By Bernard Harrison
It’s not common that you see someone with a high degree of philosophic training actually doing something helpful with it. This book, by a well-regarded British philosopher, sheds a unique light on anti-semitism.
One feature of “the oldest hatred” is spotlighted here that I had never stopped to think about before. Oddly enough, anti-semitism is an attitude that has been held by intellectuals of the first rank! That’s a fact I first noticed when I was researching A Good Look at Evil. I read ten volumes of transcripts of the trials of Nazi war criminals that were held at Nuremberg after World War II. To my surprise, many of the defendants were well trained in philosophy! All were well educated! They were not brutes. Could anti-semitism be a malady of the intellectuals?
Harrison faces this question and answers it affirmatively. Yes ! Over the past two centuries, there have been philosophers, poets, novelists, critics, journalists (and of course politicians) who were filled to the brim with anti-semitic views that have not changed, in the letter or the spirit, in the last two thousand years!
Ladies and gentlemen, this fact is remarkable. If a visitor from outer space were to tour our planet, it might even be deemed its most striking feature. An inter-gallactic anthropologist might report it as follows:
On planet earth, the smartest people
believe a delusional fantasy.
What does Harrison’s book do that other excellent books on the subject have not done? To my mind, it usefully defines anti-semitism, breaking it down into two basic variants: the social and the political.
The first, social anti-semitism (“we don’t have them to dinner”), is obviously burdensome for the victims: psychologically, professionally and socially. However, it is not normally dangerous. What it exhibits is a dislike of the stranger, the Other. We human beings may be evolutionarily hardwired to feel some kind of animus or recoil when we meet someone who is different from our group. Jews are certainly not the only ones to encounter social prejudice. In the course of happier experience with the outsider, social prejudice is sometimes overcome, but there’s nothing new or peculiar about it.
The second variety of anti-semitism has a different dynamic and is very dangerous. It aims at the elimination of the whole targeted group. Harrison names it “political anti-semitism.” It’s an ideology, a cultural formation. It targets Jews specifically, across millennia, accommodating itself to the Zeitgeist — even as that has changed from one cultural era to the next — yet keeping the same underlying tenets. Unlike social anti-semitism, political anti-semitism is compatible with having Jewish friends and the most tastefully benign feelings. It is an intellectual distortion, to which intellectuals have been and are particularly liable.
What are its beliefs? It imagines Jews (and lately Israel) as instigating a world-wide conspiracy to destroy all that is good, right, peaceful and normal, with the aim of benefitting themselves, the Jews, pictured as a homogeneous and preternaturally powerful group with a single, common, devilish will of its own.
So, like any theory, it offers an explanation. What does it explain? It explains anything that has gone wrong, in the deluded one’s personal life or political views. It explains the anomalies. Why didn’t my expectations work out? The Jews did it! That explains everything.
This is a feature I myself have noticed in such anti-semites: they have Jews on the brain. They can’t stop talking about Jews or thinking about them. Instead of facing their own real-life predicaments and figuring what precisely went wrong, they have a ready-made answer for every unsolved problem. It’s a syndrome I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. I’ve seen it distort people’s lives and sap their reasoning abilities. It’s the saddest thing. It’s horrible.
Unlike me, Harrison keeps his cool as he diagnosis the syndrome. His remedy? It’s to show that political anti-semites are self-victimized by a delusion. In order to argue his case persuasively, he must face the daunting array of empirical claims about Israel, as well as legal claims about free speech – especially in university settings. He manages this, going into “their own court,” using examples that avoid partisanship and taking up each of the major claims, one by one, on its own terms.
In completing his portrait of this delusion, there is one other task Harrison sets himself. He must show what Judaism actually is. This he manages to do, with a precision and nuance that I for one have never seen accomplished by a non-Jew. He has portrayed Judaism from the inside: its idiom, its background assumptions, its way of being in the world and the way it looks to itself.
He has done this partly to show how widely its assailants have missed the mark. But also explained here is a feature I’ve never seen noticed in this kind of book: the attractions of Judaism for a people who have oddly chosen to remain what they are, when it would have been enormously advantageous for them to become indistinguishable from everybody else.