Excuse me? Are you talking about me?
Excuse me, but I think “I” am the consciousness I woke up with this morning. And I think that’s more or less the consciousness I wake up with every day and have woken up with every day since my birth. Right? And my consciousness has no race.
Now. I’m associated with my body. Somehow. But it’s complicated. Very complicated. When I walk down the street and I catch sight of “myself” in the mirror of a shop window, I ask, “Who’s that?” and I answer, “Oh yes. It’s that guy again.”
But that guy has been assigned to me. There’s a connection there. He’s connected to me. He’s “my” body. If you hit him, I suffer. If you caress him, I’m comforted. If you torture him, he almost becomes me—almost—there’s not much me left beyond the pain that he feels. And if you kill him, I’m gone. But all the same, he’s a body, and I’m not. He’s not me.
And yes, my body has a certain history behind it. It is what it is because of its genes. It made itself, bit by bit, following the instructions of its genes. And the genes gave their instructions according to some very strict laws. So—where did the genes come from, I wonder? Did they come from Israel? Is my body Jewish? Did my genes come from some people who called themselves “Jews”?
Well—as there were no people at all who called themselves “Jews” before around 3300 BC, obviously my genes don’t come from them entirely. Before about 3300 BC, there were no Jews, but there were other humans, called different things, or called nothing, and the genes of the Jews came from them. The Jews did not invent their own genes. The Jews inherited their genes from their ancestors, who, like everybody else’s ancestors, were descendants of the early humans, our original ancestors, who lived in Africa. Most of my genes are direct copies of the genes of the African ancestors. But of course the African ancestors got most of their genes from proto-humans and various primates and early mammals and early fish-like creatures.
So, if you like, you can say that my genes came from various people, some Jewish and some not—or you could say that they came from cells, from egg cells and sperm cells, cells that had developed in certain human bodies, without, interestingly, any intervention of the people, the personalities, associated with those bodies. In other words, the genes didn’t know whose body they were in, and the people who carried those genes didn’t know where their genes came from or how they got there.
I was sitting at my breakfast table, and it was November 25, 2020, six months to the day since George Floyd, an African-American father of five, had been asphyxiated on a public street by Derek Chauvin, a Minneapolis policeman. I’d finished my breakfast, and I was reading two things at the same time. To one side of me, there was a cereal box with writing on it, and to the other side of me there was my open computer. The cereal box, in bold letters, proudly declared that the cereal inside it was “Made From American Corn.” And the computer was open to the morning’s email and specifically to one of the many newsletters I seem to receive every morning from different Jewish organizations. The killing of George Floyd and the extraordinary response it provoked had made me—and probably almost everyone in the United States—hyper-conscious of the issue of “race,” and so on this particular morning I was wondering idly whether the daily appearance of these newsletters meant that my name was somewhere inscribed on some list of people who’d been determined to be members of the Jewish “race.” And at the same time, I was wondering about the cereal box and inevitably asking myself, Well, can corn really be “American”? Yes, the corn used in the cereal in the box may be grown in America, but can an ear of corn actually be American? Can it be American even though it doesn’t know that it is? The ear of corn has a complicated ancestry going back to the origin of life in the primeval ocean. And rather than saying that it’s associated with America, couldn’t you just as well say that it’s associated with the primeval ocean? And of course my body also has a complex ancestry. For example, along with asking, Is my body associated with people who called themselves Jews? one might possibly ask, Is my body not equally associated with those remarkable fish who figured out how to survive on land? And I might also ask, If I say that I’m Jewish, does that mean, for example, that my liver is Jewish? What if some of the particular genes that served as the blueprint for my liver came from ancestors who didn’t call themselves Jews? Would I then have an alien non-Jewish liver in a Jewish body?
If a dog is born in America, is the dog American?
Or is my body African? Am I African?
If a horse is born inside the state of Israel, is the horse Jewish?
The subject of these Jewish newsletters is, first and foremost, anti-Semitism. Not for the most part the horrible murders of Jews that have occurred in the last few years in Europe and the United States, or the desecrations of Jewish cemeteries or the swastikas written on walls—most of the newsletters have devoted much more space to hinting or outright declaring that certain individuals, including various American and British politicians, are anti-Semitic.
We live in a world obsessed by race, a world in which people are killed again and again because of race. But what is “race,” exactly?
The idea of “race” itself first became popular in the 18th century, but humans learned how to categorize—and, specifically, how to categorize each other—long before the invention of “race.” Individuals learned how to see themselves as belonging to a specific group, to formulate the thought that the people in their own group were very, very different from the people in other groups, and also to imagine that the people in other groups were inferior—bad, ugly, dangerous, disgusting, frightening, perhaps uncannily disturbing. And still, today, this ability to categorize, along with the ability to like and dislike, remain key to our functioning, and strangely these capacities operate independently of our will, in fact they operate in a part of our minds to which we don’t have conscious access. That is, they live in the part of our minds that is hidden from our own awareness and that we ourselves had no role in creating. So if a dove happens to land on my windowsill, I feel happy, and I think, “Hello! I like you,” but if a pigeon lands there, I feel slightly repelled, and I think, “Oh, I don’t like you, can you please go away?” And why do I have these particular feelings? I have absolutely no idea. Whoever put those feelings inside me, it wasn’t me.
