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How good and bad posture has shaped Jewish identity

Anne Susskind
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Published: 4 February 2020

Last updated: 4 March 2024

ALL OF HISTORY is divided into “lumpers” and “teasers”, says visiting American academic Sander Gilman, who this weekend will give two addresses in Sydney, at the Sydney Jewish Museum and the annual conference of the Australian Association for Jewish Studies (AAJS).

A lumper is someone who lumps things together, while a teaser will tease them apart. That Gilman is a teaser, as he tells The Jewish Independent, is something of understatement. A psychiatrist and specialist in German studies, his ideas have been teased out in no less than 90 books (more, probably) which he has either authored or edited.

Many have provocative titles and, in public conversation, Gilman raises topics Jewish people might do only among themselves, that they might make jokes about but take offence at when others do. Thought piles upon thought as he segues back and forth, connecting superficial stereotyping about subjects such as “the Jewish nose”, to the most deep-seated of fears, and self-abasement.

Gilman was educated in the south of the US in New Orleans in the 1960s in the middle of violent desegregation which he says presented a complex issue for Jews, some of whom, like South African Jews, were very supportive, some of whom took an “odd middle road” and others who simply said “this is not our struggle.”

In the mid-60s, he went to Berlin for his graduate study and is now distinguished Professor of the Liberal Arts and Sciences and also Professor of Psychiatry at Emory University in Atlanta.

The first of the talks, the keynote address at the AAJS conference, is titled You, too, could walk like a Gentile: Jews and Posture, and relates to a “big study” on the history of posture, published a couple of years ago. One section of that project focuses on what happens if you belong to a people supposed to have bad posture.

By posture, he tells The Jewish Independent, he means both posture and character, which are interchangeable. “When my father yelled at me ‘Stand up straight’, he did not yell at me just to make my head go back, he meant ‘Be a man, be a man.’ What I’m talking about is the understanding of Jews as physically and therefore, by the way, morally bankrupt.

“Are there Jews with bad postures? Of course, I was one of them, maybe I still am. But it is of course the case that you may internalise the stereotype, you may look in the mirror and say ‘My gosh, I have a Jewish nose’ or ‘Look, I do stand up straight, but do I stand up straight enough?’ The answer is I’m interested in stereotypes, but also how Jews respond to stereotypes.
“I’m gonna say something which is going to disturb a lot of people - I am much more frightened about ages in which Jew hatred is repressed, therefore you think it doesn’t exist, than ages where it is public and you can contest it.

“I can make an argument that modern Israel and the whole notion of the Sabra is a Zionist response to that. The Sabra’s notion of a perfect body is in point of fact the antithesis of the anti-Semitic stereotype of Jewish posture.

“The ideal of the perfect Israeli citizen, it’s a part of this notion of answering the stereotype, part of it had to do with how do Jews have bad posture? Maybe we have inherited it, race science says, or do they become deformed, how? Because they are studying all the time… so the Sabra goes out and works in the fields.”

Gilman believes the notion of the “Cohen gene” as one which can be traced back to a single source and which distinguishes Jewish people, is “bad science and bad politics - ludicrous, in fact.”

“Human genetics is complicated, Jews have intermarried, Jews have been raped … We have this fantasy of a kind of Jewish isolation which never existed. By the way, in biblical times, Moses marries a non-Jew. Jews have always been part of society, they’ve always left, always entered, always been the victims...

“I say to my students don’t ask how your grandmother earned her passage from Marseille…  We have lots of documentation from the late 19th early 20th centuries about Jewish prostitution – why should we be surprised?”

Gilman’s second lecture, a public address at the Sydney Jewish Museum on Sunday evening, is titled How Did Anti-Semitism and Racism Become Mental Illnesses?  In this talk he will discuss the tendency of late to claim that racist acts are by definition the acts of the mentally ill, a notion that makes him “very anxious”.
”To be brutal about it, being pro-Palestine is not the same thing as being anti-Semitic. Some people who are pro-Palestine may also be anti-Semitic, but that’s a different set of questions.

In a 2012 study, researchers at Oxford University who gave people the beta-blockers propranolol claimed these agents reduced racism. But this was a “very flawed experiment”, potentially excusing racists and dangerously obviating the need to deal with the moral and ethical significance of racism.

“If they can argue that it’s beta-blockers, then maybe the next stage is we put beta-blockers in the water and nobody is a racist anymore.

“We can’t let them off the hook – (this applies to) all xenophobia – the people who became Nazis in 1923, ‘33 and ‘41 were making moral choices and in 1945... When a bunch of people started to say ‘Oh these poor Germans, they were just led by a bunch of crazies, Hitler was crazy, and Göring was crazy, the answer was ‘Garbage, all these people made choices, Hitler made a choice, there were people who didn’t, it wasn’t that every conservative became an anti-Semite’.”

After the ‘60s, in the US certainly, anti-Semitism in the public sphere virtually disappeared and people stopped telling off-colour jokes about Jews. But faultlines  are often economic and xenophobia, which always lurk in the background and can become more apparent in stressful times such as the 2008 recession - a moment when a whole group of repressed questions suddenly became more cutting edge, and  were articulated as the anti-political-correctness movement in the US, Canada and Britain.

This was evidenced by right-wing conservative attacks in Europe and the US on George Soros, the liberal investor pilloried for everything from climate change to changes of dietary habit and the collapse of modern society as we know it, in a way that evoked “every anti-Semitic, every Jew hatred trope”.

In keeping with being a “teaser”, Gilman stresses that the past does not repeat the present. We can learn from it but need always to examine the specifics of a situation. So anti-Semitism on the left or right should not be lumped together.

“This is one of the biggest problems I have with the attack on Labor. The (British) Labor party is pro-Palestine, and I give you Corbyn is pro- Palestine, but there’s a very big difference between that and English nationals who go out with bats to beat people.

”To be brutal about it, being pro-Palestine is not the same thing as being anti-Semitic. Some people who are pro-Palestine may also be anti-Semitic, but that’s a different set of questions.

“You have to historicise in the moment. Left and right anti-Semitism become evils when they become action, when they have an impact on society.”

Should Jews be frightened at the moment? There is always Jew hatred, be it in the background or out in the open, says Gilman.

“I’m gonna say something which is going to disturb a lot of people - I am much more frightened about ages in which Jew hatred is repressed, therefore you think it doesn’t exist, than ages where it is public and you can contest it.

“Now the downside, of course, is that when it’s public racism, it becomes violent and that of course frightens me terribly for myself, my kids and grandkids.”

Sander Gilman will deliver a public talk, How Did Anti-Semitism and Racism Become Mental Illnesses?, at 6pm on Sunday, February 9, at the Sydney Jewish Museum

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