Israel The Political Animal

A Misguided Argument About Anti-Semitism

This is not class warfare.
This is not class warfare.

(This essay originally appeared in the Algemeiner on February 11, 2014.)

In the Wall Street Journal of February 3, Harvard’s Ruth R. Wisse published an Op-Ed titled “The Dark Side of the War on ‘the One Percent.” In the article, Wisse argues for a “structural” connection between “anti-Semitism and American class conflict.” First tracing the rise of nineteenth century European anti-Semitism in the accusation that Jews took “unfair advantage of the emerging democratic order in Europe, with its promise of individual rights and competition, in order to dominate the fields of finance, culture and social ideas,” Wisse proceeds to find like grounds for potential anti-Semitic outbreak in President Obama’s and American progressives’ “sallies against Wall Street and the ‘one percent.’” She warns, therefore, against “[s]toking class envy” in a “politics of grievance directed against ‘the rich’” for fear of igniting a “politics of blame directed specifically at Jews.”

Wisse’s argument is both grievously mistaken and dangerously misguided. It is mistaken because it mischaracterizes the connection between anti-Semitism and class conflict, and it is misguided because the argument is, contrary to its concern, actually detrimental to Jewish interests.

First, when Wisse speaks of a “structural connection between a politics of blame directed specifically at Jews and a politics of grievance directed against “the rich,” she is mistaken in her use of the word “structural.” What is structural isinherent, part of the makeup of a thing. To claim that aggrieved attention to any perceived excess accumulation of wealth in a society will inevitably lead to Jews and an outbreak of anti-Semitism is oddly, inadvertently, actually to accept the anti-Semitic formulation of Jews and wealth. In any contemporary Western society, attention to wealth will at least as likely, in far greater numbers, lead the attentive to Christians, atheists and many other groups. The choice of the anti-Semitic to focus on Jews only or particularly is thus selective, not structural, a development contingent on the genuine social and psychological causes of anti-Semitism, not on a true measure of Jewish wealth and power.

Ironically, Wisse is herself selective, seemingly constructing a necessary entailment of reasons and conclusions, leading from progressive concern with gross income and wealth inequality to the incitement of anti-Semitism. Yet, just as Wisse shapes her argument by her choice of the word “structural,” so does she by her use of phraseology such as “class envy,” a “war on the one percent,” and a “politics of grievance.” The problem might well be otherwise expressed and the argument, then, otherwise viewed. Ever did those people with consider any peep of objection from those people without to be an unseemly display of envy and resentment. The Bourbons of France and the Romanovs of Russia also thought themselves set upon and, like Tom Perkins, the victims of “class warfare.”

The Bourbons and the Romanovs themselves, however, were engaged in no class warfare: they were just a feature of nature, like the course of the sun, the divine-right hand of God, or the invisible hand of the free market. (See for this last the recently passed Farm Bill.) It is not “class warfare” or envy that is stoked when state governors, like that of Wisconsin, funded by two of the wealthiest brothers in the United States, campaign (to invoke more military vocabulary) to revoke the labor rights of public employees and to set private employees with their dwindling 401k’s enviously against public-sector employees, who often enjoy the genuine pensions the resentful should wish for themselves and not seek to take from their fellows in a “politics of grievance.”

The language shapes everything. It molds the argument the writer develops. It directs the understanding of the reader to whom the argument is made. If we speak, with less bile, as I did, not of envy and grievance but of “concern with gross income and wealth inequality,” perhaps we invoke less frightening ill will. If we recall James Madison, from Federalist No. 10, who advised that “the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property” and that the “regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation,” then perhaps we sound less alarmingly revolutionary, or at least revolutionary in a reassuring and founding American way.

Yet while Wisse is mistaken in the language she employs, and her argument misshapen by that language, she is also misguided in the implications to which she leads by this argument.

The force of Wisse’s argument is to drive American Jews self-interestedly away from “progressivism.” This would be, to echo Wisse, a “dangerous” development. To clarify how, we must briefly attend to language again.

The term “progressive” like so much political nomenclature, opens a broad umbrella. It may, depending on individual usage, cover everyone on the left from moderate Democrats to full-out liberals to socialists to postcolonial culture warriors to recalcitrant Marxists. The farthest left of these, like the far right, have ugly histories with Jews. In the anti-Zionism of some today, they are no friends to Jews now. But among those who was also called progressive was the Republican President Teddy Roosevelt.

