A priori reasons to doubt the Judeo-Manichean narrative

Put simply, the Judeo-Manichean narrative is that Jews have always been blameless victims and their opponents and critics always wrong and wicked.  In my experience, Christians are actually more hysterically committed to the narrative than Jews, not because (as Kristor claimed a while back) Jews are particularly prone to self-criticism, but because Christian partisanship on their behalf is so over-the-top it would be hard for anyone to match it.

It’s impossible to overstate how simplistic the narrative is.  In my infamous now-deleted Orthosphere post, I tried to exaggerate the narrative to highlight its internal tensions and implausibilities.  I got a hundred comments telling me how wicked it is to doubt the narrative but I don’t recall one telling me that I had oversimplified it.  Here was the core part:

If there’s one thing that every school child in America knows, it’s that the Jews are absolutely beyond reproach, that no other people has ever had a legitimate grievance against them…We see it in history books where, and I have seen and heard of this being explicitly done, it is laid down as an a priori axiom that hostility to Jews is always entirely a result of social pathology in the Gentile population and is never even partially a result of Jewish provocation…

Let’s take a closer look at the liberal claim.  It has two pieces.  First, Jews are the perpetual innocent victims.  This is pretty remarkable, isn’t it?  Why would everybody decide to team up on this one small group that, we are assured, has never done anything to cause anyone annoyance?  For a long time, the Leftist line has been that antisemitism is a Christian pathology…but the longstanding presence of antisemitism among Muslims (now impossible to avoid noticing), pagans (see, e.g. Rodney Stark’s book Discovering God), and secular nationalists makes [this] less plausible.

Then there’s the other half of the story.  The Jews are not entirely passive after all.  They are courageous enemies of injustice and champions of the oppressed.  Wherever they go (especially, wherever in Christendom they go), they are a moral beacon to their hosts, pointing out to the Gentile population the wickedness of their inherited ways.  For some reason, the host populations seldom show the expected gratitude for this service.  Because we’re evil, no doubt.  The Jews, I’ve read many times, have this special passion for social justice.  This is first because of their own history of victimization, which leads them to always take the side of the Other, i.e. the enemies of whoever their lucky hosts happen to be.  More fundamentally, it is a spiritual inheritance from their prophets–the only part of their tradition the non-Orthodox haven’t discarded–who taught the Jews that they are to be a “light to the nations” by attacking other peoples’ putative injustices.

Remember, my fellow writers at the Orthosphere found this sort of talk reprehensible, so there’s no point getting angry at them.  You should be angry at me, because you, dear reader, believe the narrative.  After all, you would never agree with a statement like “Sometimes people have had good reasons to be angry at the Jews”, would you?  (I’ll bet only my Jewish readers would think this a statement worthy of consideration.)  I admit to being needlessly sarcastic, but the Christian sense of total moral inferiority vis-a-vis the Jews really does need to be overcome.

Now, Christians and other Gentiles have a strong motive to doubt the narrative, because accepting it means that our ancestors are not only morally inferior to the Jews’ ancestors, but that they were pretty much evil.  A motive is not a reason, but I confess to having it.  I resent the humiliation imposed on my ancestors, my religion, and my civilization.  This gives me a bias that I must try to correct for when evaluating historical claims.

In fact, there are good a priori reasons to find the narrative implausible, that is, reasons that don’t require any particular historical knowledge.

  1. Life is never really black and white like that.  It’s just not the way the world works.  Without a lifetime of conditioning, this would be obvious to you.  Here’s proof.  Go to a political map of the world, and pick a country you know absolutely nothing about.  I’ve just done it.  My country is Chad.  I know nothing about this country except that it’s in the middle of Africa.  Now suppose I read a claim that throughout three millennia of history, the people of Chad have always been blameless victims, always hated, never for any reason, and always a moral beacon to their neighbors.  I know nothing about Chad, so I’ve got no specific reason to doubt this story, but I know enough about human nature that my BS meter is lit up to full.  Hearing something like that would make me wonder if the people of Chad are in control of the media or something.
  2. The two pieces of the narrative contradict each other.  If Jews really have been aggressive social justice warriors, then those of us who don’t think our historical societies were evil have valid reasons to be wary of them.  Really, the only way to square the narrative with itself is to accept all Jewish accusations against us as true–that our sexual mores are oppressive, that our own ethnocentrism is “racist”, etc.  Alternatively, one can chuck the second part of the narrative, that Jews are social justice warriors, but that makes the next problem much more acute.
  3. A key claim of the narrative is that anti-semitism is both ubiquitous and without cause.  Rather, the purported causes (e.g. sexual frustration, authoritarian personalities) usually have no connection to the object, and yet the same object is always targeted.  This mismatch between cause and effect indicates a seriously incomplete theory.  Actually, I have run across a couple of socially acceptable theories about why Gentiles resent Jews in particular:  1) we’re jealous because they’re so wonderful; 2) we resent their moral universalism because we like killing and oppressing outsiders.  If you find these explanations plausible, try running them through the “suppose this were said about a people I’ve never heard of” test above.

