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From Grammar to Anti-Semitism


On the "the" in "the Jews":

The several tongue-twisting" the's" in my title are less difficult to manage than the problem they con­ceal. For there is a conceptual, cultural, and, final­ly, moral issue that bears directly on anti-Semitism in the common linking of the definite article "the" and Jews ­that is, in "the Jews."

I don't mean to claim that anti-Semitism would not have occurred or would now disappear if only its initiators and apologists paid more attention to grammar. But when a common and superficially innocent use of the definite article in statements about Jews turns out to be not innocent at all but in effect anti-Semitic, we need to consider more closely how and why that happens. Whether the linguistic usage originated as a cause or only a symptom of anti-Semitism hardly matters; it has in time served both functions, and it has thus also, from both directions, extended the reach of ideology to grammar. Since ideology flourishes, furthermore, mainly by concealment, to bring into the open this secret role of the "the," trivial as it seems, may thus also contribute to undermining the many-layered foundation of anti-Semitism.

The usage under suspicion here is the phrase "the Jews" -and if the particular use of that phrase criticized is not its only one, it is distinctive. As, for example -most famously -in: "The Jews killed Jesus." Or, more currently, "The Jews control Hollywood" -or again, as in the aftermath of the recent controversy about the "neighbors" in the Polish town of Jedwabne: "In 1939, after the Russians entered [Jedwabne], the Jews took over all the offices, including the town hall." 1 The general intent behind these statements might be inferred, but for the moment -since we're talking first about grammar not psychology -I propose to put the questions of motive aside in order to examine the difference between the statements themselves and what they would mean if they appeared without the definite article that each of the statements cited include; that is, the common reference in each of them to "the Jews."

Consider, for contrast, the shortened versions of those same statements with the definite article omitted: "Jews killed Jesus," "Jews control Hollywood," "In 1939, after the Russians entered [Jedwabne], Jews took over all the offices, including the town hall." The difference between the first and the second groups of statements is clear.

Both groups of statements assert that certain people "killed Jesus," "control Hollywood," and "took over all the [Jedwabne] offices" -and that those people were or are Jews. The first group of statements, however, goes one step further -implying that not only were or are the peapIe responsible for the acts described Jews, but that they acted collectively or in concert, among themselves and as part of a larger whole. That is, as theJews. Not just as some Jews, then, but as a corporate body, expressing a common purpose or will. To deny this last implication would make the definite article in the sentence quite misleading since there would then be nothing definite for the "definite" article to refer to.

Admittedly, anyone making the statements in the first group is unlikely to believe that every Jew alive at the time mentioned played a part in the act or disposition mentioned. But the main point of the statements is that "the Jews" (as a group) are responsible for that action even if it was more immediately the work of only a few of them. A collective will is thus presupposed, and so also, of course, a common responsibility, both of these now ascribed to "the" Jews. Not just "this one Jew" or "those several Jews," but the Jews as a group.

Each of the first set of statements, then, has two parts. The first part is a straightforward claim that those responsible for a certain act are or were Jewish; the second is the implied claim of a collective purpose motivating the act. Neither of these assertions is itself necessarily anti-Semitic; the test of truth is possible for both -measured by evidence to which the speaker already lays claim. To be sure, the second assertion in the second part echoes a well-worn anti-Semitic theme: the contention of a conspiracy of sorts among "the" Jews as a group. But this claim, too, is subject to proof or disproof, even if the purveyors of its best-known appearances have rarely troubled themselves with that issue. (The forged Protocols of the Elders of Zion remains a paradigmatic representation for this view of "the" Jewish conspiracy.)

