On the Continued Relevance of Jean Améry’s Critique of Leftist Anti-Zionism

Paul Klee, “It will not go in” (1939), chalk on paper on bard(anonymous private owner, Switzerland)

This essay was originally written, at very short notice following an invitation late in the day, for an edited volume. I eventually withdrew the piece because I simply could not bear the levels of incompetence displayed by the editor and publisher any longer. I had to make massive cuts to my initial draft, which forced me to decontextualize the quotations in ways with which I am not at all comfortable. When I withdrew the chapter, I hoped I might find time to restore the piece to some of its former glory but I am just not finding the time and since this is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future, I am publishing the piece as is.

For a pdf of this article with references, please click here.

The importance of Jean Améry’s account of his experiences as a (former) prisoner of Auschwitz, At the Mind’s Limits, ranks second only to that of Primo Levi’s. Like Levi, Amèry eschewed the attempt to relate to his readers by enticing them to identify with him (and his peers) as though he could genuinely convey to them what it was like to be, and survive, in Auschwitz and to find a place in the world afterwards. Rather less well known is that, in addition to the final chapter of At the Mind’s Limits, “On the Impossible Obligation to be a Jew” (previously translated as “On the Necessity and Impossibility of Being a Jew”), Améry wrote a further nine essays in which he focussed specifically on what being Jewish meant to him, how he thought leftists should relate to Israel, and why the increasingly pervasive antisemitism of the New Left contradicted its very raison d’être. I have translated these essays and prepared a new translation of “On the Impossible Obligation to be a Jew” for a volume edited by Marlene Gallner that is forthcoming with Indiana University Press and, throughout this essay, I will be using my own translations

Like most non-antisemitic leftists committed to Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state in secure borders, Améry was forced to distinguish with increasing passion and bitterness between his sense of what the left ought to be and the actual left. “In Germany”, he explained to an interviewer in 1976,

I was also disappointed by the left, and this has profoundly affected me in a personal way, and this disappointment is closely connected to suicidal thoughts. All the mindless and rabid anti-Israelism which has become de rigueur, as much a matter of course as class consciousness, that Israel is an imperialist outpost und must be destroyed. … I feel a deep affinity for the State of Israel because I am aware of the fate of those [Jews] to whom no such refuge was available … But it is entirely impossible to broach this topic with leftists.

In this essay, I will briefly touch on Améry’s philosophical orientation, his self-understanding as a Jew, the significance of the Six-Day War of 1967 for his self-understanding as a leftist Jew, and his sustained campaign against leftist anti-Zionism. (To avoid unnecessary misunderstandings: on the conceptual and normative level one can doubtless construct forms of anti-Zionism that would not be inherently antisemitic. Yet in historical and empirical terms, non-antisemitic anti-Zionists, i.e., anti-Zionists who do not apply double standards to Israel and/or at the very least support measures that would de facto threaten the existence of Israel as a Jewish state in secure borders she is capable of defending, are such rare beasts as to be negligible for the purposes of this discussion.) Finally, I will assess how the leftist antisemitism Améry sought to assail compares to its earlier and current forms.

Améry the Philosopher

As Gerhard Scheit has aptly put it, Améry engaged “in a specific form of philosophical intervention that resorted to philosophical systems only provisionally and was in fact ultimately committed only to the experience of the Jewish victim of Nazism”. As Améry wrote in 1965, “I have given up on wanting to arrive at a firm Weltanschauung; presumably such an undertaking is no longer possible under the current circumstances. The best one can still achieve is a mode of thinking that is honest with itself.” Near the end of his life, he wrote that, “over time, I have come to question what was my Hegelianism and Marxism more and more, and the neo-positivism of my youth and the existentialism I adopted in the immediate postwar years has increasingly come to the fore again”. The fact that Sartre was “something of a father figure” for Améry is of particular relevance to our discussion here insofar as Améry thought very highly indeed of Sartre’s Rèflexions sur la question juive which he considered “unsurpassable”. Améry repeatedly cited (or paraphrased) Sartre’s contention that there is “no such thing as a ‘Jewish problem’ … but merely the problem of antisemitism”, and his insight that antisemitism “is not some opinion but the predisposition and willingness to engage in the crime of genocide”.

Améry repeatedly cited (or paraphrased) Sartre’s insight that antisemitism “is not some opinion but the predisposition and willingness to engage in the crime of genocide”.

