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Jews in the World at the End of Philo-Semitism

The half century after World War II was a period of unusual, perhaps unique international attention to the Jewish people (as opposed to Jewish concepts of God and religion).  Spurred by the horrors of the Holocaust and what once-upon-a time … Read More

By / May 29, 2009

The half century after World War II was a period of unusual, perhaps unique international attention to the Jewish people (as opposed to Jewish concepts of God and religion).  Spurred by the horrors of the Holocaust and what once-upon-a time was considered the heroic birth of Israel, the idea of "Jew" came to symbolize a combination of moral honor, intelligence, humor, and-of course-outsized victim.  This produced in Europe and the United States an era of philo-Semitism, a social aesthetic in which the iconic Jew was the object of a general sympathy, curiosity, and respect. Philo-Semitism is not the opposite of anti-Semitism.  These two sets of sentiments and behaviors are products of the same baseline condition in which non-Jewish authorities and communities exercise the power to define, fashion, and alter the living conditions of Jewish objects.  Philo-Semitism does not mean that non-Jews come to love Jews as individuals or as a community-just for being Jewish.  Rather, philo-Semitism exists when Jewish religion, history, culture and "character" (constructed caricatures of suffering, humor, wisdom, and faith as well as actual expressions of communal identity) come to the center of gentile consciousness and social discourse.  Anti-Semitism does not go away even at the apogee of philo-Semitic sentiment. Philo-Semitism Was Different This Time Jews often have been made objects of curiosity and ideological refraction by the smart and powerful.  Philo had noted the interest in Judaism among Romans no longer faithful to the old gods (before the Jewish and Roman worlds both were inundated by the Christian alternative).  Mongols-given their fascination with all religions-had paid some attention to Jews, even though they did not go to the extent some believe the Khazars had in adopting a form of Judaism.  Both Muhammad and Luther originally saw Jews as natural candidates for conversion (as if the progenitors of the True Faith would naturally embrace their destiny by recognizing the new Authenticity).  Later, even as they celebrated the idea that they were the intellectual and spiritual heirs of the ancient Greeks, some "enlightened" Germans welcomed kindred Jewish spirits as evidence of the efficacy of their notion of Bildung. Aside from the Mongols, however, these various philo-Semites had little interest in Jews as actual people.  Instead, some religious teleologists focused on the principle of the Jew as pump-priming converts to Christianity or Islam.  Similarly, some enlightenment figures looked to Jews to grow from Jewish particularity toward the developed human that was the ideal type of late 18th-and early 19th century rationalism.  From the gentile subject’s point of view, either a new revelation would complete the Jewish task, or else the Jewish experience of persecution and living on the outside of history would prove to have made Jews good candidates for various versions of new-age evolutionism.  These philo-Semites’ patience ran out when Jews proved unable or unwilling to perform the duties assigned them.  Luther and Muhammad became nasty when the expected mass conversions did not come. Toleration of Jews in nineteenth century Europe was not philo-Semitic.  It represented a liberal welcome for individual Jews to civic culture rather than a particular interest in the communal character or development of the Jewish community.  Therefore, it was not the obverse of the fin de siècle anti-Semitism of Wagner, Vienna Mayor Karl Luegner, and the persecutors of Alfred Dreyfus.  This ambiguous context gave Jews who cared about their relationship to the gentile world had what Hannah Arendt called the choice between being pariah or parvenu. Before the Holocaust, these Jewish Europeans accepted a universe of options involving seeking a personal space in the larger society or accepting a role as victim and Other.  The Nazis considerably narrowed this field of thought and action. The Holocaust created a unique context for a new philo-Semitism (it would have required a remarkable sort of communal gentile callousness for it not to).  What was unique after 1945 was the realization in the North Atlantic region that the Holocaust had been a central expression of human bestiality, and that this successful, industrial-strength effort to wipe out European Jewry was a basic refutation of the confident modernism common to the science and salons of the past two centuries.  The recognition that the Nazis’ intellectual and aesthetic tools were logical-and close-cousins to the conceptual and emotional core of mainstream philosophical and ritual discourse cut deep into the moral bone. The Jew, therefore, became a different sort of object than before.  In the past it had been easy for elites and intellectuals to distinguish their own genteel denigration of (or philo-Semitic speculation about) an essentially marginal Jewish community from cruder and more violent attacks on Jews by less exalted co-Christians (even when the elites provoked the trouble).  Kings, great lords, and their officers may have recognized that Jews could be important to commercial life, but it usually was not hard to relegate Jews as a whole to the backs of their minds.  