Professor Richard Landes

Professor Richard Landes

Richard Landes was trained as a medievalist at Princeton University (MA 1979, PhD 1984). In 2015 he retired from Boston University where he was a Professor in the History Department. He was a Scholar in Residence at the 2019 ISGAP-Oxford Summer Institute in Critical Contemporary Antisemitism Studies and Curriculum Development at St. John’s College, Oxford University.

I have just spent the week at Oxford (St. John’s College) at the annual ISGAP conference on antisemitism, which brings together a wide range of people, from scholars to graduate students, to learn about antisemitism and build curricula for teaching it. We were 86 scholars-in-residence: a really impressive group of people at all levels, the scholars, the speakers, the participants, young and old.  Charles Small, the President of ISGAP and convener of the gathering, gave the opening lecture with an overview of the programme that explored left, right and Islamist antisemitism, with a particular emphasis on the most bizarre and widespread aspect in the 21st century, the alliance of the Global Jihadi Right and the Global Progressive Left. Small wants to make contemporary Antisemitism-Studies a key element of university curricula, and we participants were charged with developing syllabi for courses in our own disciplines. This ISGAP summer programme has now more than 300 graduates from 27 countries – and more than 90 percent are actually teaching about contemporary antisemitism.

Rarely have I had the delight of such high-octane conversations day and night. (One might think, that “rarely” refers to the period since I retired in 2015, but academic conversations had already become increasingly low-octane since the turn of the millennium.) Wednesday evening, July 10, 2019, however, stood out for a sequence of four episodes, each striking in its own way.

That afternoon David Patterson spoke. Among many things, he echoed and deepened two points that others had made: 1) antisemitism starts with the Jews but doesn’t end with them; and 2) people target the Jews precisely because they represent the “other” with whom, in a civil society, you live in peace and mutually beneficial (positive-sum) relations. Patterson, reflecting on the ties that bound Hitler to his contemporary, the leader of Palestinian nationalism (Haj Amin al Husseini), and the near-seamless transfer of the most delirious, genocidal, antisemitism from early 20th century Germany/Europe to the post-war Arab Muslim world, remarked that, at least for this variety of (exterminationist) antisemitism, the paranoid narrative gives the believer permission to kill: as Norman Cohn called it, a “warrant for genocide.”

Little surprise that, when they’ve killed Jews, antisemites don’t have trouble killing others. I think it’s fair to say that every person who has mobilized hatred of Jews to incite riots, pogroms, and massacres, is belligerent in the original meaning of the word (bellum=war) – a war-monger. If you want to know if a peace-maker is sincere or a war-monger, check how he or she treats the Jews. For reasons that surpass understanding, these days (and so many times in the past), people find it very hard to be fair to Jews, or as one student asked, “why is it so hard for people to empathize with Jewish suffering?”

After that last lecture I went to visit a twitter friend, the physicist David Deutsch. He’s writing a book about patterns of irrational thought that sabotage human creativity and progress. He has a chapter on the Jews in which identifies a pattern (he calls it “the Pattern”) concerning the Jews. The key to people’s behavior in this regard, he argues, is the need to preserve the legitimacy of hurting Jews, for being Jews. This legitimacy is much more important than actually hurting Jews. And it targets only the Jews. It is not, accordingly, either a hatred or a fear, a form of racism or prejudice in the conventional sense, even though it can lead to those feelings and attitudes. But it is actually unique. No other group can substitute for the Jews as the target whom it is legitimate to hurt.

Now I know that I could have demanded evidence to “prove” the point (as might you of me), but I also know how vaporous the evidence for these kinds of motivations. (I think we should use scare quotes around political, or any social “science.”) Here, however, was an elegant almost mathematic formulation from a physicist, that nonetheless focused attention on what I think needs so much attention: the psychological. (Although that might be my, not his view). Still, it had an uncanny resemblance to Patterson’s point about killing. The (hopefully few) exterminationists want permission to kill; a (far more numerous) group, just wants permission to harm. They don’t even have to do it… just want it affirmed on the level of collective social emotions.

Of course, this summary is a pale reflection of the sophistication of his thought and its implications which challenge the idea that antisemitism is a form of racism or hatred. This “Pattern,” Deutsch argues, is not merely an instance of generic phenomena (like racism, etc.).

