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The Jewish question after the Holocaust
Jürgen Habermas and the European left

In 1959, Theodor Adorno deployed the term 'secondary antisemitism' to conceptualise the opinion he found not uncommon within Germany that the Jewish people were culpable of exploiting German guilt over the Holocaust. One of the markers of critical theory, as Jürgen Habermas understood it, was to recognise that overcoming antisemitism lies at the centre of any worthwhile project of European reconstruction. Habermas presented the postnational constellation both as a desirable idea for the future and as a contested but tangible social reality in the present. The valid distinction between nationalism and postnationalism has been turned into a categorical opposition that stigmatises Jewish expressions of nationalism and represents Holocaust memory as culpably nationalistic. The historian Tony Judt wrote in the New York Review of Books that Holocaust memory crowded out all other injustices by treating the Holocaust not as one evil among many but as 'radical evil'.


The Jewish question after the Holocaust: Jürgen Habermas and the European left

I have, of course, long since abandoned my anti-Zionism, which was based on a confidence in the European labour movement, or, more broadly, in European society and civilisation, which that society and civilisation have not justified. If, instead of arguing against Zionism in the 1920s and 1930s I had urged European Jews to go to Palestine, I might have helped to save some of the lives that were later extinguished in Hitler's gas chambers. For the remnants of European Jewry – is it only for them? – the Jewish State has become an historic necessity. (Isaac Deutscher, The Reporter 1954)1

The Holocaust becomes a sort of university, an educational experience – a great learning experience, you might say – from which Jews were ethically obliged to have graduated with First Class Honours. But Israel, and those Jews who support Israel, are the overwhelming proof that they flunked their studies. … Thus are Jews doubly damned: to the Holocaust itself and to the moral wasteland of having found no humanising redemption in its horrors. (Howard Jacobson, When will Jews be Forgiven for the Holocaust?)2

After the Holocaust, European antisemitism did not simply vanish like a puff of smoke. On her return to Germany in 1950 Hannah Arendt wrote of the resentment some ‘ordinary Germans’ felt for being blamed for Auschwitz. It was as if the real culprits were Jews who exploited the Holocaust for their own benefit, made money out of their suffering, denied the right of Germans to express their own suffering, and accused the Germans of being uniquely evil in their treatment of others.3 In 1959 Theodor Adorno deployed the term ‘secondary antisemitism’ to conceptualise the opinion he found not uncommon within Germany that the Jewish people were culpable of exploiting German guilt over the Holocaust.4 It was not only in Germany that Jewish survivors met with indifference and hostility. Some survivors spoke of the reluctance of their fellow human beings to hear the story of their experiences; some told of the hostility they faced when they tried to return to their old homes; some told of the official restrictions imposed on them by Western governments.5 On the other side of the Iron Curtain, new regimes in Eastern Europe presented the nations they ruled as victims of National Socialism, not as perpetrators against Jews, and official antisemitic campaigns were planned and conducted in the Soviet Union and its satellite countries in the name of extirpating Zionism and cosmopolitanism.6 The historian Tony Judt summarised the issue very well when he commented that ‘what is truly awful about the destruction of the Jews is not that it mattered so much but that it mattered so little’.7

There were exceptions to this norm.8 The enactment of ‘crimes against humanity’ and two further founding documents of the postwar epoch, the Genocide Convention and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, passed in1948 within 24 hours of each other, were all informed by the common sense that human beings need protection from the violence of which the modern state has shown itself capable. These were very important innovations in International Criminal Law. They represented, as Karl Jaspers put it, the hint of a cosmopolitanism to come – ‘a feeble, ambiguous harbinger of a world order the need of which mankind is beginning to feel’.9 However, they were considerably marginalised with the onset of the Cold War. In 1960–1961 consciousness of the destruction of the Jews took an arguably more national form in the trial of Adolf Eichmann and then with the re-conceptualisation of the ‘final solution to the Jewish question’ (the Nazi formulation) as the ‘Holocaust’ (a Greek word for a burnt sacrificial offering) or ‘Shoah’ (a Hebrew word for destruction or catastrophe). In the 1980s, consciousness of the enormity of the event itself – and of German and European culpability – found public expression in narratives told in books, films and television series and in the spread of official apologies, commemoration sites, Holocaust museums and laws criminalising Holocaust denial.10 The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 drew some former satellite countries of the Soviet bloc into the orbit of Holocaust commemoration. The Holocaust, Shoah, Auschwitz – these names became universal references for radical evil and the barbarism of our age.11

The difficulties of understanding the wilful destruction of a whole people, addressed by the old generation of critical theorists under the immediate shadow of the Holocaust, also shaped the political thought of critical theory's leading postwar representative, Jürgen Habermas. Habermas sought to face up to the legacy of genocidal antisemitism by addressing its connections with the rise of emphatically nationalistic forms of political community and by crafting a vision of postnational political community as the normative potential of our age. One of the markers of critical theory, as Habermas understood it, was to recognise that overcoming antisemitism lies at the centre of any worthwhile project of European reconstruction.12

Jürgen Habermas: antisemitism and the postnational project

Habermas conceived the postnational constellation as a multi-layered global order, consisting of a reformed basis of solidarity within the nation state, the development of new transnational forms of political community such as the European Union beyond the nation state, and the enhancement of international laws and institutions regulating relations between states and guaranteeing human rights at the global level. The idea of the postnational constellation entailed a differentiated and multi-layered architectonic of legal and political forms, as well as a complex re-invigoration of cosmo-political ways of thinking and acting in the world. Habermas presented the postnational constellation both as a desirable idea for the future and as a contested but tangible social reality in the present. We see it as a response both to the top-down forms of state socialism advanced within orthodox Marxism, and to the populist principle that all political life must derive exclusively from below.

