The mass murder of 11 Orthodox Jews at the Tree of Life Congregation Synagogue in Pittsburgh by a crazed gunman shouting “all Jews must die” was not only one more tragic episode in an intensifying drama of political division and violence in America, it was an agonizing reminder of how Judaism itself in these chaotic times has become a kind of Rorschach ink blot for virtually every politico-theoretical, ethical, and theological conundrum that besieges the collective unconscious of the Western intelligentsia.
In the gangrenous mind of the gunman Robert Bowers Jews were committing “genocide” against the white race, a meme shared by neo-Nazis for generations. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, his hometown newspaper, Bowers’ vicious – and virulent – anti-semitism was something he seems to have picked up relatively recently by immersing himself in the discourse of white nationalist websites.
President Trump’s political adversaries, who had already assailed him for the pipe bomb threats just days before by one of his self-proclaimed supporters in Florida, were quick to condemn him personally as the inspiration for the latest incident, even though Trump’s own daughter and son-in-law are orthodox Jews, Bowers supposedly hated Trump for “not hating Jews”, and Trump himself immediately condemned the shooting as an “evil anti-semitic attack”.
Although a number of Pittsburgh’s Jewish leaders put out the “unwelcome” mat for the President’s upcoming visit to their city, Jeffrey Meyers, the rabbi of the very synagogue where the horror had been perpetrated the previous weekend, refused to make the connection and said Trump was indeed welcome, adding that hate “does not know religion, race, creed political party.”
An entirely different contingent of American Jewish leaders at the same time reacted by defending the President as a friend of Jewish people because of his support for the nation of Israel.
The “New Anti-Semitism”?
Writing in the Washington political magazine The Hill, Rabbi Schmuley Boteach of the World Values Network commented:
As a Jew, I am extremely grateful to President Trump for the unparalleled support he has shown Israel in the Oval Office. That did not stop me from publicly and strongly criticizing the president for his failure to insufficiently condemn the white supremacists in Charlottesville. But if we are to criticize serious failure, as we must, then we must similarly laud significant success.
That statement itself may be more fraught than we realize. Recent research has shown that anti-semitic incidents have increased 57 percent over the past year in America alone, twice as frequently as anti-Muslim offenses, whereas in Europe and much of the world the increase has been considerable and sustained as well.
According to a study by the Kantor Center last spring, the global acceleration of anti-semitic sentiment is due not only to racial ethno-nationalism, especially in Continental Europe, but also to “the rise of leftist antisemitism that supports radical Muslim anti-Israeli attitudes expressed in antisemitic terms.” The controversy over leftist anti-semitism recently has been most acute in Great Britain, where members of the Labor Party under its anti-Israel leader Jeremy Corbyn, according to an article in The Atlantic, started to sound strangely like agitators from the American alt-right, or at worst like garden variety Nazis.
The specter of leftist anti-semitism (or what has sometimes been called “the new antisemitism”), drawing on the essential premise that the very idea of a “Jewish state” amounts to a form of “settler colonialism” that abrogates the rights of the Palestinian people, has been dismissed by numerous critics of the concept as overblown.
An argument is often made that criticizing the policies of the state of Israel cannot by any means be fairly equated with anti-semitism. Celebrated Jewish academic and critical theorist Judith Butler, who is a Jew herself, points out in her book Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism that there is a strong “ethical” imperative in Judaism, most famously encapsulated in the thought of the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, that does not allow any excuse for Israeli policy to treat Palestinians they way they have been seen to be doing in recent decades.
However, a carefully controlled empirical research project by two Yale University social scientists found that “anti-Israeli sentiment predicts anti-semitism in Europe” specifically. And language that often strikes the average liberal academic as a non-controversial, intuitive comparison between Israeli occupation of the West Bank and well-known European colonialist ventures in Africa or Asia has been defined by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) as the essence of anti-semitism.
For example, the IHRA lists one of the characteristics of anti-semitic rhetoric pre-dating the founding of the state of Israel in 1948 as follows: “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.” A subsequent example it offers is “drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis”, an increasingly familiar trope among anti-Israeli propogandists that fundamentally differs little in substance from the classical anti-semitic resort to identifying Jews with global capitalists and predatory banking interests.
The difference is that the latter is no longer acceptable among the learned, while the former has acquired its own curious, taken-for-granted quality among academics on the left.
One of the most common distinctions made by proponents of the so-called “new anti-semitism” is between Judaism and Zionism. Judaism is considered to be a normative and by and large anhistorical “religion” based on the revelation of the Torah by Yahweh to Moses at Mount Sinai, while Zionism is seen as a kind of secularist, if not political and imperialist aberration of an age-old faith tradition. This distinction is itself may very well be considered “anti-semitic” in accordance with the IHRA protocols.
