Carl Schmitt, Donald Trump, and Academic Poltical Theory

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It was always a grotesque intellectual alliance. Since about 9/11, academic political theorists on the left, including so-called political theologians, have jumped to the ultra-conservative and fascist and Nazi-leaning German Carl Schmitt. They did so for a host of concepts meant as resources that the left could use to attack and undermine liberalism and liberal state power –as if these concepts could undo the difference by showing the identity between the liberal state and mid-century state totalitarianism. What a difference an election makes. Stephen Bannon-Donald Trump are now in the White House declaring total war on the press, the “administrative state,” and anyone who gets in their way, all for the interest of creating a new “poltical order.” In realizing fascist political concepts, Bannon and Trump are the ones putting Schmitt’s contemporary use-value to the test as a theorist of anti-liberalism, or even worse, as a genuine political theorist from whom, practically, there is what to learn.

We have been given a better understanding of what’s at stake than the view offered up by academic political theory; we now see in action those nasty concepts, the “friend-enemy distinction” and the “omnipotence” of “sovereign states of exception.” These were never at the structure of the political as such, only its fascist variant of unlimited state power; and adopting them does nothing to promote those values advanced on the left. As catastrophic, Schmittian concepts stand as stark, apocalyptic threats to the liberal-constitutional norms of limited governance and to the practice of government by checks-and-balance, to which, all of a sudden, we are now finding ourselves holding onto for dear life. Is it only now, when under threat, that liberal norms and institutions are worth fighting for? A terrible mistake, one wonders if academic political theorists on the left will continue to use fascist concepts as a way to analyze the very liberal political structures that Bannon and Trump want to eviscerate, or to construct their own models. Can one hope now to see Schmitt’s star fade into the historical record? He was always a rotten foundation upon which to build anything.

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Statue of Liberty Welcomes Refugees

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(apparently for real)

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Interview with William Kolbrener- The Last Rabbi: Joseph Soloveitchik

The Book of Doctrines and Opinions:

What would a literary critical approach look like if applied to Orthodox Jewish texts? What if the texts chosen for a critical theory treatment were the writings of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (1903-93)? William Kolbrener, attempts such a reading in The Last Rabbi: Joseph Soloveitchikand Talmudic Tradition (Indiana UP, 2016) using psychoanalysis, gender, and 17th century literature to read Soloveitchik as a literary text.

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William Kolbrener is professor of literature at Bar Ilan University, and was educated at Oxford (MA) and Columbia University (BA, PhD.).  His first book was Milton’s Warring Angels: A Study of Critical Engagements, (Cambridge University Press, 1996). His current work  The Last Rabbi: Joseph Soloveitchikand Talmudic Tradition is an application of his literary studies to a contemporary Jewish thinker. Despite writing on Soloveitchik, his classes at Bar Ilan University are currently populated mainly Arab students, both Muslim and Christian. He has also recently…

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(Trump) Cemetery Desecration (Missouri 2017)

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Across the country and up into the White House, what’s new is the scale of the new anti-Semitism. Trump America looks like anti-Semites vandalizing 170 to 200 gravestones at Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery in University City, Missouri near St. Louis.  Trump said today “it’s gonna stop.”

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The Political Messianic Idea Is An Incoherent Mess (Joseph Klausner)

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Going in, I thought that reading Joseph Klausner’s The Messianic Idea in Israel from Its Beginning to the Completion of the Mishnah would be just a professional chore, a look at an antiquarian piece of ideological historiography. Yes, an oddball of a book, it was composed in three parts, each originally published in Germany under separate cover. Part one is devoted to the messianic idea in the period of the prophets (1909), part two to the messianic idea in the books of the apocrypha and pseudepigrapha (1921); part three, which was actually the first published, explores the messianic idea during the tannaitic period (1902). To complicate the bibliographical confusion, the text I’m reading is the English translation of the third Hebrew edition, published in 1955 by W.F. Stinespring, professor of Old Testament from Duke University. Working through this composite text, I have neither the time nor interest and intention to track down discrepancies between the German language originals and the Hebrew translation.

What Klausner calls “the messianic idea” turns out to be a mess of an idea.

Obvious from the very start was the Zionist historiography. This is Klausner attempting to establish a structural continuity linking the messianic idea and contemporary Zionism in order for him to claim that Zionism inherits the messianic idea. With conscious nods to Lebensphilosophie, one expression of this Zionism was the privilege accorded by Klausner to the biblical, Second Temple, and tannaitic sources. This point is to connect the messianic idea with the lived reality of the Jews at home in their own land. At one interesting moment in his introduction to his study of the tannaim, Klausner goes so far as to ascribe an even earthy aroma (citing Hugo Gressman, “the odor of the soil of Palestine”) and the “freshness” of soil to the messianic idea (p.389). As for the Babylonian amoriam, Klausner attributes their pessimism regrading the messianic idea not to any superior or worldly wisdom that they might have cultivated, but to their alienation from native ground.

