Sunday, December 16, 2012

Becoming the Spanish Inquisition

Let’s just get all of the Monty Python monologuing out of the way now if we can, please:

Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition! Our chief weapon is surprise: Surprise… and fear. Fear and surprise. Our two weapons are fear and surprise!... and ruthless efficiency! Our three weapons are fear, and surprise, and ruthless efficiency… and an almost fanatical dedication to the Pope! Our four — oh, no.

Let’s come in again, shall we?

Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition! Except if we don’t expect it now it’s because its successor institutions — the customs, the habits, the thought patterns whose regularity come to be its defining features — are growing  up around us so slowly and so well-camouflaged that they are fully in place before we’ve even realized. It’s much easier to spot when there are men in red robes tying old women down to comfy chairs… oh —

We are becoming the Spanish Inquisition.

Spain is, naturally, taking the lead. After reading with some interest about the relaxation of immigration requirements for Sephardic Jews whose families were driven out or expelled from medieval Spain, I was more than a little dismayed to see how the policy is (not) being extended to the descendants of those who were forcibly converted during the same time. Anyone who falls into that category is going to be required to convert to Judaism before being given access to this same new fast track to Spanish citizenship. The Spanish government is telling the children of its exiles, more or less, "Well, if we were successful in making your ancestors convert from Judaism, we're going to make you convert back. Want to live here? Convert because we say so." The Spanish government is once again forcing conversions and compelling people to prove the "oldness" of their names. But nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.

This episode is such an explicit, literal demonstration of what I'm arguing is a wider trend that it's less the subtle, nuanced sort of evidence one might hope to bring to bear and is more akin to the guy selling pirated DVDs on the street doing it while wearing an eye patch and shouldering a parrot. What is really remarkable about it, though, is that there is nothing remarkable about it; because nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition. We are somehow inhabiting a universe where that more subtle sort of ferreting out of Jews and adjudication of practices is becoming normative, both attitudinally the individual level and organizationally.

Over drinks with colleagues someone raised the question of how many of us in Jewish studies are, like I am, Jewish. Another someone mentioned the name of a colleague whom you might not automatically assume to be Jewish, since he hails from a country that is famously Catholic. That first someone said that the colleague's mother had converted  as a young woman and so (and I quote) "yeah, he's Jewish, sort of." That is not the sort of of halakha or even of the internal, communal definitions of Jewishness that don't depend wholly on Jewish legal reasoning. That's an Inquisitor's hedge.

Not everyone at the Katz Center this year identifies academically as being in Jewish Studies. I certainly don't. But spending a year with many people who do and in a context where that is meant to be one of the threads that unifies our disparate academic projects, I have gotten to thinking about our own modern, liberal, academic Inquisitorial practices more than usual. The whole field is an Inquisition. That's what makes me uncomfortable about it. It's a relief to be able to articulate why operating in  a Jewish studies context and with Jewish studies methodologies makes me feel* like I'm trapped in some unholy, overly-legalistic, smarmy, paternalistic cross between a ghetto and a shtetl.

I don’t do Jewish studies because I am not an Inquisitor. If there are Jews or “Jewish issues” in my work, it’s because I’m asking questions that can sometimes be answered by looking in places where there happened to be Jewish philosophers and translators, not because I have sought them out on the basis of their faith.

It would be facile (and more than a little reactionary) to connect this trend in the academic world simply to the trend of the voyeurism of the web and reality TV in the wider world. And it would be wrong because it's not just an unhealthy obsession with watching people as they live; it's a need to intervene, to impose categories from outside, to meddle, to change. It's as though some academics have picked up on the worst of the paternalism and the interventionism that's playing out on the national stage, absorbing the most problematic elements of what is quickly becoming the American culture of limiting the control over their own lives that can be exercised by people who are not exactly like those in charge, be it because they are women or religious or ethnic minorities or disabled. Obviously it's not the only factor, because the weird insularity of the field long pre-dates any aspect of 21st-century American culture, but I think it's telling that the two are now running parallel. It's become sort of a weird assimilation issue, like the way in which yeshiva-bochers fetishize baseball to a degree that is almost unparalleled amongst any other group. It's participation in the modes of thought that are practiced dominant culture as a way of belonging, despite serious outsider status.

It's an assimilation so quiet that it's nearly impossible to see happening, and is even a challenge to discern its contours once it has set itself into place. In other words, it's structural and endemic for the Spanish Inquisition to be so unexpected.

*Just to clarify not this year, not here at Penn, but definitely in wider Jewish Studies contexts.

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