Musical Manifestations: Jews Back in the Question?

Miranda Crowdus on Elad Lapidot


s a Jewish Studies scholar specializing in the fields of Philosophy and Talmud, Lapidot analyses and critiques opposition to anti-Semitism in contemporary philosophy. Building on Jonathan Judaken’s term “anti-anti-Semitism”, Lapidot argues that anti-anti-Semitism takes on many forms in philosophical texts and responses to them, but overall, that it constitutes an opposition to anti-Semitism involving “negative political epistemology…[rejecting] any positive relation between knowledge and politics and actively effects their disconnection.” Anti-anti-Semitic discourses need to be critically examined, according to Lapidot, as they effectively erase the object that they purport to “defend”: “[a]nti-Semitism is the perception of Jewish thought by the sole form of extermination.

Ejecting, condemnation, fighting the extermination, anti-anti-Semitism does not open new ways for perceiving or receiving Jewish thought, but wipes out one of the only remaining traces that there ever has been Jewish thought, by denying anti-Semitism itself the status of thought. The wiping out of Jewish thought itself is wiped out – the effacement effaced, a forgetting of the forgetting. More radical oblivion than the name of Amalek, whose blotting out from under heaven was prescribed for eternal memory.” This review critically engages with Lapidot’s work in part from the perspective of my own research specialization that lies at the intersection of Ethnomusicology and Jewish Studies.



apidot’s philosophical mediation outlines three basic types of anti-anti-Semitic discourse, which he discusses and problematizes. The first approach is found in responses to the controversial “Jewish” content in Heidegger’s The Black Notebooks. This section considers responses to Heidegger’s perceived anti-Semitism to be problematic because the anti-Semitic content is simply “cancelled” without discussion. Moreover, rather than being interrogated on philosophical grounds, the anti-Semitic content is viewed as a contaminant of “pure philosophy” which results in its exclusion and, by extension, a suppression of the Jewish: “in the current Heidegger controversy, anti-Semitism has been epistemologically defined and objected to as the illegitimate attribution of an epistemic value to the political collective subject.” The second category of anti-anti-Semitism identified by Lapidot is revealed in Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment that views anti-Semitism as the peak of the self-destruction of enlightenment. Here, anti-Semitism as a legitimate issue for philosophical engagement is essentially denied. An extension of the second category of anti-anti-Semitism is defined as “the Jewish creation of anti-Semitism,” and is discussed in the context of writings by Arendt and Badiou (Chapter 3). Lastly, and described as the “most potent” anti-anti-Semitic position is that of “the anti-anti-Semitic Jew,” describing a discourse that “purports to articulate and accordingly generates a Jewish position or consciousness, a specific figure and performance of Jewishness.” Lapidot undertakes a nuanced analysis of Jean-Luc Nancy here. [LINK to the review of Tzuberi/Doughan in the book forum] he chapters of the book’s first section aim to demonstrate that according to popular and often unquestioned interpretations, what makes the text “anti-Semitic” and therefore problematic is not the negative statements about Jews, but that it “refers to Jews at all.” In the second section, Lapidot examines anti-Semitism as text in Renan as well as Marx’s anti-Judaism. Lapidot suggests new ways forward that involve interrogation and dismantling of texts that are straightforwardly anti-Semitic (Hitler) and those that constitute the Jew as a problem (Renan; Marx), rather than simply “cancelling” them as “illusion” or beyond the pale of philosophy.

