Leif Knutsen

A history of the goyim

Sculpture of Cissi Klein (1929-1943) in her home town of Trondheim. My own photograph.

It seems to me that Shaul Magid doesn’t want to talk about antisemitism but doesn’t explain his aversion, except to claim that Horn’s book is something it clearly isn’t.

I’ll charitably assume that Shaul Magid is sincere (and not merely rhetorical) in wondering whether he missed the point of Dara Horn’s book “People love dead Jews,” since he’s concluded that it’s a “book about collective victimhood and the inability to disentangle from it. Not circumstantial victimhood, not situational victimhood, but systemic victimhood.”

Because: yes, professor Magid, you missed the point.

The subject of the title phrase gives it away: it’s not about the dead Jews, it’s about the people who love the dead Jews (and by implication, love living Jews far less).

Magid’s got a point, though: as a student of Jewish history I have often come across the argument that there is too much focus on the “oy vey” aspects, the “lachrymose history” that Magid traces back to Salo Baron.

Magid places Horn’s book forms in the emerging “genre” of “antisemitism literature,” which – according to him – is all about victimhood.

I don’t think I am far removed from Baron’s thinking when I see the history of the Jews is in large part due to the fact that Jews have refused to be victimized and have persevered both during and in between hard times. (It’s not like Jews have settled into a lack of agency, dysfunctional societies in which they rely on support for outsiders, yet blame them entirely to blame for their misfortunes.)

Horn’s in step with Baron, too. Her book isn’t about what Jews did, do, or even ought to do.

It’s about the curious and uncomfortable phenomenon that when too many people – mostly but not exclusively non-Jews – talk about Jews favorably, they tend to talk about dead Jews. Ideally, young, endearing, “innocent” Jews who are easy to idealize into something generically and endearingly human, and who never got a chance to develop into three dimensions and living color; and certainly not anything distinctively Jewish.

The thinking behind this is: you prevent antisemitism by emphasizing and reinforcing the notion that Jews are just like non-Jews, and it would be madness to harm someone like yourself. Need I spell out the implication of this reasoning?

The emerging genre that upsets Magid is not the history of the Jews, it’s the history of those who wittingly or unwittingly seek to suppress or eliminate Jewishness.

In blatantly pejorative terms, it’s the history of the goyim.

To recycle Magid’s own turn of phrase, the history of the goyim is about collective antisemitism and the inability to disentangle from it. Not circumstantial antisemitism, not situational victimhood, but systemic antisemitism. And might I add: in every civilization, in varying degrees, in different ways, and at different times.

The question of this genre is “what is the fundamental flaw in human civilization – to the present day – that causes antisemitism, and how is it manifest?” Horn’s book illustrates how seemingly benign interest in Jews actually is harmful. The dead Jews she describes are rendered two-dimensional, an image of “ideal” Jews, i.e., those that are nearly indistinguishable from everyone else.

Implicitly: people can learn to love Jews as long as they aren’t annoying by persistently insisting on being, well, Jewish, which is to say human.

After having read Horn’s book you can’t unsee her point. Here in Norway, three of the most famous Holocaust victims who were murdered are Cissi Klein, Kathe Lasnik, and Ruth Maier, all young women, all easy to like, young, similar to your sister, daughter, next-door neighbor. They all have streets and squares named after them in Norway, and even in Austria. Someone like Moritz Rabinowitz, who was a businessman, political activist, and Zionist, not so much.

Magid’s additional two points crumble once you realize what Horn is trying to do.

There is simply no basis for a “mentality” “[the book] implicitly espouses, that the centrality of Jew-hatred is the source of Jewish identity, which Magid concedes “may not be why…” the book was written, though he is convinced that is how it is being read. That is obviously how he chooses to read it, but it seems likely that others read it as a contribution to understanding this particular form of antisemitism.

On the other hand, it’s promising that more of the discussion on antisemitism puts its perpetrators, enablers, and bystanders in focus. It seems increasingly likely that it is a defining characteristic of several societies that like to pretend otherwise. I hope Magid will lend his expertise to exploring this issue.

About the Author
Leif Knutsen has observed, reflected, and written on Israeli and Jewish issues since the late 70s and has personal experience from Jewish life in the US and Norway. He is currently one of the oldest PhD students in Norway, conducting research on digitalization of complex organizations.
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