As David Ohana has pointed out, Zionism is simply the “nationalization” of a “messianism” that has been the historical driveshaft of Judaism for millennia. Or as Jan Nederveen Pieterse has made clear, the “Zionist” ideal has never been confined simply to Judaism, but has functioned as the operative master metaphor for emancipatory as well as imperialist projects throughout the modern era. In this sense the “return to Zion” theme has served as the hidden “dialectical” force that Hegel termed the “cunning of reason” throughout world history, a force that constantly upends existing power structures along with the ephemeral political configurations that define nation-states, all the while fatefully, it must also be said, metamorphosizing the oppressed into oppressors in the same breath that the dominated are transformed into the liberated.
It is the “Zionist” dimension of long, complex, and chequered Jewish historical experience that has fired the revolutionary imagination of the West. In this regard the situation in Palestine has always been a double-edged sword. The notion of “Palestinian liberation”, especially as defined these days by the current and prevailing hegemonic agency in the occupied territories known as Hamas (an acronymic for the Arabic name that translates as “Islamic Resistance Movement”, has its own conspicuously anti-Jewish – and henceforth “anti-semitic” – deep grammar embedded within it. The military wing of Hamas has been listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department since 2010 and by the Canadian government since 2002.
In Article Six of its 1988 Charter Hamas minces no words in denying emphatically that Jews have any territorial or sovereign rights, even in a minimalist political sense, let alone as partners in any would-be “two-state solution”.
The Islamic Resistance Movement is a distinguished Palestinian movement, whose allegiance is to Allah, and whose way of life is Islam. It strives to raise the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine, for under the wing of Islam followers of all religions can coexist in security and safety where their lives, possessions and rights are concerned. In the absence of Islam, strife will be rife, oppression spreads, evil prevails and schisms and wars will break out. (Emphasis mine)
What the Charter calls for is, in effect, the restoration of an Islamic caliphate over Palestine with Jews reduced to what were termed dhimmis, people who theoretically (though at times not in practice) were afforded “protected status”, mainly for religious observation, but were denied any kinds of meaningful political rights. Because dhimmi status – not just for Jews, but also for Christians and (subsequently in South Asia) Hindus – was often determined after military conquest by invading Muslim armies, it was in effect analogous to familiar historical forms of colonial subjugation.
Article Eleven of the Hamas Charter, following the salafi Muslim principle pre-eminent in most jihadist organizations of demanding a restoration of the Medieval Arabic empire (or dar al’islam), describes Palestine as an “Islamic Waqf consecrated for future Moslem generations until Judgement Day”. Hamas’ use of the term waqf, which under Islamic law means an “inalienable charitable endowment”, is based on the traditional idea that any lands previously conquered by force of arms in the name of Allah cannot rightfully be re-possessed under any circumstances by non-Muslims.
The Charter itself emphasizes that “this Waqf remains as long as earth and heaven remain. Any procedure in contradiction to Islamic Sharia, where Palestine is concerned, is null and void.” Furthermore, the Charter characterizes the Hamas goal of retaking for Islam the whole of Palestine as the “promise” of Allah, a “messianic” figuration of language not unlike the age-old Jewish saying of “next year in Jerusalem.” Zionism and Islam’s own mimetic double when it comes to eschatology (found in both Salafist nostalgia for the glories of the Caliphate among Sunnis and in Mahdism among the Shi’a), therefore, contend with each other in both the present and past tenses over Palestine as the veritable “crossroads of history” .
As many historians (as opposed to the proliferating congregation of academic partisans who rarely consult the historical record) have shown, the animosity between Jews and Palestinians long predates the conflict of 1948, which led to the creation of the state of Israel. It began during almost immediately at the end of World War I when the European allies defeated the Ottoman empire, speeding the eventual abolition of the Turkish caliphate in March 1924.
Palestinian Arabs rioted against the fractional number of Jews who had migrated to Palestine in 1920 at Nebi Musa in 1920 and in Jaffa in 1921 on the suspicion, as a local delegation to the Islamic hajj put it in a declaration of 1922, that the latter were “making Palestine a base of Jewish influence over the [Arabian] peninsula and the whole East.”
Adumbrating the language of the Hamas charter, the delegation proclaimed the Jewish “threat” as due to the subtle intrusion into the Islamic waqf of non-Islamic peoples who would not allow themselves to be subjected to Muslim strictures. “The Islamic Palestinian Nation that has been guarding al-Aksa Mosque and Holy Rock since 1,300 years declares to the Muslim world that the Holy Places are in great danger on account of the horrible Zionist aggressions.”
