It’s Not About Me, or Is It?

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In 'Orientalism' a 1978-book by Edward W. Said, the author establishes the term "Orientalism" as a critical concept to describe the West's commonly contemptuous depiction and portrayal of The East, i.e. the Orient
In 'Orientalism' a 1978-book by Edward W. Said, the author establishes the term "Orientalism" as a critical concept to describe the West's commonly contemptuous depiction and portrayal of The East, i.e. the Orient

In about 2017, I discovered I had become a German Jew. Now, this is not an easily inherited category, nor an easily-acquired one. It came about quite inadvertently in my case, in a strange set of circumstances, which, in short, included my acquiring German citizenship, surrendering my Indian passport to, and paying to acquire a ‘renunciation of citizenship certificate’ from, the Indian Embassy in Berlin, and discovering that a part-Jewish origin (on the wrong side of the family) was taken quite seriously in Germany, in a way it hadn’t when it had been conveniently assumed I could be classified among the Persons of Colour with sensibilities that could be carelessly called postcolonial. Not long after, I found myself being expected to take public positions as a Jew (I understand it’s a hashtag now), and subject to philo- and anti-semitic public responses in a way I had never expected.

 

This was new. I don’t look Jewish, if public expectations of looking Jewish have to be fulfilled in any meaningful way (Jews are white, and have white privilege; or they look Oriental, with hooked noses, strange robes and funny headgear); and any racist aggression directed at me was more likely to take other forms than anti-Semitism, unless the aggressor had had access to privileged personal information.

 

An Arab-origin ticket checker on a Berlin underground train referred to me as ‘scheiss Neger’ once; a case of mistaken identity, to be sure, but he lost his job, nonetheless. And once, at an academic place of work, a colleague who subsequently signed a well-known anti-anti-Semitism declaration made an anti-Semitic remark or two, directed at me, whose part-Jewish origins were known at the place of work, and at a colleague, whose aristocratic Habsburg background was mistaken for a Jewish one because she spoke Hebrew (I don’t), and knew when the Jewish high holidays were (I didn’t). But for the most part, the incidental fact of having had one-and-a-half Jewish grandparents had not impinged upon my life enough for it to be a social fact of relevance.

Were I to be dramatic here, I should say that all that changed on October 7th, 2023, when the Iran-supported terrorist organisation Hamas attacked Israel from Gaza, killed several people, subjected a large number of people to torture, maiming and rape, took hostages, and set off a chain of events that include the use of disproportionate force by the state of Israel, the deaths of large numbers of Palestinians in what looked to be a form of collective punishment, and movements in Gaza and in Israel to overthrow their respective governments. But that chronology would not be true: the effects of my accidentally-acquired German-Jewishness were more subtly tangible before the critical events that I have attempted to describe (in what is most definitely not a consensual manner: my choice of words has already marked me out as defending a very particular position).

 

The ‘German’ part of the acquired characteristics was, earlier, not an integral part of the public’s equations with me; but nor, I think, was the ‘Jewish’ part. For one thing, as I said, I didn’t ‘look Jewish’. As a campaigner against the war on Iraq in 2002-2003, I heard things that were said because I looked, to all intents and purposes, like a young Muslim male, and was expected to share a number of prejudices that were to be repeated among the assumed-entre-nous as solidarity-formation. Casual anti-Semitism, like the casual anti-Muslim jokes I had so often heard in India (where I was assumed not to be one), was a pretty everyday matter, and was not supposed to be offensive.

