Anti-Semitism and Moral Schadenfreude: Reflections from a Medievalist

I just attended a one-day symposium organized by the Journal for the Study of Anti-Semitism, co-organized by Steven Baum, Neal Rosenberg, and Winston Pickett, held at the Wiener Library on Russell Square (right down the street from the notorious SOAS, and a Palestinian Fair). The program is appended below.

Here are the remarks I made on the first panel about defining anti-Semitism. The remarks were based on a longer essay, written in 2002 on anti-Semitism.

Anti-Semitism and Moral Schadenfreude:

Reflections from a Medievalist

Medieval historians who follow the argument made by Gavin Langmuir on the subject agree to distinguish between anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism. Here is my version of the distinction.

Anti-Judaism: zero-sum – I’m up because you’re down, I’m right cause you’re wrong, I’m good cause you’re bad. We make ourselves look bigger by making other look smaller.

Produces phenomena like the Dhimma, Easter ceremonies where Jews have to kiss a pigs ass, Augustine’s doctrine of the Jews’ dispossession from the Land of Israel as testament to/proof of Christian truth. Theologically speaking, these are all forms of supersessionism, the zero-sum theology par excellence in which “we” the new chosen people erase, displace “you” the old and now discarded chosen people. Culturally/psyschologically speaking, these are honor-shame versions of monotheism: what appears on the surface of things is what’s true. If we dominate, we’re right.

Anti-semitism: negative-sum – exterminate or be exterminated; your very existence threatens my existence; delirious paranoia.

Apocalyptic dualism: Nazis, Protocols, current Jihadi apocalyptic Judeophobia. The link between the two derives from the fact that the (fragile) ego that depends on the subjection of the other, feels threatened with annihilation when it loses that dominion. Thus, the fear of loss of honor when faced with independence of the despised other becomes literally a fear of the extinction of the self.

This is the challenge to Europe after the Holocaust: Christians and post-Christians have to live with non-dhimmi Jews, independent, judged by the same standards. This has been extremely valuable for Europe, and for the first time in its millennial-long existence, Europeans repentant from their anti-Semitism have managed the EU and the Euro, two forms of cooperation literally unthinkable before mid-20th century. As Michel Gurfienkel said in response to the question, on what day should we celebrate the European Union? Holocaust Day.

Denied anti-Semitism, however, Europeans have engaged in a proxy form in their support for Arab anti-Zionism: let the Arabs harry Israel since we can’t. As a result the vicious policy of Arabs keeping Palestinian refugees in miserable conditions so that they could blame Israel has found widespread support among Europeans – both in intellectual and political/diplomatic circles.

In significant part, this has been because the new, proxy anti-Semitism has appeared on the left; it is a progressive, “human rights” based anti-Semitism – pluralism, multi-culturalism. And it’s an anti-Semitism in denial: the vast majority of the people who empower Muslim anti-Semitism don’t think that they’re in any way anti-Semitic.

Retrospectively this susceptibility to pro-Palestinian Jew hatred has been catastrophic for the world.

If we think of Jew-hatred as an addiction to an alcoholic substance, then anti-Judaism is like wine and beer while anti-Semitism is like high grain alcohol. Then the following statement can be made: since 2000, the Europeans have been hitting their wine and beer, while keeping an open bar for their Muslim resident aliens.

Moral Schadenfreude and the European Cholesterol Count

My experience is that the post-Holocaust mutations of anti-Semitism are particularly hardy breeds, which can resist the appeals to sympathy for the Holocaust since these new forms now clothe themselves in a progressive “human rights” garb and invoke Nurnberg and Geneva to attack Israel.

As someone who’s worked for over a decade on these problems, I’ve come to the conclusion that we’re not going to succeed by appealing to the sympathy of people so armed with this new, resistant, “progressive” brand of anti-Semitism by arguing that it’s bad for Jews. My sense is that only by alerting people to the dangers to them of embracing anti-Semitism, consciously or unconsciously do we stand a chance of reaching most people. After all, the consistent pattern of Anti-Semitism, pre-Holocaust and post-Holocaust has been that the Jews are only the first target of the anti-Semites. Six million Jews were murdered in WW II, but over 40 million gentiles also died.

