Is Critique of Israeli State Violence Inherently Anti-Semitic?

The Pope recently spoke with Jewish leaders and affirmed that critique of the State of Israel is a form of anti-Semitism. He also affirmed the commonly uttered opinion that Israel has a right to exist. Unfortunately, such talking points are common ways to shut off any critique that the state of Israel is violently occupying and oppressing the Palestinian people.

Far from being just misinformed, the Pope’s talking points are more strategic. By claiming an argument is inherently anti-Semitic, one can close off any critique of Israeli state violence. There is no doubt the state of Israel has and continues to commit violence against the Palestinian people. By saying all critique of Israeli state violence is anti-Semitic, the supporters of the state of Israel do not have to address the claim that they support either intentionally or unintentionally the systematic oppression of a group of people. The argument intentionally obscures because to admit that the state of Israel is oppressing the Palestinian people might mean that one can no longer justify the actions of Israel. Although making the claim that critics of the state of Israel are anti-Semitic sometimes has basis in truth (see David Duke), it is more strategic in most cases. Similarly, the appeal to Israel’s right to exist is strategic.

What is ignored in the claim that “Israel has a right to exist” is the lack of an equivalent appeal to the right of the Palestinian people’s right to exist. It is difficult to imagine this omission as unintentional. It privileges one people’s right to exist over others without explicitly saying as much. How would the Pope address the fact that his statements ignore the Palestinian people and their continued occupation by the state of Israel? Moreover, how would the Pope address the fact that in 1948 Palestinians were forced to leave their homes in what is now the borders of Israel? Do Palestinians have a right to exist and by extension, a right to defend themselves? Or is “the right to exist” rhetoric granted only to Israel? If we’re talking realpolitik here, both peoples have a right to defend themselves. Read the rest of this entry »

The Ineradicable Supersessionism of the Christian Imagination

As Willie James Jennings’ title would suggest, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race is a book situated at the interface between theology and history. My work hovers around the same intersection, so I came to Jennings’ book with strong interests both in the content of the argument and the method of its movements. Jennings has given us a very rich book, one that uncovers the historical and theological reasons that the stratified logics of race and colonialism have overrun—one should almost say without exception— the purported unity of Christian communion. Jennings’ text works to uncover the theological operations that underwrite the history of the last half-millennium—in which racial difference has functioned as justification for conversion by violent coercion and enslavement, and in which white Christians have regarded social, economic, and political parity for Christians of color as unthinkable, unnatural, and unnecessary. The logic of race is so deeply enmeshed in Western subject-formation that it has overpowered the political implications of theological and sacramental affirmations—e.g. that Christians share the same baptism and eat at the same table. In other words, Jennings asks: Why does whiteness trump Jesus’ body?

Jennings’ book works out a complex and multifaceted historical answer to this question—a question that white theology has repressed with hasty acknowledgments of the generalized horrors of the past.  Jennings’ book has been rightly recognized as a significant contribution to academic theology (the book won the 2015 Louisville Grawemeyer award in Religion) and has been discussed widely. Jennings’ readings of the theological formation of racial discourse in early modern and colonial authors are nuanced, careful, and illuminating. Alongside my deep appreciation for Jennings’ critical work on early modern texts and figures, however, I find myself stuck on a few questions regarding his main theological argument. In particular, I wonder if Jennings’ theological utilization of the concept of supersessionism has obscured the specifics of its history, such that Jennings inadvertently fails to escape the trajectory of Christian supersessionism even as he correctly diagnoses it as a lynchpin of Western racialized anthropology. Read the rest of this entry »

Don Draper the Jew

One of the dominant themes of the first season of Mad Men is Jewishness. In the very first episode, Sterling Cooper is courting the Jewish department store Menken’s, which is trying to convert to a more mainstream luxury format under the leadership of the owner’s daughter, Rachel Menken. When they seek out a Jewish employee to attend the initial meeting, Don joins in with the casual anti-Semitism of the era, declaring that they haven’t hired any Jews “under his watch.” But as the season goes on, the Jewish motifs continue — they try (and ultimately fail) to get the Israeli tourism account, Don takes up with Rachel (at one point using the Israeli tourism connection as a pretext to meet with her), and there are also little touches (such as the delicatessen served to the Lucky Strike representatives who are nervous after Roger’s heart attack, an interesting counterpoint to the shrimp cocktail served at the original Menken’s pitch).

