Anti-Jewish Readings and Identity Politics

“Know thyself? If I knew myself, I’d run away.” – Goethe

Ignorance is one of secret perks of being a member of the dominant social group. Ignorance especially of the boundaries of your own identity, the roots of your own thought and perception, and the paths that have led you, and still lead you, to your position in the world. You do not need to know that your neighborhood is almost completely white because of red-lining. You do not need to need to be aware that because your name sounds “white” your job application will get more consideration than a name that sounds “black.”

Members of the non-dominant social group do not have this luxury. They must and do know the boundaries of their identity, or they will be killed. This was Emmitt Till’s mistake: to “not know his place.” Victor Hugo Green wrote his guidebook for travel across the U.S. so black vacationers could be aware of where their paths led.

In George and Don’s excellent conversation with Chris Sanchez a question arose that presses on this issue. Chris began by mentioning how Scripture has been used as a weapon against people of color, and then Don followed up by asking Chris how the anti-Jewish/anti-Semitic readings of Scripture may have impacted this.

At first blush there does not seem an obvious link except by analogy – the terms we use to disparage Pharisees can also be terms we use to disparage people of color, for example. The impulse of creating an “us” and “them” is a powerful yearning in human culture, and it’s no surprise that the “enemies” of Christ and the “enemies” of whites can be talked about in the same breath. But the link is even more direct than this.

Take one of the most influential thinkers from the past 250 years, Immanuel Kant. For him, the Judenfrage (the Jewish Question) and the Rassenfrage (the Race Question) are intimately bound up. The problem, as J. Kameron Carter’s excellent discussion of this issue argues in his Race: A Theological Account, is the problem of the Enlightenment: how to make human life fully rational.

On the one hand there is the life of sensuality, of slavery to the particular and “empirical,” of heteronomy. This is where Kant places the “Jewish nation,” which in his schema is a stand in for all non-European peoples. Their religion is legalistic, it focuses on the external rather than the internal, and doesn’t produce a free people. That’s why Jews are a “nation of cheaters” (Kant’s words!), enslaved to the empirical.

On the other hand there is a life of reason, of acting according to universal principles, of autonomy. This is where Kant places only the white race of Europeans, because they have the teachings of Jesus, which is the “dejudaization” of religion.  

Thus, Jews are on the side of heteronomy because their law is external, while Christianity has killed the letter and stuck with the Spirit, thus making religion rational. In fact, “the euthanasia of Judaism is pure moral religion, freed from all the ancient statutory teachings…” (Kant) As Carter puts it, “Christianity, reconstituted as the moral religion par excellence of reason, extols a Jesus who, rather than disclosing YHWH or the God of Israel as the ground of redemption for Jews and Gentiles alike, instead affirms what the human species ‘can or should make of itself.’” (107)

Kant’s arguments were of course not original. In fact, Justin Martyr makes a version of this argument in 150 A.D. in his Dialogue with Trypho, where he argues that the Jews do not follow the “eternal law” but instead focus on external rituals. For Justin, as for Kant, the problem with Judaism is its particularity, its focus on the physical, its focus on ritual and the sensual or the empirical. A brief look at the discussions of law in Augustine, Martin Luther, and a host of Christian theologians confirm that the basic terms used in these anti-Semitic readings hardly change.

What is more interesting is that the terms Justin Martyr and Kant use were terms employed by racists thinkers throughout the modern period, as documented by Ibram X. Kendi in his excellent Stamped from the Beginning: A Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. He catalogues the origin of some of the West’s most enduring racist ideas, and so often these ideas focus precisely on the notion of the African “race” as characterized by sensuality, by inability to reason internally, by needing the whip, or something external, to make improve them. Even when used for anti-slavery ends, as in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the notion of blacks as “docile, child-like and affectionate” (Stowe), or rather blacks as connect more deeply with the “empirical” (Kant), plays precisely on the distinction between the “Spirit” (internal) and the “letter” (external) seen in so much anti-Jewish Biblical exegesis.

The problem that Kant and other Enlightenment thinkers had – how to make the world more “rational” – found Jews a problem, while in America the more pressing problem was “blacks.” The anti-Jewish readings of Jesus’ story were essential to this process, because it laid the basic dichotomy of the universalism of Christianity over-against the particularism of Judaism, which during the Enlightenment became the universality of reason against the particularism of religion.

Of course, the content of this debate is still with us, even if the terms have changed. I recently read a Facebook comment thread that discussed the recent arrest of some black men at a Starbucks. One of the terms that kept coming up was “common sense.” If those men just used some common sense, they’d have been fine. If Eric Garner had just stopped struggling, he wouldn’t have been strangled by the police. Common sense – universally available reason, right?

A few weeks ago Ezra Klein and Sam Harris had a discussion in a Podcast about the “problem” of “identity politics” and science. Sam Harris invited Charles Murray on his Podcast, a man’s whose book The Bell Curve had popularized the racist thesis that people of color have a lower general intelligence based on genetics (I won’t explain why this is racists here – it would take too long! Read Kendi, and you’ll get a sense). Harris took umbrage with Vox.com’s coverage of this (Klein was the general editor at the time), and he wanted to debate Klein on this point.

Harris’ biggest complaint was the “politics of identity” – that is, the politics that says one must consider a person’s “identity” when discussing things like facts and science. He defended Charles Murray because Murray was defending the “data,” and it should have nothing to do with “politics.” At one point Klein astutely argues that Harris himself doesn’t see that he is defending his own identity in this exchange – a charge that Harris denied.

But Klein is right. Harris simply did not acknowledge he was defending someone of his own guild because he felt his guild under attack. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that! Defend your methods, I say! But Harris’ most amazing tacit was to remain completely ignorant of what he was doing, while arguing that other people were doing it to him!

That, I say, is the secret privilege of the dominant social group.

-Austin Eisele

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