From Esther to AIPAC
by Gilad Atzmon who was born in Israel and served in the Israeli military.
Jewishness is a rather broad term. It refers to a culture with many faces, varied distinctive groups, different beliefs, opposing political camps, different classes and diversified ethnicity.
Clearly, Jewishness is neither a racial nor an ethnic category. Though Jewish identity is racially and ethnically orientated, the Jewish people do not form a homogenous group.
Though Jewishness borrows some fundamental Judaic elements, Jewishness is not Judaism and it is even categorically different from Judaism. Furthermore, as we know, more than a few of those who proudly define themselves as Jews have very little knowledge of Judaism, many of them are atheists, non-religious and even overtly oppose Judaism or any other religion. Many of those Jews who happen to oppose Judaism happen to maintain their Jewish identity and to be extremely proud about it.
Though Jewishness is different from Judaism one may still wonder just what constitutes Jewishness: whether it is a new form of religion an ideology or if it is just a ‘state of mind’.
If Jewishness is an ideology, then the right questions to ask are, “what does this ideology stand for? Does it form a discourse? Is it a monolithic discourse? Does it portray a new world order? Is it aiming for peace or violence? Does it carry a universal message to humanity or is it just another manifestation of some tribal precepts?”
If Jewishness is a state of mind, then the question to raise is whether it is rational or irrational. Is it within the expressible or rather within the inexpressible?
At this point I may suggest to consider the remote possibility that Jewishness may be a strange hybrid, it can be all of those things at once i.e., a religion, an ideology and a state of mind.
The Holocaust Religion
“Yeshayahu Leibowitz, the philosopher who was an observant orthodox Jew, told me once: “The Jewish religion died 200 years ago. Now there is nothing that unifies the Jews around the world apart from the Holocaust.”
Philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz, the German born Hebrew University professor, was probably the first to suggest that the Holocaust has become the new Jewish religion. ‘The Holocaust’ is far more than historical narrative, it indeed contains most of the essential religious elements: it has its priests (Simon Wiesenthal, Elie Wiesel, Deborah Lipstadt, etc.) and prophets (Shimon Peres, Benjamin Netanyahu and those who warn about the Iranian Judeocide to come). It has its commandments and dogmas (‘never again’, ‘six million’, etc.). It has its rituals (memorial days, Pilgrimage to Auschwitz etc.). It establishes an esoteric symbolic order (kapo, gas chambers, chimneys, dust, Musselmann, etc.). It has its shrines and temples (Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum and now the UN). If this is not enough, the Holocaust religion is also maintained by a massive economic network and global financial infrastructures (Holocaust industry a la Norman Finkelstein). Most interestingly, the Holocaust religion is coherent enough to define the new ‘antichrists’ (the Deniers) and it is powerful enough to persecute them (Holocaust denial laws).
Critical scholars who dispute the notion of ‘Holocaust religion’ suggest that though the new emerging religion retains many characteristics of an organised religion, it doesn’t establish an external God figure to point at, to worship or to love. I myself cannot agree less. I insist that the Holocaust religion embodies the essence of the liberal democratic worldview. It is there to offer a new form of worshiping. It made self loving into a dogmatic belief in which the observant follower worships himself. In the new religion it is ‘the Jew’ whom the Jews worship. It is all about ‘me’, the subject of endless suffering who makes it into redemption.
However, more than a few Jewish scholars in Israel and abroad happen to accept Leibowitz’s observation. Amongst them is Marc Ellis, the prominent Jewish theologian who suggests a revealing insight into the dialectic of the new religion. “Holocaust theology,” says Ellis, “yields three themes that exist in dialectical tension: suffering and empowerment, innocence and redemption, specialness and normalization.”
Though Holocaust religion didn’t replace Judaism, it gave Jewishness a new meaning. It sets a modern Jewish narrative allocating the Jewish subject within a Jewish project. It allocates the Jew a central role within his own self-centred universe. The ‘sufferer’ and the ‘innocent’ are marching towards ‘redemption’ and ‘empowerment’. God is obviously out of the game, he is fired, he has failed in his historic mission, he wasn’t there to save the Jews. Within the new religion the Jew becomes ‘the Jews’ new God’, it is all about the Jew who redeems himself.