Roosevelt was the trust busting conservationist who dramatically expanded the national parks and signed into law the first federal food and drug legislation. In that spirit, it is American progressivism that gave birth over the twentieth century to the full range of labor and economic and social safety net protections on which Americans have come to rely almost as if they are – to choose a word – structural features of reality, though, of course, they are not. They are social enlightenments born not of envy and grievance, but of the progressive belief that the quality of a life – the inherent value of it – should not be measured by the quantification only of what that one life can earn for itself in the free market. It is American progressivism that brought us the civil rights era, with its continuing and expanding benefit in access and human dignity to so many different minorities, including Jews, for it is only that era that brought to a close, for instance, the Jewish quota at Wisse’s Harvard, and ensured, similarly, that I might be admitted to graduate school at Columbia University on merit and not denied entry by reason of my Jewish birth because of longstanding quotas there.

Progressivism made the America in which Jews may feel so secure. To think that American Jews should fear progressive interest in economic justice, progressive belief in what Madison gave us as the proper “regulation of these various and interfering interests” that arise from and expand “the various and unequal distribution of property” is to counsel Jews most unwisely against their own interests. For an America committed in belief and in policy to serving equity and justice will remain for Jews a secure home.

More strategically, with regard to the profound American-Jewish interest in Israel, Wisse’s misidentification would only exacerbate a problem that has indeed developed in the farther left reaches of Western progressivism. It is visible for all to see that Marxist-inspired post-nationalism has joined with postcolonial analyses of culture and power to fixate perversely on Israel and Jewish nationalism as the exemplars of what they oppose. The true current danger is that this irrational, though fashionable misunderstanding is leaking toward more moderate quarters of progressivism. We see this in the growing attention in academia, for instance, to the BDS campaign.

This growing tendency requires a response. It needs to be combated. One way to do that is to clarify both what true progressivism is and what Israel is, which is, in the latter case, despite the pressures of seven decades of conflict and of internal theocratic forces, a nation that has been from the start and remains, socially, astonishingly progressive. Israel’s enemies are enemies of all that is progressive. They are among the most retrograde and increasingly regressive societies in the world, and true progressives should be among Israel’s most natural allies.

But it is true, too, that the political desire to moderate, rather than amplify, systematically arising economic inequities will remain a defining feature of progressive political philosophy. Grossly mistaking and mischaracterizing that profoundly moral commitment as a danger to Jews would work to drive a wedge where one already needs to be removed. Israel and Jews need to work to maintain and recover allies whose sympathies should naturally be theirs, not to sever those ties by declaring those allies’ highest ideals a danger to Jewish interests.

That misguidance would be the danger to Jews.


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Creative The Political Animal

Norm of the Norm

I didn’t think I would write anything. I was not friend or family to Norm Geras, and so could speak nothing of the private man that those to whom he truly belonged had known. And how many were there who could say at least as much as I – that though I had never met Norm Geras, I felt somehow that I knew him, that he had made an addition to my life, that I cared for him? I knew there was nothing I could say that many others would not say as well and more personally. I knew this even before I checked the blogosphere and social media, and when I did, it was as I knew it would be, the outpouring, from so many quarters, of so many admirers who had been encouraged, inspired, and affected.

I thought, then, that I would confine myself to a tweet or two of my own and to tweeting links to the expressions of others.

It took, what – a day? – for Normfest to arise?

But the weekend passed, and Monday came, and I was still thinking about Norm. I was missing him. I felt, from all he had offered of his sharp, lucid, and rigorous intellect, and of his enthusiasms and his moral being, that I had actually a sense of the man – though I did not know him personally – and that I could hear his voice. The absence of his voice to come.

I recalled younger years, before I had ever lost anyone for whom I truly cared, when I would sometimes morbidly imagine what it would be like, what the finality of the death of another meant. I imagined how when the time came that my mother or father died, for instance, it would not be like a long, even very long, absence from them, which I had experienced and suffered well enough. It meant, I vivified for myself, that I might search the world wide over, in every corner of the earth, and never find them. They would be gone not just from me, but from everywhere, never to be found again in some apartment, even in some far place, sitting beside each other on the sofa.

