Zizek on the specificity of anti-semitism

In Living in the End Times, Zizek argues that the radical left is wrong to ever express unease in its unambiguous condemnation of anti-semitism, “as if to do so would be playing into the hands of the Zionists”:

There should be no compromise here: anti-Semitism is not just one amoung ideologies; it is ideology as such, kat’exohen. It embodies the zero-level (or the pure form) of ideology, providing its elementary coordinates: social antagonism (“class struggle”) is mystified/displaced so that its cause is projected onto the external intruder. (136)

I think Zizek is committing a fairly elementary error here – the equivocation with the embodiment of ideology as such for “ideology as such” itself. If we think the universal appears in the particular, that means we think the universal is separable from the particular, and no particular particular exhausts the universal. Moreover, while a particular might be the first expression of a pure form in a particular history, and this might give in this case one specific racism a special status among racisms, that can’t be generalized across history unless we take Heidegger at his word and assume Western European history has become unilaterally history of the world.

But isn’t the Heideggerian move the problem with Zionism in the first place – the idea that the whole world is the West, and if the West has committed genocide against the Jews then the Jews should have their pick of countries. But, of course, this lie only served the purposes of the very states which, while they did not commit the holocaust, certainly could have done more to stop it – the UN plan to create a Jewish state in Palestine conveniently took Western powers off the hook from increasing their quotas for Jewish migration after WW2. The displacement of the problem of hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees who did not want to return home to Palestine is a move which includes by excluding – Palestine is declared Western precisely so that the interests of its inhabitants can be ignored.

I do not think that there can be a single racism which embodies the zero-level ideology of world history, anymore than there exists a single universal history in the world – in the real world different situations are different, and different groups play different roles at different times, and it’s complicated. (And philosopher’s don’t like this, because it means they might have to go somewhere other than their office or sitting chair in order to learn something). Perhaps the zero-level ideological racism of North America is anti-indigenous racism, in the sense that the displacement of indigenous people from their land is the condition for our politics at all. Even Noam Chomsky accepts this as fait accompli when he declares that it is actually immoral to advocate for the return of indigenous peoples to their lands when such a return is tactically impossible – before we can ever start doing solidarity politics, we have to assume that land rights claims have no practical validity, people must accept their own displacement and systematic oppression as the condition for becoming participants in the political conversation at all.

But, I’m being slightly imprecise; Zizek articulates what he means by “pure form” or “zero level” more specifically with a reference to Lacan:

Lacan’s formula “1+1+a” is best exemplified by class struggle: the two classes plus the excess of the “Jew,”, the objet a, the supplement to the antagonistic couple. The function of this supplementary element is double: it is a fetishistic disavowal of class antagonism, yet, precisely as such, it stands for this antagonism, forever preventing “class peace.” In other words, if we had only two classes, 1+1, withou thte supplement, then we would get not “pure” class antagonism, but on the contrary, class peace: two classes complementing each other in a harmonious Whole. The paradox is thus that it is the very element which blurs or displaces the “purity” of class struggle which serves as its motivating force.

Because North American indigenous peoples have not since the 19th century succeeded in sustained resistance, certainly not enough to create an indefinite state or culture of indefinite emergency, I am not sure whether or not they play an important role in blurring class antagonisms here – whether in motivating or stifling class struggle. However, if we move back to Palestine, we might think that it is anti-Arab racism which forms the zero-level ideology of Zionists: the idea, whether one is religious or secular, that “God gave us this land” – and that the land rights of its former inhabitants can be categorically dismissed on the basis of their non-Jewishness. While the dismissal of the right of return might be the same kind of a priori racism in the State of Israel as anti-indigenous racism is in Canada, the sustained resistance against the Zionist project has given anti-Arab racism a very different kind of role in Israel than anti-indigenous racism plays in Canada. In short, anti-Arab sentiment is a constant obfuscation of tensions between different Israeli groups – between political and revisionist zionists, and between secular and religious Jews. I was told by a proud Israeli while in Tel Aviv that “As soon as we make peace with the Palestinians, we’ll be at war with each other” because of all the internal divisions and real tensions within Israeli society. The anti-arab sentiment certainly motivates a strong felt need for loyalty and nationalism, which in my view stifles the working out of the many class and social conflicts. I suppose Zizek would want to say that, if anti-arab sentiment is the pure form of ideology in Israel, then it would actually motivate class antagonism – but I don’t see why ideology’s “pure form” must play exactly the same role in every historical situation – different historical situations are different, and it could be that base level ideologies are adaptive (or maladaptive) for their particular roles.

I see Zizek’s desire to absolutely condemn anti-semitism as a way of repeating the Zionist ideology that the Jews are a people unlike any other. It may be that Jews are a people unlike any other for Europe,  because they played a particular role in European history, which, while it could have been played by any people, could only have been played by a single people. However, Europe is not the world (Heidegger’s remarks about the essence of technology, which are serious, aside), and to say that in Palestine anti-semitism must be unambiguously condemned, whereas other forms of racism can be weighed and measured in complexes of interests and sentiments, is exactly to play into the hands of the Zionists. It repeats the ideology that the Jews are a people like any other, and interprets this specific difference as something special about Jews, rather than something particular about their situation in European politics. And, through this essentialization (which is a word I try to avoid using but seems appropriate here), it includes the middle-east (or better, the Eastern Mediterranean) within the moral sphere of Europe, and this inclusion allows Palestinians to be blamed for the Holocaust just as we blame every other European people for this event in European history.

The inclusion of the Palestinians within “Europe” in order to justify their displacement, and the corresponding politically acceptability of anti-Arab sentiment of denying the right of return (as well as all other anti-Arab racism, which is more contingent on particular circumstances year to year, i.e. what party is in power) is the zero-level of ideology in Palestine. All other racisms can be interpreted contextually, and can be mitigated by the use of more specific terms (i.e. anti-Israeli sentiment or anti-Zionist sentiment).

We should all remember that it was Fatah, the militant Palestinian liberation movement, which when fighting for a one-state solution, understood their struggle not as anti-Jewish but anti-Sectarian, i.e. anti-racist:

We are fighting today to create the new Palestine of tomorrow. A unified and Democratic nonsectarian Palestine in which Christian , Moslem & Jew worship, work & enjoy equal rights. This is no utopian dream or false promise, for the Palestinians have always lived in peace. Moslems, Christians and Jews in the Holy Land. (Fatah Poster 1979)

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