Anti-Semitic discrimination or murder provided a useful safety valve when merchants feared Jewish competition or when peasants (in Ukraine, for example) loathed Jewish overseers, but most of the time Jews just did not matter very much.  Officials at various levels could organize anti-Jewish events and then put both the thought and the act out of their minds. This was not the case at the end of World War II.  The Holocaust burst onto European consciousness only after the war was over, kindling a general sense of shame that so few had taken Hitler’s existential threats seriously even when word of the camps and the slaughter began to make its way to Allied capitals.  Turning the neologism "genocide" into a legal category was a direct response to Jewish suffering that had been the culmination of what now was acknowledged to have been centuries of anti-Semitic outrages. In addition, there was a sense that 1000 years of European development had led to anything but Europe’s natural spiritual and material leadership of the World.  Now surviving sages (Friedrich Meinecke, for example) wondered whether the old continent deserved its relegation from Powerhouse of the Planet to a mere theater in a contest between two giants on its flanks.  Europeans adjusted to their new role as subordinate objects of scrutiny by more powerful Others; in a sense, Europe was the new Jew. Some on the old continent started to turn the catastrophe into a positive.  Post-Holocaust West European philo-Semitism was more than a celebration of the Jews’ path from slaughter to redemption and Agency.  The general disgust over the camps and the corpses gave way to a sense that a chastened Europe was evolving toward a higher ethical future.  The end of the social Darwinian competition over which Europeans were fit to dominate the world motivated what would become the effort to replace the celebration of Herderian national myths with the greater story of "Europe."  For the United States, as one of the flanking giants that now overshadowed Europe, the intimate imagery of the Holocaust reinforced traditional skepticism of the Old World’s values.  This strengthened the sense that the City on the Hill had to extend the gift of its leadership to a continent that otherwise would fall back on itself-or else fall under the control of something worse advancing from the East.  Conceptualization of the horror of Jewish suffering as a central expression and experience of humanity developed alongside the rekindling of American revulsion with the struggles for territory and power that had motivated European conflicts. And then came Israel.  The fact that European governments and communities were not unhappy to have their surviving Jews ship themselves off to the Middle East was submerged in a wave of advertised European admiration for the sudden transformation of the Jew from victim to victorious settler.  For its part, the American Jewish community flexed its muscles.  Sickened and angered by the Holocaust, enabled by European culpability in its horrors, and-unlike their European compatriots-largely undamaged by two world wars, American Jews lobbied hard for US recognition of the new state, took credit when this happened, and jacked up an existing-and essential-financial and emotional umbilical cord.
Meanwhile, while martial virtue may have become oxymoronic in Europe, Europeans and Americans-Jew and non-Jew-dredged up exactly this classical ideal in defining a heroic transformation of the Jewish condition in the World.  The military triumphs that defined Israel through 1967 reinforced a sense of the Jew Revived that was refracted through various ideologies and agendas in Europe and America at the same time as Jews themselves reveled in the feeling of being the Jew Enabled. The sum of these parts was a unique celebration of Jewish communal identity and culture.  Rather than just freeing Jews from legal restrictions or cultivating individual Jews as evolving creatures, the dominant transatlantic community embraced and mimicked traits and expressions deemed centrally "Jewish."  Yiddishisms entered transnational discourse even as Yiddish itself was dying as a language for Jews.  Jews already were prominent in music, theater and the movies and Jewish themes occasionally had crossed over to a wider audience (for example in "The Jazz Singer").  Now, however, Jewish writers and directors could create and mass-market works that were explicitly "Jewish." In this context, the remnant of Jews left in Western Europe appeared to be freed from the sterile choice between parvenu and pariah.  The decline in perceived significance of being, say, German or French meant Jews could be lionized as part of a larger European myth. In the United States, where nationality always had been more fluid, barriers against Jews in private clubs, schools, residential areas, and politics largely evaporated.  Jewish writers and performers gained widespread recognition through the medium of television, and the "Jewish" voice of people such as Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, and Philip Roth became more a part of the wider philo-Semitic discourse than actual expressions of the notional or actual Jewish community.  In both Western Europe and the United States, Jews became defined as constituent members of a simultaneously diverse and pseudo-homogenized secular society. Western Jews and the philo-Semitic vogue had little impact east of the Oder-Neisse line.  The official version of Socialist history rejected popular complicity for the Holocaust, assigned responsibility for its crimes to bourgeois racists, and coupled Jew and national non-Jew as victims of Nazism.  Meanwhile, the prominence of Jews in the Communist parties meant that East European images of the Jewish Other remained largely as they had been before Hitler.  