Améry maintained that “dialectics unaided by positivism is vacuous”, just as “positivistic knowledge without dialectical insight is blind”. Hence, his “perpetual, possibly futile effort to synthesize dialectical and neo-positivistic thinking”. What fundamentally irked Améry were flights of fancy facilitated by forms of “dialectics with which one can do and explain but also destroy anything”. Dialectical thinkers, he lamented, “are constantly haunted by the fear of banality—the banality, for instance, of allowing the victims to be victims and the torturers to be torturers as both were during the slaughter”. One important implication of this line of thought was a pronounced anti-metaphysical impulse. The specific unease that tormented him as a survivor of the Shoah was, he insisted, “social and not metaphysical in kind. It is not being or nothingness or God or his absence that unsettles me, it is society. It and it alone has caused the existential vertigo in the face of which I am seeking to assert my upright gait. It and it alone has robbed me of my trust in the world.”

Améry the “Catastrophe Jew”

Améry described himself as “merely a Jew of Hitler’s invention”, “a Hitler Jew”. Yet there was nothing “merely” about his Jewishness, as he explained in “On the Impossible Obligation to be a Jew”. While he had been aware of his Jewishness in his youth, it had played no significant role in his life until 1935, when the Nuremberg Laws “formally and with all possible clarity made a Jew of me”. He had instantly understood this measure as a death sentence and, “in this respect, although the danger has taken on various guises and fluctuating degrees of intensity in the meantime, I have not changed my mind since”. “After all,” he explained, “it is not as though merely the card-carrying radical Nazis revoked [the Jew’s] … right to live. Germany in its entirety, or rather, the whole world gave its nod to this endeavour, though occasionally with a gesture of perfunctory regret.” Drawing on Sartre, he explained how he had come to acknowledge the need both to acknowledge, and to rebel against, the sentence that had been handed down to him in his capacity as a Jew.

When Nazi Germany was defeated, there had been “a short window of opportunity when I felt justified in assuming the situation had been radically transformed”, but “I soon had to recognize just how little had changed. For all that the potential executioners were showing considerable restraint for the time being or even vociferously condemning what had occurred, I was still slated to be murdered in the foreseeable future.” For him,

being Jewish equates to feeling the burden of yesterday’s tragedy within oneself. I bear the number from Auschwitz on my left forearm. While shorter, it is nevertheless more exhaustive in its disclosure and offers a more authoritative fundamental characterization of Jewish existence than the Pentateuch or the Talmud.

Integral to the Jewishness of the “catastrophe Jew”, who is both shaped by “the catastrophe, which has occurred” and attuned in particular measure to the catastrophe that “may conceivably recur”, was a commitment to “solidarity with every single endangered Jew the world over”, which, to be sure, also included solidarity with the State of Israel. Yet Israel did not feature prominently in Améry’s essay “On the Impossible Obligation to be a Jew”.

Améry emphatically stressed that “my awareness of the fact that I am a catastrophe Jew” was neither a matter of trauma nor “an ideological construct”. “It is not I who was, or is, disturbed”, he insisted. “It is in fact the historical development, which is neurotic”. “I am not ‘traumatized’”, he clarified, “I am facing up to reality in an intellectually and psychologically entirely appropriate manner”. His sense of being a catastrophe Jew was

similar to the class consciousness Marx sought to reveal to the proletarians of the nineteenth century. Being who I have become, I am subject to, and illustrate, a historical reality of my age; and given that I was subjected to it more profoundly than most of my brethren, I am also in a better position to throw a light on that reality.

And with that, Amèry hoped he was done. On the completion of At the Mind’s Limits, he wrote to his editor: “I myself have had enough of this topic for the next half century!” “I never want to hear anything about Jews and Nazis again, nor say anything about it”, he reiterated two months later.

As late as 16 May 1967, Améry sent his close friend Ernst Mayer an impressive list of political grievances. They included the “brazen and hypocritical monstrosity” of “villainous capitalist imperialism”, the attempts of the Soviet Union and China to “out-Stalin” each other, the non-response of both the Soviet bloc and the West to the military coup in Greece, the Pope, the CIA, Vietnam and so on. What his lament regarding the state of the world did not include was a single word about Israel.

Améry and the Six-Day War

As Scheit has pointed out, “one can hardly overstate” the importance of the caesura of the Six-Day War for Améry. Améry himself underscored this when referring, in 1973, to “a past whose end was marked brusquely by the year 1967”. Scheit also suggests that Améry’s essay, “Between Vietnam and Israel. The Dilemma of Political Commitment”, published in the left-leaning Swiss weekly, Die Weltwoche, on 9 June 1967, should be read as an “‘open letter’ to the New Left”. While I rarely have cause to disagree with Scheit, on this occasion I do. To be sure, much of what Améry wrote in “Between Vietnam and Israel” prefigured, at least implicitly, the criticism he would subsequently level at the New Left, and the latter would certainly have been well advised to take note of Améry’s remarks. Even so, three considerations draw Scheit’s characterization into question. Firstly, the timing does not add up. Améry wrote this essay not during but on the eve of the Six-Day War. Secondly, The essay was addressed to other leftist Jewish intellectuals, and the individuals (both Jewish and non-Jewish) he mentioned in his discussion belonged to the Old rather than the New Left. This may well explain, thirdly, why the passionate affirmation of Israel as an actual and potential refuge for Jews the world over that plays such a pronounced role in Améry’s subsequent series of essays on leftist antisemitism does not make an appearance in this essay.

