Jews in the culture wars


Jews in the culture wars

Lynne segal

What will it take to unite the intellectual Left? After decades of internal academic strife on the Left, the moral dilemmas currently faced by Jewish academics have thrown up some unexpected alliances. The 1980s and 1990s were embattled decades in the universities, especially in North America. These were the decades in which women, ethnic minorities and other dissident voices hitherto largely excluded from elite institutions of knowledge began to clamber into academic jobs in the wake of the new social movements of the previous decade. They challenged traditional canons, insisting upon their own distinctive cultural and research agendas, beyond the contours of existing disciplines. In the beginning the battles were waged between those defending traditional perspectives and the new recruits eager for change, but they soon widened.

The growth of Womenʼs Studies, for example, with its ever more sophisticated analytics of gender, provoked dispute from both without and within. Fights between feminists came to a head at the ʻPolitics of Sexualityʼ conference in New York at Barnard College in 1982, inaugurating the so-called ʻSex Warsʼ, with women against pornography confronting other feminists (such as the conference organizers) who criticized their tactics of censoring ʻdegradingʼ sexual images. The organizers were denounced, their employers were contacted and in some cases careers were put in jeopardy. The saddest spectacle here was that the metaphorical terrain was, vividly, the body of feminism itself and, not coincidentally, just when the Reagan ascendancy had begun the long assault on so many of feminismʼs initial gains, especially for poorer women – from state-funded abortion to the derailing of the Equal Rights Amendment and the dismantling of welfare.

But disagreements in and around feminism provided only one strand of what soon became known as the Culture Wars, with conservative scholars and media voices denouncing the new radicals for all manner of social harms: undermining the prestige and privileges of traditional domestic arrangements, encouraging the ʻdependencyʼ cultures of welfare, offering false dreams of equality and prosperity for all. In the 1990s a new row came to the fore around the authority of science. Seen as the motor of a ʻknowledge-driven economyʼ, scientific research was attracting more money than ever from governments and industry. Yet some leading scientific spokesmen insisted that science was not being treated with proper respect by a self-serving, anti-Enlightenment cultural elite, said to be dominating the universities.

However, like the Sex Wars a decade earlier, the Science Wars also divided leftists and other movement radicals in a very public and little understood battle over the nature of science, the importance of culture and the role of the Left. Notoriously, a member of the ʻoldʼ Marxist New Left, physicist Alan Sokal decided to expose the errors and obscurantism of a trendy new cultural Left which he saw as undermining the strength of an older class-based Left, more respectful of science. He was assisted by two feminist scholars, Barbara Epstein and Ruth Rosen, angry at the glamour surrounding feminist cultural theorists within the academy and the neglect of womenʼs activism outside it. Sokal placed a hoax article in the Left cultural journal Social Text in their special edition on the ʻScience Warsʼ, edited by two other New York academics, Andrew Ross and Bruce Robbins. The next day, this academic turf war exploded into the mainstream media, which Sokal used to expose his parody, subsequently going onto the Internet to keep it alive. (See Peter Osborne, ʻFriendly Fireʼ, RP 81, January–February 1997).

Sokal clearly had a serious agenda for his painstaking staging of a full-on feud within the Left – supposedly, to reform and strengthen it against those who were substituting arcane activities within the academy for broader political agendas. Yet Sokal chose the wrong target and the wrong issue for parodying the exasperating opacity and conceit of some putative postmodern prose. In my view, it is both analytically and strategically unwise to play off class against cultural identifications, or to try to evade the problematic nature of notions of truth and certainty. The other essays in the controversial issue of Social Text actually took the nature of science very seriously, building complex arguments about the hopes and hazards of scientific research.

The worst aspect of the affair was that it delighted the conservative media to see the Left at odds with itself, unable to find issues around which to unify despite the ascendancy of a corporate Right in control of the most economically globalized, awesomely militarized, imperial power the world has ever known. But that failure is not something primarily, or even tangentially, generated from inside the academy. It has everything to do with the collapse of progressive radical movements outside it, whether class-based or not. In such threatening times as these, in the face of increasingly global warfare and rising religious, ethnic and market-driven fundamentalisms, all forms of progressive alliance need to be fostered.

Jews make friends

ʻAre you sure itʼs not a hoax?ʼ, friends teased Robbins when, to his surprise, he was asked by Sokal to co-sponsor an appeal by American Jews for peace in the Middle East. Sokal and Robbins have re-entered the mainstream media together. They have again achieved remarkable success, but this time as allies, finding an issue to unite them and a positive goal. The physicist and the literary scholar have bonded, as Jewish Leftists, to work for peace in the Middle East. They have been stung into action to build opposition to the near-daily military invasions, massive devastation, deprivations and humiliations visited on Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza – almost 80 per cent of whom are living in severe poverty, lacking the resources for even the most basic amenities. Justified in the name of resisting terrorism and the horror of the atavistic resort to the suicide bombing of civilians by Palestinian fighters, Israelʼs current military aggression has met little criticism in the USA, its paramount backer. This is despite the ever more rapid expansion of illegal Jewish settlements in the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza (now over 400,000 settlers), in deliberate defiance of Oslo and other accords.