The concept of “race” is based on the belief that humanity consists of a few distinct groups of humans that developed quite separately from each other in separate geographical areas. To put the belief in “race” into the language of genetics would be to claim that each of the groups or “races” is genetically distinct, so that the individuals in each race are genetically similar to each other and genetically dissimilar to individuals from other races. Those who believe in “race” believe that each particular race has certain infallibly defining physical markers, such as skin color and certain facial features. And of course some believers in “race” believe that the members of each race share distinct inherited moral attributes. Adolf Hitler’s officials routinely measured different parts of people’s bodies in order to determine whether or not those people were members of the Jewish “race,” and, if it was determined that they were, Hitler believed that they inevitably had inherited various despicable moral qualities and deserved to be killed, even if they were children or infants who hadn’t had a chance to manifest many qualities at all.
There’s never been any evidence that moral qualities can be found in our genes or that moral qualities could be inherited. Bodies, when born, have no beliefs, no customs, and no moral traits. And the study of human pre-history has revealed that, far from snuggling down in a few distinct geographical areas, as the “race” theory would have it, our particular variety of humans, possessed of a wild and dynamic restlessness. was constantly breaking up and splintering off into different groups, moving from one place to another, repeatedly crossing astonishing distances to reach distant continents, and because of the strange nature of sexual desire, and the frightening brutality of the human male, as these groups broke up into still other groups, some staying put in their old locations, others moving on, as they traveled, explored, sought to avoid starvation, sought to find a better life, plundered, fought, conquered, formed new communities, ran into other groups and sometimes joined them, as they inter-married and raped, their genes kept crazily jumping over every mountain, river, and desert. Some groups settled down long enough for genetic mutations to spread in the group, so that almost everyone in the group would have the same characteristic eyebrows, but somehow, a few thousand years later, people could be found with those very same eyebrows a few thousand miles away. By today, very few people on the planet, if any, have genes that come from only one group or only one geographical area. In any case, it turns out that people who belong to a particular “race,” as defined by their skin color, facial features, or other measurable characteristics, may have fewer genes in common with members of “their own” “race” than they have with people who are not members of their “race” at all, so that, in other words, the whole idea of “race” is based on a series of misconceptions and refers to something that doesn’t actually exist.
Nonetheless, for most of us today, the principal categorizing obsession continues to be categorization by race. Indeed, the idea of race remains so invincibly powerful that it floods the basement of our minds, the not-conscious part, and it influences our behavior when we’re not aware of it, and it weaves itself through the semi-conscious thoughts that are our banal burden as we go through each day.
Bob walks into a room. Joe is already sitting there. Bob’s grandmother came from China, and Bob spent many years of his childhood in China and was deeply influenced by Chinese culture. But the laws of genetics gave him his father’s dark skin. So Joe thinks, “There’s Bob. Bob’s black.” Joe thinks that he himself is “white,” and Bob thinks that Joe is “white.” Bob lives in a country in which most people are identified as “white,” so Bob is less aware that Joe is “white” than Joe is aware that Bob is “black.” The situation is potentially scary for Bob, and the country he lives in is a scary place for Bob, because Bob can be shot because people think he’s “black.” But Bob is not black. Bob has genes from all of his ancestors. Some of his ancestors were slaves. Some of them were slave-masters. And some of them were neither masters nor slaves. Some were Chinese. The laws of genetics gave Bob’s skin the very specific color it has, which is not black, and the same laws gave Joe’s skin the very specific color his has, which is not white.
Knowing the color of Bob’s skin and the shape of his facial features tells you nothing about Bob as a human being. Knowing the color of Joe’s skin and the shape of his facial features tells you nothing about Joe as a human being. But Bob and Joe can’t escape the power of the “race” idea.
