Why we haven’t resolved anti-Semitism yet

On November 9, 1938, anti-Jewish demonstrations broke out in Germany, Austria, and the Sudeten region of what was then Czechoslovakia. Over the next 48 hours, around 7,500 Jewish-owned businesses, homes and schools were destroyed. Ninety-one Jews were killed, and another 30,000 Jews were arrested and sent to concentration camps. Jews were officially blamed for their own victimization and German Jews were fined one billion marks (today they would be worth more than $ 7 billion) for the riots that were raised against them.

Kristallnacht (“The Night of Broken Glass”), the night that anti-Jewish rhetoric turned into state-sanctioned action that would culminate in the Holocaust, was more than eighty years ago, yet Jews around the world they continue to live with reality – and the increasing prevalence – of violence against them for no other reason than who they are.

The United States is unique in the world in recognizing the moral responsibility to respond to the rise in anti-Semitism. However, President Joe Biden’s candidate for the Office of the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt, has yet to receive her confirmation hearing. The reason: political resentment for determining the country’s self-proclaimed identity.

The “Jewish question” was first raised in the 19th and 20th centuries when countries began to debate what defined them as nations, and it remains the underlying issue of national identity. What to do with the Jew in society is just another way a society asks, “How do we define ourselves?” It is the leitmotif of the life history of the modern world.

The Jewish question always demands a reason for the Jew, since the very being of a Jew says something about everyone else. The very principle of the Jewish question reveals the structural anti-Semitism that permeates Western society.

Contemplating the Kristallnacht Massacre, November 1938. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

While anti-Semitism is obvious in the nationalist cries of white supremacy, it is also reflected in many social and political arguments, both on the right and on the left. I am a philosopher and an ethicist, so I will only bring a few examples within modern philosophy of those thinkers who still shape social and political discourse. Scholars from other fields can look up their own examples. They wouldn’t even have to dig that deep.

THE ANTISEMITIC comments that modern philosophers have scattered throughout their writings are not accidental. They serve to clarify your arguments and give a practical example to the point of the philosopher. Martin Heidegger is no exception: he was the most self-aware.

Immanuel Kant, the philosopher who defined the Enlightenment, was systematic and thorough. He was not one to add a side comment that did not fit his general philosophy. So his comments about how Jews were immutably inferior to Christians weren’t just random cases of bad speech. They were supposed to paint a contradictory picture. Jews are “heteronomous”, they can never be truly free since they cannot exercise their will according to reason. In other words, he was saying to his readers: “Don’t be like them. Rather, be autonomous and rational Christians. “

Kant’s relationship with Moses Mendelssohn should have proved his theory wrong. Mendelssohn and Kant were colleagues, and Kant held their philosophical writings in high regard. Mendelssohn’s essay “On Evidence in the Metaphysical Sciences” won first prize in a competition in which he and Kant entered. Immanuel Kant’s essay came in second.

Kant is not the only one who uses the Jew to establish a contrast: using the Jewish question is a way of talking about one’s identity. To defend his critique of liberalism, Karl Marx explained that “Christians have become Jews” by adopting lives of practical necessity and self-interest. Marx’s response was to push for the emancipation of humanity from Judaism. As someone born Jewish, did Marx hate himself or was he just writing ironically? At this point, it doesn’t really matter. After he wrote his essay, “On the Jewish Question,” any future Marxist economic vision would caricature Jews and Judaism, and any Marxist utopia would have to go through a revolution against the Jews.

The most revealing study of the Jewish question, because it so honestly shows the structural nature of anti-Semitism’s relationship to national identity, is Jean-Paul Sartre’s study of the origins of hatred. His analysis, as is modern fashion, begins with the Jew. Sartre argues that hating the Jew is how citizens assert themselves. The only true claim Sartre makes regarding the Jews in his Reflections on the Jewish question is, “If the Jew did not exist, the anti-Semite would invent it.”

More than eighty years after The Night of Broken Glass, with Biden’s nominee unable to get her confirmation hearing, it is time we recognized how the Jewish question and the question of national identity are linked in mutually destructive ways. It is possible for a country to determine what it wants to be without also wondering how Jews can fit into that image.

As a Jew in America, I see no reason to consider the question of what society should do with me. I also refuse to allow others to classify me as part of a race, ethnicity, religion or nation. These categories create distinctions that are imposed on Jews rather than seeking to understand or know any individual Jew. This is especially true when your purpose is not for my good but for society’s self-definition. More importantly, I refuse to accept that the question of my existence as a Jew should depend on what I (or my people) have done for the world.

I am more than my Jewish genes or Jewish blood, although Jewish blood runs through my veins. I am much more than my history, although the past of my people lives with me every day. Anti-Semitism will not define me and it should not be part of the country’s political struggle for its own identity.

There is no doubt that I am Jewish. In the words of the biblical patriarchs and prophets: Behold, here I am!

The writer is director of the Center for Ethics and International Leadership at the MirYam Institute at Emory University, editorial contributor to the Miryam Institute, and head of the International Chair in Bioethics Unit at Emory University.


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