(Anti-Zionism) Affect (Anti-Semitism)

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About to step into it one step deeper, I want to address what I think is a fundamental ambiguity at play about Israel and Judaism, anti-Zionism, and anti-Semitism that makes its discourse and politics almost impossible to control or contain. On the one hand, neither the one nor the other is “identical” to the other. They are separate ideological discourses, and it is important that supporters or critics of Israel not confuse the one with the other. That’s what they call in Talmud peshita or simple. On the other hand, while we should not confuse the one with the other, it’s also the case that the two sides to the coin are fundamentally (i.e. historically and ideologically, structurally) con-fused. Separate phenomena, Judaism-Zionism and anti-Semitism-anti-Zionism are nonetheless not completely separable. My guess is that they are always going to be con-fused no matter how hard one tries to maintain and police the separation simply because Zionism and the creation of the State of Israel are such core components of the modern Jewish experience.

It has to be said that, substantively, criticism of Israel, even rejection of Zionism, is not necessarily anti-Semitic. But there’s more to discourse than propositions and “substance.”  There’s also affect, the affect that slips into the substance of the critique, giving it its particular tone and coloration. In the case of Israel and Zionism, there’s an affect of rage on both sides of the political that con-fuses the two phenomena. On the anti-Zionist side of the line, there is a visceral anger that is particular to Israel that seems as if it were hardwired, especially in Europe, with anti-Semitism at its base. There’s no way to explain the extreme acts of rhetorical and physical violence directed at Jews and Jewish institutions, which, especially in Europe, are easy to target and have always been easy to target going back to the 1970s. If Israel is, indeed, heinous, it’s hard to explain how it is especially so to warrant such special vituperation. Consider the “Israel = Nazi” meme. Not meant as a mere historical descriptor, this kind of utterance and others like it are powerful performatives with intense affective charge. Once you call something “Nazi,” you’ve given yourself a license to kill it, to seek its complete obliteration, and to attack those who carry it most closely.

As if anyone had that power, my point here is not to shut down debate about Israel or Zionism, but to understand it in a cautionary way. I would like to think that once we lower the affective charge that we can talk about these things more clearly and to the point. Anti-Semitism is not not going to be part of the discussion if you want to get at its  “root.” I recognize that others will want stronger stuff than that, morally and politically. But academic discourse analysts should have been able to tell us better. You cannot split so easily the difference between any one thing and another, in this case between Israel and Judaism, or between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. One should be careful with the affect attached to political expression. What the rage and recent outbursts of anti-Semitism at demonstrations against Israel show is that once you go down that rabbit hole you may not be able to recognize yourself; and then you undercut the very political and moral commitments upon which you hoped to stand when you went out to protest “genocide” in Palestine.

I’ll say the same thing, but not here, probably tomorrow, about the rabbit hole of Affect Zionism, the form of Zionism charged by and saturated by unthinking anger, fear, and rage, and the miasma of group-think it demands and the fascism it generates. I will try to remember to speak in the first person singular and plural.

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. http://religion.syr.edu
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2 Responses to (Anti-Zionism) Affect (Anti-Semitism)

  1. rabbiadar says:

    I appreciate your effort to clarify language around these concepts. Looking forward to reading more.

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