The hated Jewish overseer/tax collector in Poland and Ukraine now was the feared Jewish party boss or propagandist.  Stalin and his East European acolytes found it useful to purge Jewish Communists along with non-Jews who had fought in local undergrounds or otherwise stayed at home instead of using the war to seek prominence among co-nationals living in exile in the Soviet Union.  The anti-Semitic campaign unleashed by Poland’s Communist bosses in the 1960s differed little from pre-Holocaust outrages. However, the existence of a tough and victorious Jewish state affected even the traditional anti-Semitism of the Communists.  For one thing, Stalin-who initially was not certain whether the US or UK would be his primary post-war adversary-perceived as useful the fighting between Palestinian Jews and the British in the 1940s.  The emergence of Nasser and Arab socialism altered the Soviet calculus, but the serial defeats of the Arabs by Israel led the Soviets occasionally to use their captive Jewish remnant communities (and even Western Jews) as conduits to the center of what Communist anti-Semites perceived as "Jewish power."[1] The Biological and Social Entropy of Philo-Semitism
Analysis of the Israeli apogee of 1967, its aftermath, and the decline since then of Israel’s standing in the world is a well-trod subject that I will not rehash here.  In a nutshell, European opinion leaders lost their taste for a martial Israel and grew impatient as Israel did not alter its behavior to suit the decline of Israel as a European vogue.  What is important to keep in mind for this argument is that Israel’s behavior as a "normal" Western state (but one that acts according to the rules of pre-1945 European statecraft and warfare in a zero-sum conflict many in the West fool themselves into thinking is out of date) is only part of the reason for the atrophy of the conditions that enabled the recent philo-Semitism. More important is the passing of the generation of non-Jews who perpetrated, suffered, and witnessed the Holocaust.  Their children and grandchildren are not anti-Semitic, ungrateful, or callous.  It is natural that the emotional intimacy associated with feeling responsible for this particular experience of horror goes the way of that involved with the other mass killings, enslavements, and expulsions that continue to recede in memory.  Museums and educational programs might instill in some students something of the feeling of what happened, but-as with slavery and destruction of aboriginal Americans, the serial slaughter of various tribes and settled communities in Eurasia and Mesoamerica, and other, more completely forgotten horrors-social consciousness simply is going to move on.  That this is the way of the world is a final insult to the murdered dead, but there is nothing to do about it. Although this demographic development already is becoming common knowledge, the impact of the passing of philo-Semitism on the Jews who are used to its benefits might not be.  Many of us born in the US or Western Europe after World War II have not experienced the garden varieties of anti-Semitism that previous generations of Jews took for granted.  The benefits of philo-Semitism lured Baby Boomer Jews into the World, creating the belief that we could exist forever as a component unit-maybe even a central one-of modernity and secular (in Charles Taylor’s sense), linear, material time. Our children may or may not have "Jewish feeling," but they are likely to face a less friendly, more disorienting series of intercommunal experiences than we did.  Some less-than-observant Jews could find themselves feeling the Hobson’s choice between pariah and parvenu, while some Orthodox Jews can hope to get what they want-the gradual disappearance of all but those Jews who adhere to the law. The Jew as Active Subject or Philo-Semitic Artifact Wherever they live, many Jews could find it difficult to adjust to a renewed status as marginalized Other.  Some-various orthodox and Hasidic communities come to mind-either will turn inward or proselytize among their fellows in an attempt to recreate something like the Ashkenazi universes that predated the philo-Semitisms of the 18th and 20th centuries.  These communities could take something like the medieval and early modern approach toward relations with the gentile Other, seeking a sort of brokered autonomy in religious and cultural existence while having little to do with politics or civic life.  A few among these might adopt some version of Herzl’s universal dichotomy of Jew and Eternal anti-Semite-a notion that in a post-philo-Semitic era would erroneously posit the Jew as remaining at the center of gentile consciousness. Other, largely less-observant Jews will assimilate into a totally civic, secular identity.  When made by committed citizens from all religious and ethnic traditions this decision can be a reasonable social choice underpinning the need to separate religion (any religion) from the means of coercion.  Of course, the price for this will be an acceleration of the disappearance of Jewish identity. What is less clear is whether Jews who are quite "observant," but within Conservative, Reform, or Reconstructionist traditions can confound Orthodox expectations and maintain the strength of their congregations and social networks in succeeding generations.  The passing of philo-Semitism likely will intensify debates inside these movements over the proper role in their community and in society at large of Jews who juggle various identities in a context in which they no longer enjoy philo-Semitic pride of place.
