Judaism, Zionism, and the Nazi Genocide

Jewish Identity Formation in the West between Assimilation and Rejection
Sai Englert
settler colonialism


This paper explores contemporary Jewish identity-formation, identity politics, and the centrality of state-sanctioned commemoration of the Nazi genocide and Zionism – understood as the ongoing settler-colonial project aimed at the formation and maintenance of a Jewish-exclusivist state in Palestine – to both. It argues that dominant identity politics within the Jewish community are based on an understanding of identity, one which assumes it to be static and individual.

Firstly, this paper discusses the importance of studying processes of identification rather than assuming identity to be static, a-historical, or immutable. It argues that the state is a central actor in structuring processes of identification from above, and that it is in the contested relationship between the state and the population which it attempts to identify that identities are continuously re-created. It further places these processes within the emergence of European modernity and colonialism.

The paper then moves on to a discussion of modern processes of Jewish identification. It locates their origin within the emergence of the European nation-state. It highlights the different, and often opposing ways in which Jewish communities have historically responded to these state-led processes. The paper moves on to discussing how a political framework focussed on a fixed Jewish identity, and the centrality of Israel to that identity, has become dominant in recent years.

The paper then offers a critique of the classical Marxist approach to the Jewish question before analysing the development of new processes of identification of Jewish people in the West. Central to these are the strategic role of the Israeli state in the Middle East, and the crucial nature of official Holocaust history to Western self-representation.

Finally, the paper argues that contemporary Western states perpetuate antisemitism, albeit under a different guise, through the essentialisation of Jewish communities as an extension of the Zionist project in Palestine and as bearers of official state-sanctioned history. In doing so, the state mobilises these communities as representatives of its policies abroad, and discriminatory policies at home.

The paper’s conclusion is that far from operating as a shield against antisemitism, the state remains the central agent in the reproduction of antisemitism. The identification of many within the Jewish community with Israel and the Zionist project in Palestine, and with an official account of the Nazi genocide that whitewashes Western states, is an outcome of state processes of identification. The paper will focus mainly on Anglo-Saxon realities and examples, especially the UK but also the US, which constitute the largest and the fourth-largest Jewish communities outside of Israel. Additionally, the two states’ historic and contemporary role in supporting the Zionist movement in Palestine warrants this focus. 


Identity, Identification, and the Role of the State

The questions of narratives, history, and structures of power run throughout the literature on identity. In ‘Who Needs Identity?’, Stuart Hall discusses the tension between approaches to identity that favour either innate characteristics or long-term processes of identity-formation. Hall writes: 

In common sense language, identification is constructed on the back of a recognition of some common origin or shared characteristics with another person or group, or with an ideal, and with the natural closure of solidarity and allegiance established on this foundation. In contrast with the ‘naturalism’ of this definition, the discursive approach sees identification as a construction, a process never completed – always ‘in process’. It is not determined in the sense that it can always be ‘won’ or ‘lost’, sustained or abandoned.[1]

Identity, then, appears as a natural, intrinsic reality that is shared by members of the same group. It is experienced as a-historic and innate, a fundamental element at the heart of the individual’s sense of self, which has always been there and through which the experience of society is mediated. However, Hall invites his readers to look further and to reflect on the processes which create and re-create identities. Identities, then, for Hall are neither individual nor pre-existing categories. They are outcomes of contingent processes across society and through time.

If identities are so socially constituted, the question remains of who, or what, generates and shapes them. Lawrence Grossberg argues that ‘the question of identity is one of social power and its articulation to, its anchorage in, the body of the population itself’.[2] He locates the origins of this process within the emergence of modernity – an issue to which this paper returns below.

If Grossberg’s concept of ‘social power’ remains as vague as Hall’s ‘material and symbolic resources’, it points to an important aspect of the identification process: that power is required to generate identities across society, and that it is in the process of articulation of said power in the collective body of the ‘identified’ that identity emerges. Grossberg compares this tension between coercive power and popular consent to Marx’s formulation that people make history but not in conditions of their own choosing.[3] Identity is, then, the outcome of a power struggle between processes of identification from above and collective articulation of those processes from below, which generate and regenerate outcomes, always anew.

The extreme contingency of identity-formation and the fundamentally contradictory ways in which identity is understood, both in society and within the academic literature, has led others to reject the term altogether and focus on the process and its actors instead. Indeed, Roger Brubaker and Frederick Cooper argue in ‘Beyond “Identity”’ that the term itself has lost all explanatory power by being mobilised to denote not only different, but also opposing concepts, and that it should therefore be abandoned altogether. Instead, they propose to separate out the different elements contained within the concept of identity, and to talk about the processes of identification.

Furthermore, Brubaker and Cooper identify the modern state as a critical actor in this process of identification, not because it can create ‘identities’ in the strong sense – in general, it cannot – but because it has the material and symbolic resources to impose the categories, classificatory schemes, and modes of social counting and accounting with which bureaucrats, judges, teachers, and doctors must work and to which non-state actors must refer.[4]

This centrality of the state in the structuring of the categories of identification is also a key aspect of the settler-colonial literature. Indeed, the question of identification – and racialisation more specifically – of the indigenous and enslaved populations by the settler-colonial state is a central aspect of this growing body of work. Furthermore, much like Grossberg above, scholars of settler-colonialism locate the origins of racialisation in the emergence of European modernity and the nation-state.

For example, Paula Chakravarty and Denise Ferreira da Silva have noted that racialisation was central to European colonialism because "[i]n the post-Enlightenment era, once universality and historicity became ethical descriptors of the properly human, then the task of justifying how rights such as life (security) and freedom had not been ensured for all human beings required that human difference … become irresolvable."[5]


In the same vein, Wolfe writes:

Racial identities are constructed in and through the very process of their enactment … [R]ace is colonialism speaking, in idioms whose diversity reflects the variety of unequal relationships into which Europeans have co-opted conquered populations.[6]

Wolfe argues, in Traces of History, that the structuring of different racial characteristics, based on different populations’ role within the colonial system of exploitation and land expropriation, was a central concern of European settler-colonial (and colonial) states.