What I did not expect to find in Klausner’s study was the very early articulation of what is today called “political theology.” It stems from Klausner’s own ideological commitments to a form of liberal nationalism. Long before the idea came in vogue in contemporary critical theory and critical religious studies, this is the basic contention that the messianic idea in Judaism (as opposed to in Christianity) is a construct of both political-material-national and by spiritual-ethical-universal component parts. Anticipating presumptions made by scholars at work today in political theology, Klausner admits no separation between religion and society, or between religion and politics. In his view, what counts as the “original” messianic impulse in Judaism is the political. In his discussion of the tannaim prior to the Hadrianic persecutions, his estimation of this putatively original political meaning stands opposed to the dislike for what he sees as the transformation by the amoraim of the messianic idea into something unworldly and merely spiritual about which the amoraim are themselves deeply skeptical and pessimistic.

As a Zionist, Klausner held the amoraic material as “unoriginal” precisely because, alienated from the cradle of its own land, it had lost its political edge. To borrow the term used by Max Nordau during the same time and place when Klausner was writing, the amoraic material could said to have been said by Klausner to be “degenerate.”  This antipathy towards the amoraim comes as no surprise for a scholar writing in the German Zionist milieu at the fin de siècle. One thinks not only of Nordau, but also of the early Martin Buber. One could not but expect the privileging of the prophetic models of religion and religiosity over against a putatively abstract “law.” Alongside ethical monotheism, ethics, and prophecy, Klausner identifies messianism as the fourth gift of the Jews to the world, “the most glistening jewel in the glorious crown of Judaism!” (pp.13-15, 20, 25; cf. p.531)).

What I would like to observe is how political messianism deconstructs in Klausner’s own analysis of it. He himself is the one to suggest that, long before the amoraim, the messianic idea will have already crashed and burned in precisely those materials where one would have expected to find its expression to be at its most fresh and original –i.e. already in the biblical-prophetic material.

Here are three basic points that confuse the messianic idea:

[1] The first point of confusion about Klausner’s approach to the material in the prophetic writings concerns the basic definition of the term “messianism.” In many of the prophetic texts, for instance in an early prophetic work such as Amos, hope is held out for redemption, understood as the desire to be free from the oppressive rule of foreign enemies. What is complicating is that this hope is without mention of an individual messiah at all (pp. 34, 44). This same feature comes up again in the appendix to the English translation, an essay “The Jewish and the Christian Messiah.” Klausner understands that, in Judaism, redemption can be conceived without an individual messiah (p.529). It is a claim that might confirm the same thematization in Levinas, Derrida, and others: messianism without a messiah, “messianicity without messianism.”

The notion is incoherent. Klausner notes that, in the Hebrew Bible, the word “messiah” does not designate the redeemer of Israel.  He himself states that messianism (which I would understand narrowly and precisely as the idea that the redemption of the peope ultimately depends upon a messiah) is a post-biblical idea, dating onward from the second century BCE. In the Hebrew Bible, according to Klausner, only God redeems (pp.8- 9, 458). This is no little matter. In Judaism, God is not the messiah and the messiah not God. Strictly speaking, then, there should be no messianism, no messianic salvation, without a messiah. There is certainly no reason to use the term as a political keyword, at not least in Jewish philosophy.

[2] A more serious incoherence stemming from this first confusion is reflected in the claim made twice by Klausner that the biblical prophets who supposedly develop the messianic idea were themselves “practical politicians.” This claim appears once in a discussion of Isaiah, and once in a discussion of Ezekiel. What Klausner means to say is that the prophets of ancient Israel were close to political events and to political power. It also means that the messianic idea entails the realization (i.e. the making real) of religious and ethical ideals in the practical, national, and social life of a people (55, 114). But the claim is undermined by Klausner himself. In one instance, he refers to the first set of prophecies in Ezekiel’s career prior to the exile of King Zedekiah as a “flight of fancy.” They are “generalizing imaginative depictionsordescriptions???” with “no concrete description” that might have contained “details  of the new paolticial structure and of the new life.” with detail with practical program …. (116; emphases in the original) (p.116). (This is, in essence, the same problem pointed out by Michael Walzer in In God’s Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible)

For all that he has to say about the political, the messianic idea, even as understood by Klausner himself, is not itself political except only hazily. He notes, for instance, that the political sphere was severely restricted for a prophet such as Deutero-Isaiah. Forced to live under Babylonian and Pesian rule, he was said by Klausner to have been unable to express much greater than vague political expectations. For Deutero-Isaiah, God is the redeemer and Cyrus God’s instrument. It is Klausner who notes that, in this prophetic vision, there is no Jewish messiah (pp.154-6).