Bob and Joe are both professors. Joe is sitting in the faculty lounge. Bob and Joe have met a couple of times, but they don’t know each other. Bob approaches Joe and says, “Hey, are they having that meeting tomorrow?” and Joe replies, “No, it’s going to be Friday.” But as Bob approaches him, Joe can’t help thinking, “Here comes Bob. Bob is black. Black black black black black,” even though he tries not to think it, and Bob, because he lives in a world in which most of the people he meets every day are people he thinks of as white, is not that surprised that Joe is someone he thinks of as white, but Bob is a rather worn-out guy, because he has a hundred encounters every day like this, and each is an effort. Bob and Joe both wish that their encounters could be relaxed, easy, un-worried, unselfconscious, unconstrained, spontaneous, and effortless, that is, without an awareness of “race,” without an awareness of the ways in which it’s bad luck to be seen as “black” and good luck to be seen as “white,” and without an awareness of the fact that Bob might possibly feel resentful towards people seen as “white,” or Joe might possibly be afraid of people seen as “black” or feel guilty towards people seen as “black,” or both, and they’re both probably saying to themselves, “Don’t think about all that.” But we’re rarely very successful when we tell ourselves “Don’t think about X” or “Don’t feel Y.” And if I’m poor and you’re rich, even though it might in certain circumstances be much better for both of us if we both forgot those facts, the problem is that if I remain poor, it’s really only going to be a matter of time before I re-discover the situation and think, “Hey, you’re rich.”
Beyond “race,” we continue our compulsive categorizing into smaller groups. In the United States, where I live, everyone boringly and pointlessly categorizes all day long by national background, along with race. Individuals with Spanish ancestry may have a skin color identical to someone with French ancestry, but those with French ancestry are called “white,” while those with Spanish ancestry are called “nonwhite” or “Hispanic.” And for each racial or national category, there are various corresponding stereotypes and prejudices. So, according to common usage, if Person X looks at Person Y through the lens of a negative preconception or prejudice because of their presumed background or ancestry, we call that “racism,” even if the prejudice is connected to background or nationality, not “race.”
A friend promised to give me a book, and he said that the book had been written by a man who was a physicist. When he gave me the book, I experienced a moment of surprise. I was surprised to see that the author had an Italian name. I simply hadn’t expected that the physicist would be Italian. After a few micro-seconds, I recalled that many of the world’s greatest scientists had been Italian and that there was no reason to be surprised that this physicist was Italian. But the moment of surprise revealed a not-conscious attitude. I wouldn’t have been surprised if an opera singer had turned out to be Italian, but apparently I was surprised that a physicist had turned out to be Italian. If anyone had asked me if I’d been surprised to learn that the author of the book, the physicist, was Italian, I would certainly have denied it. And I would have denied it with a certain feeling of sincerity, as my conscious self was not surprised—not after the apparently meaningless initial moment of surprise. And it’s not the sort of moment I would normally ever mention to anyone else or even remember or even explicitly admit to myself.
The not-conscious, the basement, happens to be the biggest room in most of our houses, and the stereotypes, the fears, and the beliefs about different groups that have been ladled like a sort of hideously unhealthy dishwater into that basement since our childhoods, have all become part of the vast oceanic chaos of our not-conscious minds, along with countless irrational taboos, the folklore about sex, the outlandish and inaccurate stories about people we know and don’t know, the books we’ve read but no longer remember, the lessons from school about the weather and the solar system, the old comic books, the old television shows, and all the thoughts that have ever been expressed to us. It’s very easy for thoughts to get into the basement of our minds, but because we don’t have direct access to it, it’s not so easy for us to reach into that basement and pull thoughts out, and this is true for all of us, no matter how enlightened or well-meaning or intelligent or sophisticated we may think that we are. And in addition, the prejudices and stereotypes and other ludicrous ideas in our not-conscious basement minds are not even usually the most up-to-date ones. Personally, although born in the 1940s, I consider myself extremely hip and fully at home in the world of the 2020s where I live today, but if, looking at them objectively, my conscious thoughts are, on average, typical thoughts of the 1990s, my not-conscious thoughts are probably, on average, typical thoughts of the 1950s. And of course my conscious thoughts wrestle with my not-conscious thoughts every day. Sometimes they win, and sometimes they lose. But the not-conscious thoughts, when vanquished, don’t evaporate. They simply hide in a deeper part of the basement, waiting for a day which I hope will never come, the day when the worst parts of me are somehow activated, and I become the dreadful person I know I’m capable of becoming.
And considering the very real problems that have always threatened us—hunger, ill health, starvation, and now the rising temperatures, the rising seas—it’s a fantastical and almost unbelievable fact that humanity has invented for itself a ridiculous and utterly unnecessary problem, racism. And it’s mind-boggling as well that all over the world, and over the years, and most particularly today, grotesquely swaggering, bloated creatures called political “leaders” have actually convinced large numbers of people to love and revere them precisely by encouraging those who listen to them to drink deeper and deeper from the cup of racism. But to add to the depressing facts about this unnecessary invention, racism, we have to observe not only that racism is awful, but that many of the most natural responses to it are also awful.
Obviously, to speak of myself, although my genes came from countless different people, a lot of them were people who called themselves “Jews,” and my parents and most of my relatives, with varying degrees of interest, commitment, or enthusiasm, thought of themselves as “Jews,” and if by chance I walk into a room and catch the whiff of a lit cigar, I’m suffused with a sensation of warmth and coziness, because my Jewish grandfather and uncles smoked cigars, and in fact I’ve even felt at certain moments a twinge of pleasure and maybe almost of pride when someone has said something like, “Hey, did you know that Camille Pissarro was Jewish?” But basically for the most part I’ve thought all too little about my ancestry, and days and weeks go by without my thinking about whether I’m Jewish or not—or even thinking the word “Jewish” for any reason at all.