The Jewish follower of the Holocaust religion idealises the condition of his existence. He then sets a framework of a future struggle towards recognition. For the Zionist follower of the new religion, the implications seem to be relatively durable. He is there to ‘schlep’ the entirety of world Jewry to Zion at the expense of the indigenous Palestinian people. For the Socialist Jew, the project is slightly more complicated. For him redemption means setting a new world order, namely a socialist haven. A world dominated by dogmatic working class politics in which Jews happen to be no more than just one minority amongst many. For the humanist observant, Holocaust religion means that Jews must locate themselves at the forefront of the struggle against racism, oppression and evil in general. Though it sounds promising, it happens to be problematic because of obvious reasons. In our current world order it is Israel and America that happen to be amongst the leading oppressive evils. Expecting Jews to be in the forefront of humanist struggle sets Jews in a fight against their brethren and their supportive single superpower. However, It is rather clear that all three Holocaust churches assign the Jews a major project with some global implications.
Interestingly enough, the Holocaust religion extends far beyond the internal Jewish discourse. In fact the new religion operates as a mission. It sets shrines in far lands. As we can see, the emerging religion is already becoming a new world order. It is the Holocaust that is now used as an alibi to nuke Iran.
Clearly, Holocaust religion serves the Jewish political discourse both on the right and left but it appeals to the Goyim as well, especially those who are engaged in merciless killing ‘in the name of freedom.’
To a certain extent we are all subject to this religion, some of us are worshipers, others are just subject to its power. Interestingly enough, those who deny the Holocaust are themselves subject to abuse by the high priests of this religion. Holocaust religion constitutes the Western ‘Real.’ We are not allowed to touch it or to look into it. Very much like the Israelites who are entitled to obey their God but never to question him.
As it seems, the dialectic of fear dominates the Jewish existence as well as mindset far longer than we are ready to admit. Though fright is exploited politically by Jewish ethnic leaders since the early days of emancipation, the dialectic of fear is far older than modern Jewish history. In fact it is the heritage of the Tanach (the Hebrew Bible) that is there to set the Jew in a pre-traumatic state. It is the Hebrew Bible that sets a binary framework of Innocence/Suffering and Persecution/Empowerment. More particularly, the fear of Judeocide is entangled with Jewish spirit, culture and literature.
I would argue here that the Holocaust religion was there to transform the ancient Israelites into Jews.
“I begin to call myself such and such a person, or such and such a representative of an imagined community, at the moment something seems to threaten to disallow the being the name I speak stands in for. Identity terms come into usage at precisely the moment in which for some reason one comes to feel they signifying a being or entity one has to fight to defend.”
In short, Bowman stresses that it is the fear that crystallises the notion of identity. However, once the fear is matured into a state of a collective pre-traumatic stress then identity re-forms itself. When it comes to the Jewish people, it is the Bible that is there to set the Jews within a state of Pre-TSD. It is the Bible that initiates the fear of Judeocide.
More and more Bible scholars are now disputing the historicity of the Bible. Niels Lechme in ‘The Canaanites and Their Land’ argues that the Bible is for the most part “written after the Babylonian Exile and that those writings rework (and in large part invent) previous Israelite history so that it reflects and reiterates the experiences of those returning from the Babylonian exile.”
Jewishness flourishes in exile but rather loses its impetus once it becomes a domestic adventure. If Jewishness is indeed centred around an émigré collective survival ideology, than its follower will prosper in Exile. However, that which maintains the Jewish collective identity is fear. Similar to the case of Holocaust religion, Jewishness sets the fear of Judeocide at the core of the Jewish psyche, yet, it also offers the spiritual, ideological and pragmatic measures to deal with this fear.
Book of Esther
The Book of Esther is a biblical story that is the basis for the celebration of Purim, probably the most joyous Jewish festival. The book tells the story of an attempted Judeocide but it also tells a story in which Jews manage to change their fate. In the book the Jews do manage to rescue themselves and even to mete revenge.
It is set in the third year of Ahasuerus, and the ruler is a king of Persia usually identified with Xerxes I. It is a story of a palace, conspiracy, an attempted Judeocide and a brave and beautiful Jewish queen (Esther) who manages to save the Jewish people at the very last minute.
In the story, King Ahasuerus is married to Vashti, whom he repudiates after she rejects his offer to ‘visit’ him during a feast. Esther was selected from the candidates to be Ahasuerus’s new wife. As the story progresses, Ahasuerus’s prime minister Haman plots to have the king kill all the Jews without knowing that Esther is actually Jewish. In the story, Esther together with her cousin Mordechai saves the day for their people. At the risk of endangering her own safety, Esther warns Ahasuerus of Haman’s murderous anti-Jewish plot. Haman and his sons are hanged on the fifty cubit gallows he had originally built for cousin Mordecai. As it happens, Mordecai takes Haman’s place, he becomes the prime minister. Ahasuerus’s edict decreeing the murder of the Jews cannot be rescinded, so he issues another edict allowing the Jews to take up arms and kill their enemies, which they do.
