Philosophy, Justice, and Judaism

Gil Anidjar on Elad Lapidot

Die unter uns lebenden Palästiner . . .
— Immanuel Kant


he moment is only one among the many shocking moments that Naomi Klein attends to in The Shock Doctrine, but conveys an important, if distressing, lesson. Klein revisits what most of us know and even agree upon: that torture must be opposed.

In its 1976 Report on Argentina, Amnesty International led the way in the struggle against torture, documenting and condemning it along with other human rights violations. Klein underscores, however, what Amnesty did not speak up against. In the days of the so-called Cold War (it was after all, pretty hot all over Asia, West Asia too, Africa and South America), economic policies — capitalism vs. socialism — were politicized (and consider the uneasy comfort of using the past tense here). Thus, for indisputably pragmatic reasons, the brutal economic policies that devastated the lives and livelihood of millions were left out of the report. Amnesty could not comment on them and hope to remain effective, to gain access, and to continue its work against torture. And so torture trumped immiseration. Now, recalling that a word for torture is the word “question” (“now historical and archaic,” says the Oxford English Dictionary), we might suggest, after Elad Lapidot, that immiseration remained “out of the question.” As we struggle for justice, social and racial justice, who among us could revisit the heydays of the struggle against torture (there are reasons to miss them) and confidently adjudicate on the choices then made? The choices still made or the questions asked and not asked? Who would want to compare the justice of this — over that — struggle, and doubt the wisdom, at least the calculations, selecting one rather than the other? What does it mean to bring the demands of justice, already to tip its balances, as it were, toward one egregious injustice over another, one question over another?

In a manner obviously distinct from Amnesty International — but not necessarily different from the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) — philosophy has also preoccupied itself with justice and the choices and calculations it demands. Its record on the matter, regarding women, slavery, race and genocide, has been, to say the least, uneven. Things have changed, no doubt, and what is meant by “philosophy” has surely changed with them. Still, if philosophy can be said to have joined the struggle for justice or to have contributed to it, its choice of objects remains clearly parsimonious and thus worthy of attention, of philosophical attention. Such attention with regard to anti-Semitism — the struggle against anti-Semitism — is what Elad Lapidot has taken upon himself to extend. And though the question here is perhaps not quite as stark (why this struggle over that one? and what about intersectionality, two questions instead of one?), it undoubtedly consists in identifying and understanding the objects and protagonists involved. And I do mean protagonists rather than adversaries, for this turns out to be precisely what is in question.

Offering his searching “critique of anti-anti-Semitism,” Lapidot challenges us to reflect on the “anti,” on the nature and form of an opposition, a struggle. He locates the struggle itself within a broader field of disconnections and disassociations, of disagreements and oppositions, in the unfolding of a disputation and a controversy, the form of which he names — in Greek (polemos) and in Yiddish (machloykes). Lapidot asks that we linger and revisit the “anti,” at it were, the Greek prefix ἀντι-, ἀντ-, ἀνθ, which signals opposition and exchange, contradiction and, again, disputation. The Oxford English Dictionary — to tarry with this august reference — dates at c.1600 the beginnings of an impressive proliferation of “anti-“ terms. Strangely, the OED does not include anti-Semitism in this particular entry, but it does cite “the People’s William” (that is, William Ewart Gladstone, a British Prime Minister) as having declared, on May 26, 1896, “Of course, I am strongly anti-anti-Semitism.”


apidot begins with the difficult and layered opposition and exchange (or lack thereof) between knowledge and politics and advocates a rethinking of what he calls “political epistemology.” It is within this broad field that Lapidot proposes to revisit the struggle against anti-Semitism, beginning with the demanding assertion that anti-Semitism be recognized as a form of knowledge. “Before being a negative attitude toward Jews, anti-Semitism is a certain way of perceiving Jews,” of knowing Jews. For the better and (mostly) for the worse, of course. Still, and this is the crux of Lapidot’s elaborate argument and indeed of his machloykes with anti-anti-Semitism, those who struggle against anti-Semitism grant no such thing. They grant no knowledge of Jews and Judaism — what Lapidot calls, in a considered Germanism, “the Jewish, das Jüdische” — to anti-Semites, who would have “no real relation to real Jews.” The anti-anti-Semites themselves reject “the Jewish” as a pertinent object, as their object and as the legitimate object of a philosophical knowledge practice, of a philosophical questioning. In the struggle against anti-Semitism, Jews would therefore be “out of the question.”