The struggle to work through the experience of antisemitism was a vital element in this overall project. Habermas' guiding intuition was that antisemitism was the product of emphatically nationalist forms of political community and that postnationalism could introduce a new political order in which the conditions that once gave rise to antisemitism would no longer exist. He emphasised the modernity of antisemitism, rooting it in the perverted forms of nationalism the modern age is prone to generate.

The key issue, as Habermas saw it, is that the Volksnation, the nation of the people, was a modern democratic invention which crystallised into ‘an efficient mechanism for repudiating everything regarded as foreign, for devaluing other nations, and for excluding national, ethnic, and religious minorities, especially the Jews. In Europe, nationalism became allied with antisemitism, with disastrous consequences’.13 Habermas maintained that the historical strength of nationalism was due to its capacity to act as a binding power enabling individuals to coalesce around commonly shared symbols, and that the formation of the modern state was dependent on the development of a national consciousness to provide it with the cultural substrate for civil solidarity: ‘only a national consciousness crystallised around the notion of a common ancestry, language and history, only the consciousness of belonging to “the same” people, makes subjects into citizens of a single political community – into members who can feel responsible for one another’.14

For Habermas, the nation state is a Janus-faced phenomenon characterised above all by normative ambiguity: it did become the bearer of a regressive credo that unreflectively celebrates the history, destiny, culture or blood of a nation, but it could also be the bearer of a progressive and inclusive form of political consciousness, which Habermas called ‘constitutional patriotism’ and understood as a consciousness capable of inspiring rational loyalty on the part of citizens.15 Habermas maintained that some kind of national consciousness is needed to inculcate willingness on the part of citizens to do what is required of them for the common good, such as maintaining public services through taxation and accepting democratic decisions as legitimate, and that the virtue of constitutional patriotism is to perform these integrative functions in ways that do not exclude people deemed not worthy of belonging to the nation in question. Constitutional patriotism seemed to bridge the gap between shared attachment towards universalistic principles and the actualisation of these principles through particular national institutions. Habermas did not reject the national aspect but sought to render it benign through the harmonisation of the universal and the particular.

Habermas' concession to nationalism suggested by his conceptual approach to constitutional patriotism became more pronounced when the concept was applied in practice to Germany. He adopted constitutional patriotism as an antidote to German ethnic nationalism and as a device to re-integrate the Federal Republic of Germany and later a united Germany as a pluralistic, multicultural political community. He deployed the idea very effectively as a critical resource against the resurgence of ethnic nationalism he saw in the ‘Historians Debate’ of the 1980s. He criticised one historian (Michael Stürmer) for celebrating the ‘higher source of meaning’ that only nationalism could provide; another (Andreas Hillgruber) for identifying with ‘the desperate and costly struggle of the German army in the East […] who were trying to save the population of the German East from the Red Army's orgies of revenge’, a third (Ernst Nolte) for normalising Auschwitz as a response to a ‘more original Asiatic deed’, that of the Gulag.16 Habermas maintained, by contrast, that German national identity could only be rebuilt on the basis of a joint responsibility for the past, carried over into next generations, so that the dead would not be cheated out of the ‘memory of the sufferings of those who were murdered by German hands’. It was not resurgent nationalism but the liberating power of ‘reflective remembrance’ that could rebuild German identity.17

Habermas was not prepared to dissolve the murder of Jews into some universal reference to the victims of Nazism, as Soviet Marxism insisted. In a discussion of the Berlin Holocaust memorial in Die Zeit in 1999, he criticised the argument that ‘exclusive reference to the murdered Jews now reflects a particularism that ignores the victims of other groups’ or that it represents ‘an injustice to the Sinti and Roma, the political prisoners, the mentally handicapped, the homosexuals, the Jehovah's Witnesses and the deserters which demands some redress’. He acknowledged that the moral intuition to which this universalism appealed was powerful and that the special ‘significance of the Jews for us Germans must not neutralise the unconditional obligation to show equal respect in commemorating all victims’, but he could not accept a line of argument that seemed to him universalistic only in the abstract. He wrote: ‘Were we to ignore the special relevance of the Jews for the social and cultural life of Germany, the historically fraught, quite specific proximity and distances of both these unequal poles, wouldn't we once again be guilty of a false abstraction?’18 Habermas understood that there is no contradiction between attending to the genocide of Jews and drawing universalistic ethical conclusions. To focus on the genocide of one particular people is not to sign up to particularism.19 Quite the reverse: we learn to generalise from particular cases and, if required, to allow new cases to modify our generalisations.20

A more problematic aspect of Habermas' argument was the role played by ‘the German question’ in his approach. Habermas presented Germany as a model for Europe as a whole on the grounds that the trend toward postnational self-understanding was more pronounced there than in any other European state. Germany appeared as the nation that, by virtue of learning from its past excesses, now most fully acknowledged ethnic nationalism as a horrific regression.21 It was as if Germany, above all European nations, had the reflective resources required for a genuinely ‘critical appropriation of ambiguous traditions’. Habermas treated Germany as a normative model for postnational political community on the grounds that in Germany nationalism was no longer normatively defensible.22 He articulated very well the normative content of the postnational ideal – rejection of nationalism; loyalty to constitutional principles; cultivation of a reflective consciousness; ability to relativise one's own way of life; granting strangers the same rights as ourselves; recognising the heterogeneity of populations, including all citizens regardless of origin, colour, creed, or language, etc. – but he was tempted to represent Germany as the privileged site of this ideal.23 Habermas traded on an ambiguity between two distinct propositions – that constitutional patriotism was a desirable goal for German reconstruction, and that Germany was already an exemplary case of constitutional patriotism. His own resolution was to say that constitutional patriotism operates in a space ‘between facts and norms’, that it walks a tightrope between what is and what it might be, but this formulation still enables reversion from his original commitment to work through the catastrophe to the fixed idea that Germany has in fact learnt the lessons of the catastrophe it caused.24 The postnational approach Habermas put forward opened a space for those who wish to situate the problem of German antisemitism emphatically in the past.

