The Anti-Imperialism of Fools

Photo source jqpubliq | CC BY 2.0

“God never spoke to an Arab.”

— Benjamin Disraeli, 1847

“Remembrance is, so to speak, interwoven with forgetfulness. That is why the Jewish historian Yosef Yerushalmi has pointed out that the opposite of “forgetfulness” is not really “remembrance” but “justice”.

— Carlo Ginzburg

“We don’t care who will win the election, Palestinian or Israeli. We don’t care; at the end of the day they are all Semitic, they are Semitic and they are cousins.”

— Muammar Qadafi, interview with BBC, 2007 (discussing his proposal for one state solution)

“Some preliminary psychological studies reveal that the character structures of anti-Semites are much more alike than the character structures of Jews·”

— Max Horkheimer (1948)

There seems to be a deeply engrained identification in the U.S. with capital. I see this most recently with the growth of antisemitic narratives regards Iran. The trope runs that the U.S. is the dupe of Israel, or is sleepwalking (sic) into war, or that somehow the ruling class and defense complex are just unwittingly being led into conflict with Iran. As they were, apparently, with Syria and Iraq and Afghanistan. Now I call this antisemitic because what this rhetoric is doing is to absolve the U.S. The fault lies with Israel — and by extension (and this is articulated openly) with the Jews. Not even the Zionists anymore. Western capital is innocent, in a sense. It is the wily and nefarious Jews. Now, on one level it is understandable that the justified anger at Israel is being expressed more aggressively. And I understand this, because no sane person cannot but be horrified at the cruelty and arrogance of the Israeli state. I mean they shoot children, they shoot the wounded as they lie on the ground. They laugh at the death of Palestinians. They imprison children and abuse the elderly. The settler culture now permeates the IDF and the settlers are barking mad fanatics. Israel has government officials suggesting, openly, a genocide of remaining Palestinians in the West Bank. It is an increasingly sickening spectacle. Not to mention Israel’s openly racist treatment of black Africans. Few countries in modern history so openly flaunt their viciousness and intolerance. This is, too, a level of hubris that I think unprecedented. Israel has stopped even trying to spin elaborate narratives justifying their aggression and violence. And the shift came after the Jenin massacre, I think. The reactionaries in power decided to just go ahead and brag about their treatment of Palestinians. It became a source of pride, almost. ‘We are so badass.’

But, nobody benefits more from this eruption of anti-semitism than Israel itself. And even putting that aside, the racializing of anger puts the anger in the same ugly basket as Islamophobia — an Islamaphobia that is driving the neo Fascist right wing parties that have so grown in power across Europe in the last ten years. And as soon as racial explanations surface one is going to be sharing the podium with Klansmen and other far right nativist zealots. But most of all, these new (old, actually, but more on that below) tropes suggesting that Israel is secretly controlling the U.S. government distract from the crimes of the U.S. government. And it distracts, as well, from other U.S. policy such as the funding and support of fascist opposition parties in Venezuela for example. It also clouds the critique of exposing U.S. propaganda against Russia. And it distracts in a sense from the domestic racism of the U.S. police state.

So to be clear…Nobody needs to lead the United States into war. They do that all by themselves and in fact it is almost the primary thing they do these days. And Iran has been a target of the U.S. for probably fifty years. And yes, the neo con cabal in the Bush administration were profoundly pro Zionist (many shared dual citizenship), the fact remains the U.S. overthrew Mossedegh all the way back in 1952. The CIA created the narrative that put the Shah in power, along with helping to do it. The U.S. trained his secret police SAVAK. There are ironies to be found in this fact because many of the the people behind the coup that installed the Shah (Churchill, Atlee, Allen Dulles and his brother John Foster Dulles, were all arch antisemites).  [It is also worth noting that Norm Schwarzkopf, Sr. was the originator and first organizer of SAVAK and that Teddy Roosevelt’s grandson Kermit was at the center of carrying out “Operation Ajax.” The U.S. is nothing if not a nation of ruling families.] Remember too that those neo cons assembled for Bush Jr were recruited by Cheney and Rumsfeld, this was their operation. And if Israel is so all powerful why is Jonathan Pollard still in prison?

Then why is this notion of seeing the Israeli tail wagging the U.S. dog so popular? Why do people seem to want to get to express antisemitic sentiments? That is the question, I think. The history of defining *semite* goes back to German philogists ( Ludwig Schlözer apparently the first, in Johann Gottfried Eichhorn’s Repertorium, in 1781) creating the term as a label for languages they grouped together, the best known being Arabic and Hebrew.

