Affect & Auto Anti-Semitism (JCC Bomb Threats)

trump truckJCC callertrump truck

Maybe this recent wave of anti-Semitism in America never existed in the first place? Or maybe it’s the case that its existence is more complex than simple. Viewed in the round and from a critical distance, what strangeness is revealed by the latest developments. This is a story that could only write itself. It begins with the obvious idea that neo-Nazis were behind the wave of anti-Semitism along which was carried this recent wave of bomb threats in the wake of the Trump election. The truth is more convoluted.

On the one hand, American Jews and others can breathe out a sigh of relief with the arrest in Israel of a young Jewish man accused of being responsible for the vast majority of JCC bomb threats. What a schande for the goyim this goyische naches! Trump and his supporters have been vindicated AND the neo-Nazis are gloating at the news that a Jew, not a gentile, was, after all, responsible for this spate of anti-Semitic hate crimes.  Neo-Nazis are not on the march in this country. There is no plot against the Jews of America unleashed by the Trump campaign. The internet panic was just that. The whole thing was made up, simply imagined out of whole cloth. It’s not what everyone imagined it to be.So maybe everyone can relax, but just for a moment. Isn’t that what the neo-Nazis have been saying all along? Isn’t that precisely what they want the rest of us to think?

Looked at again, the news out of Israel about the alleged perpetrator is enough to take your breath back again.

Consider how the conceptual split between Jews versus anti-Semites and Nazis used to be a sure and sharp binary. That simple truism no longer holds. Jacques Derrida once deconstructed another such binary, the one between Athens and Jerusalem, concluding with his famous coda that Jewgreek is Greekjew.  Can we do today the same and say that Jewnazi is Nazijew. For instance, the Jewish right makes common cause with Trump whose campaign made subtle and not so subtle pitches to the alt-right, eliciting and never condemning support from the extreme reaches of the racist American right. Now it turns out that a person alleged to be legally responsible for a good part of this spate of anti-Semitism turns out to be a Jew. “Trump had nothing to do with it,” so it is claimed. If this allegations turn out to be true, it indicates a case of auto anti-Semitism, or perhaps we want to call it “Jew on Jew violence.” To be sure, it might be that involved is a mentally ill person about whose actions one should not draw too broad a brush. At the same time, the actions are an index to “something.”

I am going to suggest here how a little Affect Theory might elucidate the collapse of the Jews/anti-Semite, the Jew/Nazi binary as seen in the news of the day. For what my effort is worth, I would simplify as follows the main thesis of what is a variegated critical theory. Technically, an affect in this theoretical literature is seen as distinct from the strong emotion enjoyed or suffered by an expressive individual human subject who is at the center of the sensed phenomenon that he or she possesses as one’s own. The affect in Affect Theory refers to two things. It refers first to strong emotions, more like moods, such as elation, hate, fear, anxiety whose strength is intensified in the act of being shared as a group phenonemon. Affect also refers to the state of being affected by others, and in some sense determined by others. Affect is theorized as a force or intensity that works like a rip-tide across the surface of a social space. It is compared to a felt or lived wave that passes anonymously between and through individual persons, affecting together all who are carried along in its wake. Affect has nothing to do with the intentional consciousness of the individual persons so affected. Anyone who has ever experienced road rage or gotten into a flame war on the internet might understand how affect overwhelms one’s own best judgment as a discrete individual.

No doubt, we have seen Jewish expressions of anti-Semitism before. In Germany at the fin de siècle the anti-Semitism expressed by Jews was famously theorized under the rubric of Jewish self-hatred. In that scholarly literature, Jewish anti-Semitism in European society is looked upon in terms of an individual aberration, a matter of psychology and social-psychology. Surely too, the young man in Israel accused of these hate crimes is aberrant. From the reports, he is most likely a socially isolated person with physical and mental health issues. Those psychological and social incapacities are combined with an internet connection and the basic capacity to make use of technological products. This is not to divest the alleged perpetrator of moral or legal responsibility. Indeed, we still know nothing about this person’s alleged motive. But if the reports are true about his mental and social condition, it may be that we’re never going to find much by way of an intentional motive. There may be none at hand. At one level of analysis, these things simply “are.” As they begin to spread, phenomena of this “nature” are profoundly un-thinking, incoherent by definition.

If there is, in fact, a “coherence,” it belongs to that higher organizational order according to which all things cohere together in freakish possible combinations. Affects are particularly powerful in the tight virtual connections made possible in a technologically mediated environment in which disparate people and places are brought together. That is the potential force of the online world. Waves of affect sweep up individuals into its net, including, in this case, so many of us who did so much to contribute to the intense feedback loop of a major internet panic. Those of us who do so much to loathe Donald Trump have contributed to the very auto anti-Semitic wave.  Like any racist or other inter-group animus, anti-Semitism needs to be seen as a “negative affect” ripping through the fabric of the social sphere. Like any affect, its behavior is viral and mindless. It overwhelms binary structures. At this point, the anti-Semitism reflected in the JCC contagion has nothing to do with Jewish or gentile bodies per se. As might be understood by a contemporary St. Paul, the difference between Jew and gentile no longer matters in this bizarre new fellowship.

