Some of My Best Friends Are Philosemites

Some of My Best Friends Are Philosemites

This is a much expanded version of a paper given at a panel on questions of Jewishness and Representation at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, organised to coincide with the publication of The Jew in the Text: Modernity and the Construction of Identity, ed. Tamar Garb and Linda Nochlin (London: Thames and Hudson, 1995).

It happens to be literally true that some of my best friends are Jews, though that is not my purpose in evoking this phrase. In a sense I will be offering a kind of commentary on it, and a consideration of why it is impossible for such a phrase to be used in a literal sense.

As I looked over The Jew in the Text [1] and considered the vast archive of antisemitic prejudice and representation to which it attests, I wondered how I could possibly speak for ten minutes on any aspect of this topic without the most brutal kind of abbreviation. It then occurred to me that maybe there was another aspect of the topic I could address, one for which the archive would seem to be distinctly slimmer. Philosemitism suggested itself as having the twin advantage, not only of seeming a somewhat more encouraging topic than that of antisemitism but also of fitting much more snugly into the ten minutes I am allotted, not to say on the back of a postage stamp. Maybe even ten minutes is too long. For if there’s one thing we love at the ICA it’s a problem; and what possible problem could there be with philosemitism, aside from the conspicuous shortage of it?

I used to say that, in my own upbringing, in a drably average working-class family in an overwhelmingly Anglo-Saxon southeastern coastal town of England, I never met any Jews until I went away to university. Although I had of course encountered and doubtless transmitted the floating stereotypes of the Jew in jokes and images, I remained incredibly naive about the effects of antisemitism until my early 20s, when one of my closest friends was shocked and amused to have to explain to me at our graduation party why he was thinking of changing his name from Cohen. My shock had something to do with the fact that Connor always stood next to Cohen on every class listing. I felt implicated in and even contaminated by this sudden impingement upon me of what had been up to then a system of abstract hostilities.

I tell you this story not just as an exercise in propitiatory self-laceration, but in order to point up how mistaken I was in the way I used to tell the story. For my stupid ignorance had nothing to do with my not having met many Jews. Even in the pitifully narrow ethnic furrow that I had ploughed, or imagined I had, I had, of course, encountered dozens and dozens of Jews. What I had not done was to correlate with those encounters something I want to call, awkwardly enough you might think, `-semitism’. I do not mean to evoke with this word a condition of simple and unaccented Jewishness, the unvalenced zero degree of pro- or anti-Jewishness. I mean by it that unignorable cluster of affects – suspicion, embarrassment, uncertainty, fascination and accusation – which makes Jewishness an issue, puts it at issue.

I am therefore using the word in deliberate distinction from `a-semitism’, as it is employed by Alan Edelstein in his book on the history of European philosemitism, when he argues the inadequacy of a model that suggests a simple opposition of antisemitic prejudice on the one hand, and tolerance on the other. Rather, he suggests, `The spectrum of Gentile views of Jews…ranges from the actively anti-Semitic through the tolerant, or for purposes of this analysis a-Semitic, to the actively philo-Semitic’.[2] For Edelstein, it is important to understand that philosemitism has as much shading and complexity and as many determinate and determining effects as antisemitism. Indeed, Edelstein proceeds on the assumption that philosemitism can be analysed point for point as the mirror of antisemitism: economic antisemitism is matched and answered by economic philosemitism, religious antisemitism by Christian admiration for Judaism, political hostility and exclusion by the promotion of the liberal and citizenly qualities of Jews.

From my point of view, a-semitism, defined as it is by Edelstein or Morton Keller, in his account of Jews in American life, as `indifference to or unawareness of’ the identification of Jews,[3] simply cannot enter the question with regard to Jewishness and its apprehension. `-Semitism, by contrast, is the necessity of asking the Jewish question, or one of the many Jewish questions. It is not what is left over when you remove positive or negative values from the image of the Jew; it is the very impossibility of such neutrality with regard to the question of Jewishness, the always in place imminence of predication with respect to it. As opposed to `a-semitism’, the awkward term `-semitism is and is intended to be insufficient, lacking but marking its lack of the required indication of valence. Perhaps this comes to the same thing as saying that Jewishness is always represented Jewishness; or that Jewishness always represents a problem (a problem of representation).