Processes of identification, including racialisation, operate within categories structured by the state. By mobilising these categories the state is able to exercise control, distribute rights, and facilitate exploitation, expropriation and exclusion. It is in this tension between the attempted imposition by the state of those categories and the response – of rejection or acquiescence – by the identified, that identities emerge.

The analytical task then is to locate the processes of identification, its agents, and the ways in which the identified integrate, subvert, or reject the categories that they are being subjected to. It is to these tasks, in the case of Jewish communities in the West, that this paper now turns.


The European State, the Settler-colony, and Jewish Identity

The emergence of modern antisemitism – as opposed to pre-capitalist Christian judeophobia – can be traced back, much like the processes of racialisation discussed above, to the emergence of the nation-state. Indeed, as Enzo Traverso has pointed out, the emergence of the nation, unlike the multinational and multi-confessional empires that preceded it, ‘viewed every ethnic, linguistic or religious minority as an obstacle that it sought to overcome, by championing policies of assimilation or exclusion’.[7]

The need to unify the nation around a singular history, culture, religion, and/or language placed Jews decisively outside of the new emerging national body. More than that, it categorised the Jew as the enemy of the nation. The ‘international Jew’, always on the move within diasporic networks, neither constrained by the borders of the state nor loyal to the emerging nation, became the central theme of the emerging antisemitic propaganda of the late nineteenth century. It also captured the anxieties of European populations confronted with the rise of capitalism, rapid urbanisation, and the transformation of their livelihood through processes of primitive accumulation that separated them from the land.[8]

Similarly, Wolfe has argued that the emergence of the nation-state in Europe was accompanied by the creation of a ‘monolithic Jewishness’.[9] Whereas, feudal states had relied on so-called court Jews and their networks for finance and trade (see below), the promise of emancipation at the hands of the state that followed the French Revolution homogenised Jewish communities and in the process laid the basis for them to be, collectively, identified as external to the emerging nation. Wolfe places this contradictory process in the continuity of colonial classifications of Black populations in the United States:

In both cases, uniformity would come to be constructed genetically, as an ineradicable hereditary mystique, common to every member of the persecuted community; a collective though not always visible mark of Cain.  

The emergence of the nation-state, which placed the Jew firmly outside of its limits, was accompanied by the application of colonial processes of racialisation to explain this exclusion. The modern state then promised emancipation through assimilation within the nation, while simultaneously barring access to the national body for Jewish communities through their racialisation.

In the face of the emergence of these structures of identification from above, different political responses developed from within the Jewish communities of Western and Eastern Europe. On the one hand, a cultural conflict emerged between the Haskalah (the Jewish Enlightenment), which argued for the full assimilation of Jews within the nation-state, and the orthodoxy that remained faithful to its cultural and religious traditions. On the other hand, political strife developed between the revolutionary traditions associated with Bolshevik, Bundist, Anarchist or reformist currents, which saw in the Jewish exclusion from the nation-state an internationalist potential for its very destruction, and the emerging Zionist movement. The Zionists, on which more below, argued that it was only with the creation of a Jewish nation-state, developed through colonisation, that the so-called Jewish question could be resolved, by ‘normalising’ Jewish life and joining the family of European nation-states.[10]

Much more could be said about these competing movements (see below), but for now it will suffice to point out that modern antisemitism emerged out of the formation of the nation-state, and that in response to the state’s exclusion and racialisation of Jewish populations a plethora of political, cultural and religious responses developed. There were then not one, but a multitude of processes of identification that emerged out of different, often competing, responses to the state’s structural categorisation of Jews.


Contemporary Debates on Jewish Identities and the Modern Monolith

The variety of responses to state-led structures of identification applied to Jewish communities is highly relevant to contemporary debates surrounding Jewishness. Indeed, Jewish identity is increasingly portrayed as monolithic, static and a-temporal within the Jewish community. For example, Mick Davies, chairman of the Jewish Leadership Council in the UK, explained to the Home Affairs Committee that

Zionism is so totally identified with how the Jew thinks of himself, and is so associated with the right of the Jewish people to have their own country and to have self-determination within that country, that if you attack Zionism, you attack the very fundamentals of how the Jews believe in themselves.[11]

Ephraim Mirvis, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, propounds the same argument, put this time in religious terms:

Zionism has been an integral part of Judaism from the dawn of our faith. … We have prayed towards Israel. Open any prayer book and you will find Israel jumping out at you. It is the centre of what we are. As a result – further to a political development in the latter part of the 19th century through which Zionism gained an added dimension, spelling out the right of the Jewish people to live within secure borders with self-determination in their own country, which they had been absent from for 2,000 years – that is what Zionism is. If you are an anti-Zionist, you are anti everything I have just mentioned.[12]

This approach to Jewish identity, and therefore to antisemitism and the place of Jews within European society, stands in stark contrast to the discussion above about the origins of antisemitism in the European nation-state, and the multitude of different, and often opposed, responses to it from within the Jewish population. Indeed, if this reading of Jewishness and antisemitism is to be taken at face value, the revolutionary, assimilationist, and orthodox religious traditions within European Judaism, all of which rejected the colonial project of Zionist nation-building (for different reasons), should be considered within the realm of antisemitic thought and action. It appears that the approach to the process of identification carries important political significance.

Indeed, in his Judaïsme et Révolution, Ivan Segré argues that there exists a deep tug of war within the history of Jewish thought, both secular and religious. He identifies a tension between a revolutionary, universalist, and dialectical reading of Judaism and a counter-revolutionary, ethno-centrist, and static one. Segré argues that both in the religious and political field, from Maimonides to Benny Levy, there exists a strand of Jewish thought that struggles to fix its identity once and for all in a literal and a-historic space. To this he contrasts a dialectical reading of the Letter, associated with the sages of the Talmud and St Paul, which leads it to always re-invent and regenerate itself through contact with its surroundings. Segré argues for a return to a dialectical and – in his view – revolutionary reading of Jewish identity against the tide of reaction.

