In a world of lies the lie is not removed from the world by means of its opposite, but only by means of a world of truth. (Franz Kafka, The Fourth Notebook, The Blue Octavo Notebooks)
Introduction: Why look, at all?
Why should anyone really care about anti-Semitism, beyond those directly affected? To get by and do right wherever one can—surely that’s not to be condemned, with all that’s going on today? A residual faith in words like “hope” and “truth,” despite personal misgivings and cultural decline, might be enough to orient one’s life, especially if one is traveling with many others along similar paths.
Getting thrown off the path, or walking it alone, might require one to start defining the terrain for oneself. Despite its dangers, that needn’t be impossible if history is any guide. But is it? What use are prior examples if, so the story goes, ours really is a brave new world? And if it is, aren’t we all then lost in some pathless wilderness?
In Samuel Beckett’s 1957 play Endgame, one of his Absurdist clowns announces bleakly, “Something is taking its course.” In 1946 American poet Charles Olson, the first writer to make consistent use of the term “post-modern,” said in an imaginary address to Ezra Pound, the iconic modernist (and infamous antisemite): “It is a time, yours, when forces as large as centuries battle …” We may now all opine about “post-truth,” but as far back as 1848 another of the architects of modernity, Marx, already recognized that “all that is solid melts into air” – and he was quoting Shakespeare from nearly 250 years earlier, at the very dawn of the modern era.
A chasm opens once the questions appear that takes us back to the birth of our weirdly apocalyptic world—a “new” world that is also 3,000 or so years old. A certain constitution is needed to willingly face such destabilization, to visit it upon oneself even in thought, if life doesn’t force one to endure it or to bear its terrors. Most won’t, and in that, anti-Semitism is always born anew.
But returned to that source, by choice or by circumstance, what might be revealed? A vertiginous challenge: nihil versus creatio, power versus meaning, nothing on the march versus one who takes a stand, “forces as large as centuries.”
It is a sad privilege to be chosen in order to perceive… in the eternal return of the Jewish question, the return of metaphysical questions! (Emmanuel Levinas, Difficult Freedom)
This isn’t Germany, 1942. Stalingrad isn’t around the corner, nor are the policy-makers at Wansee hopefully formulating their Final Solution to the “Jewish question.” The White Rose was exposing the lie of the Thousand Year Reich when it was at its miserable few years’ peak. Pretending to perfection while built on the meanest of foundations, born in violence and sustained by force, perhaps it was only a matter of time until that Nazi world of falsehood collapsed. Its delusions were self-serving and unstable, its unholy war on the Jews was all-consuming, its follies were depleting its resources, and it was felled at last by its utter misjudgment of Allied will and firepower.
Had Nazism prevailed, the name White Rose would have been reduced to a lesson in the futility of resistance, or simply erased. That we can write it, let alone associate with it, identifies us as immeasurably privileged: our world survived. But which “world”? Do we in the West actually still have a shared world? Do we not these days find ourselves looking in different ways and seeing different realities?
All the elements have begun to slide. Everything seems endlessly disputable: histories, crimes, elections, genders. How to make the necessary determinations? Clear sides seem either self-evident or suspiciously too self-evident: should we trust conviction, or be wary precisely to the degree that others act sure? We can’t quite shake our knowledge of the psychological (“What part do I play in the creation of what faces me?”), of the virtual (our own eyes may be lying), of PR and propaganda (who is cunningly directing our gaze, and to what end?).
We see signs and hope they continue to signal as they once did. But if anything marks our moment, isn’t it the deconstruction of certainties? In this age of undoing, the drive is toward the relentless exposure of the given as the constructed, of appearance as mediated, including (most especially) truth. Still, unassimilated pieces of the past float by and coalesce into familiar shapes, taunting us with the prospect of orientation: “Ah, now we know where we are!”
