I’m always fascinated by the way foods define people’s identities — their own and other people’s — and particularly how they are politicised, used to recognise one’s own folk and reject the Other. Bush-era attacks on “latte-sipping liberals” made a big impression on me (“sipping” was a good touch there — not just expensive coffee, but effeminate sipping), as did the scandalised mockery of Obama when he remarked in 2008 on the price of arugula. (According to some, arugula was also effeminate.)
I find the ethnic dimension particularly interesting. It is no coincidence that these two foods that lefties were ridiculed for consuming have Italian names. Jews, of course, have always been attacked for their exotic food preferences, as with the probably anti-Semitic attack on Ed Miliband for looking insufficiently natural when eating a bacon sandwich.
Nowhere is the political valence of ethnic foods more complex than with Britain’s Asian population. Whereas I grew up in the US thinking “Asian” meant by default Chinese and Japanese, in the UK the term refers primarily to the former colonies of Indian subcontinent. Hence the justified pride, in the whole country, in the Indian community, and particularly among the conservatives, in having the first prime minister from an Asian background.
Interestingly, this was emphasised by the King providing Diwali sweets (marking this week’s Hindu festival) when Sunak visited the palace recently. But these gestures of pride and acceptance are not extended to Asians and their foods when their heritage is not British colonial. Particularly striking was the attack in Parliament just last week by the Tory Home Secretary on the “tofu-eating wokerati”.
Hindus can be good Britons and eat Diwali sweets, but those who indulge in other Asian foods are foreign, most especially if they don’t even have the excuse of ancestry. At least the Chinese eat pork…
Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov has raised some hackles with his recent comment that Hitler “had Jewish origins,” and “that the biggest antisemites are the Jews themselves.”
It’s a pretty obvious point. European civilisation has come to the nearly unanimous consensus that antisemitism is among the most terrible scourges of humanity. It is, in the words of Pope Francis, a “great evil”, hateful, “disgusting” (Keir Starmer), and ultimately destructive of human rights and dignity of all people.
Hitler was mankind’s ultimate villain, indifferent to human life in pursuit of his last schemes to control the world, and we all know where that kind of persongoes to pray.* And really, once you’ve acknowledged how corrosive and malign antisemitism is, the question answers itself, who must be responsible for creating it, and likely pulling the strings behind the scenes to promote it…
[For another example of the Jews are the real antisemites and white racists are the new Israel trope, see this post.]
* No one ever stops to wonder whether AH’s well-known vegetarian diet was just a devious choice for avoiding a certain kind of meat…
There’s something fascinating about 19th and 20th century English antisemitism. In continental Europe hatred of Jews was seen as fundamentally political, hence controversial, and was viewed with some distaste by many bien-pensant intellectuals.
Not so in England, where anti-Semitism was never so passionate or violent, but also never particularly controversial until the Nazis went and gave it a bad name. It’s all over the literature, hardly seeming to demand any comment, as I noted with some surprise a while back about the gratuitous anti-Semitism in The Picture of Dorian Grey.
Anyway, I just got around to reading for the first time Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men. It’s a remarkable piece of work, barely a novel, giving a retrospective overview of about a billion years of human history from the perspective of the dying remnant of humanity eking out its last days on Neptune. And the early parts, at least, are blatantly antisemitic. Chapter 4 tells of a time, still only thousands rather than millions of years in our future, when all racial and national distinctions have vanished through intermixing of populations and the creation of a world state. There is just one exception: the Jews. They are still there, defining themselves as a separate “tribe”, that uses their native “cunning” — specifically, financial cunning — to dominate their weaker-minded and less ruthless fellow humans:
The Jews had made themselves invaluable in the financial organization of the world state, having far outstripped the other races because they alone had preserved a furtive respect for pure intelligence. And so, long after intelligence had come to be regarded as disreputable in ordinary men and women, it was expected of the Jews. In them it was called satanic cunning, and they were held to be embodiments of the powers of evil… Thus in time the Jews had made something like “a corner” in intelligence. This precious commodity they used largely for their own purposes; for two thousand years of persecution had long ago rendered them permanently tribalistic, subconsciously if not consciously. Thus when they had gained control of the few remaining operations which demanded originality rather than routine, they used this advantage chiefly to strengthen their own position in the world… In them intelligence had become utterly subservient to tribalism. There was thus some excuse for the universal hate and even physical repulsion with which they were regarded; for they alone had failed to make the one great advance, from tribalism to a cosmopolitanism which in other races was no longer merely theoretical. There was good reason also for the respect which they received, since they retained and used somewhat ruthlessly a certain degree of the most distinctively human attribute, intelligence.