Similarly, Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin straddles the religious and the political to challenge the dominant portrayal of Jewish identity. He points out that the view of the Jews as perpetually out of place in their host-societies, and therefore in need of returning to ‘where they came from’, is in fact a judeophobic Christian concept exogenous to Jewish thought. Raz-Krakotzkin argues that before the advent of modern Zionism, exile was an existential claim in Jewish theology that could not be solved physically. Indeed, he points out that ‘[t]he Jewish communities that lived in Palestine before Zionism described themselves as “in exile in the land of Israel”’.[13] In this reading, contrary to Rabbi Mirvis’s view, the history of a people perpetually out of place and the idea of a physical return appear as modern constructs of a Jewish identity shaped by the political necessities of the Zionist project.

However, statistical data collected both in the US and the UK points to the fact that Mirvis and Davies are not alone in positing the centrality of the state of Israel to the formation of Jewish identity. For example, 93% of British Jews feel that ‘Israel plays some role in/is important to/is central to [their] Jewish identity’,[14] and 69% of US Jews feel ‘emotionally attached to Israel’.[15]

This raises a series of questions about Jewish communities in the West: what are the processes of identification, from above and below, that have taken place, which can help explain the emergence of what appears to be the increasingly monolithic understanding of Jewishness? Does the space for conflicting identities still exist or has it truly been narrowed down to an increasingly single one? And what are the political ramifications of these processes for anti-racist political action today?

It is to these questions that the paper now turns, by discussing the development of Jewish identification by Western states and their responses throughout the last century.


Marxism and the Jewish Question

The classical Marxist tradition was the first to develop a materialist framework to analyse what it has called the Jewish question: the reasons behind the survival of Judaism for thousands of years despite its existence as a minority faith in starkly different societies, and the rise of modern antisemitism in the nineteenth century.

Much of the literature on the question had relied on idealist or teleological assumptions about the strength of the Jewish faith, Messianic expectations, or the yearning for an eventual ‘return’ to the Promised Land. At the same time, antisemitism was understood as an a-historical and universal reality, present at all times, and located within competing religious frameworks (see above). In this view, Jews were an essentialised people, always foreign to, and rejected by, the host society, who survived by clinging to their faith or nationhood in the expectation of – secular or miraculous – liberation. An approach, rooted in Christian Judeophobic prejudice, which, as discussed above, remains present to this day.

In stark contrast to this approach, Marx put forward a framework of analysis that understood the Jewish people – like other peoples – as continuously made and re-made by history and the prevailing economic and political structures within which they operate. In his famous essay On the Jewish Question, this approach is summarised in the simple statement that ‘Judaism continues to exist not in spite of history, but owing to history. The Jew is perpetually created by civil society from its own entrails’.[16] The longevity of Judaism, for Marx, is neither an aberration of history nor a miraculous feat; it is the product of specific historical processes.

Through the economic and political roles they played in these societies, based on mercantile activity and money-lending, Jews were preserved as an entity separate from the rest of society. Although widely criticised for the language he used,[17] Marx’s approach to the Jewish question put forward the beginning of a materialist analysis of Jewish history and modern antisemitism, while simultaneously arguing for the need to struggle against it.

Marx’s thesis was developed further by Abram Leon, a young Jewish Marxist writing in hiding in Nazi-occupied Belgium. Leon’s The Jewish Question: A Marxist Interpretation expanded, detailed and developed Marx’s basic insights into the history of the Jewish people and the realities of modern antisemitism. Echoing Marx, Leon argued that

It is not the loyalty of the Jews to their faith which explains their preservation as a distinct social group; on the contrary it is their preservation as a distinct social group which explains their attachment to their faith.[18]

He developed the idea that for the majority of their history, Jewish people constituted a people-class, which reproduced itself through their specific economic roles within the different societies they inhabited. Jews were therefore not a foreign entity within these societies, but an integral part of their socio-economic organisation.

The advent of capitalism was to be, in Leon’s work, the historic period during which the economic tasks previously reserved to the Jewish people-class became universal. Mercantile and financial activity moved from the periphery to the centre of the economy. The economic base for the historic survival of Judaism was disappearing and Jews were being assimilated in Western Europe. In Eastern Europe however, where the decay of feudalism and the rise of capitalism were held in a lasting balance, Jews were trapped between semi-proletarianisation and emigration. As they emigrated to the West, they brought with them a Jewish reality, which had, Leon argued, by and large disappeared in those countries. The new bourgeois order rejected them.[19]

These approaches, by Marx and Leon, as well as by others in the classical Marxist tradition, from Kautsky to Trotsky, have been criticised more recently for their over-emphasis of the economic unity of Jewish communities and the economic nature of the Jewish question. What remains from their contribution, however, is their emphasis on the material basis that generated a Jewish identity as opposed to a set, pre-existing, and naturalised one.

For example, Maxime Rodinson[20] pointed out that there was little evidence for the validity of Leon’s people-class argument before the period of the Crusades. More significantly, in his The Marxists and the Jewish Question, Enzo Traverso argues that the classical Marxist tradition’s economism in addressing the Jewish question led it to develop major blind spots: an over-emphasis on class over people in the people-class formulation, and an exaggeratedly economistic approach to historicising Jewishness and antisemitism.

Classical Marxism therefore also assumed that the elimination of the economic specificity and ghettoisation of Jewish communities would lead both to full assimilation into the surrounding population and the disappearance of antisemitism. Traverso wrote:

Leon remained the prisoner of a vision of assimilation inherited from the Enlightenment, which did not interpret the entry of the Jews into the modern world as a metamorphosis of Judaism, but quite simply as the annulation of Jewish otherness.[21]

Indeed, the economism of the classical Marxists blinded them to the differing political realities of Jewish populations in Europe.

In the East, the tearing-down of the Ghetto walls, the development of economic centres, and the proletarianisation of the Jewish masses in the towns and cities of the Pale of settlements – roughly the area covering modern Lithuania, Poland and the Ukraine, where nearly half of the world’s Jewish population lived at the turn of the twentieth century – did not lead to assimilation.