Sokal and Robbins began collecting signatures from American Jews to demand an end to US support for Israel, which, in direct grants and tax exemptions, is equivalent to 30 per cent of the US foreign aid budget. A full-page ʻOpen Letter from American Jewsʼ in the New York Times on 17 July 2002, carrying 965 signatures, urged that US support for Israel be made conditional on its acceptance of a two-state solution, with Israel returning to its pre-1967 borders and the evacuation of all Jewish settlements in the occupied region. The letter received favourable coverage on CNN, signatories quickly jumped to over 3,000, and groups elsewhere sponsored publication in their local newspapers.

No longer self-destructing in a hail of friendly fire, Sokal and Robbins now confront foes as indubitable as they are formidable – Western and Israeli military hawks.

The Palestinian issue is uniting old feminist antagonists as well. One of the handful who helped to edit Sokalʼs Open Letter was another favourite target in academic turf wars, the doyenne of feminist and queer scholarship, Judith Butler. Mimicking Sokal,

Martha Nussbaum had laid into ʻThe Hip Defeatism of Judith Butler: Professor of Parodyʼ, to defend a supposedly ʻrealʼ Left against a phoney ʻculturalʼ Left in 1999, on the conservative platform offered by the New Republic. A convert to Judaism via marriage, and having recently visited Israel, Nussbaum signed up to the letter that her adversary helped to draft. Elsewhere, Butler has written recently of the need to find a basis for building a community of resistance to violence on the international stage, suggesting that this might begin from acceptance of our shared bodily vulnerabilities and our awareness that, from the beginning, any form of psychic identity or subjectivity is dependent upon the recognition of others.

In the UK as well, old academic antagonists have united in condemnation of Sharonʼs policies. Some months ago, Stephen Rose, Richard Dawkins and Colin Blakemore, well-known biologists fiercely critical of each other over the legacy of Darwin, signed a letter in the Guardian urging a moratorium on all European funds to Israeli academic institutions until Israel begins serious peace initiatives. Signed by Jewish and non-Jewish academics, the letter received much critical fire from other, predominantly Jewish, academics.

Contingent identities

Indeed, it has been raining Jews, as many of us in academia, in the USA and elsewhere, discovered almost for the first time a strategic political value to a culture that some, such as myself, had previously not seen as a particularly vital part of our sense of self. (To the surprise of many, another early signatory of the ʻOpen Letter from American Jewsʼ was the other leading target of Sokalʼs hoax, Andrew Ross.

Renowned for his Burns Night perorations, and previously thought of as vigorously Scottish, Ross now materialized as ʻhalf-Jewishʼ.) It is indicative of the flaw of posing economic and material issues against the ʻmerely culturalʼ when proclaiming political priorities that left academic antagonists in the USA have made peace with each other and been spurred into political work through bonding around an identity. However, the politics attaching to such identifications depend upon agendas that are usually quite independent of them.

There is, of course, the very best of reasons for Jews to invoke a group identity when affirming opposition to the policies of Israel. After all, it is in ʻourʼ name that Israel allows, indeed encourages, Jews to leave their homes elsewhere and emigrate to Israel. It is we who may move to Israel (aliyah), even as that state denies the right of return to the tens of thousands of Palestinians and their children forced out of the only homes they had ever possessed with its foundation in 1948, while withholding equal citizenship from those who remain within Israel. It has to date prevented Palestinians from forming a state of their own in their small residual base in Gaza and the West Bank. This denies them the kind of institutional foundations and legitimacy that could foster alternative forms of political struggle, even combat, which would not automatically be deemed ʻterroristʼ and which would have the authority to thwart the appalling suicide bombing of Israeli civilians now pursued by some militant Palestinian factions. However, the clear strategic point of using a Jewish identity to call for Justice for Palestinians does not eliminate the usual paradoxes attending identity claims. The overwhelming pressure to essentialize identity, to downplay differences and proclaim ineluctably shared individual interests, attachments and belongings remains paramount.

Indeed, overall, Jews have never before been so identified with support for the state of Israel as they are today, when tens of thousands have rallied, as in Washington and London, to assert the merging of Jewishness with Zionism. Those of us currently using a Jewish identity to oppose the military might of Israel and the injustices it has for so many years inflicted upon Palestinians are immediately declared anti-Semitic, along with other anti-Zionists, and derided as ʻself-hatingʼ Jews.