Firstly, then, the relevant formulations throughout the text clearly indicate that it was written not during but in the run up to the Six-Day War: “The Arab states … seemed to be on the verge of snuffing out the tiny state of Israel”; “the massing of Arab troops on all of Israel’s borders”; “looming Israeli-Arab conflict”; “what is occurring on Israel’s borders”; “now that Israel is under threat”; “hostile armies have massed around Israel”. It would in any case be erroneous to assume that virtually the entire left in the West, whether Old or New, started spewing forth anti-Israeli propaganda on the morning of 5 June 1967. Ulrike Meinhof’s reaction is a case in point. In the column she wrote in 1967 for the July issue of konkret, (West) Germany’s longest running (then still semi-pornographic) far left monthly, she emphatically affirmed her solidarity with the State of Israel and maintained that the left in particular had every reason to insist on this solidarity. A report of 1968 on the development of the Socialist German Student League (SDS) in Heidelberg, to give another example, referred to “factional infighting” in June 1967 that resulted from “controversial statements relating to the Arab-Israeli conflict”. An “opportunistic wing intent on riding the wave of solidarity with Israel” had obstructed the anti-Israeli “minority”. Peter Weiss’s inflammatory op-ed, “The Victory that Endangers Itself”, only came out in German on 1 July. To be sure, the SDS had begun to circulate an open letter by one of the stalwarts of the Old Left, Wolfgang Abendroth, as early as 3 June, in which he argued that the left needed to side with the Arabs, but the likelihood of Améry already having been aware of this text when writing “Between Vietnam and Israel” is surely negligible. His focus in “Between Vietnam and Israel” is in any case firmly on France. All that said, if you do not want to take my word for it, Améry in fact told us so himself. In 1971, he wrote: “In May 1967, on the eve of the Arab-Israeli Six-Day War, I wrote my essay ‘Between Vietnam and Israel’.” In short, “Between Vietnam and Israel” cannot have been a response to the united front of leftist anti-Israelism that would emerge from the fallout of the Six-Day War.

Secondly, Améry consistently referred to “Jewish leftists” and “leftist Jewish intellectuals”, arguing that, in this specific situation, a leftist Jew was “no longer a leftist intellectual but merely a Jew”. His entire line of argument hinged quite explicitly on a fundamental distinction between Jewish and non-Jewish leftists. What set him apart from “all the other committed leftist intellectuals for whom the existence of the state of Israel is a ‘cause’”, he explained, was the fact that this cause was “not one that concerns their own place in the world”. “One may want to be a leftist intellectual one day but no longer the next”, he explained, this was “entirely a matter of free will. Being a Jew, by contrast”, was “a priori not a matter of choice”. This distinction also found its expression in the fact that Améry likened his own experience to that of Claude Lanzmann, “a member of the Sartre ‘family’ who accompanied Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir on their recent trip to Egypt and Israel”. (I was unable to ascertain whether Améry may have known that Lanzmann had in fact fallen out with Sartre during their visit to Israel and returned home early, leaving Sartre and de Beauvoir behind.)

In the Middle East, it was, “after all, not the Americans who are threatening to wipe out a small country.”

He elaborated on this distinction by discussing an appeal, signed by 68 prominent leftists, that called for a peaceful resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict and was published in Le Monde on 30 May 1967. It affirmed both that “the state of Israel is now proving a clear desire for peace and calm” and “that Israel’s security and sovereignty … is a necessary condition and starting point for peace”. Yet, much to Améry’s chagrin, it began with the disclaimer that “the undersigned French intellectuals believe that they have shown that they are friends of the Arab peoples and opponents of American imperialism”. “What”, Améry asked, “is the point, in this context, of condemning American imperialism?” In the Middle East, it was, “after all, not the Americans who are threatening to wipe out a small country.” It was one thing for the non-Jewish signatories to take this approach but quite another, taking us “into the realm of a tragic kind of irony”, for the Jewish signatories to oblige. The Arabs were “quite obviously not interested in this declaration of love and would quite unceremoniously treat” the Jewish signatories “in an extremely inclement manner, given half a chance”.

