A Question Asked by Who?: On Self and Other Hyphens

Omri Ben Yehuda on Elad Lapidot


book about knowledge is in itself an expression of “Anti-Anti-” or even “Anti-Anti-Anti-,” namely: it is a reflection. Of course, every text is a sort of reflection, for the sheer rapture between words and flesh, but a book about knowledge traces something of identity and the identical: what it reflects is nothing other than itself. Hence, like narcissus, one has to strive to try and find its other, a possible interlocutor or a rival, because even in the contours of continental philosophy – an elite of letters and their reflections in Europe and on Europe – one has another, just as when we look in the mirror we actually see only a reflection, a reflection of a – and never “the” – self. In what follows I intend to point at the relation between Elad Lapidot’s Jews Out of the Question and the East, the Orient, and the critic of Orientalism. I argue that the book, in his dazzling devotion to Western thought, avoids the East, and in that also matter as such (the body, money, etc.) while nonetheless capturing the ruptures and discrepancies within the west itself, the west and its Jews. By unraveling the fragile contours of a self and its many contradictory and reflexive layers (of anti- and anti-anti-), Lapidot’s book is in itself a possibility to engage in a more aware, grounded, political and perhaps materialized Jewish thought, which avoids the Jew as a reference of projection only.

The thought-provoking book by Elad Lapidot offers a contribution to the arduous question of all, that of the Jew, a hyphenated identity by definition because of it being a part of a European self but also a part of its others, somewhere between the West and its Orient, and it does so even though, as I will argue, it retains some blind spots. Although in recent years there are many attempts to understand the Jewish experience with the post- and anti-colonial, this book addresses the Jewish question without the East and other themes that are associated with the East’s cluster, such as the body, its wounds (especially salient in the iconic figure of German-Jews Franz Kafka), Zionism, colonialism (and its variety of “anti-s”), masculinity, Orientalism, Palestinians and Mizrahim. Lapidot aims entirely to the self – in this case the philosophical scholarship of a complex text with its long footnotes – in examining the way western thought in the last half of the twentieth century, avoided the Jewish question because it repressed its “thought” which many times is also anti-Semitic. In Jewish Studies (and again, especially in the second half of the twentieth century) the Jewish is treated either as a given, an object of allegedly non-political “science,” or sometimes as a positive venture, always self-evident, and never a problem to be solved, distinguished or extinguished, never quite fully Asiatic as it was in the study of Semitics. In not treating “the Jewish” positively or negatively, meaning treating it solely on negative epistemological grounds, as absence, anti-anti-Semitic thought remains entirely blind to the option of treating Heidegger, and even Hitler, as interlocutors that could render Jews visible in our engagement with Jewish thought. In Lapidot’s words, “It is only and strictly in this sense, of rendering visible historical Jewish being, that anti-Semitism may be said to hold some ‘truth’.”

In adhering to today’s divide between the global north and the global south, I wish to argue that this book reflectivity enables us to grasp, even if only momentarily, an approach that sees a self – never “the” self – as an unsettling arena where the clear cut of West and East is being contested. In that, I wish to argue that Jews Out of the Question is in fact an example for that, that no one is really out: the title is a critique of anti-anti-Semitic knowledge, but it does not delineate whether the Jews are a surplus of anti-Semitism or of anti-anti-Semitism. Is the question, out of which Jews find themselves, anti-Semitic or anti-anti-Semitic? I wish to point out that the title, for obvious reasons, does not name the agent (the subject) behind the question and thus we only have objects: the question (an indirect object) and the Jews (a direct object). I believe that the title is descriptive and not – as it might seem – a call for action: it shows that Jews found themselves literally out of discourse among the anti-antis. Yet rather than being “out,” the book is able to convincingly demonstrate how, as long as there is a question, even if inimically, Jews are very much within it. What is clear in this circular mode is that it is in fact linear: Lapidot eschews a simplistic double negation (minus times minus equal plus) in favor of the affirmative, in which every stage just adds something on its former, and therefore even anti-Semitism is a matter of the positive discourse, of presence and affirmation. And again, we still ask: Who is behind the question? Is it only the anti-s and anti-anti-s or are the Jews themselves dubbing (their own?) question?