On the contrary, the Eastern-European Jewish masses developed simultaneously a class and a national consciousness which gave birth to a Yiddish revival as well as to the Bund, a mass Jewish workers’ organisation that would play a central role in the development of Russian Social Democracy.[22]

In the West, where the Enlightenment and the French Revolution had promised emancipation and equal rights as citizens to the Jews, the situation was reversed. Jewish communities tended to try to assimilate. They spoke the national language, and participated in the intellectual, cultural and official institutions of the nation.

Whether atheist or religious, they tended to enact the words of the poet Yehuda Leib Gordon, which became a slogan for the Haskalah: ‘Be a Jew at home and a man in the street.’ However, this process did not lead to the disappearance of antisemitism. In fact, quite the contrary was true and the emerging state played a key role in this process (see above).

Indeed, it was Tsarist antisemitic decrees that concentrated Jews in the Pale. This concentration made the development of a national feeling, based on a shared language, culture and geographical area possible.[23] Similarly, as discussed above, it was the collapse of the old empires and the rise of the nation-state which posed the Jewish question in the West around suspicions of split loyalties, and accusations of a Jewish identity lying beyond the boundaries of newly-constructed national myths of origin. Finally, the barriers to Jewish land-ownership, enforced by the state, concentrated Jews disproportionately in towns and cities, locating them at the heart of the newly-emerging capitalist order.

The classical Marxist tradition then made an important contribution by highlighting the material processes of Jewish identification, and modern antisemitism. It was however unable to reach the full breadth of its own method because of its excessive focus on economic processes and its acceptance of the Enlightenment’s promise of assimilation. These adjustments are crucial to understanding the formation of modern Jewish identification and the resurgence of antisemitism, as discussed below.


The Nazi Genocide, Zionism and Denied Assimilation  

The classical Marxist debates on the Jewish question took place before the two key events that shaped Western Jewish life decisively in the second half of the twentieth century: the Nazi genocide and the creation of the State of Israel. Both these events ushered in monumental changes in the make-up, location, and politics of Jewish communities across the world. In the space of little more than a decade: 6 million Jews were exterminated in the gas chambers; the Israeli state was founded after the expulsion of over 700,000 Palestinians; the majority of Holocaust survivors moved to Israel; in the 1950s, Jews from across the Middle East and North Africa relocated to Israel, through migration and expulsion.

The centres of Jewish life shifted in this period toward the United States and the newly-formed state. These events, and European, American and Israeli state-responses to them, continue to structure Jewish identification in the West.

Contemporary polls, for example, of Western and Israeli Jews find that both the Holocaust and Israel remain some of the key issues cited as central to the construction of their identity.[24] This, however, as discussed above, has not always been the case.


Jewish Identification and the State of Israel

The creation of Israel, and its future, depended on the so-called ingathering of the world’s Jewish communities. The newly-formed state therefore worked actively to encourage and disseminate its vision of Jewish peoplehood. It did so both legislatively and practically. From its creation, the Israeli state immediately officialised its vision of history. It declared itself the state not of its citizens, but of the Jewish people around the world. The Israeli Declaration of Establishment, approved on 14 May 1948, states:

After being forcibly exiled from their land, the [Jewish] people kept faith … throughout their Dispersion and never ceased to pray and hope for their return to it and for the restoration in it of their political freedom. ... This right [to a Jewish state] is the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign State. … We appeal to the Jewish people throughout the Diaspora to rally round the Jews of Eretz-Israel in the tasks of immigration and upbuilding and to stand by them in the great struggle for the realization of the age-old dream – the redemption of Israel.[25]

Two years later, the Knesset approved what it called the ‘Law of Return’, which guaranteed the right of Jews worldwide to settle in the newly-formed state and to enjoy the full rights of citizens. Palestinian refugees who had fled during the Nakba, however, were forbidden to come back to their homes.

The ‘ingathering’ was not only a legal process inside of Israel; it was also a political one across the world. While encouraging Western Jewry to support Israel economically, politically and culturally, the Israeli state worked to encourage the emigration of Jewish communities, from Morocco to Iraq, and from the Soviet Union to Ethiopia.

Often assisted by the antisemitism of the local regimes,[26] the young state did not hesitate to sanction terrorism against Jewish minorities in Iraq to accelerate their departure and convince the reluctant.[27] The European character of the Zionist project and the treatment of Mizrahi (Eastern/Oriental) Jews as second-class citizens by the Israeli state have been widely documented.[28] However, the need to find new Jewish populations to settle the land in the demographic war with the Palestinians went hand-in-hand with the need to validate the state’s claims as the representative of world Jewry.

Interestingly, the settlement of Jewish communities from Asia, Africa and Europe with different languages, traditions and cultures had a contradictory effect on Zionism. If they strengthened the state’s representative claims they also undermined its conception of a singular Jewish ethnicity.

As the Israeli Marxist Akiva Orr has argued, Israel has struggled since its inception to develop a secular Jewish identity, separate from religion.[29] Orr points out that, despite the avowedly atheist (even anti-religious) attitudes of the founding generations of the Zionist movement, the state remains dependent on religion for the construction of a unified Jewish identity.

Orr argues that the central role played by the rabbinate in key state matters, such as the decision concerning who is and isn’t Jewish – and therefore a potential citizen – or in the regulation of marriage, are not pragmatic concessions to religious voting-blocks in Israel but indispensable in the process of constructing a unified Jewish identity.

Others, such as Moshe Machover,[30] echoing certain arguments made by the revisionist Canaanite school in the 1940s, argue for the decoupling of Israel from the rest of world Jewry and the recognition of a Hebrew nationality and identity. Machover sees in this a stepping-stone toward de-Zionification, weakening the settler-colonial project by cutting it off from its source of new arrivals. It would, Machover argues, also lay the foundation for the recognition of Hebrew national rights in a free Palestine.

The identification of Jews as a unified population, in physical exile, in need of ingathering to Israel, plays a crucial ideological role for the Israeli state and the expansion of settler-colonialism in Palestine.