Not only would one associate the various individuals (both Jewish and non-Jewish) Améry mentioned with the Old rather than the New Left. In fact, the question arises whether the distinction between the two is not something of an anachronism at this juncture. To be sure, the New Left did not come from nowhere and gradually gathered pace in the course of the 1960s, and even the term was already used at the time. Even so, one should not overestimate its general currency as a convenient shorthand prior to the student revolt of 1967/68. In “The New Left’s Approach to ‘Zionism’”, published in 1969, Améry wrote that “the New Left is not only new in theoretical terms, it is also young. Those active in the New Left tend to be somewhere between eighteen and twenty-eight years of age.” (We may gauge Améry’s sense of disappointment in the face of the New Left’s development by bearing in mind his statement that “all my hope, to the extent that I have any, hinges on the young”.) This certainly could not be said of any of the leftist intellectuals that feature in “Between Vietnam and Israel”.

Finally, Améry’s focus on the Old Left may also explain the fact that the passionate affirmation of Israel as an actual and potential refuge for Jews the world over that played such an integral role in his subsequent critique of the New Left’s antisemitism, did not feature in “Between Vietnam and Israel”. Perhaps he took it for granted that his contemporaries would have sufficient recall of the Shoah, the systematic expulsion of the Jews who had lived in Arab countries, and the regime-driven antisemitic campaigns of the early 1950s in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe for Israel’s crucial significance in this respect to go without saying. (This is not to suggest an equivalence between the Shoah and other anti-Jewish measures. As Améry wrote to his publisher Michael Klett in October 1977, “what occurred in Germany between 1933 and 1945 is singular and irreductible”.)

In “Between Vietnam and Israel”, Améry introduced two explanations for the “existential” dimension that connected him and others like him—as opposed to non-Jewish leftist intellectuals—to Israel. (In 1976, Améry wrote: “Germany was once my cultural home, France has since replaced it. I have lived in Belgium for 38 years. And yet: if there is one state and commonwealth on earth whose existence and independence genuinely concerns me, it is Israel.”) They reflect both his aforementioned notion, inspired by Sartre, that Jews must acknowledge, and rebel against, the “sentence” that had been handed down to them in their capacity as Jews, and his concept of the “catastrophe Jew”. Once again, he insisted, “the Jewish condition humaine has, by tragic means, relieved the Jew” of any choice in the matter and “compulsorily thrust” him “into the community of the persecuted”. It was ridiculous, he argued, for “those of us who belong to the generation that experienced Hitler’s crimes in the flesh” to delude themselves. After all, he himself “would still have been deported”, even if he “had been ‘loyal’ to the German occupation authorities”. The “catastrophe Jew” needed to acknowledge that “Auschwitz lies behind him and the hoped-for Auschwitz II on the Mediterranean may well lie ahead of his brethren from whom he cannot remove himself because the world will not let him”.

Conversely, the defence of Israel was an act of rebellion not only insofar as it sought to avert “Auschwitz II”. Israel itself embodied a crucial form of rebellion against the judgement non-Jews had passed on Jews for centuries. “Not only have the Jews in Israel … acquired the ‘upright gait’, they have also taught the Jews who live in the diaspora and may have no intention of ever going to Israel, not even on holiday, how to adopt a firm step and straight posture”. It was Israel that “gives him [i.e., the Jew] a proper place in the world, whether he admits this to himself or not”. Hence, “as long as Israel, and he himself and his arduously acquired upright gait with it, are under threat”, Améry explained (referring to himself in the third person), “the politically committed Jew who is concerned about the situation in Vietnam and Greece herewith hands in his resignation, at least provisionally. He is being replaced by a Jew who has been exposed to the ultimate catastrophe”.

There is some indication that Améry subsequently went through a period of insecurity in his own response to the Six-Day War. A week after the publication of “Between Vietnam and Israel”, Améry explained to a colleague that he was ill at ease with Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War. “It is terrible to be vanquished but neither is it pleasant to have to play the victor. The leftist intellectuals of my ilk are effectively all at war with themselves. One will have to wait in order to regain a sensible position”. In another letter, written on 8 August 1967, he clarified that “Between Vietnam and Israel” was “of course … not my last word” on the matter. He had written it “at a point in time when Israel was subject to a lethal threat”. Yet seeing her “enter the stage with the imperious stride of the victor, I started having qualms.” Not least we might note the striking similarity between the turn of phrase “the imperious stride of the victor” and certain formulations he later ascribed to leftist anti-Zionists.

My contention, then, is that among Améry’s relevant essays, “Between Vietnam and Israel” is the odd one out, and that his sustained effort to combat leftist anti-Zionism only began in earnest in 1969. To my mind, this in no way diminishes the prescience and acuity of his effort, though it does draw additional attention to those who initially beat him to it. We might think of Wolfgang Hildesheimer’s intervention, “Denken auf eigene Gefahr”, published in Die Zeit on 28 July 1967, or the “Gemeinsame Erklärung von 20 Vertretern der deutschen Linken zum Nahostkonflikt,” published in Neue deutsche Hefte no. 117 (1968). Yet, with the exception of Michael Landmann (whose Das Israelpseudos der Pseudolinken, first published in 1971, was reissued by the Freiburg-based publisher ça ira in 2013), none of them, to the best of my knowledge, subsequently displayed anywhere near the insight, persistence and bravery Améry mustered in his sustained assault on the scourge of leftist anti-Zionism.