From Philosophy to the “Field”?


o someone in the Social Sciences who engages regularly in ethnographic fieldwork, it seems a shortcoming not to consider how this anti-anti-Semitic discourse manifests itself in current and lived events. This is particularly striking given the author’s emphasis from the outset that effecting neutrality in the discussion is literally “an act of aggression.” Ethnomusicology is a discipline in which ethnography and ethnographic fieldwork are the principal methods through which data is collected, a discipline that engages with living groups of people and their musical practices, often working in the “real world” to effect community-led change. As such, the fact that this important discussion of anti-anti-Semitism is limited to this highly specialized and purely discursive realm can be viewed as not bringing Jews back “into the question” at all or as bringing them back in a very limited way. Unlike the Hegelian application of phenomenology used in the book, for the ethnomusicologist phenomenology often deals not with observations of events from a philosophical perspective, but with presenting as clearly as possible the experiences of individuals or collectivities that have also been experienced by the researcher. Specific attention is often paid to details of the lived experience, such as the particular musical notes and tone-quality in a vocal improvisation, the temporal and spatial interactions of an individual as they listen and/or perform music or participate in music-related events. This is particularly the case in “practice as research” scholarly approaches in which the boundaries between practice/performance and research are blurred:  thus, the musical experience itself is often directly enacted by the researcher. From this disciplinary perspective, one could argue that, to some extent, the Jews are being kept “out of the question” by relegating the discussion to the “epistemo-political” in the relatively safe confines of philosophical and textual analysis.

Widely and Usefully Applicable  


ews out of the Question is particular successful in that it critiques anti-anti-Semitic discourses while pointing out various ways forward, and includes examples of how to dismantle uncritical anti-anti-Semitic intellectual affects. Moreover, the language of this volume is accessible to readers without particular expertise in Philosophy or Talmud. Where this book really succeeds is in pointing out both intentional and even unintentional and subconscious biases brought about by anti-anti-Semitic tendencies – particularly in the sense that their focus is presented as “moral” and “virtuous” —which have arguably taken on an iconic post-World War II Western significance.

Although Lapidot does not make this parallel, the ideas in this book are relevant and applicable to many themes, across several current dominant discourses and political persuasions. The critiques of anti-anti-Semitism are very much applicable to, for instance, the symbolic use of minorities by the state to further its agendas as well as current prevalent discourses that describe themselves as “anti-racist”. Musical manifestations of anti-racism are often examined in ethnomusicological research, initiatives that are generally presented as being “good and moral” by definition. However, in line with problems in anti-anti-Semitism, many anti-racist initiatives focus primarily on prescribed “perpetrators” and “victims”; however, in these discourses, the hegemonically-defined “victims” are seldom the point of focus and in some cases, they are not discussed at all. Indeed, victim collectivities are often represented by greater society through “acceptable” metonymic presentations that act in the service of those perpetuating the discourse, who are usually in a relative position of power. This is not a critique of all anti-racism, but rather a comment on how certain forms of it can be prescribed and enforced and how it chooses who or what is emphasized in its discourses and manifestations. After all, whatever one might think about Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility, the recent and arguably ground-breaking “manual” on anti-racism, the overwhelming focal point is the apparently inherent racism of white Americans and their inability to confront their own prejudices. One might almost call the focus anti-anti-Black, “our war on racism,” the “war on the war” represented so aptly in Lapidot’s book.

Although anti-racism and anti-anti-Semitism are very different—and I am not attempting a comparison here —what these types of “wars on wars” have in common is that they purport to be in defense of “the Other” or the subaltern. Yet, they are often constructed in such a way that “the Other” in need of saving is re-figured (or dis-figured, Lapidot would say) and thus, ultimately cannot “speak”. And this is not only for voices that are dissident in terms of the main ideology put forward, but arguably for all voices of “the Other” – unless their views can be “performed” within certain pre-approved imposed structures (“performance” after all does not only take place in artistic contexts). Often the conscious or even subconscious justification for not allowing dissident voices to speak – even if they can be identified as the victims in need of protection – is that “the war” against which the battle is being waged is too terrible (the end of enlightenment, according to Adorno and Horkheimer). As such, the silencing of “dissident” voices –here, engaging in a nuanced way with Heidegger’s mentions of the Jews as a collective – is justifiable, given what “we” are “up against.” A slippery slope argument is apparent here in which attempts to address perceived anti-Semitic texts or even references to Jews as a collective will somehow lead to more anti-Semitism. This is why Lapidot’s suggestion of introducing Talmudic study as a move away from anti-anti-Semitism is a particularly useful, chutzpadik way forward. Here, the machloykes (Talmudic controversy) is put forward as an apt dismantling intervention.