So how is this “political” if one assumes that the political cannot escape that precise human element involving determinate institutions, hierarchies, and lines of authority. For political theology to be political would depend upon whether or not its expression is based on a model of human actors acting under, alongside, or in place of God. While there is always a larger and structuring political and geo-political backdrop to any cultural expression, the messianic idea is not itself political if it is only God and not a human king who redeems the group life of a people from political oppression. That’s why, again, it is Klausner who can say that there can be “no place for bright and immediate messianic hopes” when there’s no king in Israel. All that’s left is to hope for the return to Zion, and the vague assurance that “the rest will follow” (156).

What Klausner describes about the prophecies in Deutero-Isaiah chapters 55-66 is not political per se, but a political grotesque marked by what he calls “extreme spirituality.” Its vision of Israel is of a supreme people, but with no need to conduct its own affairs of state. Physical labor is done by others (by Persian kings, Alexander, kings of Egypt and Syria). According to Klausner, “Jewish statecraft…assumed mostly a form of supernatural authority, in such a manner that all the nations and kingdoms would serve Israel because they might wish to serve Israel’s God and Torah. Thus it came about that the prophets dreamed of a political situation in which there would be no need for Jews to build walls, or even to tend flock and herd or to cultivate fields and vineyard; all these things would be done for them by the Gentiles.” While not ignoring material reward and possession, the messianic idea in Deutero Isaiah, at the height of its expression, is “adorned” with “imaginative colors.” Klausner knows that it exceeds in many place “the bounds of the natural and the possible, so that even their political and material ideal appeared as if ‘not of this world’” (pp.176-7). As an aside, one notes how far this vision is from the original expression of Political and Labor Zionism. But even in Klausner’s own analysis of the biblical material, it is hard to see how any of this is political in the way he is wont to call the messianic idea in Judaism when he contrasts it to the messianic idea in Christianity.

[3] A third confusion concerning the political status of the messianic idea, even in Klausner’s own analysis, is teleological. Political programs worthy of the name are not based on the idea of failure, whereas the messianic, as a political figure, can promise only failure and disappoint. Failure is worked into the basic temporal structure of the messianic idea as presented by Klausner.  For instance, neither Hezekiah nor Zedekiah can deliver the promised goods. The return of the Babylonian exiles is a disappointment. At each moment of failure, the promised messianic redemption is pushed off into the future. To be sure, it is this futuristic structure at the heart of the messianic that has charmed modern Jewish philosophers and contemporary theorists already since Hermann Cohen. But it is this orientation that signals the idea’s greatest failure, which is the failure of a promise to pan out in the present (pp.56-7, 105-6, 114). This Klausner calls “the secret” of how the messianic idea endures as an ideal (p.57). But it is not clear how [1] the idea of an unrealizable hope to turn the machinery of political, social, and national life of the people around the will of the prophet and [2] the realization that “actual life” cannot incline towards the ideal” jibes with [3] the idea that prophets are “practical politicians” (p.114).

Failure hangs over the entire messianic idea, whose sad deneoument is tracked by Klausnser in the late prophecies of Hagai and Zecharya. The promise goes unfulfilled. At the start of the Second Temple period, the whole Jewish settlement was restricted to some seventy square miles within narrow and restricted borders. In the end, real life cannot stand up before the glowing expectations of the great prophets. Now during the Second Temple Period when remote expectations are now near at hand, it turns out that messianic idea is greatly “reduced” and “clipped.” Far indeed from the “sublime expectations of Isaiah and Jeremiah,” Jewish life enjoys no “political grandeur” or “dazzling triumphs” (chapter 13). In a note on Malachi and the end of prophecy, messianism gives way to the “hour of the Law of Moses.” Displacing prophecy, the Torah is now “accepted as the constitution of the land and people of Judah, that is, as a book regulating every detail of the life of the entire nation and guiding it in the fear of the LORD…by means of firmly fixed ceremonial laws and ethical demands laid down in the form of definite statutes” (216).