It’s natural for every person to wonder every once in a while, “What am I?” And in my own life so far, I’ve thought about that subject every once in a while in the privacy of my own mind. But there are moments in history when other people—in recent centuries, racists—try to answer the question for us.
If I’d been born eighty or ninety years ago, anti-Semites would have defined me simply and without any hesitation as “a Jew” because of my ancestry and my facial features. And if because of being defined as a Jew, I’d lost my job, and I’d had to live in a ghetto, and I’d been forced to wear a yellow star on my clothing, and I’d been surrounded everywhere by people who showed contempt for me, and I’d been spat on in the street, and I’d been beaten up, and my aunts and uncles, my parents, my brothers and sisters, had been arrested or shot or seized at dawn and taken away to concentration camps—well, then, of course I would have been obsessed by my Jewishness. I would have thought about it every minute of every day because it would have dominated my life every minute of every day. I couldn’t have ignored the subject of my “race,” just as an African-American in the United States today can’t possibly ignore the subject of their “race.”
If a person has been defined by others as being a member of a dis-favored group, and that group is being denigrated by everyone around them, they may respond by accepting the negative description of themselves, and they may become depressed and fall into a state of passivity, they may despise themselves and feel worthless, powerless, and weak. On the other hand, if people around them are speaking contemptuously about their group, they might possibly respond by wanting to honor their group. Or if others are trying to take away from them the styles of cooking, the songs, the games that they associate with their childhood, with their relatives, with their family, then they might feel motivated to appreciate and revere those cultural treasures. And if they and the people around them are subjected to a common assault, their response might be to identify with the threatened community. In fact, in certain circumstances of threat or danger, it wouldn’t even be something a person would need to think about; the identification would be automatic and total.
The killing of Jews in Europe in very large numbers began in the 12th century. The myth spread that Jews used the blood of Christian children in their rituals, and for this mythical crime, for example, thirty-eight Jews were burned at the stake in the small French town of Blois in 1171. And when the Black Plague spread across Europe in the 14th century, Jews were accused of causing the plague by poisoning the wells, and Jews were massacred all over Europe, and when they were not massacred, they were frequently expelled from the places where they’d lived. Eventually “the Jew” became a symbol for many Christians of all that was vile, even as fewer and fewer Christians had the opportunity to meet a Jew during the course of their lives. So these sorts of things have been going on for a very, very long time. Remarkably, also for a very, very long time, Jews have collected together with other Jews and attempted to preserve their beliefs, culture, and sense of community. Some Jews also tried in a sense to form a community with other Jews long dead, with all the Jews who had lived in the previous five thousand years.
The idea of preserving or fortifying a five-thousand-year-old Jewish community persists today in various forms. In countries all over the world, there are Jews who pay respect to Jewish ancestors by celebrating Jewish holidays and observing Jewish customs. Others attend synagogues, study Jewish texts, or practice the religion of Judaism. And still others center their lives around their participation in small enclosed societies made up exclusively of Jews. For some, the “we” of the 5,000-year-old Jewish community is of much greater importance in their daily experience than is their own personal “I.” These individuals teach their children to recite the prayers and practice the customs which they believe to be the same as the prayers and customs that their ancestors had recited and practiced, and they tell their children, using the powerful word “our,” “These are our prayers and customs. These are our beliefs. These are the prayers and beliefs and customs that my parents handed down to me and that you will hand down to your own children.” They believe that they share the same attitudes towards life as their ancient ancestors, and some even dress like Jews of medieval times. The identification can be so complete that they will use the word “we” without reservation or self-consciousness even when they tell their children—and encourage their children to tell their own future children—“We had a great kingdom, we were warriors, we were invincible, we were persecuted, we were slaves, we suffered, we were killed.”
Of course if a person in the modern world tries to say things and do things that a Jew from medieval times might have said or done, that doesn’t make them a Jew from medieval times. For a person to imitate an owl doesn’t make them an owl. And the fact that a person is descended from a one-celled organism doesn’t make them a one-celled organism. Just as the medieval pronunciation and the medieval context and associations of the words used in medieval prayers can be guessed at but not known, the attitudes towards life of medieval Jews can be guessed at but not known. And while children can be taught to think of themselves as part of a group, they are not actually born as members of a group. The European racists believed that a person’s physical ancestry, the ancestry of their body, determined what sort of person they would be, and if they were born to Jewish parents, the racists believed they’d be terrible people. Some of the more devoted protectors of the 5000-year-old Jewish community also believe in a destiny determined by ancestry, but they believe that if a person is born to Jewish parents, they’re born Jewish, as if the customs, prayers, and beliefs were part of their physical inheritance, innate in the new-born infant’s body.
