Adorno on Persecution Mania, Antisemitism, and Anne Frank

With the rise of anti-semitism in America – which I have experienced, personally; and see on social media, perpetually – I have been starting to think more about what it is and what we can do to – if possible – counter-act it. One era that I have studied in depth and written on in many essays and book chapters, is the period before, during, and after the Holocaust. German Jewish thinkers like Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt, Gershom Scholem, and Theodor Adorno have been on my radar for some time.

Today, I look to what Adorno’s thoughts were after anti-semitism had its run through Germany, destroyed the country, and annihilated millions of Jews. How did it germinate, so to speak, in Germany? One thought that came to me is that what we are seeing right now with paranoia on social media about this or that group and its power is a symptom of anti-semitism. Adorno, in an essay entitled, “The Meaning of Working Through the Past,” sees the forces around nationalism as “intentionally self-deluded.” For him, nationalism is the “heritage of barbarically primitive tribal attitudes” that was against anything different. As the nation decayed, so to speak, it became, according to Adorno, “sadistic and destructive.”

Nationalism does not completely believe in itself anymore, and yet it is a political necessity because it is the most effective means of motivating people to insist on conditions that are, viewed objectively, obsolete. This is why, as something ill at ease with itself, intentionally self-deluded, it has taken on grotesque features nowadays. Admittedly nationalism, the heritage of barbarically primitive tribal attitudes, never lacked such traits altogether, but they were reined in as long as liberalism guaranteed the right of the individual—also concretely as the condition of collective prosperity. Only in an age in which it was already toppling has nationalism become completely sadistic and destructive.

For Adorno, the energy behind nationalism (“nationalism as a paranoid delusion system”) was “paranoia,” which, for the Nazis, was a “persecution mania.” It was “contagious.”

We see something like this today, on social media with anti-semitism in which anti-semites – like Kanye or his white supremecist muse, Nick Fuentes -have the paranoid belief that Jews control everything and are destroying not just the nation but they, themselves, personally.

The rage of Hitler’s world against everything that was different—nationalism as a paranoid delusional system—was already of this caliber. The appeal of precisely these features is hardly any less today. Paranoia, the persecution mania that persecutes those upon whom it projects what it itself desires, is contagious. Collective delusions, like anti-Semitism, confirm the pathology of the individual, who shows that psychologically he is no longer a match for the world and is thrown back upon an illusory inner realm. 

This fascinating part is that the anti-semite is “no longer a match for the world” and, in his retreat to his or her keyboard, is “thrown back upon an illusory inner realm.” In other words, the anti-semite, in taking the world as the enemy of the average American, etc cannot live in this world where it used to dwell so it he/she is thrown back into their private illusory worlds that are supported by other people tweeting, instagraming, etc from their lonely keyboards.

Anti-Semitism is so difficult to refute because the psychic economy of innumerable people needed it and, in an attenuated form, presumably still needs it today. Whatever happens by way of propaganda remains ambiguous.

Anti-semitism, in other words, is a “collective” desire. It is a desire based on paranoia that, because it is needed – due to alienation, loneliness, and confusion – is urgent and pressing. After arriving at this thought, Adorno turns to someone who enjoyed the dramatization of The Diary of Anne Frank. What, one may ask, is the connection of this dramatic experience to anti-semitism or persecution mania?

I was told the story of a woman who, upset after seeing a dramatization of The Diary of Anne Frank, said: “Yes, but that girl at least should have been allowed to live.” To be sure even that was good as a first step toward understanding. But the individual case, which should stand for, and raise awareness about, the terrifying totality, by its very individuation became an alibi for the totality the woman forgot. The perplexing thing about such observations remains that even on their account one cannot advise against productions of the Anne Frank play and the like, because their effect nonetheless feeds into the potential for improvement, however repugnant they also are and however much they seem to be a profanation of the dignity of the dead.

