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The Vigilant Jew as an Annoyance: How Hamid Dabashi Misreads Adorno

An article by Hamid Dabashi recently appeared in the online version of the English-language edition of Al Jazeera. Dabashi teaches Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, where the exiled Frankfurt School thinkers Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno found refuge during the period of National Socialism. Dabashi quotes Adorno’s 1949 thesis that it is barbaric to write poetry after Auschwitz and asks what it really means: “How could writing poetry after a calamity such as Auschwitz, and by extension a horror like the Holocaust, be something barbaric? Doesn’t poetry console in moments of mourning and despair?”

Poetry does just that, sometimes, one might answer, and that is exactly what Adorno criticized: the premature comfort in the face of comfortlessness. But Dabashi is going somewhere else with his rhetorical questions: “Is writing poetry after Gaza also barbaric? What would that mean?” It would mean an act of intentional historical blindness by equating Israel’s current military actions in the Gaza Strip with Auschwitz. That seems to be the point of Dabashi’s article: “‘Death to Arabs,’ cry mobs in Tel Aviv—for this is the poetry of Zionism for Gaza. This is what Adorno meant when he said, ‘after Auschwitz poetry is barbarism.'”

Actually Adorno did not say that. He was more concerned with the act of writing poetry and the changed conditions of aesthetic production. But whoever is not interested in what the mob is screaming not only in Gaza—in Dabashi’s cynical diction, the poetry of anti-Semitism, which is much older than Tel Aviv—doesn’t really care what Adorno really said and meant. It is “precisely this world at large, crystallized in Israel, that Adorno saw, diagnosed, and feared.” On the one hand, this shows that even radically partisan social criticism can turn into its exact opposite, as soon as it falls into the hands of subjects who can only use their reasoning instrumentally: one does not write for the truth but only in order to promote an ideology. On the other hand, Adorno—turned into a Jew by the Nuremberg Laws as well as by Dabashi who needs a Jewish witness—resists this posthumous manipulation into an anti-Zionist.

On June 5, 1967, during the Six-Day War, Adorno wrote to his Viennese friend Lotte Tobisch, “We are terribly worried about Israel. In a corner of my consciousness, I always imagined that this could not go well in the long run, but that this would happen so quickly, I never imagined. One can only hope that the Israelis will turn out to be militarily stronger than the Arabs and be able to control the situation.” The vigilant Jew is the annoyance for the anti-Semites of the world: We didn’t count on this, that those impertinent Jews would resist when we fight them for decades!

What Adorno in fact diagnosed and feared—and as we see, correctly—was that people like Hamid Dabashi who, lacking any shame over “squeezing any meaning, no matter how desiccated out of the injustice done to the victims,” can think of nothing better than, seventy years after the Holocaust, falsifying terror into an argument against those whose extermination, despite all the systematicity and industrialization of killing, did not completely succeed.

Dabashi might reply that he is no anti-Semite, just an anti-Zionist. In a world, however, that—despite the nonsense he promulgated in 2008 in the Egyptian newspaper al-Ahram about a “United States of Israel”—is fundamentally hostile to Jews, consistent anti-Zionism turns inescapably into anti-Semitism. Where are the Jews, who separate themselves everywhere as chosen but nowhere as “our people” and therefore face threats, supposed to go? There has already been a world without the State of Israel, at the end of which “a couple of Jews” (Adorno) could be happy that they had survived, and precisely therefore never become happy.

Dabashi writes: “While in Adorno the vile and diabolic Zionism that Netanyahu interprets and exercises is the confirmation of his thought that after Auschwitz all poetry is barbaric, in the very same ruins of Gaza, right next to the broken skulls of dead Palestinian children, dwells the rising seeds of our future world—fearful, phantasmagoric, deadening, inaugural.”

In this way Dabashi instrumentalizes dead children, talking about their broken skulls, at least—and in this he is fully anticolonialist—at least as long as they are Palestinian children skulls: “Palestinians are Palestinians, if by nothing else, by virtue of a history of unconscionable suffering and heroic defiance. What are Israelis? Who are Israelis? They are Israelis by virtue of what? By a shared and sustained murderous history—from Deir Yassin in 1948 to Gaza in 2014. Is that not Zionism, the ideological foundation stone of being an Israeli?”

In the belief that the history of Israel began in 1948 and not in the years before that, the ideology that cost the lives of six million Jews, again targets the living, and Dabashi has no qualms in misusing Walter Benjamin as a witness for his relativism: “Between Walter Benjamin’s suicide in 1940 on the border between France and Spain, running away from the banality of Nazi evil, and Khalil Hawi’s suicide in 1982, in protest against the Zionist invasion and occupation of his homeland, the fate of all our metaphors and allegories after Gaza was written and sealed.”

One commits suicide rather than fall into the hands of the Nazis; the other, a Syrian poet and nationalist, was unhappy when the Israelis invaded Syria and took his own life pointlessly. Opinionated gossip is good for any vacuous analogy when it is a matter of ignoring the truth in order to fictionalize a Zionist Holocaust in Gaza: “After Gaza, not a single living Israeli can utter the word ‘Auschwitz’ without it sounding like ‘Gaza.’ Auschwitz as a historical fact is now archival. Auschwitz as a metaphor is now Palestinian.”

The sorry sense of this ridiculous argument is clear: If the Zionist legitimation of Israel as a home for the persecuted Jews of the world is taken away because the Palestinians, via a discourse of relativization, become the real Auschwitz victims, then Israel can be denounced as the incubator of militaristic Zionists.

The proof by free association, the conspiracy theory against Israel, the rhetorical figure that the Jews are the Nazis of today, and even if there are some Jews who affirm this—nothing here is new, just everyday anti-Semitism. It is however tragic when someone whose calling and responsibility are to know better and to teach this knowledge resorts to these means.

Perhaps Dabashi wants the killing of Palestinians to finally stop. He does not name the one political and military force that can reach this goal quickly: the terrorist regime in Gaza, Hamas. In the meantime, it is pursuing a program for the final elimination of Jews with a consistency to which it sacrifices itself and its supporters. It is absurd to believe that Hamas views a dead child as anything other than an opportunity to display a photo to the world public in order to prove the alleged cruelty of the Israelis.

Any responsible person would refuse to have anything to do with this kind of propaganda that exploits corpses of children. Dabahsi however not only uses a photograph of a dead girl but even embellishes his argument with her name. This is a raging instrumentalism that incorporates everything: dead children, the suffering of others, the critique of anti-Semitism, poetry and truth.

One cannot get close to the truth about the situation of the Palestinians in the Near East, if one ignores the theme that concerned Adorno his whole life after Auschwitz: anti-Semitism. In contrast, Professor Dabashi, from the comfort of Columbia University, fires off precisely that barbarian “rumor about the Jews” (Horkheimer/Adorno) that will continue to deprive people of peace in the Near East. Or even of their lives. And he will blame it on the Jews.

Dirk Braunstein is a Researcher at the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research and is editing, with support from the Gerda Henkel Stiftung, the complete protocols that Adorno had prepared from his seminars after the war.

Translated by Russell A. Berman, with the permission of the author.

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