Anthony Grafton calls David Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism “one of the saddest stories, and one of the most learned, I have ever read.” Grafton knows that Anti-Judaism “is certainly not the first effort to survey the long grim history of the charges that have been brought against the Jews by their long gray line of self-appointed prosecutors.” What makes this account of the long history of Jewish hatred so compelling is that Nirenberg asks the big question: Why the Jews?
[Nirenberg] wants to know why: why have so many cultures and so many intellectuals had so much to say about the Jews? More particularly, he wants to know why so many of them generated their descriptions and explanations of Jewishness not out of personal knowledge or scholarly research, but out of thin air—and from assumptions, some inherited and others newly minted, that the Jews could be wholly known even to those who knew no Jews.
The question recalls the famous joke told during the Holocaust, especially amongst Jews in concentration camps. Here is one formulation of the joke from Antisemitism, the first book in the trilogy that comprises Hannah Arendt’s magnum opus, The Origins of Totalitarianism: “An antisemite claimed that the Jews had caused the war; the reply was: Yes, the Jews and the bicyclists. Why the bicyclists? Asks the one? Why the Jews? asks the other.”
The point of the joke is clear: Anti-Judaism is as senseless and irrational as anti-bicyclists would be. “The theory that the Jews are always the scapegoat,” Arendt writes, “implies that the scapegoat might have been anyone else as well”—even bicyclists. The question, then, is why the Jews? Grafton gives a clue to Nirenberg’s subtle answer:
Nirenberg’s answer—and to summarize it, as to summarize so much of this impassioned book, is to flatten it—is that ideas about the Jews can do, and have done, many different and important jobs. True, they are anything but stable: this is not a paper chase after some original idea of the Jew that crops up everywhere from early Christianity to early Nazism. Visions of the Jews change emphasis and content as the larger societies that entertain them change shape and texture. Ideas have multiple contexts, and Nirenberg shows dazzling skill and a daunting command of the sources as he observes the changes and draws connections between them and his authors’ larger worlds.
Nirenberg’s point is that anti-Judaism has nothing to do with Jews themselves. The negative ideas about Jews are held throughout history by a motley group of Christians, philosophers, tyrants, and martyrs. Shakespeare’s account of Shylock is only one of many examples in which an intellectual employs anti-Jewish stereotypes—the Jew as greedy moneylender—to make a wider social critique, this time of the dangers of capitalism. London is becoming a city of commerce. There are no Jews in London. Yet Shakespeare turns to Jews in order to find a way to criticize the emergent commercial culture.
The use of negative sentiments about Jews to bash capitalism was common, Nirenberg writes, and carries through history from Jerome to Marx. Marx couches his critique of capitalism through the lens of a critique of Jews. Shakespeare does the same with commercial society. Jews stand in for the oppressed in the world, so that oppressing Christians could be seen as making them Jewish. Jews at the same time were seen as powerful bankers and powerful agents of world domination, so that any group of conspirators from Bolsheviks in Russia to media moguls in Hollywood were tarred with the pungent scent of Judaism.
Jews have been characterized by non-Jews for their obstinacy—their refusal, for example, to recognize the known truth that the Messiah had come, which enabled them to become the villains of both early Christian and early Muslim narratives. They have been characterized by non-Jews for their viciousness—their desire to desecrate the sacrament and murder Christian children, which allowed them to be used both by rebels against royal authority, and by kings, in the Middle Ages, as each side could claim, when the wind blew from the right quarter, that Jews were polluting society through their materialism and greed. . . . Nirenberg’s parade of imagined and imaginary Jews—the most hideous procession since that of the flagellants in The Seventh Seal—stretches from the Arabian peninsula to London, and from the seventh century BCE to the twentieth CE. Working always from the original sources in their original languages, he observes the multiple ways in which imaginary Jews served the purposes of real writers and thinkers—everyone from Muhammad, founding a new religion, to Shakespeare, observing a new commercial society. God, here, is partly in the details: in the careful, tenderly observant way in which Nirenberg dissects everything from fierce political rhetoric to resonant Shakespearean drama. In works of the imagination, profound treatises, and acts of political radicalism, as he analyses them, imaginary Jews are wielded to powerful effect. He shows us the philosophes of the Enlightenment, those friends of humanity and enemies of tyrannical “infamy,” as they develop a viciously negative vision of Jewish sterility and error to attack Christianity at its origins or to characterize the authorities whom they defied.
