"Reflections on Antisemitism" - Christopher Hitchens12-16-2011
This essay appears in Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics, ed. by Roger Berkowitz, Jeffrey Katz, and Tom Keenan (Fordham, 2009).
In October 1956, exactly fifty years ago to the month that we celebrate Hannnah Arendt’s one-hundredth birthday, the two Cold War colossi were being simultaneously convulsed by the uprising in Budapest and its repression by Soviet tanks. At the same time, the final act of Anglo-French imperialism in the Near East—you might prefer to say Middle East, or Western Asia—was taking place, in collusion with the state of Israel, with the invasion of Suez.
We know that the events in Hungary had an enormous emotional and intellectual impact on Hannah Arendt. The nature of this effect is somewhat enigmatic, which is why I want to begin with it. We know that she wrote a separate epilogue on these events for the second edition of The Origins of Totalitarianism, an epilogue she later removed. She didn’t airbrush it. She was candid about having removed it, as having, as she put it, “become obsolete in many details.” But she never actually said why it was that she had decided that her tribute to the Hungarian rebels wouldn’t stand the test of republication.
I want to begin by asking, “Why was that?” And that involves revisiting the events of 1956. Not alone were the Soviet tanks involved in the repression of the Hungarian revolution. There must also be dealt with, as was discussed by Hannah Arendt and many others, the betrayal of the Hungarian revolution by the statecraft of the United States—particularly by its Central Intelligence Agency, which, not unlike its performance in the year 1991 in Iraq, was content to issue incendiary broadcasts to the insurgents in Budapest, promising them help as long as they would continue to die. The poet e. e. cummings, I remember, wrote a song at that time called “Thanksgiving 1956” which ends by saying: “so rah-rah-rah democracy/let’s all be thankful as hell/and bury the statue of liberty / (because it begins to smell).”
If one takes the trouble to find her missing epilogue, one finds it’s full of surprisingly naive optimism—and surprisingly naive optimism is not a quality most saliently associated with the name of Hannah Arendt. I say it was naive because it stressed the spontaneous democracy of the worker’s councils that were set up in Budapest. I think perhaps here she was expressing a nostalgia—even a little romance—for the German revolutions of 1919 in Munich and elsewhere, in which her future husband Heinrich Blücher had played such an honorable part.
Arendt’s epilogue was naive also because it laid great stress on what she called the peaceful and orderly and good-humored crowds of Budapest. She rather romanticized the good-naturedness of the Hungarian revolution. Now, this optimism may possibly be justified in the long term, which is why it’s worth looking up that epilogue again. After all, in 1989, not more than three decades later, there was a peaceful, bloodless, and orderly velvet revolution; it had its beginning in Budapest when the Hungarians allowed their East German brethren to resist by transiting Hungarian soil without hindrance. It led, in the end, to the fall of the Berlin Wall. And that was a classic case of the recovery of what Arendt so beautifully called, I think, the lost treasure of revolution.
The lost treasure of revolution is the common property to which Hannah Arendt alludes, very lyrically, in the opening passages of her collection Between Past and Present. She describes this ability to recover freedom: the spirit of an unforced liberty that is latent, she thought, in all people and which she claimed to detect in “the summer in 1776 in Philadelphia, the summer of 1789 in Paris, and the autumn of 1956 in Budapest.” Which, as you can see, is put- ting 1956 in Budapest on quite a high pedestal and threshold. Now this concept of the hidden treasure, the treasure that’s always hidden but that can be reclaimed, is remarkable for its lack of what a Marxist would call concreteness. Here’s how it appears according to Hannah Arendt, this treasure: It appears only “under the most varied circumstances, appears abruptly, unexpectedly, and disappears again under different mysterious conditions, as though it were a fata morgana,” or, so to say, as a will of the wisp or ignis fatuus. The lost treasure of the revolution is a very, very elusive, almost ethereal concept for Hannah Arendt to be dealing with. And let me say, one of the nice things about reading and rereading Hannah Arendt is to discover how nice it is when she is fanciful every now and then.
