Masking up

Thanks to the YouTube feed (in my case, with judicious use, not the mere garbage-dump brain-damage engine it can easily become), I learned this week about a touring exhibit now open at the United Nations facility in New York, headlined ‘#FakeImages.’ The video is included here, below. It might have been a ‘brief item’ — at first, listening to the presentation’s host and panelists get into the material, that’s the sort of share I thought I’d make it — but the video taken as a whole needs a little more said about it than my shorter-format posts are suited for. Indeed it ought for that matter to have a good deal more said about it than I’m allowing for in the present longish post. My time’s finite. We’ll do what we can.

If you check out the notice linked in the first sentence, above, you’ll find that exhibit articles are from the collection of Arthur Langerman, originally private and now, since 2019, under public auspices at the Technische Universität Berlin. Until this week, I’m sorry to say, I knew nothing about Langerman or the remarkable project he’s been devoted to so long.

There’s a #FakeImages site attending the exhibition where you’ll find a tagline, ‘Unmask the Dangers of Stereotypes,’ that signals the show has to do with something considerably more general than a select modern-era history of antisemitic caricatures & characterizations. To know whether that hint of promise is borne out in the treatment given the collection’s archive material, I guess one would have to get to the show and spend some time with it.

For the panel talk at the U.N., organizers borrowed the ‘unmask’ from this tagline and re-applied it, confined in scope, in their title — a restricted scope to which I can think of no good objection. In my view, antisemitism in its own right and not as subgenre merely, antisemitism as historical complex difficult to define but involving my own life in patterns of great evil, stands continually in need of new attention and new recoveries of focus. That’s hardly the less so, I would say, for the great tendency to persist the sort of thing that I do find objectionable about the New York presentation displays — tendency to persist and, in avenues for me, at least, much too close to home, to proliferate and do new harm.

This post is going to be neither anything like a breakdown of the New York presentation in entirety nor review of all points on which from my perspective it fails. In either respect, there’s far too much there for me to tackle. I am going to draw a couple of things about the talk out for closer attention, however. I’m also going to give an indication or two toward sources and approaches to the subject that I think can fruitfully be brought alongside it.

I absolutely do say you ought to give this recorded presentation a listen, that is. I’m not suggesting it’s too problematic to warrant hearing out, I’m saying it deserves your ear and also, at the same time, that by itself it’s far from adequate — or rather is badly flawed — for the purpose of giving consideration to its central concerns.

If you’ve read me much on this site, you know that antisemitism isn’t a new preoccupation here. Not every relevant thing I’ve posted is available to view without login, but one older post — coming up on nine years — where this wrestling really first comes to the surface I’ve always left public, for what it’s worth. Another, more recent, similarly long, I’ve more than once changed my mind about leaving open, but am doing so at present and likely will continue to.

This isn’t to imply at all that anything I think on the subject merits anybody’s special regard. It’s to say the subject is important to me. It’s important to me in particular as someone strongly stamped, from young childhood long into adulthood, with a certain idea of Christian identity — an idea of Christian identity vast in contemporary reach that indeed gets notice in this New York panel discussion, not surprisingly, if perhaps (but again no great surprise) a bit too briefly.

Whom then does one trust on the issue, or any rate give the readiest attention to, by the way, in my judgment? These days, I’m ever more in doubt that there’s any clean answer to that question. A lot depends on who you are, where you’re standing.

Here’s what I’m doing steadily a great deal more of, the last several years, in my own listening: I’m giving the greater weight to Jewish, not Christian, voices in evolving (and by no means systematic) personal pursuit of greater appreciation of Jewish history and Jewish life, and I’m developing a new ear for the biblical and for the religious civilizational streams flowing through and from it, again with (the one thing being intertwined, obviously, with the other) a great deal of weight given to Jewish voices. (Thus, evidently, the savvy algorithm’s offering up the U.N. event recording to me the other day.) This turn in my listening isn’t just about confronting antisemitism, plainly enough. But for a Christian, such a turn can’t really at any step not be at the same time about that.

Standing in my shoes, I mean to say, your aim should be to listen to all the Jewish voices, Jewish voices from every corner. You cannot expect, obviously, to accept equally what all the Jewish voices say. It’s trite — forgive me — but the Jewish voices often don’t agree. When (at minimum) your own experience isn’t that of some substantial membership in Jewish community, though, you’ll never approach gaining for yourself a picture of Jewish humanity that isn’t mere caricature if you are not working to listen in a full way, spanning the varieties of cultural and ideological mode & attitude, spanning the range of class interests, spanning the generations. That’s especially true if your roots are Christian and true with deepest poignancy where, as in my case, one’s rooted in some form of what we might call a Christian exceptionalism.

This I’m learning over long time, not without conflict and some personal pain. Not without having been revealed at times a cause of hurt to others.

Now, this being the perspective you’d come to with some years and change of mind, you might find it disturbing to run into Jews who seem very willing that a significant portion of the world’s Jewish voices should be obscured for you — willing, apparently, that your picture of Jewish humanity should remain caricature. It might be especially jarring to encounter this in a setting dedicated to shared hope of overturning falsehoods in representation of Jewish life and history. Unhappily, this is sort of something you have to assume to be feature of the landscape, in any proximity to corridors of power at least, in north-Atlantic anglosphere contexts and their global extensions. It’ll certainly pay to be on the lookout for it in this U.N. ‘#FakeImages’ panel talk.

The panel’s more outrageous offender in this regard, from my point of view, is Jonathan Brent. I didn’t know of him before hearing him talk here. He holds, bizarrely, among other positions of influence, the Alger Hiss professorship at Bard College. There’s quite a story (one I’m only newly acquainted with as yet) in the corkscrew twist his appointment a few years back turns out to be in light of the chair’s establishment in the 1980s and of its original, 20-year holder Joel Kovel’s political ideals. Kovel, it happens, stands well for a kind of person and passed-down form of modern-era life and thought that Brent’s comments for this presentation would have you imagining, if you didn’t know better, somehow really had no authentic place in the world of Jewish experience. I know a lot of people, mostly Christians whose notion of a Jewish authenticity comes at base to little more than impressions of an assortment of 19th-century-storybook Israelites, who don’t know better. I spent an awful lot of years not knowing better. This is poisonous.

Our U.N. presentation is on one level a performance that can’t do otherwise than run to urgent gesturing about what antisemitism and anti-Zionism might have to do with each other — and in that respect go nowhere. (I don’t see how ‘preach the IHRA working definition’ can seriously be thought by anyone to offer clarity. It’s more like denying the building’s burning down around you.) But the wheel-spinning the panelists wind up in here, I want to insist, ought to be attended to, not looked away from. Nothing about this question of conflict resolves tidily to ‘the Jews,’ Jewish troubles and Jewish fears one could categorize and assign a prioritization ranking. From Shoah to attacks on American synagogues and Israeli boots in Gaza streets, I am implicated. None of the desecration, none of the bloodshed murderous or incidental has happened without me, has happened apart from me. And I’m bound, first and most, to listen.

Christian and conscious that your ear could stand to be improved? Unless you’re already very well-resourced on the subject — less likely to be so than you might suppose if you’re like many thoughtful Bible-reading Americans, say — I think something of Sam Aronow’s Jewish History series’ kind, detail-rich and nuanced, accessible by design to all sorts, deserves a slot in your agenda. His story’s just broken through into the 20th century with the last few episodes. (All the centuries matter, you’ll soon enough be persuaded.) Here’s the most recent:

Brent would have you thinking that Snyder’s somehow managed to wander into mouthing Stalinist propaganda here. That’s just dumb.


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