Talking Anti-Semitism

Artist Unknown, Ecclesia and Synogoga (Christianity and Judaism), Strasbourg Cathedral, c. 1400.

Three ways to hate Jews

There may be more than three – Jew-haters have been at it for a long time — but these are the most obvious:

1) Judeophobia – individual or community animus toward Jews. Arising from multiple sources, including the medieval blood libel that Jews kill Christian babies, Judeophobia has persisted for centuries. It can be obnoxious (disparagement) or murderous (pogroms), and quickly change from one to the other. Because some ideas are just too stupid to die, the blood libel persists today. QAnon, for example endorses it, though their roster of baby killers now also includes liberals, socialists, journalists, queers, and of course, the Clintons. The man who assaulted Nancy Pelosi’s husband Paul in San Francisco, was a QAnon follower and Judeophobe. A poll of QAnon believers published in Morning Consult reveals that about half think liberal Jews are actively seeking to control the world. (Jews are 0.2 percent of global population.) Just as disturbing, about a third of “right-leaning” Americans (aka Republicans) believe the same thing.

Judeophobia sometimes erupts from the mouths of non-Jewish friends. Most Jews ignore it, but because there are few scabs I’m not willing to pick, I don’t. Here’s a conversation I had recently with a middle-aged man named Dean (not his real name) whom I sometimes hire to do jobs around the house and consider a friend. It began with the banal but quickly escalated to the ridiculous. I should add that I have had versions of this conversation many times in my life:

“Do you think you can replace those missing strips beneath our metal roof?” I asked Dean: “It’s still under warranty but the roofer won’t answer my calls.”

“You could get him to do it if you really wanted to.”

“Dean, I tried. What special powers do you think I possess to get people to reply to my messages?” I knew what answer was coming.

“Cmon, Steve, you people are good at getting folks to do things,” he said with a grin.

Here we go, I thought. “Do you mean Jews have supernatural abilities to get roofers to abide by their warranties?”

“Not just roofers!” He wasn’t the least abashed. “You’re good at negotiating. Everybody knows that. Good with money.”

Since moving to rural Florida, I’ve stopped haggling over price.

2) anti-Judaism — antipathy toward the Jewish religion. That too is deeply rooted in European cultural history. It was fundamental to the doctrine of Supersession, the idea that Jesus was the Messiah prophesied by Jews, and that after the rise of Christianity, Judaism became obsolete. Supersession was long represented by the visual iconography of Ecclesia and Synagoga, found for example, on the west portal of Strasbourg Cathedral. Ecclesia (the personified Christian Church) is shown as triumphant and Synagoga (the personified Temple of the Jews) as defeated. The former wears a crown and carries a chalice and scepter, while the latter, blinded by a hat worn low over her eyes, holds a broken lance and the Mosaic tablets of the law, which slip from her hand. I always found solace in the fact that Synagoga was sexier than Ecclesia; her hips sway just a bit more than her goyishe cousin, and her peek-a-boo gaze suggests Veronica Lake. But then I read somewhere that her very allure was an expression of Judeophobia – Jewish women were considered haughty and licentious, fit like Hagar of the Bible to be cast into the wilderness.

2) anti-Semitism – institutionalized hostility to Jews, and the general conviction that they are alien to the social and political body. This is the most dangerous of all versions of anti-Jewish animus because it can become operational at any scale. Anti-Semitism may be legally sanctioned or extra-legal; attitudinal or violent; secular or religious; but it’s always collective. That’s what the late 19th Century German writer and politician August Bebel meant when he said: “Anti-Semitism is the socialism of fools” – it unites people in common resentment against a false enemy. Anti-Semitism therefore functions like racism – it confers favor on an already dominant majority while denying it to a weaker minority.

Also, like racism, anti-Semitism encourages subordinate members of the ethnic majority to align with powerful people they should oppose. In the U.S., as W.E.B. Dubois wrote in Black Reconstruction (1935), poor whites in the South resented both free and unfree Black workers, seeing them as competitors, driving down the price of labor: “[They] could not for a moment contemplate a fight of united white and black labor against the exploiters.” In the case of anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany, a critical mass of the Christian population supported Hitler in his furious attack on “Judeobolshevism.” They were rewarded with a war that resulted in more than seven million German deaths, almost 9% of the country’s total population. That includes between 160,000 and 180,000 German Jews.