But is the fantastical element of the lost treasure the reason why she so sternly decided to remove that epilogue? I think I know why she did it. Further research and disclosure of what happened that time in Budapest had brought it to her attention that those events in 1956 hadn’t been as beautifully spontaneous as she had supposed. Mixed into the grandeur of the Hungarian rebellion was quite a heavy element of ultra-Magyar, ultra-Hungarian nationalism. The revolution also included quite a lot of antisemitism, directed at the strongly Jewish membership and character of Hungary’s Communist elite. Many of the Jewish communist leaders had been denationalized from Hungary, having spent the war in the Soviet Union, in Moscow, some of them becoming Russian citizens.They came back to take over Hungary, which was still largely a Catholic, rural, and conservative country, and they did so only with the support of Red Army bayonets. The resentment aroused by the returning Jewish Communist leaders was considerable. The revolution did not lead to pogroms in the true, ghastly, meaning of the word, but there were some ugly lynchings of Jewish communists and some nasty rhetoric. And I think this must have weighed very much with her.
Arendt once noted approvingly, echoing a judgment made by Peter Nettl, in his marvelous biography of Rosa Luxemburg: “she [Rosa Luxemburg] was more afraid of a deformed revolution than she was of an unsuccessful one.” Nettl says this of Luxemburg, and Arendt underlined it. In a small way, Arendt too was a bit of a perfectionist in the moral and ethical, political world; she would have been happier with defeat than with a shameful victory. I, by the way, think that that’s a huge clue to her character and identity. In any case, antisemitism, for her, was the most toxic possible sign of deformity, and for good reason.
It’s remarkable, when one goes over it, how deeply the Hungarian revolution of fifty years ago was influenced by different strains of anti-Jewish feeling, both from above and from below. There’s a wonderful recent study of the Hungarian revolution called Twelve Days, by a young Hungarian Jewish exile called Victor Sebestyen, who has had access to the Soviet archives. We now know that the Soviet Union was not fooling itself as much as we thought it was, about the popularity of communist rule in Hungary. Indeed, it knew that its Hungarian proxies had so alienated themselves from the population as to pose a very serious danger of counterrevolution. And, after Stalin’s death, the leader of the Hungarian communist party, a man named Mátyás Rákosi, was summoned to Moscow to a meeting, which was organized by: Georgy Malenkov, Stalin’s successor; Nikita Khrushchev, who was to be Malenkov’s successor; and Lavrentiy Beria, the most famous secret policeman, probably, in history. Beria is a man whose command of Stalin’s secret police was the most feared element of the great purges of the gulag right through the 1930's and '40's. At this meeting the party comrades left the talking to Beria, and Beria addresses Rákosi in these terms: “Listen, comrade Rákosi, we know that Hungary has had Hapsburg emperors, Tartar Khans, Polish Princes, Turkish Sultans and Austrian Emperors, but as far as we know, she has never yet had a Jewish king. And that is what you are trying to become. You can be sure we will never allow it.”
What had happened in the previous Hungarian revolution of 1919, also led by a Jewish communist, Béla Kun—with Georg Lukács, the great Hungarian philosopher, as Minister of Education—was a short-lived Hungarian commune. Actually, Lukács also came out of retirement to be Minister of Education in the 1956 revolution, and, I will allow myself a digression. After its crushing he was taken to a castle in Transylvania, and interned there for some considerable time, and never told when he was going to be let out or when he was going to be brought to trial, at which he is said to have commented, “So,” after a pause, “Kafka was a realist after all.”
These memories of what had happened in 1919—the deformed revolution, the revolution that had betrayed itself and disgraced itself—and the relevance of such a revolution to her beloved Heinrich Blücher, would, I think, have weighed with Arendt. And remember, this is happening—this Soviet démarche to the Jewish deputy Rákosi in Budapest—only a few months after the doctor’s plot, the terrible scare that Joseph Stalin threw into Russian society by his mad conviction that his Jewish doctors had formed a cabal to try and slowly poison him. Had he not died—not, I’m sorry, of poison, but of natural causes—the orders had been given already for what looked like a general roundup and internment of the Jews of Russia, which we were only just to be spared.
