Deconstructing the Deconstruction of Zionism: Gianni Vattimo’s Myth Making and Misreading of Jewishness and Jewish Humor

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The “Yale School,” which included such academic personalities as Paul deMan and Harold Bloom, gave America its first taste of deconstruction. What deMan and Bloom popularized, in particular, was the rhetorical reading of texts.  The point was to find, as deMan once said, their keystone (or it’s “center”). By locating it and taking it out, so to speak, the entire text falls to pieces and is exposed.  But it was Bloom, or rather Freud (his antecedent who he draws on extensively), who came up with the greatest phrase to articulate the task of deconstruction: namely “misreading.”   Bloom taught us that every “misreading” holds a secret.  Namely, that one lies for a reason.   Nonetheless, the lie “acts” as if it is absolute truth and bears no contradictions.  And Bloom, like Freud, wished to cultivate a “hermeneutic of suspicion” so as to expose the contradiction that is at its core. Although criticism does the work of such exposure, Bloom, like Freud and many Jews before him, also understood that one of the best ways to expose contradiction is through the “witz” (through humor).   To be sure, every misreading is ironic.

The irony of Gianni Vattimo’s essay, “How I Become an Anti-Zionist,” which is his contribution to the volume he edited with Michael Marder entitled Deconstructing Zionism, is that Vattimo acts “as if” what he is saying about Jews, Zionism, and the Holocaust is the disclosure of unalloyed truth.  In a rhetorical fashion, he claims that he is not giving a misreading, but “the” reading of Zionism; it’s ugly secret which he, through a process paralleling the post-Zionist Israeli thinker Ilan Pappe, discovered over time: namely, that he had been duped.  He believed in a “myth” about Israel’s purity but now he knows and must spread the gospel of truth.  There is nothing ironic at all in this revelation.  It has the feel of truth.  And that’s the effect he’s after.

What I’d like to do is employ the hermeneutic of suspicion to his text and expose his misreadings and their affect. In addition, I want to stand back and think about what it implies that he, a notable Continental philosopher, identifies with Ahmejenidad, thinks that the threat from Iran is make believe, and that even though the destruction of Israel is desired a better word for it is “transformation.”   To not expose these misreadings would be a travesty.

But my goal is not simply to show that he is not deconstructing Zionism and creating or rephrasing the mythologies of anti-Semitism, but that he is misreading the Jewish joke to accomplish this end. And this misreading shows us how he forces the text and reality to conform to his narrative; something a deconstructionist, as a rule, shouldn’t do.

At the end of his piece, he misreads Jewish humor (as evinced by Woody Allen and the Coen Brothers). The result of that misreading is an account of Zionism that is deadly serious.  By tracing Vattimo’s rhetorical reversals and codings we can better understand his strategy to create an old/new “myth” of Zionism. And in doing so, he gives deconstruction a bad name.

To begin with, Vattimo begins by making a division between a “true” and a “false” Judaism. He argues that true Judaism has nothing to do with Israel!  Those who identify with it are, apparently, missing the true spirit of Judaism (despite the fact that the Torah speaks repeatedly of Israel and Jews have yearned for centuries for a homeland, he makes this statement).  Following this, he exposes an anti-Semitic vein when he argues, by way of citing a Jew (cloaking his opinion in a Jew’s opinion) that “Israel” is “one of the harms produced by Hitler’s politics and the Holocaust” (to this he adds “one can also list the creation of Israel as a Jewish state in 1948”).   In other words, he sees Israel as an evil created by Hitler and the Holocaust rather than as a blessing to those who sought a homeland in the wake of the Holocaust.

The mention of the Holocaust here is key because Vattimo’s goal is to use it as his keystone: like a few anti-Zionist thinkers, he argues that the “myth” of Zionist is given legitimacy by the use of the Holocaust.  And this, in his view, is one of Israel’s gravest sins.  In other words, Israel should, in his view, bear no mention of the Holocaust..as if it’s memory cannot be publicly mentioned, as if it weren’t a part of Jewish history…

But before he gets to this clincher, he provides his personal story of self-discovery (that he is, in his essence, an “anti-Zionist”).   He argues that he, like many Italians, grew up with two myths: the anti-fascist “myth” and the “myth” of Zionism.  He argues that this myth was provided by way of film and media. And, in the process, he likens Israel’s relation to Palestians to what he saw in American Westerns (namely, “the conquering of the West by nineteenth century Yankees”):

The last “cinematographic” reference appears somewhat forced, but it comes to mind for good reason, since no viewer of Westerns, except in recent years, has ever been concerned with the fate of Native Americans exterminated by the advance of white settlers and their cowboys – in a way complete analogous to the absolute forgetting endured by Palestinians in the epic of the birth of Israel.

