enormous transformation in Jewish life from the closed medieval society to the open society of secular modernity. One would expect this to be reflected in widespread differences in outlook, ideas, and in life’s activities, as indeed is the case.
[iv] Though even here we must be careful. Thus Anna Akhmatova writing some verses in praise of Stalin in order to ensure the safety of her son. Not to have done so, when considered in the context of the rest of her life, would have been to lose her humanity.
[v] In Britain during the 20th century there was a large increase in the number of schools of art and design, in order to provide designers for industry. See Quentin Bell in the Crisis in the Humanities.
[vi] Modernism was made up of both elements – the religious and the anti-religious. But the former, especially in its engagement with its meaning, and its attempts to understand art’s relationship to the world, was the dominant strand. (See Art and Life for more analysis). Take Dada, the most iconoclastic of the Modernist movements, and later inspiration for the artistic counter attack after WWII. Even here both the iconic and iconoclastic were contained within it: eg the mysticism and scepticism of Hugo Ball. For an insightful discussion into the various elements that made up Modernism, and how these were later misinterpreted and selectively condemned see David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity. The point is that the Post-Modern movement, which originated in architecture, was a reaction not so much against the great Modernist experiments, but against their corruption into the corporate International Style, that followed the Second World War; and which was taken to embody the ideas of Modernism; with its impersonality and excessive rationalism.
[vii] The Revisionist Ze’ev Jabotinsky, who opposed Mussolini’s Fascism, nevertheless recognised the difference between it and Nazism; and had a realistic assessment of what counts when it comes to actions and words.
“Whatever we may think of Fascism’s other points, there is no doubt that the Italian brand of Fascist ideology is, at least, an ideology of racial equality. Let us not be so humble as to pretend that this does not matter – that racial equality is too insignificant an idea to outbalance the absence of civic freedom. For it is not true. I am a journalist who would choke without freedom of the press, but I affirm it is simply blasphemous to say that, in the scale of civil rights, even the freedom of speech comes before the equality of men. Equality comes first, super-first; and Jews should be the first to remember it, and to hold that a regime maintaining that principle in a world turning cannibal does partly but considerably atone for its other shortcomings.” (in Colin Shindler’s, The Land Beyond Promise)
This quote brings out the complexity, and warns us to weigh the balance of words against actions; to look at the overall context; and to separate out one’s own needs from the needs of others; and not to confuse the demands of intellectuals, however important, with the bare sustenance of the oppressed.
[viii] Israel Shahak gives a sociological explanation for both. Jews were the financiers for the rich nobles, and came with the Normans to England, where the need to raise revenue was imperative because of the unusually high rate of feudal dues levied in the country. The expulsion in 1290 followed a similar path to other countries: when a national feudal monarchy was established, that no longer needed the Jews to perform these financial services, and which ruled a polity that had become more nationally cohesive. In last week’s TLS a review of new a book mentions the Jews were expelled because the Crown had taxed them into poverty, and the society had found new indigenous sources for these financial services (while usury was banned).
This is not to say prejudice didn’t exist and that theology wasn’t involved in the expulsion. However, only rarely can any social phenomenon be explained purely by opinion – there are other factors (social, economic and political) which generate it, and keep it alive. Shahak makes a similar point about the politics of Israeli governments (but from the other way around), where he argues their actions cannot be understood on purely rational, instrumental grounds; but in part must be understood ideologically. We have to establish a correct balance between thought and action, the latter usually having the most weight, when it comes to individual behaviour and historical events. However, it is perhaps a natural tendency of intellectuals to favour opinion, and to give it far too much prominence as the cause of social upheaval. An almost classic case is Marina Warner in her Reith Lectures, Managing Monsters, where writing of a number of conflicts including the Israeli-Arab dispute she says,
“At the core of the struggle for home lies the struggle for the way the story of place is told.”
Not the land requisition, the expulsions, the seemingly endless brutality, the terrorism…no, it is the stories that count. Benny Morris has a more realistic assessment:
“The fear of territorial displacement and dispossession… was to be the chief motor of Arab antagonism to Zionism.” (in Norman Finkelstein’s” Image and Reality in the Israel-Palestine Conflict). In the same book Finkelstein quotes Yehoshua Porath, whose comments capture the essence of this discussion:
“’[The] major factor nourishing’ Arab anti-Semitism ‘was not hatred for the Jews as such but opposition to Jewish settlement in Palestine.’ He goes on to argue that, although Arabs initially differentiated between Jews and Zionists, it was ‘inevitable ‘that opposition to Zionist settlement would turn into a loathing of all Jews: ‘as immigration increased, so did the Jewish community’s identification with the Zionist movement… The non-Zionist and anti-Zionist factors became an insignificant minority, and a large measure of sophistication was required to make the older distinction. It was unreasonable to hope that the wider Arab population, and the riotous mob which was part of it, would maintain this distinction.”