Rather, it is:

“an irrational pattern of thinking about right and wrong, which targets only Jews and has no close parallels in other irrationalities or immoralities.”

(From his draft chapter which he just sent me.)

One of Deutsch’s points is that the legitimacy of harming Jews, plays a role ranging from minor to decisive in moral identity formation: “woven into the fabric of many religions, political philosophies, and national identities…”

At this point I asked if he had read Rene Girard, who argues that all human groups/societies bond in guilt over a scapegoat sacrifice of someone from among us… if you will, an Augustinian anthropology (original sin). As a key to at least some Christian thinking about the Jews (Girard is a Catholic), it offers insights (including how Girard manages to salvage Christian supersessionism, and make the Jews the embodiment of sacrificing the purely innocent Jesus). Certainly, a good deal of Christian identity formation in the early centuries was driven by an invidious identity formation: “we are the new, true Israel, God’s favorite, who have replaced (and should have erased) you Jews, whom he has divorced because you killed his Son.”

I should have stayed for more discussion, but I promised myself that after missing the ISGAP sponsored comedy show (so it was billed), to meet Deutsch, I’d be back to the lecture hall by 9PM to watch the BBC Panorama on the Labour Party’s antisemitism problem with other ISGAPers. Instead I arrived midway through Marlon Solomon’s “Conspiracy Theory: A Lizard’s Tale,” a riveting tour through the sewers of current antisemitic discourse, including the highly popular world of lizard beings who colonized the nether parts of the planet long before humans, and shape-shift into Jews when they come to spread their poisonous hatreds above ground (David Icke). I had already been introduced to this hard-to-believe apocalypticism by Michael Barkun much earlier (A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America, was published in 2013, but he was already talking about this at Center for Millennial Studies conferences 1997-2003). Here it was, alive and well in the anti-Zionist culture of Britain’s (and the new) “left.”

Here was a narrative that, in Deutsch and Patterson’s terminology, “gave permission to commit violence against Jews,” and which, despite how ludicrous, nevertheless had takers. And as Deutsch would point out: no other group could be a place-holder for the shape-shifting lizards. I came in at the part where Solomon was talking about his own family’s flight from the pogroms of 1919 and the role of that warrant for genocide, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, in the new pitch of hatred. I leaned over to the guy next to me and whispered, “I thought this was a comedy.”

Instead I joined in a long, terrifying descent into beliefs that some people somehow want to embrace, devour, ingest, no matter how poisonous and unlikely they are. (We want permission to sacrifice our scapegoat.) Among other acute observations, Solomon emphasized the role of projection of malice in conspiracy theories in general, and especially about Jews. We can hate them because they deliberately hurt us (or want to hurt us).

That projection justifies the paranoid imperative (exterminate or be exterminated). Why do Jews support democracy, a free press, and free flow of capital? According to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, not because they are benevolent and believe in them (no one could be so stupid as to actually promote democracy). Not even because they, the Jews do prosper when everyone plays by democratic rules. But because they want to enslave mankind. So we, poor disdained “goyim” must strike first. Do onto [the Jewish] others what [we are sure we know] they want to do to us.

If the Protocols and other conspiracy theories about the Jews are wrong, it’s not so much about Jewish influence, which they may exaggerate, but is nevertheless exaggerated certainly in proportion to the number of Jews in the world (0.2%). At least, in terms of the role of the Jews in shaping Western civilization, I’d say the conspiracy theorists may be closer to the truth than the Columbia CC curriculum (Plato to NATO), in assessing the impact of the Jews and their religion on the development of the modern, democratic, egalitarian world we live in. (I tried suggesting a week on the Hebrew Bible as political philosophy in 1986 and got sent to the corner with a dunce cap.)

It’s in the projection of malice and the lust for dominion, however, that the conspiracy theorists plunge down the slopes of their projected hell. Actually, it’s because Judaism teaches one to renounce the kind of dominion projected on to them by the authors of the Protocols forgery, that Jews have so much influence. People hate the Jews not because they’re shape-shifting lizards from the limbic world of the reptile brain, but because they’ve distanced themselves the most from the amygdalic world of survivalist violence.

