On Loving Dead Jews
Dara Horn's People Love Dead Jews is a raw and fragmented through the less spoken experiences of antisemitism, but it never ventures an answer for what to do about it.
It says something about our perceptions of antisemitism that People Love Dead Jews has been flocked to as a defining tract on the subject.
The recent book by Jewish novelist Dara Horn, known for reviving the characters and history of Hebrew and Yiddish literature, is a work of non-fiction on the phenomenon of loving now-deceased Jews. She came to the subject kicking and screaming: she was anointed the op-ed writer of choice for the genre of “responding to Jewish murder.” Anytime there was an antisemitic hate crime, she became the go-to. But she was also turned to for what were erstwhile thought of a Jewish subjects: Anne Frank, a new museum exhibit about the Holocaust, global Jewish heritage sites. What they all have in common is that they are not about Jews, not really, but instead about the empty spaces where Jews once were.
The argument of the book is simple: people love dead Jews. “Living Jews? Not so much,” says Horn, because they do “icky things like practice Judaism.” The book is less about overt or implicit antisemitism and more about the conflicted relationship Gentiles have to Jews in their history. In a similar way to David Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition, Horn’s read of the Western conception of Jews is as a self-reinforcing commentary on Gentile values. Holocaust literature and film often reinforces the “righteous Gentile” narrative, those non-Jews who helped Jews escape slaughter, despite the number of them being so small as to be a statistical error. The narratives we use around the Holocaust focus on redemptive narrative circa Christian eschatology, whereas Yiddish novelists (whose language was spoken by 80% of the victims who died in the Holocaust) wrote much more meandering stories with less defined endings.
The point here is that Jewish suffering is used as a universalistic parable, one that has little use for actual Jews’ actual Jewish experiences, which erases the trauma that these experiences brought. Auschwitz was not a place where we learned to reclaim the human spirit. It was not a place where people “just like us” showed that we have to universalize human rights and compassion (though that is certainly a fine sentiment). It was a place where Jews died. “[Dead] Jews aren’t a metaphor, but rather actual people that we do not want our children to become.”
In other places, antisemitism fuels really profound financial decisions. In China, the small Jewish population that helped build parts of the country has been immortalized in a series of heritage sites. I say “helped” because there are no longer any Jews at these sites (actually, there is one from Israel who is the Jew-in-residence), because pogroms and persecution pushed them out. Now it’s just a series of empty buildings rebuilt in kitsch designs, the construction of which was fueled by the common belief that Jews are rich and through proximity you might become rich as well. In an adjunct podcast called Adventures in Dead Jews, co-run by Tablet magazine, Horn tells the story of antisemitic Japanese politicos who tried to build a Jewish state to contain the potentially nefarious Jews, in the hopes that the Jews could be harnessed for their own nefarious measures.
There are profound moments of insight in People Love Dead Jews. Horn discusses how violence against Hasidism, which is one of the most lethal and perpetual reproductions of antisemitism, is often explained away in news stories as the result of “community tensions.” We don’t explain away racist mass shootings, so why would we be compelled to talk about schoolboard elections when a Hasidic Jew must fight for his life? “I could no longer handle the degrading exercise of calmly explaining to the public why it was not OK to partially amputate someone’s arm with a four-foot-long blade at a holiday party, even if one had legitimate grievances with that person’s town council votes.”
Likewise, some of the discussions edge into nuanced problems. Why do we explain away Shakespeare’s antisemitism in the Merchant of Venice? Why do we tell the myth that Jewish families had their names changed at Ellis Island, instead of telling how names like Hertzberg were a scarlet letter on job applications? The shame of antisemitism rings in these stories, but not as much as the shame of the persecuted, those who did not want to admit or be reminded of what they had endured.
There have been interesting responses to Horn’s book, which says a lot about the audience that, unfairly, she has often been asked to answer for. The deep obsession with her book by Jewish audiences has made some cry foul: instead of great books on Judaism and Jewish history we just end up with more and more bestsellers about antisemitism. Jewish Studies scholar Shaul Magid talks about the appeal of Horn’s book as a piece of Jewish identity formation, for Jews who have lost some of their ability to define themselves beyond antisemitism. This is likely true: antisemitism is certainly easier to discuss than Talmud, which is why, in a sense, Magid and Horn agree. There is also a void of identity for non-religious Jews, one in which both the fight against antisemitism and Zionism often make up a common form of identity building. But this gets to the problem expressed in both the book and the criticisms of it: there should be more to Jewishness than responding to persecutions, even in positive ways.