To take only our present terrifying example: today the name “Hitler” is rightly associated with the demonic and the charge of “fascist” is justifiably one of the most grave. We condemn “The Jews will not replace us!” when chanted by brutes wearing swastikas, nostalgic for some imagined supremacy. So if we, the moderately aware citizens of the 21st century West, were ever truly prey to such fascistic tendencies ourselves—if we harbored a deep, exploitable yearning for the closed and unified group, for the certainty of answers, and for a scapegoat to cleanse our sins—would it present itself to us in Nazi attire, the Third Reich reborn? Since we know we’re supposed to learn from history or be “condemned to repeat it,” mightn’t the danger reside in the historical images themselves, or rather, in our willingness to rely on them instead of opening our eyes to the present?
Looking to the right, where eternal truths have been claimed to reside, we find tradition inevitably corroded by skepticism, thanks to two millennia’s worth of competition between last words; each successive religious variation has sought to put its seal on the faith, but schisms appeared and new contenders arose. Looking to the left, we find the repeated betrayal of hope, with promises of justice wielded for access to power, then cynically abandoned. We’re each alone in a new way, the insecurity of our knowledge unlike any of the peoples of the past. The depth of our disagreements terrifies, and rightly so.
And so who am I to speak to you? Especially with the grandness of my address—“we” this and “we” that! I have no official designation, no particular expertise or exceptional experience. Who am I to suggest anything? And who, for that matter, are you, that I should wish to reach you, to propose the facing of something together?
George W. Bush’s speech of September 21, 2001: “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.” The crux is us. Who are “we,” really? What makes “us”? A war or an attack can do it, or facing an enemy (even a contrived one). A tornado or a flood, too, or just a loud noise in a crowd: we turn, together. The prophetic call: “Everyone! Listen! Look!” And if some people were to say “Yes! We hear it! We see it!” then, in speaking as one, and in acknowledging “it,” they would become “We… ” Our response makes us.
When I visited the German Resistance Memorial Center in Berlin, where one of the exhibition rooms is of course devoted to the White Rose, what struck me most forcefully was the sheer diversity. There were rooms honouring the resistance to Nazism by the workers’ movement, by business leaders, artists and intellectuals, students, soldiers, Christians, Jews, Roma …
We know today, at least dimly, what it was they all saw and heard, what motivated them to say “We!” in the face of what sort of disintegration. And thanks to their stand, we in the mainstream Western 21st century may indeed be justified in supposing, along with Martin Luther King Jr., that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Slavery and imperial domination are owned as our ignominious heritage, and we cite dystopian novels to signal our diligence about horrors still possible. We no longer countenance the persecution of whole peoples – ethnicities, sexes, sexualities, religions – according to immutable, supposedly negative characteristics. We invoke the spectre of “concentration camps” to affirm that we won’t allow it to happen again.
Coincident with our moral advance, however, with the progressive bend of the arc, is that other development. We’re told that for the first time in all our tens of thousands of human years, including every tribe and civilization ever, we may at last be beyond the one thing we’ve always oriented toward, often fought over, but never imagined ourselves without: truth. What kind of perverse evolution is this? Are we at last learning to be decent, or are we nearing the culmination of a nihilistic revolution? Is nothing sacred or are we progressing toward a better world?
We do find ourselves brought together, voluntarily or otherwise, by a backstory: an “us” has been made by our globalization. We are in a historical condition that is uniquely confusing – thanks to the relativism that becomes possible through intercultural encounter, to the opposition of rival truths, to the transformations of language, to the acceleration of technology. But it also allows a figure to take shape against the chaos. Thanks to its regular appearances, despite its protean manifestations – Christian, Muslim, secularist – we can discern the “anti-Jew.”
Whatever its role in other forms of anti-Semitism, the spectre of a “Jewish world conspiracy” haunts the fantasy of all globalizers – Christian, Muslim, secularist – at every turn, because its source is in Judaism’s place at the conceptual, imaginal, spiritual core of our shared world. It is therefore understandable (if never less than unconscionable) that anti-Semitism should have re-emerged at every juncture of its formation. The anti-Jew is a defensive response to the Jewish challenge, and therefore, perhaps, an intellectual, spiritual, moral key to our cultural unfolding (or undoing).