The only reservation Grafton voices concerns the univocality of Nirenberg’s account. As exceptional as the account of anti-Jewish opinion is, Nirenberg largely ignores other perspectives and examples where real and imaginary Jews were accepted, embraced, and even praised.
As a social historian of conflict and an intellectual historian of the uncanny imagination, Nirenberg is unbeatable. But Jews and non-Jews lived other histories together as well. As Josephus recalled, when the thousands of diaspora Jews settled in the cities of the Roman world, across Asia Minor and Italy as well as Egypt, many of their pagan neighbors found their ways attractive. Pagans admired the Jews’ pursuit of a coherent code for living and their worship of a single, unseen god. Some became “god-fearers,” who accepted the Jewish god but did not hold full membership in the Jewish community. Some converted. Jews, meanwhile, pursued their own visions of high culture—whether these involved learning to write Greek tragedies about the Jewish past or rebuilding one’s foreskin to make possible appearances at the gymnasium.
Grafton largely stops there and minimizes his “very small complaints….Anti-Judaism is that rare thing, a great book, as much in its ability to provoke disagreement as in its power to shape future writing on the vast territory that its author has so brilliantly mapped.” But Grafton’s small complaints deserve a wider hearing, especially as concerns the leading question he and Nirenberg pose, “Why the Jews?”
The overarching argument of Anti-Judaism is one of eternal antisemitism: Anti-Judaism had nothing to do with the Jews themselves. It is an attitude that sees the Jews to be to blame and is concerned with imaginary Jews as opposed to real Jews. Anti-Judaism is powerful and impactful, but it has no rational connection to reality. Here is how Michael Walzer aptly sums up Nirenberg’s argument:
His argument is that a certain view of Judaism lies deep in the structure of Western civilization and has helped its intellectuals and polemicists explain Christian heresies, political tyrannies, medieval plagues, capitalist crises, and revolutionary movements. Anti-Judaism is and has long been one of the most powerful theoretical systems “for making sense of the world.” No doubt, Jews sometimes act out the roles that anti-Judaism assigns them—but so do the members of all the other national and religious groups, and in much greater numbers. The theory does not depend on the behavior of “real” Jews.
As Walzer notes in his own review of Anti-Judaism in the most recent issue of the New York Review of Books, Nirenberg includes an epilogue that takes on the most famous opponent of his view of eternal antisemitism, Hannah Arendt. As Arendt understands Nirenberg’s view, “Jew-hatred is a normal and natural reaction to which history gives only more or less opportunity. Outbursts need no special explanation because they are natural consequences of an eternal problem.” Since anti-Judaism is eternal and unending, it has been normalized. If thousand years, then Jew-killing is a normal, and even human, occupation and Jew-hatred is justified beyond the need of argument.”
The point is that Grafton’s minor complaint—that Nirenberg offers a magisterial account of Jew-hatred and ignores philo-semitism—is not so minor after all. By claiming that anti-Judaism is omnipresent and omnipotent—by focusing only on anti-Judaism and leaving aside those who embrace or praise Jews—Nirenberg risks normalizing antisemitism. Everyone traffics in Jew-hatred, even Jews. Such a move means, however, that we lose the ability to distinguish those who are antisemites from those who are not. Which is why Arendt argues that the eternal antisemitism thesis is one way to “escape the seriousness of antisemitism and the significance of the fact that the Jews were driven into the storm center of events.”
