The Jewish Question and universalism

Submitted by Matthew on 8 March, 2017 - 11:22 Author: Dale Street

Dale Street reviews Antisemitism and the Left: On the Return of the Jewish Question by Robert Fine and Philip Spencer.


Central to Antisemitism and the Left is the concept of universalism as “an equivocal principle” which “shows two faces to the world”. There is the “emancipatory face”, which looks to embrace all humankind in a shared civil, political and social inclusiveness. And there is the “repressive face”, which marks out and excludes “the other” who is deemed not to meet the criteria for membership of humanity.

The Jewish experience of universalism has been as equivocal as the principle itself. The emancipatory face of universalism has been a stimulus for Jewish emancipation. But its repressive face has been a source of anti-Jewish prejudice through to the present. This is an expression of the duality inherent in universalism: Jewish emancipation (in the name of the universal values which it proclaims) and “the Jewish question” (which defines Jews as harmful to humanity, and proffers a variety of “solutions”).

Antisemitism and the Left is an historical analysis of the tension between these two faces of universalism. It begins with the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. It moves on to Marx and later classic Marxist thinkers. And it concludes with the contemporary orthodox-left approach to Zionism and Israel.

The universalism articulated by the Enlightenment and realised (however imperfectly) by the French Revolution liberated Jews from the repression they faced in the old order: “It set in motion processes that allowed the Jews of Europe to enter the modern world.” But Jewish emancipation went hand-in-hand with the concept of “the Jewish question”, rooted in the perceived essential nature of Jewishness.

According to The Civic Improvement of Jews, by pro-Jewish-emancipation pamphleteer Christian von Dohm: “It would be better if the Jews, along with their prejudices, did not exist — but since they do exist, do we really still have a choice from among the following: wipe them off the face of the earth; let them remain in perpetuity the same unwholesome members of society they have been thus far; or make them better citizens of the world?”

The same tension between Jewish emancipation and the Jewish question manifested itself in public debates in Germany in the first half of the nineteenth century. Firstly, in the debate between Hegel (pro-emancipation) and the radical populist Jacob Fries (pro-expulsion: Jews were a hostile and alien entity in the emergent German nation). Secondly, in the more famous debate between Marx and the Young Hegelian Bruno Bauer.

Bauer championed universalism in the form of “the cause of humanity” and the progressive development embodied by human history. Jews, he argued, were incapable of growing spiritually as human beings. As “the chosen people”, they stood outside of history and the cause of humanity. Emancipation was therefore not only to be opposed but was positively dangerous.

Marx defended Jewish emancipation. He did so using language and arguments which continue to provoke controversy. But Fine and Spencer are not only defensive of Marx’s overall approach. They also highlight the unqualified nature of Marx’s support for Jewish emancipation: “Marx supported Jewish emancipation unequivocally and without conditions. … In defending Jewish emancipation against the restoration of the Jewish question, Marx re-affirmed the subjective right of Jews to be citizens, to be Jews, and to deal creatively, singularly, in their own way, with their Jewish origins.”

Fine and Spencer move on from Marx himself to post-Marx Marxism and its commitment to the universalism of international class solidarity — where the same duality manifested itself. In the late nineteenth century Marxists generally rejected the politics of antisemitism, and yet many of them shared the starting point of the Jewish question: “They were still tempted to explain antisemitism in terms of the harm Jews continued to inflict on society and to look to improvement in the behaviour of Jews as at least the first step to do away with antisemitism.” (As the book’s authors point out, the universalistic principles espoused by Marxists also generated “a self-confidence” that Marxism was “incompatible with antisemitism” and that “the idea of a ‘left antisemitism’ was an impossible oxymoron.”)

After a brief overview of the positions taken by Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky in the opening decades of the twentieth century and a sustained attack on Stalinism, Fine and Spencer turn their attention to the writings of Horkheimer and Adorno.

Nazi antisemitism posed fundamental questions for Horkheimer and Adorno about civilisation and the prospects for humanity itself: “Whoever accuses the Jews today aims straight at humanity itself.” In Dialectic of Enlightenment they subsequently argued that neither liberalism nor Christianity had been capable of providing an effective response to Nazi antisemitism. Both had conceded ground by counterposing universalism to the other, and by accepting the existence of a Jewish question.

Liberalism had demanded that Jews give up elements of their Jewishness as a condition of entering civilised society, while Christianity saw Judaism as an obstacle to human progress. But, Horkheimer and Adorno concluded, there could be no truly human society as long as antisemitism existed: “…
The long absent idea is likely to develop that Jews too are human beings. This development would represent the step out of an antisemitic society and into the human society. The Jewish question would then be the turning point of history.”

In the following two chapters Hannah Arendt’s views of assimilation, Zionism and cosmopolitanism are given a sympathetic hearing, and Jurgen Habermas’s concept of a post-national political community a much less sympathetic one. Arendt attempted to overcome the tensions between the universalism of assimilation (based on a denial of Jewish otherness) and the particularism of Zionism (based on a denial of the principle of universalism), and to replace “abstract cosmopolitanism” with a “real cosmopolitanism”.

Habermas’s concepts of the post-national political community and constitutional patriotism, on the other hand, are criticised for opening the door to counterposing (good, post-nationalist) universalism to the (bad, non-constitutional-patriotic) other. Habermas had intended otherwise. In fact, overcoming and eradicating the conditions which gave rise to antisemitism were central to his concept of post-nationalism: it would supersede the nationalistic forms of political community which had given rise to genocidal antisemitism. But for other writers the concept of the post-national political community has provided a new form of the Jewish question: “It turns the Jewish nation into the ‘other’ of the post-national. The Jewish nation becomes the personification of radical alterity.”

This new “left” universalism relegates antisemitism to the past, divorces contemporary antisemitism from other forms of racism, dismisses allegations of antisemitism as a cynical ploy to discredit critics of Israel, and alleges that the universal significance of the Holocaust has been abandoned in favour of Jewish particularism. As Fine and Spencer put it: “We are confronted here by a discourse that subverts the universalism it espouses by turning the signifier ‘Jew’ into the other.” It is a discourse which “assumes the forms of enlightenment, progressiveness, antiracism and cosmopolitanism.” But that does not make it any the less antisemitic.

The final chapter of the book deals with the most contemporary and most pervasive refiguring of the Jewish question: the unremittingly negative portrayals of Israel and Zionism as the antithesis of universal values. In the name of (supposedly) universally accepted human rights, Israel is damned for committing genocide, for its institutionalisation of an apartheid regime, and for representing a major threat to world peace. In the name of the same universalism, Zionism is damned as inherently racist.

The inaccuracy of such claims goes with the representation of Israel as the alterity of universalism: Israel is the “unwholesome member” of the international community and must therefore be excluded from it, if not destroyed completely. On one level, this new form of the Jewish question is no different in substance from the Jewish question in the past: “A distortion of universalism that see Jews as the problem and demands a solution to this problem.” On another level the contemporary form of the Jewish question illustrates the regression of the universalism of the Enlightenment at the hands of sections of the liberal intelligentsia and soi-disant Marxists.

Dohm saw Jews as “unwholesome members of society”. But his response was not to “wipe them off the face of the earth.” It was to advocate Jewish emancipation and to “raise” them to a status equal to those with whom they lived. That is not the “solution” to the Jewish problem which “absolute anti-Zionists” push today. On the contrary. Israel is not to enjoy the same status as other state. Instead, to borrow Dohm’s expression, Israel should be “wiped off the face of the earth.” The sub-title of Antisemitism and the Left is On the Return of the Jewish Question. One reading of the book is that it never went away.