So all this was in the air at the time of the ’56 events. And note the contempt with which Beria and his cohorts speak to Rákosi, their Jewish underling. Antisemitism comes in more than one guise. This is a man they’re half ashamed even to be using. Bear that in mind while I just allude to what’s happening at the same time in Egypt.
The British and French armies, navies, and air forces were bombing the airports of Egypt. Making use of a secret agreement they had made with the government of Israel, they were seeking to recover the Suez Canal zone for Britain and to try to eliminate Nasser’s support—the support of Egypt’s new dictator—for the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) in Algeria. It was believed that if they could get rid of Nasser, they could dry up the sources of rebellion in Algeria. Which, of course, was an illusion.
But had the Arab world ever come to know of the secret meeting, of the secret collusion between France, Britain, and Israel that fall, I think there would have been even more anti-Jewish paranoia on Arab radios and in Arab propaganda than there was already. A meeting took place on October 22, 1956 at the Villa Bonnier de la Chapelle in Sèvres, just outside Paris and the site of many previous failed treaties. Present were Ben Gurion, General Moshe Dayan, and Shimon Peres (the only person from that meeting who is still alive). Israel’s demands were: to be given the West Bank; for the rest of Jordan to be given to— guess which country?—Iraq; for control of Lebanon up to the Litani River; and for the Gaza Strip. All in return for their acting as proxy to stage an attack on Egypt, which the British and French could then claim to be intervening in order to prevent or forestall—or, as they put it, “separating the combatants.”
There sometimes are conspiracies in history, there’s no way round it, this was one; and if it wasn’t a Jewish conspiracy, it was a conspiracy that involved Israel, and also Israel acting as proxy. Proxy for whom? Well, again, Sir Anthony Eden, the British Prime Minister, was one of the most notorious anti-semites ever to be produced by the British foreign office, which is saying quite a lot. While he was Churchill’s foreign secretary during the Second World War, he discounted all the wartime news of the Final Solution—the Endlösung, the Holocaust, the Shoah, whichever you agree to call it—as mere Jewish propaganda. He strove to keep those leaky boats full of Jewish refugees—the boats like the Struma—away from the coast of Palestine where they could sink. His private secretary, Oliver Harvey, made a wartime entry in his diary saying that Sir Anthony Eden is “immovable on the subject of Palestine—he loves Arabs and hates Jews.” He told Harvey in 1941, ‘If we must have preference let me murmur in your ear that I prefer Arabs to Jews.' This is the man who, in 1956, wants to use Israel as his proxy, just as the Jew-baiting Stalinists of Moscow knew that they had to rely on Rákosi, and his group in Budapest. The mutual contempt is alarming to reflect upon.
The British radio in the Middle East, while the invasion of Egypt was being readied, denounced Nasser for being a tool of the USSR and denounced the USSR for being too pro-Israeli and too friendly to Judaism. “It’s high time,” said the British radio, “that the Arab leaders who believe that Russia would support them against Israel, should know the truth about Russia. It is Moscow who has advised the Arabs to accept Israel’s existence; it’s the British Prime Minister who has given expression to Arab demands.” In other words, the British were attacking the Russians as being “soft on Jewry.” And Nasser was denounced on British radio as being a “secret Zionist . . . also a secret free- mason”—rather overegging the pudding. Meanwhile, the French Prime Minister, Guy Mollet, as he was arriving, made a point of coming up to Shimon Peres and assuring him that he had no anti-Jewish feelings of any kind. He had indeed, he said, himself suffered in the war and possessed very many Jewish labor friends.
So if I’ve drawn this picture successfully, and if you are taking my drift, we have the government of Israel going to war on behalf of one British antisemite and one Frenchman who hysterically claims that his best friends are Jews— not a very pretty picture. But the scene is of interest because it shows the mutations that antisemites can undergo. I might add in this context that some of Hannah Arendt’s worst enemies were Jews. Some of you, I’m sure, have read the letter published by the New York Times in December 1948, protesting the visit to New York of Menachem Begin, the leader of Israel’s Herut Party and later an Israeli prime minister. In it, Arendt denounced Begin’s party as a fascist party based on racist and nationalist phenomena, on a leader cult, and on the preaching of violence. The letter was signed by her, Albert Einstein, Sidney Hook, and Seymour Melman.