The analogy also suggests that the Jews exterminated the Palestians (or are trying to).  In fact, this is his point.  But, in a cloaked fashion, he says that a Jew and not a non-Jew makes the discovery of the ugly secret; namely, that Israel is no different from Nazi Germany; it is committed to genocide.   He identifies his epiphany with that of the Jew, Ilan Pappe.  And this makes it “real”:

It was precisely the discovery of the Nakba in his second year of high school – that is, of the “disaster” represented for the Palestinians by the ethnic cleansing exercised by Israel from 1948 onward (and up until today, I must add) – that pushed Ilan Pappe from his initial leftist Zionism to his current, and radical, polemical stance against Israel.

Pappe’s “addition” (or rather additions, in the plural, to Pappe) suggest that he sees everything that Israel does in relation to the Palestinians as genocidal (as if he were watching the Holocaust in the present tense).   He now switches is rhetorical position from an “I” to a “we.”  He basically is saying he is in solidarity with Pappe and other Jews who are against “genocide” and who want to “deconstruct” the myth of Israel’s purity.  But the twist is that he and Pappe are pure. In a few sentences, he gives us a hagiography of sorts when he tells us of the process he has gone through to arrive at his epiphany:

It was, and it is now for many of us, a complex process that involved the whole of our socio-political, and in the end also our ethical, religious, conceptions, such that even our long friendships are put into crisis, along with other aspects of our private lives (starting from a certain ostracism by most official and mainstream mass media).

Here’s the narrative: He has been excluded. He is the other who is banding together with other’s who have been excluded and he is banding together with them to live and die in the name of truth. To do this, one must fight against Zionist mythology which is hiding evil (the genocide of the Palestinian people). This is, if anything, a religious narrative based on “truth.” There is no irony here.

To express his passion for the truth and to provide the map of his pilgrimage, Vattimo discusses how, over history, he was duped. Over time he realized he had been duped and that, in being duped, Israel was allowed to “continue the genocide, in Gaza and elsewhere, and also to reinforce themselves militarily in every way.”

From here, Vattimo expands his rhetorical we to include and “welcome” “Ahmadinejad.” This welcome, says Vattimo, has “emblematic value and goes far beyond the particular significance of his visit” (to Brazil). This “far beyond” suggests something transcendental for Vattimo, a greater truth: “never before was it so evident (at least it seems to us) that what is up for grabs in Palestine is the destiny of oppressed peoples who try to avoid the rule of the new colonialism.” In other words, “we” saw the truth, the “destiny of oppressed peoples” in the Palestinans.  The language is, to be sure, Epic and expresses a kind of meta-narrative which, to be sure, deconstruciton…ought to deconstruct not construct.  But who needs irony when we have Ahmadiniejad as our friend and comrade?

But the irony doesn’t stop there.  To be sure, Vattimo goes out of his way to reread Ahmadinejad’s calls for the destruction of Israel.  And his rereading – or rather misreading – exposes something rotten.  First of all, he says that the threat posed by Iran to erase Israel from the map is a myth by putting the words “disappear” and “threat” in scare quotes.  After doing this, he says that “its sense may not be completely unreasonable”(!).  His rereading is that its really not the destruction of Israel that Ahmadinejad wants so much as it’s “transformation” into one state (not for Jews, of course).  He justifies this rhetorical substitution (or misreading) by way of Ilan Pappe (a Jew-said-it-not-me tactic).    He ends his rhetorical flourish by arguing that all Ahmedinejad does is express “a demand that should be more explicitly shared.”

In other words, disregard everything negative said about Ahmedinijad; he has no hatred, doesn’t support terrorism, and forget about how he treats his people.  Rename him, pace my deconstruction, and call him your friend.  “We” (radical leftists) all share his sentiments.