This person, for Adorno, only sees the individual, Anne Frank, she doesn’t see the “terrifying totality,” that made Anne Frank into an animal to be hunted and killed by Nazis. But, notes Adorno, the effect of this play can still “feed the potential for improvement.” While a play like the Diary of Anne Frank, seems to be a “profanation of the dignity of the dead” (something Eli Weisel or Paul Celan might say), it still can bring someone to a potentiality for “improvement.”

But Adorno has his doubts because he does not think the “genuine” anti-semite’s experience of real Jews – not fictional or dramatized ones – can efface his or her anti-semitism. Why? Because this presupposes that an anti-semite has the capacity for experience. On the contrary, writes Adorno, “the genuine anti-Semite is defined far more by his incapacity for any experience whatsoever, by his unresponsiveness.”

All too often the presupposition is that anti-Semitism in some essential way involves the Jews and could be countered through concrete experiences with Jews, whereas the genuine anti-Semite is defined far more by his incapacity for any experience whatsoever, by his unresponsiveness. If anti-Semitism primarily has its foundation in objective society, and only derivatively in anti-Semites, then—as the National Socialist joke has it—if the Jews had not already existed, the anti-Semites would have had to invent them.

For Adorno, the anti-Semite can’t experience the other; s/he cannot be changed. In a Levinasian sense, he cannot be vulnerable to the other and is incapable of experience because he has negated the world and put a paranoid one in its place. Even if s/he meets a real Jew – Kanye met many – this doesn’t change a thing. The anti-Semite is not in the world; he or she is in his or her own world; in that paranoid reality, the Jew is controlling everything. Only by destroying the Jew, taking away Jewish power, will the anti-Semite feel and know that the world he or she has projected on his or her – see below – (paranoid) world.

Why Wasn’t Chaim Topol of “Fiddler on the Roof” Mentioned in Last Night’s Oscars?

One of the most notable losses to the film world of recent note was the death of Chaim Topol (four days ago). To be sure, Topol received two Golden Globe Awards and was a nominee for both a Tony Award and an Academy Award. He won the most prestigious award in Israel, the Israel Prize, for his performance in Fiddler on the Roof. The play has run 3500 times on the Broadway Stage. Fiddler held the record for the longest-running Broadway musical for almost 10 years until Grease surpassed its run…and yet, there was no mention whatsoever of his death.

With this in mind, a Jewish Telegraph Article (JTA) with the title, “‘Fabelmans’ flops at the Oscars, but Hollywood’s Jewish History Gets a Nod,” caught my eye. The choice of wording is apropos. Jewish films or actors, in seems, are no longer celebrated in Hollywood. They get a “nod” (although Topol didn’t even get that).

The broadcast included a promotional video for the Academy Museum, which opened last year to celebrate the history of Hollywood. In the video, a curator named Dara Jaffe explains that one of the museum’s roles is to “bring important film histories to light, from the Jewish immigrants who founded the Hollywood studios to the early innovators of African-American cinema.” The inclusion is notable because the museum drew steep criticism when it first opened for giving short shrift to the industry’s robust Jewish history; Jaffe was appointed to put together a permanent exhibition about that history in response. The exhibition has not yet opened.

For now on, Jewish history and Jews in Hollywood will only get “nods,” especially the best of them. Just like at the museum in Los Angeles honoring the film industry, where the Jews who founded Hollywood are barely mentioned. David Chappelle and Louis Farakahn think Jews have too much power in Hollywood, so, it’s time to start “nodding” rather than celebrating. That is about all Jews in Hollywood and their history will get. That seems to be the new trajectory.

From recent movies like You People by Jonah Hill, we learn that Jews have too much power and privilege and are no different from spoiled white people with inhereted wealth (more than one generation of wealth, today, is considered a sin by the contemporary race theory ideologues, like Ibram X Kendi).