To return to what I said about mutations of antisemitism, the antisemite is convinced, in spite of his prejudice, that the natural talent of the Jew for secret world domination might turn out to be quite useful. Thus, people who did, in a sense, hold that prejudice, were capable of exploiting their Jewish connections, and that, I think was of consuming interest to Arendt. She had always been fascinated by the way in which Jews could be not just persecuted and maltreated by those who did not like them, but also exploited and made use of, even by those who sought their destruction. Her attention, very famously, in the controversy over Eichmann, was much more on the Kapo, the collaborator, the Judenrat, and the mentality of those who make use of what they fear and make use of those whom they despise.
Now, her multiple reflections on antisemitism or Judeophobia, which are expressed best in The Origins of Totalitarianism are, in a way, to be regarded as an Enlightenment project. They are an attempt, if you read them closely, to reduce this fugitive mysterious prejudice to rational and explicable dimensions. It is an attempt to try to anatomize and diagnose it, to see how it can be understood with a view to its cure or banishment. She was always hoping to be able to consign atavism and medievalism and bigotry to some remote era of the past. This can be seen also in her attitude toward developments in the Soviet Union. Responding to the Soviet trial of Yuri Daniel and Andrei Sinyavsky in 1966, which was a frame-up with anti-Jewish and anti-intellectual overtones of its own, Arendt called it an “ugly reminder of something one had hoped had passed into history.” Two months before she died, she told Radio Liberty that she thought Andrei Sakharov was now the greatest of the intellectual dissidents in Russia. She added, “Which doesn’t mean I have anything against Solzhenitsyn, except that I’m not sure pan-Slavism will work.” I can just hear her saying that in her husky way.
When one has analyzed all the different strains and the contradictions that materialize or that constitute antisemitism, whether it’s the Jewish middlemen in the French scandal over the Panama Canal shares, or whether it’s the role of the Rothschilds in financing this or that bourgeois revolution, or whether it’s the extraordinary preeminence of Arendt’s hero and antihero Benjamin Disraeli in forwarding the cause of British imperialism in India, one is still increasingly impelled to doubt that the thing will yield to an analysis, even one that’s as deft and thorough as hers is. Kurt Blumenfeld once quoted an observation, with which Arendt greatly agreed, that was made by his friend and publisher Salmon Schocken as early as 1914. Schocken had said, “In the emancipation period for Jews, one asked: ‘What do you believe?’ Today one only asks: ‘Who are you?’ And the answer was always, to that question, as Arendt had to concede, that whatever you believe, you still have to answer that you are a Jew.
Now, this is a depressing conclusion, because it suggests that the analysis and combating of antisemitism lies somewhere outside the rationalist and Enlightenment universe. The contradictory nature of antisemitism has a strong connection, I think, to Arendt’s work on the totalitarian principle. She might have saved herself a little trouble and achieved a slightly greater concision in her study of this if she pointed out the real sense in which all forms of racism are totalitarian by definition. The indictment of the victim of racism is an absolute one. The victim of racism is unable to alter himself or herself. That is what makes racism totalitarian and also absolutist. And the means required to enforce a racist policy are also absolutist and totalitarian in that they have to obliterate completely the distinction between the public and the private spheres—they abolish private life. One of the foundations of the totalitarian system is that the racist who wants to cleanse the body politic of the “wrong race” must mount an inquisition into heredity, kinship, and marriage. To do so, he must scrutinize birth records and, in all other ways, be a slave to the constant, impossible quest for more and more purity: that’s totalitarianism by definition. How odd it is—I sometimes think, and when I get the chance to, also write—how odd it is that racists are ever accused of discrimination. The ability to discriminate is the one faculty that the racist does not possess. They can’t tell one from another of the target group. It’s a very conspicuous failing on their part.
