Still Questioned: Reconfiguring the Jew out of the “Muslim Problem” in Europe

Sultan Doughan  and Hannah Tzuberi on Elad Lapidot


he political combat of anti-Semitism has intensified and expanded its purview of what counts as anti-Semitism. But what are the theoretical premises of anti-anti-Semitism?  Elad Lapidot’s book Jews Out of the Question: A Critique of Anti-Anti-Semitism explicates the basic categories that underlie and pre-configure anti-anti-Semitic discourses, specifically the ways anti-Semitism is talked about, thought about, and warred against. Lapidot starts with an analysis of the dynamics of anti-anti-Semitic discourse as it unfolded in the controversy over the recent, very public disclosure of Martin Heidegger’s anti-Semitism, but goes beyond that by analyzing critical theories of anti-Semitism by prominent continental political philosophers such as Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Jean-Paul Sartre, Hannah Arendt, Alain Badiou, and Jean-Luc Nancy—intellectuals shaped by the annihilation of European Jewry and invested in a theorization of the political present after genocide.

Lapidot’s analysis is a critique of this specific “political epistemology,” a concept he defines as an exchange between politics and knowledge. He identifies a fundamental, allegedly self-evident motif of anti-anti-Semitic discourse: the assertion that anti-Semitism has no actual knowledge of Jews and is, instead, a construction, projection, imagination. This is manifest, for example, in preventive pedagogies aimed at individuals’ moral betterment from anti-Semitic thought and behavior to anti-anti-Semitism as a liberal personhood. The perhaps starkest example of this approach is the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism as “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews.” Notably in the absence of any knowledge and experience

Anti-anti-Semitism, Lapidot explains, “categorically rejects in fact any knowledge of the Jewish”; it operates “as mere perception, construction, projection, imagination, fantasy, and myth.” Lapidot describes this anti-anti-Semitic problematization of Jews as an epistemic dis-figuration, namely, as a “perception of the Jews as a historical human collective, whose existence, as a collective, lies outside the epistemic realm, outside the realm of knowledge, philosophy, and thought, and so, strictly speaking, outside of any perception or imagination, a non-figure or dis-figure. It would be for this reason illegitimate, and philosophically invalid in principle, epistemically fallacious, to criticize, antagonize, or oppose this human collective, to be anti-Jewish, not because Jews are essentially ‘good,’ i.e., not because the ‘anti’ is wrong, but because ‘the Jewish’ stands for, manifests, or ‘figures’ no specific content, no specific idea.” According to Lapidot’s reading, the problem of anti-Semitism is thus assumed to consist not in what statements it makes about Jews, but rather in that it makes any statements about Jews at all, negative or positive. As he writes: “I argue that the problematic component of anti-Semitism, which in the eyes of the current discourse excludes anti-Semitism from philosophy, is the Jews.”

While Lapidot’s main contribution is to show the ways in which continental philosophy disfigures and de-epistemizes the figure of the Jew, we are suggesting that this complicity between anti-anti-Semitism and Jews’ de-epistemization also informs liberal politics and shapes the secular public sphere in continental Europe today. We are keen to point out another minority figure that complicates the picture— that of the Muslim, who appears as a concrete “problem” having a double effect on the figure of the Jew. The figure of the Muslim first of all has the potential to reveal and reconfigure Jewish traditions as concrete forms of life. Second, it is these concrete practices that revealed the complicity of anti-anti-Semitism in the de-epistemization of Jews.

Present-day Germany provides the background for our argument. But before describing the anti-anti-Semitic mechanism at work in the 2012 German circumcision debate, we’d like to first delineate what Lapidot describes as the “most potent” anti-anti-Semitic position— that in which the Jewish episteme is defined as consisting of anti-anti-Semitism. Lapidot demonstrates this via a reading of Jean-Luc Nancy, which we outline briefly below. We then bring Lapidot’s conceptual take on the de-epistemization of Jews into the circumcision debate to show how, in a very concrete way, the idea of Judaism as anti-anti-Semitism crumbled. What we want to emphasize is that this form of epistemic violence has real world effects— but that these resist being categorized as expressions of “racial hatred,” or even as violence. Our discussion shows that that even though Jews might be “out of the question,” the question remains powerful in forging and managing minorities.

