Anti-Anti-Semitism: A Return to Essentialism?

Leora Batnitzky on Elad Lapidot

Anti-Semitism gave birth to Herzl, Herzl gave birth to the Jewish state, the Jewish state gave birth to ‘Zionism,’ and Zionism—the Congress.” With these words, the cultural Zionist Ahad Ha’am criticized the impetus for Theodor Herzl’s Zionism—anti-Semitism—and the political movement it created.  But as his scare quotes suggest, Ahad Ha’am was not rejecting Zionism as such but rather Herzl’s “Zionism.” For Herzl, Zionism was a response to a decay in the external world—anti-Semitism—and he worked for a solution coming from that world—a Jewish state. In contrast, for Ahad Ha’am, Zionism was a response to an inner decay of Jews and Judaism: it was first and foremost the work of Jews transforming and resurrecting Judaism and Jewishness by way of a renaissance of Hebrew culture.

Elad Lapidot’s important and provocative new book, Jews out of the Question: A Critique of Anti-Anti-Semitism, is not implicitly concerned with debates about Zionism. But the problem that he outlines resonates with the spirit of Ahad Ha’am’s strong repudiation of a modern temptation to define Jews and Judaism in terms of anti-Semitism. If Herzl’s Zionism was the child of anti-Semitism, Lapidot’s anti-anti-Semitism, which includes positions that Lapidot identifies with a large variety of European philosophers, including Hannah Arendt, Jean-Paul Sartre, Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Alain Badiou, and Jean-Luc Nancy, among others, is its sibling. And just as Ahad Ha’am thought that Herzl’s anti-anti-Semitism, i.e. his Zionism, had grave implications for Jews, Judaism, and Jewishness, so too Lapidot laments that twentieth and twenty-first century anti-anti-Semitism is similarly consequential.

When it comes to epistemology, though presumably not politics, Lapidot contends that anti-Semitism does better than that which opposes it: anti-anti-Semitism. He maintains that the knowledge that anti-Semitism presents of Jews is “problematic, disturbing and outrageous,” but Lapidot nevertheless considers it, unlike anti-anti-Semitism, “an episteme, i.e. as an historical event, a political event…of knowledge.” Beginning with what are by now long debates about the philosophical dimensions, or lack thereof, of Heidegger’s anti-Semitism, Lapidot argues that a series of anti-anti-Semitism arguments evade rather than answer the question of what constitutes knowledge of Jews, Jewishness, and Judaism (all possible translations of “Judentum”). As if this were not controversial enough, Lapidot concludes his book by returning to Heidegger and arguing that it is his philosophy that provides the way out of this conundrum towards true knowledge of Jews, Jewishness, and Judaism.

Lapidot does not utilize the category of essentialism; however, anti-anti-Semitism, the object of his book’s critique, can be understood as a kind of anti-essentialism, from both metaphysical as well as socio-political points of view. As a metaphysical doctrine, essentialism is a claim that some features of an object of knowledge are necessary conditions for an object to be what it is (for instance, lead may be essential to a pencil while wood or plastic may not). As a psychological or sociological concept, social essentialism is the view that certain social categories necessarily define different kinds of people. Prejudice and stereotypes are of course the most obvious forms of social essentialism. As a prejudice or stereotype, anti-Semitism is a kind of social essentialism because, in its different presentations, it posits some essence to Jews. Lapidot’s basic point is that anti-anti-Semitism is not just the denial of any particular essence that could be said to belong to Jews but is opposition to the very possibility of even considering the question of what could define Jews. This is the meaning of Lapidot’s title: anti-anti-Semitism places knowledge of Jews out of the question.


nderstood as such, anti-anti-Semitism is not unique. Racism and sexism make essentialist claims about race and gender respectively. Racism consists at least in part in assuming that different phenotypes, however they might be described, are essential to the identities of particular groups. Antiracism isn’t just an opposition to particular stereotypes but at least, in part, also the rejection of the possibility of inquiry into biological difference. Similarly, the insistence on disconnecting conceptions of gender from biological accounts of sex is not only about overcoming prejudice but also resistance considering whether we can speak of identity on the basis of sex. For many of its critics, some version of the notion that knowledge is socially constructed holds the key to overcoming essentialism.  Social construction moves away from falsely defining identity as fixed towards an acknowledgment of the power relations that produce identity. From this point of view, neither lead nor wood nor plastic is essential to a pencil. Rather, as the creation of smart pencils show, when thinking about what a pencil “is,” we should focus as much on the powers of the tech industry as on new technologies.  So too there are no essential races or genders that lie beneath the structural powers that construct them.

