Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘antisemitism’

Trump and the bicycle-riders

We now have Donald Trump’s final argument for his election, which basically amounts to saying that manly man Donald Trump will beat down the foreigners and Jews — George Soros, Janet Yellen, Lloyd Blankenfein — who are secretly pulling the strings behind the political establishment. (Speaking of Janet Yellen, I have to confess that I hadn’t noticed that the Federal Reserve had been led by elders of Zion Jews — three of them Republicans — for all but nine years since 1970.)

I think often of a public lecture that Yale history professor John Boswell gave in the 1980s with the title “Jews and Bicycle-riders”. The title came from a celebrated anti-Nazi joke of the 1930s: A Jew is pushed off his bicycle by a Brownshirt, who looms over him and screams “Who is responsible for Germany’s misfortunes?” “The Jews,” replies the trembling Jew, “and the bicycle riders.” “Why the bicycle riders?” asks the Nazi. And he replies: “Why the Jews?”

Boswell’s lecture was mainly about homosexuality, pointing out that prejudice against gay people had risen and fallen over the past two millennia, and tended to parallel the ups and downs of antisemitism, and to be promoted by the same people. The joke suggests that antisemitism is irrational and arbitrary, and has nothing really to do with the Jews; Boswell extends this to say that antisemitism and homophobia are both targets of convenience for what is really an anti-urban, anti-cosmopolitan agenda.

(The bicycle-riders in the joke are supposed to be an obviously ridiculous target of discrimination. Boswell might have been amused to know that in the febrile politics of the 21st century, bicycle-riders have also become a frequent target of right-wing abuse — for example, Colorado Republican who called Denver cycling initiatives “part of a greater strategy to rein in American cities under a United Nations treaty” and Rob Ford in Toronto: “What I compare bike lanes to is swimming with the sharks. Sooner or later you’re going to get bitten… The cyclists are a pain in the ass to the motorists.”)

Obviously part of the point was that the credibility of antisemitism was at a low point in the mid-1980s, while discrimination against sexual minorities was decidedly respectable. From the perspective of 2016 things look decidedly different. Homophobia us barely tolerated in polite circles, while antisemitism is ascendant. I’m sure I thought in 1985 that the downward trajectory of antisemitism was inevitable — it was so obviously irrational — while the rights of gay and lesbian people seemed to need fighting for. In retrospect, I see that no matter how marginalised they may be, both of them are always capable of recolonising the body politic when the right conditions return. Somehow this seems to me more obvious and intuitive with regard to homosexuality than with regard to Judaism; Boswell’s link helps to clarify the danger.

Political correctness gone mad

Alt-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones is having his free speech rights trampled upon

They’re always trying to claim that if I talk about the world government and corruption, I’m anti-Semitic.

Birtherism: Is it doping or unfair wage competition?

Consipiracy theories tend to be long on motive, short on coherence. The Elders of Zion may be hard to pin down, but it’s not hard to understand what they stand to gain by manipulating international commerce and news media. But Birtherism — the theory, mostly associated with Donald Trump, that Barack Obama was not born in the US, hence is no more an American than Ted Cruz — has always struck me as particularly lacking in motivation. Why would the Democrats take the risk of putting their fates in the hands of a non-citizen who could be unmasked at any time?

One theory is that this is a kind of unfair competition, like doping in sport: The rule requiring the president to be a natural-born US citizen is not a way of ensuring proper loyalty, but rather a guard against unfair competition. Of course, the thinking goes, Americans have little chance in a political competition against the inherent advantages of a Kenyan usurper. (Women, similarly, famously have such a structural advantage in politics that all manner of laws and customs have been required to level the playing field. Trump has pointed out the uphill struggle he faces, running for president as a wealthy white male, but garnered remarkably little sympathy.)

Another theory is that Obama is just another illegal immigrant, undercutting American workers on wages. The presidency pays only $400,000 a year. You can’t expect a qualified American man to work for that. That’s why only Trump, with his original proposals for monetising the presidency (derived from post-Soviet and Latin American models — who says he’s insular!) can be the great white male presidential hope.

Jews gone Wilde

I just read The Picture of Dorian Gray, which I last read — not very attentively, I think — in high school, more than 30 years ago. (For the record, it seems to me now an inappropriate choice of reading for high school.) No question that it is a great novel, even if Wilde would have been well served by a more assiduous editor who pointed out just how many times his characters “flung themselves” onto sofas, divans, wicker arm chairs, and “a luxuriously cushioned couch”. (They occasionally “throw themselves” as well. I wonder whether Stephen Leacock had this example in mind in writing his famous line “Lord Ronald… flung himself from the room, flung himself upon his horse and rode madly off in all directions.”)