In this new context, Jews are “white” and don’t deserve anything close to celebration, especially one of America’s top Jewish filmmakers, Steven Spielberg. As the English comedian David Baddiel puts it, today, Jews don’t count. The celebration of Jewish success has been sidelined by the new regime of diversity, equity, and inclusion. The culture industry has moved on to the next “thing.”

An article by Tablet that brought out what this means – in terms of fresh data – is eye opening. It is entitled, “The Vanishing.”

I’ll end with a brief quote from the article which sums up the situation and may help us to understand why Topol wasn’t a focus – since, after all, such a choice may have put too much focus on the Jews and their contributions to American film and theater.

As true believers in the postwar liberal project, American Jews spent decades advocating for tolerance and equality of opportunity, not least because we were the prime beneficiaries. The ADL didn’t fight the quotas in the 1950s so Jews could matriculate in proportion to their percentage of the population. But there’s a tension between meritocracy and representation. The new DEI regime treats any disparity between groups as evidence of unfair advantage—and yet we’re supposed to think it’s a coincidence that Jewish representation plummets at the exact moment America frantically pushes to racially rebalance all high-status industries.

Because what is framed as a backlash against America’s “white” centers of power is in many cases a clever sleight of hand. Jews are being disproportionately purged from liberal institutions because Jews disproportionately exist within those institutions.

When activists and journalists and executives talk about how Broadway or NPR or publishing is “too white,” what they really mean is “too Jewish.” When The New York Times says it wants to make its internal demographics look more like New York City’s (excepting the Hasidim, of course), what this means is “fewer Jews.” Twenty years ago, if Pat Robertson spoke along these lines—making the same complaints about the same people and industries and institutions—there would have been a rush to condemn it as antisemitic. Today it passes for social justice.

In the 1960s and ’70s, facing hard barriers to their professional advancement, Soviet Jews lost the faith. The children and the grandchildren of the revolution tried to emigrate. When the authorities wouldn’t let them, American Jews rallied to their cause, created brand-new communal organizations, petitioned Congress, rallied thousands-strong outside the United Nations. Ours was a community confident in its power and confident in its future.

Asian Americans have the dignity of looking at admissions practices and demanding fair representation. The Jews, as ever, are a people apart. From civil rights to Vietnam to the spectacular bounty of their cultural and political achievements, liberal Jewish boomers always managed to be on the right side of history. It is a supreme irony that they’ve helped empower a movement that now places their children and grandchildren on the wrong side.

If Putin or Orban reduced their universities’ Jewish populations by 50%, the ADL would be howling. But Harvard and Yale can magically lose nearly half their Jewish students in less than a decade and we’ll take it on the chin. That this is occurring with the full acquiescence of a terrified liberal Jewish establishment should tell you just how much power Jews in America still have.

Chaim Topol – Who Played Tevye Fiddler on the Roof – Passes Away

I was born and raised in a small town in the Adirondacks called Mayfield. In elementary school, I was the only Jew in my class. When we sang in the school assembly in December, we sang several Christmas carols; but to make sure I didn’t feel like the odd one out, the teachers included two songs about Hannukah. All the students would look at me and smile as we sang. After an anti-semitic incident in junior high, I transferred to a nearby school, in Gloversville, New York where I went to Hebrew school and was bar-mitzvahed (in that school, I was one of three Jews in my grade).

Why do I mention any of this in a reflection on Chaim Topol?

Both of my parents and most of my family are Jews from New York City. But besides Annie Hall (1977), Mad Magazine, and Hebrew School classes after school that I barely focused on (save for the units on the Holocaust), I had little exposure to Jewishness as a child. The movie, Fiddler on the Roof (1971), however, was one of the most Jewish things I ever saw. It was even staged at one of my schools. The songs, the dancing, the story all intrigued me and made me feel ok about being an American Jew. My non-Jewish videographer included parts of the soundtrack in my Bar Mitzvah Video (at the beginning and end). It seemed to have brought me into an appreciation of “tradition” and life.