On one level, this is a misdirection. The audience knows Don has a secret, and the writers are luring us into the trap of assuming that Don is a secret Jew — when in reality he is just a poor Southern boy, the orphaned son of a prostitute. But one of the key techniques of Mad Men is to “sublate” apparent misdirections into deeper truths. Read the rest of this entry »

Scattered remarks on political theology

From one perspective, it is possible to isolate three types of “political theology.” The first is a liberal one, which seeks to reveal the unconscious theological inheritance in the hopes of purging it and reaching a true secularity. One might include Löwith and Derrida under this heading. The second is a reactionary one, which seeks to preserve whatever homologies are possible with the theological tradition in order to maintain some kind of horizon of meaning over against modernity, which is understood to be a nihilistic mechanism — obviously here one could place Carl Schmitt. Finally, there is the radical leftist approach, which mines the theological tradition for any possible site of radical transformation (and perhaps indulges in the pleasure of “provocatively” needling liberal fussiness about how we must handle the dangerous materials of religion). I would place Zizek in this category.

For all three perspectives, there is a “special relationship” between political theology and eschatology. The reactionary position is basically focused on the katechon, that enigmatic figure from 2 Thessalonians who holds the man of lawlessness at bay and heads off the apocalypse (here one could place Peterson alongside Schmitt). The leftist position is apocalyptic, openly courting the very dissolution that for the reactionary is the worst possible outcome. The liberal position is awkwardly situated in this respect, but I think that we can draw on Dan Barber’s On Diaspora and call liberal political theology basically supercessionistic — a kind of “messianism without messianism” where secularity is continually overcoming religion as such, albeit without any concrete hope of a final consummation.

When it comes to placing a figure like Taubes or Agamben, I think things become more difficult. Bruce Rosenstock has a great essay forthcoming in New German Critique on the Taubes-Schmitt relationship where he argues that while Taubes aligns more closely with the apocalyptic, he also sees the necessity of the reactionary impulse represented by Schmitt in order to keep the apocalyptic impulse from spiralling into sheer nihilism. His exegesis of the final pages of Occidental Eschatology is absolutely essential in this regard — he clarifies that for Taubes, finding humanity’s center in God requires a special kind of balance, because humanity’s orbit is always elliptical rather than spherical and so constantly threatens to go off course. I wonder if one could read Agamben similarly, particularly in light of his recently published lecture The Church and the Kingdom, which in many ways is so difficult to reconcile with his other writings insofar as it seems to call for a kind of “balance” between the messianic impulse and the structure of authority.

This talk of balance seems liberal from a certain perspective, but it is not a secular liberalism — indeed, the question of secularity is simply sidestepped altogether in the meeting of the two extremes. Or is it perhaps instead a question of creating a space for a tenuous secularity, keeping God at a respectable distance without becoming completely untethered from it? Is this elliptical balancing act perhaps the way we render the theological “inoperative” precisely by maintaining the constant reference to it — like the legendary rabbinical school that bases all of life on the divine law while pointedly telling God to shut up when he tries to intrude on the debate?

From this perspective, it appears that we could add a fourth position of Jewish political theology as a distinctive alternative to the liberal model. The question that then arises is whether this kind of political theology can really be practiced by a non-Jew, or whether it will always wind up spiralling into a one-sidedly katechontic or apocalyptic position.

Lecture at Shimer College

On Monday, November 12, at 6:30, Shimer College will be hosting a lecture by Peter Temes, who will be discussing his new book The Future of the Jewish People in Five Photographs. More details are available on this poster (PDF), which is handy for e-mailing, printing, and displaying.

Posted in Chicago, Judaism, lectures, Shimer College. Comments Off on Lecture at Shimer College

Contemporary Jewish and Islamic Writings on Job

I’m currently in the planning stages of a course for next year. Currently the title of the course is “Contemporary Religious Thinking” and so, as you can expect, the options for this are quite vast. At the moment I’m playing around with the idea of having the course focus around suffering and violence by looking at contemporary responses to the book of Job. So we would read Alter’s translation of Job together and then the Job books of Gutierrez, Jung, and Negri. This would cover some very different “religious” forms of thinking, but I want to include responses from Judaism and Islam as well. Do any of our august readers know of any contemporary (so broadly within the 20th-21st centuries) works on Job from these traditions?


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