The one choice that will not be possible, but will be tried, will be to cultivate an afterglow of the privileged philo-Semitic condition of the past few decades.  Some Jews will assume that they always will be able to use the Holocaust like some post-1865 US northerners used the Civil War "Bloody Flag"-as an automatic claim to a moral high ground that should quiet any intent to question Jewish centrality (or Israeli behavior).  The attacks on academics who criticize the influence of the American Zionist lobby have been as pointless as they are wrong. Such defensiveness involves a default instinct toward misreading marginalization as anti-Semitism-a mistake that could undermine necessary efforts to identify and set in high relief thoughts and acts that really do reflect some racist’s hatred of Jews.  Those Jewish individuals and organizations who attempt to hold on to their philo-Semitic status increasingly will become social artifacts and find themselves in an anomic existence where they seem not to belong anywhere. Is Leaving Center Stage "Good for the Jews"? Having lived through philo-Semitism, Jewish publicists and commentators may well confuse the emotional entropy associated with its ending with re-emergence of traditional anti-Semitism.  The numbers and intensity of hate crimes against Jews will rise and fall, but the hard task for the anti-Defamation League and other groups will be to recognize that the necessary work of identifying, combating, and resolving such acts now takes place in a context where Jews no longer can successfully claim pride of place in the consciousnesses and agendas of gentile worlds.  We once again have become peripheral, at least in the North Atlantic zone. The passing of the recent flavor of philo-Semitism coincides with a deeper phenomenon, the end of the era of the "West."  The latter concept, which includes the notion of the inevitability of collective European and North American power and cultural transcendence, has been in common use since about 1798.  It has involved the global spread of a caricature of ideational and political forms that obscure the serial alteration of norms and rules at the West’s core at least once a century since the end of the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries.  There actually have been several distinct "Wests," each with its own coercive utopia of political form and cultural and legal mythology. The current financial crisis reflects a creeping doubt inside Europe and, to a lesser extent, the United States in the value and inevitability of such coercive utopias as Democracy and "free markets" (none of the latter actually exist).  Residual rhetorical celebration of something called "the" International Community obscures the possibility that the anomalous period of dominance of global power and thought by a single state form and by idea of the West is eroding.  The world could be entering a more "normal" period where multiple political, economic, and social layers will compete for resources and ideational hegemony. The challenge of China, India, transnational informal economies, and problems of climate change, epidemiology, and environmental issues all are central to this dynamic, but the issue relevant to this piece is the reemergence of Agency and authority among Muslims.  The 9/11 attacks were an extreme version of what Charles Tilly and others have called "contentious performances," social activities that change perceptions and therefore the content of power relationships (my shorthand, not Tilly’s).
Thanks to the internet and other contemporary communications media, the Palestinian intifadas, the wars in Afghanistan and the political space once organized as "Iraq," and various terrorist attacks, from now on Muslims will make their own-often contending-decisions about what matters and how the world should be organized.  Our simplistic default logic of distinguishing between "moderate" and "extremist" Muslims is mistaken in its implied assumption that dealing with us is the central issue in how Muslims will decide how they should live in this world, and to what extent that involves submission to the words of God and lessons of his Prophet. However, for at least some Muslims the Jew may be becoming more important, even as philo-Semitism fades in the West.  The era of Western philo-Semitism, with its celebration of Israel and muscular Jewish Agency, brought traditional Western anti-Semitism into the Middle East and South and Southeast Asia.  Western global hegemony may be eroding in the Middle East and Muslim Asia, but the demonization of Israel and its hyper-publicized use of lethal coercion mean that the hated image of the West’s philo-Semitic Jewish Other is not. The relative (if often exaggerated) historical tolerance of Jews by Muslims-particularly in the context of the Ottoman millet system-is being replaced by dramatizations of "Protocols of the Elders of Zion," propagation of the idea of the Jew as puppet-master of money and power, and other hoary calumnies.  This likely is an indelible change, due in part to the physical separation of Jewish and Muslims communities through, for example, the population transfers that removed centuries-old Jewish communities from the Arab states in the Middle East and North Africa after 1948. This issue also will affect politics in the United States, but hopefully with a more constructive outcome.  Muslims likely will outnumber Jews in the American electorate by the 2020s.  That Jewish organizations chose to engage in recent debates over the American Muslim growth rate suggested the existence of some sensitivity among American Jews to this development.  Instead of fighting facts, it is to be hoped that Jews join Muslims in replicating the American civic tradition of minimizing the spread of outside squabbles into the American political fabric.  Anglo-Irish disputes and the controversy between German and Anglophile communities over American involvement in World War I notwithstanding, the dominant American instinct has been not only to avoid fighting foreign wars here, but to encourage social interaction among relevant "hyphenated" communities.  Jewish- and Muslim-Americans have the opportunity to find means for dialogue in an atmosphere where neither community can claim to hold a central place in broader gentile consciousness.  With luck, Jewish and Muslim identity will have less salience to either community in the context of the American civic arena than interests and preferences having nothing to do with religion or ethnicity. ***** David B. Kanin is a CIA senior political analyst and Adjunct Professor of European Studies at the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University.  The views expressed in this article are Dr. Kanin’s alone, not those of the CIA or the US Government.




[1] This attitude did not die with the Soviet Empire.  The author was present at a lecture in 1995 in which the speaker-a leader in the Holocaust Museum movement-told of manipulating official Polish assumptions that Jews and Jewish money ran US foreign policy to trade oblique promises of influence in Washington for tangible access to Jewish artifacts and memories.

[2]Charles Tilly, Contentious Performances, New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Images are video stills from the Birthright Monologue Performances

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