Later in life, after I was an undergrad, I found out for myself what Judaism was all about by going to Yeshiva and taking on a more observant lifestyle. Be that as it may, it was this film that gave me my first vague sense of what Jewishness I came from…in old Europe. I always wondered what life was like there, before the Holocaust.

I was intrigued with the Tevye character played so wonderfully by Chaim Topol. He was so full of life, so reflective, honest, and self-deprecating. Since Woody Allen’s and Mel Brooks’ films, as well as Mad Magazine, were my pop cultural guides to Jewishness, I always wondered how Tevye measured up. Was he a schlemiel like most characters in these films or caricatures in Mad?

We need to look at the original inspiration for the Broadway / Hollywood character by turning to Shalom Aleichem, who wrote these stories in the wake of pogroms and before the Holocaust.

Ruth Wisse, in The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, doesn’t think so. She contrasts Tevye to the character Menahem Mendel and sees Tevye as the embodiment of a schlemiel (who lacks insight into his condition) and his opposite (who does). Tevye, unlike the schlemiel character, experiences “ironic resignation” while also having an “elemental life instinct”:

I.L. Trunk distinguishes between these two heroes: Menahem Mendl, he says, is pure instinct. Unlike Tevye the Dairyman, he does not experience ironic resignation, or ironic faith: he ‘expresses the elemental life instinct which does not see its tragic perspectives.” But taken together, Menahem Mendl and his wife Sheyne Sheyndl, do create the ironic juxtapositions that Tevye expresses in his own person, allowing the reader to weigh the fierce optimism against a tragic perspective. Together they represent two extremes of faith and failure. (56)

For Sander Pinsker, in his book The Schlemiel as Metaphor, Tevye is a character who “best captures the tragic-comic sprit of the Diaspora”(32) when he says, “With God’s help I starved to death – I and my wife and children – three times a day, not counting supper”(32). Pinsker says – playing on Nietzsche in the Birth of Tragedy – that Tevye gives “tragic affirmation a new twist.”

For Pinsker, like Wisse, Tevye is a figure of faith:

With the world of the shtetl all but disintegrated and ‘modern children’ threatening to abandon its traditions entirely, Tevye not only continues to pattern his life on the Old Ways, but he also has a perfect faith that the Old Ways will somehow prevail. (36)

But he is a schlimazel because history ruins his life and his family. He loves them all, but he is the last person to preserve faith in the midst of rapid change. Aleichem wrote these tales before the Holocaust. That Europe is gone. But the spirit of Tevye, so beautifully embodied and preserved for the ages by Chaim Topol is with us.

What I loved about Chaim Topol’s performance of faith was how he embodied it through his acting. His joy and his tribulations, embodied through his “tragic affirmation,” gave me hope. One can be bold and Jewish in America, I thought, but how? Through theater? Literature? Film? A religious life?

To be sure, the film and the play are a part of what Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi, in her book, Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the Jewish Imagination, of a general post-WWII construction of a “virtual shtetl” – as we see with the popularity of I.B. Singer’s fiction, Irving Howe’s World of our Fathers, his Yiddish Anthology, new translations of Yiddish writers, etc – which emerged after the European shtetl and its Jewish culture were obliterated by the Nazis. For her, it is a form of nostalgia since that world is gone for good.

Be that as it may, the film and play touched the hearts of millions of people, Jews and non-Jews. Topol gave it new meaning and purpose. It is a past that means a lot to us insofar as we imagine it to be on the threshold of a rich Yiddish culture and an ancient faith that was challenged by history, pogroms, anti-semitism, etc. The point is to remain strong in the face of it all and to make a “tragic affirmation” of faith when it seems to have run its course.

Rest in peace, Chaim. Baruch Dayin Ha’emes.

You changed the world and gave us an embodiment of Jewish life, faith, and culture that inspired many Jews, like myself, to look deeper into their Jewishness.