Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Jew Envy

Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Jew Envy

Article excerpt

No matter what the makeup of the Jews may be in reality, their image, that of the defeated, has characteristics which must make totalitarian rule their mortal enemy: happiness without power, reward without work, a homeland without frontiers, religion without myth. These features are outlawed by the ruling powers because they are secretly coveted by the ruled. The former can survive only as long as the latter turn what they yearn for into an object of hate.

-Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno in Dialectic of Enlightenment (2002), positing envy as one of the "elements" of anti-Semitism

Exiled to the United States, as totalitarian rule is destroying European Jewry, Horkheimer and Adorno are writing before the establishment of Israel; hence "a homeland without frontiers." No less "dated" from a contemporary U.S. perspective, however, is the first of the characteristics they associate with the image of the Jews: "happiness without power" evokes a decidedly prewar and markedly European stereotype of the Jew, a stereotype almost quaint in its inapplicability to the postwar United States, in which Jews, far from lacking power, are often alleged to have too much of it, and in which, far more than happiness, the "feature" of the Jew most reliably disseminated by mass culture would seem to be neurosis. Happiness without power? The image of Jews in today's United States might better be characterized as one of power without happiness.

Not that Horkheimer and Adorno's portrait of the enviable Jew is all sweetness and light. That portrait is "dialectical" enough, at any rate, to accommodate its apparent opposite. Earlier in the same discussion of anti-Semitism, the authors conjure up a Jewish face on which one sees not the signs of happiness but, rather, a grimace. The trace of "undisciplined mimicry . . . inherited through an unconscious process of imitation in early childhood from generation to generation, from the Jewish rags-and-bones man to the banker," the grimace, curiously enough, proves no less enviable than the smile over which one might think it casts a chilling shadow: "the grimace seems like play-acting because, instead of performing serious work, it prefers to portray displeasure. It appears to evade the seriousness of life by admitting it without restraint" (149-50). In the very excess of its portrayal, the grimace pushes grimness to the point where it bizarrely resembles a grin. Emblematizing unhappiness with hyperbolic abandon, it rejoins the happiness to which it seems antithetical; registering seriousness "without restraint," it becomes a cipher of nonseriousness. The Jew's genetically transmitted gift of "undisciplined mimicry" (149) is perhaps never more infuriatingly enviable than when, in a triumph of style over content, "it appears to evade the seriousness of life" (150) precisely by embracing it-when it makes even "displeasure" look like "play-acting" (150). Admittedly, apparent play-acting is not the same thing as apparent happiness (everything here, in this anatomy of anti-Semitism as spectacle, taking place on the level of image and semblance). But in its insolent simulation of freedom from the discipline of seriousness, play can be an exemplary signifier of happiness. For Horkheimer and Adorno, in any case, both nonseriousness and powerless happiness, if only apparent, bespeak the Jew's exemption from the rules with which "the ruling powers" keep "the ruled" in their place. What could be more desirable, and what therefore more urgently needs to be refigured as despicable, than this Jewish talent for overacting-for a mimicry so undisciplined that it renders even subordination as escape?

Envy in general tries to refigure the desirable as the despicable. As Melanie Klein (1975) theorizes, envy insists on spoiling the desired object. Horkheimer and Adorno formulate the "secretly coveted" Jewish "characteristics" (165) in terms of "withoutness" (happiness without power, reward without work, a homeland without frontiers, religion without myth); to spoil these characteristics is to rewrite the desirable "without" of freedom as the despicable "without" of lack. …

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