I’ve long thought it odd that Germany, where the politics is generally fairly rational, and science education in particular is generally quite good, has such broad acceptance of homeopathy and a variety of other forms of quackery, and a special word — Schulmedizin — “academic medicine” — to express a dismissive attitude toward what elsewhere would be called just “medicine”, or perhaps “evidence-based medicine”. I was recently looking into the history of this, and found that attacks on Schulmedizin — or “verjudete Schulmedizin” (jewified academic medicine) — were as much a part of the Nazi state science policy as “German mathematics” and “Arian physics”.
Medicine in the Third Reich remained a weird mixture of modern virology and pseudo-scientific “racial hygiene”. The celebrated physician Erwin Liek wrote
Es ist mein Glaube, dass das deutsche Volk berufen ist, nach und nach eine ganz neue, rein deutsche Heilkunst zu entwickeln. (It is my belief, that the German people has a calling, gradually to develop a pure German art of healing.)
Liek was appealing for a synthesis of Schulmedizin with traditional German treatment. As with Arian physics*, and the Nazi state was careful not to push the healthy German understanding so far as to undermine important technology and industry. But the appeal to average people’s intuitive discomfort with modern science was a powerful propaganda tool that they couldn’t resist using, as in this 1933 cartoon “The vaccination” from Der Stürmer that shows an innocent blond arian mother uncomfortably watching her baby being vaccinated by a fiendish Jewish doctor. The caption reads “This puts me in a strange mood/Poison and Jews never do good.”
Today’s anti-vaxers fulminating against Schulmedizin and the Giftspritze (poison shot) are not necessarily being consciously anti-Semitic, but the vocabulary and the paranoid conspiracy thinking are surely not unconnected.
* Heisenberg was famously proud of having protected “Jewish physics” from being banned at his university, considering himself a hero for continuing to teach relativity theory, even while not objecting to the expulsion of the Jewish physicists, and agreeing not to attach their names to their work. Once when I was browsing in the science section of a Berlin bookstore in the early 1990s a man started chatting with me, telling me that he had worked for decades as a radio engineer in the GDR, and then going on to a long monologue apropos of nothing about how wonderful Heisenberg was, and how he had courageously defended German science during the Third Reich.
One of the newspaper covers promoting pro-Brexit celebration:
It’s hard to miss that the jubilant lady draped in the Union Jack has a US flag right behind her. A message to those who still suppose Brexit will bring “independence”. (In case they didn’t get the message when the Prime Minister stood up in parliament and pretended to take Jared Kushner’s Middle East “peace plan” seriously.)
And in case any Jews or Muslims might have thought they would be part of this “glorious new Britain”, they have a fucking CRUSADER in their masthead!
Once it became clear that I would be staying indefinitely in the UK, I had long planned to apply for UK citizenship. I am a strong believer in democracy, and I thought it would be the good and responsible thing to vote and otherwise take part in politics.
Then came Brexit, and this, naturally, led me to think about Henri Bergson. Born to a Jewish family, Bergson moved gradually toward Christianity in his personal life, he considered himself a Christian from the early 1920s. By the 1930s he was making plans to convert formally to Catholicism, but held off because of solidarity with the increasingly threatened Jewish community. A few weeks before his death, Bergson left his sickbed — having rejected an offered exemption from the anti-Semitic laws of Vichy — to stand in line to register as a Jew.
He wrote in his will:
My reflections have led me closer and closer to Catholicism, in which I see the complete fulfillment of Judaism. I would have become a convert, had I not foreseen for years a formidable wave of anti-Semitism about to break upon the world. I wanted to remain among those who tomorrow were to be persecuted.
For a while, then, I deferred applying for citizenship, out of solidarity with my fellow migrants. And then I went and did it anyway. The stakes are obviously much lower than they were for Bergson. And while I regret having to renounce the migrant identity, which suits me well, I also see that this isn’t an entirely noble inclination, as it also excuses me from taking a citizen’s responsibility for the nation’s xenophobic turn. It’s easy to blame those dastardly “British”. The permission to acquire citizenship reflects the growing responsibility for the society that one acquires merely by living here.
I also can’t resist noting that Bergson’s first publication was the solution of Pascal’s problem in Annales des Mathématiques, for which he won the first prize in mathematics in the Concours Général. On learning that he was preparing for the École normale supérieure entrance examination in the letters and humanities section, his mathematics teacher reportedly exclaimed
You could have been a mathematician; you will be a mere philosopher.
Former New York mayor and current bagman for Donald Trump’s Ukraine connection, Rudolph Giuliani has been getting some flak for first spouting anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about George Soros, and then defending himself by saying that Soros isn’t “really Jewish” because “he doesn’t go to church”. Corrected then “he doesn’t go to religion”. Corrected again: “Synagogue. He doesn’t belong to a synagogue, he doesn’t support Israel, he’s an enemy of Israel.” One may doubt Giuliani’s bona fides as arbiter of Jewishness, but in fact
“Soros is hardly a Jew,” he continued. “I’m more of a Jew than Soros is.” Asked by NBC News if his remarks were seriously intended, the former mayor texted: “I’m more Jewish than half my friends.”
