Racism, gender, ethnicity bound up in notions of 'the Jew'

Neil Davison

In exploring representations of "the Jew" and their ideological contexts in British and American fiction from the fin de siècle onward, Neil Davison is deliberately avoiding literature of the Holocaust.

"I want to skip the Holocaust because it's over-emphasized as a sudden black hole of evil unconnected to cultural forces outside Nazism," said Davison, who views the Holocaust as a culmination of 19th -century anti-Semitism as well as a central germ of post-Modernism rather than a crucial arena for exploring the links between antisemitism, colonialism, nationalism, racism and gender issues, and the nature of Zionism.

Davison, a Center Research Fellow and assistant professor of English at OSU, is working on a second book, Modernity and 'The Jew': Gender, Jewishness and Zionism from the Modern to the Postmodern. His first book, James Joyce, "Ulysses," and the Construction of Jewish Identity, was published in 1996 by Cambridge University Press.

The current book focuses on constructions of "the Jew" through three major cultural shifts in the West's discourse pertaining to Jews, "Jewishness," and anti-Semitism: the Dreyfus era of early cultural Zionism; the post-Holocaust era of the rise of the novel of American-Jewish consciousness and the establishment of Israel; and the post-1967 period of Leftist anti-Zionism.

"On its broadest level, the project attempts to understand intersections and interstices between 'the Jew' and the political circumstances of Jews as a paradigm of the controversies of race and gender in the 20th century," said Davison.

Neil Davison That Jews were characterized in the late 19th century as a degenerate race - with Jewish men being the most degenerate in their feminized subversiveness - was partly a result of Darwinian ideas of descent, and enlightenment-driven interest in knowledge systems, including languages. Findings were interpreted as demonstrating a significant racial separation between Aryans and Semites, said Davison, with Aryans claiming descent from the Brahmins of India through the Greeks and, consequently, greater linguistic capability and therefore greater intellectual and spiritual capacity.

During this same period, Jews were emancipated in Europe, beginning in such places as the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Germany, and were allowed to work and live outside ghettos. "As a result, Europe eventually saw the Jews as being 'let loose' as a force in society, causing fear that this 'inferior' people would take over and rule through their economic ruthlessness."

The rise of nationalism during the 19th century was yet another stroke against Jews because it was often based on blood similarity of a people comprising a national population, and Jews, of course, had no "racial origins" in any European country. Despite lacking territory of their own at the time, said Davison, Jews can be characterized as a colonized people because they "suffered psychological colonization, with all that the colonized suffer, including self-hatred and powerlessness."

Driven, in part, by a resurgence of Hellenist ideals, the image of the Aryan male in literature, science, and popular culture became almost hyper-masculine in the fin de siècle period, while the Jewish male became feminized. "There was a long tradition in which Jewish men were perceived as cowardly. They didn't work the land, and weren't in the military - men proved themselves by defending the mother country but Jews had no country. As dictated by an often watered-down Judaic sensibility, Jewish men tended to be concerned about women, marriage and family. They were positioned as almost anti-male, undermining and threatening European hyper-masculinity."

Seen like this, said Davison, "the Jew" became problematic to the maintenance and re-evaluation of patriarchal power. That this also was the era of the "new woman" figures into the investigation as well, in that women who didn't conform to traditional expectations were, like Jewish men, seen by some as aberrant and subversive.

By the post-Holocaust era, however, the gender mythologizing of the Jew had done an about-face, resulting in a transformed image that Davison describes as one of "Zionist colonial brutality." The central political shift associated with the change is, of course, the establishment of Israel and the post-1967 thrust of centrist Zionist politics, but also significant is the maturation of American Jewry, "whose consciousness has been formed through breaking away from old-world constructions of Jewish weakness, piety, fearfulness, and by implication, effeminacy."

The shift in intellectual discourse surrounding 'Jewishness' has taken different forms in the United States, where the re-masculinization of Jewishness has not rescued it from a sense of "Otherness," and Israel, where Jews are no longer the Other but the dominant power. Understanding the continuing, problematic representations of "the Jew" in literature, said Davison, is crucial to understanding the relationship between discourses of gender, class, ethnicity, race and territory and the formation of Western ideologies.

Even in works of fiction that aren't about Jews, references to Jewishness abound, although representations of "the Jew" in literature changed dramatically over the course of the 20th century. "During the early century, the air was rife with the Jewish question, almost like an octopus that spread through the period," said Davison. Particularly following the Holocaust, the "whole world had a Jewish consciousness in the way anti-Semites had before the war."

Writers in Davison's study include - among others - James Joyce, George du Maurier (Trilby), Theodor Herzl (Oldnewland), George Bernard Shaw, Hemingway, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Joseph Heller and Henry Roth. "More than any other post-World War II American Jewish writer," Davison claims, "Roth frankly confronted questions concerning Jewishness, gender, and Zionism, even taking on the sacred topic of 'victimhood.'"

From the 1950's through around the 1980's, "Jewishness" for many American Jews, said Davison, often involved little or no Judaic culture but rather an over-emphasis on Holocaust consciousness and such unquestioning allegiance to Zionism that anyone who criticized it was assumed to be anti-Semitic. "I want to explore this by focusing on late-century writers who deal with Zionism, as well as looking at the ways in which colonialism and gender crises shaped Jewishness at the beginning of the century. At one level, it's a study of the politics of patriarchy, and Jewishness has always been wrapped up in this, especially since the mid-19th century."