If the German rendition of constitutional patriotism left it uncomfortably close to a new kind of nationalism, this was one reason why Habermas turned to a wider European stage. He was well aware that while there was a specific German responsibility, genocidal antisemitism was a phenomenon that found support in nearly all European countries, not only in Germany. Habermas emphasised the responsibility of all Europeans to commemorate the victims – primarily for the sake of the victims themselves but additionally as a means of ‘reassuring ourselves [i.e. all Europeans] of our own political identity’. He endeavoured to keep in mind ‘the gruesome features of a century that “invented” the gas chambers, total war, state-sponsored genocide, and extermination camps’, but at the same time not to become ‘transfixed by the gruesomeness of the century’, not to evade ‘conscious assessment of the horror that finally culminated in […] the annihilation of the Jews of Europe’.25 This active stance toward the whole of Europe learning from the past has profoundly shaped Habermas' work.

The turn to Europe, however, also conjured up the spectre of a new nationalism writ large. The nationalistic temptation was the idea of Europe as a civilisation whose normative values, civic traditions and forms of life made it peculiarly ‘capable of learning’ and ‘consciously shaping itself through its political will’.26 Habermas' anti-gemeinschaftlich image of Europe avoided construing European identity along essentialist lines, but there rested a tendency not only to advance a postnational project for Europe but also to represent Europe as the privileged site of postnationalism. The equivocations of postnationalism between a critical and positivist approach encouraged the belief that Europe has learnt its lessons and thus made it possible after all to ‘historicise’ antisemitism as a phenomenon of the past. One of the most paradoxical conclusions others have drawn from this idealised view of postnational Europe is that the only people deemed not to have learnt these lessons were the victims themselves!

This is not the road, however, that Habermas took. His postnational journey took a further step toward the reconstruction of world society and its global institutions, its international laws and its human rights. Habermas maintained that the normative effect of the ‘monstrous mass crimes of the twentieth century’ has been to acknowledge that ‘states as the subjects of international law forfeited the presumption of innocence that underlies the prohibition on intervention and immunity against criminal prosecution under international law’.27 He did not reject the principles of classical international law – self-determination of peoples, respect for treaties, non-intervention in the internal affairs of other peoples, agreed norms regulating the conduct of war – but emphasised the need to elaborate international law in accordance with more cosmopolitan principles: states are bound to honour human rights; the principle of non-intervention may be suspended in the case of serious atrocities; and the authority of international organisations such as the United Nations must be upheld. Habermas defended the principle that the international community has a legal as well as moral duty to intervene where and when states commit heinous crimes against the people and that atrocity-committing states should not be allowed to hide behind the fig leaf of national self-determination and non-interference. He laid the ground for a constitutionalised global order to come, incompatible with the order that once made the ‘final solution’ possible.

Habermas had the vision of constructing a fully-fledged legal framework to protect people from the violence of states. He hoped to realise this vision by extending the reach of global remedies, granting the International Court of Justice compulsory jurisdiction, sharpening the definition of humanitarian crimes, reforming the Security Council, constructing a UN army, and so forth. He acknowledged that this cosmopolitan vision was far from an accomplished fact: human rights interventions were fraught with difficulties, particular interests were dressed up in the universalistic rhetoric of international law, and indeed a culture of human rights had yet to be developed if social actors were to judge and act on political matters from the perspective of ‘citizens of the world’.28 His approach, however tended to concieve of change in ideal terms as a transition from a world in which law was in the service of power to a world in which power will be in the service of law, a formulation that did not address his own understanding of law as a form of power – witness the struggles for power waged for control of the institutional bodies through which human rights are enacted on the world stage. He defended the legitimacy of human rights bodies in terms of supplementing the functional capacities of nation states and tempering the temptation of powerful states to imagine themselves as all-powerful, but this defence did not address the legitimacy problems human rights themselves encounter in addressing social inequalities, regulating the aggression of state powers, matching the democratic validity possible at the national level, or resisting expropriation by corporate capital and state power. He argued that the limited democratic legitimacy of international institutions was justified by the limited functions they perform, rested on legal principles tried and tested within democratic constitutions, and received supplementary legitimacy through the activism of global civil society,29 but this vindication of cosmopolitan law could not obscure the existence of a chasm between the abstract idea of universal human rights and concrete norms of social and political inequality.30

These problems were unresolved but the more troubling aspect of this stage of the postnational journey was that the idealisation of human rights made it possible to suspend the formal principle of equality between states and reconfigure a hierarchy of states based this time on human rights criteria. One such strategy was employed by the philosopher, John Rawls, when in the Law of Peoples he elevated to the top of this hierarchy of states those labelled ‘liberal’ that uphold all human rights, placed below them states labelled ‘decent’ that only respect some human rights, and placed at the bottom of the hierarchy states labelled ‘outlaw’ that respect no human rights at all.31 While the classification of states according to human rights criteria was not part of Habermas' own project, the equivocations of postnationalism – caught between norms and facts, critical engagement and uncritical rationalisation – introduced an inegalitarian mindset into the very concept of international law. In the work of Rawls, this mindset became all the more pronounced when he substituted the category of ‘peoples’ for that of ‘states’. His intention was that of emphasising equality under international law rather than absolute sovereignty, but it obscured the distinction between state and civil society and invited slippage from condemning a state for its human rights abuses to condemning a people on account of the human rights abuses committed by the state to which they belong. The erasure of this distinction between state and civil society opened a door to the admission of a stigmatising way of thinking in international law. The condemnation of a ‘people’ as a ‘pariah nation’ was not inherent in the postnational project but it did become a potentiality within it. One of the key relevancies of this turn was to offer a philosophical aperture through which it became possible to reinstate the Jewish question under a postnational or cosmopolitan banner.