Taking on New Left Antisemitism

The essays Améry began to write in 1969 to combat “atavistic antisemitism in the conformist guise of rabid anti-Zionism” most certainly did place the New Left centre stage. “The antisemitism we are confronted with today”, Améry explained,

does not speak its name. On the contrary: if one tries to hold it to account it disowns itself. It is no easy task to drag it before the court that has long since condemned it but would nevertheless need to be in constant session. How does the new antisemite present himself? His contention is extremely straightforward and, prima facie, perfectly plausible: all claims to the contrary notwithstanding, he is no antisemite, he is in fact an anti-Zionist! With this, he assumes, he has salvaged his honour.

Anti-Zionism was “nothing other than an updated version of the age-old and evidently ineradicable, utterly irrational hatred that has been directed against the Jews since time immemorial”. It had “an easy ride” because the requisite “emotional infrastructure”, created by centuries of antisemitism, was already in place. “One can seamlessly merge the notion of the Jew as the oppressive legionary with the iron tread with that of the Jew as the runaway with the bowed legs. How the images finally resemble each other!” What was new, however, was the “shameful fact that the antisemitism claiming to be mere anti-Zionism has its most unrestrained proponents … on the political left”. Leftists were “the most eloquent proponents of anti-Zionism in all its brutishness”, thus “providing antisemitism with a nefarious dialectical veneer of virtuousness”.

“This much is for sure”, Améry insisted: “antisemitism resides in anti-Israelism and anti-Zionism as the thunderstorm does in the cloud”. “Somewhere”, he explained, “every ‘Down with the Zionist oppression’ finds an echo sounding remarkably like ‘Perish Judah!’” The New Left radicals, he noted, “de-define … the actual concept of Zionism”. For the New Left,

Zionism is roughly what, in Germany, some thirty years ago was called “World Jewry”. Leftist purism, leftist zeal and leftist virtuousness (in Robespierre’s sense) remonstrate against this Zionism, which leftists also like to call “National Zionism” in order to align it phonetically with National Socialism. In Israel the left sees the aggressor and oppressor, the armourbearer of Western, American imperialist oppression. … When it looks at Israel, it sees the ugly traits of militarism, if not of fascist violence.

Améry suggested two causes for the New Left’s “pro-Arab Manicheism”. Firstly, there was its adherence to “what a wise man (I do not recall his name) once called the ‘international of the one-eyed’”, i.e., what the late Moishe Postone and others have called the anti-imperialism of fools. I would note in passing: that the catchy notion of antisemitism as the “socialism of fools” is still in wide circulation is rather disconcerting insofar as, normatively speaking, antisemitism is obviously not a form of socialism at all (unless one concedes that national socialism too is a genuine form of socialism). The problem with antisemitism is not that its supporters do not proceed far enough towards the socialist critique of capitalism, as Bebel and his peers assumed, but that they head in the wrong direction altogether. At best, one might refer to this form of antisemitism as the anti-capitalism of fools. By contrast, recent decades have amply demonstrated that anti-imperialism is perfectly capable of being the exact opposite of progressive and emancipatory. The New Left, Améry lamented, had succumbed to “the myth of the liberation struggle that is both social-revolutionary and national in character.” Not that “the social-revolutionary national liberation struggle” was “per se as a myth. In many locations the world over it is an equally bitter and justified reality.” Yet the obsession of large parts of the New Left with this form of struggle led its adherents to muster “empathy for a deranged, book-burning Islamist fanatic of a dictator but not in the face of the mortal danger faced by every single Israeli”. It was high time, Améry insisted, that they understood that “not every bomb thrown, not every hostage killed, is per se an act of superior political insight or a sign of heroism”. The New Left needed to shake off “its guerrilla metaphysics” and “streamlined werewolf romanticism”.

Secondly, Améry argued that, their laudable anti-fascist impetus notwithstanding, the activists of the New Left were “oblivious to a number of phenomena specific to German National Socialism, which the concept of fascism fails to encapsulate”. This, he argued, “allows them to understand ‘Nazi fascism’ by misunderstanding it”. “Yet one cannot understand the phenomenon of Israel”, he explained,

without being fully cognizant of the Jewish catastrophe. Metaphorically speaking, everyone in Israel is the son or grandson of somebody who was gassed. By contrast, in Germany, and in the rest of Europe, one can take the liberty of being neither a “son” nor a “grandson”. For the New Left, every hour is the zero hour, every day a new beginning.

