Racism and the Bible
In his brilliantly suggestive recent paper, Marc Shell has discussed the history of the ideologeme of “pure Spanish blood” (Shell 1991). Thus, Shell argues, the Spain of the Reconquista “plays a central role in the European history of the idea of caste or race,” and when that is combined with the Christian doctrine of “All men are brothers,” we end up with a dehominization of all who are not Christian Spaniards. Since they are not brothers, they must not be human (Shell 1991, 308–09)! The result was expulsion of Jews and Muslims and even religious mass murder, such as the slaughter of the innocents in California, practices which, as Shell points out, were nearly unknown under Muslim rule. The doctrine of “purity of blood” (limpieza de sangre) that developed in this period, whereby a Christian was defined as someone whose ancestors had “always” been Christian, seems a signal departure from everything that Paul stood for. It cannot be solely located in a biblical milieu, either, for in every variety of biblical or post-biblical Judaism that I know of, notwithstanding the enormous emphasis on ethnicity, converts were of exactly the same status as Jews “by blood.” As Shell remarks, the biblical polity had, moreover, a built-in “law of tolerance” for non-Israelites in their midst, which served as a model for European liberals (328–29). It took the combination of two elements, Shell argues, Pauline “universalism” and racism, to produce unspeakable horror—including an important contribution to the “pure blood” doctrines of both Italian and German fascism (312).
Where, however, did the element of racism come from? Shell locates it exclusively in the absence in Paul of any category between “brothers” and animals, of any category of “others” whose sameness of kind is asserted even while their difference as non-kin is maintained. On the one hand, I am in complete sympathy with Shell's denial that racism is “the Jewish aspect of Christianity” (329). On the other, I think that Shell seriously overplays his hand when he totally denies any role at all to the Bible and “Jewish particularism” in the origins of Spanish racism, and this denial takes on a peculiarly apologetic flavor at times in his work. While there is no gainsaying the enormous cultural significance of biblical “toleration” of the stranger, there is also no gainsaying the dark currents of violence toward certain strangers in the Land—“the seven nations,” which are to be exterminated—nor the presence in Ezra-Nehemiah, for example, of a strong tendency toward some kind of family (if not racialized) limpieza. A story like that of Abraham refusing to bury his dead among the dead of the Land and insisting on separate ground, understandable perhaps within a certain tribal cultural economy, may certainly have played even an unconscious part in the production of such a cultural theme as limpieza de sangre.
On the other hand, critics of Zionism, both Arab and other, as well as anti-Semites, both Jewish and non-Jewish, have often sought to portray Jewish culture as racist to its very foundations, as essentially racist. This foundational racism is traced to the Hebrew Bible and described as the transparent meaning of that document. Critics who are otherwise fully committed to constructionist and historicist accounts of meaning and practice abandon this commitment when it comes to the Hebrew Bible—assuming that the Bible is, in fact and in essence, that which it has been read to be and that it authorizes univocally that which it has been taken to authorize. In what is otherwise an astonishingly sophisticated discussion, we find written, “For certain societies, in certain eras of their development, the scriptures have acted culturally and socially in the same way the human genetic code operates physiologically. That is, this great code has, in some degree, directly determined what people would believe and what they would think and what they would do” (Akenson 1992, 9). No interpretation is necessary; Scripture speaks with perfect transparence. Another recent writer holds: “But the distinctions raised in the covenant between religion and idolatry are like some visitation of the khamsin to wilderness peoples as yet unsuspected, dark clouds over Africa, the Americas, the Far East, until finally even the remotest islands and jungle enclaves are struck by fire and sword and by the subtler weapon of conversion-by-ridicule (Deuteronomy 2:34; 7:2; 20:16–18; Joshua 6: 17–21)” (Turner 1988, 45; cf. Jonathan Boyarin 1992b, 134). Local historically and materially defined practices of a culture far away and long ago are made here “naturally” responsible (like the khamsin, the Middle Eastern Santa Ana) for the colonial practices of cultures entirely other to it, simply because those later cultures used those practices as their authorization.
Even the primitive command to wipe out the Peoples of Canaan was limited by the Bible itself to those particular people in that particular place, and thus declared no longer applicable by the Rabbis of the Talmud. The very literalism of rabbinic/midrashic hermeneutics prevented a typological “application” of this command to other groups. Does this mean that rabbinic Judaism qua ideology is innocent of either ethnocentric or supremacist tenets? Certainly not! What it argues is rather that Jewish racism, like the racism of other peoples, is a facultative and dispensable aspect of the cultural system, not one that is necessary for its preservation or essential to its nature. Perhaps the primary function for a critical construction of cultural (or racial or gender or sexual) identity is to construct such identity in ways that purge it of its elements of domination and oppression. Some, however, would argue that this is an impossible project, not because of the nature of Jewishness but because any group identity is oppressive, unless it is oppressed.