After the Nazi murder of 6 million Jews, a more ambitious attempt to protect the Jewish community was organized, after many decades of preparation. And you might possibly think that after what had happened in World War I, and certainly after what had happened in World War II, every thoughtful person on earth would have very seriously begun to question the value of the nation-state. Certainly the idea that a nation-state provides physical safety to its citizens would seem to have been thoroughly and decisively shown to be incorrect. All the same, many Jews had concluded even by the end of the 19th century that, in a world of nation-states, founding a nation-state of their own was the only way that permanent safety could ever be provided to the Jewish people, and many of the devastated Jews who were still alive after World War II continued to pursue that objective. Most of the governments of the surviving nation-states were supportive of the idea, even governments which had coldly ignored the agony of the Jews being murdered in the camps and the pleas of those begging to be admitted to safer countries as refugees. So the world allowed the state of Israel to be established in Palestine, and just as the Jews had once been expelled from so many places over the preceding centuries, now Jews expelled the Palestinian Arabs from their homes and their land, and Jews, after centuries as victims of racism and injustice, increasingly learned how to practice racism and injustice themselves. Single-minded devotion to the preservation of the Jewish community had led to the subjugation of the Arab inhabitants of Palestine, a subjugation that has developed through many events over the years into a well-known permanent regime of vicious and arrogant cruelty, exhibiting a heartlessness that is equal to that of many of the worst governments on earth. Of course there are many people, Jews and non-Jews, who still can’t believe that this is the case and who try not to learn too much about the situation or to think too much about it. And then there are others who know all about it but attempt to interpret it all in a positive light.
And this brings me to the organizations whose newsletters I receive and their accusations of anti-Semitism. And in a way it’s appalling that a person like myself, who has had nothing but good luck in his life and has suffered little, a person of no great emotional depth who’s sitting comfortably at his table finishing an agreeable breakfast, should presume to judge or criticize the newsletters of these organizations, which are in many cases written by people who have either suffered greatly themselves or whose parents and grandparents suffered and in many cases lost their families because of the murderous behavior of anti-Semites. So, while I give myself permission to have whatever opinion seems to me right about the subjects covered in these various newsletters, I enjoin myself at the same time to remember that what’s written in them—particularly in the sections I find most impossible to accept—is written because the authors have been emotionally harried, wounded, and twisted by the anguish inflicted on earlier generations of their families. Marx used the wonderful phrase “congealed labor” to remind us of the workers whose difficult struggle was inextricably baked into the physical objects we casually use every day, and we can say about the newsletters sent out by these organizations that their sentences contain the congealed terror and the congealed grief of generations of persecuted people. For that reason, we need to remind ourselves not to derive too much enjoyment from uncovering the possible fallacies and sophistries of these haunted writers. The general well-meaning public in the generation before mine, overwhelmed by shame over what had been allowed to happen to the Jews, accepted without question many of the assumptions still shared by the writers of these newsletters. And of course there’s a sort of triumphant, transgressive pleasure that can come to us when we defy what was the conventional wisdom of an earlier generation, particularly an earlier generation that contained a large quantity of self-satisfied people who had a complacently benign attitude towards the world but ignored a lot of things. But that pleasure is itself self-satisfied and preposterously self-congratulatory. Let’s try to remember that the whole story is tragic.
If your view of the world is that there are Jews and then there are non-Jews, and if your view of your role in life is that you are a defender of the Jews, then if non-Jews are denouncing Jews, you may not pay that much attention to which Jews are being denounced and the various reasons the non-Jews give for their denunciations. And so you may well miss some of the distinctions between non-Jewish opponent A and non-Jewish opponent B. And indeed the central mandate of the organizations whose newsletters I receive at my breakfast-table is to ignore those distinctions with steely determination. But from any perspective on life other than theirs, the distinctions matter. Hitler denounced Jews because he believed in an insane fantasy about race. Contemporary Palestinians denounce the Israelis because the Israelis have stolen their land, killed their children, bulldozed their homes, made their daily lives unbearable, and starved them. To accuse contemporary Palestinians of anti-Semitism would be almost funny, as if one had said that Jews despised Hitler because they had an anti-Austrian prejudice.
In other words, the writers of the newsletters believe that the Jews have always had enemies and always will have enemies, that the enemies are all in a way interchangeable, and that paying attention to the differences between them would merely indicate that one had been duped; they’re all anti-Semites, and they’re anti-Semites because they hate Jews.
