Treating Israel like Dirt

In a critical passage from The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James associates evil with the concept of “dirt.” Evil, he says, is “an alien unreality, a waste element, to be sloughed off and negated, and the very memory of it, if possible, wiped out and forgotten.” It is “diseased, inferior, and excrementitious stuff," which can only be considered “so much irrelevance and accident -- so much ‘dirt,’ as it were, and matter out of place.”

Drawing on James’s insight, anthropologist Mary Douglas, in her landmark study of the concepts of pollution and taboo, Purity and Danger, analyzes how rules of purity constitute an organizing element in culture, marking off the sacred from the profane, order from chaos, and the acceptable from the improper. Dirt, she writes, echoing James, is essentially “matter out of place,” a “by-product of a systematic…classification of matter” and a sign of incompleteness. It is the unclear, the peripheral, the inappropriate, and the extraneous that inspires social revulsion.

Thus, hybrids, she points out, are often considered taboo and marginal entities are regarded as obscene, lawless, and overly aggressive. Jews, especially, are seen as “socially ambiguous,” their real offense felt as always having been outside the formal structures of society and the symbols by which it organizes itself. Danger emanates from the “dark, obscure areas” of such formal structures, whether these are sensed to abide in the unconscious of the individual or in the Stygian regions of the social and political hierarchies. Israel, of course, is subliminally understood as the collective embodiment of the Jew in the community of nations, an immiscible element which must therefore be ritually excluded to ward off fears of defilement and of inherently destructive power. The Jew, aka Israel, is perceived as dangerous and must be subdued and excommunicated, cut out and cast aside by the moral regime as enacted in the rites of communal purity. The malign “sacrament” of expulsion, as we can readily see, has once again gone global. Operation Scapegoat has now acquired international force.

In other words, Israel is treated like “dirt,” political matter out of place, an extrusion of contaminated substance that threatens the unity, coherence, and order of the whole. Such rejectionism is certainly true of Europe whose own moral cleanliness has been profoundly compromised by its millennial anti-Semitism which culminated in the Holocaust and which continues to this day. But as Europe grows ever more oblivious of its moral and political feculence, it must correlatively insist upon its nobility of intention, its love of peace, its fundamental decency -- in short, its intrinsic purity, a fiction it can maintain only by purging awareness and banishing history to the Lethean waters of the unconscious. At the same time, to ensure forgetfulness of guilt, it requires a present substitute for its own sullied and problematic past. And what better proxy than the people and nation upon whom it inflicted the most heinous and unspeakable of crimes? For Europe to be clean, Israel must be ritually defined as dirt.

A similar dynamic applies to the Muslim world as well, except that there it is inflected by a supremacist ideology that rejects the “people of the book” as fickle, obstinate, treasonable, and morally inferior. As Koran 59:3 specifies, Allah has decreed exile for them. Islam does not operate from a psychic substratum of historical guilt, as does Europe, but from a conviction of divinely conferred sanction. For Islam, it is the other that is guilty; there is no fissure in what we might call the cultural unconscious. Israel and the Jew are still considered as dirt, obviously, but more precisely, as spirit out of place, of which Israel is the visible and offending body.

There is a great and deflationary, though duly unacknowledged, irony at work in this overarching semiotic. Europe is corrupt to the very core, in particular as it seeks to avoid self-recognition by discharging its sins upon its victim, that is, treating Israel like dirt. Unaware of its contorted project of self-acquittal, it has transformed Israel into itself. It gazes at Israel and sees its own savage and decadent past projected outward, in this way relieving itself of accountability and the knowledge which incriminates. In so doing, it postulates what Catherine Chatterley, director of the Canadian Institute for the Study of Antisemitism, describes as “a polarized, Manichean context between evil, racist Israel…and the rest of humanity.”