Monday 10 September 2007

The Resurgence of Anti-Semitism: Jews, Israel, and Liberal Opinion, by Bernard Harrison

Synopsis: This book, by a non-Jewish analytic philosopher, addresses the issue of whether, and to what extent, current opposition to Israel on the liberal-left embodies anti-Semitic stances. It argues that the dominant climate of liberal opinion does, however inadvertently, disseminate a range of anti-Semitic assertions and motifs of the most traditional kind. It then advocates a return to an unrestricted anti-racism which would allow liberals to defend Palestinian interests without, in the process, demonizing Jews.

Excerpts of an account of the book by Edward Alexander in Contentions:
“According to the famous 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (1910), “Anti-Semitism is a passing phase in the history of culture.” Since that sanguine declaration, anti-Semitism has had several very good rolls of the dice, culminating in the destruction of European Jewry.

The latest recrudescence of anti-Semitism is by now the subject of at least a half dozen books, published in America, England, France, and Italy. Their shared conclusion, set forth from a variety of perspectives, is that the physical violence of the new Jew-hatred is largely the work of young Muslims, but that the ideological violence is the work primarily of leftists, battlers against racism, professed humanitarians, and liberals (including Jewish ones). The Resurgence of Anti-Semitism, Bernard Harrison’s superb new book, deals almost entirely with this drifting of liberals and leftists into anti-Semitism, and it brings to the subject a new authorial identity, a different academic background, and a distinctive and (despite the topic) exhilarating voice. Resurgence is also the first book on contemporary anti-Semitism by a Gentile, and a British one to boot. (According to Harrison, a professor of philosophy, this has also made him privy to the expression of anti-Semitic prejudice by apparently respectable academic people “when Jews are absent.”)

Recent years have furnished a great deal of material suited to his talents and expertise. Harrison brings to his subject the “habitual skepticism, bitterly close reading, and aggressive contentiousness” produced by “forty years in the amiable sharkpool of analytic philosophy.” His merciless deconstruction of the anti-Israel invective and smug clichés of the New Statesman, the Guardian, the Independent, the BBC, and other bastions of anti-Jewish sentiment in England reminds one of the powerful literary scrutiny pioneered in this country by the New Critics.”

In the exchange that followed, the author, Bernard Harrison, argued:
“Anti-Semitism, historically speaking, has never presented itself simply as hatred. Pure hatred, hatred without ground or reason, can be quite difficult to sell. So anti-Semitism has always provided itself with a moral mask. Most usually. In the past this has usually taken the form of an appeal to patriotism, to the alleged duty to defend the nation, or the “organic community”, against the sinister, “cosmopolitan” machinations of the Jews. There has also been, as Mr Alexander rightly points out, a weaker tradition of anti-Semitism on the left, but that was always stronger on the Continent, and in Britain all but vanished after 1945. We now see, on the left-liberal wing of politics, a revival of anti-Semitism, once again one which masks itself morally, this time as humanitarian concern for the Third World.

What is the structure of its constituency? Mr Alexander seems to see the world as divided into three groups: the haters, the hated, and the “disinterested bystanders” who must, he thinks, provide the “real audience” for a book like mine. I differ from him. I see the present constituency of “left-liberal” anti-semitism as divided into two groups: on the one hand, people who really are obsessed with the supposed wickedness of the Jews, and hate them, and on the other hand, political dupes, or as Lenin famously called such people, “useful idiots”: people who can fairly easily be bamboozled into seeing the world through the anti-Semites’ spectacles, but only as long as they suppose those spectacles to give access to a view of world politics governed not by vulgar prejudice but by moral insight. I see the problem before us, in other words, not so much as one of “exposing” or “outing” members of the first group, but as one of erecting obstacles to the dissemination, under the guise of political morality, of anti-Semitic attitudes among the second, and to my mind much larger, group. My strategy for doing that is, as Mr Alexander has noted, to subject some salient chunks of current political discourse to the kind of close logical and textual analysis needed to reveal precisely how the scam, the trick of giving anti-Semitism a moral face, is being worked, by means of the usual devices of gross misinformation and plausible but specious argument, this time around.”

Stephen Rittenberg, M.D, commented on the difficulty of reasoning anti-semites:
“On the question raised here in Contentions, of reasoning with anti-semites, whether of the murderous or milder wordsmith intellectual stripe, my clinical experience as a psychoanalyst tells me how incredibly difficult it is to reason people towards change. It takes years. There must first be a wish to change, and usually it’s because the individual’s character traits lead to repeated trouble, like the man who repeatedly gets fired from jobs for arguing with the boss. Only when he begins to wonder what role his own character plays in his fate does change become possible. This is very different from the situation of the anti-semite, for whom anti-semitic beliefs, whether mild or intense, bring many benefits, including membership in vast utopian movements, as well as academic stature and media recognition. Anti-semitism disguised as criticism of Israel provides automatic membership in the community of leftist intellectuals for whom Communism never died. It provides an identification with the oppressed, the aggrieved and the victims of the world, against the hyperpower, Amerika and its ally Israel. (Parenthetically, I have thought the vicious hate filled attacks on President Bush include a large helping of displaced anti-semitism.) It generates feelings of moral righteousness, superior intelligence and general self-approbation. It provides the security of feeling part of a mass movement, in the vanguard of history. It provides handy scapegoats and it’s always more satisfying to blame someone, or some group for one’s own shortcomings. The fact that anti-semitism provides so many psychic benefits helps us understand why Jews, especially liberal ones are so frequently vicious anti-semites. These are often well educated, “reasonable” people.”
The Resurgence of Anti-Semitism: Jews, Israel, and Liberal Opinion, by Bernard Harrison, Rowman & Littlefield (2006)

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