“Semitism” was a term that was invented to refer to a language type and a type of human being: a race and what we would now call a culture. It referred above all to the Jews and their biblical Hebrew speaking ancestors, and to the Arabs. It was a development of an old tradition in the Christian West of regarding Jews and Muslims as distinguishable but yet closely related species of the same religious genre, a tradition going back to the very beginnings of Islam itself.”

— Ìvan David Kalmar

Kalmar points out something crucial, though. The substitution of Arab for Muslim. And the resulting early racial attribute to the construction of the modern idea of Islam for the West. He adds that this was accompanied by: “a similar identification of the Jews, both biblical and contemporary, as carriers of a distinctive oriental, Hebrew culture and members of an equally distinctive, oriental Jewish race.” This era of romantic Orientalism functioned in highly ambivalent ways. Jews and Arabs were both fascinating and seductive (in an archly romantic way) and, more to the point, exotic and NOT Western or Christian. And it is crucial to track this ambivalence; for Jews were viewed as both the recipients of Divine revelation, but also as the killers of Christ.

“After World War II, however, liberal Jews, especially in America, distance themselves from the Semitic connection,in order to better stress how similar they are to Christians. The term “Judeo-Christian tradition” comes to refer to that alleged commonality and is interpreted as the foundation of American democracy and human rights. Directly related to the growing alliance between the United States and Israel, and more recently the “war on terror” in the Middle East, this de-demonization of the Judaic, however, leaves a residue.The demonic aspects of the Semitic image are projected onto the other Semite: the Arab and by extension the Muslim.”

— Ivan David Kalmar

Now it is important to also remember that all the current antisemitism (and in some ways all the Islamaphobia) are just repurposed themes that go back centuries, actually. Otto Fenichel wrote, in an essay from 1940:

“The Protocols of the Elders of Zion were forged’ by the Czarist police, who knew for what purpose they forged them. As a result of the general misery extant, there was a rebellious tendency directed against the ruling powers. The police surmised that, if the propaganda succeeded, the Jews would be thought to be the cause of conditions, and not the authorities, and the revolutionary tendency would be redirected against them. The terrible pogroms showed that this intention succeeded. The advantage that anti-Semitism gave to the average person then, was different from that of the prospect of a job. The people were in a conflict between a rebellious tendency and the respect for authority to which they had been trained. Anti-Semitism gave them the means of satisfying these two contradictory tendencies at the same time; the rebellious tendency through destructive actions against defenseless people, and the respectful tendency through obedient action in response to the command of the·ruling powers. The police plot achieved its goal: the people believed that their enemies were likewise the enemies of the ruling powers.”

In an interview with Carlo Ginzburg there is a story, from Ginzburg’s book Ecstasies, that goes like this…

“the poisoning of wells was ascribed to Jews working together with the lepers. In some places blame was laid at the door of Muslim rulers in Granada or Tunis, or of the Sultan of Babylon, who were said to have paid Jews and lepers to kill Christians. The rumours resulted in persecutions and massacres all over France, and before long they were being substantiated by confessions and other evidence. Long and detailed explanations appeared to show how the poison had been introduced into the wells. The conspirators’ accomplices were denounced, and contemporary letters and documents tell of the Jews’ association with the Saracens and of plans for setting up a government composed of Jews, lepers, and Muslims to take over Europe in the aftermath of the calamity.”

— Trygve Riiser Gundersen

Ginzburg’s story touches on something Fenichel noted about Jews. Historically they have made minimal assimilation wherever they found themselves, but at some point took on the clothing and look of their host culture. In the case of Germany (but there are other examples) their appearance seems strange, and archaic because Germans themselves had moved on and looked and dressed very differently now. The Jews took on an aura of strangeness, of exoticism — much as Roma people do even now. They hint at something from the past, something the contemporary citizens of the West feel they have evolved out of, moved past, grown out of. But this peculiar strangeness gives the Jew a quality of the uncanny. And so an almost mystical capacity for deception and obfuscation — much as Asian despots carry the aura of cruel inscrutability (Ming the Merciless etc).

“Unconsciously for the anti-Semite, the Jew is simultaneously the one against whom he would like to rebel, and the rebellious tendencies within himself. And a racial minority such as the Jew is especially suited to act as the carrier of this kind of projection because of its archaic and emphatic foreignness.”