It is telling that in what is considered one of the core anti-Semitic texts in western thought (without explicitly using the term Antisemitismus) the author, Wilhelm Marr, addresses irony, a literary term which we use to signify a gap between point of views, which sometimes means also blindness to one’s own point of view. Self-reflectivity – even if limited – could be traced in anti-Semitic discourse right from its inception:

Marr’s concise manifesto: “I hereby loudly proclaim, with no ironic intention, the triumph of Judaism in world history.” The same self-conscious of paradox and social critic (“with no ironic intention”) seems to characterize all proclamations of Verjudung.

In uttering irony in the midst of one’s argument, even in refuting it (with no irony), the split of a self is created, in self-doubt and self-questioning. Anti-Semitic thought is a crucial part of text-production which in and of itself is a matter of splits, gaps and blindness, regardless of the intentions of the agency that stands behind it. I believe that Jews Out of the Question is a book about the prefix “self” no less than about “anti,” as for example in the blend of “self-accusations,” “self-affirmation,” “self-condemnation,” “self-reflection,” “self-consciousness” and “self-hate” in two consecutive pages that discuss the work of Nancy. Relating to Semitic languages’ general avoidance of the hyphen (in Hebrew it is always “antisemitism,” and so the self is a word in itself, ha-‘atzmi, which comes after the adverb, while the Arabic speaks of animosity, mu’ādā, towards Semites or Jews) one captures the limits of this ethnocentric discussion. Yet here, again, Lapidot’s contribution lies in making ethnocentrism the object of its own knowledge (indeed, there is no “East” in the book, but that does not mean that one cannot sense it nonetheless, within Eurocentric knowledge; it is important to mention that the author, Lapidot, is an Israeli Jew who spent most of his life as an adult in Europe). The disparities and ironies within anti-Semitic discourse are already evident in its object which has an imagined core (blood, body, race) and an imagined facade that should be unveiled (269), debatable on its invisibility and authenticity, and trapped in circular claims on forgery which are in themselves a proof for forgery.


have the impression that Lapidot’s contribution is a philosophical complementary work to a historical magnum opus such as David Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism of 2014. Although the core gesture of Jews Out of the Question relates more to Holocaust historiographical works such as Saul Friedländer’s and lately Alon Confino’s, who sought to address (or re-address in the case of the latter) the importance of anti-Semitism in the German world view that led to the Final Solution (a theological-political-racial explanation rather than other studies of the Holocaust which relate more to modernity, industrialization or the core function of a xenophobic nation state), in general the book shows  how Jewish, anti-Jewish and anti-anti-Semitic knowledge are contradictory and versatile in the same manner that the signifier Jew was used and shaped throughout the ages as a point of reference that facilitated western self-understanding. In other words, Lapidot’s movement from the anti-anti-, that is, from the negative approach that in fact dematerializes Jewish knowledge and its signifiers, to the anti- alone, which, in Heidegger’s case, facilitates even our capacity to approach the Talmud, resembles very much the return of Holocaust scholarship to a more positive approach of theological signifiers. This is, as intimated, Friedländer’s and Confino’s deliberation which are an aware reference for Lapidot. In that, Lapidot’s critic of anti-anti-Semitism supports one attribution that is prevalent among arbiters in high politics: exceptionalism.

Exceptionalism is what melds Nirenberg’s account with that of Friedländer and Confino, and in that regard, Lapidot’s contribution is so timely, in adding a complementary study to this trend based on Jewish thought and continental philosophy. Let us examine his discussion of Badiou, one of the anti-anti-s, whose negative approach of avoidance of Jewish episteme produces the very same singularity which it tries to avoid, and thus drawing near anti-Semitism:

What makes the Jews exceptional is that “the Jewish discourse is a discourse of the exception.” “Jew” names the very thought of particular identity as universal exception. “Jew” names the universal non-universal and as such is the name of the name, the particular, proper, the non-category of all proper names, and consequently of all negative politics – all the way (can this conclusion be avoided?) to Nazism.