The thoroughgoing misogyny of the book was familiar, but I had forgotten, or not noticed, the antisemitism. Early in the book significant attention is devoted to the peripheral figure of the low-rent theatre impresario who employs Dorian’s first idol, the young actress Sibyl Vane. He is first described as

A hideous Jew, in the most amazing waistcoat I ever beheld in my life, was standing at the entrance, smoking a vile cigar. He had greasy ringlets, and an enormous diamond blazed in the centre of a soiled shirt.

He is almost never referred to by name. He is always “the Jew”, “the horrid Jew”, “the old Jew” (and there is constant reference to his gaudy “jewelled fingers”). He is ugly, mean, wheedling, slovenly, an “offensive brute”, and even his “extraordinary passion for Shakespeare” is played for laughs, with the Jew blaming “the Bard” for his five bankruptcies, seemingly a parody of the only way a money-grubbing Jew could relate to the sublimities of English culture.

The pianist at the theatre, at his “cracked piano”, is also described as a “young Hebrew”, for no apparent reason other than to intensify the sense of artistic degradation.

“Serving the purposes of the Israeli apartheid and colonial regime”

The American Jewish reggae singer Matisyahu has been expelled from a Spanish music festival, for refusing to issue a statement in support of a Palestinian state. Apparently such loyalty oaths are required of suspect persons, such as Jews. His silence, they said, serves “the purposes of the Israeli colonial and apartheid regime”.

This buttresses the view that BDS has a significant dollop of antisemitism in its ideological matrix, even if not every BDS supporter is antisemitic (and not everyone motivated partly by antisemitism is entirely or even consciously motivated by antisemitism).

This takes me back to 2007, when one UK academic union, the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (since melded into the University and Colleges Union (UCU)) couldn’t find any more relevant challenge to higher education in the UK than a boycott of Israeli academics who do not “publicly dissociate themselves” from Israeli “apartheid policies”.

I immediately recognised a problem: What is the appropriate form for expressing such dissociation? And how would we test whether the self-criticism was sincere, or merely careerist dissimulation. After all, we wouldn’t want crypto-Zionists sneaking in to British universities and scientific conferences, infecting them with the taint of racism and colonialism. Leaping into the breach, I composed a form to enable the aspiring good Israeli to have his anti-Zionist bona fides tested and confirmed by the proper authorities.

More Zionist anti-semitism

I commented recently on the good fit between classical antisemitism and Zionism, despite the efforts of some to associate necessarily antisemitism with anti-Zionism, perhaps on the basis of both having the prefix “anti”. I just came across another forceful testimony to this alignment, from a figure less notorious than Adolf Eichmann. In the book Churchill’s Empire (about the development of Winston Churchill’s attitudes toward the British Empire), Churchill is quoted on the subject of Zionism from a 1920 newspaper article:

He distinguished between praiseworthy “National Jews”, loyal to the countries in which they lived, and the “sinister confederacy” of “International Jews” whom he claimed were largely responsible for the Bolshevik revolution. In this analysis Zionism offered a “third sphere to the political conceptions of the Jewish race”, and Churchill predicted that, “if, as may well happen, there should be created in our own lifetime by the banks of the Jordan a Jewish State under the protection of the British Crown […] an event would have occurred in the history of the world which would, from every point of view, be beneficial, and would be especially in harmony with the truest interests of the British Empire.”

Always the Jews…

I can’t help wondering: Can it be a coincidence that when an Islamist extremist decides to shift from attacking Jewish institutions to planning mass slaughter at churches — a plot which seems to have been foiled only because the shooter accidentally shot himself first, and called an ambulance — he chooses as his target a town called Villejuif?

Heckler’s veto in Southampton

A couple of weeks ago I signed a petition in support of a conference planned for 17-19 April at the University of Southampton, on “International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism” that had been threatened with cancellation because of pressure from the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the UK Zionist Federation; ubiquitous-parking enthusiast and Communities minister Eric Pickles also contributed his opinion. It seemed to me an obviously legitimate academic conference, on a subject of both academic and public interest. If the choice of speakers does not cover all possible opinions on the matter — my impression is that my own view would not really coincide with any of those represented, and the framing of the topic is too politically tendentious for my taste — well, that’s unfortunate, though I’d wait until after they’d spoken to comment on what they have to say, and then opponents are free to organise their own conference.