[ix] To quote Vital: “As real persons and real communities, the Jews of the medieval age receded from view. In legend and folk memory, on the other hand, they were ever more sharply depicted, cartoon-like, in the clearest anti-Semitic terms: a dishonest, greedy, usurious lot and, fatally, a people driven to seek blood, notoriously the blood of little Christian boys – much as they had supposedly sought the blood of Christ himself.”
Note the use of the word fatally; and compare with the actual prejudices we find in the middle classes between the wars – resentment against supposed wealth and special privileges. What has to be explained is the causes of anti-Semitism in the Norman invasion, and again in 19th and 20th century Europe; and for this we need to look at the relationship between the Jews and the society, and the actual social conditions of the time. We need look at history and sociology, the rise of nationalism and the destabilizing costs of industrialization, not fairy tales and literature. We also have to widen our focus; and then we see mass prejudice in Britain against nearly all immigrants at the turn of the last century (as unfortunately is still the case today). Is all of this due to Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare? It seems unlikely, to say the least.
[x] G.R.Searle, in his new Oxford History: A New England?, notes that the Chief Rabbi and the Board of Deputies were not keen on Jewish immigration, mostly poor people into the slums, because, “[t]hey feared that this development might provoke an outbreak of anti-Semitism from which, in recent decades, England had been largely exempt – certainly by comparison with the continent.” Why? Because “poor and lacking in the skills for speedy adaptation to their new surroundings. When trade was bad, as in the mid-1890’s, they became scapegoats for economic and social distress, as had previously happened to the Irish.” Of course, fanatics could use this to promote their own racism – but it is the social and economic conditions that gave them support.
In his new Oxford History, England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings, Robert Bartlett shows a similar process at work:
"It is perhaps not surpising that a small, exclusive, and culturally distinct group, deeply involved in money lending, would stir up hostility on the part of the majority community. Attacks on Flemings and Italians in England in the later Middle Ages show that a vicious blend of xenophobia and economic resentment need not focus exclusively on the Jews."
"It is perhaps not surpising that a small, exclusive, and culturally distinct group, deeply involved in money lending, would stir up hostility on the part of the majority community. Attacks on Flemings and Italians in England in the later Middle Ages show that a vicious blend of xenophobia and economic resentment need not focus exclusively on the Jews."
Although he goes on to write that their position was very difficult because of Christianity and the discrimination employed by the Catholic Church. However, even in this most Christian of times it is not anti-Semitism alone and by itself that is the cause of the worst violence:
“The violence was at its most horrible in York. Here ‘neither fear of a most ferocious king, nor the force of law, nor reason, nor humanity’ restrained a savage attack, led by notables who were deeply burdened by debts to the Jews. Joined by bands of crusaders, they began the assault by forcing their way into the house of the recently deceased Jewish moneylender Benedict, killing everyone in it…”
Bartlett concludes: “The events at York show the double jeopardy in which Jews were placed, as non-Christians and as money lenders. The crusaders and clerics who participated in the looting and the slaughter could reassure themselves that they were engaged in ‘godly work’. Those who were indebted to the Jews could take advantage of the opportunity offered to clear their debts in the most direct and brutal way – as soon as the last Jew had been killed, the Christian crowd rushed off to the cathedral, where the Jewish bonds were stored for safe keeping, and made a bonfire of them in the nave of the church.”
[xi] McKibben writes that it was believed that Lloyd George had too many Jews within the government, and this also affected his popularity. This seems somewhat odd if he is anti-Semitic. But see later for more comment.
[xii] Though there were strong counter-currents. G.R. Searle paraphrases W.D.Rubinstein: “many Britains were ‘philo-semites’, predisposed, as a result of biblical study, to view the Jews as a favoured race.”
[xiii] By concentrating on upper class anti-Semitism it allows for the over-valuation of literature – he believes it shapes their views.