Walzer and Nirenberg condemn Arendt for seriously asking the question “Why the Jews?” She insists that there are reasons for antisemitism, reasons that the Nazis sought to exterminate the Jews and not the bicyclists. There are such reasons, and anti-Judaism is not simply mysterious and irrational accident. She does not think those are good reasons. She of course never says that the Jews are to blame or that the Jews were responsible for the holocaust as Nirenberg and Walzer wrongly argue. But she does insist we confront the fact that Jews have proven such convenient targets for anti-Judaism, that we seek to understand why it is that over and over it is the Jews who are targeted. There is not one simple answer to that question, Why the Jews? But Arendt asks it seriously and courageously and seeks to come up with a series of potential answers, none of which have to do with her claiming that the Jews are to blame.
If you have The Origins of Totalitarianism on your shelf, take it out and read Chapter One on “Antisemitism as an Outrage to Common Sense.” Then read Grafton and Walzer on Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism. It will be a sad but thrilling weekend.
In the two years since its inception, the Arab Spring remains an extraordinarily difficult phenomenon to define and assess. Its local, national, and regional consequences have been varied and contradictory, and many of them are not obviously or immediately heartening. These observations certainly apply to Syria: although growing numbers of the country’s military personnel are abandoning their posts, the Assad regime’s war with the Sunni insurgency still threatens to draw Turkey, Lebanon, Iran, and Jordan into an intractable sectarian conflict. But they are, if anything, even more relevant to Egypt. There the overthrow of the Mubarak regime occurred with less brutality, all things considered, than we might have reasonably feared. But, the nature of the country’s social and political reconstruction nevertheless remains extremely uncertain, given the delicate balance of forces between the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafist Nour Party, and the country’s diverse liberal and activist camps.
The effects of Egypt’s revolution have been particularly ambiguous for the country’s women. To be sure, women have played a noteworthy role in the Tahrir Square protests in January and February 2011, and many local and foreign observers commented on the lack of intimidation and harassment they faced in the days leading to Mubarak’s fall. But as Wendell Steavenson details in the most recent New Yorker, the protests were by no means free of gendered violence, and the revolution has yet to create a more comfortable or equitable place for women in Egyptian public life.
Let me touch on one example from Steavenson’s article. Hend Badawi, a twenty-three-year-old graduate student, was protesting against the interim military government in Tahrir Square in December 2011 when she was confronted by a group of soldiers. In the course of her arrest, the soldiers tore off Badawi’s headscarf, dragged her several hundred meters by the hair, cursed at her, struck her, and groped her breasts and behind. One of the soldiers also apparently told her that “if my sister went to Tahrir, I would shoot her” After being taken to a parliament building, Badawi was beaten again and interrogated for several hours before landing in a military hospital, where she was treated for severe lacerations on her feet, a broken wrist, and multiple broken fingers.
The next day, Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi, at that time Egypt’s effective ruler, paid a visit to the hospital for a photo op with a state-TV camera crew. Despite her injuries, Badawi confronted him: “We don’t want your visit!” she reportedly screamed. “We are not the ones who are thugs! You’ve beaten us and ruined us! Shame on you! Get out!” News of the tongue-lashing quickly made the rounds on Twitter and Facebook, and when Badawi was moved to a civilian hospital, she used a video camera smuggled in by friends to issue a lengthier statement about her ordeal. The resulting video went viral, and independent TV stations used it to challenge government claims that the Army had not used violence against civilians.
One might expect that Badawi would be honored for her courage and conviction, and I can only imagine that she is, at least among pro-democracy activists. But her family, which happened to sympathize with the Mubarak regime, was appalled. Badawi had gone to Tahrir Square without informing them, and they blamed her not only for the violent treatment she had received, but also for the damage they believed she had done to the family’s reputation. Badawi’s relatives locked her in her room; her elderly aunt yelled at her frequently; and her brother Ahmed hit her. Later, when Badawi’s family did not allow her to return to Tahrir for the first anniversary of the revolution, she basically reenacted the protests of the previous year—only this time on a more intimate scale. As she related to Steavenson, she launched a hunger strike to protest her treatment at her family’s hands and made placards that read, “Hend wants to topple the siege! Down with Ahmed!”
