Antisemitism is much more than a cognitive error. It attracts by providing the deep emotional satisfactions of hatred, tradition, and moral purity.
There is something strangely ineffective about many of our attempts to combat anti-Semitism. We treat it as involving various cognitive errors – false beliefs about Jews or about Israel, the application of double standards to the assessment of Jewish activities, the one-sided focus on things which can be criticised and the neglect of things which might be praiseworthy. We try to combat these cognitive failures (of which there certainly are plenty) by pointing out the errors involved, listing the relevant facts which correct those errors, and revealing the logical inconsistencies involved in, for example, the use of double standards. And when these attempts prove to be totally fruitless, as they so often do, we’re puzzled and dismayed. Don’t people want truths which would enable them to abandon their hostilities to various aspects of Jewish existence?
The answer, of course, is very often that no, they really don’t want these truths. They prefer the errors, with all their dramatic fears and hatreds, and the excitement of conspiracy stories, to the unremarkable truth that Jews are on the whole just like everyone else, a mixture of good and bad, strong and weak, but with a history which has very real and terrible implications for the present. Why is this? We can’t explain it just in terms of cognitive error, since part of what we want to know is why the cognitive errors are so immune to alteration, why they appear and reappear so very persistently. We have to look outside the cognitive domain to the realm of the emotions, and ask: what are the pleasures, what are the emotional rewards which anti-Semitism has to offer to its adherents?
Anti-Semitism is fun, there’s no doubt about it. You can’t miss the relish with which some people compare Jews to the Nazis, or the fake sorrow, imperfectly masking deep satisfaction, with which they bemoan the supposed fact that Jews have brought hatred on themselves, especially by the actions of Israel and its Zionist supporters, and that they have inexplicably failed to learn the lessons of the Holocaust. (The Holocaust was not, of course, an educational exercise; and if there are lessons to be learned from it, we might think that the weakest pupils are those who once again wish to single out Jews above all others for hostile attention.) Like other forms of racism, anti-Semitism provides a variety of satisfactions for those who endorse it, and it’s worth trying to analyse these pleasures, so that we may better understand and combat the whole phenomenon. In what follows I will be mentioning and briefly describing various anti-Semitic attitudes, all of which I believe to be deeply and often culpably misguided. But I won’t be discussing their errors, nor will I be distinguishing the circumstances in which criticism of Jews and Israel is legitimate and accurate, and circumstances in which it is not. Much has been written on just those topics; here I will simply take it for granted that some such criticisms are accurate, but that others, often many others, are false, and constitute a form of racist discrimination against Jews – in short, anti-Semitism. My concern here is not with the falsity of anti-Semitic discourse, but with the pleasures which it offers to those who engage in it.
There are (at least) three principal sources of pleasure which anti-Semitism provides: first, the pleasure of hatred; second, the pleasure of tradition, and third, the pleasure of displaying moral purity. Each of these is an independent source of satisfaction, but the three interact in various ways, which often strengthens their effects. No doubt the different sources of pleasure appeal to different individuals and groups, so that the appeal of tradition may resonate most strongly with those who are politically on the Right, and the attraction of displaying moral purity may be most strongly felt by those on the political Left, but both varieties can be detected in most political groupings, and the pleasures of hatred are well-nigh universal.
The pleasures of hatred
The satisfactions which hatred has to offer us are regrettably familiar to most people. Most of us know only too well the surge of self-righteousness, the thrill of condemning others, the intense bonding with a like-minded hater, which we feel when a good jolt of vicious hostility has risen within us. Of course there are some situations in which hatred is justified – there are some actions and attitudes to which hatred is the proper response, and anyone who is broadminded and tolerant at the building of an Auschwitz needs to clean up his moral compass. But the pleasures which hatred provides are just as available when the hatred is entirely unjustified, as most of us also know, at least in retrospect. Hatred and its cognates – contempt, rancour, and detestation – offer the seductive satisfaction of feeling our own superiority to the hated object, and feeling also a sense of deep justification and indeed righteousness in taking steps to punish or otherwise hurt him (or her, or them). Hurting others is also fun, for more people than we would normally like to believe (see for example the notorious Zimbardo experiments, and the evidence from those involved in the genocidal killing in Rwanda; but also the ubiquitous phenomenon of playground bullying, and its various adult analogues such as workplace bullying and the kind of political hostilities that sometimes break out in small ideologically overheated groups). So where anti-Semitism takes the form of Jew-hatred, it’s not hard to understand that it offers psychological rewards which are nothing to do with the truth or falsehood of people’s beliefs about Jews. Nor is it hard to see that people would prefer not to be deprived of these pleasures, especially if, as is often the case with those who are formally committed to anti-racism, they don’t recognise themselves to be anti-Semitic, and hence pay no inner price in damage to their own self-esteem.