The outrage is misplaced. Giuliani’s claim rests on the authority of one of the great Jewish standup comics of the 1950s and 1960s, Lenny Bruce. Giuliani was clearly channelling Bruce’s classic “Jewish and Goyish” routine:
Dig: I’m Jewish. Count Basie’s Jewish. Ray Charles is Jewish. Eddie Cantor’s goyish. B’nai Brith is goyish; Hadassah, Jewish. Marine corps–heavy goyim, dangerous. Kool-Aid is goyish. All Drake’s cakes are goyish. Pumpernickel is Jewish, and, as you know, white bread is very goyish. Instant potatoes–goyish. Black cherry soda’s very Jewish. Macaroons are very Jewish–very Jewish cake. Fruit salad is Jewish. Lime jello is goyish. Lime soda is very goyish. Trailer parks are so goyish that Jews won’t go near them. Jack Paar Show is very goyish. Underwear is definitely goyish. Balls are goyish. Titties are Jewish. Mouths are Jewish. All Italians are Jewish. Greeks are goyish.
On the other hand, Lenny Bruce wasn’t seen in church shul much, and I don’t know that he’s on record with much support for Israel. So maybe he wasn’t really Jewish?
I’m happy to see the UK government interested in attacking antisemitism — even if they do tend to see the main contribution of Jews to UK society as being to shield the Conservative Party against accusations of racism (as demonstrated most recently by Boris Johnson at Prime Minister’s Questions) — but I can’t help feeling it shows at the very least some level of insensitivity to historical context for the government to appoint an antisemitism tsar.
I find it jarring in the same way I did this reference to both the “Mecca of the kibbutz movement” and “a huge garage in southern Tel Aviv turned into the new mecca of dance, drugs, and casual encounters.
I suppose we should be grateful the government has not decided to launch aCrusade against Antisemitism.
Following up on my earlier post on the unequivocal rejection by many authorities — including the US Holocaust Museum — of any comparison between the concentration camps in which Central American migrants are being interned in the US, and Nazi atrocities. No one is being gassed, no one is being murdered, no one is being worked to death. They are simply being interned in unsafe and unsanitary conditions for indeterminate periods.
And here it occurs to me that if we are being very careful about our historical analogies, we really need to strike out one of the most celebrated stories that (erroneously) is placed in this context, that of Anne Frank. The USHMM includes a page about her life and diary, and the “Holocaust Encyclopedia” describes her as “among the most well-known of the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust.” But was she really? Anne and her sister were undocumented migrants in The Netherlands, rounded up in a police raid and deported to Germany. They were not sent to a death camp, but to Bergen-Belsen, which is commonly referred to as a concentration camp, but that is obviously misleading, since people could think Jews were being gassed there. Nobody killed them there. They just happened to die (like most of their fellow prisoners) of typhus.
Indeed, we should consider Primo Levi’s contention that everyone who survived Auschwitz did so because of some freak combination of exceptional events and exceptional personal qualities (not necessarily positive):
At a distance of years one can today definitely affirm that the history of the Lagers has been written almost exclusively by those who, like myself, never fathomed them to the bottom. Those who did so did not return, or their capacity for observation was paralysed by suffering and incomprehension.
So if the true generic experience of the Holocaust belonged only to those who died, maybe it is inappropriate to compare anyone’s experience to the Holocaust, including that of its victims.
I’ve just been reading David Nirenberg’s history of antisemitism Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition, and I came across the interesting letter 40 of Ambrose. Ambrose was Bishop of Milan for two decades in the late 4th century, and is considered one of the Fathers of the Church. The letter, addressed to the Roman emperor Theodosius, is framed as a plea for freedom and tolerance. And what is it that the “Godfearing, merciful, gentle, and calm” Theodosius has not sufficiently tolerated? It is the religious obligation to burn down synagogues.
In 388 a mob of monks in the Mesopotamian city of Callinicum burned down the Jewish synagogue and a gnostic Christian church. The local military governor ordered that the monks be punished and that the synagogue be rebuilt, at the expense of the local bishop, who had incited the attack.
There is, then, no adequate cause for such a commotion, that the people should be so severely punished for the burning of a building, and much less since it is the burning of a synagogue, a home of unbelief, a house of impiety, a receptacle of folly, which God Himself has condemned.
Ambrose goes on to remind Theodosius of the fate of his predecessor, who was thought too solicitous of the safety of Jews and their houses of worship:
Is it not on this account that Maximus was forsaken, who, before the days of the expedition, hearing that a synagogue had been burnt in Rome, had sent an edict to Rome, as if he were the upholder of public order? Wherefore the Christian people said, No good is in store for him. That king has become a Jew.
In other words, if you defend the Jews you might be suspected of being kind of a Jew yourself.