 

Several years later, in Germany in 2022, I went to the book launch of a volume in which I’d had an article, and heard an angry exchange between an Iranian-origin German journalist and a part-Jewish-origin Austrian novelist: the Iranian-German insisted that explicit anti-Semitism was very common in the circles of Menschen mit Migrationshintergrund with which he was familiar; and, I had to admit, I had had the same perceptions and experiences. I imagine, as a person without a Jewish background, he’d taken it seriously but not personally; nor had I, as a person who didn’t particularly identify with any religious denomination (and I had at least three to choose from, if I wanted to draw upon my own histories). The Austrian novelist was firm: according to the police, she repeated several times, most anti-Semitic crimes were committed by white people. How did they count crimes, I wondered, and how do you measure these things? Germany, I thought, would be a good place to find out, because there were several centres and associations whose job it was to monitor, and measure, anti-Semitism: we didn’t have to take police notifications as the sensible yardstick; but it did seem as if we’d come to a standstill as to what to look for, as the categories of ‘immigrant anti-Semitism’ and ‘philo-Semitic Islamophobia’, or variations thereof, were thrown around in German public debates. And how, indeed, would one recognise anything short of a crime that the police had been forced to take cognisance of, especially the sort of harmless aggression that was not expressed in public?

This event itself was the outcome of a series of responses to a somewhat concocted social media scandal that surfaced as a form of outrage-entertainment during the Covid lockdown, about whether Holocaust remembrance and the memory of German colonialism were at odds with one another, or whether one had to adhere to one at the expense of the other. The usual PoC complaints that ‘white’ experiences were more important than theirs were amplified, in what led, among other things, to a complaint that German colonial atrocities were not taught in schools. This also brought up a sprinkling of Holocaust-denying antics and a great deal more what’s-the-Holocaust-got-to-do-with-us discussions among PoCs, whose ‘postcolonial’ positioning was now the subject of discussion among people who hadn’t engaged with the term or the arguments it purported to support before. I made a small contribution to glossing these debates (which later became an article in the book I just referred to above), making it clear that I was doing so neither as a PoC nor as a Person of Partially-Jewish Origin, but as a student of history whose research had involved studying themes related to comparative fascism and to postcolonial theory. That, though, was my own attempt to keep control of the semiotics of my contribution, and it was clear that such control was not possible: at the discussion that concluded my presentation, a well-meaning member of the audience asked me whether she, as a white person, should feel guilty about colonialism.

 

Slightly nonplussed, I replied that she could feel guilty if she liked; but it wouldn’t help anyone either way.

 

And I wasn’t sure whether what she was looking for was a form of confession-and-absolution from a person of colour. Which is indeed what I appeared to be on a stage, whether I performed the role to the audience’s expectations or not.

I had been advocating public positions for a number of years that had been based on secular and universalistic understandings of the world. I would not have been comfortable with invoking my Jewishness any more than a blackness or brownness that would, at any rate, have been more visibly plausible; and having renounced access to black privilege, brown victimhood, or black-and-tan fragility, I could hardly strategically claim any other identitarian, lived-experience, affect-oriented position #asaJew. And this is where we have an interesting situation: since positions are either ‘authentic’, in the sense of having been taken by persons with adequate recourse to the identities they represent, or they are wrong, those of us who have abjured the identitarian have written ourselves out of the debate. The idea that something said by someone outside the charmed circle of authentic belonging might actually have relevance is long gone.

 

II

As a Jew, you must listen to me, then, cuts in several ways: as a Jew I’m not anti-Semitic, listen to me (and it follows that if I say the Palestinians are oppressed, I’m therefore right); or as a Jew I’m the authentic voice, listen to me (and it follows that if I say anti-Zionists are actually always anti-Semites too, you must listen to me). There’s the anti-Zionist Jewish position, which is authentic too: as a Jew, if I say that the really ethical Jewish position was to stay in Europe (and now, after the Holocaust, in North America?) – the Bund versus the Zionists, to the extent that political positions can be represented by organisational forms – then Ethical History is on the side of my dead co-religionists. That many of those who turned up in Israel when it was still Palestine, which was the name given to that territory by the British during the Mandate period and after the Ottoman Empire became its successor states, were not necessarily convinced pioneers of a settler colonialism, but were refugees from post-Nazi Europe, makes things inconvenient. Then there’s the further ‘as a Jew’ set of positions: less popular, because they are less often heard: the many Jews from various MENA countries who are not welcome in their ‘original’ homes, but who went to, or were expelled to, Israel, after its founding or later, and are clearly not expecting to be welcomed ‘home’ to Europe or North America, will tell a tale of persecution and hidden Jewish life as their homes (Iran after 1979, or Iraq, or Syria, after 1948, to take a few random examples) became unsafe for Jews. What have we to say, then, once everyone speaks as a Jew on a variety of positions, in which everyone is trying to out-Jew the other?

