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June 1, 2016 6:16 am

Intellectual Antisemites and the Left

avatar by Fred Baumann

Email a copy of "Intellectual Antisemites and the Left" to a friend
Philosopher Martin Heidegger. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Philosopher Martin Heidegger. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The great 20th century German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s antisemitism is an old problem. The 2014 publication of his private Black Notebooks re-awoke it. In them we find assertions like: “One of the stealthiest forms of gigantism and perhaps the most ancient is the cleverness of calculation, pushiness, and intermixing whereby Jewry’s worldlessness is established.” Somehow “Jewry” came to symbolize for him his concern about the soullessness of modernity. But now our question is: why did his inarguably deep and abstract reflections come to express themselves in the language of the gutter?

Partly, it was “in the air.” Various scholars have shown the roots of Nazism in the culture of the German Right. “The Jew” became the object of an ultimately self-loathing nausea. And since part of that self-loathing was directed against moderation, what Nietzsche had scornfully called the “morality of timidity,” the Jew-hatred of the gutter became attractive to many. Like sap recycling through a tree, the heights and dregs become one. The intellectual sings harmony, while the street thug carries the tune.

I see similarities in today’s “progressive” Left. After World War II, Jew-hatred became taboo in decent society. The unrepentant mostly hid under the rocks. But the brilliant Soviet propaganda meme of “Israel as Nazi” changed things dramatically. “Antisemitism,” understood as the racist inheritance of the Right, was still abhorrent, but hating the Jewish state because, by a miracle of the dialectic, it was allegedly quasi-Nazi, could be enthusiastically embraced by the self-conceived caring and sharing. The fateful alliance thus struck by the New Left and the revanchist Arab world after the Six Day War was the origin of the contemporary “Red-Green” alliance. The new, purified Israel-hatred could mix smoothly with the unabashed repulsive Jew-hatred of the Arabs. Since then it has been possible to measure, like a rising water-level, the increasing acceptability of Jew-hatred in its new, “no one here but us anti-Zionists” guise. I think it was the Mearsheimer-Walt screed, The Israel Lobby, which decisively breached the blood-brain barrier. Harvard and the University of Chicago kashered the double-loyalty smear, with more to come.

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A recent example shows just how this works. (There are plenty of others, like professors Puar of Rutgers and Karega of Oberlin, but I’ll focus on a less widely reported example.)

An April article in Tablet tells of a Stanford University professor of Comparative Literature, David Palumbo-Liu. Comparative Literature is a very high-brow field. A generation ago the deconstructionist gospel, inculcating a sophisticated nihilism with leftist inflections, was received there first and remains alive and well. From Stanford’s heights, Professor Palumbo-Liu looked down upon mainstream media’s coverage of Israel and lo, it was not good. He thus told his readers to direct their attention to more reliable sites. “Look at Mondoweiss, the Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), the American Friends Service Committee, Electronic Intifada, If Americans Knew,” he wrote.

Okay, let’s look. The first three are fiercely anti-Israel voices of what I guess one must still call the Left. The Electronic Intifada is a straightforward Palestinian propaganda site. But If Americans Knew is something entirely different, namely an “anti-Zionist” website run by a woman named Alison Weir. Weir, as the Tablet Magazine piece explains, is in fact a classic Jew-hater, who even spreads the modern blood libel canards. Palumbo-Liu, soon realizing his tactical error in citing the site, quickly backtracked: “While the organization If Americans Knew, which was previously listed here, provides much useful information from reliable, neutral sources, I disagree with many of the public comments of its director. I have removed the original reference to prevent any confusion.”

Too late, Professor. As always, the gaffe is in telling the truth. This high-brow Stanford professor takes his “reliable information” from a Jew-hating blood-libeler.

Too late, too, it turns out, for Jewish Voice for Peace. In 2015 they published an open letter claiming to dissociate themselves from If Americans Knew, citing good evidence of Weir’s outright antisemitism. But, six months later, as chronicled on the blog Legal Insurrection, JVP cohosted a talk by Weir in Cleveland. So much for the dissociation.

