Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Antisemitism as a societal problem, not an individual one

Via Z-Word:
In his classic “Anti-Semite and Jew,” Jean-Paul Sartre argued that antisemitism “is something quite other than an idea. It is first of all a passion.” The emphasis is Sartre’s.

He then relates the story of a young woman who told Sartre of her unpleasant experiences with furriers. She has been robbed by them, she said, and they had damaged the furs which she had entrusted to their care. And they were all Jews, she added.

“But why did she choose to hate Jews rather than furriers?” Sartre asked rhetorically. “Because she had in her a predisposition toward anti-Semitism.”
I disagree that it's because antisemitism is a passion. Rather, I argue that antisemitism is embedded in our societies. Whenever we talk about Jews, we're echoing and regurgitating what was written by Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens, and how ever many others. Though many of us reject overt expressions of antisemitism, few of us know any other way to talk about Jews. So when a disagreement occurs (perhaps over the definition of antisemitism, whether it can apply to anti-Zionism) one needn't be at all imaginative to perceive that the Jew is a scheming manipulator with an unfair advantage in debate. On the other hand, it does take a bit of imagination to figure that perhaps the perspectives of Jews, especially when it seems that most Jews hold a view few others hold, are important contributions to the discussion. So why the Jews instead of the furriers? Because the last person picked the Jews instead of the furriers.

The only passion needed is perhaps the tiniest touch of narcissism, something few of us lack. It's difficult to really grasp that I do not own the truth, so when minorities disagree with me I often have to stop to force myself to take account of the difference in perspective. That's not a way we're taught to think, but because we live in racist societies it is necessary in order to not contribute to racism.

Suppose I were to say something about affirmative action, and someone else were to call that statement racist. It's often difficult to imagine that a discussion of racism ought to be about the way in which minorities experience society. On the other hand, it's easy to insist that the discussion be about my hurt feelings after that other person willfully (I would imagine) misunderstood what I said and called me racist. Problem is that while I'm focusing on my hurt feelings, I'm not paying attention to the way in which that other person experiences my words, and so I'm completely disconnected from any way of evaluating how my behavior affected that other person. Without that, I can't even begin to say whether my words were indeed racist.

So if I'm in a discussion on Israel and I want to talk about antisemitism, it's no surprise to me that there's resistance. Because of the history of antisemitism, disagreement over something like that is most naturally understood as me being a scheming and manipulative Jew, willfully abusing the charge of antisemitism to silence others. And that's why that history of antisemitism, and the ways in which Jews understand it, must be investigated closely. Why it's necessary that critics of Israel take a moment to Be Quiet and Listen. That doesn't mean automatically agreeing, but it does mean a real effort to understand.

I am here merely applying what is typical of most anti-racist theory to antisemitism. I don't know why, but few people reliably approach antisemitism in that way. Overt expressions of antisemitism about which we would all agree, neo-Nazis and such, are the tip of the spear. The shaft is "Don't tell me what antisemitism is; I know what antisemitism is," or "I'll sue if you call me an antisemite." That's why we often talk about racism without racists. The people who threaten to sue might or might not be what we'd want to call antisemites. Many probably are, but it's not important. We don't need to divine their souls to understand that their actions reinforce and reproduce antisemitism. In fact, without them, the tip of the spear wouldn't be nearly as threatening. In that way, those people who seem like they might be a little antisemitic but we're not certain enough to really challenge them are the more significant problem.

(See also.)

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