In a recent marxian analysis of both race and racism, Balibar has argued that “racism” has two dissymmetrical aspects. On the one hand, it constitutes a dominating community with practices, discursive and otherwise, that are “articulated around stigmata of otherness (name, skin colour, religious practices).” It also constitutes, however, “the way in which, as a mirror image, individuals and collectives that are prey to racism (its ‘objects’) find themselves constrained to see themselves as a community.” Balibar further argues that destruction of racism implies the “internal decomposition of the community created by racism,” by which he means the dominating community, as is clear from his analogy to the overcoming of sexism which will involve “the break-up of the community of ‘males’” (Balibar 1991a, 18). This is, however, for me the crucial point, for the question is obviously: If overcoming sexism involves the breaking up of the community of males, does it necessarily imply the breaking up of the community of females? And does this, then, not entail a breaking up of community, tout court? Putting it another way, are we not simply reinscribing the One once more in such a formulation, once more imposing a coercive universal? On the other hand, if indeed the very existence of the dominant group is dependent on domination, if identity is always formed in a master-slave relationship, is perhaps the price not too high? What I wish to struggle for theoretically is a notion of identity in which there are only slaves but no masters, that is, an alternative to the model of self-determination, which is, after all, in itself a western, imperialist imposition on the rest of the world. I propose Diaspora—to be sure, an idealized Diaspora generalized from those situations in Jewish history when Jews were both relatively free from persecution and yet constituted by strong identity, those situations, moreover, within which promethean Jewish creativity was not antithetical to, indeed was synergistic with, a general cultural activity—as a theoretical and historical model to replace national self-determination. Another way of making the same point would be to insist that there are material and social conditions in which cultural identity and difference will not produce even what Balibar has called “differential racism,” that is, a “racism whose dominant theme is not biological heredity but the insurmountability of cultural differences, a racism which, at first sight, does not postulate the superiority of certain groups or peoples in relation to others but ‘only’ the harmfulness of abolishing frontiers, the incompatibility of life-styles and traditions” (1991a, 21). To my understanding, it would be an appropriate goal to articulate a theory and practice of identity which would on the one hand respect the irreducibility and the positive value of cultural differences, the harmfulness not of abolishing frontiers but of dissolving of uniqueness, and the mutual fructification of different life-styles and traditions. I do not think, moreover, that such possibilities are merely utopian. I would certainly claim that there have been historical situations in which they obtained, to be sure, without perfect success in this radically imperfect world. The solution of political Zionism, Jewish state hegemony, except insofar as it represented an emergency and temporary rescue operation, seems to me the subversion of Jewish culture and not its culmination, in that it represents the substitution of a European, western cultural-political formation for a traditional Jewish one that has been based on a sharing—at best—of political power with others and which takes on entirely other meanings when combined with political hegemony.
For example, Jewish resistance to assimilation and annihilation within conditions of Diaspora—to which I will return below—generated such practices as communal charity in the areas of education, feeding, providing for the sick, and the caring for Jewish prisoners, to the virtual exclusion of such charity directed at others. This exclusive attention to “one's own,” however, when in a subaltern situation simply does not have the same political meanings as it would have when Jews (or others) are dominant politically. In Israel, where power is virtually exclusively concentrated in Jewish hands, this practice has become a monstrosity, whereby an egregiously disproportionate portion of the resources of the State of Israel is devoted to the welfare of only one segment of the population. A further, somewhat more subtle and symbolic example, is the following: That very practice I mentioned above of symbolic expression of contempt for places of worship of others becomes darkly ominous when it is combined with temporal power and domination, i.e., when Jews have power over places of worship belonging to others. To cite one example among many: It is this factor, I would claim, that has allowed the Israelis to turn the central Mosque of Beersheba into a museum of the Negev and to allow the Muslim cemetery of that city to fall into ruins. Insistence on ethnic speciality, when it is extended over a particular piece of Land, will inevitably produce a discourse not unlike the Inquisition in many of its effects. We already see a certain nearly inexorable logic at work here. Thus the declaration of a Jewish State has led, because of its (inevitable and only partially willed) violence toward the Palestinians, to a Palestinian counter-discourse of desire for a Palestinian State. We thus have now an acting out of precisely the theory that Balibar exposed of postulating the necessity of ethnic/cultural separation behind closed borders in order to prevent the cultural mixing that leads to violence. In their rightist forms, these arguments call for expelling the Other. In their liberal forms, these arguments call for the formation of two states that are sealed off from each other. Both are racist programs.
My argument is that capturing Judaism in a State transforms entirely the meanings of its social practices. Practices which in Diaspora have one meaning—e.g., caring for the feeding and housing of Jews and not “others”—have entirely different meanings in a situation of political hegemony. E. P. Sanders has gotten this just right:
The inequities—and worse—in Israeli political, economic, and social practice are not aberrations but inevitable consequences of the inappropriate importation of a form of discourse from one historical situation to another, a discourse of intimacy and resistance to the claims of others, from a situation in which Jews were a dominated minority to one in which they are a dominating majority and in which power, concern, freedom, and resources have all to be aggregate. In the final section of this chapter, I wish then to begin to articulate a notion of Jewish identity that recuperates its genealogical moment—family, history, memory, and practice—while at the same time problematizing claims to autochthony and indigeneity as the material base of Jewish identity.
More important is the evidence that points to Jewish pride in separatism. Christian scholars habitually discuss the question under the implied heading “What was wrong with Judaism that Christianity corrected?” Exclusivism is considered to be bad, and the finding that Jews were to some degree separatist fills many with righteous pride. We shall all agree that exclusivism is bad when practiced by the dominant group. Things look different if one thinks of minority groups that are trying to maintain their own identity. I have never felt that the strict Amish are iniquitous, and I do not think that, in assessing Jewish separatism in the Diaspora, we are dealing with a moral issue. (The moral issue would be the treatment of Gentiles in Palestine during periods of Jewish ascendancy. How well were the biblical laws to love the resident alien [Lev 19:33–34] observed?) (Sanders 1990, 181; cf. Davies 1992, 133–38)