But lest this descent into the mazes of mythical ressentiment and the longing for hatred to which they aim their narrative, provoke depression if not despair in his audience, Marlon Solomon, independent, inquiring mind (with an impressive learning curve), astounded at what he sees happening around him, and how hard it is just to talk about it, comes roaring out with a rousing chorus of (British) irony, eagerly seized upon by at least some in the audience (myself included), as an escape from so dark a world as that from which he was reporting back. I was one of the takers, after the talk, for his T-shirts that reads: ZIONIST SHITLORD. (It should read Zionist Lizard Shitlord, or have a lizard, but that’s for the next round of production.)

And then came the Panorama program by John Ware about how since Jeremy Corbyn became the head of the Labour Party, an extra 160,000 members joined the party, carrying with them this permission to hurt Jews, especially verbally (Jew-baiting). We hear of people reducing Jewish employees of Labour to tears (which is not hard: Jews are very vulnerable to moral sadism [e.g. calling Israel Nazi]). After Corbyn’s ascent, it became open season for Jew-baiting among the revolutionaries.

When a wave of complaints came to the grievance committee, those responsible for censure and even suspension from the party for violations of the rules, found themselves unable to cope. On the one hand, the large increase of cases, on the other, pressure from above to ignore them. Many a malicious remark or speaker, got passes. In fact, some of these nasty folks are high up in the new party. Complaints about Corbyn and allies (Milne) intervening to protect this hate speech surfaced which the Labour party denied categorically. [Shot of Corbyn looking calm and visionary: “we don’t do antisemitism in our party.”]

The documentary interviewed the people who would know what happened in the Labour party, namely the people in charge of investigating and acting on complaints, the Disputes Team. These party members, who staffed the complaints desk, are remarkable, and, by appearing on the program, defied the non-disclosure agreements with the party which they negotiated to get out of the Kafkaesque nightmare in which they found themselves trapped. Considering their understated testimony, one realizes these people have been through a trauma inflicted on them by the new-guard taking over the party. They were like little Dutch kids with their fingers in the dike when the tsunami of hatred hit; and while the leaders of the Party turned to the outside world and insisted, newspeaky, that none of this was happening, Corbyn and mates were in fact opening the sluice gates of Jew-baiting.

Oh, thought I, that must be what Corbyn meant by the “British irony” Jews don’t get: lying straight-faced to the camera and anyone else who asks.

Here I was sitting in England, at Oxford, at a conference on antisemitism, watching a documentary about how the Labour Party was being taken over by people who had adopted and were now mainstreaming “the Pattern.” Given that the British ambassador to USA had (privately he thought), expressed his sheer contempt for the dysfunctionality of Trump and his administration, it was enough to make my head spin. All told, it’s a nice illustration of  Pat Condell’s tweet: “These clowns whine and bellyache about Brexit and Trump, yet they are the reason we got both.” Or as someone put it in late 2016: “No Obama, no Trump.”

So, clearly dysfunctional England, and not-so-clearly, but even worsely dysfunctional Europe, literally lose control of their democratic institutions to revolutionaries with dubious aims even as they look down their noses at the dysfunctional USA, with its grotesque clown for a president and its social-warrior “democratic” opposition. Here in the UK, for example (and which the documentary didn’t really go into), the Labour party was being taken over by one of the orchestrators of the insane green-red alliance that brings global Jihadis and progressive revolutionaries together in a movement called “anti-war,” and that punished anyone (e.g. Nick Cohen) who had the nerve to point out the oxymoron of inviting Jihadis to a peace rally. (In France, some of the Arab youth from the suburbs participating in the Februrary 2003 “anti-war” march spotted a “HaShomer Hatzair” (far-left Israeli movement) contingent and beat them with metal bars.)

This is the alliance made kosher for the “global progressive left” by Judith Butler and a host of PoMo-PoCo commentators pushing the replacement narrative: the Palestinians are the new Jews (and the Israelis/Jews the new Nazis). By the logic of that narrative, when, in 2006, after the summer war in Lebanon, Butler was asked if Hamas and Hizbullah (two genocidal, right wing groups that make American neo-nazis look like pishers) belonged on the progressive left, she answered yes. Explaining why, she gave the most succinct expression of the anti-imperialism of fools ever: “because they are part of the global anti-imperial alliance.” So the GPL embraces the most virulently imperialist, triumphalist and brutal movement on the planet today (no competition), in the name of anti-imperialism.

