(A reader had difficulty finding this 2015 Asia Times essay, so I am reposting it here).
The Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith polled 10,000 Greeks this June, and was shocked to learn that Greeks hate Jews. Greece, wrote Alana Goodman in the Washington Free Beacon,
…surpasses Iran and trails just slightly behind Turkey in the percentage of its residents who hold anti-Semitic views. In total, 67 percent of Greek respondents agreed with the majority of a list of anti-Semitic statements included in the survey. Other European countries, particularly France and Germany, have experienced a decrease in overall anti-Semitic attitudes in the wake of recent attacks on Jews. According to the ADL poll, 90 percent of Greeks agreed with the statement that “Jews have too much power in the business world” and 85 percent agreed “Jews have too much power in international financial markets.” In addition, 70 percent said that “Jews still talk too much about what happened to them in the Holocaust” and 51 percent said, “Jews don’t care about what happens to anyone but their own kind.”
Whom the Gods wish to destroy, they first make mad, said the Greeks of antiquity. Whom YHWH wishes to destroy, he first makes an anti-Semite. Greeks are among the world’s cleverest peoples—their diaspora overflows with accomplishment in every field of intellectual endeavor—and it is disconcerting to hear them expectorate the sort of vulgar prejudice that one might expect from a semi-literate Anatolian peasant. Then again, the Germans of 1933 were the world’s most cultured nation. Endemic Jew-hated in Greece reminds us that ignorance is an implausible explanation for anti-Semitism.
Consider two countries nestled into the same corner of the Eastern Mediterranean, both of ancient provenance and of roughly equal size. At its height around 565 C.E., the Greek branch of the Roman Empire had a population of perhaps 26 million, against a world population of 1 to 1.5 million Jews. Today there are more Israelis aged 15 to 24 than Greeks—about 1.2 million vs. 1.1 million—and at current fertility rates, there will be 1.8 million young Israelis by 2050 and just half as many young Greeks. Israel is a military and economic superpower while Greece has become a byword for state failure. How could the Greeks not hate us?
There is also some tragic history between Jews and Greeks. Only a century ago a fifth of the Anatolian population was Christian. About 1.5 million Armenians were murdered in the genocide of 1915-1923, and 1.5 million Greeks were expelled from Turkish territory in 1923 after the Greek-Turkish War that followed World War I. The Turks massacred several hundred thousand. Right-wing Greek blogs (for example here) make the paranoid claim that the “Anatolian disaster” was the work of Zionists in cahoots with the future Turkish president Kamel Ataturk, whom Greek (as well as Muslim) conspiracy theorists claim was a secret Jew.
More poignant, perhaps, is guilt over Greek complicity in the deportation of 47,000 Jews from the northern Greek city of Salonika in 1943. Modern Greece spins a narrative of national resistance to the Nazis, but Greek police put the Salonika Jews on trains to Auschwitz and the locals helped themselves to Jewish property. If the Germans won’t forgive the Jews for Auschwitz, the Greeks won’t forgive the Jews for Salonika.
Envy at Jewish success, though, is scum floating atop a deeper source of rancor. The Greeks hate the Jews for the same reason they hated Socrates, only more so. Life is an acquired taste. Those who have not acquired it seek “life-affirming” illusions that distract their bearers from their underlying revulsion from life, of which the archetype is the cult of the eternally beautiful Olympians. Socrates told the classical Greeks in so many words that their Olympians are figments of their imagination, and they made him drink hemlock. As it happened, he caught the Athenians at a moment of emotional fragility, right after their defeat in the Peloponnesian War with the loss of a quarter of the city’s population. This was Socrates the ironist, in Kierkegaard’s account, who ridiculed at Athens’ civic ailments but offers no cure, Socrates the destroyer of tragedy in Friedrich Nietzsche’s report—precisely this Socrates who was put to death by popular vote of the whole citizenry of Athens.
Nietzsche famously paired Apollonian beauty with Dionysian despair in The Birth of Tragedy. Forty years after first reading Nietzsche, I finally am persuaded that Nietzsche had the Greeks nailed.