But the irony of deconstruction doesn’t end there. He goes on to make yet another rhetorical misreading and substitution.  He claims that Israel suffers from an “irredeemable sin” and to say this “is not so excessive.”  In fact, its appropriate, in his view, to impute this as truth. That sin, as I suggestive above, is the “utilization” of the Holocaust.  It has turned the Holocaust into a “permanent weapon” against anyone who questions them.  To begin with, this claim is ridiculous.  I don’t have the space to address how this myth has been appropriate to agitate many left-leaning radical anti-Zionists in the past (and present).  Its simply another myth.  Regardless, for Vattimo it’s a truth that, in his view, is the basis for maintaining the myth of Israel as a Jewish State. And it is an “irredeemable sin.” It cannot be atoned for. Israel is, in other words, evil.

At the end of his essay, Vattimo posits yet another analogy and rereading by claming that Heidegger and deconstruction, like the Palestinians, is being “ethnically cleansed”(!)    After making such a rhetorical association – by way of it making it a self-evident truth that Israel ethically cleanses (after all, it is the basis of his analogy!) – Vattimo let’s his anti-Semitic beast loose.

He claims that the real core of the problem is not the appropriation of the Holocaust to legitimate the myth of Zionism so much as the myth of Jewish exceptionalism.  He states that people have this “suspicion” (himself included) by virtue of Isreal’s use of power. This “mythology,” says Vattimo, includes “divine election, the Covenant, the purity of a race.”  In other words, Zionism is really about the myth of Judaism and this coming from a “scholar” who, at the outset of his essay, separated “true” Jews (who don’t identify with Israel) from false Jews (who do). The suggestion of this rhetorical strategy (the “suspicion” as he says) is that Zionism is based on the mythologies of Judaism!

Vattimo doesn’t end his essay with this misreading. Rather, he ends with a misreading of Jewish humor.  He argues that the Rabbis in Woody Allen and the Coen Brother’s films show us who, at the core of Judaism, is a power that is corrupt and power hungry. This misinterpretation, if anything, totally misses what Woody Allen and The Coen Brothers were after.   To be sure, Allen, in films like Bananas and Annie Hall includes Rabbis in ways that have nothing whatsoever to do with showing corruption so much as in insider joke.  The greatest irony is that in Annie Hall, Allen has his girlfriend’s grandmother look at him as an anti-Semite would; namely, as a Hasidic Jew in disguise.

As Freud would note, every misreading discloses some kind of secret.  And that secret, for Freud, is a desire.  For Vattimo, I think it would be fair to say that he wants to see every Rabbi as a co-conspirator in the creation of genocide and the “myth” of Jewish exceptionalism.   This desire is ultimately anti-Semitic.   It’s a shame since, by doing this, he isn’t “ethnically cleansing” deconstruction so much as giving it a bad name; after all, he sees himself as an heir to deconstruction.  But, it seems, he is more an heir to anti-Semitism.  We need better heirs to its legacy. On the other hand, it would also help if Vattimo knew a little about Judaism and Jewish humor. His misreading is not funny.  It’s tragic.

On Louis CK’s ‘Hasidic Cum Tissues’ Routine

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A facebook friend recently cued me in to a website that collected things Louis CK has said about Jews.   Included in the archived videos are a few clips: a clip where Louis CK plays on many different dialects and how speech indicates different kinds of sick lifestyles (the Jewish dialect amongst them), a video on rape where he goes so far as to say, in an aside, that Jews should be raped and follows “did I say that?”; it also includes a clip on Jewish girls (which was removed from Youtube), the “Goodbye Jews” clip that I discussed in the last blog entry on Louis CK, and a clip entitled “Hasidic Cum Tissues” (which was also removed from Youtube).

Regarding this clip, the webpage cites Louis CK as saying:

And the weird detail she told me is that [the Hasidic clients of the dominatrix] always had to take their sperm home with them in a tissue, because that was in their religion that they couldn’t leave their bodily fluids behind. So somehow God’s watching a dominatrix shit in your mouth, and he’s like “Well as long as you take your cum home, it’s fine.” 

I was really curious about this video clip as its title and the claim were so bizarre.  I wanted to hear it and take note not just of this but of other parts of the clip that would show me Louis CK’s ways of relating to Jewish things.   (Moreover, I am familiar with Jewish customs (minhagim) and laws (halacha) and I had never heard of such a thing as “cum tissues” let alone heard of Hasidim who needed to make sure all semen was put in tissues.)