In 1929 the crisis came to a head with the so-called Buraq Uprising in which 133 Jews, mostly unarmed, were killed by Arabs and approximately 115 Arabs by British Mandate police in an attempt to quell the riots. The riots were, according to historian Hillel Cohen, “ground zero” for the Jewish-Palestinian conflict.
“In Jewish historical memory”, he writes, “the riots of 1929 became emblematic of Arab savagery,” while “in the view of Arabs, the disturbances were a legitimate national uprising.” (xii). The so-called Shaw Commission, which performed a post-mortem on the riots for the British government in the immediate aftermath, in its 200-page report lamented the impossibility of the situation in Palestine from the beginning:
A National Home for the Jews, in the sense in which it was widely understood,” the Commissioners wrote, “was inconsistent with the demands of Arab nationals while the claims of Arab nationalism, if admitted, would have rendered impossible the fulfilment of the pledge to the Jews. This confession acknowledged what, in fact, had been the very source of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the very beginning.
Lloyd George, Britain’s foreign minister and mastermind of strategic diplomacy and warfare throughout the Great War, had promised both the English Zionists led by Chaim Weizmann and the Hashemite dynasty in Arabia competing and contradictory versions of a “homeland” in order to win to the Allied cause Jews and Muslims simultaneously in the so far stalemated military struggle against the Turks, Austrians, and Germans.
The Hashemites had their own vision of the restoration of an Abbasid Islamic kingdom in Arabia and the Levant, somewhat similar to the religious ideal of Hamas. The Zionists were offered their longed-for Scriptural “promised land.” The establishment of a “mandate” for the region under the shared governance of the British and French through the Versailles Treaty was in itself a tactical holding action through which the colonial powers, incapable of delivering on their cynical promises during World War to Muslims and Jews alike, could kick the proverbial “can down the road”.
Judaism Against The Empire
All things considered, therefore, the atrocities in Pittsburgh count simply, but tragically, as one more grievous incident in the insensate rage of a self-attributed nativist constituency against the Jewish presence. The synagogue shooter, as news reports indicate, was increasingly obsessed with an obscure Jewish refugee agency founded in the late 19th century and named the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society (HIAS), which, in point of fact, currently processes hardly any Jews any more but rather rescues Christians fleeing persecution by Islamist governments in the Middle East.
His rhetoric was hardly different from the thousands of anti-Semitic rants that have motivated pogroms and state-sponsored persecution of the Jews ever since ancient times. In fact, the first reported incident of anti-semitism can be found in the Book of Esther, which dates from the early fifth century B.C.E. when Haman, the vice-regent to the Persian king Ahasuerus, plotted to commit genocide against the Jews who were “dispersed” throughout the empire and putatively threatening its integrity, according to the tradition captured in the Biblical narrative.
Anti-semitism of the invidious kind witnessed this past weekend has reared its ugly face once again (as with the frequent pogroms of a declining Holy Roman empire during the late Middle Ages or the Romanov dynasty in fin de siècle Russia, as a metastasizing cancer in a shaky and self-consumptive world hegemony that cannot name its own internal enemies, and so indulges itself in the metonymical fantasy of the “evil Jew” – or the “evil Zionist.”
The current global “neoliberal” empire, which Wendy Brown has described so pointedly in her book Undoing the Demos and which has vacuumed up in its symbolic heavy machinery of moral blandishment and deceit “conservatives” and “progressives” alike, has simply taken its place in the rotation. As one who is not Jewish, but seeks to comprehend the historical fate of Jews in a “deep theological” manner that no genre of self-characterized “Christian political theology”, so fashionable these days, can only begin to comprehend, I am fascinated by a quotation from The Diary of Anne Frank which may put in perspective what that might mean.
Who has inflicted this upon us? Who has made us Jews different from all other people? Who has allowed us to suffer so terribly up till now? It is God that has made us as we are, but it will be God, too, who will raise us up again. If we bear all this suffering and if there are still Jews left, when it is over, then Jews, instead of being doomed, will be held up as an example. Who knows, it might even be our religion from which the world and all peoples learn good, and for that reason and that reason alone do we have to suffer now.
Carl Raschke is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Denver, specializing in Continental philosophy, art theory, the philosophy of religion and the theory of religion. He is an internationally known writer and academic, who has authored numerous books and hundreds of articles on topics ranging from postmodernism to popular religion and culture to technology and society. Recent books include Postmodern Theology: A Biopic (Cascade Books, 2017), Critical Theology: An Agenda for an Age of Global Crisis (IVP Academic, 2016), Force of God: Political Theology and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy (Columbia University Press, 2015) and The Revolution in Religious Theory: Toward a Semiotics of the Event (University of Virginia Press, 2012). He is also Consulting Editor for The New Polis.