Badawi’s experience is particular and inevitably her own, but it nevertheless exemplifies the conundrums that many women face in contemporary Egypt. As the daughter of a pious rural family, she has benefitted from the increasing levels of affluence, education, and occupational opportunity that at least some young people, both women and men, have enjoyed over the past several decades. But she has also come face to face with the possibilities and the limits created by Egypt’s Islamic Revival, which has established new expectations for women’s comportment on the street and in other public institutions. (If many women in Cairo went bareheaded and wore skirts and blouses at the beginning of Mubarak’s reign, almost all now wear headscarves, and the niqab is not an uncommon sight.) Finally, Badawi’s life has been shaped not simply by her family’s notions of appropriate womanly behavior, but by a wider climate of pervasive sexual harassment. According to one 2008 survey, sixty percent of Egyptian men admit to having harassed a woman, and the country’s police and security forces either openly condone such treatment or engage in even more serious assaults themselves.
Badawi chafes at the “customs and traditions”—a common Arabic phrase, which she employs sardonically—that mold and circumscribe her life. And, like at least some other women, she regards Egypt’s recent upheaval as a potential opening, an “opportunity to mix my inner revolution with the revolution of my country". But it is significant, I think, that Badawi does not seek a “Western” form of women’s equality and emancipation. Although she appreciates “the space and freedom” that appear to be available to women on American TV shows, she nevertheless intends to pursue them “in the context of my religion”. At the same time, many of the reforms that she and other women’s advocates might champion are now thoroughly tainted by their association with the autocratic Mubarak regime. For example, many Egyptians dismiss recent amendments to the country’s “personal-status laws”—which allowed women to initiate no-fault divorces and enhanced their child-custody rights—as cosmetic changes that only aimed to improve the government’s international image. Many other citizens, meanwhile, view Mubarak’s 2010 effort to mandate a quota for female members of parliament as a patent violation of democratic procedure.
These developments offer no clear path forward for Badawi and other Egyptian women, whether or not they regard themselves as activists. But they also pose a distinct challenge to outside observers—like me—who sympathize with their efforts to transform Egyptian society. Ten years ago, the Columbia anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod drew on the impending American invasion of Afghanistan to question the notion that the U.S. should “save” Muslim women from oppression. Instead of adopting a position of patronizing superiority, Abu-Lughod urged concerned Americans to ally themselves with local activists in the Middle East and to work with them on the issues that they deemed most important. In the context of the Arab Spring, however, even this advice appears to have its shortcomings. I worry that American (or wider “Western”) support for women like Hend Badawi, however well-meaning, will unintentionally undermine the very reforms that the activists themselves favor. I also suspect that a considerable number of Egyptians will resent even the most “enlightened” coalitions as yet another instance of anti-democratic meddling if not neo-colonial imposition. After all, the U.S. did much to keep Mubarak in power for thirty years. Why now should Americans, whether they are affiliated with the U.S. government or not, attempt to intervene even indirectly in Egypt’s transformation?
I certainly believe, from a political and scholarly perspective, that Americans should care a great deal about the consequences of the revolutions in Egypt and other North African and Middle Eastern states. In the end, however, I wonder if the most advisable practical course may be to adopt an attitude of principled non-interference in those cases where mass violence is not imminent. In short, we should allow Egyptians (and other Middle Easterners) room to work out the consequences and implications of the Arab Spring on their own, even if we are not entirely comfortable with the results.
Note: Lila Abu-Lughod’s argument, which I reference near the end of this post, appears in “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and its Others.” American Anthropologist 104.3 (2002): 783-790.
“Power is indeed the essence of all government, but violence is not. Violence is by nature instrumental; like all means, it always stands in need of guidance and justification through the ends it pursues. And what needs justification by something else cannot be the essence of anything.” – Hannah Arendt, “On Violence”
The last few weeks have witnessed the return of scenarios of violence to North Lebanon around the city of Tripoli where clashes have disrupted the fragile and tense balance of peace. Since the beginning of the Syrian uprising last March, fears mounted that the violence would spread quickly to Lebanon, whose very fragile balance of power is deeply intertwined with the fates of Syria and a complex network of sectarian alliances that spread into Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the West.