20th Century anti-Semitism was not only a German disorder. In the U.S., it was manifested in immigration law, housing discrimination, college admissions, and bias in the criminal justice system. The Immigration Act of 1924 sharply cut the number of Jewish emigres from Russia and eastern Europe; the law wasn’t modified even after the rise of Nazism and implementation of the Final Solution. Restrictive racial covenants in many communities prevented the sale or rent of properties to any but white Christians. Strict quotas denied Jewish students places in elite educational institutions, including Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Columbia. In 1915, a New York-born, Jewish businessman named Leo Frank was convicted in Atlanta of a murder he didn’t commit. When the Georgia governor stayed Frank’s execution because of lack of evidence, a mob pulled him from his jail cell and lynched him. Some of the perpetrators belonged to the newly revived Ku Klux Klan. A few months later, D.W. Griffith’s film Birth of a Nation was released, glorifying the Klan, and fostering its growth.

The following three decades were marked by a virulent, American anti-Semitism, personified by the car manufacturer Henry Ford, the radio preacher Charles Coughlin, and the minister and publisher Gerald L.K. Smith, among others. They claimed that Jews were responsible for World War I, that they controlled the global finance system, dominated the entertainment industry (thereby undermining Christian morals), and were responsible for the widespread distribution of alcohol and other addictive drugs. In 1920, Ford’s newspaper, The Dearborn Independent (circulation 900,000), began a series about world Jewry with a front page article titled, “The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem.” His book of the same title, largely based upon the notorious anti-Semitic libel, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, was beloved of Coughlin, Smith and others.

Ford was relentless in his anti-Semitism: “It is not merely that there are a few Jews among international financial controllers,” he and his team wrote, “it is that these world-controllers are exclusively Jews.” He added: “The motion picture influence of the United States, of the whole world, is exclusively under the control, moral and financial, of the Jewish manipulators of the public mind.” Even baseball, he said, was undermined by Jews. The trouble with the “American pastime…[may be summed up] in three words…too much Jew.” (In fact, the Jewish mobster Arnold Rothstein was one of the plotters of the infamous “Black Sox” gambling scandal of 1919. But it takes more than one crook to throw a World Series.)

Henry Ford admired Hitler and the feeling was mutual. The Fuhrer mentioned Ford approvingly in Mein Kampf (p. 930), called him an “inspiration” in 1931, and seven years later awarded him the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of the German Eagle, an award initiated by Hitler. When the war started, Ford apologized for his anti-Semitism – by then it was bad for business – but The International Jew remained essential reading for Judeophobes and anti-Semites. Even now it’s a basis for white nationalist conspiracy theories, including the Zionist Occupation Government (ZOG), New World Order, and Great Replacement. These doctrines posit that the current U.S. Government is controlled and dominated by Jewish financiers and politicians, led by 92 y.o. hedge-fund billionaire and philanthropist George Soros. This cabal, it is further alleged, plans to institute a new, Socialist world order in which Jews, Blacks and Muslims will replace conservative, white Christians. Even madmen sometimes imagine a better future!

My Zionist dentist

The ZOG conspiracy theory states that Jews (equated with Zion) govern the U.S. and control the heights of industry, finance, and entertainment. It has nothing to do with Zionism – support for a Jewish homeland. But Zionism is a paradoxical touchstone for Judeophobes and anti-Semites. They blame Jews both for embracing Zionism and not embracing it enough — for having a greater loyalty to Israel than the United States, and for insufficient loyalty to Israel. That “heads I win, tails you lose” way of thinking, is typically anti-Semitic. Jews are manipulative capitalists and evil socialists, clannish and cosmopolitan, cheap and extravagant, prudish and lascivious. Anti-Semitic conspiracy theories are hard to disprove because they are always changing.

To be sure, there may be some American Jews who care more about Israel than the United States, though I haven’t met any. The closest I came was my dentist in Chicago, Joe Silverstein – a blinkered Zionist, but an American patriot and a great dentist. If anything went wrong with one of your teeth, he took it personally. It wasn’t the patient he sympathized with it was the tooth. That became a source of humor for us and stimulated his put-on Yiddishkeit.

“Hey Joe,” I said during one visit, “I hope there’s no razor blades in the office because I have some bad news for you. I lost the filling for my number 2 molar.”

Vey iz mir!” he said. “That was your previous dentist who put that in – a real gonif he was. So, what else?”

The crown over number molar 3 has cracked.”

Gott in Himmel! Could it be worse?”

“I’ve got bleeding from the gum above number 12.”

“Let’s recite the Kaddish.”

We also talked about politics, especially when my mouth was full of dental instruments.

“So how do you feel now about your friend, Hitler,” (my affectionate shorthand for the ex-president) “after his comment about ‘shithole countries.’” Like most dentists, Joe is a Republican.

“I don’t agree with it – it’s un-American. Plus, many Africans have wonderful teeth. But Trump is good for Israel and the Jews, and that’s what matters to me.”