The new radicalism and the deformations of critical theory

Habermas' postnational project was part of a magnificent intellectual and political movement, whose aim was to reconstruct the Enlightenment project for modern times and to develop the categories of understanding and standards of judgment needed to confront the barbarism of the modern age. Its main offering has been the development of a genuinely universalistic critique of European antisemitism as an integral part of its critical and emancipatory programme. It aimed to translate the slogans ‘never again’ and ‘universal responsibility’ into tangible, practical and enduring measures. Our contention, however, is that the successive idealisations we have sought to identify – nationalism writ benign in Germany, nationalism writ large in Europe, the absolutism of human rights as standard of judgment in world society, faith in the social learning Europe achieved through the Holocaust – all left cracks in the postnational edifice that allowed less critical forces to enter. Habermas himself cited Thomas Mann's aphorism in Germany and the Germans (1945) that there were ‘not two Germanys, an evil and a good, but only one that through devil's cunning transformed its best into evil’.32 If the devil's cunning can turn the best of modern civilisation into the worst, we should acknowledge the possibility that this can also be the fate of postnationalism itself. Like other forms of universalism, postnationalism can be abused to label others ‘nationalist’ or stigmatise others as its enemies. While postnationalism, as Habermas conceived it, had as its aim the supersession of the Jewish question and its replacement by a vista of Jewish emancipation appropriate to its time, the cracks in the postnational edifice allowed a different agenda to enter. It was to turn the Jewish nation into the ‘other’ of the postnational. The Jewish nation becomes in this version of the postnational project the personification of radical alterity.33

A distorted universalism of this type has become increasingly evident within the mainstreams of the contemporary political left, who are wholly opposed to antisemitism but who base their opposition on reconfiguring the very Jewish question that lay behind antisemitism in the first place. We can illustrate the kind of radicalism we have in mind with a few brief examples drawn from leading left intellectuals of the recent period. The historian Tony Judt wrote in the New York Review of Books that Holocaust memory crowded out all other injustices by treating the Holocaust not as one evil among many but as ‘radical evil’. He maintained that the charge of antisemitism was being politically instrumentalised:

Today, when Israel is exposed to international criticism for its mistreatment of Palestinians and its occupation of territory conquered in 1967, its defenders prefer to emphasise the memory of the Holocaust. If you criticise Israel too forcefully, they warn, you will awaken the demons of antisemitism. Indeed, they suggest, robust criticism of Israel doesn't just arouse antisemitism. It is antisemitism.34

The philosopher Judith Butler pursued the same line of argument when she expressed the view that ‘the charge of anti-Semitism’ was exercising a ‘chilling effect on political discourse’ and maintained that ‘certain actions of the Israeli state – acts of violence and murder against children and civilians – must not be objected to … for fear that any protest against them would be tantamount to anti-Semitism’. She held that the ‘charge of antisemitism’ was being used to ‘translate what one is actually hearing, a protest against the killing of children and civilians by the Israeli army, into nothing more than a cloak for hatred of Jews’.35 The cultural historian Matti Bunzl contended that the focus on antisemitism deflects attention from the ‘real racisms’ coursing through postnational Europe, especially the Islamophobia fuelled by social forces that brought millions of Muslims to Europe and based on ‘the notion that Islam engenders a world view that is fundamentally incompatible with and inferior to Western culture’.36 The sociologist Goran Therborn wrote of the ‘complete delegitimation of anti-Semitism in mainstream discourse after the discovery of the horrors of Auschwitz and the complete defeat of Nazi Germany’ and maintained that the charge ‘anti-Semite’ has become a ‘Totschlagwort, a killing word … a lethal weapon in public polemics’. Maintaining that the word ‘antisemitism’ functions to dismiss ‘fundamental critical questions about the state of Israel’, he contrasted the old ‘European time’ in which he claims Israel still exists – time rooted in ‘ethnic nationalism’, ‘divine right of Jews’ and ‘European atonement for the Holocaust’ – with modern ‘world time’ that is supposedly rooted in ‘de-colonization, universal rights, and the assertion and recognition of indigenous peoples and of non-European religions and cultures’.37

The Marxist philosopher Alain Badiou, who for many years continued to profess loyalty to Maoism and Pol Pot, has the virtue of articulating what is muted in others.38 He condemns what he describes as a powerful and reactionary current in contemporary political life that speaks in the name of ‘the Jews’ and claims to see ‘antisemitism everywhere’ (L'antisémitisme Partout is the French title of a book he co-authored with Eric Hazan).39 He maintains that this powerful and reactionary current has constructed a ‘victim ideology’ around the sign of ‘the Jew’, which renders other forms of victimisation invisible, demands that Israel's crimes be tolerated and accuses those who do not tolerate them (like Badiou himself) of antisemitism. He opines that ‘purveyors of antisemitism’ are not only on the side of Israel against Palestinians but on that of all repressive power against popular resistance. Badiou aligns himself to the tradition of universalism he traces back to St Paul's disconnection of Christianity from established Judaism, and from this ‘universalistic’ vantage point denounces ‘Israel’ as the placeholder for all that is hostile to the modern cosmopolitan and non-identitarian state.40 He draws a parallel between the fact that ‘Hitler once took power in the name of a politics whose categories included the term “Jew”’ and the fact that Israel has taken power in the name of a politics whose categories also include the term ‘Jew’.41 He objects to the characterisation of the Nazi extermination of Jews as ‘radical evil’, on the grounds that it is thereby declared ‘unthinkable, unsayable, without conceivable precedent or posterity’, only to accuse Zionists of doing to Palestinians what the Nazis did to the Jews.42

