What’s Up With the Jews?
It’s been an interesting week or two for Jews. Mel Gibson’s new film, “The Beaver,” opens nationwide in theaters and Jews must decide whether to pay good money to see a movie starring someone whose father is a Holocaust denier, and who has himself vilified Jews in public. In Cannes, the Danish movie director Lars von Trier rambles on at a press conference about sympathizing with Hitler, being annoyed with Israel and admiring Hitler’s architect, Albert Speer. Next day he recants, but it’s too late; he’s declared persona non grata at the film festival.
Then there is Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a French economist and politician who was poised to become France’s first Jewish president, imprisoned at Rikers Island after being accused of forcing sex on a chambermaid at a New York hotel. (Strauss-Kahn has now moved to a very constrained “house arrest” while awaiting arraignment, if he can find a house.) Meanwhile, on May 11 this newspaper publishes the results of a Pew Forum study that shows 67 percent of Reform Jewish households in the United States making more than $75,000 a year; only 31 percent of all households hit the same mark.
Then there are a few older stories that linger on and add to the mix. Designer John Galliano is facing trial in France and has been fired by Dior because, in the course of a drunken rant in a bar, he said to someone (who was not in fact Jewish) “I love Hitler and people like you would be dead.” Bad-boy Charlie Sheen abused various substances, cavorted with assorted women and trashed hotel-rooms for years and nothing much was done about it until he spewed anti-Semitic remarks in the direction of the Jewish producer of his hit TV show “Two and a Half Men.” In a short time he was fired and his role has been given to Ashton Kutcher, raised Catholic, but now heavily into Judaism and Kabala.
And of course there is the story that will live forever, even after its protagonist dies, the story of Bernie Madoff (a Strauss-Kahn lookalike, or is it the other way around?) who perpetrated the biggest scam in history (will he replace Meyer Lansky as the chief exhibit in the bad-guy Jewish Hall of Fame?) and ruined thousands of people, many of them fellow Jews. The thing about these stories is that they all point in (at least) two directions. Sheen, Gibson, Galliano and Von Trier have paid dearly for their transgression against Jews; but that fact has also had some muttering on about Jewish power and influence in Hollywood and the arts. (“You can insult any ethnic group and get away with it, except for the Jews.”) In the U.S. press and on some of the blogs, Strauss-Kahn is vilified as an elitist misogamist thug, but in France he is thought of as a victim of a political conspiracy and portrayed by some as a modern Alfred Dreyfus brought down just as he was on the brink of ascendancy to a position no Jew has ever attained.
The statistics that show Jewish households doing really well financially would seem to be good news for the Jewish community, but the Times story about the survey ended up featured on the Web site of Stormfront.org, where it was placed just below an advertisement for the latest David Duke video. The moral Stormfront draws is that “most honest people do not want to live off other people,” the latest installment of the very old accusation that Jews are parasitic blood suckers who infest and infect a society. The same thing has been said many times on many white supremacists Web sites about Madoff: “If one studies the history of the Jew, one will see how this race of vagabond parasites takes over a host and bleeds it dry as we are now being bled dry” (Vanguard News Network Forum).
So which is it? Jews are a success story, or Jews are a plague? Don’t mess with Jews, or blame Jews for everything in sight the moment you get drunk? Jews are victims (expulsions, pogroms, the Holocaust), or Jews are victimizers (rapacious bankers, shyster lawyers, land-grabbers and ethnic cleansers)? Jews are devils and sub-human vermin (a Nazi trope), or Jews are God’s chosen people?
The answer is all of the above and much more, for, as many before me have observed, the Jew as a cultural/ historical figure is oversaturated, which means that the meanings that accrue to him (or her, but mostly him) are in excess of any empirical record and accumulate like barnacles without any regard for the law of contradiction. Attitudes, especially negative ones, toward Jews flourish whether there are Jews around or not. Anti-Semitism survives in Poland even though most of its Jews have either fled or been killed. There is anti-Semitism in China, but few actual Jews.
An important part of the protean and shape-shifting history of anti-Semitism is illuminated by Matthew Biberman’s brilliant book “Masculinity, Anti-Semitism, and Early Modern English Literature.” Biberman traces the intertwined careers of two characterizations of the Jew — the Jew as devil, an impossibly strong alien being who blocks and destroys everything that is good, and the Jew as sissy, an effeminate, slight, pasty figure who stays in the background and assimilates, but who, because of his having disappeared into the woodwork, is able to rot it out from within. (This quick summary does not do justice to the richness of Biberman’s analysis.) So you can have the fierce barbaric Jew (Israel as the atom-bomb wielding destroyer of Arab armies, at least in 1967) and the insidiously bland Jew, the obsequious figure who, while no one’s looking, takes control of everything. That means that whatever a Jew does there are a number of pre-packaged, and often mutually exclusive, narratives in which to place him, and, by and large, they are not positive ones.
And that goes double for the Jewish nation. There is, as everyone knows, an ongoing debate about whether criticism of Israel can be separated from criticism of Jews, that is, from anti-Semitism. (See, for example, the comments on my two previous columns.) But it may be that the figure of the Jew is so highly, and complexly, charged that attempts to detach the political/military strategy of a nation from the ancient, entrenched and multiple images of its inhabitants — this is, after all, the Jewish state — are likely to fail from either direction. Israelis and their supporters will hear in any criticism of policy echoes of the diaspora, the blood-libel, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the Third Reich’s final solution. Those who offer the criticism can never quite be sure that their distaste for Israel’s actions with respect to the Palestinians is entirely innocent of the influence of centuries of vilification. And that seems to be where we are.