In so doing, Butler (and the movement she was trying to keep up with), showed a radical occidento-centrism, as if American hegemony were the worst form of imperialism, so evil that it literally obliterates the history of, say, just to take a random example, Muslim imperialism and its impact on the (till then called) Roman province of Palestine. Hard to get more stupid in reality; but in theory, it was (allegedly) a brilliant move.

So in an age when just being accused of Islamophobia is enough to cancel an invitation to speak to Parliament, or to end a job/position, when the authorities in entire communities do not denounce Muslim gangs who groom young infidel girls to be their sex slaves lest they be accused of racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia… in such a bizarre atmosphere of silence and fear, the Labour party is led by someone who repeatedly platformed with virulently exterminationist antisemites (Hamas, Hizbullah, Hizb-ut-Tahrir), men who welcomed in genuine enemies of the very realm, exploiting that realm’s commitment to fairness and civility even as they profited from it. As for what people say is Corbyn’s eminence grise, Seumas Milne, he’s a man whose American Derangement Disorder is so great, that before the dust had settled on the twin towers, he was telling Americans they richly deserved it. Marriage of hell and hell: the antisemitism of fools marries the anti-imperialism of fools. No vacancy on the left’s Narrenschiff. Pre-modern sadism and post-modern masochism.

“So what about on the right?” one young participant demanded to know. It’s not fair to go after the Muslims and the left and not discuss the antisemitism of the right. (I certainly know people who will not read a piece if it doesn’t have an obligatory trashing of the right, especially the Israeli right.) For Corbynistas, it’s a veritable tic to reply, “What about Islamophobia on the right?”

Two days later, David Hirsh answered her better than I did, in an impassioned final appeal at SAOS (of all places as Jonathan Hoffman reminded us!), that if you hear that your own party (side) was doing some problematic things, the last thing you want to do is run around looking for someone else to call worse, filling prime discussion time with a listing of others’ sins. Real progressivism (without the scare quotes around Global “Progressive” Left), advances through self-examination, self and mutual criticism. Learning curves and efficacy shoot up when mistakes can be acknowledged and dealt with, rather than denied and avoided.

So, until the “left” self-criticizes their appalling 20-year long record of platforming with Caliphaters and mainstreaming antisemitism, we’re all in trouble. Let them consider what their critics have been saying for a long time: that the (to them, grotesque) choices voters are increasingly making (Trump, Brexit), have a great deal to do with the bankruptcy of their own movement in addressing the problems posed by Caliphaters, and that matters will continue to spiral out of control – widening gyres – until they do. Certainly, in the realm of my personal concerns (apocalyptic millennial movements), the “progressives” have utterly failed to deal with the Caliphater challenge, which despises all their alleged principles and seeks to destroy the very people-friendly systems (constitutional democracies) which alone make a progressive left possible. That’s a problem on a completely different order of magnitude, complexity and moral urgency than denouncing neo-nazi, right-wing racists. It’s not the reactionary anti-modernists who lead the way to exterminationist antisemitism, it’s the post-modern revolutionaries, the folks who are supposed to be bending the arc of history towards justice.

What we need now, more than any other single change, is for people who consider themselves progressive, to get serious about issues like moral and intellectual integrity, and the courage to adhere to its dictates even if it means giving up virtue-signaling. After all, the most painful moral dilemmas, like Judah faced with Tamar, pits honesty and public shame vs. lying and private guilt.

In his BBC documentary, Ware parades before us young Labourite interviewees (most not Jewish) who have the courage of their liberal principles, and so got crushed in the hostile takeover that, shell-shocked, traumatized, they had to face the reality that the civility upon which democratic governments depends, can be shredded in short order, and that those who resist, and get ground down. Not just Labour and England, but the whole democratic world is in danger. To hear how the “Party” spoke with the public (one nice touch, Ware had a woman read the party statements with a slightly mechanical voice that highlighted its Pravda-like quality…), one can imagine that a great deal of the mental pain and disorientation these Dispute Team members was the mindfucking of denial (#Gaslighting). As the Chinese version of the Emperor’s New Clothes goes: “if you see a deer, and I [the Emperor] see a horse, you see a horse.”