The distorted form of universalism presents itself as a continuance of critical theory, but advances quite different propositions. First, it relegates antisemitism to the past. Its narrative is that the genocidal antisemitism that once stalked Europe has been discredited and marginalised by the horror it generated and that no new forms of antisemitism have emerged. Hostility to what is called ‘new antisemitism theory’ is its informing passion. Second, it claims a radical dissociation of antisemitism from other forms of racism. Its narrative here is that in the past people of colour and people of Jewish background may have been ‘brothers in misery’ and that antisemitism and racism may have represented the ‘same bankruptcy of man’,43 but that today Muslims have become the ‘new Jews’ and Islamophobia has become the ‘new antisemitism’.44 Third, it maintains that the universal significance of the Holocaust has been sacrificed to a particularism, which treats it only as an event in Jewish history and stigmatises other groups of people – be they Muslims, Arabs, Europeans or the left – as wholly antisemitic.45 Finally, it disparages the motives of those who raise concerns about antisemitism, on the grounds that ‘they’ abuse collective memory and the charge of antisemitism for clandestine ends – for instance, to discredit critics of Israel or pathologise victims of Israeli power. The mark of this distorted form of universalism is to treat the problem of antisemitism as unserious compared with that of raising antisemitism as a problem.

The elements of this new ‘critical theory’ – emphatic historicisation of antisemitism, dissociation of racism and antisemitism, particularisation of Holocaust commemovation, a cynical reading of resistance to antisemitism – demonstrate that while it claims to oppose antisemitism in the name of a universalistic ethos, its conviction is that antisemitism is a problem of the past, that to focus on it in the present is an anachronism, that the priority of contemporary antiracism should lie with other racisms, that opposition to antisemitism has been consumed by a damaging particularism, and that a conspiratorial agenda lies behind the charge of antisemitism. We are confronted here by a discourse that subverts the universalism it espouses by turning the signifier ‘Jew’ into its other. In place of the deep and careful reflections we find in critical theory on what overcoming antisemitism requires, we find ourselves once again in the grip of the Jewish question. All formulations of the Jewish question come back to the harm ‘the Jews’ allegedly inflict on humanity at large and what is to be done about this harm. Its contemporary reconfiguration gives it a more symbolic edge. The question is no longer posed about ‘the Jews’ as a race apart but rather about those who invoke the sign of ‘the Jews’ in order to imagine themselves as a race apart. Its concern is over the harm caused to humanity by those who invoke the word ‘Jew’ in the lexicon of self-identity – be it the Jewish state, the Jewish nation, Jewish collective memory, or even Jewish opposition to antisemitism – and the need to find solutions to the harm they cause. The Enlightenment credo that ‘we must refuse everything to the Jews as a nation and accord everything to Jews as individuals’, re-emerges as a discourse valuing Jews as individuals but correspondingly open to the devaluation of Jews as a nation.

The key defect of this discourse does not lie in its theoretical claim to universalism but in the ways it belies these claims in practice. There are doubtless some individuals and groups who combat antisemitism from a more or less particularistic point of view but there are so many others who – in the tradition of Marx, Horkheimer, Adorno and Arendt – see antisemitism as an occasion to raise universal issues concerning what it is to be human in the modern age and who seek answers to how humanity in its diversity can be protected. A cursory review of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust website reveals the many connections it has drawn between the Holocaust and other genocides.46 While Holocaust commemoration addresses the murder and suffering of Jews or of those defined as Jews, its focus on the particulars of Jewish suffering emphatically does not entail a particularism unconcerned with the sufferings of others. The apparently universalistic demand advanced by some critics of Holocaust Memorial Day, that it be replaced by a Genocide Memorial Day, demonstrates its own resentment of any focus on Jewish suffering in the claim that ‘the Jews’ overstate what was done to them.47 It is resonant of how the annihilation of Jews was subsumed in the Soviet Union to generic formulations concerning ‘victims of Nazism’ and with the collapse of Communism in East Europe to generic formulations like ‘victims of Stalinism’.48 Concern over particulars is not to be confused with particularism or, to put the matter another way, it is a bogus universalism that represses the particular.

It is a common characteristic of groups subjected to racism to resist racism from a nationalist point of view. Nothing may appear more natural, as Arendt once remarked, than that if you are attacked as a Jew, you may well fight back as a Jew. The same may be said for any other category: if you are attacked as a Black or a Muslim, you may well fight back as a Black or a Muslim. While Arendt saw the national character of resistance to racism and antisemitism as a limitation, within some sections of the Marxist tradition the ‘nationalism of the oppressed’ has long been advanced as the ideal form of struggle against the racism of oppressors. Cosmopolitan thinking addresses the determinate character of nationalism as a form of resistance to racism but it is the echo of an old prejudice to heap upon Jewish nationalism the defects of nationalism in general. Similarly, we may acknowledge that the ‘charge of antisemitism’ can be instrumentalised on behalf of particular interests, but so too can any charge of racism. The scent of old prejudice is present if instrumentalism, self-interest and deceit are turned into the kernel of the ‘charge of antisemitism’. Of course it is undesirable to resist antisemitic abstractions of ‘the Jews’ by means of equally homogenising typifications of ‘the Muslims’ or ‘the French’ or ‘the left’ as antisemitic. The sociologist Raymond Aron sought to capture the nature of this reversal in a discussion of Jean Paul Sartre's Antisemite and Jew:

Anti-antisemites tend to present all the colonisers, all the antisemites, all the whites as essentially defined by their contempt for natives, hatred of Jews, desire for segregation. They paint a portrait of the coloniser, the antisemite or the whites that is as totalising as their stereotypes of the Jew, the native or the Blacks. The antisemite must be wholly antisemitic.49

The cycle of inversion is merely repeated, however, if those who express concern about the rise of a new antisemitism are themselves treated as a homogeneous category defined by their collective stigmatisation of others.

