Anti-Semitism & Affect (Ruth Wisse)

(bomb shelter)

I went to hear the distinguished Ruth Wisse speak at Ansche Chesed about anti-Semitism last Shabbat. It was a remarkable performance. What I found most worthwhile about Wisse’s talk was the focus she put on the poltical character of ant-Semitism. But the pathos of her presentation read more like early and mid 20th C. Yiddish fiction and poetry, in keeping with Professor Wisse’s reputation as a distinguished scholar of Yiddish literature at Harvard.

The political character of the activism Professor Wisse wants to generate was obstructed by the clearly metaphysical and imagistic way she spoke about “the Jews” and the eternity of the Jew as an object of hatred through history, the essential difference between “us” and “them.” The massive object-like affect around which her talk curved was marked by rage, humiliation, and Holocaust memory. Wisse wants not to study anti-Semitism, but to put an end to it. I don’t think, however, that a bunker is the best place to secure this political goal.

Her main concern these days is anti-Semitism in the Islamic and Arab worlds, and I wanted to ask about her sources. It’s not that I don’t think there is a lot of viscous anti-Semitic rotgut out there. I agree these are uncertain times and not just a little frightening. But I get a different sense than she from what I have been reading now for more than a couple of years in the Arabic news media.

Yes, it’s true that sites devoted to Palestine are always implacable in their hatred of Israel, and that anti-Zionism spills over into anti-Semitism all the time. Unlike many of my friends on the left, I don’t think these phenomena are completely distinct and separable. Take a look at the talkbacks that appear at Steven Walt’s blog at Foreign Policy or at Juan Cole’s Informed Comment.  For Wisse, I assume, the relation between anti-Zionism and anti-Semititism constitute an identity. That’s an extra mile I’m not going to go. I would rather argue that the slippage between anti-Zioism and anti-Semitism suggests that the relation between the two consists of an overlap. One could map it with a Venn Diagram. Sometimes the two circles form into a single identity. Sometimes the two phenomena remain distinct from each other. And sometimes the two phenomena overlap, one into the other.

Again, I don’t know what sites Professor Wisse reads on a regular basis. All I can say is that what I understand from reading other sites like Al Hayat, Asharq Alawsat, Al-Arabiya, the liberal leaning Turkish Hurriet Daily New is how little preoccupied with Israel or Palestine certain prominent sections of elite Arab and Islamic opinion in fact are. I read Juan Cole a lot. Sometimes I don’t like what I read, but it’s important to keep perspective. For the moment, Israel and Palestine seem to be sideshows. At the top of the agenda are dignity, jobs, and justice, the Arab Spring, Syria, and Iran.

In terms of getting our heads around anti-Semitism, I guess I think that for now, it’s important to see that it’s not always about “the Jews” or about “Israel,” even in the Middle East

The most profound part of Wisse’s analysis has to do with how the Jews have accommodated themselves to changing historical, political, and cultural realities. With her eye squarely on anti-Semitism, Wisse does not want the Jews or Israel to accommodate to anything. There is a stubbornness to this catastrophic posture which I would not underestimate, politically or intellectually. But I have trouble with the bunker mentality. For Wisse, the threat of Jewish disaster looms so large, even today, that one’s room to maneuver is severely circumscribed.

I don’t think solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and trying to integrate even just a bit Israel into the Middle East will magically solve anti-Semitism in the Arab and Muslim world. On this I probably agree with Wisse and with others like her on the right. However, I can’t see how it would not at least go a long way in drying it out. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t feel the rage. I still think that it might be from a more open space, a space in which it is easier to breathe, that we might most effectively confront the problem of anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish violence with the implacable resolve demonstrated by Wisse.

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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1 Response to Anti-Semitism & Affect (Ruth Wisse)

  1. esque says:

    I bet her sources come from MEMRI.

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