Wednesday, May 25, 2011

What's Up With the Jews?

An interesting New York Times column from Stanley Fish online: What's Up With the Jews?

I'm not often a fan of Fish (especially when he writes about academic freedom - I think his definition is far too narrow). He often writes with the intent to offend, in my opinion. This article, however, is an interesting meditation on how whatever Jews do is read through prepackaged narratives that don't have much to do with reality.
....as many before me have observed, the Jew as a cultural/ historical figure is oversaturated, which means that the meanings that accrue to him (or her, but mostly him) are in excess of any empirical record and accumulate like barnacles without any regard for the law of contradiction. Attitudes, especially negative ones, toward Jews flourish whether there are Jews around or not. Anti-Semitism survives in Poland even though most of its Jews have either fled or been killed. There is anti-Semitism in China, but few actual Jews.

An important part of the protean and shape-shifting history of anti-Semitism is illuminated by Matthew Biberman’s brilliant book “Masculinity, Anti-Semitism, and Early Modern English Literature.” Biberman traces the intertwined careers of two characterizations of the Jew — the Jew as devil, an impossibly strong alien being who blocks and destroys everything that is good, and the Jew as sissy, an effeminate, slight, pasty figure who stays in the background and assimilates, but who, because of his having disappeared into the woodwork, is able to rot it out from within. (This quick summary does not do justice to the richness of Biberman’s analysis.) So you can have the fierce barbaric Jew (Israel as the atom-bomb wielding destroyer of Arab armies, at least in 1967) and the insidiously bland Jew, the obsequious figure who, while no one’s looking, takes control of everything. That means that whatever a Jew does there are a number of pre-packaged, and often mutually exclusive, narratives in which to place him, and, by and large, they are not positive ones.

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