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Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity

Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity

December 9, 2016
3 min read

octnov book3Enzo Traverso, a professor of humanities at Cornell, advances a twofold argument in The End of Jewish Modernity. The first is that the Jewish condition has become so normalised in the liberal west that traditional anti-Jewish hatred has all but vanished. The second is that it has not so much disappeared as morphed into Islamophobia. Both contentions are seriously askew.

The first would seem to have much going for it. Traverso points to the lurid Dominic Strauss-Kahn scandal in 2011, in which a wealthy descendant of rabbis and freemasons hired a fleet of expensive Jewish lawyers to defend himself against charges of rape.

‘One need only imagine the portrait of such a character that would have been penned by Édouard Drumont or Léon Daudet, by the pencils of Toulouse-Lautrec or the crayons of Caran d’Arche,’ Traverso writes. Yet the old anti-semitic tropes remained untouched: ’Everyone, even the most cynical, feared that by using these they would only discredit themselves.’

If ever an ideology had outlived its usefulness, anti-semitism would seem to be it. But appearances can be deceptive; anti-Jewish prejudice is not going away anytime soon. This is particularly so now that the global capitalist crisis is nearing full boil. Flashpoints abound: Israel, the perceived Jewish role in finance and also a continued Jewish prominence on the left. Any of these could trigger a conflagration.

The idea of Islamophobia as anti-semitism redux also seems to have something in it. ‘The beards, tefillin and kaftans of the Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe … correspond to the beards and veils of the Muslims of today,’ Traverso observes. ‘In both cases, the religious, cultural, clothing and dietary habits of a minority are mobilised to construct the negative stereotype of a foreign body that cannot be assimilated . . . In political terms, the spectre of Islamic terrorism has replaced that of Judeo-Bolshevism.’

This is too easy. As striking as such similarities may be, it’s the differences that make the phenomenon so difficult to combat. Islamist terrorism is not a revolt against capitalism. On the contrary, it is a product of a modern capitalist economy that places vast sums in the hands of Persian Gulf monarchies whose only exports are fossil fuels, Wahhabist bigotry and jihad. These are some of the most right-wing states in modern history, yet everyone patronises them, from Barack Obama to François Hollande, in order to keep the oil flowing.

It is not petty prejudice that drives Islamophobia, consequently, but petrocapitalism in an advanced state of breakdown. Economics come first – yet they hardly seem to enter into Traverso’s field of vision.