Judaism is a lyrical trove. It embodies mournful steadfastness, defiant pluck, and impervious amour propre. But it is also an agonized victimology, solipsistic, constantly chafing and embroiled, its relationship to the outside world anxiety-laden and fundamentally antagonistic.
The Jewish Question is a minefield to which virtually every approach seems to escape reasonable proportion or fall shy of the mark, due on the one hand to the obscure and protean aspects of Jewish doctrine and identity, and to the manic, cynical ressentiment of full-retard anti-semitism on the other. I have elsewhere made the distinction between dispassionate recognition of ontological differences, and that fanaticism which I refer to as full-retard anti-semitism. Dispensing with the latter is easy: ressentiment is just… gay; and I have treated the topic at length in these pages. Judaism’s underlying neurosis is perhaps more evasive of diagnosis, if only because its symbolism and eschatology are insinuated so deeply into Western civilization that the tangle of branches obscures the vine.
People go generations without ever examining received and fixed ideas. They go to their deaths defending them without having comprehended their full import. Just what is Judaism? By this I mean the whole spectrum of historically Jewish national characteristics—Judaism, Zionism, yiddishkeit. Everything that makes Jews distinct. Some of the extreme outliers—e.g., the Lemba people, or various weird and completely foreign practices that various liberal sects are claiming bear an intrinsic relation to Judaism—can be excluded. But other than that, in making the criticisms that follow I will not be boxed into a definition that suits only one faction of Jews—or the whims of anti-semites—because that is exactly the kind of thing that prevents cogent analysis of this topic. We all know Jews and Jewishness when we see them.
Still, the question remains: what is Judaism’s underlying psychology? What is someone with a Jewish identity really adhering to, at the most basic level that gives this identity commonality with all other Jews?
One thing is certain: Judaism is deeply insecure. “Security” is virtually the sole aim of the State of Israel; maudlin reflections on personal and familial Jewishness—reducible invariably to a sense of insecurity—are a staple among cultural elites; and Jewish topical films and literature reflect the most skittish, vindictive psychology. Only three antidotes have ever been proposed for this: religious fervor, apostasy (or assimilation), and Zionism.
Vladimir Jabotinsky, one of Zionism’s clearest thinkers, described the problem thusly:
We ourselves have acquainted our neighbors with the thought that for every embezzling Jew it is possible to drag the entire ancient people to answer… Every accusation causes among us such a commotion that people unwittingly think, ‘Why are they so afraid of everything? Apparently their conscience is not clear.’ Exactly because we are ready at every minute to stand at attention, there develops among others an inescapable view about us, as of some specific thievish tribe. We think that our constant readiness to undergo a search without hesitation and to turn out our pockets will eventually convince mankind of our nobility; look what gentlemen we are—we do not have anything to hide!
This is a terrible mistake. The real gentlemen are those who will not allow anyone for any reason to search their apartment, their pockets or their soul. Only a person under surveillance is ready for a search at every moment. This is the only one inevitable conclusion from our maniac reaction to every reproach—to accept responsibility as a people for every action of a Jew, and to make excuses in front of everybody including hell knows who. I consider this system to be false to its very root.
Jabotinsky could’ve saved himself a lot of trouble by just becoming a dentist. Over the course of a 150-year period which has seen the rise of the first independent Jewish polity in millennia, nothing about “this system” has changed. No people in the world expends greater energy on PR. After seventy-three years of Israeli independence the Jew, and the Jewish Israeli, is every bit the specially protected creature his forbear was in the courts of medieval Europe. One has to wonder whether this system is susceptible of change at all, or if its perverse incentives all militate in the direction of continuous ressentiment and inferiority complex.
Israeli filmmaker Yoav Shamir’s 2009 documentary, Defamation, examines institutional Jewry’s cynical exploitation of anti-semitism for political gain, and even managed to elicit a shocking (if not quite counter-intuitive) on-camera confession from former ADL chief Abe Foxman that from his perspective, anti-semitism is a source of leverage. Andy Nowicki reviewed the film for the original Alternative Right:
[T]he most powerful segment… involves a group of Israeli teenagers who are flown to Auschwitz on a field trip. The kids are familiar adolescent characters: rowdy, rambunctious, immature, emotional, prone to gossip and mischief, at times sweetly wide-eyed in their innocence. They are both annoying and likable simultaneously, as teenagers can be. In any case, this group is in no mood to have their consciousness raised during their exciting trip together: much to the consternation of their adult chaperones, they just want to have fun.
Over the course of the trip, however, these kids are repeatedly bludgeoned with the message: You are Jews and the world hates you; you must in turn hate and fear the world if you hope to survive! Their faces are pushed into the gruesome tales of the events that took place in the notorious camp, and at night their handlers tell them stories of how the present-day country of Poland is still rife with neo-Nazi violence. A harmless comment to some members of the group uttered by an old Polish man is interpreted as viciously anti-Semitic; Shamir tries to correct their misconception, but to no avail; they have been instructed how to perceive reality, and won’t be dissuaded.
The kids, being hedonistic at heart, do manage to put up some resistance to the relentless stream of emotionally compelling propaganda being pumped into their ears, but they can only hold out for so long. Near the end of the trip, a lovely young Jewess breaks down and tells Shamir that it has finally happened: she has learned to “hate” her enemies; the implication is clear that she has come to view the Palestinians and Arabs as cut from the same cloth as the Nazis.
This scene has a viscerally searing quality, similar in feel to Orwell’s account of his hero Winston Smith succumbing to the horrific manipulations of the Ministry of Love and learning to embrace the pernicious ruling ideology of Oceania. The corruption of innocence portrayed here is simply breathtaking, and heartbreaking to behold.
The deeper question that Defamation fails to ask, however, is just what purpose this distorted attitude serves. What imago are these sacrifices really being lain before? It must be something more than just Israeli state security or short-term political gain, because it is far older than both.
I’ve been wanting to cast this anguish aside for a long time, to put Judaism in the past and never again be afflicted with the pangs of its sentiments. My mother is not Jewish and neither is my wife. But I was raised Jewish—strongly so, and the mental impressions of our formative years are hard to shake. Still, behind my troubled fidelity I have long sensed a foreboding of something uncanny—a callous and refined self-regard, at once vindictive and pathetic, lurking in the shadows of platitudes like a shell game. Yes, the tenacity of the Jews is on the one hand a virtue, but the Jews’ adaptability is ironically a product of refusal to adapt. To live precariously, as an alien, out of belief in one’s own precious distinctness and thwarted special election—such a system is necessarily clandestine. That is why Jews almost always tend to feel embarrassed by public expressions of Jewishness by other Jews.
In Spies of No Country—a history of the early years of Israel’s spy services—Israeli author Matti Friedman put it (approvingly) like this:
Double identity has always been a part of life for Jews, members of a minority often outwardly indistinguishable from the majority. You wonder how much to show or hide at different times… Some of the oldest stories told by Jews about themselves feature characters who use their double nature at crucial moments to aid their people among the greater nations that threaten it.
Now, I happen to think that Jewish crypsis is one of the richest literary motifs there is, and I don’t want to oversimplify it. But in terms of the angst Friedman is describing, do we ever really feel this way about what is inherently or self-evidently good? Sometimes, yes. Society and its authorities can err where individuals or minorities are in the right. But for a people to be singularly right, always aggrieved, and the rest of mankind wrong or at best indifferent, for millennia at a stretch—that is simply beyond credence.
The younger we are, the more easily we are drawn to concise and vigorous doctrines. As a romantic ne’er-do-well in my late teens, I went to Israel in the early 2000s and joined the IDF because Zionism—assailed dramatically at the time, both by suicide terrorism and world opinion—evidenced a clear sense of mission that American universalist consumerism lacked entirely. But as I searched for exactly what it is that Jews believe, I could not find it anywhere. Yes, there is the central catechism—the Shema—and the 13 Pillars of Faith, but very little of this is distinct to Judaism, and anyone can believe them—that doesn’t necessarily make them a Jew. When placed beside the tumult of Israel’s perennial orientation to the world, they explain next to nothing.
Furthermore, it quickly became clear to me that orthodox Judaism is not only a set of laws, but an initiatic system centered around progressively obscurer texts—and doctrines—and it is highly selective about who gets to learn them. I was told by religious friends that Judaism contains the most ancient and superlative wisdom, that the Torah is replete with mysteries beyond the grasp of reason, and that I simply had to trust the rabbinic authorities. But it isn’t in the nature of reason to depend on the caprices of gurus—and it isn’t in the nature of light to conceal itself. Either this creed is concealing something good from a wicked world, or it is concealing something dark from a morally ambivalent one, and I think I know which is more likely. Namely, it is incontrovertible that Jewish eschatology promises Israel eventual world dominion in a messianic age. Like all messianism, this is megalomaniacal, something wicked on its face, and the fact that it is not taken seriously by most Jews does not make it less characteristic of Judaism. For something called Judaism to persist without it simply requires it to take different forms.
When I viewed Jews entirely as underdogs—a belief critical to Jewish identity—this disturbed me less. But that view was oversimplified, and in any case, times have changed. Put simply, the Jews have given the world a large part of the most debauched ruling class it has ever seen, and though for the most part these people are not Torah observant, their peculiar will to power is remarkably consistent with well-known motifs in the Hebrew Bible. Powerful Jews may represent a tiny proportion of Jewish people, but they represent a very high proportion of world oligarchs. If we want to keep things down to earth and avoid pure speculation, there is simply no avoiding the conclusion that a trans-national conclave that is disproportionately if not predominantly Jewish occupies the very center of power in the world today. Although one sees it done poorly more often than it is done well, in this context the psychological fundamentals of Judaism simply must come under examination.
I don’t have a dogma or peculiar theory to stand on here. From personal experience all I can tell you is this: to be a person with due regard for objective truth, on the one hand, and a strong Jewish identity, on the other, is to be ready at a moment’s notice (and more often unasked) to burnish the nation’s public image by presenting oneself as an example; to avoid asking critical questions, and dissociate or rationalize when they can’t be avoided. It is to engage in a great deal of self-criticism and self-awareness, but only as ego defense; and (especially) to regard fanatical and repulsive enemies as a welcome relief from introspection.
Of course, Judaism means different things to different Jews. Its factions and trends are proverbial—yet it coheres. Just what is its sine qua non? Not its catechisms, but its overall tendency and underlying psychology? What is the unvarying factor around which its disparate strands all coil?
I have already hinted at my thesis. Judaism’s basic narrative structure is simply that the Jews are the elect of God or of history—congenitally more special, intelligent, persevering and misunderstood than all other peoples, with a special destiny to be vindicated before the rest of mankind, either (1) religiously, in a coming messianic age; (2) historically, over the course of linear time, or (3) in daily life and society, as sagely sorts with a penchant for overcoming long odds. It isn’t that most Jews consciously believe this or behave as if it were so. It’s that every (yes, every) disparate form of Jewish identity—whether left-radical, libertarian, secular, religious, nationalist, chauvinist, humanist, etc.—is underlain by this basic narrative structure. Even Jewish self-hatred tends to be a way of just chewing on this psychology without ever spitting it out.
Of course, any enduring group identity will involve mythos, conceit, xenophobia, perhaps inferiority complex; but to conceptualize a national god as the God, and the nation as the most special and important of all time, is an exceptional psychological perch that virtually cannot be climbed down from, and this perhaps points to why Jewish identity survives all kinds of assimilation and disillusionment.
Consider, for example, this famous bit of philo-semitism from Mark Twain:
The Egyptians, the Babylonians and the Persians rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greeks and Romans followed and made a vast noise, and they were gone; other people have sprung up and held their torch high for a time but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, and have vanished. The Jew saw them all, survived them all, and is now what he always was… All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains.
Could anything more nearly approximate the Jewish self-image? The combination of pathos and pomposity is glaring. The question also arises whether immortality is at all desirable—don’t get me started on who else Twain was singing the praises of at the time.)
Leo Strauss similarly concluded, in his noted 1962 lecture, “Why We Remain Jews,” that the purpose of the Jews is to prove that there’s no salvation:
The Jewish people and their fate are the living witness for the absence of redemption. This, one could say, is the meaning of the chosen people; the Jews are chosen to prove the absence of redemption.
Well then who chose them? I happen not to be a believer in redemption in the Judeo-Christian sense (I much prefer Camus’s dictum, “Do not wait for the last judgment; it comes everyday.”) Still, it’s hard to see how one people’s failure in this regard could be everyone else’s problem. Strauss’s conclusion is a bit like unsolicited advice to a bright-eyed youth from an embittered elder. Our religion flopped, so yours must be nonsense as well.
More recently, TED-talk charlatan Douglas Rushkoff expanded on this:
The thing that makes Judaism dangerous to everybody, to every race, to every nation, to every idea, is that we smash things that aren’t true, we don’t believe in the boundaries of nation-state, we don’t believe in the ideas of these individual gods that protect individual groups of people; these are all artificial constructions and Judaism really teaches us how to see that. In a sense our detractors have us right, in that we are a corrosive force, we’re breaking down the false gods of all nations and all people because they’re not real and that’s very upsetting to people.
We are nihilists, Lebowski. We suck all the enchantment out of the world and replace it with data. Of course, a nation with boundaries and an individual god that protects an individual group of people is precisely what Jews have long believed in; but those are just the trees, whereas Rushkoff in his breathtaking arrogance has actually identified the forest, the destructive logical terminus of Judaism as its psychology actually functions in western civilization since WWII. For how different is Rushkoff’s thesis from ours? Is he not agreeing that Judaism entails being congenitally more special, intelligent, persevering and misunderstood than all other peoples, with a special destiny to be vindicated before the world?
But this is quite odd. On the one hand, we have Judaism, the ancient religion: insular, xenophobic, theistical. On the other, we have “Judaism”: liberal, cosmopolitan, atheistic. The rabbis (for the most part) aren’t excommunicating the atheists, and the Zionists approve of both sides. All seem to agree about little else, except that Judaism makes us more special, intelligent, persevering and misunderstood than all other peoples, with a special destiny to be vindicated before all mankind.
Needless to say, this self-image is not self-sufficient. It necessarily involves others who would prefer to be left out of it, who may not be thinking about Judaism, though Judaism is thinking about them. That is what Jabotinsky was trying to change, he just couldn’t see the depth of the problem and that it went two ways—that Christianity is not only scapegoating the Jews, but that Judaism needs this, because it is scapegoating the gentiles as well. This identity of anguished specialness is a neurosis that has to be let go. You can hate me for saying so, but I mean to learn from the past, not wallow in it like a pig in shit, no matter how precious and ancient the shit may be. I’m not waiting for the messiah; what God has given is sufficient. And aside from the unparalleled lyricism of the Bible, there is nothing the Jews have given mankind that others have not discovered independently and done at least as well. There is no other people on earth that does not have its memory of calamities, no less terrible for them than ours are for us. The Jews should honor their national heroes and mourn their national martyrs without the constant underlying feeling that the world has something to answer for. It’s not healthy. It’s not right.