Rodinson argued in the 1960s that the success of Zionism in Palestine had become the defining structural factor in modern Jewish life.[31] Zionism, for Rodinson, was born out of the simultaneous rejection of Jews by the European bourgeois order as well as the integration of its values and norms by the (European) Jewish people themselves. The scale of the Nazi genocide and the destruction of (often revolutionary) European-Jewish alternative movements to Zionism hastened the development of this process among postwar European Jewry.

Rodinson, in an argument which echoes Edward Said’s, identified Zionism as a European colonial movement, which turned the pariahs of the metropolis into a settler-colonial avant-garde. It was in the process of dispossessing the indigenous Palestinian population that the Zionist movement became the representative in the Middle East of the very society that had rejected them and led them to the brink of extermination.

Just as Zionism was the outcome of simultaneous rejection and internalisation, the Jews themselves were both internalised and rejected by the West through Zionist expansion in Palestine.

Rodinson opposed the way in which Zionism generated a political pressure from above in France for the essentialisation of the Jewish community in the West:

A continuous moral and physical blackmail is applied against the Jews who refuse to consider themselves members of a separate community to which they should swear allegiance. They are expected to adhere to options taken on Palestinian lands by organs on which they have no control.[32] 

This, Rodinson argued, started a process of nationalisation of the Jewish people.

However, if, as shown above, the Zionist movement and the Israeli state actively encouraged this attempt at nationalising world Jewry in the service of its settler-colonial project in Palestine, it does not automatically follow that Jewish communities would accept and respond to this new identification.

Here, the role of the state is once again paramount. In his book, Knowing Too Much, Norman Finkelstein details the ways in which the relationship between American Jewish communities and Israel developed. He shows how the leadership of the American Jewish community did not – despite humanitarian or philanthropic monetary donations – support Israel politically before the 1967 war.

Finkelstein quotes, amongst other documents, a study conducted by the American Jewish Committee only a few months before the outbreak of the war, which concluded that American Jewish life and institutions were not connected to Israel, and that only 17% of American Jews were members of avowedly pro-Israel organisations.[33] Finkelstein argues that the main concern of Jewish communities in the US in the direct aftermath of the Second World War was assimilation into American life and that active political support for Israel was considered by the community’s leadership to be a display of ‘dual-loyalty’. This, they feared, would stoke up suspicion and halt the process of integration.

It was in fact in the wake of the 1967 war and the decisive shift of Israel into the US sphere of influence – and of the US’s changing strategy in the Middle East, away from appeasement of Arab Nationalism – that American Jewish organs became outspoken supporters of Zionism. It is, therefore, firstly as loyal American citizens rather than as members of a singular Jewish nationality that the representatives of the American Jewish community became supporters of the Zionist movement and the Israeli state. Finkelstein writes:

Israel came to incarnate for American Jewish intellectuals the high cause of Truth, Justice, and the American Way, to which they could now assert a unique connection by virtue of blood lineage. Joining the Zionist club was a prudent career move for Jewish communal leaders who could then play the role of key interlocutors between the US and its strategic asset. … These gung-ho Zionists didn’t even subscribe to the Zionist tenet that Jews had no future in the gentile world. On the contrary, they converted to Zionism because it facilitated their acceptance in the United States.[34]


Jewish Identification and the Official Memory of the Nazi Genocide 

A similar process took place in terms of the commemoration of the Nazi genocide. In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, the remembrance of the gas chambers and the Nazi genocide did not play a central role in Western societies. Different explanations have been given for this. Finkelstein has stressed the postwar US-led drive to ‘de-Nazify’ West Germany and to remobilise former Nazi state-officials in the cold war, as a key reason for the muted nature of official recognition of the genocide.[35]|[36]

Peter Novick in The Holocaust in American Life has stressed the assimilationist strategies of the Jewish community in the 1950s and the fears of stoking the flames of antisemitism. While Traverso, on the other hand, emphasises that official ceremonies focussed on the national and anti-fascist character of the resistance in the first decades after the war – as such the ‘symbol of Nazi barbarity was not Auschwitz but Buchenwald, where so many antifascists were murdered’.[37]

In Israel itself, Holocaust survivors were often met with animosity.[38] They represented the weakness of the diaspora that had ‘gone like sheep to slaughter’, which the ‘new Jew’, reborn in Israel and strong, would replace. A popular term of derision for those survivors in Hebrew slang was sabonim – soaps – a reference to the Nazis’ experiments to turn Jewish fat into soap.

The Eichmann trial in 1961 was a turning-point in the dominant discourse about the war. Both in Israel and across the Western world, the recognition of the Nazi genocide, as well as the centrality of the remembrance of it in collective ceremonies, finds its roots in that moment. Traverso describes this shift as a crucial one in the collective memory and understanding of History of (and in) the West: ‘Nazi extermination was no longer regarded as the expression of a retreat of civilisation into barbarism, but rather as a barbarism inscribed in modernity itself’.[39]

Never Again became an international watchword against the demons within Western society. Traverso describes the process through which the Nazi genocide became what he terms, using Rousseau, a Civil Religion – a secular form of sacralising certain aspects of history in order to build a collective identity around the state. With its monuments, national museums, laws forbidding its denial, and official ceremonies, the memory of the Holocaust has become a key pillar of Western societies’ projection of self and collective identity.

Traverso argues that this laid the foundation for the recognition of other genocides and massacres across the world, whilst at the same time risking de-politicising the memory of the Holocaust and mobilising it as a shield behind which to mask more contemporary crimes: ‘Institutionalised and neutralised, the memory of the Holocaust thus risks becoming the moral sanction for a Western order that perpetuates oppression and injustice’.[40]

Similarly, Finkelstein describes in The Holocaust Industry an industry that has developed around the memorialisation of the Holocaust, which has depoliticised it by making it an inexplicable and incomparable event, next to which all others pale into insignificance. Finkelstein argues that this process has emptied collective memory of its political lessons, allowed collaborating governments and corporations off the hook, and strengthened the vision of Jewish history as one marked by eternal, a-historic, and incrementally severe persecution.