— Otto Fenichel

I noted at the top that the current and rather dramatic increase in antisemitism reveals a deep identification with Capital. I want to try to explain this further. At the heart of it is the acute ambivalence that, overall, most Americans feel about their lives. Eve Maria Ziege, in an essay on the Frankfurt School in America, noted (about an unpublished paper by the Institute)…

“Based on qualitative analyses of these interviews, the hypothesis of the Labor Study was that the persecution and annihilation of the Jews of Europe did not decrease but on the contrary significantly increased antisemitic attitudes.”

One senses ambivalence toward Jews (and others) in the founding work of modern sociology (maybe thats what it is)…Weber’s Protestant Ethic There is a pronounced fear, even terror, in the modern West, of returning to something uncivilized, something primitive and also unclean and hence a natural affinity for a discipline that favors organization over deep analysis. This terror of regression is coupled to a demand for success, for progress both individually and collectively. And today the average worker is facing ever more obstacles, ones that feel more and more irrational (note here Graeber’s essay on Bullshit Jobs).

There is another element connected, in a way, with ambivalence. And that is the erosion of attention and the capacity to listen or really look at things. A degraded culture of smart phones and aps, a culture driven by algorithms, has rendered most people today, I believe, incapable of hearing the historic echoes of prejudice in their language. The grammar of antisemitism (and the grammar of fascism for that matter) is something most Americans today cannot distinguish. I have had dialogues with people …in social media and in person in which it is obvious that my interlocutor is deaf to even the basic nuances of what is being said. This breakdown in literacy and imagination allows for the most crude cliches of racial prejudice to pass unremarked upon. The pressures and demands on the average worker today, and certainly on the growing number of unemployed, accounts for the profound stress and sense of unease people report — to their ambivalence– about most everything. But one thing I have noted is that the very most desperate, those living in shelters on under bridges are the least antisemitic. In fact often the least intolerant. But the current antisemitism is an antisemitism of the educated and at least nominally employed and relatively privileged. And anecdotally I would guess it is most pronounced in men.

It is important to recognize the latent Orientalism that is active in contemporary mainstream culture. An Orientalism that Edward Said saw linked with the after affects of the Enlightenment, and with the regressive factors embedded in pseudo science and what Max Horkheimer and Adorno called instrumental thinking. And this included the fictive developments about race, the rise of Eugenics, and the grand trope of the West’s climb out of primitivism and barbarism into the white light of civilization.

“Theses of Oriental backwardness, degeneracy, and inequality with the West most easily associated themselves early in the nineteenth century with ideas about the biological bases of racial inequality. Thus the racial classifications found in Cuvier’s Le Regne animal, Gobineau’s Essai sur l’inegalite des races humaines, and Robert Knox’s The Dark Races of Man found a willing partner in latent Orientalism. To these ideas was added second-order Darwinism, which seemed to accentuate the “scientific” validity of the division of races into advanced and backward, or European-Aryan and Oriental African. Thus the whole question of imperialism, as it was debated in the late nineteenth century by pro-imperialists and anti-imperialists alike, carried forward the binary typology of advanced and backward (or subject) races, cultures, and societies.”

— Edward Said (Orientalism)

Kalmar also notes, the Arab became the political other and the Jew the theological other. The prototypes of evil or menacing Arab are found in the Ottoman Sultan, one used by Montesquieu and one that colored all perception of the *Orient* in 19th century Europe. But again, the various categorizations of semites led the petit bourgeois in the late 1800s to identify Jews (as Asiatic outsiders) as the enemy to order and rationality. The Hegelian antisemites of the era promoted notions of race war and developed the durable concept of Hegelian/Darwinian racial classifications, and by extension the idea of Europe as the bastion of progress and civilization. And this Europe, white Europe, as defender of progress against the threat posed by the Oriental outsiders (including specifically semites). One can sense the residue of romanticism in this, the ambivalence and almost guilty attraction. Richard Burton (and Said is brilliant writing about the Victorian adventurer) is the exemplar of this ambivalence. He became so fluent in language and custom and culture that he could make the pilgrimage to Mecca as an Arab doctor undetected. He loved the *Orient* for how un-Victorian it was, while at the same time identifying strongly as an upholder of European (English) progress and civilization. And Burton became the prototype for European white savior, the white man helping civilize the eastern hordes. It also established a particularly intractable notion of masculinity.