The pleasures of tradition
Since the pleasures of hatred are universal, why, we must ask, do they get realised in Jew-hating in particular, here and now? At this point we can turn to the second main source of the pleasures of anti-Semitism: tradition. There is a Jew-shaped space in Western culture, and the shape is not a pleasant one. Long centuries of tradition have constructed the Jew as a being who is both contemptible and dangerous, the purveyor and transmitter of evil; and various tropes have been deployed to flesh out this picture – in particular the blood libel, according to which Jews use the blood of Christian children for their terrible ceremonies of machination and control, but also tropes about uncanny power, in which Jews are depicted as the puppet-masters of the rest of the helpless non-Jewish world. (There’s a version of this trope in which tentacles, rather than puppet-strings, figure most prominently. Being classified as killer octopi rather than as puppet masters isn’t noticeably an improvement for the Jews.)
As has often been pointed out, the tradition of anti-Semitism is very flexible, and it generally gets expressed in terms of the preoccupations of the period: so mediaeval Jew-hatred was religiously based; 19th and, even more 20th, century hostility was given a scientific top-dressing in terms of the now discredited theories of ‘race science’; and late 20th century and early 21st century prejudice is generally cast in terms of human rights violations. (I speak here primarily of anti-Semitism in the West. Anti-Semitism in other parts of the world, while undoubtedly deriving large parts of its force from Western examples, is an even more complicated matter.) Although an anti-Semitism which was proud to speak its name became unfashionable on the liberal left after the Second World War, for reasons which are too obvious to mention, it’s a remarkable feature of the persistence of anti-Semitic tropes that they have survived relatively unaltered through these cultural changes. Recent cartoons expressing profound hostility to the Jewish state, on the grounds of supposedly outstanding human rights-violations, reproduce fantasies of sinister control and bloodthirstiness which earlier anti-Semites would have recognised without difficulty.
The weight of tradition, which makes it feel comfortable, perhaps even natural, to fit living Jews into the space created for them by so many centuries of hostility, may help to explain one of the many failures of logic infecting contemporary anti-Semitic discourse: where the Jewish state does bad things, these are taken to reveal its true inner nature; where it does good things, these are interpreted as deceitful, as mere propaganda designed to cover up its vile motives and actions. (The relative freedom which is afforded to gay and bisexual people in Israel, as witnessed by the Gay Pride marches there, has been described as ‘pinkwashing’ – that is, as a mendacious attempt to persuade people that Israel is a tolerant respecter of human rights, instead of the colonial imperialist baby-killing oppressor which many anti-Zionists declare her to be. It will be interesting to see whether the selection of a very beautiful black woman of Ethiopian descent to be Miss Israel gets described as ‘black-washing’.) The suggestion by the Lib Dem peer, Baroness Jenny Tonge, that Israeli medical aid to Haiti was a cover for organ-stealing by Israeli medics was perhaps the crudest and most egregious of such examples, though people trying to defend Israel against such criticisms have become accustomed to being told again and again that they only mount these defences as a way of covering up Israel’s crimes.