In the seventeenth century, Leibniz called our world the best and most perfect of possible worlds. He did so not because he believed that our world is morally perfect. He did so because he defined as perfect that which included the greatest number of variations. Our world, he thought is almost infinite in possibility. In such a world, no binary can sustain itself in its strictness for more than an iteration or two. In this world, everything is possible. This has always included strange aberrant behavior such as the strange phenomenon of auto anti-Semitism on the part of deranged individuals. It also includes what strikes many of us as grotesque groupings of white racist ethno-nationalism and rightwing Jewish tribalism. Rising up to the zenith of American political power is what so many of us are trying to grasp, namely that “thing” we call “President Trump” as one possible possibility. In this world, it is proven over and over by some law of probability (a mathematical law that I do not have the ability to fathom). In such a world, no binary can sustain itself in its strictness for more than an iteration or two. Most probably, anything that “can” happen will “actually” have already happened, is happening, or will happen at some point in time. Including the possibility of any combination, the Jewish Nazi Nazi Jew is one exemplary case.

What is there to be learned about anti-Semism in America and how does it related to large patterns of hate if it turns out that there is a only single individual behind the vast majority of acts that have roiled the Jewish community? If so many Jews have been spooked by this event, it goes to show the degree to which American Jews are haunted by the specter of anti-Semitism. The sociologists will go back to the drawing board to figure out how much of the anti-Semitism is “real” and how much “imagined.” The unanswerable philosophical question concerns vexed relations between the virtual and the actual, between reality and imagination.

It should be clear that anti-Semitism today operates at multiple registers, as part of larger and impersonal affective flows, as individualized acts, and as strange combinations thereof. Scaling back to the level of individual responsibility, the alleged perpetrator will either be found fit or unfit to stand trial, according to the legal conventions and standards by which America is self-governed. And what about the motives of the people responsible for setting loose this affective spiral in the first place, who do so intentionally and in some more or less full command of their cognitive faculties? For creating this environment one can still hold Trump responsible alongside the neo-Nazis his campaign has cultivated, either aware of or blind to the fear and panic that their actions have caused.

In Israel, it is common to see photographs of alleged perpetrators cover their heads in shame. The image looks like a religious act familiar in traditional Judaism. In drawing close to God, the Jewish man covers his head in his tallit or prayer shawl. In this case, the act of covering serves as an index to acts that are at once faceless and piteously embodied, now brought suddenly under the glare of media scrutiny whipped up by “the actor himself.” And then there’s the ghoul in the truck who does not understand the meaning of the word shame, and for whom no pity should be shown.

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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4 Responses to Affect & Auto Anti-Semitism (JCC Bomb Threats)

  1. Zvi Cohen says:

    The (blessedly deceased) ghoul in the truck is able to be shameless in that he can readily (and indeed already has) associate himself with a “civilization” – a kind of culture/faith community – that celebrates him as a hero. In Israel, as you noted, suspects are often seen covered up in their earliest appearances. I’m guessing that this is routinely done TO them (under instruction of their legal representative or family) for their protection mainly because of the right to privacy and presumption of innocence of those not-yet-convicted, combined with the fact that “everyone knows everyone” and with the aggressiveness of Israel’s media. However, there definitely is often the sense that shame is part of it, and it likely is in many cases, esp. one like this where the suspected crime has little or no support in the community and the suspect is therefore likely to be derided (even if he weren’t just presumed to be a kook). You can say a lot of things about this whacky story, including that the arrest of the nutty American suspect in a few of these cases (a disgraced journalist who was doing this to get back at some romantic partner) should have given pause to people who used these events to whip up their anxieties or to express their party-loyalty, an inkling that their instincts (and their Trump-hatred) were misleading them to premature conclusions. And, aside for there likely being no discernible ideology or blanket Jew hatred behind the individual’s actions, the fact that his spree started 6 months ago should completely demolish the guilting of Trump by association even if it does not give rise prima facie to guilt of Trump’s predecessor (who was in office at the time) or to Israeli politics which just might play a slightly more central role in this yoot’s life than American politics at this point. (He lives in Ashkelon, so likely to have also endured the trauma of sirens, runs to shelter, and exploding Hamas rockets.) Lastly, to the extent that these events do make (organized?) American Jewry appear a bit ridiculous, or shaky, or fearful, that’s another reason to consider the risks if we unwittingly cry wolf – the flipside of the risk that my caution might allow a Nazi regime to set roots before I am convinced that we’re dealing with Nazis that ought to be stopped before it’s too late.

  2. Gad Horowitz says:

    Do the affect theorists acknowledge their debt to Le Bon and Freud?

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