There is an ancient story that king Midas hunted in the forest a long time for the wise Silenus, the companion of Dionysus, without capturing him. When at last he fell into his hands, the king asked what was best of all and most desirable for man. Fixed and immovable, the demon remained silent ; till at last, forced by the king, he broke out with shrill laughter into these words: “Oh, wretched race of a day, children of chance and misery, why do ye compel me to say to you what it were most expedient for you not to hear? What is best of all is forever beyond your reach: not to be born, not to be, to be nothing. The second best for you, however, is soon to die.”
How is the Olympian world of deities related to this folk-wisdom? Even as the rapturous vision of the tortured martyr to his sufferings. Now the Olympian magic mountain opens, as it were, to our view and shows to us its roots. The Greek knew and felt the terrors and horrors of existence: to be able to live at all, he had to interpose the shining dream-birth of the Olympian world between himself and them.
Through tragedy, Nietzsche argued, the Dionysian impulse towards self-destruction was sublimated into an Apollonian sense that the flickering evanescence of mortal life had some claim on the eternal. Man’s fate on earth was tragic but
…the most sorrowful figure of the Greek stage, the hapless Oedipus, was understood by Sophocles as the noble man, who in spite of his wisdom was destined to error and misery, but nevertheless through his extraordinary sufferings ultimately exerted a magical, wholesome influence on all around him, which continues effective even after his death.
Tragedy is the antivenom to Greek despair, whose stylized masks and dance and verse offer the Hellene “a glance into the secret and terrible things of nature, as it were shining spots to heal the eye which dire night has seared.”
There is a canonical joke that expresses the Jewish view of tragedy. There’s an old Jewish couple, Abe and Esther. Esther says, “Abe, let’s go to the theater!” Abe replies, “I don’t want to go to the theater. It’s boring.” “What do you mean, ‘It’s boring?,” Esther objects. “The theater is there because people want to be entertained! People go to the theater because it’s entertaining, and if it were boring, they wouldn’t go, and there wouldn’t be any theater–so how can it be boring?” Abe sighs, “It’s boring. When he wants, she doesn’t want. When she wants, he doesn’t want. And when they both want, it’s over.”
Eugene Rosenstock-Huessy, the Jewish convert to Christianity now best remembered for his correspondence with Franz Rosenzweig, recounts an anecdote that clarifies the import of the joke:
In Germany during the orgies of Hitlerism a certain Jewish journalist was asked to correct the book of a Nazi authoress; and in return for the favor she agreed to take him to see Goebbels and Goering. After tea with them he came back as though enlightened and told his friends: ‘They cannot help persecuting us; they are playing Red Indians, and they know that we cannot take their game seriously.’
And Rosenstock-Huessy added that the Jewish community
…was created above and beyond all human divisions. It reminds men of the hope beyond their daily hopes, of a more important step to come. By their persecution the Gentiles defy this challenge from the side of Eternity and finality. They always accuse the Jew of provocation, because although he is quite capable of playing Red Indian out of love for his neighbors, he is incapable of any of their idolatries, and though he can shed his blood for his country, he will always feel that no skyscraper, no man-of-war, no Venus of Cnidos, and no glory of arms is more important than the tears of the widow or the sigh of the orphan.
Or, one might add, the pots and pans of the kosher kitchen. The truth is that Jews look at the cultural exertions of the Gentiles as children’s games that grownups should find boring. For the players, though, these are not mere games, but a response to existential despair. The world today abounds in such games. Caitlin Jenner believes that she is a woman, and the Persians believe they are an empire. The Palestinian Arabs believe they are a nation (rather than migrating Jordanians or Syrians or Egyptians, which most of them were until the 1970s) and the Europeans believe they are peace-loving altruists. The practitioners of identity politics find it cognitively dissonant to hate any identity group, even the Jews, so they claim only to hate the State of Israel.