Why are people so ready to make these hostile moves, in a way which they wouldn’t tolerate with respect to other forms of racism? Anyone who announced that the political and economic troubles of African countries were the result of low intelligence in black Africans, or who drew a cartoon of President Obama as an ape, would be committing social and political suicide among those members of the bien-pensant classes who so often display the forms of prejudice against Jews and the Jewish state with which we’re here concerned. The availability of the traditional picture of the Jew as sinister and controlling and duplicitous may make these moves against living Jews, right now, seem comfortably familiar, and perhaps even freshly revealing of an age-old wisdom. There has been a distinctive tradition on the Left, going back to the 19th century and beyond, of what might be called rich-Jew anti-Semitism, where the basis of the objection to Jews was that they were rich, and hence exploitative and oppressive. It is easy to see how that can be picked up today. To that we might add the consideration that Jews have intermittently been treated appallingly, and sometimes genocidally, in the West; and as Tolstoy and others have noticed, we often hate people in proportion to the injustices which we have done them. It’s very hard for Europe to forgive the Jews for the Holocaust, and seeing Jews as hateful makes life easier – people needn’t worry about whether they’re treating Jews quite fairly if they believe them to be lying, bloodthirsty and oppressive. But the main difference between resurgent hostility to Jews on the part of sections of the Left, and the absence of any such resurgence towards people of colour, is probably the result of the rise of imperialism as the political hate object of the post-Marxist Left. Israel can be cast, though only at the expense of an enormous distortion of historical facts, into the role of imperial coloniser, and hence hostility towards Israel and the Jews who support her existence can be legitimised as part, sometimes a leading part, of the global fight against imperialism. This construal of Israel’s geo-political position permits those people who are hostile to her to see themselves as warriors against the great evil of colonialism, a role which many on the Left find very gratifying to contemplate themselves as occupying.
The pleasures of moral purity
This takes us to the third source of satisfaction which anti-Semitism provides: the desire for moral purity, especially a purity which is readily visible to others, and can count as a ticket of entry to socially and politically desirable circles. This source of satisfaction is in many ways the most interesting of them all, partly because it seems to be the motive du jour of anti-Semitism coming from sections of the Left, which might have been expected to be hostile to all forms of racism and sadly isn’t; and partly because it’s so supple and flexible, it can accommodate and explain away a very wide range of facts which tell against it. (I say that these things are interesting to contemplate and analyse, which indeed they are. But in no way do I want to underestimate the extent to which meeting them in the flesh, so to speak, is primarily disgusting, and also in many cases exhausting and sometimes frightening.)
Moral goodness and purity is of course genuinely desirable and admirable – it’s good if people have deep moral insight, and the ability to judge correctly what’s the right thing to do in complicated circumstances, and the strength of character and will to carry out their decisions, and the understanding and factual knowledge and courage and kindness and sympathy to judge others fairly, and to fight for justice where need be. But one look at that list is enough to remind us of how hard it is to be good, and how much easier it is to pursue the appearance rather than the reality. Israel as the Jewish state is a real opportunity for people who want to display their supposed moral purity, and harvest a suitable quantity of admiration from like-minded others, without having to deliver on the exacting demands of genuine moral probity. So we find people declaring that Israel is an apartheid state, thus allying themselves to the righteous fight against apartheid half a century ago, but omitting to notice the huge moral, social and political differences between Israel and apartheid South Africa; they declare that Israel is a colonial settler state, thus displaying their hostility to colonialism without having to ask who the colonising power is, and where else the survivors of the mid-century horrors should have gone, and why the UN decided that the Jews of the world should have the opportunity for self-determination, and why they were so clearly in need of it; we have people publishing in the broadsheet press complaints about how their hostile views about Israel have been silenced by powerful unnamed forces, without noticing the performative contradiction in what they say; we have people explaining that they do of course completely condemn the Holocaust, and this shows that they can’t be anti-Semitic, but, they go on to declare, it’s appalling to find Jews behaving in the same way against the Palestinians of Gaza and the West Bank that the Nazis did in the Warsaw ghetto. And so on, and on.