From an ethnomusicological perspective, particularly from that of the scholar specializing in Jewish music studies, this book introduces an important set of terminology for describing and critiquing phenomena that one experiences “in the field” on a regular basis. Many times while reading this volume, I experienced “eureka” moments because the anti-anti-Semitic approaches identified by Lapidot as problematic correlated with problematic tendencies found in Jewish music events in my own ethnographic fieldwork in Germany.  For example, the discomfort that many Jewish participants experienced in response to anti-anti-Semitic discourse in relation to music-related activities had hitherto been difficult to articulate owing to a lack of terminology, and also owing to the fact that such responses were paradoxically often repressed by non-Jewish state initiatives in the name of “promoting tolerance” and “fighting anti-Semitism.” It was found that unless the “Jewish music” conformed to certain specifications governed by what Fabian Holt calls the “performance contract” — namely, the specific social and political norms that govern and shape a musical performance beyond the “musical sound” —it was frowned upon and sometimes dismissed. Indeed, during every day performance negotiations between the German establishment and Jewish performers, a conflict of interest was particularly noticeable. For instance, in 2016, a religious Jewish musician was asked to come to a small village near Berlin to perform Jewish wordless spiritual melodies with her teenaged son on a Friday night in honor of a Saint Day. This performance was part of a series of events focusing on promoting “peace and tolerance” and encouraging “diversity.” In this situation, the participant had to refuse the offer. As an observant Jew, she would be observing the Sabbath at home with her family on a Friday night and it would be unthinkable in any case to be part of a Christian religious ritual for German non-Jews. In addition, the participant was orthodox and therefore, did not sing in a “mixed” group. In response, the delegates offered her more money and then, finding that she was adamant in her refusal, found a non-Jew to do the required performance. While the request was polite and well intentioned, it is representative of the many requests for Jewish music performances received at the European Centre for Jewish Music in Hanover, Germany between 2016 and 2021. These requests often conflicted, not only with the Jewish identities of some of its members, but also with the centre’s focus on academic research — not musical performance.


nti-anti-Semitism arguably permeated many events, experiences and attitudes towards “Jewish music.” Moreover, anti-anti-Semitic discourse shaped many factors in music events organization initiatives, such as: the stated goals of musical events, what types of events and performers were considered for funding, the type of music approved for performance, the way in which the music was performed and how it was received by audiences. Music events centered on Jews and Judaism were often constructed with “Jews out of the question” or at least with a purely symbolic, highly-controlled representation of Jews and Jewishness. In fact, in many cases, the (often subconscious and often well-intended) promulgation of anti-anti-Semitism in and around such events resulted in an erasure of troubling aspects of Jews or Judaism, resulting in a metonymic representation of Jews, made easier if actual Jews were absent. After all, without Jews, no anti-Semitism is possible: this rationale seemed to be the subconscious logic that dominated (often inadvertently) many initiatives. In responding to some of these experiences in academic scholarship, Lapidot’s writing on anti-anti-Semitism was aptly descriptive. Professor Sarah Ross and I cited Jews out of the Question extensively in a book chapter “Applied Ethnomusicology and Jewish Music Studies: Negotiating ‘Third Mission’ Requests in Germany Today,” in which we outline ethical and social problems encountered in negotiating Jewish music events in German contexts.

While there are many negotiations of identity and power involved in the organization of musical performances, anti-anti-Semitic discourse plays a particularly dominant and arguably problematic role in many “Jewish music” performances in Germany today. Lapidot’s critiques of anti-anti-Semitic discourse can be easily adapted in support of critical reflections of ethnographic fieldwork accrued at Jewish music events. The terminology in Lapidot’s book is useful in enabling the researcher to analyze the anti-anti-Semitic dimension of musical practices, but also enables a nuanced discussion of the negotiations of power that regulate these practices.