This version of history, Finkelstein argues, has also facilitated the use of the Holocaust to justify the colonisation of Palestine by allowing Western powers to wash their hands of the past by simply supporting Israel and – by extension – their own interests in the Middle East.

Yitzhak Laor, the Israeli poet and author, also emphasises the role that this official history of the Holocaust plays for the whitewashing of Western states’ racism and crimes – both in the present and in the past:

The Holocaust alone can provide the definition of evil. … But the other evils are still lurking there. The universal dimension of the genocide is projected to overshadow the victims of colonialism and slavery, who have received no compensation remotely comparable to the sums paid to the Israeli state, nor even the fortune of being recognised, precisely because they are still living in devastated countries, or miserable neighbourhoods, under occupation or oppression.[41]

Jewish history and the Nazi genocide are brought to the centre of modern constructions of Western identity and the legitimisation of Western states. However, it is a depoliticised, a-historical, and sterilised version of history, which locks Jews into a specific historic role.

There is once again a trade-off: in order to access the recognition of past wrongs, Jewish communities must relinquish demands for structural justice, and accept that the mass murder of their ancestors be removed from historical and political analysis. Instead, commemoration is turned into a tool behind which Western states can acknowledge and condemn racism, violence, and collaboration, while continuing to mete these out against other communities and countries.

Jews can then become part of a Western hegemonic culture, which has recently discovered itself to be Judeo-Christian only a few decades after the Nazi genocide, on the condition that their history becomes a pillar of the state’s official history, rather than a boulder to bring it tumbling down. Jewish communities must accept the role of guardians of a distorted history, which leaves current power structures untouched and unchallenged, in order to accede to the promise of Never Again. Assimilation is promised, while effectively denied.

It emerges from this overview that the process of Jewish identification in the second half of the twentieth century has been constructed around the Nazi genocide and Zionism, within a state-led framework that has both placed Jews at the centre of Western hegemony while simultaneously keeping them at arm’s length of full integration. The Jewish community is then pushed into a schizophrenic dance in which it must simultaneously represent key areas of Western identification, while being denied full integration within its structures.

Far from being an intrinsic and a-historic fact, the current identification of Jewish communities with Israel, and the importance accorded to the Holocaust in their sense of self, is in fact the outcome of half a century of Western state policies. Indeed, political support for Israel in the Middle East by European and North Americans states, and the centrality of the Holocaust in their official historical self-representation, have switched the structures of identification for Jews in the West. Once upon a time the ‘Other’ of the European states par excellence, Jewish communities are now being identified as the standard-bearers of two key pillars of Western policies at home and abroad. It is to a discussion of the political consequences of this process, that this paper now turns.


Mobilisation of the Jew against the European ‘Others’ 

Sartre famously wrote that ‘it is not the Jewish character that provokes antisemitism but, on the contrary, the antisemite that creates the Jew’.[42] It then should not be a surprise that a growing proportion of Jewish people understand Zionism and a particular history of the Holocaust as a central part of their identity (see above). Indeed, they are being identified as Jewish through the prism of this binary framework by Western states.

The essentialisation of Jews, at home and abroad, by the state creates a new form of antisemitic rejection. No longer the rootless cosmopolitan, the revolutionary, the internationalist, the Jew today is identified, in the first instance, as – at least potentially – a Zionist, a citizen of Israel, and defender of the ‘West’s values’ in the face of barbarism. No longer the potential destroyer of Western society and bourgeois values but its most fierce protector, antisemitic essentialisation paints the Jew in a seemingly positive light. The underlying logic, however, remains one of a top-down structuring of Jewish identification by the Western state.

Antisemitism in the nineteenth and early twentieth century served to channel class struggle away from the bourgeoisie towards the Jews, while simultaneously making the revolutionary movement suspect and facilitating repression. It was, as the German phrase put it, the socialism of fools.[43] Today, it serves to obscure state policies, while simultaneously reinforcing Islamophobic reaction.

Alain Badiou and Eric Hazan argue:

The aim is to convince people that there is an underlying unity between the support given to the struggle of the Israelis against Arab ‘fundamentalist’ barbarism, and the struggle at home against the young barbarians of the banlieues – whose ‘barbarian’ description is well attested to by the double fact that they are not only Arab or Muslim, but also criticise Israeli government policy.[44]

This process of essentialisation of Jewish people is reinforced from above, through official state policy. For example, the UK HAC report on antisemitism announced:

Those claiming to be ‘anti-Zionist, not anti-Semitic’, should do so in the knowledge that 59% of British Jewish people consider themselves to be Zionists. … For the purposes of criminal or disciplinary investigations, use of the words ‘Zionist’ or ‘Zio’ in an accusatory or abusive context should be considered inflammatory and potentially antisemitic.[45]

The report takes as read that the political movement of Zionism, and the Jewish people, should be considered, in the sphere of law-making, as nearly interchangeable. The 41 per cent of British Jewish people who do not consider themselves to be Zionists, according to the report’s own sources, are not considered relevant to the development of effective policy to combat antisemitism.

Nor is the fact that most data shows that a younger generation of Jews in the West is increasingly critical of Israel.[46] A recent piece of research conducted by the National Union of Students and the Union of Jewish Students in the UK found that 24% of Jewish students supported the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement against Israel.[47] Yet, under the guidance of the British state, these positions, held by a considerable proportion of Jews, are dangerously close to antisemitism.

Jews are essentialised by the UK Home Affairs Committee as adherents to the only political movement ascribed to them – Zionism – regardless of the facts. Similarly, when the British government attempted to limit local councils’ right to implement boycott or divestment policies, it justified its actions through concern for ‘international security’ and ‘community cohesion’, and went on to state:

There are wider national and international consequences from imposing such local level boycotts. They can damage integration and community cohesion within the United Kingdom, hinder Britain’s export trade, and harm foreign relations to the detriment of Britain’s economic and international security.[48]

Jewish communities in Britain are being directly mobilised as a shield, behind which the government can hide to defend its own trade and international-policy choices, while also undermining political freedoms in the UK. To complete the picture, the government minister Matthew Hancock announced these measures while on an official visit to Israel.

