Fight or flight.
This is the instinctual response our Pleistocene predecessors supposedly evolved when threatened with physical danger, attack or threats to survival while roaming the African savannas. It often involves an acute physiological reaction which Jeff Hester describes thusly: “Suddenly your heart starts to pound. Your breathing speeds up and you feel a knot in your stomach. Your mouth goes dry. You stop hearing things. You have tunnel vision, and your sense of pain diminishes. Energy-rich blood rushes to your muscles, preparing them for action. There is anxiety, tension, and perhaps even panic.” Hester argues that such instantaneous, visceral reactions to the possibility of being mauled by a cheetah or gored by a wildebeest are no longer necessary, even counterproductive given the not-so-mortal threats of twenty-first century life, which instead require thoughtful, measured responses. What isn’t acknowledged here is that fight or flight is sometimes pattern recognition become automatic, perhaps innate, and certainly unthinking.
I’m walking across Manhattan’s Tompkins Square Park with my backpack and sleeping bag in the fall of 1990. It’s a balmy afternoon with honeyed sun and liquid blue skies. I’ve just had a slice of pizza at Two Boots and I’m headed for the 1st Avenue subway station for a ride to Brooklyn. It’s almost two years since the infamous riots and the square is crowded with punks and crusties, squatters and junkies, tourists and residents. I’ve just passed through a group of black kids playing stickball when I approach three white punks camped out under some trees. Something isn’t right. I can feel it. Maybe it’s the way the punks are giving me the side eye, deliberately not looking at me while secretly sizing up me and my belongings. Maybe it’s the foot long rebar pole one of them is clutching as they pretend to ignore me. In any case, I decide to give them a wide berth and they are obviously disappointed. I sit on a bench to rest, far enough away to be safe but within sight of the punk delinquents. As soon as I’m out of their range, they target another passerby whom they proceed to viciously mug in broad daylight.
I recognized some dangerous pattern, if only intuitively, and I reacted to protect myself. Instinctive fight or flight responses too often become unthinking emotional reactions that amount to little more than bigotry, prejudice or superstition. Why then did I feel no fear among the black kids wildly playing stickball yet felt growing anxiety approaching the three seemingly cool punkers resting among the trees? Let me use some history to illustrate the difference between unthinking reaction and reasonable pattern recognition.
The Polish Prince Boleslaus the Pious promulgated the Statute of Kalisz in 1264. This was the General Charter of Jewish Liberties in Poland granting Jews personal freedoms, legal and communitarian autonomy, independent courts for criminal matters, and safeguards against forced baptism and blood libel. Modeled after similar edicts for religious toleration enacted across Europe during the Early Middle Ages (EMA), it was ratified by the aristocratic Sejm and subsequent Polish kings even as Jews experienced massacres in and mass expulsions from England, France, Germany, Portugal and Spain during the High Middle Ages (HMA). By the demise of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth with the three partitions of Poland by Russia, Prussia and Austria from 1773 to 1795, some 70-80% of world Jewry resided in Poland. Much of Polish Jewry wound up incorporated into Russia’s regional ghetto—the Pale of Settlement—after 1791, subject to escalating antisemitic discrimination, repression and violence that culminated in a series of genocidal pogroms. Ukraine alone witnessed 1,326 programs with up to 250,000 Jewish deaths and a half million left homeless from 1881 to 1920. This savage bloodshed ended only after Hitler’s Final Solution.
The Statute of Kalisz was to preserve the “pure” feudal nature of Polish society while promoting protocapitalist development. Jews were invited guests intended to be a middle stratum between an intact Polish peasantry/serfdom and aristocracy. Unable to own land, Jews were expected to take on shopkeeper, artisan, professional, trader/merchant, rent or tax collector, and moneylender roles prohibited these native Polish social classes by feudal custom and tradition. All this while the rest of Christian Europe during the HMA was increasingly restricting the occupations permitted the Jews and marginalizing their economic status. After the Babylonian Exile and the Roman destruction of the Second Temple, autonomous ethnic Jewish communities with self-governing communal (kehillah) and mutual aid (landsmanshaft) institutions spread across the Middle East, northern Africa, Europe and beyond in an ever widening diaspora. Hubert Blalock and Edna Bonacich called this an example of an ethnic/racial “middleman minority” and noted that the minority’s financial aptitude, economic success, clannishness, and international networks combined with political restrictions, religious prohibitions and social prejudices to cause growing resentment and reaction in a host country’s native population. These popular resentments in turn were exploited and manipulated by respective ruling classes and their allied elites.
The acrimony and violence directed against the far-flung communities of this Jewish diaspora wasn’t fueled merely by antisemitism engendered by their status as a “middleman minority” however. Imperial machinations, uprisings and war, even tribal/national revolts figured into this barbarism as when a Cossack rebellion—the Khmelnytsky Uprising—slaughtered up to 100,000 Jews and Poles in its bid to form a Cossack Hetmanate in what is now central Ukraine in 1648-57. My parents regularly used “Cossack” as a curse.
By the time I visited my Polish relatives at the end of 1974, there were virtually no Jews in Poland. Yet racist antisemitism was rampant in the general Polish population—my relatives included—who were steeped in every antisemitic canard imaginable. Here I make no distinction between Catholic religious anti-Judaism and fully racialized Nazi antisemitism. A reworking of Sartre’s contention that Jewish identity is brought about and maintained by the force of antisemitism has become relevant once again, although not in the way thinkers like Georges Friedmann originally considered when his work The End of the Jewish People? posited an eventual disappearance of the Jews through assimilation and hyperspecific Israeli national identity. The fear, hostility and hatred of Jews that is conventional antisemitism is now an antisemitism without Jews in Poland.
According to Poles, Jews were guilty of killing Jesus, desecrating the host, engaging in ritual murder and blood libel, poisoning wells and spreading plague, having sex with animals, and being Satanic. The Jews controlled the media and the world banking system, practiced malefic profiteering and sinful usury, were complicit in conspiracies to spread both capitalism and communism, and plotted world domination. When I confronted my relatives and their idiotic antisemitic beliefs that Jews were plotting conspiracies against Poland and stealing the wealth of the Polish people with the fact that there were no Jews left in Poland— thinking that maybe they suffered from some weird sociological phantom limb syndrome—they countered with crap about the Soviets having deliberately installed Jewish commissars throughout the Warsaw Pact.
These blatant often millennia-old antisemitic tropes are refashioned, frequently with only minor variations, when other “middleman minorities” like the Armenians or the “overseas” Chinese are considered. Such minorities are part of larger ethnic diasporas that occupy key roles in indigenous capitalist economies to promote prosperity, engender economic benefit, and create new business and industry for the communities and nations in which they reside. Yet they invariably suffer discrimination, repression, hatred, violence, and genocide as a consequence of their intermediate position in society. The Jewish 1939-45 Holocaust and Armenian 1914-23 Genocide are well known. Less well known are the mass slaughter of Chinese in Nanjing by the Japanese in 1937-38 and the mass killings of Chinese in Indonesia, Papua/New Guinea and East Timor by Suharto and his military in 1965-66 under the auspices of virulent anti-communist campaigns, not to mention numerous localized anti-Chinese pogroms throughout Southeast Asia. Similar historical patterns and prejudices can be observed with the Muslims in India and the Indians in Africa.
The positive social and economic arrangements of ethnic “middleman minorities” as well as the negative racist, bigoted, violent and genocidal responses experienced by those minorities are real historical patterns to be reckoned with. The reactionary claims by racists and antisemites against those minorities are sheer horseshit to be summarily dismissed. The latter in no way absolves the former though. The Biblical Hebrews annihilated the Canaanites (Numbers 21:2-3; Deuteronomy 21:17; Joshua 6:17, 21) and the Amalekites (1 Samuel 15) much as the Israelis practice national genocide against the Palestinian people today. The Chinese have been slaughtering minority peoples from the Wu Hu and the Jie in 300 ce to the present day cultural and ethnic cleansing of the Muslim Uighurs. And the Armenians have been trading massacres with their Azerbaijani neighbors since the EMA all the way through the Nagorno-Karabakh War from 1988 to 1994. I’m tempted to argue that we humans have a propensity for genocide ever since our Cro-Magnon ancestors potentially caused the extinction of our Neanderthal comrades between 40 and 35,000 years ago. Maybe next column.
A History of the Jewish People ed. by H.H Ben-Sasson
The End of the Jewish People? by Georges Friedmann
Jews in Poland: A Documentary History by Iwo Pogonowski
Toward a Theory of Minority-Group Relations by Hubert Blalock
“A Theory of Middleman Minorities” by Edna Bonacich
The Stages of Economic Growth by W.W. Rostow
“The Economic Impact of the Black Death” by David Routt
The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II and Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th Century by Fernand Braudel
The Modern World-System v. 1-4 by Immanuel Wallerstein