Mondoweiss, for its part, hosted a round-table with various opinions about whether Weir is antisemitic and if so, whether that matters. That roundtable reveals wonderfully how the process of assimilation of Jew-hatred works. Thus, Susan Landau (who proclaims herself vigilantly against antisemitism) still thinks that “Differences within our movement exist; we stifle them to our peril.” And Russ Greenleaf defends Weir outright: when she appears with right-wing antisemites she is only trying to educate them, of course.

For such people, in a word, there’s really no reason not to associate with antisemites.

The differences between the new “anti-Zionists” and the old antisemites are clearly fading quickly. The only real difference seems to be tactical—is respectable public opinion ready to accept the full implications of the Red-Green alliance? True, the Israel-hating American Left doesn’t yet have a Hitler (nor, for that matter a Heidegger either). But…

Sophisticated post-Nietzschean nihilism is again paving the way for a simple-minded and apocalyptic ideology, which focuses on the Jew as the emblem of everything the ideologue hates about his society, or indeed herself. And to find the images and language for that, no better place than the gutter.

The historical resemblance to the German case to today is worth thinking about. But it goes even further. The real problem in Weimar was as much the impotent center-Left as the radical Right. It is neither the Palumbo-Lius nor the Weirs who endanger Jews so much as the nice, well-meaning intimidated folks, in the academy and out, who are afraid to seem “racist” or “conservative” and so become what later will be called “Good Germans.”

If the movement is to be reversed, they are the ones who need to be aroused, shamed, provoked into decent behavior.

But how?

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  • The answer to “But how?” begins with clear thinking. Mention of Heidegger (who was not anti-Semitic) is irrelevant to your article, unless one recognizes that undoing mistaken reading of Heidegger can be instructive for reading others. What was “in the air” is what Heidegger was articulating for critique, not asserting as his own belief. His notebooks are literally full of dismay, dismissiveness, and critique of German ideology. This pertains to the rationality of anti-Semitism, which infects academic thinking at its roots. The technocratic thinking of political scientism “rationalizes” the “giantism” which, in crude rightism, scapegoats Jews. Proper animus for German ideology is shared by Heidegger. People’s confusion between what Heidegger was framing and what Heidegger was intending to do (e.g., creating a philosophical critique of ideology) speaks to the difficulties of reading the other when the difference between framing and endorsing is active in private notebooks.

    Gary E. Davis
    Berkeley

  • Joshua Laskin

    Antisemitism is about the stereotypical ‘Jewish’ characteristics; it’s not about any particular Jew. Although the Zionist idea was to turn the Jew into a regular person–i.e. get rid of those ‘Jewish’ characteristics–the opposite has occurred. The Jewish state is now the ‘Jewish’ state, embodying those classical traits. Thus, the development of a new, global antisemitism–with the Jewish state itself as the ‘Jew’. In that sense, antiZionism is antisemitism, because the target is the same collection of attributes, only this time identified with a state, not a people. Zionism, as a solution to antisemitism, is clearly therefor an abject failure. As for whether Israel can transcend its identity as the ‘Jewish’ state, and become simply the Israeli state, remains to be seen. But there seems to be a degree of self-selection, in play now, wherein Jews who identify with the ‘Jewish’ state, join it; and Jews who don’t, don’t. Thus, the Jewish state will, in the eyes of the world, become ever more flagrantly, the ‘Jewish’ state, embodying every feared and hated archtype ever identified by all antisemites in history.

  • Jay Lavine

    The answer to the last question has to do with why people adopt secular ideologies, either of the right or of the left. They do so because of the inner void created by a lack of the spiritual fulfillment accruing from a religiously prescribed ethical way of life. Their ideology becomes their religion and they serve it as they would an idol. But their adopted ideologies lack the moral suasion of a religion and way of life like Judaism. That’s why Jews don’t have this problem.

  • Jay Rothermel

    Two excellent books by Robert Wistrich on this topic:
    From Ambivalence to Betrayal
    A Lethal Obsession.

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