This was what I kept thinking about Norm’s voice – his wry, reasoned and humane voice. After ten years of its sounding daily in the minds of those who wanted it through his blog – beyond the illustrious scholarly and pedagogical contribution that came before – it was now silenced. What almost immediately became a common cry of longing from so many, answered before on so many subjects of these and former days – what does Norm think? – was now never to be satisfied again.

This is what I have been feeling – loss, and the missing that comes with it. I have been feeling it about someone I didn’t “really” know, someone I never met, someone I knew only through the internet: in the blogosphere, on Twitter and Facebook, via some email exchanges.

I have had something like this experience once before.

In my early days on those various media, encountered via Twitter and then in some email exchanges, a young man named Christopher Al-Aswad offered gracious guidance about how to use them all. Operating in very different, artistic circles from those of Norm’s UK-based and international political ones, Chris founded the wondrously titled internet arts magazine, Escape Into Life. When Chris was lost to his demons at far, far too young an age, the outpouring of affection and grief across social media was a revelation. So admired was Chris, by so many who never “really” knew him, that the mantle of EIL was taken up by others and continued in his memory. My good blogging, Twitter and Facebook friend, poet and art connoisseur Maureen Doallas, for instance, (whom I have never met) now serves as EIL’s Artist Watch Editor.

How did it happen? What is it in the nature of human relation that enables it to form so profoundly in the absence of any physical presence, in a transmission through what develops before our eyes as an expanding social ethernet? Is it even, as we think it, something technological and new, or merely an old contact of being to being facilitated in new forms? In thinking about my own relation to Norm, I found my answer.

Like so many others who blog, I took my Normblog profile as a badge of recognition. (Mine was number 359, August 6, 2010, not so very long ago. The last was 386, just this September.) I felt earlier honored when Norm invited me to contribute to his Writer’s Choice series (number 237). I wrote about Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus, but what work I chose is less important here than why I chose it. I chose it because it saved my life. Amid “the dark mental forces that oppressed me” in my very young manhood – not unlike, perhaps, Chris Al-Aswad – it “gave me a way to live.” Through writing, the contact only of mind and mind, across cultures, oceans and years – how often is it across continents and centuries – one human being (here, a French Algerian) entered into a most private kind of communication with another (a New York Jew) and influenced his life.

The power, the relational element of ideas and language, and what they carry in them, an intrinsic cargo, of a person. To a person. All those who mourn the loss of Norm Geras mourn the end of that carriage in words, of ideas about the world, and through their expression, an example of how to be and speak in the world.

When Norm co-authored the Euston Manifesto, right-thinking people of the left everywhere – people who felt abandoned on a progressive path that had, in reality, abandoned them almost from the start – spied a tall marker for the way forward, and a post around which to rally. In smaller increments, day by day for his ten-year blogging career, Norm offered more of the same: finely tuned, clearly and carefully constructed arguments of reason and insight that never lost their concern for the human in their vision of humanity. There are thousands of examples over the years. Here, among his very last posts, just nineteen days before he died, is some of just one among those many.

It’s not that, being a Marxist myself, I begrudge Howard [Jacobson] the judgement that no one of feeling should be a Marxist. He’s perfectly entitled to it, given how many Marxists, past and present, have used Marxist categories for precisely the kind of excuse-making on behalf of the killing of the innocent that he laments. For my own part, I happen to think that this isn’t the only kind of Marxism possible, since like any other tradition of ideas Marxism is capable of change. There are Marxists who understand the necessity of embodying human rights norms at the heart of any morally acceptable political outlook today and who reject absolutely the violations of civilized constraints in the interests of some highly speculative future good. Still, as I’ve argued at some length before, there are different meanings of being a Marxist, and Howard won’t be short of material in finding ways to justify his own expressed preference.

What surprises me in the above-quoted judgement of his is how lightly, by implication, it lets off other doctrines and their adherents. Allah and Jesus would not forgive. As if that ever stopped anyone from adapting religious belief to suit their murderous or oppressive purposes. Fanatical commitment, or what Howard himself identifies as ‘an unswerving conviction of rectitude’, finds many different homes.

