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Race and the Israel Question

15th September 2009

by Eliza Slavet, author of Racial Fever: Freud and the Jewish Question

In “Minority Death Match: Jews, blacks and the ‘post-racial’ presidency” (Harper’s Magazine, September 2009), Naomi Klein outlines the conflicting interests of involved parties in the two United Nations conferences on Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance. While much of her article is highly illuminating, she avoids explaining what she—and others—mean by the word “race” and why Israel is repeatedly singled out as the most (or only) racist country in the world. The problem is that the conversations often depend upon an assumed understanding that “race” and “religion” are totally distinct: race is a fiction whereas religion is a reality. Yet clearly this is patently false: race is a reality to anyone who has ever been harassed because of the inheritance of traces of their ancestral past, whether real or imagined, and whether these traces are physical or cultural.

Racial Fever: Freud and the Jewish Question explores the relationship between racial pride and racial hatred and finds that these are far more intimate with one another than most people would like to admit. Likewise, the relationships between history and race and between religion and race are so subtle and uncomfortable that they are often left out of discussions in the public sphere. Our own emphasis on history and memory as the primary causes of psychic and social turmoil and of individual identity and illness can be traced to Sigmund Freud’s work of the turn of the twentieth century. Whereas most scientists of the day blamed mental illnesses on hereditary degeneracy (and often argued that such degeneracy was most common amongst Jews and other non-whites), Freud insisted that memory was the main cause and origin of such problems. But after 1913, when he turned his attention to cultural and social illnesses—such as hatred and violence—Freud began to acknowledge that he could not do without the notion that memories must be somehow genealogically transmitted from the ancient past to the present. I do not want to suggest that this notion is scientifically true or even provable; Racial Fever urges us to examine the ways in which such ideas shape our understandings of race, religion, culture and memory.

The concept of race that is now prevalent around the world is not necessarily based on physiognomic, cultural or linguistic distinctions; it is first and foremost defined by an identification with one’s ancestors’ histories (whether real or imagined). Thus, a light-skinned African American may identify with other (darker skinned) African Americans who have experienced far more racism than she will ever experience herself. Particularly if she “passes” as white on a daily basis, some might wonder what defines her as African-American? The answer is that the mere knowledge of an African American parent, grandparent or great-grandparent and (her own or others’) belief that her life is somehow shaped by this ancestry is plenty.

This notion of race is central to the definition of the Jewish people: an individual is deemed Jewish (again, by one’s self or by others, Jewish and non-Jewish) if there is knowledge of a Jewish ancestor (officially matrilineal, though clearly there are people who have been deemed Jewish simply because of distant Jewish patrilineage). This definition was well-established by the fifth century C.E., and it has defined who’s a Jew since then. By contrast, in the first century, Saint Paul insisted on a new form of peoplehood based simply on the belief that Jesus was resurrected; thus, any and everyone could join the “brotherhood.” Ironically, by rejecting the notion that one’s ancestral past determines one’s place in the world, Christian communities have been able to reject those whose lives are indelibly and obviously determined by their ancestors: those who somehow look or act “different,” including those who were born to Jewish parents.

Despite the fact that Judaism, Christianity and Islam (amongst others) are often placed in the category of “religion,” their definitions of who’s a Jew, Christian or Muslim invoke particular definitions of “race.” One mistaken assumption of many discussions of race, racism and anti-semitism is that these topics and issues affect African-American and Jewish people more than white Christians. Clearly, Jews and African-Americans are often far more excruciatingly aware of the ways in which race and descent affect our daily interactions (see “Gatesgate”); but it would be folly to assume that race and descent do not shape their lives. Indeed, the very possibility of “forgetting” about race is a luxury afforded only by the inheritance of the traces of their (white, non-Jewish, non-Other) ancestors.

When people (both on the left and the right) complain that Obama’s administration is inordinately shaped by the race-question, they are categorically wrong: all American presidents have been shaped by race-questions, but most have been able to avoid bringing them into the public sphere simply because they have inherited traces of white Christian European ancestral pasts (pace rumors about President Warren G. Harding). If we are to address racial hatred and inequity in the twenty-first century, we need to realize that it is as impossible to wipe out the traces of “race” as it is to fulfill the deep-seated desire to get out from under history.