Stochastic Anti-Semitism

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Of late, contemporary anti-Semitism has something like the character of a sucker punch when it manifests in physical violence. Always out there and ambient in the public sphere, anti-Semitism is brought together and aggregated online in environments where racial hatred and religious animus has been normalized by the most powerful political actors, nationally and internationally. It loops back into the physical world as points of normal inter-communal conflict morph into more ghastly forms of hatred and violence. Maybe it’s the case, being so hyper-mediated today, so much of it being distributed across the internet, that anti-Semitism is now “stochastic.” In other words, anti-Semitism is “randomly determined; having a random probability distribution or pattern that may be analyzed statistically but may not be predicted precisely.” As best as I am now understanding it, in mathematics and the natural sciences, the word “stochastic” comes from the Greek stokhastikos, from stokhazesthai ‘aim at, guess,’ and from stokhos ‘aim.’ Stochastic models are used “to represent systems or phenomena that seem to change in a random way” (Google, Wikipedia).

I’m suggesting that stochastic anti-Semitism would best fit our own systems based contemporary culture and the randomness and change that pattern it, and the seemingly random of appearance of anti-Semitism in new forms and shapes out in the world today. The rising churn of low grade anti-Semitism that observers began to track during the Trump campaign and presidency, itself an internet, Twitter, and virtual or reality-show phenomenon, has since been followed now by the sudden outburst of lethal violence. After Charlottesville came Pittsburgh, Poway, Jersey City, and Monsey, catching seasoned observers and ordinary folk by surprise. Why this intensity of violence now and all of a sudden when not too long ago experts and non-experts were certain that anti-Semitism had been put to bed?

Can one have predicted any of this six years ago? The confusing phenomenon seems utterly unpredictable.

Once upon a time, the phenomenon was more or less easy to track and easy to predict, at least relatively. Anti-Semitism was a more or less determined thing. In elite and popular culture, the patterns were relatively clear and easy to read across ethnic, regional, national, religious, political, and other social lines. Everyone knew who the Nazis were, and their imitators, and everyone could read the polite distaste and snobbery on the part of elite cultural actors. Modern anti-Semitism was a form of social prejudice and method of exclusion. One could recognize it most clearly in the gutter theological sniping of a Father Coughlin or a Louis Farrakhan or a Pastor Robert Jeffries. There was nothing anonymous about it.

What would distinguish classical and modern anti-Semitism from stochastic anti-Semitism are the actors, who remain invisible until they appear as if out of nowhere, but even more primarily the targets. In the old media format of classical and modern anti-Semitism, the target was more clearly a homogenized and uncanny population, namely “the Jews” as an imagined totality. Part of a visual “regime,” “economy,” or “cathexis,” the targets of stochastic anti-Semitism are highly visible. Stochastic anti-Semitism sticks to surface objects and to symbols such as gravestones, the very walls of synagogues, schools, community centers, the Torah scrolls inside these built structures, public sites such as playgrounds and dormitories, and then, finally, onto the most visibly iconic representatives of the community, namely orthodox and especially Hasidic Jews. (About the State of Israel as a visible state-symbolic apparatus I’ll leave for another day.) None of this is organized institutionally. Indeed, the sudden and terrifying outbreak of physical violence represents a “lone-wolf” phenomenon. Indeed, contemporary stochastic anti-Semitism has something in common with what scholars in security studies are beginning to call “stochastic terrorism,” which is the “public demonization of a person or group resulting in the incitement of a violent act, which is statistically probable but whose specifics cannot be predicted” (Google).

What we’re clearly learning is that the hostility and other negative affects pooled up on the internet never stay online. They always reach out for a readily available target offline in the actual world to terrifying effect.


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 Stochastic Anti-Semitism

  1. Carol Zemel says:

    A thoughtful and useful a characterization of this phenomenon. Zak. Thanks,

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