The spirit of critical theory

We have argued that the array of concepts Habermas put forward for the reconstruction of political community, both in Europe and worldwide – constitutional patriotism, postnationalism, civic ethos, human rights, cosmopolitanism, etc. – provides us with universalistic means of combating antisemitism, but that they have been re-deployed in ways that corrode their critical content from within. The process of learning from catastrophe Habermas looked to has been converted into the fixed idea that antisemitism belongs only to the past. The valid distinction between nationalism and postnationalism has been turned into a categorical opposition that stigmatises Jewish expressions of nationalism and represents Holocaust memory as culpably nationalistic. In place of a critical theory in which the legacy of European antisemitism is centre stage, we encounter resistance to the notion that antisemitism is any longer a problem for Europe or that a new antisemitism can possibly arise. In place of combating antisemitism, we find suspicion of the motives of those who believe that it has arisen anew and ought to be combatted.

Stripping postnationalism of its critical content has not been the work of Habermas himself. If the project is to be blamed, it is only for the cracks in the postnational architectonic that have enabled others to reconfigure the Jewish question under a progressive, universalistic mantel. What we can say is that the reconfiguration of the Jewish question raises issues that Habermas has understandably not kept his eye on. Perhaps this explains his ‘fright’ when he was personally confronted with concerns about a new antisemitism coming not from the right but from the left. He recommended for publication a book by a Marxist philosopher who drew certain conclusions about the conflict in Israel-Palestine that Habermas did not share: notably in his failure to ‘distinguish political evaluation of Palestinian terrorism from the moral justification of it’.50 Habermas wrote that the author had made generalising statements that made him ‘groan slightly’, statements like the following: ‘Having been the principal victims of racism in history, Jews now seem to have learned from their abusers’.51 In response to a letter charging the book with antisemitism Habermas wrote that he did not agree: ‘Sentences like this can always be used for antisemitic purposes, even against the author's intention, if they are taken out of context’. At the same time he qualified his own disagreement thus: ‘I can well understand the reasons and fears of an apparently large section of our Jewish population. […] If I have offended these feelings by my recommendation of this book, I am sorry’.52 Whether or not we agree with Habermas' judgment in this case, the spirit of his engagement with the legacy of European antisemitism contrasts markedly with the purported radicalism of those who also claim to oppose antisemitism but whose universalism is actually deployed to bring the Jewish question back in.