Furthermore, the British government’s anti-radicalisation strategy, the Prevent agenda, which has made it a legal duty for public-sector workers to report service-users for signs of radicalisation, follows this pattern. The policy sets out a series of indicators of so-called non-violent extremist ideas and behaviours, which the government believes lead to ‘extremism’. The policy has been widely criticised for its ineffectiveness, unsubstantiated assumptions, and disproportionate targeting of the Muslim community.[49] Indeed, Muslims made up 56 per cent of those targeted between 2012 and 2014, despite making up less than 5 per cent of the British population.[50]

Leaked Prevent training materials show that participants are specifically encouraged to target those who criticise UK foreign policy, with a specific emphasis put on Palestine solidarity as an indicator of radicalisation. It states, for example, that ‘as recent stories involving vulnerable pupils have shown, issues around Palestine, Syria and the growth of ISIL/ISIS require careful monitoring’.[51] This approach has led to Palestine activists and students expressing an interest in the question being referred to the authorities.

The case of a 15-year-old Muslim school student in Luton, who was repeatedly interrogated under Prevent for wearing a ‘Free Palestine’ armband and organising a fundraiser for Palestinian children affected by war, is a case in point.[52] Support for Palestine, including from children, is identified as a threat to the state. The state’s support for Zionism abroad becomes a tool for Islamophobic oppression at home, and to undermine civil liberties more generally.

It is, then, interesting in this context that Jewish organisations, publications and leading community figures are putting forward an analysis which holds that contemporary antisemitism, while no longer structural, is the outcome of left-wing and Muslim activism. The Palestine solidarity movement, anti-Zionist politics, and support for the Boycott, Solidarity and Sanctions (BDS) movement are particularly singled out for criticism and accused of actively undermining Jewish self-determination, the right for Jews to self-define their oppression, or Jewish identity itself.

In the UK, for example, when giving evidence to the HAC, discussed above, Rabbi Mirvis declared that:

There was a time when [antisemitism] came from the far right; now increasingly it is coming from the far left. There is an element of radical Islam that is part of this narrative. Events in the Middle East serve as trigger points.[53]  

Jonathan Arkush, President of the Board of Deputies (BoD), made similar points:

Traditionally antisemitism has come from the far right, and we are not seeing very much far right activity at the moment. Traditionally there has always been prejudice against Jews coming from the far left as well, and I think that with the advent of a more leftward tilt in the leadership of the Labour party, some people feel that a space has opened up for them … A significant part of the incidents come from people who are or who appear to be from areas in Muslim communities. I want to emphasise that the overwhelming majority of British Muslims … are moderate and law abiding, … but there are some quarters who are very prejudiced, and I think they may get information … through mosques, schools, literature or Muslim subscription TV channels of an extreme nature coming from abroad.[54] 

The problem is no longer the far right but Muslims and the left, under foreign influence.

Remarkably, all available information about the UK – including the Annual CST Report on antisemitism[55] and the HAC report itself – demonstrates that the vast majority of antisemitic incidents come from the far-right and fascist groups, or prejudiced white individuals. This points to a high level of identification by leading representatives of the Jewish community with the state’s essentialisation of Jewishness under the banner of Zionism, mobilised against racialised communities and critics of the state’s foreign policy.

The state supports Israeli policies and expansion abroad. It justifies this support not on the basis of its economic and political interests in the Middle East, but through the supposed intrinsic role of Zionism in the religious and cultural identity of Jews. Simultaneously, the state criminalises political action and targets Palestinian solidarity movements. This can then be justified both through equating Judaism and Zionism, and through the baseless position, discussed above, that Muslims are the modern source of antisemitism.

The state then appears not as the oppressor of both Jews and Muslims, identifying both communities through racialised and essentialising structures, but as the defender of the Jews – understood, by official policy, as Zionists – against Muslims and the left. The state erects the Jewish community as a shield behind which it hides the political motives of its foreign and domestic policy.



Starting from the position that identity is not static or primordial, but generated through the relationship between identification processes by state structures from above, and collective responses by the ‘identified’ from below, this paper has discussed the identification of Jewish communities by Western states. It has argued that in the aftermath of the Holocaust, Western Jewish communities have been defined by the state as an extension of its own legitimacy, and the fate of Israeli settler-colonialism in Palestine. This process of essentialisation of the Jewish people is a form of structural antisemitism, which attempts to impose a specific, politicised, identity upon an entire community.

Moreover, this paper has argued that an approach based on processes of identity-formation, rather than monolithic, pre-existing, and a-historical identities, has important consequences. When, for example, polls show that a large majority of UK and US Jews feel connected to Israel, one answer is to consider these feelings as defining an immutable reality. Another is, as this paper has attempted to show, to take these feelings as the starting-point of an analysis which uncovers historical and societal processes of identification, which develop through the tension generated between those people and the state.

These two different approaches also lead to different political consequences. If the politics of identity lead one to consider identity as originating in the individual, one risks fixing as natural the outcomes of specific and historically-contentious processes. This leads, in the case of Jewishness, one to accept that Zionism is no longer a political question, which plays itself out to the detriment of the Palestinian people, but a question of self-defined identity, central to the very essence of Judaism and Jewish people. It similarly leads one to assume that the state, through its official remembering of the Nazi genocide and its laws against antisemitism, is the protector of Jewish communities, rather than the very structure putting them at risk.

It equally leads to the belief that those activists who oppose colonial processes in Palestine, condemn Israeli human-rights violations, and campaign for an end to their states’ and institutions’ complicity with these processes, are the real antisemites despite – or sometimes even because of – their consistent refusal to equate Jewish people worldwide with the actions, politics and realities of Israel and the Zionist movement. Indeed, as discussed above, if Jewish identity is inextricably linked to Israel and Zionism, then any rejection of it has to be, either consciously or unconsciously, an attack on Jewish identity itself.

