Shockingly, Daniel Smith’s recent New York Times Opinionator column “Do the Jews Own Anxiety?” manages not to mention the word “Holocaust” (or “Shoah”) once, although it does include a quote from Portnoy’s Complaint about “Diaspora Jews…who had gone by the millions to the gas chambers” as well as obliquely referencing the blood libel. Even more surprising than Smith’s welcome unwillingness to deploy the Holocaust as a heuristic device is the other missing word: “modernity,” or “modernism.”
Smith blames both Jews, whom he alleges have propagated the “figure of the Neurotic Jew—our hysterical clown,” and anti-Semitism, which has forced Jews to live in the world as “object[s] of a widespread psychotic rage,” for defining Jews as anxious and anxiety as Jewish. But he offers only narrow twentieth century examples of neurotic Jews (Tevye, Portnoy, Barton Fink, and Woody Allen), all of whom were created or existed in the most welcoming country in the world towards Jews (Israel excluded of course)—missing the mark on both counts, if we’re meant to believe that Jewish anxiety is both ahistorical/transnational and a defense mechanism to blind, irrational hatred.
On the other hand, anxiety and Jews are both the sine quibus non of modernity– see for example Kafka, “degenerate art,” Walter Benjamin, “Howl,” or the young Alvy Singer worried that the universe is expanding— as a condition. Modernity or modernism is defined by wild cultural and formal experimentation, radical “isms” (e.g. surrealism, Dadaism, existentialism) and manifestos, the unconscious, fragmentation and rootlessness, ambiguity, irony and parody, and a breakdown between “high” and “low” cultures, and developed concurrently and in response to mass industrialization, urbanization, scientific progress, and war—exactly what creates and embodies anxiety. Jews therefore aren’t anxious because they’re Jews, they’re anxious because, as walking twentieth century zeitgeists, they’re the paradigmatic modernists, canaries in the coal mines of the assembly line, two world wars, and the atomic bomb. The universe is indeed expanding.
Of course, modernism also embodies not merely the “Wandering Jew,” a figure dissimilar in its doomed resolution to the neurotic, uncomfortably comfortable American Jew, but also the Jewish apostate, who is rejected by the majority culture because he was born a Jew but is also rejected by Judaism because of his refusal of Jewish orthodoxy. The late Marxist Isaac Deutscher referred to this apostatic figure as the “non-Jewish Jew,” meaning not a Jew assimilated to the majority culture but the opposite, namely Jews who go beyond the boundaries of both Judaism and the majority culture in order to “rise in thought above their societies, above their nations, above their times and generations, and to strike out mentally into wide new horizons and far into the future.” Examples of such “non-Jewish Jews” include Spinoza, Heine, Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, Trotsky, and Freud, all of whom belong to the quintessentially Jewish tradition of “Jewish heretic[s] who transcend Jewry”—none of whom (well, minus Freud, who of course most embodies the twentieth century among this list) was known for being neurotic or anxious.
Deutscher, writing in 1954, was concerned that the Jewish revolutionary tradition would be destroyed by a growing enthusiasm for Israel and the new orthodoxy of the nation-state. As a Marxist, he understood nationalism to be antithetical to “the message of universal human emancipation” that represented the ultimate “moral and political heritage” of the “genius of the Jews.” The Six Day War would occur thirteen years later, the first intifada twenty years after that, the construction of the West Bank “security fence” fifteen years after that. Who can now argue that Deutscher was wrong? Does the non-Jewish Jew even exist anymore, or has he/she simply become the non-Zionist Jew (a.k.a. the Self-Hating Jew to his/her enemies, culturally orthodox if not religiously Orthodox Jews): Norman Finkelstein, Ilan Pappe, Lenni Brenner and other resolute nonconformers? Sadly, the message of universal human emancipation now requires too much defense against Zionist orthodoxy to worry much about Jewish orthodoxy, let alone anyone else’s.
In his essay, Smith observes that the “soul of the Jewish religion” is “endless, mind-numbing exegesis,” a “willingness to question, discuss, scrutinize, interpret, dissect and argue over every last niggling aspect of human existence,” but expresses concern that overfocusing on these positive stereotypes as a counter to other negative stereotypes can only lead to a “current of self-flattery.” Smith needn’t worry, or, perhaps, he should be worrying even more. He’s obviously never tried to talk about Israel with a Zionist.