The notion of the universal applicability of Jews precisely because of their particular claim is a known argument from Krochmal and Graetz (whom Lapidot does not mention) to Daniel and Jonathan Boyarin. Nirenberg’s thesis is that the figure of the Jew can signify sometimes even contradictory notions in Western thought. Jews Out of the Question reflects this by unraveling the discrepancies among anti-Semites and anti-anti-s alike. Thus, for example, the anti-Semitic Renan marks an epistemic-political deficiency in the Jews, who succumb to tribal relations and therefore cannot take part in civilization but on the other hand, the not entirely anti-Semitic but not quite anti-anti-Semitic (and I believe there are many thinkers who succumb to neither; Lapidot locates her nonetheless among the latter) Arendt, points at the contiguity between empires and the “supernational” people, the chosen Jews, whom Himmler credits the art of government.


hen Jews Out of the Question does address the body, the East, and matter in general (such as money), it is almost in passing and only in its second part, devoted to anti-Semitism. My contention is that to a certain extent, Lapidot himself takes part in his own criticism in that, like anti-anti-Semites, he uses a discourse of deferral. This does not prevent him from suggesting very astute comments that show the richness of Christian, and sometimes Jewish, anti-Semitic knowledge, such as when he rehabilitates (against Jonathan Boyarin, not entirely an anti-anti-) Renan’s understanding of the Jewish body as “the site for the epistemo-political event of modernity”; or in his discussion of Marx’s unraveling of the Jewish monotheistic God via a Jewish relation to money, both in subordination, alienation and worship; or in his observation on the proletariat messianic potential for redemption due also to its particularity; or even his discussion of Hitler, whose perception of the Talmud was wrongfully criticized by the (anti-anti-) editors of the critical edition of Mein Kampf. Here it is worth adding to Lapidot that those editors, like many other anti-anti-s, in many ways just repeat one of German-Jewish thinkers’ most prominent view, namely that Judaism is a religion and not a polity. Hitler, so Lapidot in his critic of the critical editors, was quite consistent in that the Talmud is mainly “political” (ibid.).

This is the powerful potential of anti-Semitic knowledge. It comes also in one of the book’s strongest moments in critiquing anti-anti-s, namely their relation to Heidegger’s anti-Semitic remarks. The blindness and circularity that Lapidot’s exposes in anti-anti-Semitic knowledge is evident even in the layout of discourse, the sheer academic text of those dealing with Heidegger’s controversy, who, after rebuking the latter’ anti-Semitic views in their main text, use unwittingly their footnotes to rehabilitate those very same views by giving examples of the way Jewish thinkers uttered them themselves. Here too though, I believe Lapidot could have stressed more strongly the alliance of anti-s and anti-anti-s to the philosophical heritage of German-Jews, as almost all the examples in the book for Jews who concur with Heidegger, are German or German-oriented: Buber, Herzl, Herman Cohen, Freud and Rathenau (ibid.).

This astute observation about this academic discourse is one of the rare moments in the book where Lapidot uses “discourse” instead of “knowledge” or “epistemology.” It is important for what I wish to contend here because I believe that any further debate on Jews Out of the Question should examine how Lapidot’s critic of anti-anti-Semitism could be comprehended alongside a critic of Jewish Studies in general. That is why Said’s classic formulation of Foucault’s theory of discourse in the consolidation of Orientalism (a field of academic discipline that produces power and domination over Semites, and based inter Alia on Renan), is relevant to Lapidot’s convincing readings. I am not sure I have an answer to the difference between the terms, but I do believe they call for more deliberations. Thus, this poignant observation could also be a rather sharp formulation of Said:

Its basic observation is that anti-anti-Semitism’s fundamental “anti-” against anti-Semitism, its basic adversarial knowledge of anti-Semitism, namely what it asserts to know of and against anti-Semitism, is that anti-Semitism itself is no knowledge and that the fundamental problem with anti-Semitism is that it claims to know. For anti-anti-Semitism the fundamental problem with anti-Semitism is not its “anti” but its hyphen (6, italics in the original).