“I disagree he’s good for Israel and the Jews.” I replied. “He’s good for Likud and the Zionists who want to expel Palestinians from their own country! But anyway, why is Israel so important to you?

“Because I’m a Jew, you nudnik! Israel is our homeland, Eretz Yisrael.”

More common among Jews I’ve known is indifference to Israel. Most couldn’t tell you a single thing about Israel’s current government except that the prime minister is (or soon will be) Benjamin Netanyahu, which is a safe guess because he’s been PM on and off for the last 30 years. What’s important to American Jews about Israel is that it’s an insurance policy – a place to flee to in case everything in the U.S. goes sideways. Whoever in Israel came up with the idea of the “right of return” (really a right to colonize Palestine) was a marketing genius.

Yet even as incidents of anti-Semitism rose in 2021 and 2022, few secular Jews chose to emigrate to Israel. That’s because of Israel’s noxious, apartheid regime. As Melvin Goodman recently wrote in these pages: “Netanyahu…is a racist and he is considering appointing to his government people who are dangerous racists.” They include Itamar Ben Gvir, a follower of the assassinated fascist, Meir Kahane, who will oversee the Border Patrol units in the West Bank. Other proposed ministers wish to expel Arab citizens from Israel and are openly hostile to LGBTQ rights and even to non-Orthodox Jews. (Instead of emigrating to Israel, some American Jews are choosing second amendment solutions for self-protection.) In fact — excepting the Ultra-Orthodox Hasidic sect — American Jews are no more Zionist than non-Jews, maybe less so. It’s evangelical Christians and Christian Zionists who are the most fervent supporters of Israel, and that’s because they see it as fulfillment of biblical prophecy, and future site of the “Rapture” when Jews will be cast down to Hell and Christians ascend to heaven.

And yet the idea persists that American Jews’ first loyalty is to Israel, or that they have a conflicting dual-loyalty. That anti-Semitic canard has naturally been repeated by the former president and his most enthusiastic followers, including members of the Proud Boys and other far right militias. Personally, I have no loyalty to Israel, the U.S., or any other geo-political entity. My loyalty is to the people and animals they oppress!

Dave Chapelle and Claude LéviStrauss

It’s a testimonial to Dave Chapelle’s genius that so many people watched his opening monologue on Saturday Night Live, a month ago, and asked themselves the same question: “Anti-Semitic or not anti-Semitic?” The fact that I spent the whole 15 minutes reassuring myself that it was not suggests it probably was. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t funny.

Despite his relaxed bearing and informal delivery – he sometimes deploys Black, street-smart argot — Chapelle relies upon the tried-and-true joke forms and structures examined by Sigmund Freud, among others, including condensation, double-meaning, and displacement. After saying how many lucrative endorsement deals were taken away from Kanye West (aka YE) because of his anti-Semitic tirades, Chapelle used a minor joke to set-up a major joke about the basketball player, Kyrie Irving, also recently castigated for anti-Semitism:

“Kanye got into so much trouble Kyrie got into trouble,” Chapelle began, linking the men by the unvoiced “k” phoneme at the start of each, two-syllable name. “[But] Kyrie’s Black ass was nowhere near the Holocaust – [pause] in fact, he’s not even sure it happened.”

Dave Chapelle, Saturday Night Live, stand-up monologue, November 13, 2022.

Pretty good joke! It relies on the condensation of three sentences into one:

Kyrie has no responsibility for the death of six million Jews in the Holocaust.

There are Holocaust deniers.

Kyrie Irving may be a Holocaust dernier.

Because the predicate is that the Holocaust existed – “Kyrie’s Black ass was nowhere near [it]” – we are confident that the speaker (Chapelle) is neither a Holocaust denier nor an anti-Semite. But that confidence is subsequently shaken.

The monologue begins and ends with the comedian breaking the fourth wall — stepping out of character and directly addressing the audience. That’s been a frequent part of stand-up since at least the days of George Burnes and Gracie Allen. Seinfeld revived it in his TV series. Louis CK too. In this case, Chapelle uses the device to address what he considers the challenge of telling jokes in an age of heightened cultural and political sensitivities. At the start of the monologue, he pulls out a sheet of paper and reads a statement – as if it was a legal disclaimer — “denouncing anti-Semitism in all its forms, I stand with my friends in the Jewish community,” preparing the audience for a monologue that may in fact be anti-Semitic. At the end of the routine, he pauses, again steps out of character, and tells the audience:

It shouldn’t be that scary to talk – about anything. It’s making my job incredibly difficult. To be honest I’m getting sick of talking to a crowd like this. I love you to death. I thank you for your support. I hope they don’t take anything away from me – whoever they are.

