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Stanley Fish: "Is It Good for the Jews?"
If you ever read David Lodge's old novels about academic life, Fish is the original of the comic character Professor Morris Zapp, an extremely energetic and intelligent (but not terribly self-aware) intellectual:
Some years ago [Morris Zapp] had embarked with great enthusiasm on an ambitious critical project: a series of commentaries on Jane Austen which would work through the whole canon, one novel at a time, saying absolutely everything that could possibly be said about them. The idea was to be utterly exhaustive, to examine the novels from every conceivable angle, historical, biographical, rhetorical, mythical, Freudian, Jungian, existentialist, Marxist, structuralist, Christian-allegorical, ethical, exponential, linguistic, phenomenological, archetypal, you name it; so that when each commentary was written there would be simply nothing further to say about the novel in question. The object of the exercise, as he had often to explain with as much patience as he could muster, was not to enhance others' enjoyment and understanding of Jane Austen, still less to honour the novelist herself, but to put a definitive stop to the production of any further garbage on the subject. The commentaries would not be designed for the general reader but for the specialist, who, looking up Zapp, would find that the book, article or thesis he had been planning had already been anticipated and, more likely than not, invalidated. After Zapp, the rest would be silence. The thought gave him deep satisfaction. In Faustian moments he dreamed of going on, after fixing Jane Austen, to do the same job on the other major English novelists, then the poets and the dramatists, perhaps using computers and teams of trained graduate students, inexorably reducing the area of English literature available for free comment, spreading dismay through the whole industry, rendering scores of his colleagues redundant: periodicals would fall silent, famous English Departments be left deserted like ghost towns. . . .
(Here's Stanley Fish endorsing Morris Zapp's project in the NYT in 2009.)
When he reappears in Lodge's Small World set in the late 1970s, Zapp, in pursuit of his oft-stated goal of becoming the world's first professor of literature with a six-figure salary, has hopped on the fad of European Marxist deconstructionism. But then Zapp gets kidnapped and held hostage by European Marxist terrorists intent on deconstructing society with bombs. After Zapp is finally rescued, he starts to reflect that perhaps the profession of professor of literature does prosper best in a bourgeois society.
So, over the course of a long career, Fish has been exposed to countless ideological currents. But it's interesting to note how strongly his thinking returns to the fundamental question:
By STANLEY FISH
When I was growing up in the '40s and '50s, a single question was asked in my neighborhood of every piece of news, large or small, local or national: "Is it good for the Jews?" We have now learned to identify this question in all of its versions - Is it good for the Catholics? Is it good for the Latinos? Is it good for the gays? and on and on - as the paradigmatic question of identity politics, the politics that is derived not from some general, even universal, assertion of what is good, but from a particularized concern with insular interests. Is it good for us, for those of our kind, for our tribe?
A community in which this question is central and even natural will be a community with a sense of its own precariousness. (No one ever asks, is it good for the white, male, Anglo-Saxon graduates of Princeton; it's always good for them.)
This attitude may help explain, in the face of the rise of Asians, the decline in white, male, Anglo-Saxon graduates of Princeton and the non-decline in white, male, Jewish graduates of Princeton. Perhaps Anglo-Saxon notions of universal good, stiff upper lip, fair play, sportsmanship, noblesse oblige, and so forth are the real social constructs, while "Is it good for my tribe?" is the human default.
Its members will think of themselves as perpetually under assault (even if the assault never comes), and as the likely victims of acts of discrimination and exclusion. ("No Irish need apply.") As a result it will turn inward and present to the outside world a united and fiercely defensive face.
As Moshe Dayan demonstrated in 1967, however, sometimes the best defense is a good offense.
It will be informed and haunted by a conviction that no matter how well things may seem to be going, it is only a matter of time before there is a knock on the door and someone comes in and takes it all away.
By all the available evidence, formal and informal, precariousness does not mark the situation of the Jewish community today, at least not in this country.
Whether the measure is education, wealth, ownership of property, influence in the corridors of power, prominence in the professions, or accomplishments in the arts, Jews in the United States are visible and successful to a degree that is remarkable given their relatively small numbers (around 2 percent of the population). Yet as Professor Charles Small of Yale University reports, "Increasingly, Jewish communities around the world feel under threat," and there are some Jews in this country who share this feeling, not because they are themselves threatened (although that does occasionally happen), but because they fear - in the spirit of Sinclair Lewis's "It Can't Happen Here" or Philip Roth's "The Plot Against America" - that what is happening elsewhere may soon happen here.
Why should they think that? Part of the answer is to be found in the relationship between three words - Israel, Iraq and anti-Semitism. Much of the world has been opposed to the Iraq war from its beginning, and now after four years 70 percent of Americans share the world's opinion. Some who deplore the war believe that those who got us into it and cheered it on did so, at least in part, out of a desire to improve Israel's position in the Middle East. Those who hold this view (and of course there are other analyses of the war's origins) fear that the same people - with names like Wolfowitz, Pearle, Feith, Abrams, Kristol, Kagan, Krauthammer, Wurmser, Libby and Lieberman - are pushing for a strike against Iran, arguably a greater threat to Israel than Iraq ever was.
Why, they ask, should our foreign policy be held hostage to the interests of a small country that is perfectly capable of defending itself and is guilty of treating the Palestinians, whose land it appropriated, in ways that are undemocratic and even, in the opinion of many, criminal?
... One reason the [Israel] lobby is "immune from criticism," Mearsheimer and Walt explain, is that criticism, when it appears, is always re-described as anti-Semitism, and "anti-Semitism is something no one wants to be accused of."