What are the alternatives to the narrative?

  1. Blame is spread out between Jews, Christians, Muslims, and pagans.  Perhaps it’s 98% gentiles’ fault, but 2% Jews’ fault.  For example, maybe they do some genuinely obnoxious things, but we seriously and unjustly overreact.
  2. Maybe Jews and Gentiles get into arguments because we have incompatible interests, and it’s not really anybody’s fault.  Maybe we compete over resources and status (the MacDonald thesis), or maybe we have irreconcilable differences about whether Europe should have remained officially Christian (my own thesis).
  3. Perhaps it is not true that Jews and Gentiles, and in particular Jews and Christians, have always been at loggerheads.  My own reading of medieval Christianity is that while the Christians didn’t like Jews very much, their attention was usually focused elsewhere.  Perhaps the history we’ve been given is unrepresentative.

Of course, only anti-semitic nuts entertain ideas like these.

21 Responses

  1. What do you make of the ‘Middleman minority’ thesis, popularized by Thomas Sowell in his essay ‘Are Jews Generic’? The gist of it is that in many societies there have been minorities devoted to moneylending and so forth who have generally been resented by the general population for doing so. The history of the Jews in Europe isn’t exceptional but is fairly typical, comparable to the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire (who were similarly massacred in the final years of the empire) or the ethnic Chinese in much of Southern Asia who have frequently been victims of pogroms.

  2. It seems the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites would have well justified (at least in their own eyes) gripes with the Jews.

  3. I’m afraid I missed your “infamous” Orthosphere post, and am sorry, but not surprised, to hear that it was shoved down the memory hole. There is only one respectable opinion in this matter, even though, as you say, that opinion cannot be altogether true. I found that Lindemann’s book Essau’s Tears helped to dissipate some of the fog.

    I don’t think Jews showed any special interest in the downtrodden until very recently. They expressed contempt for Christian morals and theology in private, but I don’t think they thought of reforming the gentiles until the twentieth century. So the idea that they were persecuted because they made a bold stand for justice doesn’t ring true. They were persecuted because they were perceived as dishonest and willing to exploit gentile weaknesses for loans, liquor and lascivious entertainment.

  4. Kevin:

    I think this thesis is more reasonable than any of the acceptable ones, although I doubt it’s the whole story.

    Bill:

    Sure, they’ve got more to complain about than we do.

    JMSmith:

    I just about destroyed the Orthosophere in its early days with that one, which would have been a shame considering how philo-semitic Kristor, Alan R., and Thomas B. are.

  5. Bonald, I think you hit the nail on the head. The one exception you didn’t mention is the split among Jews over Israel, with many Jews–even reform/secular ones–strongly repulsed by the Israelis’ treatment of the Palestinians.

    My family is a microcosm of this: my mom’s side believes pretty much exactly the narrative you outline in this post, point for point, while my dad’s side is very anti-Zionist and is repulsed by what the Israelis are “doing to” the Palestinians, and this bleeds out into a general anti-Jewish sentiment. His side wold laugh at and mock the narrative above. (Both sides of my family are mostly secular.)

    I think your alternative #3 rings especially true. I can’t help but notice that for all the claims of victimhood, Jews seem to hover pretty close to the top of Christian society, advising gentile leaders, controlling the media, etc. I’ve argued before that Jews have never done so well as in Christian societies.

    @Kevin:

    I think Sowell’s “economic middlemen” theory is probably the best way to summarize it to someone who hasn’t considered the issue before and to whom you’re introducing it.

  6. There’s no 4: the anti-semites have it about right.

  7. ” my fellow writers at the Orthosphere”
    are not not really reactionaries at all.

    However, it may be your tribal focus that leads you into these waters.
    Why should you need to be defensive about it. Nazis were not representative of a sane Western tradition.They were mad, as Eveyln Waugh said.

  8. are not not really reactionaries at all.

    Yep.

    comparable to the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire

    Another good and current example of this are Arab Orthodox Christians who have typically promoted and often form the vanguard of the various secular/nationalist/socialist ideologies, largely in a bid to stifle Sunni fundamentalist consciousness from developing. This tactic of course is unraveling in places like Egypt, Iraq and Syria.

  9. When was this brouhaha? If your version of events is correct, Orthosphere is weak, pathetic and useless.

  10. I remember when that happened. The post just disappeared.

    “……. which would have been a shame considering how philo-semitic Kristor, Alan R., and Thomas B. are.”

    All three were prominent VFR commenters.

  11. @ISE

    Are you sure they are Orthodox, specifically? Egypt’s Christian community is predominantly Coptic. Both Catholics and Orthodox think they are heretics b/c they reject Chalcedon. No? In Syria and Iraq, it’s mostly Catholics, isn’t it?

    Or are you saying that the Orthodox minority in these places has been particularly secularist?