In post-modern, proxy anti-Semitism, this aspect of the problem is even greater than it has been in the past, where it would take an historian looking retrospectively to realize that there was a cost of Jew-baiting, that not long after the attacks on the Jews, the Inquisition came to town, that the fires that burned the Jews soon after burned Christian dissidents. But today, when one selects as one’s proxy for anti-Semitism, a group like the Jihadis, who hate Christian and post-Christian infidels almost as much as they hate the Jews, it’s safe to say that the indulgence and encouragement of anti-Semitism among Muslims is nothing short of suicidal. In terms of the cognitive warfare that the Islamists are waging against the West, Israel is the soft underbelly.

Take the case of Muhammad al Durah, the nuclear bomb of Jihadi cognitive warfare, the first blood libel of the 21st century, the first spread by an identified Jew, the first post-modern blood libel. Europeans loved this story: “This picture erases, replaces the image of the boy in the ghetto.” From a moral point of view, it’s hard to imagine a more deranged statement. Only when one realizes that al Durah was Europe’s get-out-of-Holocaust-guilt-free card does such “logic” make sense.

But even as they showed it endlessly on their TV screens, soothing their own unrepentant breasts, Europeans were waving the flag of Jihad in front of their Muslim population, awakening a radical Muslim Street in Europe.

So one of the things that I’m working on is the seeming endless appetite that Europeans have for what Nidra Poller calls “lethal narratives” about Israel (and David Hirsh calls “the Livingstone formulation”). If pictures of dead babies were trading cards, then the latest conflict illustrates clearly that a baby killed by Syrians has very low value, but when the child is identified as killed by Israelis, the value shoots up.

Hence let me introduce the term Moral Schadenfreude: it is the core of the anti-Judaism I discussed above. It designates the thrill (frisson) that accompanies the ability to accuse Israel, to knock it off its moral pedestal, to announce (as one of my friends did repeatedly in the years after al Durah) “this time Israel’s lost the moral high ground.” Somehow there is a great pleasure that accompanies inflicting moral pain on the Jews. Somehow one gets great pleasure from being able to say, “You Jews, two thousand years you suffered persecution and no sooner do you get power, but you turn around and do it to the poor Palestinians. You’re just as bad as everyone else (off the pedestal), you’re as bad or worse than the Nazis (sadistic version).”

I think this pleasure derives from a form of supersessionism that has spread to non- (or post-) Christian circles in the post-war period. Despite what a sad reflection it represents of the moral self-confidence of the agent, there seems to be a kind of moral bullying at work: I make myself look bigger by making you look smaller. Every time I degrade you, I elevate myself.

One of the implications of this analysis is that the Western secular Left is also supersessionist, as in the case of Jostein Gaarder. In order to pose as the moral cutting edge of global consciousness, the Left seems to feel that putting Israel down makes them look good. Few cases make a stronger case that, imagining one can be a better person without believing in God, can lead one to disastrous moral immodesty. After all, all those Christians and Muslims who beat up on the Jews invoked their belief in God to justify their contempt and sense of moral superiority. So, having tossed aside God, we secular, atheist, progressives… beat up on Jews, thinking we’re morally superior.

Lethal Narratives are like rich truffles, so tasty that there seems an almost bottomless appetite for them, and the European intelligentsia are like a fat man with a 300+ cholesterol count who just can’t stop popping those yummy truffles of moral Schadenfreude. Jon Donnison tweets a picture of a dead Syrian baby as a dead Gaza baby. WTF? What business does a BBC correspondent have in participating in dead baby porn? Does he realize he’s playing the role of a picador, trying to spur the Arab bull into a rage so he’ll attack Israel? And does he not understand that, as an infidel, he’s next?

Can an intelligentsia commit civilizational suicide? Apparently yes. Can we stop it from doing this? We cannot refuse to try.

Perhaps if we Jews and Israelis show some sense of self-preservation rather than rushing to self-immolate to prove what “good” Jews we are, we will serve as examples to those Europeans who, even if they won’t admit it, nevertheless their dogged attraction to moral Schadenfreude about us reveals, have an insecurity complex about Jews, and, in deeply twisted and suppressed ways, admire us.

JSA Sunday Symposium Program

8:30am Introductory Remarks David Hirsh, Neal E. Rosenberg, Steven K. Baum

9am Panel 1 Defining the New Antisemitism

Chair: Kenneth Marcus: Bat Ye’or, Winston Pickett, Richard Landes

10am Panel 2 Mapping the Rise of Contemporary Antisemitism

Chair: Manfred Gerstenfeld: Mark Gardner, Robert Wistrich

11am Panel 3 Antisemitism on Campus

Chair: Kenneth Lasson : Clemens Heni, Dave Rich, Ronnie Fraser

Noon Lunch Break

Screening of the documentary film Unmasked Judeophobia followed by Q&A

Gloria Z. Greenfield and Shimon T. Samuels

2pm Panel 4 Assessing Current Approaches

Chair: Lesley Klaff:| Gunther Jikeli, Hagai van der Horst, David Feldman

3pm Panel 5 The Politics of Fighting Antisemitism

Chair: Irwin Cotler: Rt. Hon Denis MacShane, Ben Cohen, Paul Iganski

4pm Panel 6 What Can Be Done? Strategic Interventions

Chair: Ruth Klein: Francisco de Almeida Garrett, Julian Hunt, Philip Spencer

5pm JSA Closing Remarks Robert S. Wistrich

Awards & Honors: Steven K. Baum, Lesley Klaff, JSA Editorial Staff

(Wine) & Cheese

7 Responses to Anti-Semitism and Moral Schadenfreude: Reflections from a Medievalist

  1. […] just recently attended a conference in London on Anti-Semitism (see here for the talk I gave). I spoke on a panel with Bat Ye’or, and we both talked about the role of anti-Semitism in global […]

  2. […] grundlegender Text von Richard Landes zum Thema Anti-Judaismus, Anti-Semitismus, Anti-Zionismus und dem ganzen Stimmungsbild, das […]

  3. SerJew says:

    Brilliant text. Regarding the European insecurity, don’t you think this is also linked with the issue of identity, national or whatever? XIXth century European anti-Semites hated Jewish “particularism” as a threat to their national identity. Post-modern anti-Semites hate Jewish nationalism as it spoils their imaginary cosmopolitan/universal/post-national brotherhood of mankind.

    • SerJew says:

      “Post-modern anti-Semites hate Jewish nationalism as it spoils their imaginary cosmopolitan/universal/post-national brotherhood of mankind”.

      Hi there, SerJew, i think we have met at the EoZ site.

      I would like to propose one more dimension in “progressive” Israel-hatred: for lots of them it’s a matter of a need to adapt to the dictates of the “Left” (whatever that is) that portray Israel as a powerful demon and the Palestinians as weak oppressed people.

      I would claim that many wishing to enter the class of progressives do not have a need to belittle Israel morally in the first place, they just want to join the group that shares their progressive values (feminism, gay rights etc.) but in the process they find out that bashing Israel is a sine-qua-non for membership. And they oblige by adopting the pro-Palestinian narrative that is already dominant in the progressive crowd, because they have decided that they want to join this “liberal” group. The fact that this narrative presents Palestinians as the underdog is a contributing factor to the ease with which they adapt themselves to it.

      In other words, they just want to go with the tide, and since this presupposes opposition to Israel, they follow suit. The underdog image of the Palestinians facilitates this process of conversion-to-progressivism (“it can’t be wrong to side with the weak one, can it”?)

      Of course, this does not explain how the CORE of the progressives came up with Israel-hatred in the first place, how they arrived at their paradigm initially. This origin of their paradigm is explicable in terms of Dr Landes’ analysis.

      An additional observation: some in the “liberal” crowd have more hate for America, than for Israel. But they attack Israel because hated America is perceived as Israel’s benefactor (“the friend of my enemy is my enemy”). Add to this that some have fallen for the myth of the power of the Israel lobby that influences unduly American policy, and we end up with an additional tribe of progressive Israel-haters.

      I would love to see a study exhaustively categorizing the tribes of progressive enemies of Israel.

    • SerJew, here is an article by David Goldman that is pertinent to the point you made:

  4. sshender says:

    Will any of this be made available in Video or Audio form?

  5. […] Even less pretty but very worthwhile is an article by Richard Landes on “antisemitism and moral schadenfreude” here […]

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