It might be objected to my characterization so far that the phrase, "the Jews," need not mean all Jews. On a variant reading, "The Jews killed Jesus" might refer only to a sub-group within the larger one -perhaps to the Jews then living in Palestine, at a time when many Jews lived elsewhere. But even in this more restrictive interpretation -which is not how the statement is typically understood -a common purpose would be posited among those Jews, with that claim then having to be demonstrated (as it rarely is). In this sense, Nazi anti-Semitism, for all its pseudo-science, had the systematic "advantage" of biologizing race. The conspiracies alleged by the Nazis (as, e.g., among Jewish Bolsheviks and/or Jewish capitalists) did not require any specific evidence of covert meetings or documents, since the genetic features, which in their view made Jewish character dangerous, would also account for the nefarious ways in which that group purpose would be realized. (That this "foundation" posed serious problems for a "scientific" genetic theory did not faze the Nazis who, from their earliest answer to the question of "Who is a Jew?" onward, relied on a social rather than a biological basis for their "racial" definition.) In social and historical terms, of course, anyone familiar with Jewish history and communal life would find implausible the claim of a single or even a common purpose or will among the diverse groups historically identified as Jewish. The conceptual and practical difficulties in proving all claims that assume the existence of corporate "persons" or intentions are greater still here; indeed, since there has been no central or coordinated authority in the two thousand years of post-exilic Judaism, it is difficult to understand what such a claim would even mean.

Perhaps this line of reasoning may encounter the objection that the term, "the Jews," does not necessarily designate a collective or corporate Jewish will at all. What in some contexts serves as a collective or substantive noun may in others be shorthand for a group of individuals as individuals -who may, for instance, share certain beliefs but not because of any prior collective design. "The Jews are monotheists," for example, implies not that every Jew believes in one God, but that Biblical or traditional or "essential" Judaism claims that tenet. So also "The Jews in the U.S. have an average educational level of three years of college" -from which a certain characteristic can be inferred of a hypothetical individual, not a group plan or even a common feature of all individual Jews. Such references to "the Jews'" are common enough -but they are also readily distinguished from the use challenged here. On the second, "individualist" use, there is no difference in meaning between statements in which "the Jews" appears and versions of the same statements in which the "the" is omitted. And this is clearly not true for the first group. There is, I hope to have shown, a difference --in ideological terms, a large one -" between saying that "The Jews killed Jesus" and its shortened counterpart, that "Jews killed Jesus."

A question remains, to be sure, of why either of the two pairs of statements should be asserted at all. And indeed, nothing said so far touches the question of the truth or falsity of any of the statement cited, whether in the first or the second versions. I have been trying to show only how ideology makes its way into such an apparently innocuous phrase as "the Jews." But if "the" is the primary culprit here, it is not the only one. For there is a substantive question which goes beyond grammar in asking what basis there could be in such statements for referring to the Jews at all. On the assumption that there is ordinarily an evident connection between the subject and the predicate of a sentence, it would be reasonable to ask why "Jews," let alone "the Jews," should appear in the statements noted. Is the statement that "Jews control Hollywood" meant to explain the types of film that Hollywood produces? Hollywood's financial success? The popular culture of which Hollywood films are part? Any of these, and many otter, meanings are possible -but a question to which they are all subject is what relevance the role of Jews (01 "the Jews") has to whatever they assert: why the reference at all?

A standard Jewish joke makes the point here (sometimes cited as a "Holocaust joke" but more broadly applicable and apparently much older in origin):

"The Jews are responsible for the economic crisis" (or the Crucifixion or the plague)"

B: No, it is the Jews and the bicycle riders"

A: Why the bicycle riders?

B: Why the Jews?

The issue being made explicit here is that in the pairs of statements cited, not only is no evidence offered for the roles they ascribe to the Jews as Jews, but there is no acknowledgment of this even as an issue. Even if it could be proven that the people responsible for the crucifixion or who control Hollywood were (or are) Jews -, and putting aside the complicating issue of exactly who is to count as a Jew or not the substantive question remains of what importance this "proof" would have: what difference does it make? This is to ask why it would be relevant to know that the people who control Hollywood or who killed Jesus or who took control of the municipal offices of Jedwabne were Jews? The implication of identifying them as Jews is that it somehow adds to understanding the act (perhaps also of other general social or cultural issues). But does it? To allege that members of a certain group have power disproportionate to their numbers, or that members of the group were responsible for a particular historical act would warrant the identification only if a connection could be shown between the group-identity and the event.. But what, we ask, is the connection here?