And as if the purveyors of excuses for modern terrorism were confined to ever-smaller groups of Marxists, rather than coming – as they do – from practically every shade of so-called progressive opinion and beyond: liberals, greens, anarchists, Guardianistas of every stripe, anti-imperialists, anti-Zionists, and plain fools by the cartload.

Add to this his passions for cricket, jazz, country music (Emmylou Harris division), Jane Austen and Anne Tyler and fiction of all kinds, new technologies, New York City, and old-fashioned decency and you got what seems deserving of a name. Regular readers of Normblog will have gotten the title above right way. Much in the world of Normblog was puckishly “of the Norm.” Adele Geras, Norm’s wife, was WotN – “Wife of the Norm.”

All I wrote of here, all the virtues, all the smaller and greater humanities, the ideas that touched and influenced the lives of so many, they were and will remain the norm of the Norm.


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The Political Animal

The Other God That Failed


English: Caricature of Soviet leader Leonid Br...
English: Caricature of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev wearing a dark suit and two medals. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of course, nothing so far can match, or is likely to, the epic-historical failure of twentieth century Marxism. The cost of that failure, if not actually beyond measure, surely transcends any measure the mind can really grasp. Other failures, however, cannot be denied just because they do not reach a comparable magnitude. Dionysus was not Zeus, but he held sway enough.

Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, like Brezhnev after the debacle is done, seek the presidency and its supporting role in the geriatric decrepitude of a conservative idea that over thirty years of sway over American society has proven an abject failure.

“You’re as young as you feel,” they cry, with forced smiles as the flesh droops all around them.

The period of greatest economic growth during those three decades – before the last four post-deluge years – were under the only eight years of Democratic administration, and even Bill Clinton cooperated with the Reaganite deregulatory regime that led to the 2008 Great Recession and failed to halt stagnated middle class income and declining wealth. But like every party apparatchik in a communist cubicle, American conservatives insist their idea is the holy grail, while they drive the lives of ordinary Americans further towards hopeless subsistence and necessary persistence.

In California, the saga of budgetary dysfunction has many plot lines, but here is one. At the start of 2008, then Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger unveiled a budget that sought to address a $14 billion dollar deficit. Thirteen months later, after 2008 came down upon us all, that deficit had atomically mushroomed to $40 billion dollars. Today, the world of finance capital is already long recovered from the near disaster that it and its American conservative enablers brought down upon us all. The wealthy are doing fine, even better than ever. But middle class homes are still under water and IRA’s and personal wealth for the vast majority of Americans are decimated. Nonetheless, according to the likes of William J. Bennett and the governing hatchet men like Scott Walker who enact the latest five-year ideological plan, the fault, dear booboisie, lies not in our bankers, but in our working suckers. Now that the party of the moneyed class has tanked the economy, and with it the tax revenue streams of every state in the Union, but recovered itself, let’s blame state and local budget crises on public pensions out of control.

Meanwhile, reports the Los Angeles Times, for the young,

California’s community college system, the nation’s largest, has suffered about $809 million in state funding cuts since 2008. It faces another $338-million hit midyear if voters reject a tax measure on the November ballot supported by Gov. Jerry Brown.


“There is no question that the system is shrinking in terms of the number of students we’re serving but not shrinking in terms of demand,” Chancellor Jack Scott said in an interview Tuesday. “The real problem is we don’t have the financial resources to offer the courses that we could fill. In the long run, it’s going to be hurtful to the economy. These are the individuals who are going to make up the future workforce of California.”

These students also tend to be among the neediest: They typically require remedial classes, financial aid, tutoring and counseling. And many are juggling school with jobs.

Yet 70% of colleges in the survey report having reduced hours for such support services, and 87% have reduced staff. In addition, 82% said they planned to offer no winter session this year.


The colleges predicted a grim year if further cuts are required in January. Administrators said they would need to further reduce class offerings, lay off full-time faculty, postpone building and classroom maintenance, and borrow to manage cash-flow needs.

Already, budget cuts have had a deep effect. Overall enrollment dropped about 17%, from about 2.9 million in the 2008-09 academic year to 2.4 million in 2011-12, and officials have estimated a further decline this year. The number of class sections decreased 24% from 522,727 in 2008-09 to 399,540 in 2011-12.

The colleges say they are being forced to cut into vital services that for many students can mean the difference between success and failure.