So then we have to consider the fact that there are unusual individuals in every country who habitually stand on the side of the un-privileged, the un-lucky, the weak, and the subjugated. And these defenders of the weak can often be particularly courageous people. Some of them routinely risk prison and even death because of standing up for oppressed people. And indeed, one might well say that these champions of the un-privileged are among the most admirable people in every country. And yet, consistently, because of their sympathy and support for the Palestinians, these are the very people repeatedly singled out for contempt and vilified as anti-Semites in my daily newsletters, even though no one can point to any particular things that they’ve said or actions that they’ve taken that would indicate that they have a prejudice against Jews or that their support for the Palestinians is based on a prejudice against Jews. Many of them are Jews themselves, almost all of them work side by side every day with Jews, and a few of them even have pictures of Jews like Karl Marx hanging on their walls.
And the accusation of anti-Semitism is a terrible and terrifying accusation. It casts a cloud of suspicion and doubt around a person that may be almost impossible to dispel, because the rumor that any given person secretly harbors a horrible and revolting inner hatred is weirdly easy to believe and impossible to decisively disprove. And the very word “anti-Semite” carries the association of the gas chambers and crematoria of Auschwitz, and it places the person accused of it in the same category as those who slaughtered 6 million people.
Because human beings are mysterious entities, or I would say fundamentally un-knowable, it was easy, in medieval times, for a Christian to subject his neighbor, a Jew, to an entirely superstitious, utterly unscientific, and completely subjective form of observation and to conclude that the neighbor had literally made a personal arrangement with the Devil and had agreed to do the Devil’s bidding on earth, and it’s easy today for any one of us to suspect that our neighbor shows signs of prejudice, and in the right circumstances it’s not hard to convince others to share our suspicions. Prejudice comes of course in many flavors. There’s a spectrum that runs all the way from ignoring or vaguely not noticing members of a certain group all the way on up through mild disdain, distaste, disgust, fear, horror, and loathing. And for those who move through the world with the sense that a large proportion of the people they meet feel a certain disdain for them, much less some variety of disgust or loathing, life can become exhausting and demoralizing and eventually even unbearable. The problem is that, because we all grew up in a world full of prejudice, and because we are all victims of our own not-conscious minds, and because we do not have the ability to transform ourselves into the people we’d ideally like to be, we are all at least a little bit prejudiced towards various well-defined or ill-defined groups. Quite apart from groups coming from different ancestries, we have irrational feelings about people who are by some standard over-weight or people who are short or people whose pronunciation of certain sounds is slightly abnormal and to us infuriating. So prejudice is very real. And those of us who belong to groups that have frequently been disliked or despised can’t lightly dismiss the suggestion that a given individual may be prejudiced against our group. Under certain circumstances, we can easily begin to feel more and more convinced that a certain person, or two people, or a lot of people, are looking down on us, and we can even persuade others in our group to feel the same. And history tells us that some who have felt that way have basically been right. But it’s also possible to feel that way and be wrong.
Of course the more we believe that our group is the object of prejudice, and the closer our identification becomes with the group, the greater is the danger that we will incorrectly believe ourselves to have more in common with the other members of the group than we really have, and less in common with individuals outside the group than we really have. And the truth is that we humans are not only not good at making guesses about the inner life of our fellow humans, we are absolutely terrible at it. We’re wrong even about those we know well, those we live with and see every day. And so, yes, if a certain individual makes anti-Jewish statements or jokes, or if they discriminate against Jews in their personal or professional behavior, then undoubtedly we can feel confident in considering them to one degree or another anti-Semitic. But when we try to speculate about individuals apart from their words and their deeds, when we try to guess what they feel inside, we may very well be wrong about them, and we may very well make the mistake of categorizing as an enemy someone who in fact is a good-hearted person who could potentially be a friend.
A lot of what we consider human progress has occurred because various individual members of mis-treated groups identified passionately with their group and figured out how to fight for their group. If human beings had lacked the capacity for group identification, if human individuals had lacked the ability to see that they and their neighbor were both suffering under the same intolerable conditions, all of us today would probably be living as slaves under one or another pharaoh, and there would be no hope for anything better for us. All the same, to form an unconditional bond with a collective entity—to answer the question “What am I?” by referring to a “race,” a nation, a group, a community—is always a very dangerous choice. In other words, in my opinion the B Minor Mass of Johann Sebastian Bach is great. And in my opinion Angela Merkel’s decision to welcome the Syrian refugees in 2015 was great. But I don’t think that “Germany” is great. I don’t think “the United States” is great. I don’t think “Great Britain” is great. I don’t think “the German people” are great. I don’t think “the American people” are great. And I don’t think “the British people” are great. No nation is great, and no group of people is great. A passionate admiration for one’s own group can somewhat easily turn into some kind of contempt for others, and if one is speaking of “races” or national groups, it can even sometimes lead to the very type of racist contempt that was a necessary condition for British and European imperialism, slavery, and countless cases of the slaughter of the innocent down to our own day.