This might be the moment at which the protagonists involved — the boundaries of the space of conversation, of politics — cease to be so very obvious. For if it is “the anti-Semite who invents the Jew,” if the anti-Semite’s Jew (as opposed to and separate from “concrete, real, living Jews”) is a fabrication, then anti-Semitism is less an adversary than a lone, if no less dangerous, figure of shadow boxing. Fighting it will not advance, in any case, by invoking “actual Jews” as a corrective, much less as an occasion for thought. The struggle against anti-Semitism, to the extent that it has a political dimension, should rather oppose — what else? — anti-Semitism. It should not pronounce about actual or historical Jews. And for the most part, as Lapidot ambiguously laments, it has not. And certainly not about “the Jewish.” Whether one concurs with him, whether one engages in machloykes with him, one will easily agree that neither Sartre nor Arendt, neither Adorno and Horkheimer nor Jean-Luc Nancy and Alain Badiou, and certainly not Martin Heidegger, have made their main contribution to thought, or to the struggle against anti-Semitism, in the field of Jewish Studies. If they have enriched the political epistemology of “the Jewish,” they have done so marginally, perhaps unwittingly, and, judging by the reception, disappointingly, even wrongly. Anti-anti-Semites, in any event, remain thinkers who leave Jews out of the question.

And to reiterate: this exclusion of “the Jewish,” of Jewish thought, out of philosophy, out of political epistemology, is precisely what Lapidot himself fights, what he opposes and refuses. Not to be too subtle about it: Lapidot wants Jews to be in the question. Lapidot wants a philosophy of “the Jewish” (which may or may not be the same as the otherwise well-established field of Jewish philosophy, whatever its merits, or more broadly, of Jewish thought, and even Jewish studies, or for that matter the small industry that keeps feeding on “the Jewish Question”). In brief, whereas anti-Semites have been seen to struggle with a mirror (a construction or a projection, an invention), while nevertheless raising, albeit wrongly and dangerously, the Jewish question, “the Jewish” as a question, and whereas anti-anti-Semites have been struggling with anti-Semites exclusively, Lapidot wishes to bring “the Jewish” back into the conversation, the disputation.


s this a philosophical conversation? A philosophical and/or political disputation? The answer, complicated, once again brings us back to a recurring difficulty with regard to identifying the protagonists involved, with regard to those included in (or excluded from) the question.

Lapidot is a trained, indeed, accomplished, philosopher and he engages in a philosophical machloykes with philosophers, the philosophers who have struggled with and opposed anti-Semitism, as well as those — Heidegger primarily — who have been anti-Semites. One might therefore say that what we are reading is an internal disputation, internal to philosophy. Philosophy is here arguing with itself.

It would not be the first time. Within philosophy, there are anti-Semites and there are anti-anti-Semites. Whether philosophy is the right (unique or privileged) stage for the conversation remains in question. Be it as it may, the dispute, the political epistemology, engages, this should be obvious, much broader a field. It takes place in the polis, in the political arena. And it clearly involves — at least with regard to the major anti-Semites discussed by Lapidot — non-philosophers (Wilhelm Marr, Ernest Renan). Philosophers and anti-anti-Semites, however, want really nothing to do with anti-Semitism and have argued, with some justification, that anti-Semitism is external to philosophy, and that anti-Semites, such as Martin Heidegger, have not been so as philosophers. Alternatively, anti-Semitic philosophers, such as Heidegger, have failed philosophy. In any event, philosophy would thus have been, it should have been, distinct (unrelated, dissociated, separated, cleansed) from anti-Semitism always. And from “the Jewish” too.

The question was always, therefore, the question remains, political rather than philosophical, and it engages (or at least engaged) with particular urgency the German and the French (the only two nationalities and languages that register in Lapidot’s book, Greek and Yiddish excursuses notwithstanding). It becomes obvious, in any case, that the protagonists, whether philosophers or not, are to be understood politically, along political lines that replicate, and oscillate between, the national, the racial, and the religious. And whatever manner we understand these replications and oscillations, we cannot avoid agreeing with Lapidot. It is simply not possible to ignore the Jews, “the Jewish.” Anti-Semitism was always an epistemology, a political epistemology, and the struggle against it must confront its epistemo-political dimensions. It must bring “the Jewish” into the question.