However, my concern here is not with the factual and logical errors in these various charges; I want rather to point out the emotional dividend they provide to those who deploy them. Such people can present themselves as the champions of the weak against the strong, of the colonised against the supposedly imperialist colonisers, of wholly innocent Palestinian victims against bloody and heartless Jewish oppressors. They can also present themselves as being victimised, both by the way in which powerful forces have imposed silence on them (albeit one of the noisiest silences ever heard), and also by the charge, deeply offensive to their moral purity, that their extraordinarily selective hostility towards Israel and its supporters might constitute discrimination against Jews. Indeed so offensive is this charge that it amounts, so it is claimed, to a further victimisation, of a kind which can only be explained by the deceitful and manipulative nature of those who raise the concerns about alleged anti-Semitism. So people who deploy these tactics against Jews can see themselves, and can hope to be seen by others, as being not only on the side of morally pure victims against morally vicious villains, but also as having the coveted status of victims themselves, slandered by people who are determined to exploit their own past sufferings in order to oppress others. Furthermore, since in this narrative Jews are cast as the powerful oppressors, those who single them out for hostile attention can see themselves as ‘speaking truth to power’. And paradoxically, focussing on Jews for singular criticism can be also be presented as subversive and transgressive, flouting the conventions of polite discourse, and thus conferring on the hostile critic the accolade of being untrammelled by convention, excitingly edgy, possibly even outrageous. All in all, that’s an awful lot of moral bang for your anti-Semitic buck.
The reason that it’s plausible to construe these various claims and attitudes as being driven by a concern to display moral purity, rather than simply as showing honest moral commitments, is that the hostile attitudes displayed towards Israel and Zionists are rarely directed against other malefactors, including those who have committed far more, and far more serious, violations of human rights than any that Israel has managed. Furthermore, the charges made against Israel are often simply false, and demonstrably so. These two considerations together suggest that what’s in play is not serious moral concern, but rather an easy simulacrum of it, along with a conviction of moral rectitude which, though misplaced, offers distinctive pleasures of its own.
The various sources of pleasure which anti-Semitism provides interact in diverse ways. Sometimes the effect of this interaction is simply to reinforce the rewards on offer: tradition plus hatred is a natural pairing, as is tradition plus the desire for moral purity – these relations are simply multipliers. But other relations look at first sight as if they might involve a certain tension: tradition plus transgressiveness, or hatred and condemnation plus the desire for moral purity. However these tensions can be and often are resolved in anti-Semitic discourse in ways which leave the discriminatory drive undisturbed. The claim of transgressiveness can be asserted with respect to the post-war convention of being polite about Jews, arising understandably from their sufferings at the hands of Nazi Germany, but now, it is suggested, exploited by Jews to cover up their wrongdoings. And in the description of such alleged wrongdoings, the rich seam of traditional Jew-hatred can be drawn on without embarrassment, indeed with a delicious frisson, because the transgressiveness defuses in advance any objections based on more conventional concerns about racism. The defusing of such concerns is expedited where the transgressor uses the device of claiming that he himself is not anti-Semitic, but he can understand those who are, since the Jews bring hostility on themselves by their behaviour. The tension between the pleasures of hatred and those of moral purity can also be reconciled, allowing them to co-exist and even reinforce each other. Hatred, it can be suggested, is an excusable and perhaps even appropriate response to the bloodthirsty acts of Israel; the hatred supposedly arises out of an overwhelming sensitivity to injustice, and is a sign of the extreme moral purity of the hater, who selflessly struggles for justice for the innocent victims of a tyrannical state and its supporters. It’s easy to see the attractions of this self-serving self-image to one who wishes to claim moral rectitude, and also to enjoy the pleasures of hatred. It’s a terrific opportunity both to have your moral cake, and to eat it up in huge and satisfying gulps.
The factual, logical and moral errors in the various forms of anti-Semitism under consideration are legion, and have been discussed extensively elsewhere (for example in the work of David Hirsh and Norman Geras, both in their contributions to previous issues of Fathom and in many other places). In trying to account for the prevalence of these errors, and also to combat them, we shouldn’t overlook the pleasures, sometimes very intense ones, which they provide. With the increasing normalisation of anti-Semitic hostility in many parts of the Left as well as the far Right, we can expect these pleasures to be more widely disseminated and enjoyed. What can be done about this state of affairs isn’t immediately obvious – the fact that some pleasures are vile doesn’t stop them being pleasurable, or prevent some people wanting to taste them again and again. In order to do so these people must bolster up their image of the Jewish state as oppressive and illegitimate, and the Zionists who support her as lying, manipulative, and hostile to human solidarity and justice. Here the devil frequently does have the best tunes, and the thin and reedy voice of rational argument is often quite drowned out by their brassy insistence. But we’ll do better in the combat, however we conduct it, if we realise that the views which we’re struggling against provide deep emotional satisfactions to those who hold them, satisfactions not easy either to overcome or to replace.