But note the difference in emphasis with Bartlett, who shows that the Jews were on the whole protected by the Norman kings – the marauders and murderers in York were punished for their actions. Thus we have the strange scenario where ugly words and phrases of the upper classes are seen as more important than kicks and punches, of stabbings and arson, of the poorer sort… What is going on here? In Germany, with the ravings of Der Stürmer, this difference in emphasis has a lot of force – for the prejudice of the Nazi elite was communicated to its thugs and associated fanatics in order for it to be acted out. But a phrase here and there, hidden away in notebooks and diaries, and no ostensible public action as a result? This sort of emphasis seems almost fantastical; when you compare it to the much more severe prejudice suffered by people both at the time and later.
[xiv] Christopher Sykes in his Crossroads to Israel covers this in a lot of detail. In part he relates it the activities of the Zionists themselves, their attitudes and actions; but also to the bureaucratic pig-headiness of poorly educated, narrow-minded, civil servants, who reacted badly to resistance. Begin’s remarks quoted above delineate the issue – the Zionists were not going to be passive and submissive. You would expect this to grate on officials who expected the “natives’ to be quiet and to respect them. And it did, inevitably. So again, it is not traditional images of anti-Semitism that is causing the intolerance, it is the problems the Zionists were causing the administrators, who were in middle of what became an impossible situation; caught as they were between the two sharply opposed groups on the ground, and the demands of the government back home. No doubt there was traditional anti-Semitism amongst some of these administrators; but it is not the old stereotypes that are causing, or even influencing, their actions.
[xv] Although there were links between anti-Semites and Zionists. Thus the pro-Fascist, even pro-Hitler, leanings of groups like the Stern Gang and Irgun; who hoped the anti-Semitism of the latter would help lead to the creation of a Zionist state. Today there is very close links between the Evangelical Christians in America and Israel, even though the former embodies the worst anti-Semitism: the idea of the Rapture, and the eradication of all Jews, either through death or conversion, is actually a form of Nazism. Ronald Reagan was one American president who held similar beliefs – the creation of Israel, he thought, was the sign of the approaching apocalypse (William Quandt, Peace Process). For similar messianic hopes amongst Gush Emumin see Shahak and Mezvinsky.
[xvi] Though there are wider issues about the relationship of anti-Semitism and Zionism. The anti-Semitism of the 19th century was closely linked to the rise of Nationalism, and its belief in organic communities tied to the land. This was particularly acute in central and eastern Europe in empires often under acute strain, with different communities developing economically at different rates; thus creating severe tensions between them; as economic success became linked to national self-determination (for an excellent discussion see Ernest Gellner’s Nations and Nationalism). To create a state of Polish, Hungarian or Czechs, would ensure that Poles, Hungarians and Czechs were in charge, thus reaping the rewards of being an elite in an relatively impoverished country; rather than suffering as an impoverished minority in a richer one. This could lead to an extreme bias against minorities within those cultures, especially if they were seen as economically successful. Zionism is part of that 19th century nationalism; and thus shares both the same belief systems and prejudices:
“In effect, the Zionist analysis of the Jewish Question duplicated the reasoning of anti-Semitism, which invoked the same argument to justify Jew-hatred. Indeed, the prescription it proposed for the Jewish predicament was inscribed in the logic of anti-Semitism as well.” (Norman Finkelstein, Image and Reality in the Israel-Palestine Conflict).
The point is that whilst historic anti-Semitism, tied both to the prejudices of the Catholic Church and to money lending, overlaid this process, Nationalism created something new. A more cohesive polity, that in its most extreme form actively excluded minorities – you could convert or depart. These trends were exaggerated by the rise of Social Darwinism in the latter part of the 19th century, and the associated idea that different cultures were in fact different races - a nation was defined by biology. Thus Nationalism became fused with Social Darwinism, and driven by unequal development, to create a new religion, with the fanatics excluding not only other minority cultures but people from within their own country; who were perceived to be of a different race; albeit completely assimilated in every other respect. The madness and rage contained in this new religion exploded with the European collapse after the First World War.
Discussing the decision to include within the loyalty oath to Israel a reference to the Jewish character of the state Juan Cole talks of the difference between civic and ethnic nationalisms, and how Israel is an example of the latter type. This is true and points to a certain anachronism about the country – it maintains a 19th century ideology within a 21st century state. Following World War II ethnic nationalism was discredited, because of its associations with Nazism; but Hitler was only the most extreme believer in this type of ideology – even Churchill talked of the British race (though in a more flexible and inclusive way than the narrow and lethal definitions on parts of the continent). Israel is a special case because its post-war justification rested on the Nazi example: it had to be an ethnic state to stop another Holocaust. However, ethnic nationalism tends to exaggerate the bigotry inherent in nationalism itself, adding layers of racist prejudice; and this is what we see in Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians today. And which in turn explains the revulsion against that treatment; especially by liberal Jews. In a modern society that treatment feels arcane.