And for older Americans, according to the Huffington Post, especially poorer people:

In 2010, 8.3 million Americans over 60 faced the threat of hunger — up 78 percent from a decade earlier, according to a 2012 report. The proportion of the seniors affected has grown to one in seven in 2010 from one in nine in 2005 — even as the hunger risk for the population as a whole declined slightly, the report found.

The rise in food insecurity is being seen primarily among Americans earning less than $30,000 –- or one to two times the poverty level –- as well as people between the ages of 60 and 69, said Craig Gundersen of the University of Illinois, who co-authored the report with James Ziliak of the University of Kentucky.


The growth in food insecurity tracks a larger trend in poverty: While the official poverty rate among seniors 65 and older was 9 percent in 2010, a broader poverty measure released by the Census Bureau last year puts the rate at nearly 16 percent –- or roughly one in six seniors.

Many of these Americans are new to poverty, said Sudipto Banerjee, research associate with the Employee Benefit Research Institute in Washington, D.C. He analyzed trends in poverty among people over 50 from 2001 to 2009 and found 6 percent of people age 75 to 84 fell into poverty for the first time in 2009, compared to 3.3 percent in 2005.

The biggest jump in poverty rates was among people 50 to 64 in the period studied, but poverty levels are highest for people 85 and older, Banerjee noted, citing medical expenses as the most significant factor. “In all the other categories –- housing, entertainment, food, clothing –- spending goes down with age,” he said. “But medical expenses are higher, and for these people, it takes about one-fifth of their budget.”

About 70 percent of citizens living below the poverty line have experienced an acute health condition such as cancer, lung disease, heart problems or stroke -– compared to 48 percent of people who are not in poverty, Banerjee added.


In terms of demographic trends, senior poverty is most acute among Latino and African-American seniors. In 2009, the poverty rate was 29 percent for Hispanics and about 25 percent for blacks -– more than three times higher than the rate for whites, at around 8 percent, according to Banerjee. Single women are also vulnerable: One in five women over 65 lived in poverty in 2009.

Wahlstrom is one of those women. Her monthly income includes $900 a month in Social Security, $200 from a small annuity and $140 in food stamps. “It’s cutting it close, but it’s still enough,” she said.

Roughly 45 million Americans received assistance from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — commonly referred to as food stamps — in 2011, with an average monthly benefit of $133.85. Recipients typically must earn no more than 130 percent of the federal poverty line — for people over 65, that’s $13,375 annually for a single person and $16,877 for a couple.

After four years of a Romney-Ryan administration, we might get lucky enough to skip Andropov and go right to Chernenko. Then the job would really be done.


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“How the Left Turned Against the Jews”


Nick Cohen at Standpoint writing, in “How the Left Turned Against the Jews,” about Colin Shindler’s new book, Israel and the European Left:

But in a strange manner few discuss, the death of Communism has freed far-Left ideas from the cage of the Cold War. When the far Left was a global force, the mainstream liberal Left had to draw dividing lines and defend itself from its attacks. Now that the far Left threatens no one, the borders have gone. The media would hound from public life any conservative who shared platforms with members of a neo-Nazi group. But respectable leftists can now associate with those who would once have been regarded as poisonous extremists — and no one notices. What applies to personal alliances applies equally to ideology. Foul ideas flood past the unmanned border posts, with disastrous consequences for Jews and Arabs.

I wrote earlier in the month, in “The Internationalist Cover for Anti-Semitism,”

One of the consequences of the fall of Communism has been a kind of analytical disjunction in recognizing ideological continuities on the far left. Communism as a significant modern organizing ideology of nation states came to an end, so the focus it provided for a host of Western political parties and tendencies was lost. Too often since, the far left in its alliances and antipathies has been spoken of by liberals and social democrats as a shocking ethical outlier. But it has ever been thus. Nothing has changed.