This clearly brings to mind the many reservations proclaimed against Said, who, like an anti-anti-, believes that Orientalism is not a form of knowledge, and in fact, that it is the mere claim to knowledge which is the problem and not necessarily the exact knowledge discussed. Many times, Said’s powerful critic has led to recession and paralyzation by political correctness in a liberal multicultural society which corroborates in many ways the way Europe is avoiding Semitism and anti-Semitism alike. There are, however, two points to make here: one, that anti-anti-Semitism conflates many times with philo-Semitism for the same reason, namely, the avoidance of the Orient by embracing Jews explicitly as non-Orientals (those who share in the aftermath of the Second World War Europe’s Judeo-Christian heritage); and second, that while in Orientalism the object of knowledge is the Orient and the object of critic is Orientalism, which is the scientific discourse about the Orient, in Jews Out of the Question the object of knowledge and its critic are much more layered and (un)canny. Like many times with Jews – to whom many admit more liminality than to other Orientals – the object of knowledge (beyond specifically Jews Out of the Question) is both the Jew, the Semite and the anti-Semite. That is why the discourse of anti-Semitism and Jewish Studies tend to overlap, in the many names Lapidot himself has mentioned (Buber, Cohen), and in plenty of others. Among early and progressive proponents of Jewish civil rights, Christian Wilhelm Dohm for example, defines the Jews as “unfortunate Asiatic refugees,” a definition which will be prevalent up to Kafka’s fascination and repulsion from East-European Jews in the aftermath of World War One. These are Jews being Orientals, but there were also orientalists: Susannah Heschel has recently delineated the phenomenon of so many German-Jewish orientalists, some of whom prominent also in the “Science of Judaism,” in an historiographical account that could engage and profit a lot from Lapidot’s investigations on the meaning of the “question” itself, its object and the agency behind it. Jews, so it seems, liminal as they are, are both Orientals and Orientalists, and perhaps the Question thus relates to being both in it and out?

In his comments to the book in the evening that was held on January 26, 2021, Gil Anidjar juxtaposed the western proverb “know thyself” with the Hebrew “d’a lifnei mi ata ‘omed” (know before whom you stand) and finished his speech with a long excerpt from Renan that brutally juxtaposes Islam and the West and calls for the destruction of the Semitic (“la chose semitique”). These two knowledges, of a self – never “the” self – and of that which is in front of it, of Semitism and anti-Semitism, suggest how hard it is to reconcile between a self and its projections, and I believe Jews Out of the Question is able to convincingly grasp this site of arduous tension, a site which seems one – one self – but is actually many. I only want to contend that this Jewish proverb – “know before whom you stand” – in fact suggests something quite comprehensible: that you stand in front of the wall which signifies the direction of prayer, from Europe to an east (never “the”). A long way still awaits us to perhaps address with Jews out of the Question something which signifies not just a surplus outside, but also the contours within, where the prefix “self” will also suggest something rather western in itself: self-determination.

Omri (Hannah) Ben Yehuda (he/she) is a scholar of comparative Jewish Literatures in EUME, Forum Transregionale Studien, Berlin. She is a former Minerva Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute for German Philology in the Free University of Berlin, and served as the head of the research group Gaza: Towards the Landscape of an Israeli Hetrotopia at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute. His numerous publications appeared in two monographs in Herbew and in venues such as Prooftexts, Shofar, Journal of Modern Jewish Studies, Journal of Jewish Identities, Tel Aviver Jahrbuch für deutsche Geschichte, Jadmag (Jadaliyya), AJS Review, Arcadia, Postcolonial Interventions and many more. She now works on the monograph Politics and Magic Making: A Cultural Biography of Benjamin Netanyahu.