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.”

One discerns the European attitude toward Israel in the blood libel perpetrated by the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet, speciously accusing Israel of organ harvesting, in the subsidizing of left-wing NGOs whose mandate is to destabilize the Jewish state, in the spread of the BDS movement, and in the ongoing love affair with Hamas and the Palestinian Authority whose charters promise the destruction of Israel. As columnist Caroline Glick writes, “mainstream forces in Britain and throughout Europe now side openly with Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood in their annihilationist war against the Jewish state.”

Islam, too, is complicit, since as an Abrahamic religion which owes it formation in large measure to the Hebrew scripture and the people it later conquered by violence and slaughter, it must preserve its sense of purity by suppressing the inadmissible. Thus, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, Islam’s most popular preacher, recently speechified in Cairo’s Tahrir Square: “Throughout history, Allah has imposed upon the [Jews] people who would punish them for their corruption. The last punishment was carried out by Hitler [who] managed to put them in their place”  — which is, of course, out of place (italics mine). Qaradawi is only articulating a sentiment pervasive throughout the Islamic world and its various branch-plants, like Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam. For Farrakhan, Israel and the Jews are "Satan" incarnate, the Prince of Evil or his minions sowing havoc in the world. They do not belong; they must be “uncovered.”

Out-of-placeness, however, is a polyvalent and versatile concept which can be turned back upon itself as easily as it is imposed upon an innocent recipient. Islam, as many scholars have attested, is historically out of place, an atavism of the seventh century with “a strong aversion to modernity,” as Paul Hollander discreetly puts it. It still awaits its Reformation. And as Muslim intellectual Salim Mansur correctly states, “the vast majority of Muslims has not made the shift from the pre-modern to the modern world.”

Europe, on the other hand, represents a fully modern cultural system that is morally out of place, hiding from itself, desperately striving to deflect responsibility for what James called “evil” by locating it elsewhere, an act of ethical foulness and a sordid perversion of communal conscience. Europe not only resents the Jews for what it did to them and for serving as a reminder of its own depravity, like a demon it is determined to exorcize, it must also pacify its restive Muslim populations while ensuring the favor of Muslim oil producing nations. Hitting on Israel is just the ticket.

The animus against Israel comes to the fore in an interview given to the Jerusalem Post on March 2, 2011 by Luxembourg’s foreign minister Jean Asselborn, who claims to be a friend of Israel, yet insists that: the Palestinian Authority negotiates in good faith, regardless of the fact that it did not come to the table during Prime Minister Netanyahu’s ten-month building freeze; the chief obligation for peace rests with Israel and not the Palestinians; a gradually upscale Gaza is really an “open-air prison”; 10,000 rockets fired on Israel, including the recent strike against Beersheba, count for nothing -- after all, “In London you have terrorism also, and in Paris”; Israel should allow Gazans to work in the country -- never mind the suicide bombers and guerrilla fighters streaming in on their Toyota pick-ups (with a little vehicular help from George Galloway); and so on ad nauseam. Beneath such capricious folly and apparent ignorance, a scurrilous agenda lies concealed. Such assumptions and recommendations would soon enough displace the presumed excrescence and flush the offending matter into the weep field of history.

But it is this conceptual world that is itself septic, advocating and pursuing a duplicitous program of ideological apartheid against the Jewish state. The scandal of the Israel Apartheid Week campaign, for example, is that it is culpable of the same transgression it so righteously and falsely denounces, launching an exclusionary assault against a laudably integrated nation — a nation that preserves its democratic heritage despite being surrounded by implacable enemies and also having to deal with its own fifth column. It is not Israel but the anti-Zionist and anti-Jewish conceptual world that is soiled beyond redemption, practicing a surreptitious moral inversion in its deliberate distortion of historical justice and of the enactments of international law. As Catherine Chatterley argues, what we are observing is the “re-deployment of classic European antisemitic tropes” which “places Zionists outside the boundaries of humanity.”

The final irony, however, is that if dirt, generally speaking, is matter out of place, then modern Israel, founded in its ancestral homeland where it historically and legitimately belongs, is exactly in the right place, the place where it is meant to be. Moreover, what has been censored and excluded by those who are themselves morally unsanitary is, by definition, comparatively pristine and deserving of rehabilitation. “That which is rejected,” says Mary Douglas, “is ploughed back for a renewal of life.” Indeed, the “moral conditions [are] correct.” Those who condemn Israel should look to their own suspect purity. They have forfeited the moral right to pronounce on what is clean and unclean and to draw the borders of an equivocal propriety, the imaginary “Green Line” of their turbid fantasy.

The fact is that Israel’s cadastral address is also its ordered and ritually authentic locus between the river and the sea. To use James’ terms, it will not “be sloughed off and negated, and the very memory of it, if possible, wiped out and forgotten.” The “evil” lies elsewhere. The “dirt” on Israel is shoveled from the European and Islamic rubbish heap. For despite the calumny and dishonesty to which it is regularly subjected, Israel is the one place where Jews are truly not out of place.