If You See Something Say Something III

I am rather stuck on the fliegender Teppich in the NPD ad. I want to continue the link I made between Hans Schweitzer’s anti-Semitic cartoons and the NPD flying-carpet by focusing on this particular relationship between orientalism and anti-Semitism.

The 1926 Lotte Reiniger movie Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed was one of the first “animated” films and revolved around the story from 1001 Nights of Prince Ahmed and Pari Banu. 1001 Nights, properly entered Europe via Antoine Galland‘s French translation in the early years of the eighteenth century. Some of the tales, Sindbad, Ali Baba, Aladdin, found their ways into various other languages and became part of the Brother Grimm collection of children stories in the mid nineteenth century (perhaps through Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall‘s translation, but really, such texts were in relatively wide circulation as pamphlets, and small etchbooks). The flying carpet was in many of these tales, most prominently in Drei Prinzen und zwei Frauen (which features the adventures of Prince Ahmed, and Aladdin). The flying carpet – as the most potent symbol of Orient was seemingly everywhere in the late nineteenth century onwards. Nowadays, one can routinely see it in travel bureau ads as well as nice yogurt brands which transport you to other havens of delight.

The flying carpet in the NPD ad is more than an orientalizing gesture which evokes an image familiar to every German child (and subsequent adult). It is crucially the link between anti-Semitism of Germany and Europe and the Orient – for Johann Gottfried Herder, Jews were the “Asiatics of Europe”. The connection of Jews of Germany with the Orient was widespread in the nineteenth century Europe. Johann David Michaelis (1717-1791) was one key biblical exegete who commented extensively on the dangers facing Germany by the Oriental Jews:

As an expert on ancient Judaism, Michaelis also took an interest in contemporary Jewry. In a review of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s Die Juden (1749), a drama that broke with tradition to present a Jew as a noble character, Michaelis complained that finding nobility of character in a Jew was utterly impossible. .. In his critique of Dohm’s proposals for Jewish emancipation in 1782, Michaelis stuck by his original views, claiming that both Judaism and the Jews’ character were incompatible with citizenship. Citing their moral corruption, proclivities toward crime, and the clannish nature of Judaism as insurmountable obstacles to integrating Jews into the modern state, he claimed that granting them rights would risk transforming Germany into a “defenseless, despicable Jewish state”.1

The solution for Michaelis lay in colonial expansion – specifically to the “southern” climate of the “sugar islands” which was suited to the “southern” Jew. The Orient of Michaelis as Jonathan Hess shows in his essay, “Johann David Michaelis and the Colonial Imaginary: Orientalism and the Emergence of Racial Antisemitism in Eighteenth-Century Germany” (2000) was never the Orient of Islam or Muslims – it was the Israelites and the Jews of his contemporary society. To access both that ancient past, and illuminate his current world, Michaelis sought to study the “contemporary Near East” as analogue. Such anachronism, as Said has argued, rest in the very bones of Orientalist formulation of knowledges. In the case of Michaelis, the contemporary travel accounts, the translation of Arabic epics, histories and poetry (as from Mosaic law). For Michaelis, the connection to folklore and children’s tales was another way of cementing his understanding Jewish danger. Hess notes that Michaelis also commissioned studies of Arabia Felix and the accounts were used by both Kant and Blumenbach in their anthropological writings. He further points out that Kant’s reliance on Arabian and Indian accounts for his racial classification in On the Various Races of Human Beings (1775). Blumenbach, while putting Jews and Arabs in the “caucasian” wrote, “The Jewish race .. can easily be recognized everywhere by their eyes alone, which breathe of the East“:

For Blumenbach, Jews mark an irreversible aberration from the original human variety that inhabited the southern slope of Mount Caucasus. Michaelis’s adaptation of this scenario similarly leaves no doubt as to the superiority of the “northern” Europeans over the “southern”race of the Jews. With its hegemony over the Orient secured in this manner, Christian Europe can safely lose all anxiety about the power and influence of its Oriental origins in religion and jurisprudence. In this way, racial theory secures for Michaelis precisely that which his Mosaisches Recht strove for: a vision of Europe as already de- Orientalized. Seeing the Jews as racial degenerates one might deport to German sugar islands does not merely envision Germany as a self-sufficient colonial power much like England or France; it also emancipates Christian Europe once and for all from the burdens of its Oriental heritage, allowing Michaelis’s northern European peers to gain complete ascendancy over their Oriental Jewish childhood.2