Nor is this just a logical problem. You can’t really think your way into this without clearing out some of the emotional furniture that clutters the doors of perception. What we need is people who can say “no” to that twinge of self-righteous moral Schadenfreude that supersessionists feel when they criticize autonomous Jews (Israelis), that “Pattern” of wanting, somehow – even if you don’t do it (yourself) – the permission to hurt Jews. It may not be as bad as the murderous variety, but it still sucks your soul and fans the flames of hate. Can you say “no” to that key component of “the Pattern,” the projection of malice on to Jews? If you can’t do that, you’ll repeatedly misread the record, repeatedly find illogic, self-damaging illogic, attractive. The Pattern.

When Arabs say “if we had as much prominence in the media as Jews, we’d use it for the cause [like NBC’s Ayman Mohyeldin who literally lied on air], so therefore the Jews, who have great prominence in the media, must be doing that also (which is why we believe that the MSNM is a Zionist tool”…), it’s a projection of bad faith. Actually many Jews gain prominence as journalists by bending over backwards not to exploit their position to advocate for their people. Look at how the NYT downplayed the Holocaust (!) lest people dismiss them as a Jewish paper. And then rethink their handling of Israel. Given how natural abuse of authority/power is (e.g. the Labour Party under Corbyn), it’s hard to imagine Jews don’t do the same… or, actually, worse; they must do even worse with all their inordinate influence. (‘After all, we would.’)

On that Shabbat, July 13, diaspora Jews read Chukat, the section of the Exodus dealing with the final two years in the desert (Numbers 19:1–22:1). From the previous week’s reading (Korach’s demopathic rebellion, Numbers 16-18:32) to Chukat, 36 years have passed, during which the men who escaped Egypt have mostly died out in the desert (according to the Midrash, just the men, not the women). Miriam, Moses and Aaron’s sister, and according to legend, the guarantor of water (Miriam’s well), dies and the people cannot find water. They begin to complain again, in what sure sounds like exactly the same terms as before, with the same accusations against God that he “took us out of Egypt to die in the desert.” God tells Moses to speak to a rock and water will flow. Moses, apparently exasperated that 36 years had not made a dent on the children of Israel’s tendency to kvetch, paint themselves as wronged victims, and accuse God, calls them “rebels!” and strikes the rock. Water flows, but God punishes Moses for his high-handed behavior, by forbidding him (and Aaron) to enter the promised land.

The punishment always struck me as rather severe. Okay, Moses didn’t listen; he launched off on a bit of a rant; he hit the rock just as he had 38 years earlier when the people complained and accused God of plotting to kill them. So why the big deal? Well it turns out that the complaints were actually different this time: not, “you took us out to kill us” (Exodus 16:3, 17:3), but “you took us out and we’re going to die” (Numbers 20:4). Now that may not seem such a big difference (and certainly in terms of outcomes, negligible), but when you think about it, the attribution of malice is gone. God, the Israelites apparently finally realize, is not out to kill them.

Eli Sagan argues in the Honey and the Hemlock that in order to create a democracy, people need to overcome the “paranoid imperative” i.e. “rule or be ruled.” In this world, which characterizes the politics of recorded history, one must retaliate at the certain malevolence of one’s neighbor (local or international). The ‘other’ must be subjected in order to avoid being subjected by him. Sagan notes how, given how powerful a grip this paranoia has on our minds (let’s call it limbic or amygdalic), it’s that it is “nothing short of a miracle” that any society ever successfully makes that leap. He also chronicles how experiments in overcoming this stance are vulnerable to the very paranoia they start by rejecting, how the French revolutionaries descended into a vortex of totalitarian terror when their experiment met serious opposition (let’s not even begin to think of the hundred millions of people Nazism and Communism killed in their paranoid totalitarian nightmares).

