Notes on “Israel,” “Islam,” and Anti-Semitism (Toulouse)


I received some interesting critical pushback about my previous post on Toulouse. Some of it has to do with the problem of anti-Semitism, about which earlier I said nothing explicit. I say now that I still don’t think it makes sense, the claim that “Israel/Gaza” or “Islam” explains qua “cause” the terrible murders in Toulouse. I can’t understand how any religious principle or political cause might explain, not the killing of small children, but their murder. Perhaps this was behind the angry or and/or pained appeal of the Prime Minister of the Palestine Authority Salam Fayyad to stop using the blood of Palestinian children to justify such heinous acts of terror. And I’ll stand by my disregard for “imbeciles” (on the right and the left) who write about “Islam” and “Israel” in wild, broad strokes, instead of with the fine-grain attention both phenomena deserve.

I’d like to start with the assumption that most people, including Muslims and Israelis, are not fanatic or inherently or irredeemably anti-Semitic or racist, and then work from there to address the political problems that face these two societies. This seems better than forcing particulars into broad, apriori categories like “Islam” or “Israel.”

Anti-Semitism is also one of those categories, this one being bandied around and much abused in recent days in the Jewish press now after Toulouse. It works to confirm all the worst fears about Arabs. Much if not most of the discussion tends to obscure what I think is the fact that, historically, most forms of anti-Semitism are enmeshed in larger problems. Theodore Herzl understood this, identifying modern anti-Semitism as a political problem that was part and parcel of nationalism and competing nationalisms in Europe, especially Central Europe at the fin de siècle. One could point to anti-Semitism in America prior to and in the aftermath of World War II as part of a larger cultural problem of ethnic caste, part and parcel of Protestant racism and anti-Catholicism. And of course one could point to examples of anti-Semitism reflecting the psychological disorders of this or that individual person.

I might be wrong, but it seems to me that it was only in Germany, in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries that anti-Semitism was conceived of and developed as an Idea, a metaphysical principle, something sui generis that stands alone and apart from anything else. I think that’s still not an entirely untrue way to think about Nazism, although I know a lot of historians and political theorists disagree.

The pressing problem, I think, is that too many Jews today look at all forms of Jew hating through the old Nazi prism of metaphysical, stand-alone, racial Anti-Semitism, a phenomenon that is arguably unique. This anachronism only addles the discourse about “Israel” and “Islam.” I know people might scream and holler, but I think it would be useful to look at the very real expressions of anti-Semitism current in the Muslim world as a political phenomenon, one that relates, obviously, to Israel, but also one that is part and parcel of the crisis of globalization, particularly as that crisis has made a profound impact on the religious and political radicalization of Islam in Muslim and especially Arab societies.

I’ve been reading and posting about books by Shohet-Kahanoff, Alcalay, and Rejwan, which concern Sephardic, “Levantine” Jewish culture. They are helping me think about Toulouse, Islam, and Israel in a more integrated way.

All of this, I think, is tricky, because the task making sense of phenomena requires us to connect pieces and parts that are, in fact, quite disconnected. I don’t want to reduce one thing to being a mere reflex to another. To integrate Toulouse with Gaza is a gross insult to the dead. But this does not mean that all these things don’t hold together in the peculiar form of what Deleuze would have called an “assemblage.” An assemblage for Deleuze constitutes a holding together of disconnected, heterogeneous parts in and by larger global dynamics. One can thus say that Islam and Israel are completely disconnected from what happened in Toulouse, even without wanting to deny that all these things hold together in very precise ways.

But I also know how the dead and their memory tend to get lost in these kinds of discussions of formal, global linkages. I’ve been reading a lot of David Chalmers on the philosophy of consciousness. He’s very interested in making a distinction between physical brain phenomena, on the one hand, versus the subjective experience of lived life. A science of consciousness would have to integrate the one with the other. What I’m beginning to understand from Chalmers is the kind of trouble an analysis of objective third-order structural dynamics has doing justice to the first-order, subjectively felt impact of an event such as this. In the case at hand, all this theoretical speculation that is the work of social theorists about “Israel,” and “Islam,” and “Gaza,” and “globalization,” and “assemblages” can only insult those who tend to the dead and their memory.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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3 Responses to Notes on “Israel,” “Islam,” and Anti-Semitism (Toulouse)

  1. nitzanl says:

    I’m not sure why you need the “assemblage” in this case. Or rather, doesn’t the use now–in this context– simply reduces it to the level of trivialization? A justified usage of the two cases should be grounded in a general- enough perspective that could embrace such radical difference, which isn’t the same thing as an assemblage, right? (And in order to make a judgment about that one has to read the whole speech). I’d be happy to hear what you think. Also, could you say more about how the Levantine texts help you to think about Toulouse?

    I agree with your estimation re anti-Semitism. One of the best falsified and most inaccurate concepts of our time. The major issue with it is that it pretends to be a-political and “diagnostic.” It’s about time one re-politicizes it (not by re-historicizing it, which has been done). But I have no clue how.

  2. I am sure you are aware that claiming that anti-Semitism is a political response to some significant shift in the national or global order is hardly a discovery. Authors such as Carl Schorske, George Mosse, and others have all recognized this fact. The question, though, is why, when these events shake up a society, are the Jews continually chosen as the victims of the backlash? Hannah Arendt tells us that in 19th and 20th century Germany such responses reflected Jews’ positions in the emerging capitalist economy. And I am sure others will tell us that Arab anti-Semitism must, in some way, emerge from the presence of the Jewish State (and perhaps the only pluralist state) in the Middle East.

    But such explanations do not account for the pogroms and riots which accompanied passion plays and Easter for centuries in Europe. They do not explain the blood libel, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the Leo Frank lynching, or a host of other anti-Semitic outrages in the long history of Jewish peoples across the globe. Jews have historically been the target of pent up, populist anxiety throughout history–especially in Europe. And that leads me to believe that anti-Semitism is indeed an a priori category of racism. It may not be the only such category, but it surely exists independent of any political or social catalyst.

  3. qolyehudi says:

    Thanks for the thoughts.

    I can recommend Gavin I. Langmuir’s “Towards a Definition of Antisemitism,” which – I believe – is among the few works which really deals with the nuances of enmity, Racism, and Antisemitism in a way where he succeeds in solving the puzzle, at least to a great extent.

    For him Antisemitism, as well as Racism, is only being expressed when the motives of the enmity or hatred is expressed through nonexistent ideas about the object, where as cases where the expressions connects the many to the actions of the (very) few, is considered as Xenophobia. I believe that Merah’s heinous crime would fall under the latter category.

    All the best


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