Such racializing of the Jews – look, again at that NPD poster – thus married the production of knowledge about the Orient with the political question of the “other” within. The fantasies of the Orient rendered onto the topography of France, Germany and England in the nineteenth century are hence most clearly visible in anti-Semitic writings of most great Enlightenment figures. I don’t want to go much further into Voltaire and the other founding figures of Enlightenment and their views on “tolerance” but it needs to be noted specifically for Germany that the popular play of Oriental tropes and the vilification of its own Jewish community went hand-in-hand. The Jews of Germany were simply not “volk” and you can check that with Fichte. In 1794, Saul Ascher who lived in Berlin and was a proponent of Jewish rights, wrote that Fichte’s writings were “a quite new species of opponents, armed with more dreadful weapons than their predecessors. If the Jewish nation had until now political and religious opponents, it is now moral antagonists who are arranged against them”3

The moral argument against Jews, the political argument against their participation in German military or society is now seen most clearly in the moral and political arguments against the Turks, and against Islam. In deadly comparison to the nineteenth century, the tropes of the Orientalized other – the beaked nose, the veil, the black-face – both familiarizes the sight and the hatred in the German viewer. The viewer has no need to confront the knowledge that contemporary German society is irrevocably tied to production of its “immigrant” community or that the state is working breathlessly to argue for more “ausländer” to come to Germany to teach, to work, to live.

The flying carpet is not a simple gesture of the Europe’s Orient. It is a gesture linking the history of anti-Semitism and imperialism and racial theorization in Germany with the present day Turkish and Arab Muslims. It provides one window on processes such as which Said called “orientalism” but which focused on Christianity’s relationship to Judaism and Germany’s political relationship to its Jewish population. The Orientalism that manifests itself in today’s hatred against Arabs, Turks and Islam is, I would argue, a culmination of both these strands of Orientalism – the gaze outwards and the “trouble” inwards. The history of Jews, along with the Roma and the homosexual, in Germany is then precisely the framework in which we need to place this xenophobia and Islamophobia.

———
  1. Jonathan M. Hess, “Johann David Michaelis”, in Richard S. Levy, ed., Antisemitism: a historical Encyclopedia of Prejudice and Persecution (2005): 458 []
  2. ibid., p. 91 []
  3. quoted in Paul R. Sweet, “Fichte and the Jews: A Case of Tension between Civil Rights and Human Rights”, German Studies Review, Vol. 16, No. 1 (Feb., 1993), pp. 37-48 []

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7 thoughts on “If You See Something Say Something III”

  1. Turning Jews into Muslims:
    The Untold Saga of the Muselmänner

    Paradoxically, one of the most curious and distressing facts of the gruesome world of Nazi extermination camps and gas chambers that bears the Muslim’s name has never been the object of the Muslim’s attention and scrutiny
    http://www.algonet.se/~pmanzoor/Muselmann.htm

  2. PS — would also be interested in discussions of “reverse” Orientalism; I’ve heard at least some discussions where the claim has been made that certain 19th century Jewish scholars (this came up in the context of Goldziher) might themselves have had a motive to stress upon the lesser levels of anti-Semitism in medieval Arab lands (relative to Europe), as a way to talk about anti-Semitism in Europe. An undergrad professor of mine used to subscribe to this view, but I was a bit suspicious of his politics, and (sadly) have never been well-enough informed on this issue to have a credible view…

  3. Good to have you back, Mr. Q. And you are right about Agamben’s Musselman. Shoulda made that connection, as well. More on this, in the coming days.

  4. Re: “Such racializing of the Jews – look, again at that NPD poster – thus married the production of knowledge about the Orient with the political question of the “other” within.”

    Very well said, and adds a utilitarian concern (“what does this sort of thing do the “us” of the imagined national community/to the republic etc.?”) to the obvious ethical one. I’m blanking on the precise texts, but Derrida has been eloquent on this link between the two “others” as well. But this passage also reminded me of Agamben’s Remnants of Auschwitz, where he talks about how concentration camp guards’ slang often referred to Jewish inmates as “Musselman” (I might be mistaken, but I think Jonathan Littel summoned the same specter in “The Kindly Ones”)…

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