Essays in Judeophobia II: Jews, Civil Society and It’s Enemies

[This is the second part of the Essay on antisemitism written in 2002 and posted here, beginning with the last section on Post-modern anti-semitism. This part deals with a general theory of Civil Society vs. “Prime Divider” Society and the Jews as an early experiment in Civil Society.]

Civil vs. Prime Divider Societies and Modern Globalization

In order to understand the dynamics that I am concerned with, and which, I think offer the best approach to understanding the distressing situation in which Israel finds itself, let me lay down some definitions and relate them to the most important single phenomenon of our time, globalization:

Prime divider society: Those cultures in which a small elite monopolize the technology of power (weapons, communications, public voice) by creating a fundamental gap between them and the vast majority (commoners). The three key components of the prime divider are: 1) legal privilege for the elite, 2) stigmatization of commoner manual labor, and 3) radically different forms of education/socialization for the two groups. The monopoly on weapons and communications that the elites maintain in such cultures permit them to appropriate, with violence if necessary, always with the implied threat of violence, the vast majority of the surplus that the largely peasant society produces. The basic interpersonal and international principle behind such structures is the dominating imperative of “rule or be ruled”, a zero-sum game in which the elite wins and the commoners lose, producing the wealth distribution typical of such societies – an immensely wealthy and cultured elite and an uneducated subject population living largely at subsistence levels.

The logic of the elite here is quite simple: if we do not dominate you, whoever does take power will use it to dominate us, or, as the Athenians said to the Melians, “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” The more political ideology is equally simple: to grant “freedom” and autonomy to commoners, who have no discipline, no self-control, is, as Plato might have put it, a recipe for anarchy. The very stability of society depends on a small elite to run public affairs, and the immense disparities of wealth and power that mark the prime divider are necessary for the social order. Power, in prime divider society, is opaque, mysterious, beyond the ken of the population. (These issues will become crucial in understanding modern Antisemitism.)

Civil society: Those cultures that systematically substitute a discourse of fairness for violence in dispute settlement. Such cultures attempt to dismantle the prime divider by legislating equality before the law, by removing the stigma from, even dignifying labor, by eliminating the elite’s monopoly on communication (and education), and moving the control of weaponry from the “private” realm of the warrior elite to publicly funded and accountable organizations (army and police force). Civil societies demand of their citizens that they renounce the dominating imperative in favor of a mutually agreed upon “contract” of “live and let live.” Such cultures systematically encourage the positive-sum relations of voluntary associations, and argue that if commoners receive a good education, enfranchisement will not lead to anarchy, and if elites receive a civic education, their exercise of power will not lead to tyranny.

Power, in such societies, is in principle transparent and accountable to the people on whose behalf it is exercised. Civil societies tend to be far more internally dynamic than prime divider ones: because of their positive-sum relations, they tend to prosper and innovate more; because intelligent people engage in labor, labor-saving devices (technology) rapidly gain favor; because their egalitarian rules favor meritocracy, the intellectual discourse shows greater creativity, flexibility, and a greater degree of reality testing.

Despite the legislative determination to establish civil societies – equality before the law – no culture has yet accomplished a “completely” civil society by the definition proposed here: the old aristocracy with its attitudes and its violence persist behind the façade of egalitarian principles, great wealth replaces older forms of privilege and coercion including special treatment “before the law,” the dominating imperative continues to drive people in their relations with those weaker than they, whether it be fellow “citizens” or foreign countries. Historically, for example, Christian minorities argued for tolerance, but when they took power, they tended to shift towards more authoritarian, theocratic forms of religiosity. In the Protestant Reformation, “tolerance was a loser’s creed.” The American Constitution represents the first time in Christian history that tolerance became a winner’s creed.

Indeed, the temptations of power tend to destroy most experiments in fairness. As the Athenians said to the Melians in a description of what Nietzsche would later call ressentiment, “the only reason you speak of fairness is because you are weak. If you were in our position, you’d do what we are doing.” The ability to get power and not abuse it to your own advantage is the hardest demand of civil society; failure means the kind of backsliding that led democratic Athens to slide into empire and self-destructive warfare with Sparta.