“All my leftist friends”, Améry suggested, “will tell me that I am joining the battalions exploiting the six … million murdered Jews to blackmail public opinion. This is a risk worth taking. It is a smaller risk than the one my friends would have us take when they plead for the self-disbandment of the ‘Zionist’ state of Israel.” Anyone who “questions Israel’s right to exist is either too stupid to understand that he is contributing to, or is intentionally promoting, an über-Auschwitz”.

Anyone who “questions Israel’s right to exist is either too stupid to understand that he is contributing to, or is intentionally promoting, an über-Auschwitz”.

Bearing all this in mind, Améry concluded, “practical political reason dictates that Israel, indeed, that Israel in particular, deserves the solidarity of any left that is not intent on abrogating itself.” Moreover, he insisted, “the new form of antisemitism is much more dangerous than the old antisemitism, the antisemitism of the philistines, which it is so eager to serve”.

Continuities and Discontinuities

Finally, I want to relate Améry’s analysis of leftist antisemitism to my own findings regarding the socialist response to antisemitism in Imperial Germany, on the one hand, and current debates, on the other, in order to illustrate important continuities and discontinuities. As far as the rejection of Jewish nationalism, the prevalence of secondary antisemitism and the need to justify the critique of antisemitism are concerned, the continuities are considerable. By contrast, the almost complete absence of the issue of racism from Améry’s essays marks a startling discontinuity.

Firstly, then, there is the pervasive rejection of Jewish nationalism in general and Zionism in particular (a distinction that has obviously become redundant over time). Leftists have consistently displayed great ingenuity in pointing to the regressive and anachronistic nature of Jewish aspirations to some form of national self-determination as well as the extent to which these aspirations violate the internationalist principles that will eventually bring about perpetual peace. This did not prevent most social democrats in Imperial Germany from enthusiastically supporting their country’s decision to go to war in the summer of 1914, and the degree to which significant sections of the left are attracted to the anti-imperialism of fools has only increased again in recent years. It continues to allow leftists to consider nationalism “agreeable wherever it is directed by tyrants against Jews but unjust as soon as Jews, in the face of unbearable pressure, fall into its trap”. There have, however, been two significant changes. On the one hand, the threat that political Islam and Islamist terrorism have come to pose since the Islamic Revolution in Iran makes Améry’s concerns regarding the “wretched feudalist Faisal and the crazed and fanatical Islamist Gaddafi” look rather quaint. On the other hand, in the eyes of many leftists a role reversal seems to have taken place. In Améry’s time, the US were generally assumed to be the puppet master and Israel the puppet. All too many leftists now assume Israel to be the puppet master and the US the puppet.

Secondly, for all their shortcomings, Imperial German social democrats obviously did not, and could not, know about Auschwitz and hence were not susceptible to the secondary antisemitism that finds its expression, inter alia, in Shoah envy and the claim that Jews “exploit” the Shoah in inappropriate ways in order to shore up their position and/or get away with reprehensible behaviour. This form of secondary antisemitism, which has in recent years been running riot in various parts of the political spectrum, including (not just) the (far) left, would seem to be as old as non-Jewish knowledge about the Shoah itself, and Améry was clearly all too familiar with it. As we saw, writing in 1969, he anticipated that “all my leftist friends will tell me that I am joining the battalions exploiting the six … million murdered Jews to blackmail public opinion”.

Thirdly, there is the widespread assumption that the critique of antisemitism is not inherently valid but needs to be justified. For most social democrats in Imperial Germany it went without saying, firstly, that Jews were disproportionately responsible for the ravages of capitalism, secondly, that Jews owned the liberal press and, thirdly, that the liberal press therefore criticized antisemitism in order to deflect justified criticism from the Jews’ responsibility for capitalist exploitation. As a result, it was common practice for anti-antisemites to justify their critique of antisemitism by first clarifying that they were by no means “philosemites”. A philosemite was somebody who criticized antisemitism opportunistically because he had some vested interest in defending the Jews’ reprehensible behaviour. The notion that the critique of antisemitism is in fact a ploy and merely serves to deflect legitimate criticism (of Israel in particular and/or of racism or any number of other grievances) is as widespread today as it was then. Indeed, the routine, more or less ritualistic manner in which many preface their critique of anti-Zionism with a disclaimer distancing themselves from various Israeli policies clearly echoes the formulaic manner in which social democrats in Imperial Germany sought to dispel the dreadful suspicion that they might be “philosemites”.

