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Artillery Row

Antisemitism and the discourse of privilege

Progressives hierarchies are not kind to liberal Jews

Political and cultural realignments are funny things: they have enormously consequential effects, yet being largely immaterial themselves, they can go unnoticed for long periods of time until the right event reveals them quite suddenly. The Hamas attacks against Israel on October 7th were such an event.

Whilst the shocking nature of the attacks themselves initially generated a horrified response, public focus and above all mass mobilisation quickly shifted from Israelis to the Palestinians. A certain asymmetry of empathy soon became apparent — particularly after Jews experienced the most murderous day since the Shoah — though its sources are not reducible to classic antisemitism.

For some, admittedly, this was just a function of antisemitism; for others, ideological or tribal commitments to the Palestinian cause forbade the full acknowledgement of crimes committed in the name of that same cause. For many more in Europe and North America, though, neither Jew-hatred nor any prior investment in Palestine was really a factor. For them, the complex reality of Israel and Palestine was simply assimilated into the existing discourses of progressivism. Thus we end up with people insisting — against the facts of Israeli demographics — on the whiteness of Zionism versus the POC-ness of the Palestinians (though his take was more metaphorical, the recently-reemerged Ta-Nehisi Coates nonetheless proved unable to conceive of the conflict except in these terms). Then there are “Queers for Palestine” and all manner of anachronistically trendy left-wing positions being attributed to Islam generally and Palestinian society specifically.

In response to this, liberal Jews — perhaps most notably Sarah Silverman and Amy Schumer — have offered the kind of treacly language of victimhood that has become a lingua franca in contemporary politics: “Your Jewish friends are NOT ok” and other such slogans that would have Jabotinsky spinning in his grave.

Jews qua Jews are out of sync with the dominant political culture

They have been greeted with either mockery or outright silence, in many of the same quarters that they clearly expected to find a hearing. One cannot really chalk this up as more evidence of an irony-drenched culture, particularly when these were largely the same people who did this sort of thing during the height of BLM. (There is an actual mural of George Floyd in Gaza, which is one of those details that seems more like bad screenwriting than reality.)

Meanwhile, more sober types have continued to proceed as though the prevailing norms and taboos still favoured them, by trying to penalise some of the more extreme celebratory displays in the wake of the attacks. To some degree, this has been successful, thanks to a combination of administrative squeamishness of any employees getting involved in controversy and what I take to be the lingering belief, amongst both older Jews and gentiles, that indifference to or outright mockery of Jewish deaths in any context is functionally antisemitic. To put it another way, those sympathetic to either Jews or Israel still wield some authority in consequential institutions. If polling is any indication, however, that equilibrium will not hold indefinitely.

Even these comparatively mild attempts at speech policing and cancelation are encountering more robust opposition than the far more extreme cases we’ve seen over the past several years across #MeToo, BLM and more. It is clear that despite their formal minority status, Jews qua Jews are out of sync with the dominant political culture.

Most ironically of all, the “Jewish question” was the original debate over minority rights and protections under the modern state. The socialist “solution” was to dissolve the kinds of (as they viewed them) artificial distinctions that produced such minority groups as Jews in the first place. There would be no place for such distinctions amongst the universal proletariat (what would happen to those Jews who declined to join said proletariat doesn’t really bear thinking about). The more modest liberal solution was to provide certain formal protections, whilst avoiding jurisdiction over informal modes of discrimination and social sorting.

This option, however, still left private forms of discrimination in place. It too gave way over time, as state bureaucracies extended their control over private associations in the post-Civil Rights era (though the impetus for these developments was not the Jews, per se). We are now many decades into this process, which has received enormous psychic boosts from various progressive upswells, resulting finally in the entrenched DEI bureaucracies that straddle our governmental, academic and business institutions.

The upshot is that Jews, the original and archetypal minority group, have been left behind, even as new minority protections are being created daily. The response by some to insist on reincorporating Jews into these newer bureaucratic and administrative protections will not wash, for the simple reason that their formal minority status is no longer a sufficient criterion.

To put it bluntly, Jews, having long lived with something like permanent minority status, have rarely viewed themselves as akin to the white majority. Hence, most Jews viewed the demonisation of that white majority as a largely separate phenomenon, even as such rhetoric became increasingly commonplace in academia, government, NGOs and so on. Perhaps needless to say, progressives were less inclined to exclude Jews from the categories of “privilege” they had devised.

Zionism was originally intended to solve the problem of the Jewish position

After all, Jews disproportionately occupy positions of wealth and influence in our society, just as Israel, with its nuclear capabilities, formidable conventional military and cutting-edge tech sector is well positioned amongst other states. Of course, none of this availed the victims who suffered so piteously on October 7th. Indeed, the disparity between Jews’ precarious numbers worldwide (scarcely 16 million in the entire world), and their remarkable social and economic performance, only contributes to this cognitive dissonance. Our present taxonomy of virtues does not allow for such subtleties, however.

In sum, the inverted moral hierarchy — what Nietzsche called the transvaluation of values — was to be maintained at all cost. Most Jews, it’s fair to say, have been caught unawares by the fact that this hierarchy not only does not advantage them but in fact denigrates them.

Contra Marx’s solution (“we will efface the kinds of distinctions that make some people Jews”), the contemporary progressive innovation has thus been to effectively treat everyone as Jews (with the exception of, you know, actual Jews). The Schumers and Silvermans and various hysterical Tik-Tokkers, inquiring about the dimensions of their neighbours attic spaces, are trying to leverage the discursive mechanism of progressive taboos — only to discover that the machine hadn’t been hooked up for them.

This bizarre new version of progressive morality, which has in many ways replaced ordinary politics, did not only become a problem at the moment Jews became caught up in it. Nonetheless, the inability of this new progressive regime to comprehend or speak intelligibly about Jewish suffering, even when it was so graphically displayed for the whole world to see, is evidence that something is rotten here.

Zionism was originally intended to solve the problem of the Jewish position in political society by creating a genuine alternative, under which Jews would not have to stoop to such measures to ensure their own protections, whether individually or collectively. This solution only created new and different problems, but that is simply a truism of political life.

This is perhaps the real lesson of the Jewish question: that some political problems are by their essence unsolvable. The various attempts to solve them with respect to ever-proliferating niche minority identities has created new problems for both Jews themselves and for everyone else.

It would nonetheless be vastly preferable to begin the process of recovering an appreciation for moderate if imperfect liberalism. In the meantime, I have a more modest suggestion aimed at fellow Jews but applicable to all: be cautious of seeking special protections that require you to demean yourself. As David Mamet would put it, in the end, you will get nothing, and people will begin to act cruelly toward you.

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