Dusk Somewhere

Jewishness Abstractly and Concretely

Posted at — May 18, 2023 by Izzy Meckler

This is a follow-up to the post “Class and Race”.

This post gives an example of the way ethnic groups can serve as particular instantiations of historical roles which occur abstractly.

Because I am Jewish, I will take the case of Jewishness and antisemitism. From a certain level of abstraction, we can say Jews are not just Jews in their specificity (with the specific Torah, halachas, shabbos, pesach, Yom Kippur and all the rest of it), but are a specific manifestation of a general historical phenomenon which tends to arise in class societies.

The phenomenon is present in an abstract model of class society and was mapped onto Jews in our reality, but in other cultures was mapped onto other ethnic groups which I will mention.

We can describe this phenomenon as follows. Suppose we are given a class society $S$.

Class division implies a certain amount of widespread alienation among members of the exploited class $E$.

In order for $S$ to reproduce itself, it must prevent this alienation from destroying the society. Left unchecked, such alienation would accumulate, and eventually drive the members of the exploited class to destabilize $S$. Therefore, mechanisms are required for either reducing alienation among $E$, or for making sure that any actions taken on the basis of this alienation are redirected away from destabilizing $S$.

“Abstract antisemitism” is one such stabilizing mechanism. It works as follows. Pick a subset of individuals $J$ (when mapped onto concrete reality, this subset should be one which is self-reproducing over time and easily identifiable by members of the exploited class $E$). This subset should have a non-trivial intersection with the ruling class $R$. It may also have a large intersection with $E$, I’m not sure if that matters.

Now, the ruling class promulgates an ideology which actually identifies the ruling class with $J$ in the minds of large portions of society. This makes it possible for members of $E$ to take out their alienation on members of $J$ (possible because this subset was chosen to be something easily-identifiable by members of $E$ and because the ideology tells makes it so this temporarily relieves their alienation), without threatening the deep structure of the society, since their actions are directed away from destabilizing the class structure required for keeping society going.

Actually, this is just one abstract historical role which was mapped onto Jews in reality. I don’t want to give the impression that this is all Jews are. Another abstract historical roles we have served is as an “internet” for facilitating interactions across disparate cultures over a wide range of land, due to connections of Jewishness which exist regardless of geographical origin. And of course there is the richness of the concrete culture which does not fit into any abstraction on this level.

Another question immediately arises, which is why the Jews played the role of $J$ in so many class societies in our history. This is a concrete historical question which would require a deep study and which it’s not really possible to give a definitive answer as to why Jews and not some other group, but there are some clear things we can point to. Jewish culture is able to reproduce itself within a society while having habits which are different from that society (kashrus, yarmulke, different holidays, etc.). Due to the importance of Jewishness which is instilled in Jewish children and the flexibility of Jewishness, one also tends to maintain one’s Jewishness despite changing location, life circumstances, class position, etc., which makes it possible for there to be an intersection of Jews with the ruling class. This makes it suitable for playing the role of $J$ as it reproduces itself, members are easily identifiable, and there can reliably be a portion of the ruling class which is Jewish.