For Edelstein, a-Semitism is the stabilising fulcrum which balances friendliness, goodwill and beneficence against hostility, prejudice and oppression, and of course keeps them apart. While I am prepared to believe that a-semitism could exist – in children below the age of two perhaps and in various states of catatonia or deep and irreversible coma – I do not believe it could have any bearing at all on the question of Jews and Jewishness, on attitudes towards Jewishness and relations between Jews and non-Jews.

Remove a-semitism from the scale, and the mirroring of antisemitism and philosemitism analysed by Edelstein looks rather different. Without a-semitism to act as a hinge or separator, philosemitism and antisemitism seem less like opposites and can begin to supply and comply with each other in strange and disconcerting ways. This is suggested even by the form of the word philosemitism, which advertises itself as a conceptual extrapolation from antisemitism, just as it has been in actual historical fact a response to antisemitism, for example in the Dreyfus affair, or in the postwar outbreaks of philosemitism in France and Germany. As a second- or even third-order phenomenon, philosemitism may appear borrowed, reactive, defensive, even parasitic. There is even a certain faint air of derision in the term; a suggestion that philosemitism may be not only a derivation from antisemitism but even, at times, a highly specialised branch of it.

The reason for this uncomfortable reciprocity between philosemitism and antisemitism is also signalled in the structure of the word. In both cases the `-semitism’ part of the construction implies a prior act of homogenising. For both antisemitism and philosemitism to get going, it’s necessary first of all for the Jews, in all their extraordinary variation, to have been rounded up (and, of course, not in the sense merely of mathematical approximation) into the condition of Semites – differentiated, so to speak, into indifference. Philosemitism and antisemitism also have in common the fact that they may take the form of generalising propositions or judgements concerning Jews or Semites, as a group. Walter J. Ong tells us, in The Presence of the Word, that predication preserves etymologically the evidence of its origins in a kind of aggression:

Praedicatum (something said before an auditory, a proclamation, declaration) is the Latin equivalent, part for part (prae+dicare). of the Greek term kategoria (katá + agorá), which means an accusation, charge, something cried out against someone in the marketplace (the agorá). When we refer to joining a predicate to a subject, we are thus in effect referring to bringing an accusation to bear against a subject. [4]

In contrast to the kinds of polemic described in Walter Ong’s history, however, the sorts of predication characteristic both of philosemitism and antisemitism may take the form of judgements exchanged among nonJews, rather than elements of a dialogue between Jew and nonJew. Philosemitism, like antisemitism, often occasions the deflection or refusal of addressivity; philosemitism, whether of word or action, has an uncomfortable formal resemblance to antisemitism in being something done to, rather than with Jews.

I must therefore disagree with Alan Edelstein again, when he says that anti-anti-semitism is philosemitism `in its weakest form’, [5] since this does not necessarily imply any positive evaluation of or prejudice in favour of Jews as a group. In fact, what I have said so far suggests to me that the opposite must be the case; for philosemitism in its weak form can perfectly well coexist with a dangerous indifference towards and therefore complicity in forms of anti-semitism. A strong form of philosemitism must always involve a rejection of antisemitism, though this rejection will be enfeebled if it does not acknowledge its entanglement in what it rejects.

I therefore also have a friendly quarrel to pick with Susan Suleiman’s admirable essay in The Jew in the Text about Sartre’s anti-anti-semitic text, Réflexions sur la question juive, which appeared in 1946.[6] At the end of a careful and sensitive reading of the often disturbingly stereotyping gestures in the later parts of Sartre’s work, Suleiman concludes that Sartre could not but reproduce antisemitism when that is his point of departure; all that Sartre knows about the Jews, in his failure to do any actual research into the history of Judaism, is what antisemites have framed as the `Jewish question’. One might in fact be much less tolerant than Suleiman is about the arrogant, indolent boneheadedness that Sartre here displays. What I find it hard to agree with, however, is Suleiman’s rather more than implicit judgement that there might have been some other place to start than the prejudicial posing of the Jewish question in antisemitism. Sartre certainly should have gone to Jewish scholarship and Jewish writing, but had he done so he would not have escaped the determining force of antisemitism – or at least of `-semitism’. The question would always have been framed from elsewhere, and never in terms that were neutral or endogenous. There would always have been the Jewish question.