The continuing existence of the Jews triggers an identity crisis that threatens to undermine the (mis)appropriated “chosen-ness” of every subsequent body of believers: the Christian Church with its “new Jerusalem”; Islam as the revisionist final word on Judaism and Christianity; secularism as an “adulthood” that has outgrown believers’ “childishness”; most preposterously and obscenely, Nazism’s Aryan “Master Race”; and (for many, most shockingly) in the contemporary West, what philosopher Judith Butler has identified as “social movements that are progressive, … that are part of a global left,” among which she includes Hezbollah and Hamas, groups as fanatically dedicated to persecutory anti-Jewish delusion as the Nazis—for anti-Jewish bias has gradually, thoroughly permeated the assumptions of today’s left/liberal/progressive mainstream. A “light unto the nations” – as the people of Israel are chosen to be – anti-Semitism is a reflection back onto the nations of their own fault lines.
The Jewish story stands alone for aloneness, for the personal connection of the individual, mortal human being—and thus of universalized humanity, of “us”—with the transcendent. An unstoppable evolution was inaugurated by the revelation of the Torah at Sinai, and we are all its children, born with an “inner judge” of our every thought and action. Whether it be heeded or denied, it carries with it a pressure George Steiner described as “the blackmail of perfection”:
We come to hate, to fear most those who demand of us a self-transcendence, a surpassing of our natural and common limits of being. Our hate and fear are the more intense precisely because we know the absolute rightness, the ultimate desirability of the demand. In failing to respond adequately, we fail ourselves. (“The Long Life of Metaphor”)
This conflict between the moral ideal and its perceived impossibility has accompanied monotheism’s spread throughout the world, its other forms accommodating themselves in various ways to their inherently Jewish basis. It is carried within the language itself, in words like “morality” and “justice” and “truth.” If they remain today short of their full meaning (and, as I say below, undergoing their very reversal), their rhetorical persuasiveness alone is testimony to the penetration of the Jewish event into the consciousness of “the nations.”
That the Jews, tiny percentage of the global population though they may be, remain not only here in the world, surviving against all odds and all assaults, but there at the source, right where our disorientation leads us, is simultaneously uncanny and predictable. Inseparable from the individuality before God that was instituted with Judaism, a new sort of community was also forged through the sharing of this very burden and gift.
Every person, as a person—that is to say, one conscious of his freedom—is chosen. If being chosen takes on a national appearance, it is because only in this form can a civilization be constituted, be maintained, be transmitted, and endure. (Emmanuel Levinas, Difficult Freedom)
The Jewish “creation myth” is unlike any other: a disparate group that brings itself into being as a collective through the individuals’ acceptance of a law that equalizes everyone in worth; and more, a covenant entered into as equals with God, its other party, who too must abide by its terms, so great is its authority. This conceptually abolishes the archaic cosmos of natural hierarchy, in which humans were defined by whatever place had been allotted them by birth and circumstance, according to fixed truths. The covenant at Sinai asks for and thereby creates the very notion of free human beings, bound not to a law imposed from above by divine power, but by a law voluntarily assumed for the just sharing of earthly power.
When we hear in popular discourse now about “Jewish values” this is an echo of this unique notion of impartial justice before the highest moral standard. And it is for this reason that the country of the Jews, Israel, stands today in the position it does, eternally on trial.
If the reader is unfamiliar with the situation of Israel in the context of the globalized story I’ve been telling, I can only avow the good faith of the following account—though no amount of data would be enough to convince a determined skeptic, and the argument as a whole makes almost impossible demands on an innocent worldview. As if “post-truth” confusion and its reactionary fanaticisms weren’t enough, one must now recognize a commitment to unreality so extreme and determined that it seeks to control meaning completely, to bend it according to a self-interest raised to metaphysical heights in a disguise so total it is hidden even from itself.