One line of continuity is seen in left manifestations of anti-Semitism. On the far right, as an active strain, anti-Semitism is almost always outspoken. The hate is expressed and the tropes are freely figured. The far left has always been anti-Semitic in the bad faith of denial. This contrast is historically represented in Nazi Germany and Soviet era Communism. For the fascist or reactionary, the Jew is a stateless, cosmopolitan subverter of the true, the ideal, culture of the volk. In the twentieth century, from the Bolsheviks on, such cosmopolitan internationalism – in Marxist consciousness – was the very contrary ideal. The Marxist ideal was the transcendence of nationalism, of factionalism, of particularity in identity beyond the proletarian. Thus, for the Marxist-Leninist, theoretically, Jews too often clung irredeemably to their identity as Jews. The Bundists were the perfect example of this resistant clinging to particularity, wishing, even as socialists and secularists, to remain and be recognized as Jews. On the far left, then, as far back at least as the Bolshevik Revolution, Jews identifying as a Jews were criticized for their failure to be international, for espousing – to use an anachronistic term– identity politics.

The recognition, then, is there, of how transgressive tendencies flitted about the boundaries between the far and liberal left and how the fall of the communist states and the disappearance of that Marxist nomenclature has made it easier for the transgressions to slip through the trees, almost unnoticed, across the borders. And the Jew, both as this remarkable historical case of ineradicable, distinctive identity in difference and as idealistic advocate of the eradication of difference, has been there, and been a victim, from the start. Writes Cohen,

The movements for Jewish self-determination and Russian Communism were twins separated at birth. The First Zionist conference met on August 27, 1897, to discuss the escape from anti-Semitic Europe to Palestine. The General Jewish Labour Bund held its first conference in Vilnius on October 7, 1897, to organise the Russian Empire’s Jews in a united socialist party. The Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, from which the Bolsheviks split, held its first conference in March 1898. Naturally, the Bund sent delegates. For liberal and left-wing Europeans of the late 19th century, no regime was more repellent than Tsarist autocracy, and nothing better symbolised its reactionary nature than its anti-Semitic pogroms. Jews responded to the terror by keeping their Jewish identity and joining Jewish socialist movements, such as the Bund, or by becoming entirely assimilated Communists, as Trotsky and many others did.

The coincidences of history do not end there. On November 2, 1917, Arthur Balfour sent his declaration to Baron Rothschild that the British Empire would allow the Jewish people to find a home in Palestine “it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities”. On November 7, 1917, the Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace.

The Jews and the Left were entwined. Many who went to Palestine were socialists determined that the New Jerusalem should be in Jerusalem. Others saw a New Jerusalem rising in Moscow.

The historical record is clear that Bolshevism, Stalinism, Soviet and Eastern Bloc communism turned on the Jews – if differently in manner and scope – no less clearly than the Nazis. For the fascist the racial hatred was explicit; for the far left there has always been the ideological overlay, the denial, the bad faith. From Cohen:

Three features of the old Left‘s racism feel contemporary. Naturally, Communists could not say that Jews were members of a “Judaeo-Bolshevik” cabal. They had to recast the conspiracy as a right-wing plot and substitute “Zionist” for “Jew”. When Stalin put Rudolf Slansky and other Czech Communists on trial in 1952 the authorities announced: “The whole worldwide Zionist movement was in fact led and ruled by the imperialists, in particular the US imperialists, by means of US Zionists. For US Zionists, who are financially most powerful and politically the most influential Zionists, form part of the ruling imperialist circles of the USA.”

This is what we call “ripped from today’s headlines.” The new offense is always different though, always unrecognizable to itself, and for the same reason.

These critics defend [themselves] because they believe that this time it is true. They believe that this time… there really is a cadre of Jews exercising excessive, secretive power while aggressively attempting to suppress any exposure of it. And like all their reactionary forebears (like every GOP reactionary today who plays the card of nationalist loyalty) they forget that the belief they cling to is the belief to which purveyors of anti-Semitic tropes of Jewish power always hold fast – it’s the essential marker of the tradition – that what they believe is true.

For far left Jews since, as for the Bundists originally, the tension has always been there, between the utopian ideological commitments – Marxist, anti-imperialist, postcolonial – and the historical and cultural reality of Jewishness. More Cohen:

Western Communists of Jewish origin rushed to prove their loyalty by supporting [Stalin’s 1952 Czech leadership] pogrom; not out of fear of physical violence, for no one could threaten them in the West, but out of fear of the ostracism that would follow a falling out with the Left. Maxime Rodinson, a French Communist who defended the purges, later said that he could not face “the most obvious facts” about the fascistic nature of the Communists because of his “visceral need not to renounce a commitment that has illuminated one’s life, given it meaning, and for which many sacrifices have often been made”.

