Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Odium ex nihilo


The Guardian quotes actress Maureen Lipman saying that the recent attacks in Paris have her thinking of leaving London for the US, where you can be shot to death in a supermarket in an entirely nondiscriminatory and racially neutral way. (Israel was also on her list of destinations, because it is a place where Jews are famously safe from terrorist attacks.) But I was struck by this comment:

When the economy dries up, then they turn on the usual scapegoat: the usual suspect –the Jew. There is one school of thought that says it’s because of Israeli policies in the West Bank, it isn’t. There’s been antisemitism for the past 4,000 years.

It is common to link modern antisemitism to trends since the middle ages. Some say nothing has really changed since Tiberius. Some go back even to the Hellenistic period. Lipman almost doubles that history.

Some people have remarked on the weird persistence of antisemitism in places like Poland despite the absence of any significant numbers of remaining Jews. Lipman’s bracing theory is that antisemitism also pre-existed the Jews. As the prayerbook says, וְהוּא הָיָה וְהוּא הֹוֶה ,וְהוּא יִהְיֶה בְּתִפְאָרָה: It was, it is, and it ever will be.

Perhaps, just as some say that antisemitism maintained the Jews as a distinct people through the Middle Ages, pre-existing antisemitism actually called the Jewish people into existence. As Sartre famously said,

Loin que l’expérience engendre la notion de Juif, c’est celle-ci qui éclaire l’expérience au contraire ; si le Juif n’existait pas, l’antisémite l’inventerait.

The concept of the Jew does not arise from experience, but rather the Jew serves as a pretext to explain [the anti-Semite’s] experience. If the Jew did not exist, the anti-Semite would invent him.

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