Which also, and again, means that the question — the conversation, the disputation — cannot be restricted to philosophers. And indeed, Lapidot demonstrates that anti-Semitism is a discursive formation, a political epistemology, that was shaped by philosophers and non-philosophers alike (Marx of course, but Kant and Hegel, and Nietzsche and others, did lend a hand, along with Marr and Renan), by French and German thinkers, and more broadly by Christian thinkers and writers, “secular” scholars and politicians, so-called “religious” leaders, and many more. The expansion of the struggle, of the protagonists involved, raises more questions therefore. And recall that one of Lapidot’s striking contributions is to trace the continuities of a practice that not only dissociates knowledge from politics but also philosophy from anti-Semitism, and ultimately philosophy from Jews and Judaism, from “the Jewish.” So, who, precisely, are the “real” protagonists? Philosophers and anti-Semites? Germans and Jews? Christians and Jews? Aryans and Semites? How do we understand the very nature of the political epistemology that sustains (still!) anti-Semitism and the struggle against it? Who is included in its exclusions? Who is in question and out of the question? Who is tortured, who immiserated? How many questions are there, and which to dispute and disentangle?


apidot does have one, clear, answer. We must know Jews and Judaism. We must learn and study “the Jewish.” We, philosophers and anti-anti-Semites, must confront the knowledge, the political epistemology, of anti-Semitism with a knowledge and a political epistemology of our own. We must bring Jewish learning — a new and renewed Jewish learning — into the epistemo-political fold. We must learn Talmud. Must we perhaps become Jewish philosophers? Philosophers of the Jewish?

Lapidot himself learns this from how Martin Heidegger “opens a horizon for the emergence within contemporary thought, of a different notion of the Jewish, a non-Judeo-Christian Jewishness,” which in its turn, so I claim, opens access to the non-biblical Jewish, perhaps even non-Jewish Jewish, namely to the Talmud. This will not be the least demanding part of Lapidot’s argument, of his machloykes and of his lesson. With it, in any case, Lapidot wishes “to open within Western thought an access to non-Western epistemic otherness.” Who could disagree with such a program, with this reasoned inclusion of the Jewish, marker of the non-Western, in the struggle against anti-Semitism? By way of what (other) question or questions?

Concluding would no doubt suggest an end to the conversation, to the disputation. To the learning too, of which there is much in Lapidot’s book. I wish instead to signal briefly toward another dimension of Lapidot’s contribution. It should suffice here to point to the table of contents, which concisely illustrates two of the main responses to anti-Semitism, two anti-anti-Semitic arguments, with the loaded word: “creation.” Lapidot here refers to the notorious Sartrean formula, mentioned earlier, whereby the anti-Semite “invents” the Jew, which is to say that the anti-Semite constructs and fabricates, makes and, again, creates the Jew. As Jacques Derrida and others have pointed out, this argument leaves unanswered the question: “why the Jews?” — a question Lapidot himself poses a few times in order to insist on bringing “the Jewish,” into the conversation. Distinct from the Sartrean take, in any case, is the alternative argument that anti-Semitism has a Jewish origin, that there might be “something like a Jewish creation of anti-Semitism.” Hannah Arendt would be paradigmatic here, who insisted that the place and role of Jews in history accounts, albeit partly, for the response, anti-Semitic as it was, to them. This is less about “blaming the victims” than it is about understanding the distribution of agency, however unequal, along with the actors and partners (and “junior partners,” as Frank B. Wilderson III has it) in the conversation, the disputation.

What interests me here is the persistence of a lexicon of construction, of invention and creation, of production and performativity in our understanding of knowledge and of politics, in our understanding of what Lapidot calls “political epistemology.” The other, we still say with disconcerting ease and facility, after all, is “made” or “constructed.” This active and agentive lexicon is part of the political epistemology used and underscored by Lapidot and it seems to me worth pausing over it. Remembering Amnesty International (and the IHRA), it might seem strange to do so. Yet, writing in a different context, on another question — unless it is the same question, only dissociated, separated — Hortense Spillers has done it better than I could, when she commented on archives and documents that, “if in no other way, the destruction of the African name, of kin, of linguistic, and ritual connections is so obvious in the vital stats sheet that we tend to overlook it.” It might seem strange, I know. But in our concern with construction and production, with historical reconstruction even, we tend to overlook entire fields of ruin and destruction. Of torture and of immiseration. Of past and current lives, African lives, say, Black and female, poor or Muslim lives. Or else, as Immanuel Kant had it— “the Palestinians living among us since their exile . . .”

But is it yet another question, another conversation?

Gil Anidjar teaches in the Department of Religion and the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies at Columbia University. Among his books are The Jew, the Arab: A History of the Enemy(Stanford UP, 2003) and Blood: A Critique of Christianity (Columbia UP, 2014).