One could read Lapidot’s polemic (a term he embraces) against anti-anti-Semitism as an intervention into these broad debates. The book offers a powerful analysis of how anti-anti-Semitism is basically a series of arguments for the social construction of the Jew.  Here I will just highlight what Lapidot presents as the three main intellectual movements of anti-anti-Semitism. Jean-Paul Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew, the subject of Lapidot’s second chapter, enacts the first performance of anti-anti-Semitism. As is well known, Sartre contends that “Jew” and “anti-Semite” are codependent identities, with the former constituted by the latter’s delusional fantasies. Lapidot points out that while this argument denies any independent identity to the Jew, it also begs the question of why “Jews” are subject to such fantasies.  Lapidot identifies a second movement of anti-anti-Semitism, which attempts to answer this question. In what will likely remain a controversial reading, Lapidot suggests that Arendt’s analysis of a modern shift in Jewish self-understanding (from a pre-modern collective identity tied to Judaism to a modern psychological quality of collective ‘Jewishness’) created an ahistorical, abstract Jewishness that “narrates an overarching Jewish principle in history” and that became the basis of totalitarian anti-Semitism. Finally, Lapidot locates a third anti-anti-Semitic movement in the opposite direction. Rather than placing Jewish self-consciousness as the origin of anti-Semitism, this final movement, epitomized by Nancy, defines Jewish self-consciousness itself as anti-anti-Semitism. Jewishness now is the negation of the western self, Christian imperialism, and indeed anti-Semitism. Jews are “a people of no people” representing a principle of “alterity.”

Notably, these same movements are visible in twentieth and twenty-first century debates about race and gender as well. The first movement acts as an equalizer and attempts to abolish race and gender by viewing them as illusions. The second movement focuses on ameliorating the self-consciousness of the victims of oppression. And the third movement views race and gender as wholly performative, with the dominant group performing oppression and the oppressed performing resistance. Applying Lapidot’s arguments about anti-anti-Semitism to race and gender, we could say that each of these movements robs the possibility of “race” or “gender” speaking on their own terms.

If one accepts this argument, one might think that an obvious solution might be simply to let groups and individuals speak as knowers of themselves and the traditions they believe define them. For instance, J.K. Rowling and Judith Butler each propound epistemic claims regarding gender, just as Anthony Appiah and Ibram X. Kendi each offer accounts of race, and just as Benjamin Netanyahu and Peter Beinart each advance narratives of the Jewish community. Sexism, racism, and anti-Semitism still exist of course.  But alternative accounts of gender, race and Jewishness engage with these pernicious ideologies on the battleground of knowledge of knowledge. Yet this kind of epistemic plurality would still not meet Lapidot’s requirement for knowledge of knowledge. This is because despite their differences, the figures above all conceive of gender, race, and Jewishness in terms of the key roles they play “for the formation of the central political form of modernity, the nation-state.” For Lapidot, inquiring into knowledge of knowledge requires inquiring into “the relation between knowledge and politics in modernity” (emphasis mine).


hilosophically, though perhaps not politically, Lapidot wants to move away from what he regards as a distinctly modern obsession with what I called above social essentialism, which stems from the modern state’s failure to keep its promise of emancipation.  In the second half of the book, Lapidot’s analysis of Marx’s “On the Jewish Question” is particularly illuminating in this regard. In equating Jews with the egoism of money and suggesting that “Judaism reached its summit with the consummation of bourgeois society,” Marx suggested that Jewish assimilation made “Jews,” “Jewishness,” and “Judaism” omnipresent but imperceptible. Lapidot argues that the links between omnipresence, invisibility, and a racial ideology (to which Marx did not adhere), became the foundation of modern anti-Semitism, which attempts to answer the Jewish question with the literal eradication of Jews. But Marx also gave expression to what would later become anti-anti-Semitism by distinguishing “real” flesh and blood Jews (whom Marx called “Sabbath Jews”) from the figure of “the Jew.”  Leaving aside the details of Lapidot’s reading of Marx, his point is that the epistemic emptiness of anti-Semitism and anti-anti-Semitism is directly tied to the politics of the modern nation state, which is the politics of emancipation, the site of the “difficulty, deficiency or dislocation in the relation between knowledge and politics in modernity.”

Lapidot does not want to be emancipated. Rather, he wants to return, or at the very least, to turn towards what he regards as genuine Jewish episteme: Talmud. His argument against anti-anti-Semitism is “an introduction to Jewish thought, to thinking as it has historically been deployed in and as Jewish being, to thinking as machloykes [Yiddish for disagreement].  Anti-anti-Semitism is introduction to Talmud.”Despite his indictment of Arendt, Lapidot agrees with her claim that in modernity, what had been collective Jewish identity tied to Judaism has degenerated into a psychology of Jewishness. It is for this reason that he claims that anti-anti-Semitism rejects not only the possibility of Jewishness but also of Judaism (what Lapidot often calls “the Jewish”). If anti-Semitism opposes Jews and anti-anti-Semitism opposes opposition to Jews, Lapidot’s anti-anti-anti-Semitism rejects the terms of the debate by bringing the multiple meanings of “Judentum” back into relation with one another. Simply put, Jews require Judaism (or “the Jewish”) to be Jewish.  And this requires Talmud.