It would require an entire encyclopedia of Lebanese politics and history – which by the way, has never been written – to define all the terms necessary to adequately discuss the complex scenarios of postwar Lebanon and the players involved, but suffice it for now to say that the current political system was not only born out of the unresolved sectarian struggle of the civil war but hearkens back to the French edict of 1936 that made it obligatory to declare belonging in one of the religious communities to be eligible for citizenship.
Often it is assumed that conflict in Lebanon is limited to the tripartite division between Sunni Muslims, Shiite Muslims and Christians but the “communities” established by the French aren’t exactly equivalent to the broader sect and the Lebanese constitution (promulgated in 1926) acknowledges 18 different religious communities – though the presence of Jews is almost none – and still, the National Pact (1943) that truly laid the foundations of the Lebanese state was indeed negotiated between Sunnis, Shiites and Maronites.
These three sects – with their respective alliances at home and elsewhere – dominate the political landscape in an overtly complex system of offices, distribution that fails to account for the diversity of the political spectrum within them (at least in the case of Sunnis and Christians) and that was once conceived as an interim measure that remains in place to this very day. Tensions between the different communities and sects can be traced back to the 1860’s when Lebanon was an Ottoman province and remain still unresolved.
Tripoli is an exceptional example of the role that sectarianism plays in Lebanese life: one of the most impoverished and neglected areas with a diverse population of Sunnis, Maronite Christians, Orthodox Christians, Armenians and Alawites. The city has a Sunni majority and sectarian distribution is also geographical; the dividing line between the northeastern neighborhoods of Bab al-Tabbaneh (Sunni) and Jabal Mohsen (Alawite) along the Syria Street has been the epicenter of gun fighting.
Already in November 2011 Lebanon’s Alawite minority – mostly based around Tripoli – expressed concern over the situation across the Syria-Lebanon border long before the Syrian crisis reached the tipping point in Homs. Syria’s besieged ruler Bashar Al-Assad, belongs also to the Alewite sect, and the long-time Syrian occupation of Lebanon that ended only in 2005 with the Cedar Revolution included Sunnis being massacred by the Syrian army in Bab al-Tabbaneh (1986-1987). The course of the Syrian uprising has paved the way for a renewal of old tensions going back to 1970’s.
In June 2011, seven people were killed and over fifty wounded in clashes between the rival neighborhoods following a rally in support of Syrian protesters in Bab al-Tabbaneh, and then in February 2012, clashes erupted again that required the intervention of the often powerless Lebanese army. The situation worsened by May when a Sunni Islamist was arrested, and clashes erupted again between both neighborhoods. The fighting continued on a low scale throughout several days and over a dozen casualties were reported.
In the first days of June clashes erupted once again and with non-existing media coverage (different, for example, from the clashes spread from Tripoli to Beirut around Tareeq Jdeideh, another dividing line between Sunni and Shiite rivalries, even though this time clashes were between two rival Sunni factions, one of them being the Arab Democratic Party, with close ties to Hezbollah and to which many Alawites in Jabal Mohsen belong) citizens from Tripoli reported the clashes as the worst gun fighting since the end of the civil war.
The clashes resulted in at least 14 casualties and extensive material damage, in which civilian life was not only disrupted but there were also reports of non-combatants wounded, and as it was reported by pro-independence site NOW Lebanon, it is unlikely that Tripoli battles will end with the last shot fired. Following from the clashes, Alewite businesses were reportedly torched in the more affluent area of Azmi, closer to downtown, and the calm returned after the army intervened – with a spectacular delay – to impose a fragile and tense ceasefire.
The particulars of the unrest in Lebanon are too intricate to discuss here, but Emile Hokayem has provided all the historical background in his Foreign Policy piece “Lebanon’s Little Syria” , and Lebanese blogger Mustapha M. Hamoui has written an extensive analysis on what the arrest in May of a Sunni Islamist tells us about Tripoli, the state of affairs in Lebanese politics, and wider effect of the Arab Spring in Lebanon in his “A Phone Call That Shook a Nation”. Now, with all this in mind, we should turn our attention to some ideas on power and violence and the specific case of Lebanon.