Having had our whole millennial history to draw upon, this is evil in its most refined form. It illegitimately assumes what international human rights lawyer, Irwin Cottler, has called “the language of universal human values.” Unlike Nazism (which it sets up as its opposite), it is explicitly non-exclusionary, prouder than any historical force for good in its acceptance of diversity. If the post-Holocaust inspiration of the United Nations was a veritable institutionalization of “Jewish values,” it could not be more telling that the UN was quickly overtaken by anti-Jewish powers who turned the machinery of internationalism against Israel. The Nazi slogan “The Jew is our misfortune” has been recast in the globalist era with Israel now cast in the role as “the Jew among nations” (Léon Poliakov):
Far from exposing Jews to the temptations of might, the creation of Israel had inadvertently reproduced in the Middle East a political imbalance almost identical to the one that Jews had experienced in the Diaspora. Israelis were no more inclined or able to subdue the Arabs than the nations among whom Jews had sojourned in exile. … Israel’s geopolitical situation from the moment of its founding … restricted the political options of the sovereign Jewish state not much less than statelessness had previously impinged on the Jews of Europe. (Ruth Wisse, Jews and Power)
Israel is legitimately defensible on every ground: humanitarian, political, legal, pragmatic, ethno-cultural, religious, psychological. Each provides a strong enough foundation on which to build a case capable of meeting the highest standards of neutral adjudication in its own domain. Nothing in the venture of Zionism is socially unjust, impossibly utopian, destructively religious, or morally questionable. At the same time, one can even reject or ignore any one of these grounds one finds objectionable or irrelevant without diminishing in the least the legitimacy of the overall claim.
Indeed, the range of characteristics for which the Jews have been attacked over the centuries—religious at first, then ethno-cultural during the Age of Reason, genetic during the rise of science, political today—taken together amount to what makes up a person, generically speaking. We as beings are comprised of the very dimensions that have been in turn assaulted by anti-Jewish aggression: spiritual, cultural, biological, political. Does this not forcefully suggest that the anti-Jew is, precisely, the anti-human?
If the various claims in Zionism’s favor were illegitimate or mutually contradictory, the near unanimity of support for Israel among Jews worldwide might be little more than self-serving bias. And this is, of course, the view of Israel’s enemies: Israel is accused of being a nightmare for the Palestinian Arabs, a theft of land and history, a political proxy for Western conquest, a travesty of international law, a pragmatic disaster for the region, rife with ethno-cultural racism, founded on religious supremacism, and psychologically pathological.
Not surprisingly, given anti-Semitism’s projective nature, these accusations could not be more untrue, reversing facts with an acuity that signals the profoundest (self-)deception and betrays the actual self-serving bias at work. Beneath their imperialist new clothes, they nakedly enumerate the accusers’ own acts and intentions: to be a nightmare for Israelis, the thief of Jewish land and history, a political proxy for Arab/Islamic conquest, a perversion of judicial impartiality, a constant pragmatic nightmare for Israel, founded on Judeophobia and supersessionist ideology, and psychologically neurotic. Is it necessary to insist here that these accusations against Israel’s enemies can be supported with all the evidence a transcendent authority, a truly moral judge, might require?
The Israelis rarely refuse (and indeed have no need to refuse) a full, impartial inquiry, knowing as they do that if the matter at issue were to be judged on points of fact or law their case would usually be upheld.
When bad faith reaches these scandalous proportions, it is absurd to react as though the rule of law still obtained, and to plead a cause. (Jacques Givet, The Anti-Zionist Complex)
Nazism, too, proceeded by such reversal. It “promoted the elimination of the weak, and, … turned the commandment not to murder upside down. … [T]he legalization of murder replaced the Judeo-Christian prohibition” (Bruno Chaouat, Is Theory Good for the Jews?). Hitler reportedly believed that the Jews “invented conscience”—hence the desirability, for its self-professed enemy, of a world without Jews.
The attempt, thanks to everyone from Allied fighters to the White Rose to the anonymous resisters, was unsuccessful. But was the anti-Jew’s war on Jewishness itself defeated? Did it not simply change fronts, from Europe to the Middle East (where, just two years after the Holocaust, the amassed armies of multiple Arab nations engaged in a self-avowed war of annihilation against a fledgling Israel), and, through prolonged propaganda efforts, now the West? (Terms like “occupation” and “settlers” normalized in Western Israel-related discourse are testament to the mainstream success of a propaganda campaign of unprecedented patience, as part of the Arab/Islamist “Long War” now into its eighth decade.) If anti-Jewishness has accompanied the Jews as surely as the Jews have managed to survive, its adherents are clearly far more widely spread and more numerous, belonging like an internal pathology to the structure of globalizing consciousness itself.