The triumph of identity politics in the United States has brought with it a wave of revulsion against the State of Israel, which has the misfortune to live in circumstances that demand a judgment about right vs. wrong. Either Hamas is a wicked entity that shoots rockets behind a screen of civilians in order to maximize the casualties of its own non-combatants—a new and horrible innovation in the cruel history of warfare—or Israel is a racist nation that murders Arab babies. Never mind that the government of Egypt, by far the largest Arab nation, is allied with Israel against the same band of malefactors: what matters in identity politics is the self-defining narrative of the putatively oppressed. Almost half of Democratic Party members now believe that Israel is a “racist country,” the pollster Frank Luntz reports, and more than three-quarters of Democrats think that Israel has “too much influence” in America.
Many of the Israel haters whose prejudice registered in the Luntz poll are themselves Jews, to be sure, the kind who wallow in a mythical Israeli past “of pioneers who set out not only to safeguard a nation, but to remake the world,” as Barack Obama told the congregation of Adas Yisrael in Washington May 22. But it really isn’t about Israel: it is about “the right to define and express an identity,” posited by Justice Anthony Kennedy, and the notion that right and wrong exist independently of what identity we might choose.
It is not simply that Israel’s predicament requires a judgment about right and wrong, a choice between a culture of life and a culture that proclaims “We love death more than you love life!” The Jews were the first people in history to specify an absolute right and wrong, that is, laws promulgated by the Maker of Heaven that apply to all peoples at all times. The Greeks understand this. They don’t require rationalizations about Israel being beastly to the Palestinians. They simply hate Jews. They have been around long enough to know what the issue really is. Among the surviving cultures of the world, the Greeks have known us the longest. They got to know us well enough when we threw Antiochus IV out of the Land of Israel in B.C.E. 164. We’ve had longer to annoy them than all the other cultures who at one time or another hated the Jews.
Nothing Jews do will make the Greeks like us, not even the embrace of “classical political rationalism” by prominent Jewish intellectuals. This brings to mind Kant’s quip about one man milking a billy-goat while another holds a sieve. Kant might have added that it will annoy the billy-goat no end.
Jews find Greek theater boring; Greeks find Jewish Scripture trivial. But Judaism does not aim at cathartic moments but at practical solutions. The stories of the Hebrew Bible are tragic in construction but not in outcome: even Cain is given a chance to redeem himself. Isaac is not sacrificed like Iphigenia but replaced on the altar by a ram. Jacob and Esau do not kill each other like Polynices and Eteocles in Seven against Thebes, fulfilling the curse of their father Oedipus. Jacob propitiates his brother whose birthright he stole, and by another deception puts himself and his family at a safe distance just in case Esau might change his mind. There is neither conflict nor reconciliation, and Israel’s relationship to Esau’s descendants remains fraught and ambiguous through subsequent books of the Bible. A pivotal episode in the Bible, where Jacob acquires the name “Israel,” ends with an anti-climax that does not show Jacob in a particularly heroic light. Jacob’s heroism is manifest the night before his last meeting with Esau, when he wrestles an angel on a riverbank. Jacob is not a hero in the Greek sense, yet he does what no Greek hero ever did: He changes.
When Cleon determines to kill Antigone for the crime of burying their brother Polynices, to be sure, a Jew will say under his breath, “Shmendrick! Get a life!” But the fact is that ordinary life is full of conflicting loyalties, not always as dramatic as Orestes’ conflicting filial obligations to the father he has avenged through the murder of his mother, to be sure, but painful and often devastating nonetheless. Greek-inspired literature is devoted to uncovering tragic conflicts and bringing them to denouement; Jewish law tries to defuse such conflicts before they become tragic. Talmud is the diametric opposite of tragedy: among other things, it is the practice of reconciling conflicting loyalties in the course of everyday life. At what point does the mandate to preserve life override the laws of the Sabbath? Under what circumstances is a man who lights a fire responsible for an accidental conflagration, or a man who owns an ox responsible when it gores his neighbor? Under what circumstances may a rabbi ignore a lesion on the lung of a chicken that a poor housewife has purchased for the Sabbath meal?