I am attempting in these remarks, to reflect, as I did rather less explicitly in my essay in The Jew in the Text, on some of my own academic choices, affinities and values.[7] I was asked to contribute to the collection, not, I am sure, because of any special expertise in the history of twentieth-century antisemitism, but because of my particular interest in the positive attraction towards Jewish history and identity in the work of certain modern writers, especially Joyce and Beckett. Certainly both of these writers would qualify as philosemites, in their lives and work. Both gave and received friendship with Jews in the dark days of the 1930s and the early years of the War, and helped Jews to have escaped from the Germans.[8] Beckett was a member of what has been said to have been a predominantly Jewish cell of the Parisian Resistance; and I have heard an undocumented report from a Jewish friend of a Jewish friend of Beckett that he had worn the Star of David in Paris as an act of solidarity with his Jewish friends.

Both writers drew powerful analogies between their experiences and those of Jews. The condition of the people of the Book, who carry their history and their homeland with them in the form of their sacred texts strikingly mirrored the prolonged exile of Joyce, as he moved restlessly around Europe, carrying with him the steadily evolving book that he said he hoped could be used to build Dublin up again stone by stone were it ever to be destroyed in some catastrophe, the book that nevertheless itself remained so worryingly vulnerable to the accidents of history, as the notebooks and bales of manuscript were carted about from place to place, sometimes literally in handcarts as the Joyces practised the Dublin art of the moonlight flit from lodgings where they could not pay the rent. There is a particular poignancy indeed in the fact that Paul Léon, one of Joyce’s most devoted Jewish friends, may have sacrificed his life for the sake of Joyce’s book; returning to Paris after the occupation, against the advice of Joyce and Beckett, partly in order to retrieve some of Joyce’s voluminous papers and manuscripts, Léon was arrested and deported. He was murdered by the Nazis in 1942.

Both Joyce and Beckett saw powerful – and it must be said, at that time, quite conventional and widespread – analogies between the diasporic condition of the Jews and of the Irish. But there is something very specific and perhaps even coercive about the way this analogy works for both writers. For Joyce, the Jewish everyman is not really Jewish – he is uncircumcised, and his very first action in Ulysses is the purchase of a pork kidney for his breakfast. The authentic Jew, for Joyce as for many other artists and writers in this century, is the not-quite, the nonJewish Jew, the inhabitant of two worlds. This nonJewish way of being Jewish is equivalent to the nonIrish way of being Irish signalled in Beckett’s alleged answer when asked by a Frenchman who detected his foreign accent whether he was English: `au contraire’, replied Beckett.

For Joyce and Beckett, (as, in fact, for Sartre) the Jew is the essential form of non-esseity; the very embodiment of the condition of equiprimordial nonselfcoincidence. My point here is not that this is a negative stereotype (though of course it could easily be for the kind of Heideggerian philosemitism which would insist on the Jew’s unique historical capacity to fulfil the destiny of man as such). It is that it is a an admiring, but reifying predication of Jewishness, which is primarily circulated among nonJews and seems to preclude the addressing of Jews themselves. A story told by Richard Ellmann in his biography of Joyce bears this out. In the early 1920s, Joyce enquired of Beckett, who had just returned from Dublin, whether anyone was reading Ulysses. On hearing some names mentioned by Beckett, Joyce suddenly observed `But they’re all Jews!’.[9] Joyce’s surprise that his book might not only have been nurtured in the company of many Jewish friends and writers, and have Jewishness as its subject, but also might find Irish Jews among its readers, is instructive.