    @josh and @Bruce

    Bonald is a pre-tenure academic. Both the post he refers to and this one are imprudent.

  12. “are not not really reactionaries at all. ”

    I wouldn’t say that. Surely there’s room for some diversity of opinion among reactionaries. I have my soft spot for Islam and Mormonism, after all, so one could argue that Alan Roebuck is a more solid Christian conservative than me.

  13. “There’s no 4: the anti-semites have it about right.”

    From what I can tell, 1 & 2 are basically what people reputed to be anti-semites actually believe.

  14. Some relevant reading/listening:

    http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/534/a-not-so-simple-majority

    http://nymag.com/news/features/east-ramapo-hasidim-2013-4/

    Abstract: Hasidic Jews in a suburb of NYC organized and took over the local school district, despite being a minority, winning every single seat on the school board and then instituting deep and painful cuts to the public school system to the benefit of their own religious schools (in some cases delaying high school students’ graduation beyond the traditional four years because there were not even teachers/classes available to enable them to complete the state-mandated curricula). They brought in expensive thuggish lawyer friends to defend themselves against lawsuits, lawyers who harassed and intimidated protestors in the most obscene fashion, and ultimately orchestrated a PR campaign which accused the protestors of being Nazis.

    What is amazing is that the comments in the nymag article are almost uniformly negative toward the Hasidim and often based on personal experience. I recall reading (either there or elsewhere) that Hasidim have a general pattern of getting a toehold in a community, inviting in drug addicts and prostitutes to degentrify it and drive down land value, then buy up the land emptied in the resulting flight, becoming land barons.

    If that is in any way representative of their historical behavior…. well.

  15. I have my soft spot for Islam and Mormonism

    Bonald, your admiration for Mormonism is a huge and perhaps your only misstep in my opinion. Traditional Catholic admiration for Mormonism makes about as much sense as Catholic support for Zionism. Mormon hostility to Christianity and specifically Catholicism is well known, just check out the comments at the Orthosphere. Or look at Charlton making excuses for contraception, the influences of Free Masonry in Mormonism or even the Mormon’s permissive view on abortion. Please don’t say its because “liberals hate them a lot.” Liberals also persecute (in Germany at least) mock and denigrate Scientology. Much like my current discussion at the Orthosphere, the inclusion of Mormons within traditionalism undermines your critique here.

  16. Free-thinking Semites are mostly irrelevant today.It is the free-thinking Catholics that hate traditionalism most.

  17. When the phrase “freethinker” first appeared in the 18th century, Christians rightly protested against its monopolization by deists and atheists. Bishop Berkeley’s Alciphron is a good example from around 1740. The implication was that Christianity could only be received as a prejudice, but that deists and atheists had all thought things out for themselves. This was, of course, nonsense, then as now. Freethinking does not describe the content of thought, it describes the manner in which the thought was acquired.

    I associate the phrase “freethinking Jew” with T.S. Eliot. It may have been in Notes Towards a Definition of Culture where he wrote that a healthy society would not admit too many of them. It’s been awhile, but I seem to recall that his contention was that “freethinking Jews” deploy a uniquely corrosive and demoralizing sort of criticism. It was destructive, unlike the criticism Eliot wrote. It’s hard to overcome the impression that freethinking Jews have been prominent among critics who mock and defile.

    If by “freethinking Catholics” you mean liberal Catholics, I must say that the first title is misplaced. One sign of a true freethinker is he tries very hard not to hold contradictory beliefs for sentimental reasons. He faces up to the fact that one of those beliefs has to go. In my experience, liberal Catholics are a piping casserole of contradictory beliefs, all of them glued together with a gooey layer of sentimental cheese.

  18. @Ita Scripta Est

    I share the opinion on Mormons. I judge them by their fruits. I feel these are because of the preservation of genuine Christian morality and (some) belief. That doesnt mean I consider Mormonism to be anything but falsehood. As far as their opinions on non-Mormons are concerned, is there an issue with this? After all, your own opinions on Mormonism cant possibly be good and wouldnt be good even if Mormons were cool with Christian denominations. I cant blame people for true belief, no matter how misguided. I have never encountered true belief that is evil.

    Similarly, I cant imagine Bonald, for all his claim of a soft spot, believes Islam to be anything but falsehood and heresy. I dont blame him for this, or reject his words because of it.

    There is a lot of stridency and extremism in this reaction thing. We should be mild, open to forgiveness and acceptance and welcoming, while iron in our convictions. More people turn to truth by manner than by argument or evidence.

  19. […] yet Uris’ story is basically what Americans are taught.  Such was my first venture outside the Judeo-Manichean narrative.  Often enough, screenwriters don’t want to sacrifice the integrity of their stories to the […]

  20. […] utterly ruthless in using it to socially destroy anyone who doesn’t proclaim the Judeo-Manichean narrative.  We’re not supposed to care about claiming the moral high ground–we happily throw it […]

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