Social Pathology of Nihilism

Jean-Paul Sartre had it right, or at least half-right, when in the closing years of the 1940s, the War over, the Holocaust stamped indelibly in the minds of that immediate generation (advantages of age: I have the period vividly in memory), he wrote the famous essay, “The Portrait of the Anti-Semite,” a classic in the literature of authoritarianism perhaps now all but forgotten. How can a Jewish nation be anti-Semitic? That’s just it, its exclusiveness—the pending Nationality Law, passed by the Cabinet, and now to be introduced in the Knesset–predicated on the exclusion of the Other as the means of affirming the self, represents the social pathology of nihilism (the cheapening of all life except that of its own; denial of the suffering and degradation caused the Other, in the name of its imagined superiority and closeness to God). Not mere exclusiveness, but politically-economically-militarily implemented exclusion, which necessarily carries the seeds of ethnocentrism, itself a central component of authoritarianism, if not indeed, a principal pathway to genocide. Thus far, ethnic cleansing, population displacement, forcible eviction, have not reached genocidal proportions; checkpoints, house searches, an overriding societal atmosphere of overlordship and armed intimidation presently will have to do.

By this I do not mean Jewish anti-Semitism (a disgraceful phenomenon of snobbishness, compared with the foregoing, quite superficial and harmless, probably replicated by many other groups, nationalities, religions) to which I and most other Jews have been exposed and with which we are all too familiar): the intra-communal social stratification graphically symbolized by “Our Crowd,” an upper stratum of wealth, polished in manner, haughty, eager to distance itself in America from Hester Street, the shtetl, the slum, the garment workers, a chapter beginning to close (hopefully) as modernization seemingly homogenizes the group experience. Snobbery is laughable—the country-club set and below that the foxy-loxy bunch, silver foxes and bagels and lox—but not dangerous; hurtful, for some, but not, as increasingly is the case of Israel, murderous in intent, as in house demolitions, round-ups, most recent, the sustained shelling of Gaza reducing it to a Wasteland. Snobbery is not on the same continuum as nationalistic/imperialistic superiority, energized by the deadening effect of a moral vacuum which, conveying impunity, licenses sadism. How many dead children does it take to penetrate Israel’s collective wall of defensiveness?

I turn to Sartre who described a psychological profile originally intended to expose the Nazi-like mindset still very much extant in a world which, having known fascism in the immediate past, has abstracted its essence, a more generalized authoritarianism, that he probably least intended to have applied to Jews themselves, having experienced among the greatest horrors in modern history known to humankind. But listen to the words, their generic value suitable to be fitting wherever appropriate, here, I believe, exemplified by Israel, not just because of the Nationality Law, or merciless destruction of Gaza, but going back decades, from assassinations by Mossad to invasions of refugee camps, from building a war machine and accompanying (how could it be otherwise?) militarism of mind to the unlawful settlements making peace negotiations leading to a two-state solution and the ending of repression a solemn farce.

Sartre zeroes in on the fear of human possibility, on the ironclad grip on the present to prevent the broader (and more humanistic) currents of social change, on the fear of slipping from the perch of power, dominance over others, supermensch of today, when he says such individuals “are attracted to the durability of stone.” Soldiers, without hesitation, using live ammunition when facing stone-throwing children of the intifada, giant bulldozers leveling homes and even people, armed settlers, unrestrained, off on a binge of hatred. Impunity, but also certitude—Judea, Samaria, Greater Israel—OURS, whether by Biblical injunction or the raw use of power. Again, Sartre describing the mindset, “in which one never seeks but that which one has already found, in which one never becomes other than what one already was.” The description fits like a glove, what some may have noted as arrogance (hardly a dirty word in the Israeli lexicon, thence transvalued as adeptness at achieving security), but I find as the conspicuous absence of humility, that which is necessary for informing the moral sense. Superiority, a supercilious disregard for the rights of others, here, Palestinians, but actually, the world community itself whenever criticism is directed Israel’s way. Solipsism is bad enough when it afflicts the individual, but when it comes to define the conduct and beliefs of a nation, someone—preferably internal critics—had better speak up, lest it lead to self-destruction bringing the world down with it.

Sartre draws closer to the mark, the philosopher as psychoanalyst. Defenders of Israel, pursuant to the “official” line handed down by Israeli propaganda, as if that were necessary given the alacrity with which the world (and not just the US) Jewish community, almost as though spontaneously, has echoed and re-echoed the charge, has as the definitive answer to Jewish criticism of Israel (itself becoming rarer) that of Jewish self-hatred. I beg to differ. True Jewish self-hatred cannot be found with the critic, but with Israel and the many in world Jewry who uncritically support it. Why? Because they cannot and will not affirm the beauty of Judaism itself, where family closeness would find abhorrent the killing, break-up, and imprisonment of members of Palestinian families, where Torah teaches kindness, understanding, and welcoming the stranger, not humiliating, torturing, debasing the stranger, where SHALOM means shalom, peace, not war, not aggression, not overawing others, nor enlisting on the side of Reaction and Counter-revolution both for its own sake (ideological propinquity) or simply to please America, where humility finds favor in the sight of God, not this mad ruthlessness, the exterminationist urge carried over from having internalized the crimes of the Nazis committed against the Jews ourselves. Introjection I’ve discussed before, but it was the very evil and severity of the Holocaust that poisoned the psychological wellspring of much Jewish defensiveness, so that the slogan “Never Again” has been turned on its head, to swallow the cruelty now practiced on the Other, the Palestinian, the Israeli Arab, whom next?

Sartre writes (and for “Jew” I would put “Self,” self as democratic human being, self as one finding inner sources of strength—not massing fire power, including nuclear weapons, as Fortress Israel–still capable of affirming life): “He [the anti-Semite] is a man who is afraid. Not of the Jews of course, but of himself, of his conscience, his freedom, of his instincts, of his responsibilities, of solitude, of change, of society and the world; of everything except the Jews.” Of everything except the Jews—my translation, not of the passage, but present reality, the fear of the Israeli to be Jewish, Jewish as cosmopolitan, Jewish as radical, Jewish as embracing all the subjugated regardless of color and religion, Jewish as I have known the antiwar and civil rights movements where Jews were not afraid to fight for principles, to work in solidarity with others, whose moral bearings were not yet diminished if not erased by McCarthyism and subsequent waves of anticommunism. To cover over the betrayal of the Jewish spirit, Israel, and world Jewry following along, finds refuge in strident assertion, force, the political-ideological shift Rightward. In Sartre’s timeless declaration, “Anti-Semitism, in a word, is fear of man’s fate. The Anti-Semite is the man who wants to be a pitiless stone, furious torrent, devastating lightening: in short, everything but a man.” When I said at the beginning, “at least half-right,” Sartre could not have known, but the superb characterization finds application in the most unlikely context: Israel.

Norman Pollack has written on Populism. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at pollackn@msu.edu.

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Norman Pollack Ph.D. Harvard, Guggenheim Fellow, early writings on American Populism as a radical movement, prof., activist.. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at pollackn@msu.edu.

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