This reification of the figure of the Jew, to embody both modernity’s ideal of ironic displacement from history, and the newly alluring authority of inauthenticity has undergone an extension and consolidation in postmodernity. The once-defective identity of the Jew has been made part of that programmatic defection from stable identity that we call postmodernism. If modernism was oppressively nostalgic for truth, presence, intelligibility and all the barren plenitude of the logos, postmodernism has found in the Jew a local habitation and a name for its desired accommodation to the values of aberration, difference and textuality. The two most authoritative names in the current call for a return to ethics are Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Derrida. As Gillian Rose has pointed out, the desire for a wholly alternative ethical, political tradition, one purged of the violence of Enlightenment, is more and more taking the form of a turn away from Athens and towards Jerusalem, towards a Jewish tradition of thought and being. Who could regret the opening up of understanding between different traditions, and the vast gain in knowledge it promises? But I am persuaded by Gillian Rose that there is something dangerous and even hostile in this idealisation of the Jew as the purifying exterior to a corrupt Western history.[10]

Why are Jews hated as no other group is hated in Europe? Why the longevity of this hatred? Why is the Jew, to borrow a phrase from Ashis Nandy, the peculiarly intimate enemy of the West? The answer surely is, that hatred of this kind is possible only when there has been love, love that has soured or been disappointed. Jews are loved and admired with an unmanageable, unspeakable, lethal intensity. Jews are the repositories of impossible ideals, religious, ethical, even economic. The Jew is the failure of the nonJew’s best self, and thus the necessary recipient of his rage. Jews are hated as only fathers, mothers, brothers and lovers can be hated. Their inevitable failure to embody those ideals for nonJews means that the Jew can only be dealt with by violent partitions, of good Jews from bad Jews, of Jews who deserve the nonJew’s admiration, and those who don’t. This goes some way to explaining the perplexing split in a novel like Daniel Deronda, undoubtedly the work of a writer and scholar of almost boundless moral intelligence, integrity and tact; nevertheless, the idealisation of the traditions of scholarship, artistic power and civilising political purpose represented by Mordecai and Mirah and Deronda himself, produces a revulsion within the text against the figures of the degraded moneygrubbing Cohens. This swivelling alternation of idealising desire and disavowing hatred also explains, I think, the strange polymorphous, heads-I-win-tails-you-lose nature of antisemitism as it is so well evoked by Linda Nochlin in the opening, paragraph of The Jew in the Text, in which Jews are sexually predatory and impotent, too clever by half and intellectually degenerate, capitalists and communist subversives, not to mention the notable ambivalence of sexual feeling about Jewish women in particular.[11] In the most extreme forms of antisemitism, of course, the final solution to the intolerably ambivalent mingling of philosemitism and antisemitism is the partition of Jews from nonJews altogether, the partitioning of love, which is laboriously drawn inwards to the self, from hatred, which is projected outwards to its object. But the division between self and other, of which we hear so much nowadays, is the secondary product of a division between the Jew the antisemite wishes to be, longs to be able to wish to be, and the Jew who will never be good enough for this role.

Much of this is parodied at the end of the Cyclops section of Ulysses, in which Bloom comes as near to being apotheosised as he ever does in this book. The chapter, which is narrated by an unidentified Dublin barfly and cadger, ends with a confrontation between the gentle, peaceloving Bloom and the bigoted, one-eyed Sinn Feiner, the Citizen. The whole chapter is based upon the episode in the Odyssey in which Odysseus outwits the Cyclops, and flees the island as the enraged Polyphemus hurls rocks into the waters around their ships. Odysseus’s triumph of guile is matched by the triumph of assertion in the normally unassertive Bloom:

And says he: Mendelssohn was a jew and Karl Marx and Mercadante and Spinoza. And the Saviour was a jew and his father was a jew. Your God.
He had no father, says Martin. That’ll do now. Drive ahead. Whose God? says the citizen.
Well, his uncle was a jew, says he. Your God was a jew. Christ was a jew like me.
Gob, the citizen made a plunge back into the shop.
By Jesus, says he, I’ll brain that bloody jewman for using the holy name. By Jesus, I’ll crucify him so I will. Give us that biscuitbox here.[12]

