The ProsenPeople

Werner Sombart: Portrait of an Anti-Semite

Friday, October 07, 2011 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Ned Beauman wrote about Oscar Panizza and Henry Ford. His debut novel, Boxer, Beetle (Bloomsbury), is now available.

Can an anti-Semite reach correct conclusions about Jews? Here is Jeffrey Herf in his book Reactionary Modernism on the work of Werner Sombart, a leading German sociologist of the early twentieth century:

“Sombart stressed four aspects of European Jewish social history that contributed to the origins of modern capitalism. First, the Jews were dispersed in different countries and thus had international contacts. Second, their existence as outsiders forced them to be more attentive to new economic opportunities and to favor economic rationalism over local custom and tradition. Third, because Jews had been excluded from full citizenship rights, they turned their attention away from politics to economics. Fourth, Jewish wealth made banking and lending possible, activities from which modern capitalism was born.”

All those points seem both valid and interesting out of context, and indeed Sombart’s 1911 book The Jews and Modern Capitalism was not seen as anti-Semitic when it was published. Furthermore, the records of Sombart’s feelings on Nazism is vague and contradictory, and his views seem to have fluctuated over his lifetime. Nonetheless, reading more about Sombart, one feels certain he was basically pretty hostile to Jews – at one point he even wrote that he didn’t like Berlin department stores because their ‘crass juxtapositions’ were a product of Jewish sensibilities.

So where does that leave his sociological insights? The fact is, anti-Semites do spend a lot of time thinking about Judaism – more time than a lot of Jews spend thinking about Judaism. Occasionally, they are going to come up with something solid. When I was researching the history of anti-Semitism for Boxer, Beetle, I encountered this problem often, and it seems to me that at a hundred years’ distance, maybe it’s finally time to go back to some of these old sources – even if we have to employ the intellectual equivalent of those steel boxes with built-in lead-lined gloves like they install in nuclear research laboratories.

Ned Beauman is the author of Boxer, Beetle

Ford vs. Sapiro

Wednesday, October 05, 2011 | Permalink

On Monday, Ned Beauman wrote about Oscar Panizza. His debut novel, Boxer, Beetle (Bloomsbury), is now available.

Henry Ford might be the most famous American anti-Semite, but it’s not widely known that the industrialist only narrowly escaped having to answer for his vitriol in court. In 1927, the heroic Jewish lawyer Aaaron Sapiro sued Ford for remarks that Ford had made about Sapiro in his book The International Jew (later popular among the Nazi Party). Unfortunately, the libel case ended in a mistrial, and had been pretty precarious from start to finish. As Time magazine reported: ‘During the life of the Sapiro-Ford trial the following events were chronicled: Henry Ford was badly battered in an automobile accident. Stuart Hanley, lawyer for Mr. Ford, suffered a back strain. Two of Aaron Sapiro’s children came down with scarlet fever. Milton Sapiro (brother) splintered a wrist in another automobile crash. Senator James A. Reed of Missouri, chief counsel for Mr. Ford, went to the Henry Ford hospital with an acute attack of gastrointestinal trouble. Superstitious observers whispered that the trial was hoodooed.’

What the article neglects to mention is that Ford probably contrived his injuries in order to avoid appearing in court. There’s something almost Ballardian about an automobile tycoon deliberately staging his own automobile accident. But what I like even more is the bluff that followed. Sapiro’s team were having trouble serving a subpoena to Ford. ‘Eventually the server threw it on Ford’s lap through the open window when he stopped his car at an intersection,’ writes Hadassa Ben-Itto in The Lie That Wouldn’t Die, his history of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. ‘Ford suffered severe loss of face when the judge summarily rejected his lawyer’s argument that the service of the subpoena was faulty, claiming that the document had not actually landed in his client’s lap, but slipped to the floor of the car between his knees.’ One imagines that Ford was soon fantasising about a luxury version of his own Model A with two new features perfect for the busy anti-Semite: triple-gauge crash simulator and velvet-upholstered subpoena guard.

Check back all week for more posts from Ned for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Visiting Scribe.

Anti-Semitism of a Complex Kind

Monday, October 03, 2011 | Permalink

Ned Beauman is the author of Boxer,Beetle. It was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and the Desmond Elliott Prize upon its initial UK release last year, and has recently been praised by the New York Times as ‘funny, raw and stylish’.

In 1893 the German writer Oscar Panizza published a story called “The Operated Jew,” a synopsis of which reads like a racially charged David Cronenberg film: a young Jewish doctor submits to a serious of painful surgical procedures to conceal his heritage, culminating with a blood transfusion from pure Ayran virgins, but just before his wedding to a blonde German woman, the operations lose their hold and he melts into a puddle on the floor. That same decade, the Zionist Theodor Herzl began using the term ‘anti-Semite of Jewish origin’, which would soon be simplified to ‘self-hating Jew’.

These days you don’t very often hear ‘self-hating Jew’ from level-headed people, but to a novelist, a self-hating anything is inherently juicy material, and “The Operated Jew,” if it had been written by a Jewish author, would probably now be a major text in Jewish Studies.

Most of us are already familiar with the story of Dan Burros, the Jewish Ku Klux Klan member whose story was the basis for the 2001 Ryan Gosling film The Believer. But my own favourite ‘self-hating Jew’ is the German-Jewish scholar Oscar Levy. ‘We who have posed as the saviours of the world, we, who have even boasted of having given it “the” Saviour, we are to-day nothing else but the world’s seducers, its destroyers, its incendiaries, its executioners,’ wrote Levy in 1920. ‘We who have promised to lead you to a new Heaven, we have finally succeeded in landing you into a new Hell.’ As a result of the storm of publicity over this article, Levy was kicked out of his adopted home of Great Britain, even as the anti-Semitic newspaper The Hidden Hand or Jewry Über Alles praised him as ‘the most courageous and honest Jew living.’

But as Dan Stone explains in his book Breeding Superman, Levy’s anti-Semitism was of a complex kind. Levy was one of the first translators of Nietzsche into English, and like Nietzsche, he didn’t acknowledge much of a distinction between Jews and Christians: both were equally at fault for the dismal state of the world, although it happened to be the Jews who’d helped to begin that decline.

And the Jews could still do something about it. ‘Yes, there is hope, my friend,’ he wrote, ‘for we are still here, our last word is not yet spoken, our last deed is not yet done, our last revolution is not yet made.’ As Stone summarises his position: ‘The Jews, the underminers of western civilisation, are the only people able to rescue that civilisation from further deterioration. Self-hatred is yet self-aggrandisement.’ To anticipate Levy in The Operated Jew, perhaps Panizza would have had to write something closer to The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde – with his young doctor as a penitent by day but also a revolutionary by night.

Ned Beauman was born in London and currently lives in New York. His debut novel Boxer,Beetle (Bloomsbury) was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and the Desmond Elliott Prize upon its initial UK release last year, and has recently been praised by the New York Times as ‘funny, raw and stylish’.