 1 Isaac Deutcher, The Reporter 1954, scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers, (accessed 7 October 2015). See also Martyn Hudson, ‘Revisiting Isaac Deutscher’, Fathom, Winter 2014, (accessed 14 November 215). For a different view, Samuel Farber, ‘Isaac Deutscher and the Jews: An Analysis and Personal Reflection’, New Politics, 14 (4), Winter 2014, (accessed 15 December 2015).
 2 Howard Jacobson, When will Jews be Forgiven for the Holocaust? (Kindle Single, 2014).
 3 Hannah Arendt, ‘The Aftermath of Nazi Rule: Report from Germany’ in Arendt, Essays in Understanding 1930–1954, 248–269.
 4 See Clemens Heni ‘Secondary Antisemitism: From Hard-Core to Soft-Core Denial of the Shoah’, Jewish Political Studies Review, 20, Fall 2008: 3–4.
 5 Primo Levi recounted this nightmare in his Auschwitz memoir, If This is a Man, and then encountered something like it when he took the manuscript of Se questo è un uomo to the Italian publisher Einaudi in 1946 and it was rejected. For a wide-ranging study of the sustained hostility Jews faced, see David Bankier (ed.), The Jews Are Coming Back: The Return of Jews to their Countries of Origin after WW2 (Oxford: Berghahn, 2005).
 6 Stalin's ideologues were perhaps the first to suggest a correspondence between what the Nazis did to Jews and what Zionists did to Palestinians. See Zvi Gitelman ‘The Soviet Union’ in David S. Wyman and Charles H. Rosenzveig (eds.), The World Reacts to the Holocaust (Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), 295–324.
 7 Tony Judt writes: ‘The returning remnant was not much welcomed. After years of antisemitic propaganda, local populations everywhere were not only disposed to blame “Jews” in the abstract for their suffering, but were distinctly sorry to see the return of men and women whose jobs, possessions and apartments they had purloined … The choice for most of Europe's Jews seemed stark: depart … or else be silent and so far as possible invisible’. Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945 (London: Pimlico, 2007), 804–807.
 8 As we have seen, the architects of the Nuremberg trials conceived the category ‘crimes against humanity’ as an original attempt to deal legally with the destruction of European Jewry. While this charge was included in some of the indictments, the focus of the trials was on crimes against peace, and war crimes not directly connected with the Holocaust. In some cases Jewish witnesses were excluded from the proceedings. See Bloxham, Genocide on Trial. The charge of crimes against humanity had been used in a case made against the Ottoman regime by the Allies in 1915, but it did not form part of the feeble attempt to prosecute the perpetrators of the genocide of the Armenians after the First World War. See Fine, ‘Crimes against Humanity’, 293–311.
 9 Karl Jaspers, The Question of German Guilt (New York: Capricorn, 1961), 60.
10 Holocaust denial evolved together with Holocaust commemoration. See Deborah Lipstadt, Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory (New York: Plume, 1994). On memorialisation, see James E. Young, The Texture of Memory: Memorials and Meaning in Europe, Israel, and America (New Haven: Yale University Press 1993). Concerning efforts to outlaw Holocaust denial and how they then generated further efforts to ban denial of other genocides, see Ludovic Hennebel and Thomas Hochmann (eds.), Genocide Denials and the Law (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).
11 A discussion of the ways in which the Holocaust became a ‘moral universal’ is to be found in Jeffrey Alexander, Remembering the Holocaust: A Debate (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).
12 Our argument about Habermas' engagement with antisemitism draws in part from Robert Fine, ‘Nationalism, Postnationalism, Antisemitism: Thoughts on the Politics of Jürgen Habermas’, Österreichische Zeitschrift Für Politikwissenschaft, Special issue on ‘Antisemitismus und die Transformation des Nationalen’, ed. Karin Stoegner 2010, 4: 409–420.
13 Jürgen Habermas, The Inclusion of the Other (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998), 111.
14 Habermas, The Inclusion of the Other, 113.
15 Jürgen Habermas, The Postnational Constellation: Political Essays, ed. Max Pensky (Cambridge: Polity, 2001), 64. For further discussion of the normative ambiguity of the nation state, see Daniel Chernilo, A Social Theory of the Nation State: The Political Forms of Modernity Beyond Methodological Nationalism (London: Routledge, 2007), esp. 156.
16 Jürgen Habermas, The New Conservatism: Cultural Criticism and the Historians Debate, ed. Shierry Weber Nicholsen (Cambridge: Polity, 1991), 215–224.
17 Jürgen Habermas, Autonomy and Solidarity: Interviews with Jürgen Habermas, ed. Peter Dews (London: Verso, 1992), 240.
18 Jürgen Habermas, Time of Transitions (Cambridge: Polity, 2006), 48–49.
19 See Michael Rothberg, Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009).
20 Robert Stake, The Art of Case Study Research (London: Sage, 1995), 85.
21 There is some force to this argument if we consider Angela Merkel's relatively open and hospitable reception of refugees in Germany recently, when compared to the resistance of other European states.
22 Habermas, Time of Transition, 47. Charles Turner shrewdly observes that Habermas' approach to nationalism appeared less persuasive to those nations whose recent history was one of national suppression, especially Eastern European nations seeking freedom from Russian rule. In Central and Eastern Europe ‘the source of pain was not “nationalist excess” alone but rather six years of Nazi occupation followed by forty years of Soviet domination’. See Charles Turner, ‘Jürgen Habermas: European or German?’ European Journal of Political Theory, 3 (3), 2004: 293–314, at 303. Perhaps for Habermas the difference in experience between East and West is one reason why a united Germany is special.
23 See for example Robert Fine, ‘The New Nationalism and Democracy: A Critique of Pro Patria’, Democratization, 1 (3), 1994: 423–443. Habermas' distinction between constitutional patriotism and nationalism is not a million miles from the distinction between civic and ethnic nationalism. These distinctions are indeed significant but should not be allowed to obscure what is shared between them and how one can slide into the other. See Philip Spencer and Howard Wollman, Nationalism: A Critical Introduction, ch. 4 ‘Good and Bad Nationalisms’ (London: Sage, 2002).
24 Jürgen Habermas, Between Facts and Norms (Cambridge: Polity 1997).
25 Jürgen Habermas, ‘Learning from Catastrophe’ in Habermas, The Postnational Constellation, 45.
26 Jürgen Habermas, The Inclusion of the Other: Studies in Political Theory, eds. Ciaran Cronin and Pablo de Greif (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998), 124.
27 Jürgen Habermas, ‘The Constitutionalisation of International Law and the Legitimation Problems of a Constitution for World Society’, Constellations, 15, 2008: 444–455, at 444.
28 For elaboration of the dangers of dressing up hegemonic power in the cloth of international law, see Jean Cohen, ‘Whose Sovereignty? Empire Versus International Law’, Ethics and International Affairs, 18 (3), 2004: 1–24, at 10.
29 Jürgen Habermas, The Divided West (Cambridge: Polity, 2006).
30 The outstanding analysis of the normative underpinnings of international law and of the legitimacy crisis into which it has entered is to be found in Hauke Brunkhorst, Critical Theory of Legal Revolutions: Evolutionary Perspectives (London: Bloomsbury, 2014).
31 John Rawls, Law of Peoples (London: Harvard University Press, 2001).
32 ‘Germany and the Germans’ in Thomas Mann's Addresses Delivered at the Library of Congress, 1942–1949 (Rockville, Maryland: Wildside Press, 2008), 45–66.
33 In our view, though this would take us far from our immediate topic, Islamophobia is not the ‘new antisemitism’ but is a phenomenon concurrent with the actual new antisemitism. The theorists and practitioners of Islamophobia and antisemitism are occasionally the same people, though far more often they are not, but both may be seen as unwanted offspring of the new universalism.