Yet, the Jewish Diaspora has never been united in relation to Israel. From the foundation of Theordor Herzlʼs World Zionist Organization in the late nineteenth century, devoted to the resettlement of Jews in a Jewish state in their ancestral homeland, many Jews opposed it. Some were actively anti-Zionist, worried about the fate of the Arab Palestinians, while Zionism itself had differing strands. Alongside Herzlʼs dream (seen primarily as a solution to the problem of anti-semitism, especially in Eastern Europe) was that of Ahad Haam, who was critical of a political Zionism, wanting to preserve Jewish culture and foster a revival of the Hebrew language as part a secular national culture. Still others were left political Zionists, committed to offering equal rights to Palestinians. After the U.N. ratified the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine in 1947, Jewish anti-Zionism subsided. However, while in principle supporting Israel, in actuality many Jews gave it little thought. (The main dispersal of Jews from Israel began in the eighth century BC, with the bulk of Jewish people living outside its locality for over 2,000 years.) For some, both liberal and orthodox, the Diaspora could not end with the creation of Israel, but only after all the problems of the world had been healed, expressed in Hebrew as tikkun olam. Despite its strategic function, it is thus paradoxical for Jews who have always objected to the equation of Jewishness with Zionism (and indeed questioned the existence of any specific ʻJewishʼ identity) to find ourselves now objecting ʻas Jewsʼ to Ariel Sharonʼs military manoeuvres of vengeance and expansionism. Without intending it, we are ensnared in a new cultural war over the nature of Jewish identity. We assert a Jewish identity only to find ourselves accused by other Jews of having already ʻlostʼ it; indeed, of failing to acknowledge or respect our Jewish heritage of exile, discrimination and the long historical persecution and attempted annihilation of our ʻraceʼ.

I cannot hope to encompass the complexity of that heritage here. But let me conclude with a brief example from the history of Jews in Australia. Today the Zionist movement plays a dominant role in Jewish culture and identity in Australia.

Historically, however, the Anglo-Jewry there was overwhelmingly anti-Zionist. One of its leading voices, all but erased in contemporary memory, came from my own grandfather, Alfred Harris, the founder of the Australian Hebrew Standard, and its editor for nearly forty years from 1895 until his death in 1944. A dedicated idealist and humanist, he turned one of only two Jewish papers in New South Wales into an anti-Zionist platform, consistently opposing the creation of the state of Israel as undemocratic.

Yet his paper was working ʻTo perpetuate Judaism. To hasten the brotherhood of man by developing a better understanding, goodwill and friendship between people of all creeds … to banish bigotry, ignorance and intolerance.ʼ His sentiments were echoed by his friend and mentor, the most prominent Jew in Australia, the governor general,

Sir Isaac Isaacs, who worried that Arabs in Palestine would not be treated fairly under ʻpolitical Zionismʼ, which he saw as ʻundemocratic, unjust and dangerousʼ.

Views such as these form part of the Jewish heritage. As Naomi Scheman has recently recalled from her childhood in the USA, ʻ[we] were raised with a strong cultural identification with Jewishness, which in our family centered on commitment to fighting so that others might be liberated, as Jews had been, from the various tyrannies that had enslaved us and continued to enslave others.ʼ She writes of how natural it seemed over a generation ago for Jews to participate – indeed to risk their lives – in the civil rights movement in solidarity with Black Americansʼ (in Lisa Tessman and Bat-Ami Bar On, eds, Jewish Locations, Rowman & Littlefield, 2001). Such commitment provides a stark contrast with one prominent expression of Jewish identity today.

No longer identifying with those who are most oppressed, or seeking to confront the powerful, there has emerged a new model of the ʻtough Jewʼ, which still insists upon its own overriding status as universal ʻvictimʼ. The military success of Israel, so firmly backed by the US government (and the Christian Right within it) hones the image.

In their long history Jews have often been victims, some have tried to be saviours, and many, at least till recently, have attempted to be allies of those most in need of compassion and justice. But we have no unique claims on any of these identities.

Oddly, to mobilize for peace and justice for both Jews and Palestinians, as Jews, might seem to justify the worst of the fears expressed by traditional leftists (such as Sokal), that it is no longer possible to agitate and organize on behalf of universal calls for justice, but only to do so as an expression of particular interests and attachments. I think that we not only can, but must, do both. Sensitive to the historical weight and contradictions of our own ʻfictitious unitiesʼ, we can learn to live with and explore the paradoxes we encounter. This is what feminism, at its most vibrant, did in relation to gender, observing the ambiguities of our identities and attachments as women, especially if and when we use them to forge visions of a fairer world.

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