This very month of October 2006—fifty years later—comes the news that crowds shouting anti-Jewish slogans are marching on the parliament in Budapest. Again, the protests followed the admission of some rather gross economic policy deceptions on the part of the ruling Hungarian Socialist Party. Meanwhile, all across Europe, its almost commonplace, including among conservatives, in fact more and more often among conservatives, to hear that Israel has outlived its usefulness to the empire, and is, in effect, to be dumped over the side. Now, by no means is all of this resentment attributable to sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians—I think that’s the way I’ll choose to understate that.
At the same time, on the website of the party that currently holds the majority of the seats in the Palestinian parliament, you may easily find that otherwise quite hard to get publication, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It’s on the Hamas website, you can download it anytime. In fact, adhesion to the doctrine of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion is in the founding charter of the Hamas organization, which is, as you probably know, the bastard child of the Muslim brotherhood under another name among the Palestinians. Also in Hamas proclamations are other very gross emanations of anti-Semitic paranoia, such as the apparently ineradicable belief that the Matzoh for a Jewish Passover must be sweetened with the blood of a non-Jewish child. Now, I disagree with Hannah Arendt’s formulation, which has been generally accepted, of the Protocols, which she called a forgery. I think there’s a danger lurking in that definition of the Protocols. After all, a forgery is an attempt to replicate a true bill; it’s an attempt to make a copy of something genuine. There is no genuine basis of which the Protocols could be said to be a forgery—it would be better to say that they’re a whole cloth concoction, or fabrication, actually undertaken by the Russian secret police under the Czar, and brought to Europe by the White Russian emigration, and adopted by the National Socialist movement, but it’s not a forgery, it’s a flat-out fraud. And it might be encouraging to consider that Muslims have no such tradition of their own. They don’t have the Protocols, they don’t have the “blood libel” about the Christian babies butchered at Passover, they have to borrow—when they want to be anti-Jewish—the rubbish of medieval Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox antisemitism. Isn’t that a heartening thought? Sad to say, though, there are references to Jews being the descendants of coupling with pigs and monkeys, which are, as some of you will recognize, taken directly from the Koran. These are not a plagiarism of Christian anti-Semitic propaganda.
The Grand Imam of al-Azhar University—the nearest institution the Sunni Muslim world has to the Vatican—the Grand Imam Muhammad Sayed Tantawi has produced a long Koranic script using only Muslim sources for his polemic called “Jews and the Koran and the Tradition,” which is an explicit incitement of violence against Jews based only on Muslim material.
While I’m doing this tour d’horizon of the recrudescence of anti-Semitic prejudice, it is worth recalling Mel Gibson, whose film The Passion of the Christ is an attempt to revive what the Vatican disowned only in 1966.This is the charge of “deicide” made against not just the Jewish Sanhedrin, but the Jewish people themselves and their “uttermost generations”—as is said in one verse of one gospel of the New Testament, the one that Gibson sought to revive cinematically. His film is an open incitement to anti-Semitic hatred. It would normally have been forbidden screening in the Middle East. You can’t show films like Ben-Hur or King of Kings in the Muslim world because they physically represent one of the prophets who is mentioned in the Koran, namely Jesus of Nazareth. But an exception was made in the case of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, and I have a feeling I understand why that was. In case you’re resting your view of Mr. Gibson and his agenda purely on his alcoholic tussles on the Malibu Highway, I call your attention to the Catholic splinter sect of which he’s a member, which is founded by his father, Hutton Gibson, a man who Mel Gibson says has never told him a lie, and who is his moral and intellectual hero. Mr. Hutton Gibson commented on Joseph Ratzinger’s statement, when he was a cardinal, that though the Jews did not, alas, recognize the Christian revelation, they were, at least it could be said, earlier in adopting monotheism and thus might be regarded in the light of an elder brother to Christianity. It’s not great, the Ratzinger formulation—it’s a bit condescending—but it’s better than some Catholic statements on the Jewish question. Hutton Gibson’s comment on this: “Abel had an elder brother.” I think we know what we’re talking about here.