What’s left in Klausner’s analysis of the messianic idea is its aesthetic status, meaning the messianic idea as an aesthetic formation, and the attention to aesthetic qualities in Klausner’s analysis. From the start to finish of Klausner’s book, the messianic idea is subsumed by understandings of light filled and glistening figures (pp.20, 21, 25), of the identification of prophecy and poetry (p.40), of the power of the “magic dream” of peace and of “the human-eternal” (p.70), of stories and poetry as creative outlets (p.385). Klausner is unable to relieve these figures of the gloom that has always attended the messianic idea as a figure of art. Assuming one still wants to use the term “political” to describe the prophetic promise, Klausner is probably right to trace the bright idea of the messianic as it emerges out of the historical experience of terrible suffering, “the dark past of Israel.” These figures emerge with great color and excitement, and then fade off quietly into haze (cf. 15). Written in Germany at the fin de siècle, the messianic idea in Klausner reads almost like a score from Mahler. One can imagine the aesthetic affinity of tjej messianic idea to something like Das Lied von der Erde. The figures are all full of dark chords, soaring images and wistful denouements. Barely tethered to this world, the idea of the messiah assumes no firm basis on which to form a political ideology or human community apart from those more tentative forms of human belonging brought together by way of poetic fantasy by way of the liturgical and other forms of popular imagination. Religio-aesthetic, the messianic idea is Schwärmerei, not political.

On a more speculative political note regarding Klausner’s own ideological identity, which was classical rightwing Revisionist Zionist, I will leave open the question about the actual causal link connecting this type of Zionism with intellectual the disaster-prone flights of poetic fancy represented by the messianic idea. This should be of interest to anyone who follows Israel-Palestine politics and contemporary identity-based religious Zionism. Ironically, it is Klausner himself who shows how the messianic idea collapses in on itself. Klausner wants the datum (i.e. the messianic idea) to do the political work it cannot do or never once did.

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Netanyahu Rejects Regional Peace Plan & Jewish State Idea (2016) (Timeline)

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Based on leaked story from officials in the Obama Administration, this article by Barak Ravid in Ha’aretz puts the lie to any claim that it was the Palestinians, and not Israel, who destroyed prospects for a two state solution. The story highlights the degree to which Prime Minister Netanyahu prefers settlements to a peace that would integrate Israel into the Middle East. Ravid reports that Netanyahu rejected a peace deal arranged by then Secretary of State Kerry. The deal included regional buy-in from neighboring Arab countries and would have included broad Arab recognition of the “Jewish State” proposition, something repeatedly stated by Netanyahu as a sine qua non to any peace agreement. The article includes a detailed timeline for anyone interested. The whole thing got cooking in October 20015 and ran aground by May 2016 when Netanyahu dropped discussions with the center-left Zionist Union, which would have supported the deal, in order to appoint rightwing Avigdor Liberman as Defense Minister and to maintain his coalition partnership with the Jewish National Home Party, the ultra-right wing settler party, who were never going to stomach such an agreement.

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New Antisemitism in American Politics (Trump and Turx)

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This is a sea change in the public sphere of American and American-Jewish political life. Watch the exchange posted below between Trump and journalist Jake Turx. The President expects a “friendly” question from Turx, obviously, because Turx is an orthodox (haredi) Jew. Turx states from the start that neither he nor people from his community was accusing Trump of being an anti-Semite. But Turx expressed a broad concern among the Jewish public about the wave of anti-Semitism associated with the Trump campaign into our public life (or one could say, coughed up into our public life). A visibly angry President Trump tells Turx to sit down, directly accuses him of lying, and proceeds to defend what for him matters more than anything, namely Trump.

This President was never going to hear, much less understand the question posed to him by Turx. While one might see this otherwise, at issue was not that Turx accused Trump of anti-Semitism, he purposely did not. At issue was the pall cast on the Trump campaign, persona, and now presidency by the very asking of the question. Instead of simply condemning the phenomenon, which Trump could have easily done and which would have met many people’s satisfaction, Trump doubles down on his own image, on his grandchildren and the hechsher granted to him by Benjamin Netanyahu, who now, all of a sudden, no longer cares about anti-Semitism in public life. What’s the takeaway? I cannot recall the question of anti-Semitism at the forefront of American public life.

One would have to go back to the original American First movement from the 1940s. What is shown is the malice of the President of the United States turned against an orthodox Jew at a televised press conference in the full view of the public eye. No matter how you cut it, this is the “new anti-Semitism in American politics.” It has been introduced and brought before us by Trump and  Trumpism. No matter the high regard in which he holds himself, this is more than enough to make Donald Trump an anti-Semite.

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