Joyce’s comedy protects himself from the violence that he disliked so much – one of the reasons that his Jew is an Odysseus is because Odysseus is so unlike the other Greeks in preferring strategy to violence (Odysseus evaded military service, as Joyce liked to point out). But it also reveals the dependence of the antisemite’s hatred on an internal split between the adored and the abhorred. Nothing remains for the affronted Catholic than to act out the part of his own prejudicial image of the Jew as the crucifier of Christ. The chapter ends with a mock-apotheosis of Bloom, as he makes his escape from the enraged Citizen:

And the last we saw was the bloody car rounding the corner and old sheepsface on it gesticulating and the bloody mongrel after it with his lugs back for all he was bloody well worth to tear him limb from limb. Hundred to five! Jesus, he took the value of it out of him, I promise you.
When, lo, there came about them all a great brightness and they beheld the chariot wherein He stood ascend to heaven. And they beheld Him in the chariot, clothed upon in the glory of the brightness, having raiment as of the sun, fair as the moon and terrible that for awe they durst not look upon Him. And there came a voice out of heaven, calling: Elijah! Elijah! And He answered with a main cry: Abba! Adonai! And they beheld Him even Him, ben Bloom Elijah, amid clouds of angels ascend to the glory of the brightness at an angle of fortyfive degrees over Donohoe’s in Little Green street like a shot off a shovel.[13]

Because this passage is written in the same exaggerated and inflated style which Joyce allows to interrupt the chapter at intervals as an illustration of the condition of bloated fantasy encouraged by bigoted nationalism, this final passage seems to protect itself against its own idealisation; the laughter in this chapter is always a laughter directed against the violence that lurks in idealism. The violence that leads to Bloom’s irenic apotheosis also implicates that apotheosis in violence.

Philosemitism is thus inextricably and not accidentally bound up with antisemitism. But the issue is not then, as Susan Suleiman’s essay perhaps implies it may be, to separate out the love and the hatred, since this very act of separating out is the mechanism used to precipitates the hatred. `We must love one another or die’, wrote Auden, and then wryly, famously, revised this to read `we must love another and die’. Let us disagree. We must not love each other at all, lest we die. Our love is too murderous in its desires and predications. Jew and nonJew must learn to speak less of each other, whether they speak well or ill, and more to each other, of their interinvolvement. Not in predication (loving or loathing), but in the inhabitation, through address, of historical predicament lies the possibility of our yet inexistent humanity.

Copyright, Steven Connor, 1995.


1. The Jew in the Text: Modernity and the Construction of Identity, ed. Tamar Garb and Linda Nochlin (London: Thames and Hudson, 1995).

2. Alan Edelstein, An Unacknowledged Harmony: Philo-Semitism and the Survival of European Jewry (Westport and London: Greenwood Press, 1982), p. 12.

3. Morton Keller, `Jews and the Character of American Life Since 1960′, in Jews in the Mind of America, ed. Charles F. Stember (New York: Basic Books, 1961), pp. 270-1.

4. Walter J. Ong, S.J., The Presence of the Word: Some Prolegomena for Cultural and Religious History (1967; repr. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1981), p. 157.

5. Edelstein, p. 12.

6. Susan Robert Suleiman, `The Jew in Sartre’s Réflexions sur la question juive: An Exercise in Historical Reading’, The Jew in the Text, pp. 201-18.

7. ` “I…AM.A”: Addressing the Jewish Question in Joyce’s Ulysses‘, ibid, 219-37.

8. See Richard Ellmann, James Joyce, 2nd edn (New York, Oxford and Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1982), p. 709.

9. Ellmann, James Joyce, p. 702.

10. Gillian Rose, Judaism and Modernity: Philosophical Essays (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1993), p. 18.

11. Linda Nochlin, `Starting With the Self: Jewish Identity and Its Representation’, The Jew in the Text, p. 7.

12. Ulysses: The Corrected Text, ed. Hans Walter Gabler (Harmondsworth: Penguin and New York: Garland, 1986), p. 280.

13. Ibid, pp. 282-3.