Jean-Luc Nancy and anti-anti-Semitic Judaism

Anti-Semitism begins, if we follow Lapidot’s reading of Nancy, in the ascription of epistemic meaning to historical collectives: statements concerning Jews— or any other historical collective of “people”— are an intrusion of “myth” (irrational thought) into the realm of proper knowledge, that is, philosophy. But the collective historical figure that, according to Nancy, paradigmatically embodies this myth is “the West,” and more specifically, the West’s central protagonist and paradigmatic figure or “self”: Western Christianity. In Nancy’s account, Christianity’s desire for radical self-foundation negates any preexistent, received being, identity, or history of itself, down to its own “flesh.” The Christian “self” thus founds itself by detaching itself from its received identity. This way, other historical collectives— paradigmatically the Jews— can become a “site” or “foil” upon which the self-founding “Christian event” happens. Nancy accordingly describes anti-Semitism as lurking at the very core of Western self-consciousness, as the “self-hate of the West.”

Lapidot sees Nancy’s critique of the birth of the European subject as reproducing a narrative that is astonishingly similar to the narrative it seeks to criticize, only in the mode of condemnation. When Nancy proposes that “one must learn to exist without being and without destination, not pretending to commence or re-commence anything—nor conclude either” as a way to critically interrupt this Christian birth of self (and, with it, of anti-Semitism), he also echoes the call of the self-proclaiming self-lessness, a striving for “no beginning, no end, no destination, no being, no name” that, in fact, sounds universal. In Lapidot’s reading, Nancy’s discourse performs the very same dynamics that it identifies and criticizes as the constitutive operation of “the West”: self-foundation by self-condemnation (“self-hate”).

According to Lapidot, Nancy conceptualizes “modernity” in the same fashion— as the event that, succeeding the birth of “the West” in the “Christian event,” constitutes the West’s completion and perfection. In Nancy’s reading, the modern perfection of the self consisted in striving for the abolishment of all relations to alterity, exteriority, and difference, a kind of being in “pure immanentism.” Nancy understands his own critique as in opposition to this modern absolutization of the Western self— namely, as effecting an interruption of the aspiration toward pure, all-encompassing immanence. But, again, Lapidot zooms closer into the exact nature of this interruption: “To what extent [is] an ‘interruption’…opposed or rather on the contrary perfectly complementary to the continuum it interrupts? … To what extent is the interruption able to avoid reproducing and even absolutizing the very logic it seeks to interrupt?”

What Lapidot so effectively demonstrates is that Nancy first attributes necessity to the interruption of the absolute immanence of the Western “self” only to then derive this necessity from the very same immanent order. Logically then, this interruption is a necessary consequence or continuation of the totalitarian communal project of the West: “[T]he supposed modern, enlightened, scientific and rational break with mythology has rather perfected the myth by generating the ‘myth of the myth’, namely an interruption of the myth that is inherent to the constitutive logic of the myth. Saying that ‘we no longer have anything to do with the myth’ is still defining ‘us’—‘we—our community, if it is one, our modern, post-modern humanity’—through the (negative) logical necessity of the myth.” This is an interruption that ultimately makes no difference, says Lapidot— that cannot make any difference in as much as it remains within the logic it criticizes.

In this interruption, Jewishness becomes a quintessential figure of the postmodern West, argues Lapidot, an embodiment of “interruption”: it does not signal an alternative beyond the West, but draws its entire meaning from interrupting the Western project: “The interruption of Jewish otherness thus offers no alternative to the West, no other politics and political epistemology, but operates, quite on the contrary, as a guarantor and inner perfection mechanism of the West, namely as ‘the opening of the beyond that prevents Western civilization from drifting into a totalizing universalism’.”  In Nancy’s own rendering: “Dispersion, dissolution or dissimulation of one’s self, this is definitively that to which Jewish specificity comes down to.

It is in this most potent anti-anti-Semitic episteme that Jews, while constituting the question, are also removed entirely out of the question. Because Jewishness here is that to which anti-Semitism is opposed— as Nancy puts it: “the opening of the beyond that prevents Western civilization from drifting into a totalizing universalism”— Jewishness becomes nothing but anti-anti-Semitism. The figure of(?) the Jew here stands on the one hand at the very center of the debate, is present everywhere, showcased and protected— yet, on the other hand, looks also very much like a spotless surface for post-war anti-anti-Semitic liberal self-configuration.