It is probably true, for example -and let us for argument's sake assume -that the people who "killed Jesus" were less than six feet tall. Would the claim itself be worth making? It might, One supposes, have some interest as being on the average heights of people at the particular time and place -in contrast to the average heights of people at other places or times. But unless one also supposed a connection between those heights and the act of killing Jesus, the conjunction would seem random or arbitrary and, in any event, trivial even if true: what difference could it make? The fact itself seems to have little to do with explaining the circumstances of Jesus' execution- unless, of course, one built on it a verdict of continuing guilt through subsequent generations of everyone less than six feet tall.

Nor, in the same way, do we learn very much about Hollywood ill finding that the studio heads who shaped or now "control" it were (or are) Jews -except, again, as a kind of anthropological stereotype, with all the excesses and dangers that stereotypes inevitably convey. Does it contribute to understanding film as a medium? The "entertainment" industry? Perhaps as much (but how much is that?) as the finding that the automobile industry, at approximately the same time, was developed by Midwestern Protestants -except who has ever commented on that? This does not mean that something substantial might not be illuminated by the reference -for example (in the case of the crucifixion), the evolving negative attitude towards capital punishment within Judaism as that would have figured in the trial and execution of Jesus as a co-religionist. Or, in the case of Jedwabne, as Polish Jews, because of their system of education, were either better or less qualified for certain types of work outside the community itself. Such connections might indeed turn out to be historically significant, and if so, they might also have occasioned the statements cited here as examples -but in fact no such connections have been demonstrated, and more important, the very issue of proof has typically been ignored.

In practice, of course, claims that "The Jews killed Jesus," even when reduced to only "Jews killed Jesus," have usually been cited not in historical studies of the relation between early Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism, but as the basis for a charge of deicide -and this, as a matter of corporate and thus continuing Jewish responsibility. That charge is intelligible, however, only if "the" Jews of Jesus' time, whether in Jerusalem or elsewhere, not only acted in concert with each other but also implicated future generations of Jews -a collective" the" on a large scale indeed. The claim that "the Jews" "took over" the municipal offices when the Russians arrived in Jedwabne may have fewer metaphysical implications than the charge of deicide, but neither is it meant to be part of an analysis of social class or municipal governance in Poland during World War II. The reference is clearly intended to explain, if not to justify, the massacre in Jedwabne of members of the Jewish populace by their non-Jewish Polish "neighbors" after the Nazis, in 1941, had driven out the occupying Russians. In this way, then, and perhaps predictably, ideology centered in the grammatical "the" links up with ideology in a much broader framework.

Again, no link to anti-Semitism is entailed in any of the statements cited. As truth is the measure of all supposedly descriptive statements, so here too; thus, the claims remain questions rather than assertions until tested by' the evidence. Furthermore, applying the phrase "the Jews" presupposes acceptance of the notion of a collective will (and responsibility) -first, in general, and then, in particular reference to Jews as a group. In point of fact, to be sure, we know that the "the" in "the Jews" has often been summoned as a locution to the cause of anti-Semitism. And even if the locution has at times been used spontaneously or unconsciously, this would not make its connotation insignificant -or, for that matter, unintentional. In this way, a slight grammatical gesture turns out to be no less weighted ideologically than many of ideology's more blatant pronouncements. Expressions of language or reasoning are sometimes viewed as "beyond ideology": neutral with respect to social causes or even personal interests. Undoubtedly, certain uses of language warrant this exemption -but the specific connection between ideology and grammar in the" the" of "the Jews" is too clear to be denied.

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