So, it might just be that what Moses (and many of us readers of the Bible) missed – the difference between panic (you took us out and we’re going to die) and accusations of evil intent (you took us out to kill us) – may reflect a huge emotional accomplishment. As any parent knows, kids project fault in order to get angry: “she did it on purpose!” When the rabbis teach that we should give people the benefit of the doubt (Pirkei Avot, 1:6, 2:4), they need us to be able to withhold this projection of malice. Maybe that’s why Balaam praised the tents of Jacob (Numbers, 24:5): here was a people whose default mode was not us-them hostility.

So, Moses’ oversight, and clear frustration, meant he was still in the slave-mentality mode that had to die off. Not that he was not capable of freedom, but that he had been educating ex-slaves for so long, he couldn’t change gears as their leader. As Larry Amsel’s father had pointed out to him about the rock, “you hit slaves, you speak to free men.” So in the end, like so many things in the biblical narrative that seem like punishment, but are really consequences and hidden blessings (eating of the fruit in the garden, the multiple languages at Babel), God’s forbidding Moses from entering the promised land was less about him than about the people, this new generation, that needed another leadership, perhaps inferior – but a leadership that was theirs, in their encounter with freedom. Moses very unique leadership had to give way to allow the new generation to endure the tests of freedom on their own, to make their own mistakes and their own amends. When Moses says, “lemaanchem God got angry with me (Deuteronomy 3:25),” one can translate that as “because of you” or, “for your sakes, God got angry with me [and wouldn’t change his mind about not letting me in].” This “punishment” is not about Moses, but about the people. As Larry noted, God is saying: “when you pleaded on their behalf and told me not to kill them and start again with you (Exodus 32:11-14), you spoke sooth: this is about them, not you. Now, for their sakes, you can’t go in.”

As Rabbi Sacks put it when interviewed on BBC April 20, 2018 (quoted by Mark Pickles in a remarkable text denouncing the supersessionist antisemitism of the Anglican Church):

At the end of his life, Moses told the Israelites: don’t hate an Egyptian because you were strangers in his land. It’s an odd sentence. The Egyptians had oppressed and enslaved the Israelites. So why did Moses say, don’t hate.

Because if the people continued to hate, Moses would have taken the Israelites out of Egypt, but failed to take Egypt out of the Israelites. They would still be slaves, not physically but mentally. Moses knew that to be free you have to let go of hate. Wherever there is hate, freedom dies. Which is why we, especially leaders, have to take a stand against the corrosive power of hate.

In his case, as a leader of a free people, the standard for “getting Egypt out of” a leader is higher: don’t get angry, don’t hit.

This seeming tangent actually brings us back to a paradox raised by several speakers at ISGAP. One of the reasons antisemites pick the Jews as malicious enemies to be destroyed (guilty sacrifices deserving of death), is because they are precisely not malicious. Because they recognize and can live in harmony with others, they are called the enemies of mankind by people who themselves want to rule over, to subject others. The role of projection in the accusations against Jews, the inversion of reality involved, lies at the heart of the antisemitic enterprise.

Thus, Jews who won’t eat any blood, are accused by blood eaters (black pudding anyone?) of baking gentile children’s blood in their Matzah. Thus, an army that sacrifices its own soldiers to avoid harming enemy civilians (Jenin), gets accused by people who target Israeli children of deliberately, Nazi-like, killing children (Jenin Massacre). And, so many people actually believe these accusations, that they think it’s a legitimate rhetorical question to ask, “Is it possible the whole world is wrong and the Jews are right” (Russians ca. 1890 about blood libel), and “Is it possible the whole world is wrong and Israel is right?” (Kofi Anan 2002 about the Jenin “massacre”). Limbic nations accuse Israel of seeking to enslave them, with no sense of irony.

All I can say, is, when the whole world believes stories about the Jews that demean and debase them (“they kill our children and eat their blood,” “they’re acting like Nazis… like vampires… like Satan himself”), and Jews protest that it’s not true, then honest, fair-minded people should hope the answer to the rhetorical question is: “Yes, it is possible for ‘the whole world’ to be wrong about the Jews.” Indeed, what an impoverished and terrifying world we’d live in if it were not possible, and not just possible for the Jews to be right about something and everyone else wrong, but possible for any people and any person at any given time. What a world we’d live in if we couldn’t laugh at the Emperor’s New Clothes.