This is the situation. Antisemitism is back, and it’s back in quite a big way. It’s being preached with impunity and shown on screens in the United States. In Europe the situation is getting steadily worse. It’s eight hundred percent more likely, according to studies of public opinion, that if you are a Muslim you will report negatively on Jews than if you are a Christian.
Another way in which racism is totalitarian by nature is the extent to which it claims to explain absolutely everything. Once one knows the key bit of information, as Hofstadter says about the paranoid—the paranoid already has all the information he needs—once one is in possession of the key thing, the secret, in other words, of Jewish world government, then everything is suddenly explicable: how simple it all now seems.
I humiliated myself a few years ago looking at the list of names of people killed in—I should say murdered in, obliterated in—the World Trade Center. I’d read so many reports, not just from the Middle East, but from Europe too, saying that all the Jews had left the building just before the planes hit. And I thought to myself, “Why am I doing this? This is disgusting to be looking to see if there are Jewish names there.” Something in me made me do it: this is what I’ve been reduced to. And this is what I mean by the toxic nature of prejudice and the way it spreads like a weed. If I had been told that none of the Jews turned up to work that day, I suppose I might possibly have thought, well—it could bear checking. In fact it would be checkable. But millions of people around the world believe something that is literally and figuratively unbelievable—that all the Jews managed to leave just before the planes hit. They believed that the first time they heard it, and still do.
Hannah Arendt is a great prop and stay and comfort in dark times like these, because she was always very acute on the morbidly stupid element of totalitarianism. The morbidly stupid element is totalitarian’s saving grace. It is a mentality that is so dumb as to say that extreme and fanatical means and measures must be used with complete mobilization to achieve an end that is, in any case, historically inevitable. What could be more absurd than that?
The absurdity of totalitarian thinking is related to its attack on the life of the mind. Arendt was quite right to insist on confronting this anti-intellectual element of totalitarianism and the racist element in it; and she was right, I think, to insist on the centrality of the Dreyfus case to a meaningful understanding of antisemitism. She saw that antisemitism bears an odd relationship to the life of the mind. It is at once anti-intellectual—highly anti-intellectual —and also pseudo-intellectual. The very word intellectual originates, in fact, as a term of abuse, from the time of the Dreyfus case. It was the charge thrown by the anti-Dreyfusards at the partisans of Dreyfus and his friends Émile Zola and Georges Clemenceau. The intellectual was the rootless person with no real connection to the land or the patrie, to the tribe or the country, or to the tradition. He is someone who simply lived with his mind and had no loy- alties beyond this; he didn’t have an organic relationship—if you like—to the rest of society. I personally think that the word intellectual should never quite lose this taint of insult, as it does when fatuous formations like “public intellectual,” for example, are used among us.
However, antisemitism, although it has this anti-intellectual origin, also has a pseudo-intellectual character. Someone who dislikes West Indians, shall we say, or Mexicans, or Haitians, as it might be, is usually expressing a straight-out feeling of superiority over them, and of contempt for their inferiority as a race or an ethnicity. It is the contempt for a lesser breed, usually mingled with disgust over their birth rate, if you listen clearly, and, whether you listen or not, obviously fear of their sexuality. Racism takes grossly physical forms. It talks about the nastiness of their cooking, the way they breed like rabbits, their bathroom habits, the possibility of sleeping with them—this kind of thing. That’s common racial bigotry.
Antisemitism is not like that. After all, nobody says that people from Chiapas province or from Haiti have a secret plan to take over the stock exchange or Wall Street. Antisemitism is more like a theory, and when you read its productions, you’ll see that certain continuing tropes will occur: gold, the role of gold in history, and the hoarding of it; banking, with the secrecy that banking implies; blood and soil; and the possibility of a Jew being able to conceal himself, to avoid detection. Also, of course, mythology, deicide, and the fact that the Jews were the first to encounter both Jesus of Nazareth and the prophet Muhammad, and to conclude that neither of them was authentic (something for which it is unlikely that they’ll be forgiven by their successor monotheists). To discuss with an anti-Semite is a quite different proposition from discussing with an ordinary, vulgar, racist demagogue. We are talking about either conspiracy theories, or—as I wouldn’t dignify the World Trade Center innuendo even with that sobriquet—fantasy theories, based on the apprehension of something very dark and hidden.
