Differences

Frank Kermode

  • The Jew’s Body by Sander Gilman
    Routledge, 303 pp, £10.99, September 1992, ISBN 0 415 90459 5
  • Shylock: Four Hundred Years in the Life of a Legend by John Gross
    Chatto, 355 pp, £18.00, September 1992, ISBN 0 7011 3523 9
  • Faultlines: Cultural Materialism and the Politics of Dissident Reading by Alan Sinfield
    Oxford, 365 pp, £27.50, September 1992, ISBN 0 19 811983 6

Anti-semitism is so disgusting a disease that timid laypersons might prefer to leave its pathology to the experts, but it is pandemic and they cannot wash their hands of it. Sander Gilman’s book concerns the curious manner in which sufferers from anti-semitism explain away their condition by describing Jewishness as the disease. This is done so literally that the Jewish body (predominantly the male, because of circumcision) has, by a pseudo-scientific pathology, been characterised as diseased, quite literally from top to toe. Jews are therefore ‘different’; and from their difference, and of course they are in some obvious respects different, arise, to the astonishment of the right-thinking layperson, pogrom and Shoah.

Gilman is a psychiatrist, not a propagandist. He examines actual as well as imputed difference, the variations of anti-semitic stereotypes in their relation to ‘the reality of Jews’. Thus: there really is a ‘Jewish voice’, but it is not, as the Nazis (and Wagner) believed, a sort of Nibelungan affront to the language of the ‘Aryan’. Nor is it the phonic marker of a dissident and dangerous plague-carrying minority.

In what I thought his least convincing passage, Gilman traces this myth back to the Gospels, attaching dubious importance to the fact that Matthew and Mark record the last words of Jesus as spoken in Aramaic, while Luke and John offer a different version, in Greek. But although Mark, followed by Matthew, offers various sayings in Aramaic he immediately translates them into Greek. The evangelists were addressing not only Gentiles but the large number of Jews whose ordinary language (and even their Bible) was Greek. So it’s unlikely that Luke and John had it in mind to present a Jesus who didn’t ‘sound Jewish’. Moreover the argument that the book of Revelation shows an ‘absolute’ separation ‘between the divine discourse of the Church and the corrupt discourse of the Jew’ ignores the fact that the book of Revelation is notoriously full of ‘Semitisms’, is written, as Matthew Black puts it, in ‘Jews’ Greek’.

However, Gilman might well be excused for not bothering much about Christian origins. He is horribly persuasive on physiological detail – the ‘Jewish foot’, for instance, malformed like the devil’s. It was not only the foot but Jewish physique generally that made Jews unapt for military service. It was a compendium of the diseases of civilisation. ‘The pathognomic status of the Jew’s body’ was read ‘as a sign of the Jew’s inherent difference’. Some physical features Jews shared with blacks. The very way they walk indicates atavism, animality, disease. The spread of syphilis was routinely attributed to Jews, as Hitler remembered in Mein Kampf, and it was linked, implausibly, to the practice of circumcision. Other plagues were called Jewish in origin: gambling, prostitution, and now Aids. Jack the Ripper, despite his own disclaimers, must have been a Whitechapel Jew, a shochet or ritual butcher. English anti-semitism, which had a millennial history and an ample supply of stereotypes, now turned on the new immigrants from Eastern Europe.

In their turn, Western Jewish scientists, we learn, joined in the game and passed on these myths of degeneracy to the Jews of the East, almost as if subscribing to the old notion that you could get rid of a venereal disease by passing it on to somebody else. In one chapter Gilman offers a history of the nose-job, a means of ridding oneself of ‘specific physical attributes associated’ with a ‘particular ethnic group’, of becoming socially ‘invisible’; and probably there are more such operations performed in New York, that Jewish city, than anywhere else. Gilman is of course interested in the element of self-abasing Jewish behaviour caused by centuries of oppression; circumcision is still a Jewish problem in the USA, even though it seems all boy babies get circumcised unless the parents forbid it.

There are, says Gilman, ‘continuities of images of the Jews in the West throughout the modern era’. Absurdities about their smell, their colour (originally black), their sexuality persist. Even their creative abilities can be connected with their diseases.

I can’t claim to understand this violent and detestable history any better even after reading this book, except that it does emerge that the image of the diseased Jew is a projection of the diseased anti-semite. That is where we have to look for the tokens of the plague. But as to its aetiology, as to explanations of how this devastating ailment took hold and how it persists, one is hardly the wiser. Explanations that go back to the Crucifixion and myths affirming the practice of ritual murder of Christian children[*] will hardly suffice nowadays, when the anti-semites are not likely to be Christians and can even be Jewish. The notion of ‘difference’ as leading of itself to pogrom, forced emigration, holocaust, ethnic cleansing, will need development if it is to do all the explaining. Perhaps it is an updated notion of wickedness that is really called for.

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[*] A detailed account of the persecution of the Jews of the northern Italian city of Trent in 1475 is provided in Trent 1475: Stories of a Ritual Murder Trial by R. Po-chia Hsia (Yale, 173 pp., £14, 29 October, 0 300 05106 9). This account is based on a contemporary German manuscript account of the trial. The horrible story of judicial torture, false witness, conversions exacted on the promise of less painful forms of execution, is told calmly and with scholarly care. The manuscript is evidently a beautiful and expensive document, appropriate to what was regarded as the triumph of just authority over evil. Of course in those days it was the truth and power of Christianity, rather than the racial purity of the larger community, that was sullied by the Jews.