To the Greeks, Judaism appears as a hodge-podge of pointless rituals performed obsessively. An observant housewife lights the Sabbath candles with a gesture as practiced as the upbeat that a conductor gives an orchestra. The twin loaves of Sabbath bread must be covered while the wine is blessed; the wine-glass must be filled to the brim and drained to the bottom for the Sabbath blessing; water must be poured from one hand to another three times after which a blessing is said, but not another word is uttered until the bread is blessed. The origin of many of these rituals is unknown to many who learned them mimetically; the learned will delve into their source and enrich their practice.
The Greeks will never understand the Jews. Not the sculptor’s marble or the artist’s palette or the musician’s tones, but the ordinary life of families is the locus of Jewish aesthetics. The techne of Jewish art is found in the beautification of the Sabbath table, the precision and spontaneity of communal prayer, in the elevation and sanctification of the ordinary as well as the extraordinary events of life: the weekly Sabbath meal, and birth, coming-of-age, marriage and death. After each of the seven Sabbath Torah readings (or “ascents”), the blessing praises God “who given us true Torah (teaching) and has planted eternal life amongst us.” God has planted eternal life among the Jews, and Judaism is its cultivation.
The aesthetic sense in Judaism beautifies the signs and symbols of eternal life that are visible in the pots and pans of the kosher kitchen, the Sabbath candles and festive meal, and marital relations between Jewish spouses. These are as miraculous and filled with portent as Moses’ burning bush, or Jacob’s ladder, or Ezekiel’s chariot. But the central and most characteristic Jewish activity is Torah study, the endless investigation of the infinite mind of God. As Rabbi Meir Soloveichik observes (citing his grand-uncle Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik), Torah study sustains a colloquium across all generations, and keeps our ancestors alive with us. Every Jew should feel as if he actually left Egypt, reads the text for the Passover liturgy, but every Jew actually can feel as if he debated with the sages of antiquity, with Maimonides, with Rav Soloveitchik.
The trouble is not only that the Greeks found Jewish practice trivial, but that they found Jewish existence threatening. When Antiochus IV took Jerusalem in 134 BCE, “the majority of his friends advised the king to take the city by storm and to wipe out completely the race of Jews, since they alone of all nations avoided dealings with any other people and looked upon all men as their enemies.” This is reported by David Nirenberg in Anti-Judaism, along with a plethora of similar citations. The Babylonians burned the Temple but let the exiled Jews practice their religion, and the Persians who conquered them sent exiles back to build the Second Temple. But the Greeks who replaced the Persians felt a unique sort of antipathy to the Jews. Why?
Nietzsche quotes of the myth of Silenus to explain the despair just below the surface of Hellenic culture, but he never explains why this should be the case. Silenus’ dictum, to be sure, also appears in Ecclesiastes 4:2-3, although it is answered in Chapter 9 7-9: “Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart; for God now accepteth thy works… Live joyfully with the wife whom thou lovest all the days of the life of thy vanity, which he hath given thee under the sun, all the days of thy vanity: for that is thy portion in this life, and in thy labour which thou takest under the sun.” Ecclesiastes sayeth, Get ye a life. The Jews cannot take Silenus seriously, as in the canonical joke on the subject: Two yeshiva students are learning Ecclesiastes. Moshe says to Yankel, “He’s right! Life is so painful, pain is so long, joy is so short, it’s better never to have been born.” “Yes,” says Yankel, “but who has such luck? Not one in ten thousand.”
The cultivation of communal and family life as art-work has sustained the Jewish people for 3,500 years, and given the Jews a sense of surety for their future unlike that of any other people west of the Indus. The alternative is to worship youth itself, which the ancient Greeks did, in a way not much different than our own youth-obsessed popular culture. Our ultimate pop icon was Michael Jackson, who never wanted to grow old and suffered endless plastic surgeries to appear young. Caitlin Jenner does not want to be a woman of her age, namely 65, but rather a woman still redolent of youth, scalpeled and sutured and airbrushed onto the cover of Vanity Fair. Heidegger wrote that man’s existence is defined by Being-towards-Death. What we do is more like Being-towards-Botox.