Nor does this concern “political” issues alone. Shame cultures, which consider it legitimate to shed another’s blood for the sake of one’s own honor, promote these domineering values throughout the society, above and below the prime divider. This cultural dimension makes any effort to shift from prime-divider to civil society much more than a “mere” political issue.

Thus the differences between prime divider societies and even attempted civil ones are enormous. Indeed, the very effort to dismantle a prime divider culture, to get a critical mass of people, especially of elites, to set aside the dominating imperative and adopt the constraining (for aristocrats, humiliating) rules of civil society, poses such enormous difficulty for dominating elites that it has almost never occurred in history, and often failed when attempted. On the other hand, even a simple, minimal shift makes a difference. For example, once a polity accepts egalitarian law codes as the formal rules of the culture (no matter how much “cheating” goes on behind the scenes), new economic and cultural dynamics begin to transform the society. On one level, the difference between the modern, wealthy nations of the West, and the cycle of poverty that has so far condemned most of the societies of the “third world” lies precisely in the zero-sum dynamics of the prime divider and its replacement with the positive-sum dynamics of civil society.

Jews and Civil Society

By the definitions provided above, few societies have even attempted the experiment of civil society – some Greek city-states, notably Athens, the urban communes of medieval Europe, and finally modern constitutional governments. The first recorded of the ancient experiments appears in the biblical texts. At a socio-political level, the legislation of the Pentateuch (Five Books of Moses), represent a utopian experiment in the creation of a society of free peasants. The book of Judges records the earliest account of such an experiment and its powerful flaws. Here we find a society which has, in principle, dismantled the prime divider: governed by an egalitarian law (all civil legislation in the Torah applies to all equally to all citizens and to strangers), in which everyone labors and everyone rests, in which access to the laws and egalitarian principles are publicized to everyone, in which the highest authority administers impartial justice to self-regulating communities.

Indeed the biblical texts suggest an interesting alternative to the dominating imperative, the empathic imperative: “love the stranger in your midst” and “do not oppress him, for you know the heart of the stranger since you were strangers in Egypt.” Hillel famously articulated this empathic imperative as the essence of the Torah: “what is hateful to you, do not do onto others,” a direct response to the dominating golden rule: “do onto others before they do onto you.” In its opposition to the unbridled power of kings, its egalitarian law code, its denunciation of the arrogance and exploitation of elites, its defense of the powerless and the poor, the Bible represents the most subversive political document of the ancient world – subversive to the “prime divider” discourse of the “political philosophers” from Plato onward. This principle of reciprocity is not unique to Judaism, indeed one might argue it has a universal quality. But Judaism represents one of its earliest and most political expressions.

This essay is hardly the venue for a lengthy discussion of the wealth and depth of the values of civil society to be found in the biblical corpus and subsequent Jewish writings. But one particular one deserves special attention in the context of anti-semitism: self-criticism. In order for civil society to work, all its members, elites and commoners, must remain open to criticism. If judges should not take bribes, and kings should not take covet the wives and property of his citizens, if the powerful should not oppress the poor, and every seven or fifty years should set free the slaves and forgive the debts, then the culture that hopes to work by these principles must have mechanisms for holding the powerful accountable. One of the most unusual themes in Jewish narratives about power involves the free and public criticism of those in power (prophets) and the willingness of the powerful to admit fault (Judah and Tamar, David and Natan, Raban Gamliel and Rabbi Yehoshua). Indeed, no other religious tradition has collected such highly critical texts excoriating the powerful, both lay and clerical, for “grinding the face of the poor.”

This remark does not mean to suggest that other cultures do not have these elements – the cry for justice and accountability from their elites. On the contrary, I suspect that such a discourse is universal. What sets the Jews apart from other religions and cultures is that very late in the process of their development (over half a millennium after the creation of the religious community), Jewish elites chose to canonize this voice of dissent. Normally, the voice preserved by the elites would be that of the royal priest Amaziah, not the commoner prophet Amos. Indeed, as we shall see, anti-semites often use Jewish self-criticism against them, while in the modern predicament of Zionism, sometimes Jewish self-criticism becomes a pathology.