A corollary of this is that for as long as Zionism remains a ‘hot’ religion, almost inevitable unless there is peace in the Middle East, its zealots will consider criticism and opposition as anti-Semitism; in the same way that in the centuries following the Reformation Protestantism at its core was anti-Catholic.
[xvii] In some of the border areas, and in a town like Hereford, one would have to be careful on a Friday or Saturday night; where prejudices are let loose after a few too many drinks.
[xviii] It is one of the few nursery rhymes I remember. But note, it has not made me into a criminal. Even though I must have read this dozens of times and it has had absolutely no effect on how I act. This should give us all pause when academics and intellectuals confidently state the impact of words and images on a person’s behaviour.
[xix] In the Welsh-speaking Wales there is still a tension, because of the threat of the English language. Thus we can see resentment towards the incoming English, and the openly expressed prejudice of the latter.
[xx] And sure enough, although the book is about anti-Semitism in England, Nazi Germany is mentioned a number of times in the course of the review. Indeed, how could it not be so, as anti-Semitism’s “blanket characterization of the Jews as an iniquitous, dangerous and therefore deeply undesirable people has remained remarkably consistent over time…” (though Vital does accept there have been variations on this theme; but even qualifies this will accusatory language – “the question of what was actually to be done to the Jews” by Christian and Muslim countries.). If anti-Semitism is the same throughout history, and it views Jews as evil and dangerous, it follows that there can be no difference between Norman England and the Third Reich.
[xxi] In Crossroads to Israel Sykes compares some of the rhetoric of British politicians to that of Hitler. He writes that the difference between the two is that the one was merely metaphorical, while the other was literal – Hitler meant it. He goes on to write that it took people too long to realise this. The devaluation of terms and their misuse can have the same consequences – people stop taking them seriously.
[xxii] Think of Shimon Peres’ decision to assassinate the terrorist Yahya Ayyash in 1996, that triggered a round of violence that led Israel into Lebanon and ultimately lost him the election. His reason? He wanted to look tough to the Israeli electorate; or as Avi Shlaim puts it, “the operation would boost the morale of the nation and the security forces.” (The Iron Wall)
[xxiii] As Gideon Levy wrote at the time, to define Arab citizens of Israel
‘as a “demographic problem” arouses painful memories and sends a highly aggressive message. What are they supposed to feel when their own government forms a committee whose avowed aim is to reduce their part of the population, as if they were a cancer whose propagation must be stopped? The Arabs of Israel should be neither a “problem” nor a “demographic demon” if the attitude toward them were fair and egalitarian.’
Levy was among the very few who were distressed. And amongst the most eminent representatives of Israeli science at this council were leaders willing to reflect on what they considered a national mission, pondering the most effective means to reduce the proportion of one category of citizens in relation to another on the basis of ethnic criteria (Sylvain Cypel in Walled.)
[xxiv] The recent debate about the Islamic cultural centre in Manhattan, and the proposed Koran burning in Florida, shows what happens when prejudice and extremism are allowed to run free.
[xxv] And we have to be careful. To understand an event is to explain it; to give reasons why it happened. This doesn’t mean blaming the victims, or justifying the perpetrator’s actions. However, there appears to be much misunderstanding on this point: for some people the Holocaust is an event outside history. It is so murderous and unthinkable that it can have no actual historical causes, but must belong to some larger metaphysical existence; a kind of pure evil let loose in the world.
“Dubbed by Novick the ‘sacralization of the Holocaust,’ this mystification’s most practised purveyor is Elie Wiesel. For Wiesel… [it] is effectively a ‘mystery’ religion’. [It] ‘leads into darkness,’ ‘negates all answers,’ lies outside, if not beyond, history,’ ‘defies both knowledge and description,’ ‘cannot be explained or visualized,’ is never to be comprehended or transmitted’…” (Norman Finkelstein, The Holocaust Industry)
Note the similarities to the conception of anti-Semitism. Clearly any attempt to break it down, to explain it in material terms, is an offence. In the same way an historical explanation for the rise of Christianity, and its belief in a monotheistic god, is an attack on the very deity itself.
[xxvi] That is, not anti-Zionists who oppose the idea of a Jewish state, but critics of government policy, irrespective of their wider views on Israel.
Even here though there is complication: a minority of Jews are anti-Zionist; particularly amongst some of the Orthodox. While the meaning of Zionism itself has changed – bi-nationalism once a respectable option within the Zionist movement would now be classed as anti-Zionist.
