Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Antisemitism and Jewish agency

Christopher Hitchens takes an analytical look at the evolution of antisemitism, in his review Gregor von Rezzori 's "newly reissued novel Memoirs of an Anti-Semite," in which he "meshes the micro and macro versions of interwar anti-Semitism very skillfully indeed.'

Here are a few excerpts (the red highlighted parts are my emphasis):

But notice that this is an anti-Semitism that is full of dread as well as of disgust and contempt. That is perhaps what distinguishes it from other forms of racism. Almost every tribe or ethnicity has a rival tribe or ethnicity that it views as inferior or dirtier or more primitive... But garden-variety racists do not usually suspect the objects of their dislike of secretly manipulating the banks and the stock markets and of harboring a demonic plan for world domination.

****

“Jealousy born of envy”* is the way that Rezzori (1914–1998) elsewhere summarizes this combination of anti-intellectualism fused with the hatred of material success and the suspicion of social and international mobility. If the Jew isn’t a mutinous prole, he is a stinking bourgeois! (And don’t fail to notice those “streams of progeny,” even though Jews are not invariably known for their philoprogenitive capacity.)

****

...this under-emphasized trope of anti-Semitism—of the Jew as the possessor of arcane erotic skills—is taken up more explicitly when Rezzori’s character moves from the retarded provinces to the more advanced cities of Bucharest and Vienna. In these locales it is a commonplace among young rakes, and even among young Nazis, to say with a wink and a leer, “A Jewess is no Jew,” and Rezzori’s young man ... takes this as permission first to humiliate a Jewish sexual partner in public and then to carelessly betray a nonsexual Jewish partner in private. In each instance, he seems almost surprised that the females concerned have any emotions, but then, as he phrases it with splendid callousness: “They always expected some calamity, these Jews.” (Or, with even more magnificent condescension: “The usually Jewish shopkeepers were kind and mellow people so long as the two-thousand-year-old panic did not flare up, which made them hysterically vehement.”)

****

In his essay on Malinowski, Ernest Gellner wrote of how the borderline and marginal peoples of Austria-Hungary needed three things from their benign, whiskered old monarch. They required insurance against mutual fratricide, protection of local and eccentric cultures, and guarantees against the ambitions of Germany and Russia. By giving way first to micro and then to macro anti- Semitism, not only did this fair approximation of a civilization lose its best minds; it lost its collective mind, and thus managed to invite the two worst possible fates by beckoning on first a German, and then a Russian imperium. Writing as he did from the wreckage of postwar Europe, Gregor von Rezzori could claim the peculiar distinction of being one of the few survivors to treat this ultimate catastrophe in the mild language of understatement. This is what still gives his novel the power to shock.

Norm blogged about Hitchens' article, and made a very succinct recommendation:

Welcoming the reissue of a novel by Gregor von Rezzori, Christopher Hitchens writes about 'the madness of anti-Semitism' - without any trace of the suggestion that Jews might themselves be responsible for it.

To illustrate what I think Norm means, I found this comment on one of the threads of Engage (to read the entire discussion click on the comments box at the bottom of the post):

Jews are, and have always been , as responsable for the world as any other group, incuding, of course, the phenomenon of antisemitism. Jews has a material role in its production - Jews really are cracking skulls in Palestine; Jews really were owners of banks and department stores in Germany in the early part of the 20th century (although not so much by the late 1920's). So, the argument that if Israel stopped its oppression in the OT that antisemitism would decrease, is undoubtedly the case.

Bearing in mind Norm's reference, I ask my readers who have the patience to pursue my blogpost to understand fully what is being claimed in this quoted comment. I will not interpret it for you.

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* this is reminiscent of Mark Twain's definition of antisemitism: "It is the swollen envy of pygmy minds – meanness, injustice"

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