Now the university has decided to cancel the conference because of specious “health and safety” concerns: because protestors threatened violence, or because the university authorities consider them the protestors — or the conference organisers — inherently deranged. I recognised long ago that “health and safety” is the leading weasel word in the British bureaucratic vocabulary. Pretty much anything can be justified with it, and it sounds so much more decisive and incontrovertible than saying “I am worried that someone could get hurt” (or “someone could catch Ebola”).

This is a dangerous decision. As someone whose grandparents’ generation was forced out and/or murdered by brownshirt thugs who came to power in Germany and then most of Europe after applying the strategy of directed violence against opposing political and intellectual viewpoints, I am dismayed to see that Jewish organisations in the US (see, e.g., the Salaita affair) and UK have come to the conclusion that the main problem with the Third Reich was too much free speech. Never again!

This is a dangerous step. Either Southampton will make itself a pariah by this move, or it will make itself an example to other universities, who increasingly find that all that academic exchange-of-ideas mumbledy-goop just gets in the way of the free exchange of money and services with well-connected donors.

The first self-hating Jew

Binyamin Netanyahu’s application of the Book of Esther as a guide to negotiations with the Persian (sorry, Iranian) regime reminded me of this famous passage from Lucy Dawidowicz’s The War Against the Jews 1933-1945:

A line of anti-Semitic descent from Martin Luther to Adolf Hitler is easy to draw… To be sure, the similarities of Luther’s anti-Jewish exhortations with modern racial anti-Semitism and even with Hitler’s racial policies are not merely coincidental. They all derive from a common historic tradition of Jew-hatred, whose provenance can be traced back to Haman’s advice to Ahasuerus. But modern German anti-Semitism had more recent roots than Luther and grew out of a different soil…

It really needs to be emphasised that Haman is almost certainly a fictional character. What would it mean if this claim were true, that the tree of anti-Semitism has at its root a fictional text invented by a Jew? One presumes he was drawing on some genuine experience, but the brilliant rhetorical crystallisation — “There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the people in all the provinces of thy kingdom; and their laws are different from other people; neither keep they the king’s laws: therefore it is not in the king’s interest to tolerate them” — is the invention of Esther‘s author.*

The Jews have shown a particular genius for telling their own story, to themselves and to the world. Maybe sometimes we are too effective for our own good.

* As a bonus, the Book of Esther includes a founding text of misogyny as well, put into the mouth of Memukhan (whom the Jewish sages identified with Haman):

Memukhan presented the king and vice-regents this answer: “Vashti the queen has wronged not only the king, but also all the officials and all the peoples in all the provinces of King Achashverosh; because this act of the queen’s will become known to all the women, who will then start showing disrespect toward their own husbands; … If it pleases his majesty, let him issue a royal decree — and let it be written as one of the laws of the Persians and Medes, which are irrevocable — that Vashti is never again to be admitted into the presence of King Achashverosh, and that the king give her royal position to someone better than she. When the edict made by the king is proclaimed throughout the length and breadth of the kingdom, then all wives will honor their husbands, whether great or small.”

Zionism and antisemitism

What is the connection between Zionism and antisemitism? The question is rarely posed, since those who are interested in these themes are usually concerned with the converse link, between anti-Zionism and antisemitism. That link clearly exists. Those who hate the Jewish state usually end up helping themselves to the stockpile of ideological weapons of antisemitism, honed over centuries; and it’s hard to miss the historical continuity between traditional left-wing antisemitism in Europe and modern anti-Zionism. (The crassest form, unsurprisingly, was in Germany, as recounted in Hans Kundnani’s book Utopia or Auschwitz, about the German ’68 generation, who simultaneously attacked their parents for their war crimes, and demonstrated their antifascist opposition by helping the PLO to kill more Jews — or by planting bombs themselves in German synagogues.)

And yet, the link in the other direction is also impossible to ignore. It’s hardly novel to point out that Binyamin Netanyahu is committed to fulfilling Hitler’s dream of removing all Jews from Europe. (It’s true that the ultimate methods of the Nazis were exterminatory, but that was not an inevitable part of their programme. Many ferocious antisemites were happy to have the Jews be genuinely expelled. For example, to Palestine.) And now I have just discovered, reading Hannah Arendt, that one of the 20th century’s most famous antisemites was also a committed Zionist: (more…)

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