Améry would have had ample opportunity to pick up on a contemporary variant of this kind of “anti-philosemitism” but evidently chose not to. For the West German New Left, attitudes towards Israel were profoundly shaped not least by the fact that one of the most outspoken supporters of Israel was the right-wing publishing tycoon Axel Springer. Following the logic that my enemy’s friend is my enemy and my enemy’s enemy my friend, many felt that this only underscored yet further how important it was to side with Israel’s enemies. That Améry did not place his finger in this particular wound is presumably owed to the fact that he shared the New Left’s disdain for Springer. In “Virtuous Antisemitism” (1969), in a passage in which Améry argues that the Jews’ status in the West was not safe even now, he asked, inter alia: “Who can vouch for the fact that Franz-Josef Strauß, once in power, would not dream up something suited to make even a certain newspaper tycoon think twice about making further sordid donations to an Israeli government sordidly willing to accept them?” The “certain newspaper tycoon” was obviously Springer. We also know that Améry wrote to the editor of the highbrow monthly Merkur who published some of Améry’s most important essays, on the eve of the Six-Day War, noting that he had heard rumours that Merkur would henceforth be produced by a publishing enterprise belonging to Springer’s empire. “Quite apart from the fact that I would hardly feel at home in a journal belonging to the Springer corporation I could well imagine that my name would be a red rag to such a publishing house”, he suggested.

Améry certainly did routinely distance himself from various aspects of Israel’s foreign policy and domestic development. Presumably one should give him the benefit of the doubt and accept that the concerns he expressed sprang from deeply held convictions and were not, or at least not primarily, meant as a concession to those who would have taken his line of argument even less seriously, had he not engaged in some form of criticism of the Jewish state. He was profoundly shocked by Israel’s turn to the right and despised the country’ first Likud prime minister, Menahem Begin. Even so, when, in 1977, faced with unconfirmed reports that the Israeli authorities were torturing Arab prisoners, he decided to publish an essay on “The Limits of Solidarity”, he ended up tying himself in knots. It was important to draw a line in the sand, he insisted, to indicate “the point at which, and the reasons why”, the Jews in the diaspora “would be forced, not to break (this is inconceivable) but to loosen the bond” that tied them to Israel. Yet just as he did here, he repeatedly affirmed that it was “inconceivable” that the Jews in the diaspora would “revoke their pact of solidarity” with Israel, referring to “the interminable nature of the basic pact between them” and “the irrevocable solidarity that binds us together”.

The most obvious discontinuity between Améry’s analysis of leftist antisemitism and current debates surely lies in the almost complete absence of the issue of racism from his essays.

The most obvious discontinuity between Améry’s analysis of leftist antisemitism and current debates surely lies in the almost complete absence of the issue of racism from his essays. A small handful of slightly jarring casual invocations of race apart, we find only three explicit references to racism in this series of essays, all of them, none too surprisingly, in texts Améry published in 1976, i.e., the year following the adoption of the infamous United Nations General Assembly Resolution 3379 on 10 November 1975, which stated “that Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination”. “If the Jew too lays claim to that fashionable and much celebrated phenomenon, a ‘national identity’”, Améry wrote in 1976, “one calls him a racist”. This has, alas, proved something of a timeless truth. Actually, he clarified, the fact “that each and every Jew feels a kind of existential bond with the state of Israel and its sovereign existence, regardless of whether he belongs to the Mosaic religious community or not, regardless of whether he supports or rejects Zionism”, had nothing to do “with metaphysics, a neurotic sense of election or racism”. Finally, Améry pointed to “an Islamic-Christian gathering” that took place in February 1976 “in Gaddafi’s Tripoli of all places”. There, “representatives of the Vatican, despite some initial trepidation, subserviently signed up to a generalized condemnation of Israel, which could just as well have been formulated by Gaddafi himself. It denounced Zionism yet again as a form of racism”. (This essay appeared in the same issue of Merkur as an anti-Zionist rant by the German poet and inveterate anti-Zionist Erich Fried. While Fried’s text was not a direct rejoinder to Améry’s essay, it could not but attenuate the impact of Améry’s impassioned denunciation of leftist anti-Zionism.)

Prior to its publication in Merkur, Améry added a short sequel to his lecture on “Virtuous Antisemitism” in which he reflected on his recent visit to Israel. There he wrote:

I also saw the occupation. It was not a pretty picture. Armed occupiers inevitably take on the air of a master race. Yet whenever I gave these young Israeli warriors a ride in my car, I saw only utterly exhausted wretches buckling under the weight of their machine guns. Incidentally, and this may be pure coincidence, or the coincidence may reflect a statistical truth, nearly all of them were “black” Jews: their parents had come from Tunisia, Morocco, Yemen, Iraq and Iran. One of them, whose features were entirely negroid, even came from Libya. By way of an explanation he simply said: Gaddafi…

With hindsight, one is tempted to assume that Améry made this reference to “black” Jews specifically to counter the claim that Israel was, in today’s jargon, a “racist endeavour”. It seems more likely, however, that he simply wanted to draw attention to the large number of (now) Israeli Jews who had been expelled by the Arab states (another issue leftists like to disregard entirely). Then again, perhaps the reference also indicates the way in which the identification of Zionism with racism (and, hence, the desire to refute it) was beginning to insinuate itself into the minds even of those who knew better.