The moral of the story is rather clear. If Jews want to survive, they better find infiltrates into the corridors of power. With Esther, Mordechai and Purim in mind, AIPAC and the notion of ‘Jewish power’ looks like an embodiment of a deep Biblical and cultural ideology.
However, here is the interesting twist. Though the story is presented as an historic tale, the historical accuracy of the Book of Esther is largely disputed by most modern Bible Scholars. It is largely the lack of clear corroboration of any of the details of the story of the Book of Esther with what is known of Persian History from classical sources that led scholars to come to a conclusion that the story is mostly or even totally fictional.
In other words, though the moral is clear, the attempted genocide is fictional. Seemingly, the Book of Esther set its followers into a collective Pre-Traumatic Stress Disorder. It makes a fantasy of destruction into an ideology of survival. And indeed, some read the story as an allegory of quintessentially assimilated Jews who discover that they are targets of anti-Semitism, but are also in a position to save themselves and their fellow Jews.
The Book of Esther is there to form the exilic identity. It is there to implant the existential stress, it introduces the Holocaust religion. It sets the conditions that turn the Holocaust into reality.
Interestingly enough, the Book of Esther (in the Hebrew version) is one of only two books of the Bible that do not directly mention God (the other is Song of Songs). In the Book of Esther it is the Jews who believe in themselves, in their own power, in their uniqueness, in their sophistication, in their ability to conspire, in their ability to take over kingdoms, in their ability to save themselves. The Book of Esther is all about empowerment and the Jews who believe in their powers.
What Jews should do for themselves is indeed an open question. Different Jews have different ideas. The Neocon believes in dragging America and the West into an endless war against Islam.
When analysing the work and influence of AIPAC within American politics it is the Book of Esther that we should bear in mind. AIPAC is more than a mere political lobby. AIPAC is a modern-day Mordechai, the AJC is modern-day Mordechai. Both AIPAC and AJC are inherently in line with the Hebrew Biblical school of thought. However, while the Mordechais are relatively easy to spot, the Esthers, those who act for Israel behind the scenes, are slightly more difficult to trace.
I believe that once we learn to look at Israeli lobbying in the parameters that are drawn by the Book of Esther/Holocaust-religion, we are then entitled to regard Ahmadinejad as the current Haman/Hitler figure. The AJC is Mordechai, Bush is obviously Ahasuerus, yet Esther can be almost anyone, from the last Necon to Cheney and beyond.
I argue here that the Holocaust is actually engraved within the Jewish discourse and spirit. The Holocaust is the essence of the collective Jewish Pre-Traumatic stress disorder and it predates the Shoah. To be a Jew is to see the ‘other’ as a threat rather than as a brother. To be a Jew is to be on a constant alert. To be a Jew is to internalise the message of the Book of Esther. It is to aim towards the most influential junctions of hegemony. To be a Jew is to collaborate with power.
Final Words About Zionism
Once we learn to look at Jewishness as an exilic culture, as the embodiment of the ‘ultimate other’ we can then understand Jewishness as a collective continuum grounded on a fantasy of horror. Jewishness is the materialisation of politics of fear into a pragmatic agenda. This is what Holocaust religion is all about and it is indeed as old as the Jews.
Zionism was indeed a great promise, it was there to convert the Jews into Israelites. It was going to make the Jews into people like other peoples. Zionism was there to identify and fight the Galut (Diaspora), the exilic characteristic of the Jewish people and their culture. But Zionism was doomed to failure. The reason is obvious: within a culture that is metaphysically grounded upon exilic ideology the last thing you can expect is a successful homecoming. In order to live for its promise Zionism had to liberate itself of the Jewish exilic ideology, Zionism had to liberate itself of the Holocaust religion. But this is exactly what it fails to do. Being exilic to the bone, Zionism had to turn to antagonising the indigenous Palestinians in order to maintain its fetish of Jewish identity.
Since Zionism failed to divorce itself from the Jewish émigré ideology, it lost the opportunity to evolve into any form of domestic culture. Consequently, Israeli culture and politics is a strange amalgam of indecisiveness; a mixture of colonial empowerment together with Galut’s victim mentality. Zionism is a secular product of exilic culture that cannot mature into authentic homegrown perception.
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