Ever since there have been loyalty tests and demands for left-wing Jews to speak “as a Jew” as Howard Jacobson puts it, and announce their shame of and contempt for Israel.

As-a-Jewism is rampant today, as is the ideologically inverted bad-faith anti-Semitism that produces obscenities like Sarah Schulman’s upcoming CUNY Graduate Center “Homonationalism and Pinkwashing” gathering, an academic conference primed to take its place in the sordid history of far left perversions of principle. Schulman, however, is a fringe player, whereas The New York Times, which recently gave her a forum, is more identifiably the problem. It goes back to where we started here, the erasing of that border that the communist states previously marked off, and over which the high liberal Times now provides a bridge.

Among non-right anti-Jewish tendencies, there have always been varied strains. There are the bitterly, passionately personal such as Norman Finkelstein, the uncanny erupters like Mearsheimer & Walt, the cracked pots of fiercely animated but incoherent commitments in which such as Andrew Sullivan and Glenn Greenwald reside. But it is the mainstream liberals like Peter Beinart who are crossing the border. Or Amnesty International regularly providing space in its London offices for conferences led by known Islamists. It is in such as they that the greater threat resides.

Cohen ends,

Now as then, nothing makes the sterling Left’s spittle flow more freely than mention of the state of Israel. They may not know it, for they know very little, but the origins of their Pavlovian response lie deep in the terrible history of the 20th-century Left.

Where once the far left and its misguided liberal allies had the U.S.-Soviet proxy wars to focus their attention – in Latin America, Africa, and Asia – now the Marxist states and their contentions for power are gone. Now, the substitute is Israel. All of the ideological apparatus and vocabulary – colonial, imperial, indigenous, other, apartheid, racist, Nazi, fascist – has been brought to bear on the fabrication of a new false Jewish narrative to take its place in magnitude with all those that came before it. Now instead of the Soviet Union or China or Cuba with whom to mis-ally, it is reactionary Islam and Arab and Persian despots, the worst kinds of illiberal misogynists and homophobes and anti-Semites. There is not even dream of the utopian state anymore, but only the intellectual construct erected against the perceived enemy of that state.

Now, at this exalted height and debased low of political development, the focus of Puritopian animus lands once more and crucially on Israel, and the Jews. It is a battle that will take up at least the remainder of the century’s first quarter, maybe much more. And an irony, a pitiful irony, is how much it will empower the right.


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The Political Animal

Two and a Half Centuries before 9/11


(9/11/11: the first in a series)

Long ago loosed from popular memory, the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 was not only a natural catastrophe but a crisis of the enlightenment mind as well. The quake is estimated to have lasted ten minutes, with three distinct jolts. Modern seismological estimates, based on recorded observations of the temblor’s effects, are that the quake was a 9.0 on the Richter scale, the same as the 2004 Indian Ocean quake off Sumatra. It was felt in North Africa and Central Europe and was quickly followed by the three tsunamis, with waves of perhaps fifty feet, sweeping out to sea not only thousands from shaky ground, but many who had sought refuge from the disaster in boats. Then came the fires. Much of Lisbonwas destroyed. Varied estimates are that up to sixty thousand people lost their lives. And it happened the morning of All Soul’s Day.

A common sentiment at the time, among those both more and less Christian, was that the disaster was God’s punishment on a sinful world. Even among those of less apocalyptic bent, there was a crisis of faith. Why would God unleash such punishment so indiscriminately upon even the innocent? Voltaire, among other thinkers and artists across Europe, was profoundly influenced by the historic calamity, and he went to intellectual war, in Candide and elsewhere, with Leibniz’s optimism that we live in the best of all possible worlds. Artists depicted the event well into the next century. Yet the Lisbon earthquake was also a turning point in the development of natural science and the rationalist response to life on earth. Vast efforts were made to understand the quake as a natural phenomenon. Modern seismology may be said to have been born from the event. The prime minister of Portugal, Sebastião de Melo, amid much political infighting and contestation, organized probably the first modern governmental disaster relief and reconstruction program. Lisbon was rebuilt.