That conclusion fulfills the expectation at the beginning. The word “they” obviously means the Jews, the ones who supposedly dominate Hollywood, which Chapelle discussed in the middle of his monologue. (“A lot of Jews – I mean A LOT.”) But by saying “whoever they are” he allows us to believe it’s all a joke, no anti-Semitism here.

What should we make of all that winking and nodding at anti-Semitism? I wasn’t sure, so I called my friend, the anthropologist, joke expert, and Jew, Susan Seizer in Bloomington.

“Hey Susan – I take it you watched the monologue. Is it or is it not”? I didn’t have to say more.

“Yes and no,” she answered. “Consider Chapelle’s first proper joke: ‘I learned early in my career there are two words in the English language that you should never say together, in sequence. Those words are the and Jews. I never heard anyone do good after they said that.’”

“But Susan, that was so brilliant, and true!”

“Yeah, but the phrase “the Jews,“ couched in a statement about never saying those two words, is the classic sleight-of-hand known in anthropological linguistics as ‘the use – mention distinction.’ He gets away with using the forbidden phrase ‘the Jews’ by couching it as a mere mention.”

“Ok, so does that mean saying the words “the Jews” is anti-Semitic?”

“That depends upon whether we hear its ‘mention’ as ironic. If yes, then it’s not anti-Semitic, if not, then it is.”

I looked puzzled. She continued:

“Maybe this will help: As a Jewish person whose family is involved in the industry in Hollywood, I don’t take offense at the statement that there are a lot of Jews in Hollywood. But he goes on to say that you can’t say this out loud, even though he just said it. Again, use – mention distinction.”

“So, what’s wrong with that?” I asked.

“Don’t you see? The very act of saying you can’t say it, is where the anti-Semitism lies! It’s not a problem to say there are a lot of Jews in Hollywood but saying it’s a problem to say it raises the questions of why. And the only answer is ‘because the Jews control Hollywood,’ and that’s anti-Semitic!

“I think I’m getting a headache”

“Is it your teeth again?”

My conversation with Susan remined me of the protean nature of anti-Semitism. There’s no limit to the forms it takes or the deviousness of its adherents. An explanation for this, it seems to me, is found in the writings of the French anthropologist, Claude Lévi-Strauss. In his book, Totemism (1962), he tried to explain why tribes and clans used animals to represent themselves (the bear, eagle, wolverine, etc). The reason was not because they hunted, ate, or even especially admired the animals, but simply because they were “good to think with.” The relationship between the animals, for example, offered a parallel for the interactions between the different human communities who shared a territory. In other words, it was the structural relations between the animals that mattered more than the actual ones.

In a similar way, anti-Semitism is good for the anti-Semite to think with. The content of an anti-Semitic utterance or belief is insignificant, often idiotic; it’s the expressed relationship with power and property that matters: resentment at lost racial prestige, national competition, declining living standard, desire for domination, and the dream of a revived, stable social order that in fact never existed. I’m aware of the irony of citing Lévi-Strauss as the basis for a theory of anti-Semitism. He was a Jew (secular, atheist) who fled France in 1940 in advance of the Nazis. In the U.S., he was mentored by the Columbia professor, Franz Boas, another Jewish anthropologist (secular, atheist), most notable for his dismantling of the concept of race as a scientific category. It’s cultural differences, not supposed racial ones that account for the diversity of the world’s people.

In this essay, I have mentioned Sigmund Freud, whose book Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious (1905) provides an account of joke formation that is still valid today. Levi-Strauss devised a structural system for studying the world’s myths. Franz Boas dismantled the pseudo-scientific study of human races. Susan Seizer provided me a sharp account of Dave Chapelle’s now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t anti-Semitism. But none of these ideas or insights are available to anti-Semites. That’s not only because these authors are Jewish. It’s because anti-Semites –increasing in numbers and propensity for violence — are disabled by a hatred that denies them access to critical scholarship, humor, and self-understanding. The anti-Semite therefore deserves sympathy, but the sympathy we feel for a wounded animal who might lash out at anyone near them. Such a creature must be approached with trepidation – monitored until such time as its injury is healed and the risk to others is ended. Vigilance is the watchword.

Stephen F. Eisenman is Professor Emeritus of Art History at Northwestern University and the author of Gauguin’s Skirt (Thames and Hudson, 1997), The Abu Ghraib Effect (Reaktion, 2007), The Cry of Nature: Art and the Making of Animal Rights (Reaktion, 2015) and other books. He is also co-founder of the environmental justice non-profit,  Anthropocene Alliance. He and the artist Sue Coe have just published American Fascism, Still for Rotland Press.