Thursday, January 10, 2013

A boy, a bomb and a bus: more on Jews and politics

Following on from an earlier post, here are a few more (fairly inchoate) thoughts on Jewish intellectuals and left-wing politics.

First of all, it might be said that intellectuals (Jewish or otherwise) generally tend to the left. And the fact that so many intellectuals happen to have a Jewish background might give the false impression that the leftishness derives from the Jewishness rather than from the intellectuality.

But I am inclined to tie the particular ideals of left-wing thought, as well as its uncompromising moral vision, to the Jewish (and Christian) scriptures. And I have made the point that people with a Jewish background who no longer believe religious doctrines are more likely to continue to identify with their cultural and religious traditions than are non-believing ex-Christians.

This issue is complicated by the fact that Jewishness is such a vague concept. It simultaneously relates to genetic, cultural and specifically religious factors. So, identifying particular individuals as Jewish or not Jewish is problematic.

For example, Ludwig Wittgenstein was staggered to learn that the Nazis considered his family Jewish. And not only the Nazis. He is (despite having been baptized a Roman Catholic and even buried as one) widely seen as Jewish. And, indeed, many of his forebears were Jewish.

Similarly, Kurt Gödel, was, though a Lutheran, considered by many of his contemporaries to be Jewish. But he insisted that he was not.

It all becomes quite arbitrary – and tedious. Who is going to be interested in determining how many of (and how long ago) a given person's forebears practised Judaism?

The 'racial' side is also problematic because of the large numbers (for example, in Southern Europe during Roman times) who converted to Judaism. Genome analysis studies have reached no clear conclusions, but they do seem to show genetic similarities between the general population in Italy, for example, and Jewish groups in other parts of Europe.

To an extent, Jewishness has been defined by anti-Semitism and so it is hardly surprising that the whole notion is shot through with myth on various levels. The key driver of anti-Semitism is the belief that 'the Jews' rejected the true Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, and were responsible for his death. During the Middle Ages, Christian anti-Semitism spawned a whole range of myths and legends which imputed sinister powers to Jews and reinforced various stereotypes. Interestingly, the Islamic 'reform' movements of the late-19th and early-20th centuries beefed up traditional Islamic anti-Semitism with elements derived from the rather more vivid and intense Christian tradition.

So any talk about radical Jewish intellectuals is a bit sensitive because it can easily appear to play into this anti-Semitic, scapegoating tradition.

Think of the early Hitchcock film, Sabotage, about a secret agent (played by Oskar Homolka) seeking to cause havoc in London. It involves a bomb, a bus and a child, the trusting little brother of the Homolka character's trusting English wife. Enough said.

Another kind of subversion was evident in the real world in the course of the Manhattan Project. And during the 1950s, of course. Jewish intellectuals and writers in particular were often under scrutiny.

The fact that there were real traitors who happened to be Jewish and who passed secret information to the Soviet Union served to give renewed life to some anti-Semitic stereotypes.

But my point – about the tendency of secular Jews to have left-leaning views – is, I think, generally true or at least defensible; as is the idea that this tendency derives from an essentially Biblical understanding of justice and morality.

I was going to say something about some of the names mentioned in the comment thread of the previous post, but, given the huge number of significant Jewish intellectuals who flourished during the last 150 years or so, not much would be gained by cursory comments on an arbitrarily-selected few.

It's pretty clear that Jewish thinkers spanned the ideological spectrum, even if the distribution is skewed in the direction of socialism and related philosophies.