And here I feel there is another crucial aspect that sheds light on contemporary antisemitism; and that is the quality of projection that European scholars of the late 19th century applied to their study of Islam. Said described these scholars….“as if each man saw Islam as a reflection of his own chosen weakness.” This is the Romantic pull again, the sense of guilty pleasure and attraction, the distorted picture of Islamic society that was created because it became the Islam THEY needed. Not the Islam that existed. And more recently one can find the same thing with writers such as Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington. There is then, the entire discussion of colonialism, in particular French and English, as it continued to shape consciousness of the *Orient*. The point here though is how all these mental figurations can be traced back to the early middle ages, and many, of course, long before that. But it is the ancient world as invented by European scholarship.

“Historically, Protestant Messianism has combined in the United States with the powerful trope of Americans as the latter day Children of Israel conquering a promised land. Benjamin Franklin had even proposed Moses and the Israelites crossing the sea as the seal of the Union. Approval by Jews, the original chosen people, has always had a certain legitimizing value for gentiles receiving divine inspiration: both Luther and Muhammad sought Jewish converts to buttress their supersessionist claims, and when most Jews refused to join them they spoke angrily of Jewish intransigence. But lately American gentiles stopped requiring the Jews to convert to Christianity, and have instead suggested that they and the Jews are already of the same religion: the American civic religion called “the Judeo-Christian tradition.”

— Ivan David Kalmar

In 1978 the mini series Holocaust marked a significant entrenchment of the alliance between the U.S. and Israel. In 1981 came the signing of Memorandum of Agreement on Strategic Cooperation by Cap Weinberger and Arial Sharon. And then came 9/11. This was the full on return of evil semitic outsider menace — in the form of Islam. Islam was in full opposition to Judeo-Christian culture. America was fighting for freedom and democracy, and Islamaphobia was the new antisemitism. “The transference, of a popular anti-Semitic animus from a Jewish to an Arab target was made smoothly, since the figure was essentially the same.” This was Edward Said in the 1970s during the oil crises. The antisemitism of the Arab world today is essentially anti-Americanism (which includes Israel). And here it is interesting to note that who is pulling the strings (sic) seems unclear or at least, often, unimportant. For the connection and association of Zionism and U.S. foreign policy is seen as so total. But for the non Arab today, this uptick in antisemitism is more complex. And one of the most surprising things to me has been the tacit acceptance of the most virulent anti Jewish rhetoric, whatever its source, by the white bourgeois American. When I have raised this issue I have found little support, actually. Only committed leftists, genuine socialist or communist friends seem to object as I do. For liberal America there is a surfacing, even if incrementally, of a latent but clear identification with antisemitic thinking. An identification that is also with Capital — the submerged themes here are protecting Capital, which is associated with the status quo — a status quo many only aspire to but do not share in — and a sense that Zionists and Jews (increasingly interchangeable) are the greatest threat to the survival of the Capitalist (American) way of life. The wily Jew outsider, speculator, communist, and financier is still very strong. The external enemy now within. And again, there is this projection happening. The individual antisemites own failures become the failures of the system he insists to himself that he loves and respects, is under assault. The confusion here is because so much of this is unconscious. Many who identify so with Capital also self identify as anticapitalists. As anti Imperialists. So this “Jewish Power” is a threat to anti Capitalism. It is a threat to those who want to fight Imperialism. It is the Jewish lobby, or the Jews in media, or the disproportionate number of Jews accepted to Harvard (one person actually sent me an article on that). The threat to the system that I hate is under assault. The threat to an ideology that I hate is under assault. It is the irrationality of the over rational. It is the irrationality of computational thinking, of *instrumental* thought, of this denuded experience of the denuded world — one in which the threats are always substitute threats. So Israel takes on the historic overdetermination of the despised Jew. For this criminal state, a colonizer, the conflations are innumerable. Both collaborator and defender of European civilization, and menace to western white Capital. Israel, protected and subsidized by the U.S., is there to act out the stuff that the U.S. government doesn’t want to get its hands dirty with. Saudi Arabia is another subsidized state of absolute intolerance.

Hitler identified himself as an “antisemite of reason” — to distinguish himself for propaganda purposes, from medieval and early Christian witch trials and fables. And today the quasi-educated bourgeois antisemite is also an antisemite of reason. But this is the reason of sociological rationality, the reason of Capital.

“The Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had been ambivalent toward the Jews, and sociology, a child of the long nineteenth century, inherited this ambivalence. Jewish traditionalists, not unlike later Zionists, felt threatened by bourgeois society’s tendency toward enlightenment and secularization.”

