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With the current battle against theocratic totalitarianism which our civilization is engaged with, there are key socio-political concepts which never cease being of importance. One of the most conspicuous and perennial of these suppositions is the role and manifestation of antisemitism within our cultural dialogs. After all, it is only the most diluted individual who thinks that antisemitism is a problem solely for the Jews–it is a pox upon the face of all humanity which gives it more urgent consideration than any other form of racism. With the ever growing body of literature on this subject, there still remains an imperishable voice in this discussion and that is of the great socio-political theorist Hannah Arendt.
Her seminal book The Origins of Totalitarianism is so fundamental to this inquiry that not having it fully read and digested is to render oneself lamentably ignorant within any argument concerning this subject. Of most concern for today’s consideration is the first section of the book, Antisemitism. Having been written in 1949 places her polemic in a special locus as it was the first to establish a theory that related the new antisemitism with the rise of totalitarian ideologies starting from the end of the nineteenth century on through to the twentieth century examples with which we are more familiar with. What I wish to do is to critique a key part of Ms Arendt’s theory in order to highlight an aspect that is of great salience to today’s notions concerning the current forms of totalitarianism which plague our world.
Because of her book’s close publishing proximity to George Orwell’s 1984, some scholars have found it strange that she never made any reference to him or his ideas on the totalitarian impulse in any subsequent reprint. She also has a distracting element to her prose which is chiefly made up of her endless digression when setting up examples to undergird her points. I too think that there is a rhetorical issue to be taken with these contingencies, but of more importance is the idea she puts forth concerning the history of Jewish elites and international finance, highlighting honestly and critically a reality that when examined closely shows how full of shit and paranoid Jewish conspiracy theories involving world domination really are—the crucial example being the influence of the House of Rothschild in the affairs of monarchy and nation states, particularly in the nineteenth century. She also adroitly highlights the lack of Jewish assimilation and lack of an overall ethnic cohesiveness within this epoch which allowed for antisemitism to spread beyond its purely religious dimension. In this regard she makes good examples of eighteenth century Jewish elites who used antisemitism for their personal gain at the expense of the larger Jewish underclass, particularly in France. Yet it is in regards to the secularization of the Jews in the nineteenth century where Ms Arendt is most historically astute. She notes:
The Jewish intelligentsia was exposed also to the influences of Jewish reformers who wanted to change a national religion into a religious denomination. To do so, they had to transform the two basic elements of Jewish piety—the Messianic hope and the faith in Israel’s chosenness, and they deleted from the Jewish prayer books the visions of an ultimate restoration of Zion, along with the pious anticipation of the day at the end of days when the segregation of the Jewish people from the nations of the earth would come to an end.
Secularization, therefore, finally produced that paradox, so decisive for the psychology of modern Jews, by which Jewish assimilation—in its liquidation of national consciousness, its transformation of a national religion into a confessional denomination, and its meeting of the half-hearted and ambiguous demands of state and society by equally ambiguous devices and psychological tricks—engendered a very real Jewish chauvinism, if by chauvinism we understand the perverted nationalism in which (in the words of Chesterton) “the individual is himself the thing to be worshipped; the individual is his own ideal and even his own idol.” From now on, the old religious concept of chosenness was no longer the essence of Judaism; it became instead the essence of Jewishness. (Antisemitism; 1968 edition; pg 73-4)
We can clearly see from the above passages that Ms Arendt had a keen grasp of the origins of modern antisemitism as a distinct political ideology and not just as theocratic bigotry. But what does this have to do with the origins of totalitarianism? That is the title of book after all. Well, no matter how cursory one’s study of this work is, you would be hard pressed to find a single sentence where Ms Arendt asserts that she has found a source for the totalitarian impulse. It is the inquiry as a thing in itself which is important. So besides achieving an excellent distillation of the historicity of modern antisemitism, she also put forth a useful and original conception of the notion of ideology. This is where I think her intellectual value resides for any study of the totalitarian. On ideologies she says:
Over and above the senselessness of totalitarian society is enthroned in the ridiculous supersense of its ideological superstition. Ideologies are harmless, uncritical and arbitrary opinions only as long as they are not believed in seriously. Once their claim to total validity is taken literally they become the nuclei of logical systems in which, as in the systems of paranoiacs, everything follows comprehensibly and even compulsorily once the first premise is accepted. The insanity of such systems lies not only in their first premise but in the very logicality with which they are constructed. The curious logicality of all isms, their simpleminded trust in the salvation value of stubborn devotion without regard for specific, varying factors, already harbors the first germs of totalitarian contempt for reality and factuality.
An ideology differs from a simple opinion in that it claims to possess either the key to history or the solution for all the “riddles of the universe”, or the intimate knowledge of the hidden universal laws which are supposed to govern nature and man.
(The Origins of Totalitarianism, 1951 edition; pgs. 159, 431-2)
If one distills all of her arguments in Origins of Totalitarianism, one can quickly come to the conclusion that Ms Arendt thought all forms and advents of modern antisemitism could be reduced to political movements and ideologies–the agents of history which she felt rendered Jews to be forever oscillating between being Pariahs or Parvenus no matter which society they were in. This is where I think the force of her rhetoric breaks down but in a very specific way. She made passing remarks regarding what she calls classical antisemitism and this would chiefly be what we could call religious antisemitism. I believe it to be detrimental to her thesis that she rather to thoughtlessly tossed aside or downplayed the malign influence of the other two monotheisms (the two plagiarisms of Judaism) and their intrinsic antisemitic world view. She seemed incapable of seeing or refused to see that there is no such thing as apolitical religion.
Since my criticisms of religious faith are based on their canonical foundations and not the opines of their prelates and followers, it is quite easy for me to maintain that the arguments which disavow the antisemitic fundamentals of Christianity and Islam are untenable. Actually, when it comes to Islam, there is no denial of antisemitic rhetoric as I hope the above image or say Hamas’s website unapologetically illustrates. But christian apologists can not deny the charge of deicide against the Jews as adumbrated in their gospels, but this of course does not stop them from pathetically trying.
And this is where the parallel with today’s fight against modern totalitarianism is drawn. Whether this disease emanates from the foul maw of Mel Gibson or from the degenerate and reactionary ideology of Al’Qaeda it makes no difference. Antisemitism always prefigures any existential threat to civilization and not just to Israel. It always has and always will. This is why it is up to all of us and not just the Jews to be always prepared and vigilant against the impending societal malice which acute and pernicious antisemitism unfailingly foreshadows. The thorough lack of critique of this phenomena does not detract from Ms Arendt’s argument but does tarnish it a bit (and only a bit, as I would never presume to question Ms Arendt’s erudition) as this is a distinction with a huge difference.
This fate of being civilization’s tocsin can never be abnegated by the Jews either; and yet it nonetheless is a position of honor and responsibility in which the Jews have been entrusted. If I were to give credence to Mosaic law (which I definitely do not) or were a tribalist to any degree, then given the fact that I have Jewish ancestry on my mother’s side which goes back to seventeenth century Spain gives me a ready made reason to partake in this battle. But in spite of this contingency, fighting against the putrefactive stench of antisemitism is a duty and pleasure of which I will be forever glad to partake in until my dying day.
As long as defamed peoples and classes exist, parvenu- and pariah- qualities will be produced anew by each generation with incomparable monotony, in Jewish society and everywhere else. (Ibid, pg 66)