34 Tony Judt, ‘The Problem of Evil in Postwar Europe’, New York Review of Books, 552 (2), 14 February, 2008, (accessed 24 July 2016).
35 Judith Butler, ‘The Charge of Anti-Semitism: Jews, Israel and the Risks of Public Critique’ in Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (London: Verso 2004), 101. For Butler's ‘Jewish’ critique of Zionism see Seyla Benhabib, ‘Ethics without Normativity and Politics without Historicity: On Judith Butler's Parting Ways – Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism’, Constellations, 20 (1), March 2013: 150–163.
36 Matti Bunzl, Antisemitism and Islamophobia: Hatreds Old and New in Europe (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2007), 13.
37 Göran Therborn ‘Editorial: Three Epochs of European Anti-Semitism’, European Societies, 14 (2), 161–165.
38 It is not easy to see why Badiou should be thought of as an authority on the question of state oppression. In 1968, at a time when the new and revolutionary left was as anti-Stalinist as it was anti-capitalist, Badiou was an enthusiastic supporter of the Cultural Revolution, then at its bloodiest. Ten years later, he wrote to Le Monde vigorously opposing the Vietnamese intervention in Cambodia, in spite of the fact that it put an end to one of the most catastrophic genocides in modern times when one third of the population was slaughtered. See Peter Hallward, Badiou: A Subject to Truth (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press 2003). Hallward is one of the few writers on Badiou to acknowledge this record, conceding that ‘this makes for painful retrospective reading’ (Badiou, 413).
39 Alain Badiou, Eric Hazan and Ivan Segré, Reflections on Antisemitism, trans. David Fernbach (London: Verso, 2013). Originally in French, Alain Badiou and Eric Hazan, L'Antisémitisme Partout: Aujourd'hui en France (Paris: La Fabrique, 2011).
40 Alain Badiou ‘The Uses of the Word “Jew”’, trans. Steve Corcoran, (accessed 30 November 2015). Badiou disregards the role of Pauline universalism in inaugurating the long history of anti-Judaism. For a scholarly account of the anti-Judaic aspects of Pauline universalism and the toxic tradition it inaugurated, see Nirenberg, Anti-Judaism 48–87.
41 Badiou does not, as far as we know, address the contradiction between his Ethics in which he maintains that ‘the real question’ is not that of the ‘right to difference’ but rather that of ‘recognizing the Same’, and his politics in which he reconstructs an absolute division of the world between ‘us’ and ‘them’ in which there is no recognition of ‘the Same’. Alain Badiou, Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil, trans. Peter Hallwood (London: Verso, 2002), 25.
42 While Badiou creates an association of ideas between Nazism and Zionism, he objects to the depiction by Western leaders of those ‘against whom they act’ (like Saddam Hussein or Slobodan Milosevic) as ‘like Hitler’ and points to the contradiction involved in saying that ‘this crime is inimitable but every crime is an imitation of it’. See Ethics, 63.
43 Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Constance Farrington (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967), 86.
44 Antisemitism is different in important respects from other forms of racism and Islamophobia, not least in its emphasis on Jews having secret and overwhelming control of the world, but competition of victimhood spawns unjustifiably different treatment of anti-antisemitism from other forms of antiracism. For example, the antiracist supposition that the voices of victims of racism should be carefully and empathetically heard is suspended in a politics of suspicion regarding voices of victims of antisemitism. See Cousin and Fine, ‘Brothers in Misery, 308–324.
45 There are some who normalise the Holocaust by insisting it was of no greater significance than what was done by European colonialists and slave masters to generations of subjected peoples, except that the crime was mainly committed in Europe. It is said that ‘preoccupation’ with the Holocaust betrays a Eurocentrism that obscures the long history of racism and genocide on the part of Western imperialist states and that ‘excessive’ reference to the Holocaust obscures its relation to other genocides. See Vincent Pecora, ‘Habermas, Enlightenment, and Antisemitism’ in Saul Friedlander (ed.), Probing the Limits of Representation: Nazism and the ‘Final Solution’ (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), 155–170. The question of uniqueness has occasioned debates that have generated more heat than light on all sides. The complex history of this debate has been helpfully rehearsed in Gavriel Rosenfeld, ‘The Politics of Uniqueness: Reflections on the Recent Polemical Turn in Holocaust and Genocide Scholarship’, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, 13 (1), 28–61; see also Philip Spencer, ‘Un Événement sans Précedent qui crée un Précédent: l'Holocauste et l'Histoire du Génocide’, Bulletin Trimestriel de la Fondation Auschwitz, 96, 2009: 37–74. It is remarkable that in all these variants of scepticism, collective memory of the Holocaust is treated as a marker of exclusivity serving political purposes antagonistic to the universalistic aspirations of the modern age.
46 See for example For examples of solidarity between survivors, see Union des Étudiants Juifs de France (eds.), Rwanda: Pour un Dialogue des Memoires (Paris: Albion Michel, 2007). Ed Vulliamy, who did much to publicise the crimes against humanity committed against Muslims in Bosnia, recounts a speech he heard at a Holocaust conference in Washington 1998, organised to mark the 50th anniversary of the UN adoption of the Genocide Convention. It was delivered by a man who survived the ghetto liquidation at Kielce, the death camp at Auschwitz and two death marches: ‘How do we explain to our children and grandchildren that in the world in which we live … we diddle and daddle when it comes to mounting a rapid response to save people from destruction from a murderous regime? Oh, I know all the answers we give. They justify our inaction, and the lies we have conditioned ourselves into believing. But the children will see them for what they are, at least as long as they remain children, and retain their empathy for the suffering of others’. This is hardly the stuff of narrow particularism! Ed Vulliamy, The War is Dead, Long Live the War: Bosnia the Reckoning (London: Bodley Head, 2012), 72.
47 For evidence that in Italy and Britain those who made the demand to replace Holocaust Memorial Day with Genocide Day have sometimes strayed into antisemitism, see Philip Spencer and Sara Valentina di Palma, ‘Antisemitism and the Politics of Holocaust Memorial Day’ in Gunther Jikeli and Joelle Allouche-Benayoun (eds.), Perceptions of the Holocaust in Europe and Muslim Communities (Heidelberg: Springer 2013), 71–83.
48 See Omer Bartov, Erased: Vanishing Traces of Jewish Galicia in Present day Ukraine (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2007). For a comprehensive set of essays on the continuing suppression of memory of the murder of Jews see John-Paul Humka and Joanna Beata Miclic (eds.), Bringing the Dark Past to Light: The Reception of the Holocaust in Eastern Europe (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2013). Omer Bartov points out in the final essay that accusations of Zionist instrumentalisation of the Holocaust have had a continuous presence from Communism to post-Communism. See 683–684.
49 Raymond Aron, Paix et Guerre Entre les Nations (Paris: Calmann-Levy, 1969), 87–88 (my translation).
50 Ted Honderich, After the Terror (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2003).
51 Jürgen Habermas, ‘A Shirtsleeves Tract: Why I Recommended this Book’, (accessed 28 October 2010), 2004.
52 Habermas, ‘A Shirtsleeves Tract’.
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Antisemitism and the left

On the return of the Jewish question


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