There was another woman of very considerable mind and courage and intellect who, like Arendt, thought deeply about antisemitism in modern Europe— Rebecca West. I chanced to have been writing the introduction to the Penguin Classic version of her Black Lamb and Grey Falcon this summer. And when she was traveling through the Balkans in the 1930's—with extremely acute antennae—she saw the way that antisemitism was going in that part of Europe and elsewhere, and how unappeasable it probably was going to be. And at one point she has the following insight regarding the relationship between antisemitism and anti-intellectualism. She writes, “Now I understand another cause for antisemitism. Many primitive peoples must receive their first intimations of the toxic quality of thought from Jews. they know only the fortifying idea of religion. They see in Jews the effect of the tormenting and disintegrating ideas of skepticism.” I think that’s extremely well put.
The extent to which the anti-intellectual aspect of antisemitism is joining with—or is it perhaps becoming?—anti-Americanism, is I think worth our attention. In many of the great tirades we hear today, against the massive temple of modernity, commerce, and globalization, it’s perhaps not wrong to detect the undertones of a much older complaint against the cosmopolitans, the merchants, and the rootless: it is the complaint against those who disturb the order and the calm of the settled, organic, and pious societies. I have a feeling that there’s a transference—it’s an echo I keep picking up in Europe and in the Middle East—of old anti-Semitic caricatures into a general characterization of these United States. There’s actually one very bizarre, anecdotal piece of evidence for this; namely, the slang word, the punk word, the street word used by the insurgents in Iraq—I mean the people who do the kidnappings, the video beheadings, the destruction of each other’s mosques, the throwing of acid in the faces of unveiled women. I mean that lot who are politely called by the New York Times the “insurgents.” Their slang word for the soldiers of the United States Army is “yehud”—the Jews. “Here come the Jews, take cover, scatter, the Jews are coming.” This is anecdotal evidence for my view that there’s a convergence between those whose ideology is suicide and Islam, and those who’ve had a more traditional attitude towards the mongrel, denatured melting pot commerce of the United States. And some of the prejudice takes a secular form.
It was Arendt who was one of the first to notice the drift away, by the campus left, from anything resembling classic Marxism. As she was writing her essay “On Violence” in the 1960's, she noted how the left abandoned Marxism for flirtations with the Maoism that taught of political power flowing from a gun barrel, or with the fantasies of Sartre and Fanon on the cleansing qualities of violence, or the heroic qualities of provocations that were designed to elicit backlashes, and, above all, the cult of youth. If you separated them out from their political context and you knew no more about them, they would, taken together, remind you, as they did her, of some of the building blocks and emotions of fascism.
Let me conclude by saying that I think it may be time to take the temperature of antisemitism again, and to take it seriously. Tis may involve admitting what we might rather not think: that there is something protean and ineradicable about the prejudice. It’s always able to take different forms, and to recur at different times, and in different places, and different idioms and different vernaculars. The most obvious literary analogy for this would be, I propose, the rats in La Peste, Albert Camus’s classic about the plague in Oran, where the plague bacilli, and their carriers, hide themselves and bide their time, always waiting, as Camus says, for another chance to send their rats up to die again in a free city. But wouldn’t it be horrible if that image was not the worst one? The depressing, further thought occurs to me: What if this is also like Arendt’s buried and hidden treasure—the protean treasure that she discusses in “Between Past and Present”? What if it’s a will of the wisp and fata morgana—an impalpable thing that can never be netted, identified, pinned down, or diagnosed, let alone cured? What if antisemitism is something that has the power to manifest itself in unpredictable seasons and unexpected places, and is always to elude the work of the mind of the analyst? If that comparison were valid, which I have to say I rather hope it isn’t, we would be looking right down the corridors of our past and uncovering the original scenes of tragedy.
This essay appears in Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics, ed. by Roger Berkowitz, Jeffrey Katz, and Tom Keenan (Fordham, 2009).