 

There’s a twist to the plot: If we agree that there is such a thing as ‘white guilt’, which involves a white person feeling guilty at the alleged misdeeds of their allegedly colonising ancestors and the consequent benefits they allegedly enjoy in the present; and if we have ‘white fragility’, which is the failure to acknowledge one’s own structural implication in ‘white guilt’, I think we also need cognate terms for comparable phenomena – ‘Jewish guilt’, or ‘Israeli guilt’; or ‘black fragility’ and so on.

 

But the first set of positionings are self-positionings; and the second are attributions of desired positionings, which most often are attributed to people by other people. Guilt, of course, is an interesting category; and Jewish guilt has long been used by Jews in ironic self-description, not about a particular thing but about everything. Now, we know, Jewish guilt needs to have an object. As does Israeli guilt: they’re not necessarily overlapping, even if the object of their guilt might be the same: Palestinians.

 

III

 

Palestinians, on their part, might feel that there is neither political gain nor moral redemption in being or becoming the objects of Israeli guilt, or of Jewish anti-Zionist legitimation. If not all of them dismiss any reference to such subjectivities (because we were slaves in the land of Egypt … or because we suffered in the Holocaust … and no one else should suffer anything comparable) as ‘Jewish psychodrama’, the divergences of opinion and subjectivities among ‘the Palestinian people’ are of less importance to formulations driven by Jewish or Israeli guilt. And if white guilt about a colonial past is shared among some sufferers from Jewish guilt, or projected onto Jews-as-Zionists-as-settler-colonisers by the white guilty, or by the non-Israeli Jewish guilty … we shall never know for sure, because no one is certain about their subjectivities and its motivations. Least of all someone attributing this externally. And so, we can throw ad hominem remarks thick and fast through air made smoky by the sights and sounds of bombs and of burning flesh.

 

And so it might well come to pass, after the self-righteous sounds of fury have exhausted themselves, that we are thrown back on something very old-fashioned and unreconstructed: the rational argument. This would not, at first glance, seem to be something at odds with an emotive connection with the subject being studied or observed, or the people whose experiences are at stake. But now, in an age of sectarianism, the idea of a common humanity has been defeated by the idea of the human as a Eurocentric, Enlightenment plot to colonise the Global South. We cannot rely either on compassion or empathy with people unlike ‘us’ but to whom we are not bound by guilt in a victim-perpetrator binary. All that we seem to have is the narcissism of authentic self-pity, and the moral demand that everyone else at least pretends to make room for that.

 

But who will make the rational arguments? Does anyone remember how to make them? There was a time when it was the job of specialists, academic or political, to provide well-considered, non-partisan perspective: not that they were not permitted to have private views, but these ‘affective’ positions, as we’d call them now, were considered poor guides to action, given that they were by definition misleading, self-deluding, subjective, and unreliable. The idea of a professional point of view that was merely partisan, and which downplayed, underplayed, or ignored, evidence and/or arguments that were known to exist in the public domain, was a contradiction in terms. Now, interested parties representing identitarian perspectives demand, more or less, that a partisan voice is necessary in order to represent a perspective authentically. Conflict of interest in such matters is not recognised; the partisan voice is supposed to dominate or silence other perspectives. The partisan is now the king of the castle: even those who demand an abandonment of subjectivities and insist on universalisable principles as the basis of public action, find themselves participating in public debates #asaJew. Or from other sectarian positions.

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