And so as I sit here reading my daily newsletters, I find myself gesturing frantically at my breakfast table. I feel almost desperate. I want to speak out loud to the writer of each article I’m reading, to say I know, I know, each step you took in your reasoning over the course of your life was understandable, and each step made sense—in a way. But look at where you’ve ended up—you’re drowning in injustice, you’re defending sadism, and you’re heaping abuse every day on some of the world’s most admirable human beings, people who are not even your enemies. Somehow your thinking must have taken a wrong turn.
First of all, you distanced yourselves from all the other victims of racism and remorseless mass murder that have occurred in our world. Rather than identifying with other victims and trying to comprehend the mechanisms that might lie behind all such cases, you insisted on the uniqueness of the Jewish case. Of course there’s no doubt that the Jewish case is unique in its nature, in its scale, and in its long twisted history. But can you explain what happened to the Rohingya in Burma in 2016 and 2017 or to the Tutsi in Rwanda in 1994? No, you can’t, because each of those cases of racism is also unique, and in fact most cases of racism have unique, long, and twisted histories behind them.
You consistently use a phrase that insists on the separateness of the Jewish case, the phrase “racism and anti-Semitism.” That phrase doesn’t help us at all in any quest for insight, and it ought to be abandoned.
As self-appointed defenders of Israel, you don’t understand why the countries of the world so often vote against Israel in the United Nations and why young people all over the world march in demonstrations against Israel and why so many thoughtful older people are irritated and annoyed by you, the supporters of Israel. Or you simply conclude that this is the way non-Jews have always felt about Jews, it’s based on the same eternal prejudice, and there’s no need for you to think seriously about it. And it’s true that people born in the last seventy years or so may or may not be vividly aware of what happened to the Jewish people in earlier years. But the fact is that if asked to list the groups that have been most tormented during the time that they themselves have been alive, they are likely to mention the people of Vietnam, the people of Iraq, the people of Syria, and many other groups of people, before they mention either Jews around the world or the citizens of Israel, and this is why they don’t accept the way that you seem to claim a unique moral authority, as victims, to be above criticism.
Unfortunately, it’s sad but true that, in part precisely because it so assiduously defends its right to commit the crimes it commits, Israel, very much like apartheid-era South Africa in its day, has become a country that is looked upon with almost unquestioned disdain by people around the world who care about protecting the un-protected and the weak. Some of these people may know a great deal about the current situation in Israel and the Palestinian territories and all the history that led up to the current moment, and some may know very little. But they are not wrong in seeing, for example, the shooting of unarmed protesters and the ghastly collective punishment of almost 2 million people in Gaza as among the current world’s most vicious, systematic, and merciless attempts to dominate or crush a defenseless population. And they resent the techniques you use every day—the endless and varied ways in which you wield the accusation of anti-Semitism—to stop people from criticizing either the state of Israel or you, its tireless defenders.
You’ve really established a preposterous set of rules for anyone who wants to talk or write about this particular subject, and you know just what to say if these rules are broken. If someone wants to criticize a Jewish politician in the United States, for example, if someone wants to say, Well, this particular politician always seems to defend Israel no matter what it does, he uses very deceitful and dishonest arguments and rhetoric, and by the way he receives a large part of his campaign funding from wealthy supporters of Israel, you will reply by saying, Well, the person who says that is clearly anti-Semitic because they’re using ancient and obvious anti-Semitic slurs; they’re saying that this fine politician is more “loyal” to the Jewish people and Israel than he is to his own country, they’re calling him “tricky” and “sneaky,” and they’re saying that rich Jews use their money to try to buy influence, bend people to their will, and control things. And so you do your best to force everyone to talk about whether what’s been said about the politician does or does not echo things that anti-Semites said in various past centuries, and you hope that everyone forgets about the fact that what was said about the politician may simply be true.
You say that people who discuss the negative consequences of the founding of the state of Israel are anti-Semitic, because in mentioning those consequences they’re implying that Jews, and only Jews, had no right to found a state and no right of self-determination, and you say that people who criticize the actions of the state of Israel are anti-Semitic because they hold Israel to a standard of behavior higher than what is asked of any other country. Well, obviously, the hope of various groups to have a nation-state of their own, from the Kurds to the Basques and on and on, forms one of the endless painful themes of political history, but it’s unusual for a group to select a location for their nation-state where they themselves mostly don’t live and where other people do live. And it’s hardly true that Israel is held to a higher standard than other countries. People who think about what’s happening in the world savagely criticize countries other than Israel every hour of every day. They savagely criticize the United States, and in particular its founding. They savagely criticize Russia. They savagely criticize China. But the accusations of anti-Semitism still sting and can still dominate the conversation. They’re arrows whose poison never seems to wear off.
Your obsession with the daily defense of every choice made by the Israeli state is perhaps a consequence of the fact that you’re still reacting much too literal-mindedly to the statements that various ignorant and malevolent people made to your ancestors long ago. The ignorant and malevolent people said, You are Jews, you use the blood of children in rituals, you poison wells, and we’re going to kill you, we’re going to kill you because you’re Jews. And then they tried to kill your ancestors, and they killed millions. But because of their terrible success, you took what they said too seriously. They said, “The problem is Jews, we hate Jews,” so you thought the problem was all about Jews and the hatred of Jews. No—that was a mistake. Anti-Semitism was never really about Jews.