— Detlev Claussen

The most important element in this revanchist antisemitism today is a form of what Adorno called ‘secondary antisemitism’. One might call it structural antisemitism. Moishe Postone wrote of this…

“It’s true that the Israeli government uses the charge of antisemitism to shield it from criticisms. But that doesn’t mean that antisemitism itself isn’t a serious problem. The way in which antisemitism is distinguished, and should be distinguished, from racism, has to do with the sort of imaginary of power, attributed to the Jews, Zionism, and Israel, which is at the heart of antisemitism. The Jews are seen as constituting an immensely powerful, abstract, intangible global form of power that dominates the world. There is nothing similar to this idea at the heart of other forms of racism. Racism rarely, to the best of my knowledge, constitutes a whole system that seeks to explain the world; whereas antisemitism is a primitive critique of the world of capitalist modernity. The reason I regard it as being particularly dangerous for the Left is precisely because antisemitism has a pseudo-emancipatory dimension that other forms of racism rarely have.”

Identification with capital masquerading as anticapitalism. It is (per Postone) a “fetishized anticapitalism”.

Claussen again…

“Comte positioned himself against the ideologists of the French Revolution, whereas in the cases of Durkheim and especially Weber the intellectual enemy was given the name Marx. Bourgeois society was threatened not by antisemitism but by social revolution, as whose prophet they saw Marx.”

Even Talcott Parsons, in the 50s, wrote of Jews and antisemitism …

“Their appropriateness as a scapegoat is to an important degree a function of their association with those areas of modern society most rapidly rationalized and “emancipated” from traditional values. “

Sociology was hugely popular in the U.S. It fit the mindset of the Puritan legacy. It had the patina of rationality, of calculation and evidence. It depersonalized things. And it served as force against radical Marxist theories. In that sense, antisemitism in the mid 20th century was inextricably bound up with the foundational fabric of the U.S. itself. With western Capital. And all the predictable but always denied crises of capital had a ready scapegoat in the form of Jewish financiers. The age old images of Jewish money lenders were transferred to Wall Street and investment houses like Goldman Sachs. The new computational antisemitism is one that serves to make Capital innocent. Racialize power, and inject that quality of mysticism that existed all the way back to the Inquisition, and the new version of the global Jewish conspiracy finds traction. The crimes of the ruling class, of the defense contractors and Pentagon and CIA are all explained by the secret near spiritual power of Zionist puppeteers in Tel Aviv. The dog whistle code word is *Rothschild*. The old protocols seem to return structurally here. But there is confusion and ambivalence, too. For Israel is also portrayed in Hollywood as the most skilled and capable enforcers of white supremacism. Of European and North American supremacism. And a form of this contradiction exists in Islamaphobia too. Evil Muslim masterminds, who also live in caves. Both primitive and mystically powerful and demonic. Medieval but unimaginably powerful and dangerous.

The current rational antisemitism of the white bourgeoisie is one that allows this antisemite to feel part of the propertied class of which the Jews are taking advantage. This echoes Sartre’s insights about antisemitic identification and resentment: “Now they put themselves in the enviable position of people who could be robbed”.

When anticapitalists and self-identified leftists blame Israel for wars and aggression that are carried out by the U.S. itself, it betrays a deeper identification with the system they purport to criticize. And it also lets the author of these accusations feel like the possessor of unique insights, it is the subject position of hard nosed no-nonsense practicality so approved of and validated in American culture. Just as Zionists now brag about their cruelty, so the bourgeois antisemite openly takes on the role of ‘having to make the tough call’. Somebody’s got to do it. There is a kinship, too, with those that pretend to care about women when attacking Islam, or who advocate coercive birth control measures to combat overpopulation. It is displaced aggression itself. It is bigotry channelled through the prisms of sociological systems of thinking. Instrumental antisemitism.

John Steppling is an original founding member of the Padua Hills Playwrights Festival, a two-time NEA recipient, Rockefeller Fellow in theatre, and PEN-West winner for playwriting. Plays produced in LA, NYC, SF, Louisville, and at universities across the US, as well in Warsaw, Lodz, Paris, London and Krakow. Taught screenwriting and curated the cinematheque for five years at the Polish National Film School in Lodz, Poland. A collection of plays, Sea of Cortez & Other Plays was published in 1999, and his book on aesthetics, Aesthetic Resistance and Dis-Interest was published by Mimesis International in 2016.