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Gaza and After

My friend and colleague Michelle Sieff has been speaking at length with Paul Berman. The result is an extended interview on Z Word which covers the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas, western perceptions of Hamas, the outlook for Middle … Read More

By / February 24, 2009

My friend and colleague Michelle Sieff has been speaking at length with Paul Berman. The result is an extended interview on Z Word which covers the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas, western perceptions of Hamas, the outlook for Middle East policy under the Obama Administration and the persistence of antisemitism in our own time.

I want to quote Berman here on the subject of antisemitism. Some scholars of antisemitism argue that we are more precisely dealing with antisemitisms, since the notion of an age-old hatred which simply mutates according to circumstance is overly simplistic ("essentialist" is a more modish way of putting it.) On the face of it, this is a sound objection; precisely because of that, Berman’s parsing of the history of antisemitism deserves particular attention:

The unstated assumption is always the same. To wit: the universal system for man’s happiness has already arrived (namely, Christianity, or else Enlightenment anti-Christianity; the Westphalian state system, or else the post-modern system of international institutions; racial theory, or else the anti-racist doctrine in a certain interpretation). And the universal system for man’s happiness would right now have achieved perfection – were it not for the Jews. The Jews are always standing in the way. The higher one’s opinion of oneself, the more one detests the Jews.

It is a point worth absorbing. Too many of us regard antisemitism as belonging to the realm of the uncouth, the intoxicant of the beer hall but not the bistro. Its true home, as Berman says, is in the loftiest thoughts. Therein lies its danger.

 

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