Anti-anti-Semitic disfiguration in context

We are arguing that this figure of the Jew as guarantor and inner perfection mechanism of the West gained traction in a specifically German, post-unification context. With the fall of the Berlin wall, the newly reunified state— no longer a mere “buffer-state” under Cold War conditions— needed some way to demonstrate conclusively its democratic, liberal, modern character. The figure of the Jew again proved pliable enough for this purpose. Signifiers of Jewishness were showcased and marketed, and identification with Jews or forging a Jewish affinity became pervasive. Both can be read as identitarian interruptions designed to perfect the state’s conversion to anti-anti-Semitism. Echoing the valorization of the figure of the Jew as a figure embodying the hope of a post-nationalist Europe in post-WWII philosophical discourse, the desired figure of “Jewish alterity” in a German context became a projection plane upon which new German subjecthood was re-constituted and performed: “Jewish life” here becomes synonymous with anti-anti-Semitism.

The inauguration of this new political time worked through the re-constitution and embrace of “Jewish alterity,” yet was premised on Jews’ de-epistemization— an “interruption that constitutes the order.”  This is nowhere more evident than in the German circumcision debate of 2012, in which a Jewish practice, suddenly and unexpectedly, with maximized fanfare and to the shock of everyone involved, soiled an otherwise rather polished stage. In June of that year, a Cologne court ruled in the case of a young Muslim boy that circumcision constitutes “unlawful bodily harm.” Despite having been triggered by a Muslim boy’s circumcision, and despite the fact that the practice affects numerically more Muslims than Jews, the case and ensuing debate in effect signaled the appearance of an embodied Jewish alterity, which in turn precipitated a month-long, nationwide debate about the scope and limits of Germany’s historical responsibility specifically vis-à-vis Jews. Crucially, the debate exposed the exact meaning of anti-anti-Semitism— namely, not to know Jews in their concrete practices. Public confrontation with the fact that a wide spectrum of Jews practice traditional circumcision complicated the affective identification of Christian-secularized Germans with Jews as figures of post-Holocaust imaginary. This specific collective bodily practice was incongruent with the de-epistemized figure of the Jew as commemorated and reenacted by the German state.

The practice of circumcision was not “covered” by anti-anti-Semitism. Given the public debates, it was as if anti-anti-Semitism had hitherto simply not provided for it, not foreseen it; politicians and public opinion were left unprepared for this sudden appearance of Jewish practice, the hard edges of which could not be quite mitigated even by a de-essentializing claim that “not all Jews are like that…”

Critical voices of circumcision made their arguments under the auspices of “critique of religion” and “children’s rights.” This both legitimized and commended the regulation of a religious practice that is incompatible with secular-liberal notions of individual autonomy, agency, physical integrity, rights, and freedom. What motivated these arguments was not a principled stance “against Jews,” or even “against Judaism” but the affirmation of the category “religion” as an expression of private, voluntary faith. Circumcision—a bodily inscription that is precisely not a voluntary, self-reflective act undertaken by an autonomous individual— was beyond the legitimate sphere of “religion” in the modern Protestant sense of the term and, as such, breached a categorical boundary.  This breach could not be tolerated even in light of post-Holocaust mercy vis-à-vis Jews. “Jews should know better than this,” was the argument from circumcision’s opponents.

The defenders of the practice— Jews and non-Jews alike— affirmed the debate’s epistemological frame. Defenses of circumcision either sustained the normativity of the secular body by pointing out the medical benefits of circumcision and its concomitant compatibility with the secular, allegedly unmarked, and natural body. Or they referred to memory of the Holocaust as imbuing the German state with exceptional responsibility vis-à-vis Jews, subjecting Jews to moral considerations that, had there been no genocide, would hardly apply: “We would become a nation of comedians if precisely here Jews would not be able to conduct their religion freely,”[1] as Angela Merkel put it. This line of argument was premised on memory of the Holocaust as impacting German’s affective registers vis-à-vis Jews: a renewed criminalization of a Jewish practice could be linked back to the monstrosity of genocide, the “pastness” of which would be put into question through Jews’ renewed injury in the present. Unlike those opting for circumcision’s criminalization, its defenders’ aversion was thus suppressed and kept in place by shame; yet, like its opponents, defenders of the practice, too, could not recognize circumcision except as a trace of the past that is repugnant and must be repudiated. Both sides thus affirmed the normativity of the secular body but diverged over the precise scope and content of historical responsibility. Both sides affirmed the secular state’s production and definition of the category “religion” as a matter of private, voluntary belief, thereby principally affirming the potential to criminalize Jewish and Muslim practices precisely under the doctrine of religious freedom and children’s rights.

