Adventures in Cultural Consumption, The Jew As Other Edition:

Homocide: My students are required, a few times throughout the semester, to produce reflections on class discussion. It's usually a helpful way of getting them to continue to think about the reading after class, and it occasionally shakes out questions they had but which went unasked. The assignment for yesterday was Marx's "On the Jewish Question." Class discussion was limited, as it was their first exposure to Marx and a lot of terminology had to be introduced; we touched on Marx's use of anti-semitic tropes, mostly to emphasize that he really meant them, and they are not some accident of the text.

The responses had a lot of questions, most of them about the anti-semitism. They did not understand it. Not that they were confused why Marx would subscribe to such poorly formulated theories of The Jew, but rather that they lacked the conceptual apparatus to understand why The Jew must be Other in the first place. In part, this makes sense: they don't know a lot about Christianity, and one must understand something about that to understand the fraught history of Jewish-Christian relations, and one has to understand quite a bit about that to understand why anti-semitic tropes could be so widespread when they were all based on shoddy and inadequate understandings of Judaism.

But this is also notably different from the discussion of, for example, the chapter on the three races in Democracy in America, or the discussions we have had of race in the context of Mill's On Liberty. The students know the stereotypes of those who are black, or Hispanic, or Asian, know the mythos and origin of those stereotypes, if only to be able to identify them when deployed so as to properly distance themselves from them. (There is no tension like the tension of a classroom discussion that veers towards race.) Jewishness, so far as I can tell, and perhaps only in the eyes of these particular students, is a slightly differentiable form of being white, and so therefore not particularly interesting.

It just so happens that the movie Netflix sent me was Homocide, which is at least in part about questions of what it means to be Jewish, and is premised on the existence of a world where to be Jewish is to be singled out as Other. The movie was made in 1991 but its existential concerns are of a piece with (to display the extent to which my familiarity with the relevant literature is limited) The Chosen, or perhaps The Yiddish Policeman's Union, which despite its future-oriented setting takes its view of Jewish-American relations from the 1940s. I can remember a world in which these concerns were omnipresent enough to make it to Real America, as isolated as we were from actual contact with people who were different. I am not entirely sure that's the world my students live in.

I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, it is certainly better to live in a world where some previous form of intolerance is considered literally incomprehensible. On the other, this leads those pockets that remain to be regarded as a curio rather than a serious threat, and I think they miss something of the problem by regarding it as odd or amusing rather than, say, vile. It's a view that deserves to be taken seriously enough to be forcefully rejected rather than set aside. I think there's no better highlight in the work of the midcentury theologian Karl Barth than his lecture on anti-semitism in Dogmatics in Outline. Barth is in Germany in 1946 and speaking to an audience of German theology students; to the best of my knowledge, it's the first time he was back after having been kicked out in 1933 for organizing Protestant churches against the Nazi Party. Let us feel and try to understand the weight of the theological argument for eliminating the Jew, he says: let's lay down the premises which make them responsible for killing God, and consider what the anti-semite thinks should flow from that. The presentation of the argument is taken quite seriously. What follows: when, so the story goes, the Jews abandon God, God does not abandon them: he fulfills his promise and gives to them the thing promised: he, in other words, completes the act of salvation promised to Abraham, and gives it to Abraham's children. That is to say, Barth argues, the anti-semite looks at the same facts as God and comes to the opposite conclusion: where God saves, the anti-semite condemns, and would persecute, oppress, and kill. Therefore anti-semitism in whatever form is directly and identifiably opposed to the will of God expressed in the actions of God. The anti-semite cannot be a Christian, he is barred from it; he can only be a rebel. From a Christian theological perspective, I cannot imagine a stronger response. The response is strong because it takes the objection seriously, and demolishes it on its own terms; it shames and defeats its opponent through argument, not the power of the state, or the ability of social convention to make people learn to not express their 'bad' opinions.

I worry, in other words, that not knowing the argument well enough makes the response to it harder to produce when needed.


rosebriar said...

I think that last sentence really sums up a lot of the problems I see in our culture these days (and maybe always, but I'm seeing it lately). People who advocate for a cause don't know about or understand their opponents, so much so that they can't make any effective counter-arguments. I see it in legal advocacy as well as in regular interpersonal interaction; the failure to take the opposing side's position seriously enough to engage with it weakens one's own side, and people don't realize that enough.

Phoebe said...

Ooh, I'm going to need to reply with a full post, but in the mean time, what did they make of Marx being/not being a Jew?

Nicholas said...


They did not have much to say about it. Part of that, I think, is not having much knowledge of Jewish stereotypes and so not really getting the potential self-loathing aspect to it (though I suggested to a few students that the driving engine of alienation and objectification is self-loathing, which may not have an incidental connection to Marx's own identity).

The other part is that I am of the opinion that Marx can be explained as a German Protestant on whom the historical-critical school worked particularly effectively: he has a Hegelian's admiration for Luther but thinks the rest of it is bunk to be transcended. The impact of his Jewish background is important for any serious explanation of his thought, but can probably be glossed over in four class sessions with freshmen, especially when there's all the leftover Hegel to explain, too. To Marx, there may be special reasons for particularly disliking Judaism, but they are only special instances of the reasons for not liking neither religion nor atheism.

I am, however, most certainly not the expert in 19th century anti-semitism in this conversation, so I am more than open to being told otherwise.

Phoebe said...

I do think it's important that Marx was from a Jewish family, although I couldn't speak to how much this matters for his thought, other than re: the "Jewish question." (I read some Marx in college, a little for something I was working on earlier in grad school, not much since.) But it's important to understand how he was received - that at that time, in France (which does matter re: Marx) and perhaps in Germany (my understanding is, yes, but this isn't the area I know as well), anyone from a Jewish family, including devout Christians, was popularly understood as a Jew. So it matters if Marx was, by the standards of his era, a Jew, this matters simply in terms of identifying him as an author. And the connection between socialism and anti-Semitism, well, there's lots there, but as you say, only so much that can be covered in a class.

Abby Spice said...

I said this over at Phoebe's as well--a classroom of Duke students is not representative of either students or the greater public, including the Oklahoma state rep who recently used the phrase "Jew me down". And then apologized, saying that Jews are good business owners.

I'm 25. I just graduated from college. Antisemitism is alive and well among my cohort.

Nicholas said...

A reminder to me to update my sidebar: I'm not at Duke this academic year.

Abby Spice said...

Good to know, though I stand by my comment. I was the only Jew in my high school, all four years. There are plenty of stereotypes and plenty of antisemitism. My classmates did not at all lack "the conceptual apparatus to understand why The Jew must be Other in the first place."

I'm frankly baffled by the idea that anyone lacks that apparatus, except possibly for a few people in certain parts of big cities.

rosebriar said...

Abby - I was one of four Jews (one of whom was my brother) at my high school in central Texas, and the most common thing anyone said to me about it was, "What's 'Jewish?'" So, this doesn't surprise me at all. I'm sorry that you still had to experience so much anti-semitism, but I think it's fair to say that those stereotypes have at least become more obscure over the years.

BartletForAmerica said...

rosebriar, did they ever ask if it had anything to do with the Hebrews? Because people seemed to think I was closely related to the Hebrews.

rosebriar said...

Ha, no, I think that was more information than they had.