People don’t need to know a great deal about Jews in order to be anti-Semites. In fact, they don’t need to know anything. Most anti-Semites have known little or nothing about Jews. Many have never encountered a Jew. You think they hate Jews, and then they try to kill them. No. The truth is that in order for people to kill Jews, they don’t need to hate them. They might hate them, or they might not hate them, or they might not be sure. But whether one looks at the Middle Ages or at Nazified Europe, the Jews weren’t killed because they were Jews. They weren’t killed because of any trait they possessed. They weren’t killed because people hated them. They were killed because history created certain circumstances in which a certain population grew desperate, and. maddened by desperation, sometimes under the sway of demonic leaders, sometimes not, they felt driven to blame a weaker group of people for their problems and their misery. Looking for an appropriate weaker group to blame, the deluded population looked around them, and in Europe the Jews were for centuries by far the most obvious target, because they were easily identifiable, they were alien and mysterious to those outside their community, and they were defenseless. And so the deluded population blamed them, and then they tormented them, and then they killed them.
This is why in a way it really isn’t important whether Adolf Eichmann hated Jews or didn’t hate them. Maybe he hated them on Monday, and on Tuesday he didn’t care. He would have been up to his neck in killing them whether he hated them or not. If Franz Kafka had gone to meet Eichmann in his office, would Eichmann have hated him? We have no idea. In fact, we’ll never know what sorts of odd, bizarre ideas were floating around in Eichmann’s head. He organized transports of Jews to be killed. He wanted to kill Jews. But the Jews that Eichmann wanted to kill or that the citizens of Blois wanted to kill in 1171 were not the suffering human beings they actually killed. The Jews they wanted to kill were made-up fantasy characters. If the best-known and most accessible minority group in 20th century Europe had been the Armenians or the Kurds, Hitler might well have become fixated on the Armenians or the Kurds, and he might well have tried to kill the Armenians or the Kurds. And this is why, yes, it was kind of, sort of, great that after World War II many Germans who would formerly have vilified “the Jews” came to realize that the Jews were not bad people, and concert-goers in Munich cheered Leonard Bernstein. And similarly, in a way, it was kind of, sort of, great that as recent decades passed, many Americans who’d once been very prejudiced against anyone seen as “black” became more accepting of people of color and even elected one to be president of the country. These were victories, and they may have saved lives. But from another point of view they were small victories, because the problem with the human species is not that some people in Germany don’t like Jews, and some people in the United States don’t like people with dark skin, and some people in Egypt don’t like Coptic Christians, and some people in Africa don’t like men who love other men, and some people in Mexico don’t like transgender women, and some people in Indonesia don’t like Communists, and some people in Hungary don’t like immigrants. The problem is that human beings make up categories, put each other into them, and then, they turn the people in some of those categories into made-up fantasy characters, and then, when times are bad, when circumstances are bad, they persecute those people and kill them. And this is why the problem isn’t solved simply by trying to defend Jews.
The horrors caused by the warming of the climate can to some extent be predicted, as can the horrors caused by an uncontrolled disease. The processes that create these problems are to a certain extent understood by science. The opposite is true for the horrors that flow from racism. We can’t predict them, and we’re quite far from understanding them, even though, paradoxically, the developments in the climate and the dangerous diseases come at us from the outside, and racism is a force with which we’re intimately familiar, because some of its currents flow right through us. How close are we to understanding the economic, sociological, and political conditions that create racism in the first place? And how close are we to fully understanding what the historical circumstances are that can turn racism—or prejudice, suspicion, and fear—into a drive towards violence? We don’t understand the murder of old people and children by American soldiers in Vietnam. We don’t understand why Robert Bowers, a citizen of Pennsylvania who’d drawn little attention from his neighbors for 46 years, suddenly drove to a synagogue in Pittsburgh one morning in 2018 and killed 11 worshippers there. We don’t know what was going on in the mind of the Minneapolis policeman, Derek Chauvin, who kneeled on the neck of George Floyd for a minute and 20 seconds after he was dead. And in the very same way, we simply do not understand the murder of the 6 million Jews in the 1940s. We don’t understand it. We can read and reread the facts of the case, just as we can endlessly stare at photographs of the impassive faces of Robert Bowers and Derek Chauvin, but there’s a mystery, a locked box, at the center of these stories. Perhaps by comparing them all, by studying them all at once, we might be able to make some progress in understanding them. But until we do, we live in terrible fear of ourselves, never knowing when one of us, or some of us, may strike. Because unfortunately something is wrong with us. Injustice and misery drive us all too easily into madness, and injustice and misery are everywhere. We are not healthily functioning animals.