Sunday, 30 September 2007

On Philo-Philosemitism, by Jacques Berlinerblau

Jacques Berlinerblau, of Georgetown University, has written an important essay entitled On Philo-Semitism. Here is an extract:

Jews have sensed, often correctly, that Christian philo-Semites aspire to convert them. Economic philo-Semites, they suspect, are solely and selfishly interested in material advantages. Liberal or secular anti-Semites seek to eliminate Judaism on the backstroke by eliminating religion in general. Atoning philo-Semites simply want to assuage their own guilt, and Jews do not feel that it is their responsibility to provide a shoulder to cry on. Kitschy philo-Semitism risks associating Judaism with lowbrow art of the most banal variety. Mindful of these problems, many Jews reject philo-semitism altogether.

But where does that leave Jews? It leaves them perennially suspicious. It leaves them incapable of understanding one fairly obvious reading of the Book of Ruth. It leaves them incapable of making sense of the Talmudic adage that “all the righteous of the gentiles have a portion in the world to come.” In short, it leaves Jews radically alone in this world. It shows them to be as ill-disposed toward the other as anti-Semitic propaganda insists that they are.

Are there any kinds of philo-Semitism that can pass muster? I would suggest two legitimate forms. The first construes philo-Semitism as anti-anti-Semitism, nothing more, nothing less. It consists of no hyperbolic fondness for Jews, but rather only a conviction that Judeophobia is morally wrong and must be combated. It may acknowledge Jews as different, but it understands that they are neither better nor worse for that difference. The second is intellectual philo-Semitism. This is the project that studies Jewish texts and interpretations of those texts. It looks at what Jewish thinkers made of these works across the span of civilization. And since the old adage about two Jews, three opinions is empirically verifiable, intellectual philo-Semitism comes to understand in the clearest possible terms what Jewish difference is and why it is so central to the survival, vitality, and uniqueness of Judaism. Such an approach invariably recognizes that Jews are not one thing. Indeed, their extreme heterogeneity makes the irrationality of liking or hating all of them easy to discern.

In closing, let me note that although a considerable amount has been written about philo-Semitism, I have yet to see a researcher suggest what the deeper relevance of the discussion might be. In my view, the burgeoning debate points to a congeries of questions that scratch at some of the most sensitive wounds in the Jewish psyche. Those who probe this issue are often asking about the existential place of Jews in the world.

They ponder whether gentiles are truly ready to accept Jews qua Jews. They ask if non-Jews can ever be trusted. And they wonder if the chosen people are really the inveterate pariahs that the history and historiography of anti-Semitism suggest they have always been.
Jacques Berlinerblau holds separate doctorates in ancient Near Eastern Languages and Literatures and in Sociology. He is currently the director of the Program for Jewish Civilization and Visiting Professor of Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University.
Published in January 2007 by the PROGRAM FOR JEWISH CIVILIZATION,
Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University

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