Given that today the self-consciousness of the West is so permeated by a notion, however attenuated, of “Jewish values,” we – unlike Hitler – pride ourselves precisely on our sense of “conscience.” The world has turned. A Nazi could feel confident in hating Jews and loving goodness, because they were defined as opposite; today, the “anti-Jewish spirit” can tell us it doesn’t “hate” at all.
For this, it needs Israel to be criminal. The focus on the nation as political entity exempts the anti-Jew from today’s socially fatal charges of racism and bigotry, demonstrated in their willingness to embrace any Jew—secular or religious—who rejects Israel. It is here that the Islamic supremacist, determined to effect Islam’s supersession of Judaism by any means, meets Butler’s “global left,” which challenges both Israel’s right to self-defense and the legitimacy of its very existence with double standards whose audacity is only equaled by their normalized pervasiveness. (For a broad and well-documented survey, I recommend Industry of Lies: Media, Academia, and the Israeli-Arab Conflict by Israeli journalist Ben-Dror Yemini, who has in fact always considered himself politically leftist.) Yet Israel has the support of well over 90% of the world’s Jewish population (which, it must be noted, has not yet returned to its pre-Holocaust level,) and this should be enough to belie any claim that one can stand against Israel and not stand opposed to that overwhelming Jewish majority.
The defeat of today’s anti-Jewish vanguard, however, lies within the model itself, in the very structure it has misappropriated and sought to repurpose. In adopting the language of “truth,” “justice,” and “morality,” Israel’s enemies are obliged—unlike prior enemies of the Jews—to present a universally valid case. They are on the Jews’ home turf, the terrain Judaism brought into the world with the covenant at Sinai: a plain upon which all are equal before the most stringent moral and judicial standards. To win, they must either make their case before a global consciousness now at least moved by the force of such notions as “universal justice” or they must illegitimately occupy it by force and thereby invalidate its very nature. That this is their own real-world military and propaganda strategy is hardly coincidental; it is the source of their projections against Zionism.
They must redefine the words. But the words push back. The greatest power of resistance is in language itself—in the truth, for example, that “the truth will out,” because “t-r-u-t-h” is not merely an empty thing made of sounds and strokes, but has a force of its own despite its being – also in truth – just an empty thing made of sounds and strokes.
They must assert that the Jews have abandoned “Jewish values,” that they themselves are now “the true Jews.” (Have we not seen every anti-Semite ultimately claim to be the new “chosen”?) But this requires, according to “Jewish values” as such, a presentation before the highest moral arbiter conceivable. And because this “arbiter” does not exist positively in the human domain (call it “God” if you are religious), because it transcends the perspective of any single group or single individual (and within the very consciousness of that individual), there is no entity on Earth that can pronounce the final word. Any determination will require the ratification by a legitimizing body. In the current global arena those bodies include the UN & the International Criminal Court.
If justice, truth, and morality are your proclaimed values, but in reality you are driven by a lust for power, victory, and domination, then you will be obliged to attack Israel and Jews with the contrived assent of the people. Israel and the Jews are of course not inherently in the right; truth isn’t on their side by definition. But to have placed themselves on the side of truth as their choice, their founding choice, is what has allowed Israel, to survive against all historical odds. Returning to their indigenous homeland, birthplace, Holy Land, it has even enabled them to thrive.
Conclusion: Having seen
The vowels in Hebrew are unwritten; this acknowledges that, as the very breath of life, they must be supplied by the consciousness of the human wielding the consonants. Like the worlds that we build together in response to what we find ourselves facing the form of words is constructed & could be otherwise – which, thanks to our relativized, globalized perspective, is now undeniable.
But the shock of collective consciousness at the “social construction of reality” has fooled it into believing this means “we can make up anything we want.” The post-truth “global left” and the revisionist history of Islamic supremacism, twin sources of greatest danger to Israel and thus to the Jewish people, agree on this naïve, self-serving, ultimately self-defeating fantasy.