Live musical performance requires embodied presence, the direct transmission of sonic material to its audiences. Hence the “Jewish voice” musically affects Jewish presence and embodiment in a way that seems to signal real Jewish presence (they are literally “being heard”) and therefore, tolerance of Jews. However, the underlying frameworks supporting performances of “Jewish music” are often restricted to rubrics informed by many factors, but significantly by anti-anti-Semitic tropes. As such, these “Jewish voices” can only be heard in the context of acceptable musical genres. It is not possible to itemize “acceptable” genres and characteristics here, but fieldwork reveals that some acceptable forms that can in some way be classified as “Jewish” include klezmer music, Lewandowski choral pieces and exclude, for instance, music that is orally transmitted, a-tonal music by Arnold Schönberg and other musical forms. Thus, paradoxically the music-setting is delimited in such a way that it imposes a definition on how being Jewish should be expressed musically in response to supply and demand of non-Jewish audiences. For some Jewish and non-Jewish participants this becomes problematic as participation requires denying Jewish practices and beliefs in subservience to anti-anti-Semitic agendas. Lapidot’s categories of anti-anti-Semitism are particularly useful in putting a name to these impositions and conflicts of interest prevalent in many Jewish music events and initiatives. It is worth noting that it is often Jewish religious observance that makes the paradox between lived Judaism and anti-anti-Semitism so striking. It seems to me that an important way forward would be to discuss how one deflects anti-anti-Semitism in cases where a religious intervention is not desirable or possible.

The arguments in Jews out of the Question are a vital contribution to describe problematic and current concerns of the ethnomusicologist, found in current writings and even involving subconscious biases in current scholarship. Most importantly, the categories of anti-anti-Semitism introduced by Lapidot are useful when analyzing ethnographic fieldwork, particularly in Jewish music contexts. Jews out of the Question provides discursive shields to deflect the phenomenon of anti-anti-Semitism – even if it is just by giving it a name and reminding us of its influence. Lapidot’s critique prompts a re-examination of prevalent attitudes and tendencies caused by anti-anti-Semitic thought and highlights the danger posed by not questioning or dismantling anti-anti-Semitic thought. Even from a Jewish perspective, particularly for those of us who have experienced anti-Semitism or Jew-hatred directly, anti-anti-Semitism seems “safer.” Passive aggression is, after all, “only” psychological – at least in the beginning. One of Lapidot’s points, I think, is that anti-Semitism and anti-anti-Semitism are complicit.  More broadly, although only dealing with philosophical topics, this book allows a scholar rooted in Social Sciences to take these concepts outside the discipline of philosophy. Arguably anti-anti-Semitism is one of the complex discursive apparatuses through which hegemonic parts of society can “perform” tolerance, and, in the case of anti-anti-Semitism, effectively erase that which it purports to defend. The impasse of anti-anti-Semitic attitudes in contemporary philosophy shows how engrained these modes of thinking and dealing (or not dealing) with “the Other” are. Lapidot introduces important, arguably crucial, ideas dealing with the treatment of Jews and Judaism in philosophical discourse, but ultimately it will take determined scholars who are not afraid of taking risks to develop these ideas beyond the realm of continental philosophy.

Miranda Crowdus is an assistant professor at the Department of Religions and Cultures at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada, where she also directs the Institute for Canadian Jewish Studies. Crowdus’ research interests lie at the intersection of ethnomusicology and Jewish Studies. She earned her doctorate at City University London in 2016 that focused on intercultural encounters in grassroots music-making initiatives in South Tel Aviv, Israel. Prior to her move to Canada, she spent 5 years in Hanover, Germany, as a research associate at the European Centre for Jewish Music under the directorship of Professor Sarah Ross.