More importantly, Améry’s virtual oblivion, in this particular context, to the issue of racism, other than as a polemical concept deployed to denounce Jews, illustrates the fact that the widespread assumption of a close relationship, if not identity, between antisemitism and racism is in large part a post-1968, “postcolonial” invention. Not even in reflecting upon the Shoah did Améry consider it a helpful concept. Nor, of course, had or have others. In the 1940s, the members of the Frankfurt School in exile, in the course of their study on Antisemitism Among American Labor, registered a distinct “difference in the texture of prejudice” between antisemitism and racism. Moishe Postone, in his ground-breaking essay, “Anti-Semitism and National Socialism”, first published in 1979, explained that “particular aspects of the extermination of European Jewry by the Nazis remain inexplicable so long as anti-Semitism is treated as a specific example of prejudice, xenophobia and racism in general”. It was “not only the degree, but also the quality of power attributed to the Jews which distinguishes anti-Semitism from other forms of racism”. Looking back at the 1950s and 1960s, it now seems self-evident that Jewish support for the civil rights movement in the US hinged on the shared experience of racism. Yet in fact, as the name of the movement indicates, it was the shared experience of civil rights denied that underpinned this alliance.

It is all the more regrettable that large parts of the left now subscribe to the notion that antisemitism is simply one particular form of racism. All too many do so in order to maintain that they need not reflect on antisemitism in particular since they are already card-carrying anti-racists. Moreover, given their anti-racism, they cannot possibly be antisemitic. The anti-antisemites, on the other hand, presumably acquiesce, consciously or otherwise, because in a culture in which racism has emerged as the concept that supposedly explains everything and all “well-meaning” human beings reject “racism”, they stand little chance of making themselves heard unless they denounce antisemitism as a form of racism. Perhaps, by doing so, they might shame anti-racists who subscribe to antisemitic notions into thinking again. This is surely, if ever there was one, a futile attempt to dismantle the house with the master’s tools.

As we saw, Améry noted in 1976 that, as a general rule, when one sought to hold antisemitism “to account it disowns itself. It is no easy task to drag it before the court that has long since condemned it but would nevertheless need to be in constant session.” The frustration encapsulated by this formulation will surely strike a chord with anyone who has ever sought to combat antisemitism. The ritualistic invocation of the claim that “anti-Zionism is not antisemitism” rather resembles Bill Clinton’s claim that he was not having sex with Monica Lewinsky while she was having sex with him. As Améry wrote in “The New Antisemitism”, “I am convinced, though I cannot prove it, that the leftist anti-Zionists/antisemites actually have a clear sense of all this, but they repress it”. While it would obviously be absurd to suggest that antisemitism is universally frowned upon, the left, for the most part, does claim to reject antisemitism. And yet, “the court that has long since condemned” it nevertheless needs to be “in constant session” in no small measure because of the deeply engrained antisemitism of large parts of the left.

Perhaps most importantly, Améry’s interventions illustrate that it is perfectly possible to make a compelling case against antisemitism and for Israel without invoking the conceptual catch-all of (anti-)racism.

Their ongoing formative influence on a small number of leftist sects and individuals notwithstanding, Améry’s interventions, for all their prescience and acuity, eloquence and vehemence, have ultimately proved entirely futile. Those who ought to take heed will be as unimpressed by them now as their predecessors were in Améry’s time, if not more so. What, then, might the lasting value of Améry’s critique be (leaving aside the intriguing insight these essays offer us into the efforts of a profoundly thoughtful survivor to negotiate the world after Auschwitz)? On a practical level, they offer a substantial and impressive point of orientation for anti-antisemites and some assurance that anti-Zionist leftists really are gas-lighting them by claiming not to be antisemitic. On a more fundamental, conceptual level, Améry’s texts demonstrate that there is really absolutely nothing remotely new about leftist antisemitism, especially in the guise of anti-Zionism. If it now, finally, draws more attention than it ought to have done all along, this is mainly due to the extent to which it is being mainstreamed among more centrist leftists and in centre-left parties that exert some measure of influence in their respective countries. Améry’s texts might therefore encourage us to stop countenancing the feigned ignorance and faux naïvety of antisemitic leftists who indeed operate as though “every hour is the zero hour, every day a new beginning”. Perhaps most importantly, Améry’s interventions illustrate that it is perfectly possible to make a compelling case against antisemitism and for Israel without invoking the conceptual catch-all of (anti-)racism. In historical and empirical (rather than normative and theoretical) terms, there is nothing to suggest that anti-racism and anti-antisemitism are natural bed fellows, and there is no reason to assume that anti-racists cannot be antisemitic. The attempt to shame anti-racist antisemites by insisting that antisemitism is a form of racism can only affirm their assumption that, as anti-racists, they are inherently incapable of antisemitism in the first place.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: