From the excellent exposé on Hannah Arendt by Corey Robin I extract this long citation about a theory on the roots of anti-Semitism (p10):
|There’s an old theory about anti-Semitism that goes something like this: The reason so much of the world hates the Jew is that the Jew asks so much of the world. From Sinai to the soviets, from Moses to Marx, the Jew has sat in judgment, insisting that the world be other, better, than it is, and always for the sake of an ideal so remote—a God who cannot be represented, a utopia that cannot be sketched out—that it requires a hallucinatory zeal to sustain it. The “blackmail of transcendence” is what the literary critic George Steiner calls it: the insistence that the world take a leap into the void in the name of a God who cannot be named.
Three Jews, says Steiner—for even Jesus counts in this figuration—have issued these “summons to perfection,” and each time their judgments have provoked a revolt, often from within: The Israelites rebelled against Moses, clutching at their idols in the desert; the Christians rebelled against Jesus, erecting a cathedral of priests more pharisaical than anything parried by Christ; the Stalinists rebelled against Marx, creating a continent of slave labor. For there is something too inhuman, too unaccommodated and unaccommodating, about these absent presences that send us marching after Moses, Marx, and Christ. “Hebraism,” Matthew Arnold thought, “has always been severely preoccupied with an awful sense of the impossibility of being at ease in Zion, of the difficulties of that perfection of which Socrates talks so hopefully.” He considered this “the source of its wonderful strength.” Most people, says Steiner, prefer the warmth of their weaknesses: their idols, churches, and states.
But the more murderous revolts have come from without: from the peoples of the world who have felt challenged and accused by the bad conscience of the Jew. “Three times the Jew has pressed on us the blackmail of transcendence,” Steiner has Adolf Hitler say in his own defense in his imaginary trial in the Amazon, the setting of Steiner’s novel The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H.:
Three times he has infected our blood and brains with the bacillus of perfection. Go to your rest and the voice of the Jew cries out in the night. “Wake up! God’s eye is upon you. Has He not made you in His image? Lose your life so that you may gain it. Sacrifice yourself to the truth, to justice, to the good of mankind.”… We had to find, to burn out the virus of Utopia before the whole of our western civilization sickened. To return to man as he is, selfish, greedy, short-sighted, but warm and housed, so marvelously housed, in his own stench.
These Romans, these Christians, these Germans, these anti-Semites—all have raged against the troubled conscience of the Jew, with his eternal demand for justice, goodness, perfection, a paradise on earth that must be sought but never achieved. You’re not required to finish the work, says the Pirkei Avot, an early rabbinic collection of statements about ethics, but neither are you free to give it up. Keep pushing that rock up the hill—the one that threatens to roll back down on you. No, thank you, says the anti-Semite; I’d rather push the lot of you into a pit and set you on fire.
That’s the theory, at least: a bit too psychological and self-congratulatory for my tastes, but during my re-immersion in the Arendt/Eichmann archive, I’ve begun to wonder if there isn’t something to it. Not as a theory of anti-Semitism, but as an account of why this very Jewish text by a very Jewish author presenting new moral challenges to Jews arouses so much venom… from Jews. Can it be that the reaction to Eichmann in Jerusalem—a text denounced for decades as self-hating and anti-Semitic—has something about it that, while not driven by Jew-haters or Jew-hatred, nevertheless draws deeply, if unwittingly, from that well? Let us proceed with caution.
I have read Steiner a long time ago and should add that next to this he points to the Jews advertising themselves as the “chosen people” thus in a way opening the door to racism all by themselves. This view seems rather plausible to me and I don’t see what’s “too psychological and self-congratulatory” about it, but maybe someone can explain.