Of course such a set of values and such a system of self-regulating communities without any “top-down” coercive capacities had enormous difficulties surviving in a world where the surrounding prime-divider cultures waged both cultural and military war against any neighbor that could not defend itself. Without a military aristocracy, survival in such a world was tenuous, with a military aristocracy, anchored by a monarchy, prime divider traits became increasingly prominent. When judges gave way to kings (I Samuel 8 – 11), the first experiment failed (just as when democracy gave way to oligarchy and imperial/royal rulers in Hellenistic and Roman societies). But in Israel, even the advent of kings did not marginalize the voices of civil society, voices critical of abusive kings (Natan, Elijah), critical of elites abusing their privileges (Isaiah, Amos), voices envisioning a future in which the nations of the world dismantle their prime dividers and transform themselves into societies of peace for honest labor:

They will beat their swords into plowshares,
Their spears into pruning hooks;
Nation will not lift up sword against nation,
Nor study war any more.
But each shall sit under his own fig and vine
With none to harass them.
(Isaiah, 2; Micah 4).

Thus when kings fell before the power of imperial powers (Assyria, Babylon, Persia), the descendents of the Judges, led by prophets and reformers, could reformulate civil society in the form of Jewish communities, first in exile, then during the “Second Commonwealth”, and finally in a second exile. All the ancient empires, when they conquered a local culture, peeled of the elite along the lines of an already existent prime divider, absorbing the elite into the lower levels of their own administration, and together they dined out on the commoners. Jews alone of these conquered cultures, did not have a clean prime divider along which to sever the elites, and despite the partial collaboration/assimilation of some (the Hellenizers, the Sadducees), other elites, especially rabbinic, refused to switch their allegiance from their (chosen) people to the conquering elite. The ability of Jews to survive under circumstances that destroyed all the other cultures of the ancient world derive significantly from their ability to cohere as a culture without the use of coercion. A discourse of fairness, a mutual solidarity between rabbinic elites and commoners managed to bond these communities under the enormous pressures of dominating prime-divider societies.

I do not mean to suggest here that Jewish life was a utopian community where no coercion, no authoritarianism, no hostility between elites and commoners existed. Anyone familiar with Rabbi Akiva’s comments about donkey bites knows better. My point here, as later with the state of Israel, is relative: in comparison with prime-divider societies, the relations between elites and commoners in Judaism are far more harmonious and mutual. Accounts of monarchical legitimacy, aristocratic behavior, assimilation, coercion, disdain for manual labor, etc., hardly disprove the thesis. They merely illustrate the Jews, like members of all other “higher” cultures, are subject to the gravitational pull of the prime divider. The evidence for exceptions to that tendency, so numerous in the official texts of Judaism and so limited in those of other cultures, constitutes the real anomaly.

This social aspect of Jewish life as an experiment in civil society – the lived experience of “ethical monotheism” – represents a critical dimension of Jewish-gentile relations. Indeed, one might argue that it is embedded in the very promises God made to Abraham. Rather than promise his “chosen people” the prized goods and privileges of prime divider society: “You will rule over the world in a great empire”, God offers the classic positive-sum relationship: “Through you, all the nations of the world will be blessed.” He explicates with a classic formula contrasting positive and zero/negative sum interactions: “those who bless you I will bless, those who curse you I will curse [dry up].” Those who have the strength to appreciate Jewish society and what it means for human dignity and freedom will enjoy the blessings of civil society, and those who find the Jewish example threatening to their forceful grip on power, and seek to diminish the Jews, will live in the destructive and impoverishing zero-sum world of the prime divider. As we shall see, this promise offers interesting insights into the course of globalization today. But before we get there, we need to consider what this approach offers us in understanding the nature and dynamics of Antisemitism.

Next: The Dynamics of Philo- and Anti-semitism

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