I examined the Greek youth cult in my 2011 book How Civilizations Die, from which the paragraphs below are extracted.
The Greeks worshipped the eternally-young Olympians, to be sure, but in most of ancient Greece, it adored eternal youth in another form, namely adolescent boys. Sparta was (after the island of Crete) the first Greek polis to formalize the practice of pederasty.[i] Plato complained about this; the “Athenian Stranger” reproaches his Spartan and Cretan interlocutors in Plato’s Laws, “This custom, which is long-standing, seems to have corrupted the life-style and pleasures of sex that are natural not only for humans but also animals. Someone might make these accusations first of your states and of whatever other states are particularly inclined to the gymnasium.”[ii] If pederasty was not universal, it nonetheless was common enough to be characteristic in classical Greece. That this practice was no matter of idealized admiration, but explicitly sexual, is demonstrated by the hundreds of surviving vase-paintings showing explicit sexual acts between bearded men and beardless youths.[iii]
Pederasty had a deep connection to Greek religion, which was above all a cult of youth. Not even Zeus was immune, abducting the boy Ganymede to be the gods’ cupbearer. The older lover, or erastēs, is the needy worshipper before the god-like object of his love, the erômenos. “Though the object of importunate solicitation, [the youth] is himself not in need of anything beyond himself. He is unwilling to let himself be explored by the other’s needy curiosity, and he has, himself, little curiosity about the other. He is something like a god, or the statue of a god,” explains Martha Nussbaum.[iv] But chastity was not considered a virtue for an adolescent boy. In Greek legend the gods turned Narcissus into a flower to punish his pride in refusing male suitors; only the older lover, not the erômenos, is allowed to be a Narcissist.
The love of Greek men for adolescent boys embodies the same longing for immortality we observe in the cult of eternally youthful gods. No Greek would pray along with King David, “O Lord, thou hast brought up my soul from the grave: thou hast kept me alive, that I should not go down to the pit.” Every Greek, even heroes beloved of the gods, expected to go down to the pit. The dead hero Achilles tells Odysseus in Book XI of Homer’s Odyssey that he would rather be a poor farmer’s hired hand than king over the underworld. Not even the immortal Zeus would enjoy a life that was properly eternal, for one day his successor would overthrow him, just as he had overthrown his own father Chronos.
The Olympian Greek religion did not propose to overcome death, but only to flee from it for a while—into the arms of perpetual youth. If, as Rose Castorini said in Moonstruck, today’s men chase women because they want to live forever, Greek men found it more compelling to chase a youthful version of themselves. The older lover worships his own youthful image in the form of his adolescent beloved. The separation of sexuality from procreation in Greek culture helps explain the terrible demographic decay that Greece would suffer during the fifth and fourth centuries B.C.E., leaving Athens (as Polybius reported) a city mainly populated by statues when the Romans finally took possession.
The demographic decline of Hellenistic Greece is history’s first well-documented case of a culture that died of its own indifference to life. The Greek genius for mathematics and physics did not avail them. Greece fell to Roman domination at the peak of its intellectual power, when Archimedes of Syracuse and Hero of Alexandria made discoveries that the West would not put work for another 2,000 years.
Today’s Greeks seem as diffident about their future survival as their 5th-century antecedents. The Greeks never quite liked life. They only liked to play at it. The decline of today’s Greece bears out Marx’s quip that historical tragedies repeat themselves as farce.
[i] Thomas F. Scanlon, “The Dispersion of Pederasty and the Athletic Revolution in Sixth-Century BC Greece,” in Same-Sex Desire and Love in Greco-Roman Antiquity and in the Classical Tradition of the West, Beert C. Verstraete and Vernon Provencal, eds. (Psychology Press, 2006) pp. 64-70.
[ii] Laws 636ab; quoted by Scanlon, p. 66.
[iii] J.D. Beazley, “Some Attic Vases in the Cyprus Museum”, Proceedings of the British Academy 33 (1947); p.199
[iv] Martha Nussbaum, The fragility of goodness (Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 188.