In "On Violence", Hannah Arendt established a crucial distinction between power and violence, and though her definition of violence itself comes only via negativa – by what it is not, she articulates a very clear notion of power as distinguished from force and strength. Whatever it is that we understand nowadays as power is the rough equivalent of force, that is, the uncontrollable forces of nature, and has little to do with power as a function of human relations: power as the ability to act in concert with others.
The meaningful distinctions between power, strength, force, violence, and authority have somehow evaporated in the course of the 19th and 20th centuries and have been made roughly identical with each other. The emphasis of the shift from power to force implies the operation of natural forces that render human capacity for decision irrelevant ,and the shift from force to strength confuses the irreparability of the natural cycle with a trait of character or personal quality. Conversely, authority is not power or strength or force, but specific sources of power.
Violence, on the other hand, bears an extremely complex relationship to action rather than to above described elements of government – as distinguished from politics and as such, from human plurality – and here action is roughly identified with the human capacity to begin something anew, as if miraculously. According to Arendt: “Neither violence nor power is a natural phenomenon, that is, a manifestation of the life process; they belong to the political realm of human affairs whose essentially human quality is guaranteed by man’s faculty of action, the ability to begin something new”.
It should be said however, that violence cannot be disqualified as a form of action – and in this regard, the Arendtian canon and legacy is very ambiguous – and there is such a thing as violent action, but it is a tautology to speak of non-violent power: “Power and violence are opposites; where the one rules absolutely, the other is absent. Violence appears where power is in jeopardy, but left to its own course it ends in power’s disappearance.”
Lebanon’s relationship to both power and violence – which is nowhere better exemplified than in Tripoli’s violent history – emerged as it is, in jeopardy of power and excess of violence: born out of confessionalism and as a buffer zone of regional conflict in which every confessional faction sought to enter deals with players abroad to protect sectarian interests, the idea of power has been infinitely weakened as a birth defect. These particular aspects of Lebanese modern history have been discussed by former minister Charbel Nahas in his lecture “Liban: L’état tampon entre confessionnalisme, disorientation et dissension sociale” held on May 25th in Paris.
The criteria of religious affiliation have impaired participative democracy through a system in which the absence of violence is understood as an achievement in unity, but the immediate absence of violence – as exemplified by the National Pact in 1943 and the Taif Agreements in 1989 – does not immediately translate into consent to act (power) but simply into non-aggression.
The raison d’être of politics – and this is in a nutshell, all of Hannah Arendt – is freedom and not sovereignty, that I understand - particularly in the political philosophy of Fichte -as bearing a relationship to freedom based on free will and not on action. Accordingly, for as long as the terms of the debate are framed exclusively by territoriality – the sectarian geography of Lebanon comes to mind again – and the acceptable tension between national sovereignties (which in Lebanon means sect sovereignties and is far from any concept of federalism), the vacuum of power will remain. Consequently, every time that the terms for negotiation need to be laid, violence will be the only way to settle them.
In the absence of power, the government is permanently impaired to make political decisions – regardless of the coalition, whether March 8 or March 14 – and the powers of the state will continue to be handed to regional warlords, without whose consent, the army will remain forever incapable of restoring security, and the idea of national unity will be always preceded by a confessional affiliation within an abstract figure of power whose pillars are everywhere but in Lebanon.
Power is a terrible and incalculable force, whereas violence is predictable and calculable, and that is why power grows in between men, while violence is possessed by one man alone – even if the many act upon it, it is still possessed individually – and cannot be the foundation of politics because it is a means to something else that ultimately becomes identical with the means it utilizes.
Violence cannot be overcome through force or violence, because both are incapable of spontaneity – the hallmark of human action and plurality – and for as long as power will remain absent from the political, weapons will always set the terms of negotiations for Tripoli. It cannot be denied that violence is a form of action and a very human one at that, but the writing on the wall is crystal clear in Hannah Arendt’s writings: “The practice of violence, like all action, changes the world, but the most probable change is to a more violent world.”