Even through its distortions, in acceptance or denial, truth bends reality around it like a center of gravity. That the truth of Jewish reality is opposite to the claims of the anti-Jew—Christian, Islamist, secularist—shatters them beyond all reconstruction. This is what they fear and what provides the fuel for their obsessive attack.
But language had this future built into it all along! Words were made to reveal their nakedness: what we encounter at the end is nothing that wasn’t already visible in the beginning. We are meant to be on our own, together, with only the bonds we craft between us and the highest moral standard of justice we can conceive. These are “Jewish values.” This was the challenge of Sinai to all of humanity. And this is why one’s relation to Jews, Judaism, Jewishness—and, most importantly, Israel—today holds out an invaluable possibility: an authentic position in regard to our time’s contradictory demand for foundational clarity during its inevitable dissolution of sense. The perspective afforded by this view from the founding allows us to recognize pieces of our shared world, even amidst its deconstruction.
The enemy—let us call it “the fascist spirit”—is no longer by definition on the right or the left; it doesn’t appeal in particular to Christian or Muslim or secularist. It can appear in any doctrine, ideology, or drag. It may wear jackboots, a priest’s collar, keffiyeh, torn pants, or suit and tie. But its truth is and always has been revealed in its position on what it insists on posing as the “Jewish question”—now, the “Israel question.” Unable to accept its own inner contradiction, unwilling to challenge itself to face truth, it can only encounter truth in its own defeat.
If what we today face is so hard to distinguish that at first we can’t agree on anything but its disintegration, then we, also disintegrated, might still recognize as much together. And in that shared seeing, “We!” might be forged.
Resistance must be unlimited by our habitual forms, our outward appearances, in order to meet the slippery, innovative cunning of the fascist spirit itself. But we have the gravitational force of truth on our side because we place ourselves on the side of truth, which reaches us and draws us together through any desert wasteland, even when “forces as large as centuries battle.”
Everything depends on repentance and good deeds: the messianic coming is to be found at the level of the individual effort that can be produced in full self-control. Everything is already thinkable and thought; humanity is mature; what is missing is good deeds and repentance. (Levinas, Difficult Freedom)
Beckett, Samuel. Endgame (New York, NY: Grove Press Inc., 1958)
Broch, Hermann. Geist and Zeitgeist: The Spirit in an Unspiritual Age (New York, NY: Counterpoint, 2002)
Chaouat, Bruno. Is Theory Good for the Jews? French Thought and the Challenge of the New Antisemitism (Liverpool, UK: Liverpool University Press, 2020)
Yemini, Ben-Dror. Industry of Lies: Media, Academia, and the Israeli-Arab Conflict (New York, NY: The Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy/ISGAP Books, 2017)
German Resistance Memorial Center. Catalogue of the Permanent Exhibition “Resistance Against National Socialism” (Berlin, Germany: Gedenkstätte Deutscher Widerstand, 2014)
Givet, Jacques. The Anti-Zionist Complex (Englewood, NJ: SBS Publishing, Inc., 1982)
Kafka, Franz. The Blue Octavo Notebooks (Cambridge, MA: Exact Change, 1991)
Levinas, Emmanuel. Difficult Freedom: Essays on Judaism (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1990)
Nancy, Jean-Luc. The Banality of Heidegger (New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 2017)
Olson, Charles. “This is Yeats Speaking” from Charles Olson and Ezra Pound: An Encounter at St. Elizabeth’s (New York, NY: Paragon House, 1991)
Scholl, Inge. The White Rose: Munich 1942-1943 (Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1983)
Steiner, George. “The Long Life of Metaphor: An Approach to ‘the Shoah’” in Encounter, Vol. LXVIII No. 2, February, 1987 (London, UK)
Wisse, Ruth. Jews and Power (New York, NY: Random House, Inc., 2007)
Yemini, Ben-Dror. Industry of Lies: Media, Academia, and the Israeli-Arab Conflict (New York, NY: The Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy/ISGAP Books, 2017)
Michael R. Caplan is a designer, writer, singer, and theatre-maker, and the Director of Michael Caplan’s House of ShAkE, a production company working in print, performance, music, and other media. www.houseofshake.ca