Lapidot employs Heidegger to make the case for Talmud by way of two main arguments. First, he argues that Heidegger’s hostility to “the Jewish as Old Testament” was not in fact opposition to the truly Jewish but to a Jewishness “constructed by the Christian and post-Christian West, traditionally as the negative origin, from which the West emerges by an act of supersessionism.” Second, he maintains that Heidegger’s presentation of Dichtung is best understood as a discourse of holiness grounded in distance from, rather than closeness to, God and in homelessness and wandering, rather than homeland. This, it turns out, is pretty close to what Lapidot means by “Talmud,” which he calls the “nonbiblical” Jewish, which might offer a mode of thought other than the philosophical and a mode of politics other than the state.  Lapidot’s anti-anti-anti-Semitism saves not only Heidegger but also the “nonbiblical” Jewish.


ne might say that Lapidot wants to replace arguments for the social construction of knowledge (the anti-essentialism of anti-anti-Semitism) with the affirmation of metaphysical essentialism in a post-Heideggerian non-metaphysical key (the Jewish is Talmud, it is not Bible or presumably something else). This brings us to the question of the relation between philosophy and history.  On the one hand, Lapidot’s analysis is entirely historical. Not only is the anti-Semitism he describes (and hence the anti-anti-Semitism as well) modern but Jews out of the Question presents itself as a critique of the epistemic and political deficiencies of the modern nation state.  Lapidot’s turn to Talmud is similarly historical in forcing us to notice some of the ways in which so much that is said to be “Jewish” has so little to do with historically Jewish sources and forms of knowledge. But Lapidot’s introduction of “Talmud” is also entirely ahistorical. As he surely knows, “Talmud” never existed (and does not exist today) in an historical vacuum and, as significant recent scholarship has shown, was not just influenced but also shaped by, among other things, its response to Christian currents and themes. Lapidot’s Yiddishism “machloykes” only emphasizes this Ashkenazi, western heritage. To be sure, Lapidot is certainly entitled to construct Talmud as imaginatively and as purely or even as essentially as he likes.  But this begs the question as to why some texts, such as “Talmud” and Heidegger, are treated to sophisticated and generous readings while the Bible and, presumably by way of omission, many other Jewish literatures and ways of life are so easily dismissed.

And here we must return to Heidegger. My interest is not in re-litigating what are by now multiple Heidegger affairs. But it is remarkable that the very themes that Lapidot finds so pervasive in Heidegger vis-à-vis “the Jewish” are even more explicit in Heidegger’s older contemporary, Hermann Cohen and his actual contemporary Franz Rosenzweig.  Unlike Heidegger, Cohen and Rosenzweig link language, holiness, homelessness, the uncanny and collective identity directly to Jewishness.  And Rosenzweig’s “new thinking,” like Heidegger’s Dichtung, attempted to provide an alternative mode of thinking to philosophy. Admittedly, Heidegger remains a more sophisticated philosopher than Rosenzweig and perhaps even than Cohen. But my sense is that this isn’t the main reason why they don’t figure in Lapidot’s analysis. The main reason, I suspect, is that both were German-Jews who, especially in the case of Cohen, remained proud products of Protestant Europe. Both also had more of an affinity for the Bible, rather than the Talmud.  Leaving aside many, many other forms of Jewish self-understanding not considered as possible candidates for Jewish knowledge, why doesn’t an anti-anti-anti-Semitism warrant consideration of Cohen and Rosenzweig’s thought as possible sources of Jewish knowledge as well?

In an important sense, it is unfair to Lapidot to criticize him for the book he didn’t write. He does not claim to fully develop his view of Jewish thought but only to introduce this possibility.  At the same time, on Lapidot’s own terms, I should be suspicious of my inclination to think that Jewish thought ought to emerge primarily, though not exclusively, not just from explicitly Jewish texts but also from people who understood themselves to be Jewish. As he states, the “horizon for the emergence” of Jewish thought that “opens access to the non-biblical Jewish” is “perhaps even non-Jewish Jewish, namely the Talmud.” The irony here, however, is that a study which insists on acknowledging what it calls the deficiency in the modern relation between politics and knowledge offers an account of politics that cannot but seem fundamentally apolitical. But perhaps this is not ironic but exactly Lapidot’s point.

This brings us back one last time to Ahad Ha’am who, while roundly admired for his intellectual depth and vision, is also often criticized for not recognizing the centrality of, to use another Yiddishism, tachlis, the practical details or needs of Jewish life. Lapidot concludes his important study with the following promissory sentence: “In the horizon of political epistemology…any attempt to think Talmud beyond Greco-Judeo-Christian thought, would have to contemplate just as fundamentally the performative mode of language that we call law.” Readers of this timely and important book will have to wait for Lapidot’s next book to see whether his vision of law can provide the specifics that can take us beyond anti-anti-Semitism and the politics of the nation state.

Leora Batnitzky is Perelman Professor of Jewish Studies and Professor of Religion at Princeton University. She has published several books on modern Jewish thought and philosophy as well as several edited volumes on religion and law.  She is currently working on a book on the Jewish apostate and Catholic saint, Edith Stein.