However, if one starts from the experience of identity in order to initiate a process of uncovering the specific historical, political and economic factors that construct it, it becomes possible to imagine ways to challenge the structures out of which identities emerge. Liberation is then understood as a process of transformation both of structural and individual circumstances.

Identity, when understood as the outcome of discreet social realities, can be studied as a flexible and ever-changing concept. In this case, the materialist approach to the Jewish question, discussed above, leads to an understanding of how the Civil Religion of the Holocaust and Zionism have played a crucial role, both practically and ideologically, in reinforcing Western colonial expansion abroad, and racism at home.

Jews are essentialised under the banner of Zionism and turned into either active participants of colonisation or shields for state-policy at home and abroad. The duo of Zionism and official remembrance of the Nazi genocide is the contemporary form of the rejection of Jewish people from Western states, which has positioned them – once more – in the firing-line.

It follows from this analysis that a modern struggle for the destruction of antisemitism, far from relying on the state, must pass through the struggle against racism, imperialism, and the state structures that champion them.

It is then not useful to declare, as Rodinson did, that ‘[w]e can at least ask the Jews to not place themselves in the wrong camp or halt the struggle [for a society free of oppression and exploitation]’.[56] This approach accepts – despite his own analysis – that Jewish people have become irremediably homogenised under the influence of Zionism, and benefit from its actions. Furthermore, the evidence, as discussed above, is that this is increasingly challenged from within the Jewish community itself.

It must be demonstrated both in theory and practice that the struggle against antisemitism, Islamophobia, and Western intervention abroad are one and the same. Therefore the struggle for Palestinian liberation and against Zionism is indeed related to antisemitism, but not in the way that it is so often presented. Houria Bouteldja makes this point, when she writes, as an invitation to Jewish communities in France: ‘You are still in the ghetto. What if we got out of it together?’[57]



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* I would like to thank Amelia Horgan, Hannah Dee, Yvon Englert, James Eastwood, Malia Bouattia, Ashok Kumar, Noha Abou El Magd, and Karma Nabulsi as well as the anonymous reviewers, for their comments and advice in the drafting of this paper. All remaining shortcomings are, of course, mine and mine alone. 

[1] Hall 1996, pp. 2–3.

[2] Grossberg 1996, p. 99.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Brubaker and Cooper 2000, p. 16.

[5] Chakravarty and Ferreira da Silva 2012, pp. 369–70. [No such reference in bibliography – MC]

[6] Wolfe 2016, p. 5

[7] Traverso 2016, p. 10.

[8] Traverso 2016, pp. 7–19.

[9] Wolfe 2016, p. 86.

[10] For more detail on these conflicts and different movements, see, for example, Jacobs (ed.) 2001; Frankel 2009; Traverso 2016.

[11] House of Commons Home Affairs Committee 2016, Q13.

[12] House of Commons Home Affairs Committee 2016, Q418.

[13] Raz-Krakotzkin 2007, p. 109.

[14] Miller, Harris and Shindler 2015, p. 15.

[15] Pew Research Center 2013.

[16] Marx 1844.

[17] For a detailed historical discussion of the contradiction involved in the use of antisemitic language in the process of arguing against antisemitic politics in Marx, see Hal Draper’s Marx and the Economic-Jew Stereotype (Draper 1977).

[18] Leon 1942.

[19] Others, beyond the Marxist tradition, have adopted a similar outlook on the relationship between the rise of capitalism and Jewish communities. Yuri Slezkine’s The Jewish Century argues, for example, that the advent of capitalism represents the universalisation of historically Jewish socio-economic roles (Slezkine 2006), while, on the other side of the political spectrum, Niall Ferguson argues that the development of modern capitalism cannot be understood without an analysis of the rise of the house of Rothschild and their financial and trade networks across Europe (Ferguson 1999).

[20] Rodinson 1968.

[21] Traverso 1994, p. 224.

[22] For more on the Bund and its approaches to the National Question, see Jacobs (ed.) 2001. For a summary of the Bundist and Austro-Hungarian Marxists’ contribution to the debate on the Jewish question, see Traverso 1994.

[23] Frankel 2009.

[24] Miller, Harris and Shindler 2015; Pew Research Center 2013; Pew Research Center 2016.

[25] Ministry of Foreign Affairs 2013.

[26] Behar 1997.

[27] Shiblack 1986; Giladi 2006.

[28] Ben-Dor Benite 1997; Chitrit 1997 [No such reference in bibliography – MC]; Shohat 1988.

[29] Orr 1983.

[30] Machover 2013.

[31] Rodinson 1968.

[32] Rodinson 1968, p. 179

[33] Finkelstein 2012, pp. 35–44.

[34] Finkelstein 2012, p. 42; emphasis in the original.

[35] In this context, official reparations from the German government paid to Israel allowed for justice to appear as having been served, while avoiding fundamental structural changes, and financing the Western ‘watch-dog’ in the Middle East.

[36] Finkelstein 2000.

[37] Traverso 2016, p. 117.

[38] Laor 2009.

[39] Traverso 2016, p. 118.

[40] Traverso 2016, pp. 126–7.

[41] Laor 2009, pp. 32–3.

[42] Sartre 2011, p. 152.

[43] This phrase is often attributed to August Babel. There is, however, no evidence that this is indeed the case. It appears that it was a common saying within German socialist circles in the late nineteenth century.

[44] Badiou, Hazan and Segré 2013, p. 15.

[45] House of Commons Home Affairs Committee 2016.

[46] Finkelstein 2012; Miller, Harris and Shindler 2015; Pew Research Center 2016.

[47] National Union of Students 2017, p. 26.

[48] Quoted in Stone 2016.

[49] Open Society Foundation 2016.

[50] National Police Chiefs’ Council 2014.

[51] Quoted in Hooper 2016.

[52] Open Society Foundation 2016, pp. 86–9.

[53] House of Commons Home Affairs Committee 2016, Q430.

[54] House of Commons Home Affairs Committee 2016, Q2.

[55] Community Security Trust 2017.

[56] Rodinson 1968, p. 181.

[57] Bouteldja 2016, p. 69.