While the German parliament eventually passed a law that legalizes male circumcision within six months after birth by “qualified personnel,” the appearance of Jewish alterity uncovered the limitations of de-epistemized anti-anti-Semitism. The debate evolved around the German state’s responsibility vis-a-vis Jews as an already historically injured collective, which therefore requires special, exceptional protection. Jews were affirmed as “victims that matter” in the sense that their renewed injury, through criminalization of circumcision, would shed the “wrong light” on new Germany, and thus become a source of shame. It just so happened that, in the process, Muslims fell completely out of this debate. The thought that criminalizing circumcision could injure and stigmatize them, too, was not mentioned once. The protection of non-Christian religious practices thus hinges on Holocaust memory and the degree to which memory provokes certain specifically German post-Holocaust affects like hesitance, mercy, and shame. Muslims in Germany are permitted to practice circumcision, because they are able to hide, like stowaways, in the slipstream of historical responsibility vis-à-vis Jews and clandestinely “join the ride.” Whether or not an Islamic bodily practice is sanctioned or criminalized depends on the degree to which Muslims can invoke “historical responsibility.” It depends, in other words, on the degree to which their injury is perceived as implying at least a potential injury to Jews too, such that Muslims may benefit from German conscience related to Jews and in this displaced way become “worthy” of protection. While the circumcision debate theoretically demanded political cooperation between Muslim and Jewish collectives, it was thus also the moment that re-produced Jews and Muslims’ asymmetrical, unequal positioning. While Muslims are openly inspected, regulated, and disciplined within various state institutions, Jews cannot be, should not be, examined and known in such ways anymore— even though critical public inspection of Muslims had made a concrete Jewish practice and community visible and knowable in the first place.

Through Lapidot’s reading of Nancy, we recognize in this case how the figure of the Jew becomes a constitutive exception and perfection of the European project. The debate revealed the secular gaze as one that— with the best of intentions— renders the bodies of minorities vulnerable by demanding an alignment with majoritarian moral and aesthetic sensibilities. The merger of Jewish and Muslim bodies through the problematization of their practices exposed a fundamental tension between Jewish practices and secular-liberal sentiments. Specifically, it troubled the de-epistemization of Jews and the workings of anti-anti-Semitism, because it made the Jews as a traditional community knowable in their collective difference. This collective difference was granted exemption from criminalization because the Holocaust’s political and affective impact disabled a renewed problematization of a Jewish body. The memory of the Holocaust imbued the secular gaze with mercy— despite its objection to and disgust vis-à-vis the circumcised body. The circumcision debate could have been a chance to discuss how and why the Christian-secularized body was institutionalized as the norm, especially in light of the fact that Jews have been present in Europe for centuries. Instead, the debate led to an intentional, regulated setting aside of the norm, in order to enable toleration of the normatively intolerable (circumcised) body. The debate stabilized rather than particularized the normative body. The exceptional tolerance vis-à-vis Jews became the constitutive exception of the status quo: Jewish difference and its protection mattered as an exceptional interruption that stabilized the state’s anti-anti-Semitic self.

This case raises a host of questions about the de-epistemization of Jews: What are the actual costs of de-epistemization of the figure of the Jew for living Jewish communities? One price that Jews are paying for this de-epistemization is that, once problematized, they have to make themselves knowable in intimate detail. Yet, this somehow does not provincialize the self-understanding of Christian-secularized Germany. In fact, it feeds into the structure of German post-war conscience at the cost of Jewish political agency. Lapidot’s intervention shows how Jews’ de-epistemization effectively generates the question again, while at the same time maintaining ignorance about Jews. It opens up a perspective for further inquiry into notions of injury, secularism, and religious minorities in the modern nation-state. Jews might be out of the question, but the question is there today and innocently attaching itself onto Muslims in Europe.

Sultan Doughan is the Dr. Thomas Zand Visiting Assistant Professor of Holocaust Pedagogy and Antisemitism Prevention at Clark University. Her research engages the question of citizenship and religious difference in contemporary Germany. She is currently working on her first book Converting Citizens: German Secularism and the Politics of Tolerance after the Holocaust.

Hannah Tzuberi studied Jewish Studies and Islamic Studies at Freie Universität Berlin and was a research assistant at the Institute for Jewish Studies (FU Berlin). Currently she is a post-doctoral researcher in a collaborative research project “Beyond Social Cohesion: Global Repertoires of Living Together (RePLITO) at FUBerlin, directed by Prof. Schirin Amit-Moazami. She is the co-editor of “Jewish Friends: Contemporary Figures of the Jew” (Jewish Studies Quarterly 27:2–3, 2020) and is working on a book-project titled “Reviving Judaism, Reviving the Nation: Post-Holocaust Imaginaries of the (German) Nation-State.” Her research interests include contemporary European Jewry, nation-building, collective memory, religion and secularism.