From the Louis CK page, we learn that the clip was removed by Youtube.  Nonetheless, I wondered if it may have been renamed.  It was.  And it was simply filed under the Opie and Anthony Show.   As their Wiki page points out, Opie (Greg “Opie” Hughes) and Anthony (Cumia) had a show since 1995 and that went on to 2002.  They had a hiatus and went onto XM Satellite Radio in 2006.  The show, over the years, has been host to many comedians including Louis CK.  The energy in and around the show is anxious and highly charged – much like The Howard Stern Show.  The language is heavy and very vulgar. And like Stern, they often disregard political correctness and speak what is on their minds.  And sometimes that can get very risky.

This clip in particular is very vulgar and you may not want to hear or see my reading of it as the clip that I address portrays some Hasidic Jews in a very negative even anti-Semitic fashion.  I found many details that were not mentioned by the person who runs the website or anyone on the web for that matter.  I have noted them below. Read and listen at your own risk.

In this clip – show #19 -they had Louis CK as a guest.  29:27 in Louis CK begins telling a joke about a Dominatrix, Hasidim, and “cum tissues.”  His friend’s wife was a Dominatrix and she had Hasidim as clients.

After much banter about this Dominatrix and his friend, he returns (at 31:17) to the joke and brings in the Hasidim and the tissues.  He describes the relationship of the Hasidim to the Dominatrix and points out that they were rude to her before the transaction.  In an attempt to explain why they are rude, Louis CK  notes than anybody “outside” their community is deemed “an outsider.”  Furthermore,  “that’s the way the culture is….its a closed society…I’m trying to be nice about it…Fucking Jews!”(Nervous laughter.)

After saying this, Opie and Anthony come to the rescue and say that while he is right about the Hasidim being a closed society, it woukd be wrong to say that all Hasidim are the same.  Yet, they say Hasidim are “mysterious.”  Louis CK then comes in and talks about some “good” Hasidim he has met at B & H Photo in Manhattan.  He imitates one of the Hasidim who works behind the counter and notes that some can be rude, there, while others “can be nice.”

Returning to the story, and bringing to bear on us how Louis CK and the Dominatrix share a negative attitude towards “them,” he notes that “these Jews were rude to her….Going to the dominatrix to have their dicks whipped is not in the Talmud.”

Louis CK points out, without wincing, that “when she was beating them, she said they were the only clients she ever hit with spite.” Finding her spite (and her beating of the Hasidim) to be justifiable, he notes that the Hasidim had “crossed the line.”  In other words, they deserved a cruel beating.

After justifying her cruel (as opposed to “kind,” normal) whipping, Louis CK notes that she said that she “used to crucify them….and inside, when she was hitting them, she thought ‘You Fucking Jew!’”

“And then the weird detail she told me came when she told me that they had to put their sperm in a tissue…they had to take their sperm home with them.”  CK, an anthropologist from Mars, explains that they cannot leave any fluids lying around.  He goes on to state what he says as Jewish blindness and hypocrisy: “somehow, God’s watching a dominatrix shit in your mouth…and everything will be alright if you take your cum home.”  Following Louis CK’s  judgment, they all jokingly play out the reasons why God would want them to do this.  And Louis CK finishes the foray by saying that all be well if the Hasid can put the “cum tissue in the cigar box under his wife’s shawl.”

Opie then gets going and talks about how he heard of a “tranny” who would make the Hasidim shower because they smelled so bad.  All of the anti-Semitic stuff starts coming here and then a phone-call comes in that is directed at these Hasidim.

The caller who is apparently a cop confirms this claim. And even calls them “filthy, filthy animals.”  Then he says not all of them “…a couple of them.”

What is so disturbing about all of this is not simply the negative anti-Semitic descriptions, but the fact that the topic is simply passed by.  After the cop hangs up, they simply talk about other things.

They feel no need to reflect on what they said about the “dirty Hasidim.”  There is no need to reflect on how odd it is that Louis CK thought of their cruel (as opposed to kind) “beating” as justified.  Here we need to ask ourselves if Louis CK (and the whole crew) went too far.

And although they are laughing, are we?  What would it mean if we were to laugh along with all of them about those “dirty Jews?”  Is this routine about “Hasidic Cum Tissues” funny or just disturbing?