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Scholar explores cultural roots of anti-Semitism, racism

Speaking to an intimate group of about 30 gathered in the Breedlove room Friday afternoon, comparative literature professor Brett Levinson tried to explain the cultural and psychological forces behind racism and anti-Semitism.

Mostly reading from his soon-to-be-published book, Levinson, an assistant professor at SUNY-Binghamton, tried to separate the two types of hatred. "We must tackle their distinction... and address images and stereotypes. Anti-Semitism and racism are fast entering into a competition," he said. The difference can be explained with racism being "the defilement of an alternative race" and anti-Semitism being the reduction of Jews from meaningful members of society to non-producers.

Levinson opened his discussion of culture by mentioning language, stressing that "nobody speaks with a neutral accent." He explained that in order to avoid racial bias, people will often attempt or be forced by superiors to hide their accents. In actuality, this focus on and suppression of the differences in language leads to more racism, he said. "The loathing of language lends itself to racial bias," Levinson said.

Levinson then turned to the problem of how society excludes certain groups, emphasizing two particular forms of exclusion: bare-life and human-life. Levinson explained that bare-life exclusion involves treating a group so poorly that its members no longer resemble "a living being that can neither be murdered nor sacrificed." The exclusion of human life, however, is when people are "exploited and de-humanized."

With these concepts explained, Levinson applied them to anti-Semitism. "The Jew, for the Nazi, represents bare life. He dirties their race without being able to be traced," he said. Levinson then added that the Nazis attempted to show their own "goodness" by casting the Jews as a separate race.

"Because the Jew has been reduced in the most typical forms of anti-Semitism as a non-producer, he represents the bare life that the sovereign wants to eliminate," Levinson said. "The Jew stands for one who imitates other people rather than having an identity of his own."

Levinson said racism often derives from a type of panic disorder in society in which people have a constant fear of being replaced by others. "There exists the panic of the other who could take my place," Levinson said.

Coupled with this fear of replacement is the fear of inadequacy. Levinson said the dread of others is intensified as the realization that one's position in life is always in jeopardy. In the market-driven world, one looks to tear down others because he knows that at any point in time he could be reduced completely and replaced by another.

"Panic materializes when I realize there is an absolute rise or an absolute fall without reason," Levinson said. Terror, then, can be "marketed" as people tend to exclude others who serve as a threat to them and transform "their vulnerability or weakness into power."

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