By Ben Cohen/JNS.org
Walking through central London last week, and with a spare half hour on my hands, I decided to pay a quick visit to the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square. Inside, I spent most of my time intently studying a painting that I could not recall having seen before: “The Philosopher,” a 1645 canvas by the Italian painter Salvator Rosa.
Rosa depicts a stern young man with flowing black locks and undistinguished clothing holding a stone tablet that bears the Latin inscription, “Aut tace aut loquere meliora silentio.” In English, it means, “Either be silent, or say something better than silence.”
Like any writer who spies a good quote, I made a note of this stoic and elegant maxim, resolving to use it when a suitable occasion arose. I didn’t expect that to happen just five days after I saw the painting, still less that I would invoke it in the context of a discussion centered on disgraced Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.
But when a friend emailed me a link to a piece on Weinstein by Mark Oppenheimer, a writer for the Jewish magazine Tablet, the first thing that came into my head was Salvator Rosa’s maxim. This piece is an arch-example of why silence, in a philosophical sense, is sometimes necessary, and why excessive, ill-informed chatter steers us towards prejudice instead of reason.
Oppenheimer’s thesis, such as it is, states that Weinstein’s unwanted sexual advances upon women were indicative of—in the delightful phrase coined by Tablet’s editors—a “specifically Jewy perviness.” Unlike other serial offenders against women who are non-Jews, like Roger Ailes or Bill O’Reilly, Weinstein is said to display a particularly Jewish, and deeply pathetic, psychosexual neurosis. Whereas the no-nonsense gentiles do their business and then carry on, Weinstein is driven by a desire to perform for his victims, by committing sexual acts while they are compelled to watch.
Since Freud’s time, psychologists have debated why some humans are aroused by “exhibitionism,” with some arguing that its origins are entirely sexual, while others counter that non-sexual causes need to be taken into account. I don’t claim to be an expert on this literature, but I’d be very surprised if any of it links this particular sexual fetish to Jewish males specifically.
But none of that matters to Oppenheimer, who rests his entire case on Philip Roth’s 1967 novel, “Portnoy’s Complaint.” The pre-eminent text of delinquent Jewish sexual deviance, it’s a novel that many of us, myself included, embraced during adolescence—amid warnings from our elders, largely ridiculed, that Roth’s creation, Alexander Portnoy, was a gift to the anti-Semites out there.
Writing as if he is the very first person to have made these sorts of connections, Oppenheimer provides a pedestrian account of Portnoy’s kinky dalliances with women both real and imagined and then stretches them to Weinstein. His message is simply this: Jewish men who engage in sexual harassment do so because they are burdened with a power that they can’t handle, and are therefore propelled into, as Oppenheimer says of Weinstein, a “revenge-tinged fantasy of having risen above his outer-borough, bridge-and-tunnel Semitic origins.” It is this collision of inner weakness and hunger for power that is, apparently, the Jewish element informing Weinstein’s deviance.
I don’t propose for a moment that this highly speculative, deeply silly theory is worthy of serious consideration. But if Oppenheimer has made a singular contribution with this offering, it is the addition of a new caricature—the “Jewy Perv”—to the gallery of Jewish sexual delinquency designed and maintained by anti-Semites.
A few weeks ago, I wrote in this column, in the wake of the neo-Nazi violence in Charlottesville, about an extraordinary outburst of sexual jealousy by white supremacist Christopher Cantwell, who railed against President Donald Trump for having “given his daughter to a Jew,” Jared Kushner. Oppenheimer’s portrait of Weinstein belongs firmly in this category of bigoted fantasy: but whereas for the Nazis, Jews (like blacks) are ruthless sexual exploiters of fair white women, in the universe of Brooklyn hipsters, Jews are motivated to do the same by a grasping, unpleasant psychic frailty.
I can’t quite decide which stereotype is worse, but at least Oppenheimer has now done what Cantwell will never do, by issuing an apology for his piece. To my mind, the apology doesn’t make much difference—the piece remains online, and the subsequent apology makes no mention of the old-school anti-Semitism Oppenheimer so joyously revived—but it’s something. The next time a prominent Jew becomes enmeshed in a public scandal about sex (or money, for that matter), perhaps he will heed Salvator Rosa’s maxim by keeping his mouth firmly shut.
Ben Cohen writes a weekly column for JNS.org on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal and many other publications.