Antisemitic Language Is An Ongoing Action

Maybe, the key to understanding the puzzle of antisemitism lays in its own sentences. This may seem a truism, but it may not if sentences can do more than just describe things. In his book How To Do Things With Words, the analytic philosopher J.L. Austin developed the concept of “performative sentences”: these are sentences that, when uttered, do not (just) describe or prescribe something. Rather, their very assertion is an act. That is, the utterance itself is the performance of an action. It doesn’t pretend to be true or false, because is not a logical or grammatical assertion. The words are simply doing. Creating, if you like.

An example is the sentence “I do” within a wedding ceremony. That sentence is not true or false, but instead it is a meaningful action which changes the social reality of the person who utters it. It is a performative sentence that transforms a bachelor into a married man.

“The uttering of the words is, indeed, usually a, or even the, leading incident in the performance of the act, the performance of which is also the object of the utterance, but it is far from being usually, even if it is ever, the sole thing necessary if the act is to be deemed to have been performed,” explained Austin. “Speaking generally, it is always necessary that the circumstances in which the words are uttered should be in some way, or ways, appropriate, and it is very commonly necessary that either the speaker himself or other persons should also perform certain other actions, whether ‘physical’ or ‘mental’ actions or even acts of uttering further words.”

How might Austin’s theory apply to antisemitic utterances? Is it possible that we have been mistaking them for descriptive sentences when they are, in fact, performative sentences?

It seems possible. Anyone who says, “the Jews (or, to use its modern mask, the “Zionists”) are X” (X being any derogative statement about the Jewish people) is obviously not describing a fact or a feature of reality. Rather, the antisemite is doing two things with his sentence: (1) he is repeating, like an incantation, a familiar word or statement that stereotypes Jews; and (2) he is acting out the solution that antisemitic statement “demands,” namely, to isolate Jews, to intimidate them, or to simply make them uncomfortable within the wider community.

So, “the Jews are/do X” doesn’t say anything about the Jews, but its very utterance acts against them.

In consequence, antisemitic discourse doesn’t (only) say something (a libel) about Jews, it is an action upon them. It changes their social reality. And it’s an action always in progress, always happening: it can’t stop until the reason it’s been set in motion ceases to exist. That’s what the Nazis tried to do: a “Final, definitive solution” that would finally put and end to the task.

How can antisemitic discourse not be an action if, paraphrasing René Girard (Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World), humanity is always told that the creation of the perfect city, the way to terrestrial paradise, depends on the prior elimination or forced conversion of the guilty parties? That is, the “human tendency to transfer anxiety and conflict on to arbitrary victims,” in “the unshakeable conviction that it has found the one and only cause of its trouble.”

In this scenario, the Jews are the only true scapegoats because, like Girard said, they are the ones that cannot be recognized as such.

Antisemitic hate even obfuscates one’s ability to see antisemitism: it is dismissed when it comes from the Left (“Jewish paranoia” is the explanation); it is silenced or understated when it comes from the Muslim world (“cultural differences”; “regional conflicts”; “it’s Israel”); and it’s caricatured when it comes from the Right (“those crazy supremacists, they hate anything but themselves”). The hate protects itself by saying it doesn’t exist.

But it does. And, again, its language is always an action. An ongoing action. As Girard wrote:

“For there to be an effective, sacralizing act of transference, it is necessary that the victim should inherit all of the violence from which the community has been exonerated. It is because the victim [that is, the scapegoat] genuinely passes as guilty that the transference does not come to the fore as such.”

Over and over. Millennium after millennium barely changing its makeup – maybe a euphemism here and there, some touch of “modernity”, of “progressiveness”; scarcely noticeable arrangements, this hate, this behavior, this creed, this action that antisemitism is, has been passed on, internalized, acted upon and passed to the next generation; peaking whenever it seems there might be a situation of everyone against everyone else, thus attempting to replace this multilateral opposition with one that’s of all against one… Always the same one—the Jew.

About the Author
The author is a media analyst and the Associate Director of ReVista de Medio Oriente, the Spanish Department of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis (CAMERA).
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