Their point, and it has been made by many, is that there is no reason to assume that those who criticize Israel and argue that America's uncritical support for a flawed state is strategically unwise and morally wrong are anti-Semitic.
Maybe so, but there is some empirical evidence to the contrary. Charles Small and his Yale colleague Edward Kaplan have recently published an article in the Journal of Conflict Resolution, the title of which also tells its own story: "Anti-Israel Sentiment Predicts Anti-Semitism in Europe." What Small and Kaplan find is that "Those with extreme anti-Israel sentiment are roughly six times more likely to harbor anti-Semitic views than those who do not fault Israel on the measures studied, and among those respondents deeply critical of Israel, the fraction that harbors anti-Semitic views exceeds 50 percent." The authors conclude that, "even after controlling for numerous potentially confounding factors," "anti-Israel sentiment consistently predicts the probability that an individual is anti-Semitic" and will say things like "Jews don't care what happens to anyone but their own kind" or "Jews are more loyal to Israel than to this country" or "Jews have too much power in international financial markets."
Small and Kaplan are careful to disclaim any causal implications that might be drawn from their analysis: they are not saying that anti-Semitism produces opposition to Israel or that opposition to Israel produces anti-Semitism, only that the two attitudes will more often than not be found in the same individual: scratch an opponent of Israel and you are likely - 56 percent of the time - to find an anti-Semite. This does suggest that if opposition to Israel increases, there will be an increase in anti-Semitism because the population of the 56 percenters will be larger. Is this something Jews, even Jews living in the United States, should be apprehensive about?
The answer to that question will depend on whether you think that there is a meaningful distinction to be made between the "old" and the "new" anti-Semitism. Old anti-Semitism, according to Brian Klug of Oxford University, is based on a hostility to and fear of "the Jew" as an alien and demonic figure. In this ancient and much retailed story, Klug tells us, in an article in Catalyst magazine last year, subhuman Jews wander from country to country and "form a state within a state, preying on the societies in whose midst they dwell." This is the anti-Semitism that came to full and disastrous flower in Nazi Germany.
The new anti-Semitism, in contrast, Klug continues, is rooted not in a hostility to "the Jew" as a vampire-like destroyer of cultures, but "in the controversial nature of the State of Israel and its policies." As such, "it is not a mutation of an existing 'virus,' but a brand new 'bug.'" That is to say, its origin is political rather than racial, and there is at least a chance that if its political source were removed - if Israel's policies were to change - its force would abate.
So there you have two stories: anti-Semitism is on the rise and it's time to get out those "Never Again" signs. Or, it's not anti-Semitism in the old virulent sense, but a rational, if problematic, response by Middle East actors and their supporters in the West to what they see as "an oppressive occupying force"; don't take it personally. I understand this second story, and appreciate its nuance, but I can't bring myself to accept it, if only because I believe that the viral version of anti-Semitism is always capable of regaining its full and deadly form even when it is apparently dormant or weakened. All it needs is a pretext, and any pretext will do. If the Israeli-Palestinian conflict didn't exist, it would attach itself to something else; but it does exist, and anti-Semitism couldn't be happier.
Because I think this way, I can imagine a time in the not-so-distant future when American Jews might feel precarious once again. There is a certain irrationality to this imagining, given that at this moment, I am sitting in a very nice house in Delray Beach, Fla., and taking advantage of the opportunity afforded me by The New York Times to have my say on anything I like every Monday. And in a few months I will repair to an equally nice house in the upstate New York town of Andes, where I will be engaging in the same pleasurable activity. Sounds like a good life, and it is. So why am I entertaining fantasies of being dispossessed or discriminated against or even threatened?
Part of the answer lies in the fact that I spend much of my time in colleges and universities, where anti-Israel sentiment flourishes and is regarded more or less as a default position. And I have seen (with apologies to Shelley) that when hostility to Israel comes, anti-Semitism is not far behind. But the deeper explanation of my apprehension is generational. One of my closest friends and I agree on almost everything, but we part company on this question. He tells, and believes, the "criticism of Israel is one thing, anti-Semitism another" story. I hear it, but I can't buy it. He is 10 years my junior. I remember World War II. By the time he was born it was history. Maybe it's that simple.
Traditional football wisdom is that "The best offense is a good defense." Yet, there is a slowly emerging theory in football that the best defense is to stay on offense. Thus, the number of interceptions thrown is way down versus a generation ago because it's understood how disastrous a turnover is. Granted, football coaches are extremely conservative and hate being exposed to criticism for unconventional strategy, but the idea of not always punting the ball back to the other team on fourth down is slowly gaining popularity among the most assured coaches, such as Bill Belichick. Three years ago, Belichick notoriously had Tom Brady go for it on 4th and 2 on his own 29 rather than punt the ball back to Peyton Manning. Perhaps the next evolution will be more onside kickoffs after scoring. After all, in this era of high powered offenses, does it really matter if you let your opponents have the ball on their own 20 or on the 50? It's best to try to keep the ball in your own hands.
In other words, the best defense would be to never have to play defense. Always play offense. Stay offensive and take offense.
Before 1967 and the Six Days War, American Jews had typically asked their classic question “Is It Good for the Jews?” about their own conduct.
Sandy Koufax’s pitching? Good for the Jews.
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg’s atom-bomb espionage? Not good for the Jews. ...
After the 1960s, Jews stopped asking the question, “Is it good for the Jews?” about their own behavior and started asking it about everyone else’s.