[xxvii] The full declaration is on their website. See also Norman Finkelstein’s Beyond Chutzpah, which treats this topic in depth.
[xxviii] The description is from Melanie Philips, and there is link on IJV to what is effectively a rant on her website.
[xxix] The tough guy image of Ariel Sharon, as a new type of Israeli soldier, was part of his attraction; Begin almost worshipped him (see Colin Shindler, Land Beyond Promise). Ben-Gurion too was a great admirer (Norman Finkelstein, Image and Reality in the Israel-Palestine Conflict).
[xxx] Although this is very common in Israel, as Vital would know being a professor at Tel Aviv University. When the government was looking for reparations from Germany Sylvain Cypel writes:
“…both Menahem Begin, the opposition leader opposed to indemnification, and Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, called one another “little Nazi”, “Judenrat,” “kapo” and the like, even in the Knesset.
“This tendency to bring Nazism on any occasion is by no means confined to politics. It is an amazingly everyday practice. The Shoah is a singular event, but the Nazi reference is made constantly, on the right and left, and in all social classes. I have heard the infuriated owner of car mutter “khatikhat natzit,” literally, “piece of Nazi” to the meter maid who had written him up for parking illegally. For the Israelis “Nazi” has become an unremarkable synonym for “bastard”, “stupid jerk,” and the like. The Nazi is the bad guy, anyone who has it in for you.”
However, Cypel says there is one occasion where the reference to the Nazis is not acceptable – Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.
[xxxi] One wonders if he has read Paulin’s Killed in Crossfire. For it is clearly spoken from a non-combatant’s perspective about the words used to justify the killing of a Palestinian child; and uses imagery from Victor Klemperer’s diaries; with word play around clock and crossfire (which is the “lying phrase”, and could refer as much to the UK as to the Israeli press).
[xxxii] See Beyond Chutzpah for a comprehensive survey from human rights sources.
[xxxiii] In 2004 it found:
“[t]he construction of the wall being built by Israel, the occupying power, in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including in and around East Jerusalem, and its associated regime, are contrary to international law…” (in Beyond Chutzpah, where there is extensive discussion).
[xxxiv] Government actions have also led to the needless loss of life of many Israeli Jews: The Lebanon invasion of 1982 is the worst of many examples.
[xxxv] In his critical review of the book Diarmaid MacCulloch makes a similar point – all criticism of Israel’s actions are seen as illegitimate.
“But Julius seems to regard any criticism of the policies of Israel governments as impermissible. It is difficult to see how one could make any pained remark about the ‘Security Wall’ or Israeli settlements in the West Bank or the behaviour of the IDF in Gaza without incurring his censure; in fact, even Jews who criticise such episodes are classed as anti-semitic in Julius’ taxonomy.”
In his review MacCulloch almost mentions the dual nature of the author – both highly sympathetic and nuanced thinker of classic texts and the propagandist, protecting Israel from all criticism. His analysis of Julius also supports Norman Finkelstein’s idea on the connection between anti-Semitism and Zionism in xvi above:
“Plaintively, in his long and commendably confessional introduction, he remarks that the anti-semitism of which he seeks to construct a portrait ‘overstates, on every occasion, and beyond reason, any case that could be made against Israel’s actions or policies.’
“Yet Julius’ own assumptions seem the mirror-image of this bogeyman: on his extended argument, there can be no reasonable case for criticising Israel constructively.”
Exactly! To prevent all constructive criticism; for its purpose is to stamp out all reasoned discussion of actions Israel does not intend to stop. Actions which, because of their cumulative impact, become more oppressive and more public by the year.
[xxxvi] See Peter Beinart’s article in the NYRB, which posits a divide between American Jewry and Israel, as differences emerge between a liberal culture and the intolerance of the latter; which in turn is connected to the oppression of the Occupied Territories (a trend predicted many years ago). Is the same divide happening in Britain?
[xxxvii] Cypel has a very good discussion of this in his book; showing the generational changes that are taking place amongst both the Israeli Jews and the Palestinians, as the daily contacts are removed; and the occupation and its resistance intensifies.
[xxxviii] Even in the 1990s there was an incident where an English shopkeeper in a Welsh-speaking town refused his employees to speak Welsh in his shop. Imagine if that happened in France or Germany? Needless to say there was a big outcry, and he had to back down.
The reverse is also true: in my school a boy was bullied simply because he was English – the only one in the year.