In the final chapter of her book Horn talks about how, after a series of violent attacks on Ultra-Orthodox Haredim, a rally was organized to stand against hate. But there was anywhere Horn would rather be, and the experience spurred her to jump into a seven-year mission to read the Talmud. In 1923, a Polish Rabbi started a program called Daf Yomi whereby every participating Jew in the world would read a page of Talmud, the same page of Talmud, a day, every day. Since there are 2,711 pages this would take about seven years, though it should be noted that the spirally and incredibly complicated and fragmented Talmud text is not a normal page. Her point is that immersing yourself in the positive world of Judaism rather than the biting world of antisemitism is a good solution.
Agreed. But there is something disturbing that does underlie Horn’s book, though it runs between the pages. Never at any point is there an attempt to explain where antisemitism comes from, how it works, or what to do about it. In her interviews she has said she doubts there is anything Jews could do about antisemitism, which lays us right where Horn says Jews should not be portrayed: a point of powerlessness. If we aren’t to do anything about antisemitism, do we just rely on righteous Gentiles to protect us (who she had just alleged are few and far between)? Are the worst inclinations of nationalism and separation the only hope for the community we were just told was under siege?
Magid actually does talk about this perception in his most recent book, which is about far-right Jewish figure Meir Kahane. While the Jewish establishment, and liberals like Horn, would likely repudiate Kahane, Magid’s argument is that he has had a larger impact than they would like to admit. One of Kahane’s lasting arguments is about perennial antisemitism, that Gentiles simply hate Jews by virtue of the Jews being the “chosen people” (and that left-wing antisemitism is worse than the right, a point beaten at length by Jewish authors in Horn’s circle). What underlies this is the “Esau Hates Jacob” presumption that has floated around some Orthodox circles. “The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau,” says Isaac, noting the discrepancy of the figure who speaks as Jacob yet feels like Esau, written in Genesis 27:22. Jacob tricks his father Isaac into giving him Esau’s blessing, leaving Esau a broken man filled with hatred. From Jacob emerges Israel and from Esau are born Gentiles, at least in one version, with an undying hatred for Israel. While we can take measures to protect Jews and condition Gentiles, this is a problem that will never be resolved outside of final Jewish separation from Gentile lands (through Zionism).
It is doubtful Horn would say something like this, or anyone else in polite company. But what else is to explain it? If Jews cannot do anything about antisemitism, is it because nothing can be done? This kind of aggressive powerlessness is dangerous because it disengages Jews from any form of collective antiracist liberation or communal bonds that can be built with other people facing marginalization. On top of this, it centers antisemitism in the story of human struggle in a way that simply doesn’t fit: antisemitism is not so persistent that it should define the contemporary Jewish story nor is it the central oppression on the docket. If, as Horn’s book outlines very clearly, horrors are what’s possible, what do you suggest? Which page of Talmud solves that?
We have no benefit from discussing any issue from the perspective that it is “someone else’s problem.” The foundation of organizing, of direct action and transformation, is that we have to put ourselves in the driver’s seat of our own liberation. Otherwise it wouldn’t be liberation. And if we think antisemitism is an issue, which Horn clearly does, then it is incumbent on us to do something about it, not rely on the non-Jews who Horn has already suggested don’t get it. We also must have a clear-eyed view of antisemitism, one not prone to hyperbole or political utilitarianism, and we do that by having an overarching understanding of how oppression and identity work. We may not be able to universalize the Jewish experience of the Holocaust, but we can still learn lessons about violence and the potential of bigoted cruelty. If we don’t, then we have little to help us stop something like it in the future.
People Love Dead Jews is a beautiful book in many ways, and it inspired me to take up a page of Talmud a day (but please don’t quiz me on it). But there are a lot of unanswered questions about how Horn’s solution moves us into a more complete Jewish identity or what we actually do about the problem. Without a path forward we might as well be ringing the bell of Esau’s hatred of Jacob, and that does little other than build a Judeo-pessimism that further alienates us.