There is a comparison to be drawn between the Lisbon earthquake, over two hundred and fifty years ago, and the 9/11 attack on the United States. Though an obvious dissimilarity is that the quake was a natural disaster, and 9/11 decidedly not, that distinction was not so clear to mid-eighteenth century Europeans, and there were far too many, those who are religious (including, obviously, the perpetrators of the attack) and even those who are not, who considered 9/11 to be, if not God’s, at least some form of ideologically righteous judgment upon the United States. Another argument against the comparison is the number of monstrous and very inhuman human catastrophes that came between. What is 9/11 compared to the Holocaust, to choose an easy example? Yet for many, 9/11 still seems hugely significant, its dramatically visual and its symbolic character not to be overlooked.

A crucial consideration in the making of analogies, however, is whether one intends them to elucidate or in actuality delimit. In the former instance, the analogist seeks to understand the unavoidably new and different in the light of the old and suggestively prototypical. In the latter instance, the thing compared is captured in the net of what it is compared to, the analogist’s purpose to deny the thing the freedom to be more and other than its predecessor, even though everything in this world, for all the haunting similarities, is irreversibly other than everything else. The analogies of political argumentation are usually of the latter kind. To use a popular set of political terms, while they pretend to liberate the imagination, their intent is to occupy the reason. For that reason, metaphor, like a lepidopterist releasing his catch from the net, will always be superior to analogy. Of course, with the literary it is never necessary to decide; one may remain delightedly undecided – in no place exactly at all – inhaling the ambiguous breeze. In politics there is a different reason not to make decisions – one may comfortably believe what one is determined to believe, analogies be dammed, or used.

One reason, then, that I invoke the Lisbon earthquake is that it so profoundly influenced even those who did not directly experience it. Those who were neither in New York City nor Virginia nor Pennsylvania were terrified, distraught, grief-stricken, sleepless, angry, confused, disillusioned. People all have their own stories, including me – a New Yorker living in Los Angeles – thousands of miles away at the time, in Prague. And if the historical is not personal in the end, it is purposeless. If the personal is not situated somewhere in time, in history, then it is aimlessly, absurdly adrift – which may well be….

But history will make its claim on us nonetheless, most unexpectedly, like a 350,000 pound jet flying at over 500 miles per hour into a 110 story building containing 87,000 tons of steel, even if you are merely some tourist in from Japan hoping for an early start to the day and a chance at the unparalleled view.

Now it is ten years since 9/11 and the Afghan war that followed, and it has become a commonplace, in the period since the lead up to the Iraq war that followed later still, to say that America squandered the goodwill directed toward it in the aftermath of 9/11. This facile commentary is both demonstrably true and false. It is true that large numbers of ordinary people around the world felt sympathy for Americans in the manner that most people are touched by the vividly knowable ill fortune of others. The implicit proposition in references to these squandered sympathies, though, is that such feelings had significant political implications, specifically regarding people’s understanding of, and relation to, America’s role and power in the world. I think such a proposition arguable at best. The “squandered goodwill” truism is demonstrably false because of the extensive public record documenting a widespread lack of goodwill at the time of 9/11, from various quarters, both predictable and unexpected. In fact, outright hostility emanated not just from Islamic extremists and confusedly aggrieved segments of the Arab populace, but, very prominently, from the political left, including the American left – that very quarter (which would widely oppose action in Afghanistan too) from which, after Iraq, the squandered goodwill truism later emerged like a carefully cultivated hothouse flower, humid and flushed with forgetfulness.

In truth, whatever goodwill we find absent among many, it was not squandered but already long withheld, before George W. Bush, the easy and obvious scapegoat, became President. September 11, 2011 revealed – should really have only reminded – that despite the fall of the Soviet bloc and the death throes of state communism, the ideology, the historical analysis, and the political sentiments that bore, supported, and rationalized them live on in all the usual quarters. The labels are different – scholarly and theoretical – or the same Marxian as before, but sewn on an inseam instead of a breast pocket. New developments in cultural and political contest have been clarified – Islamism and a new reactionary Republicanism – to skew perceptions and fundamental judgments about where to stand between them. But the contention is the same: the plutocratic and militaristic only confirm the Marxist-inspired, postcolonial challenge; the latter only justifies the imperialistic reaction. Liberals, not uncommonly, remain toothless, and often nominally in charge, until they are not.

And now we are two-hundred and fifty-six years since the Lisbon Earthquake, already ten from 9/11.



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