The French Debate on Zur Judenfrage

From an Anachronistic Trial to the Crisis of Secularism

Jean-Pierre Couture

While arguments about the ‘antisemitic’ character of Marx have been well rehearsed in the English-speaking world,[1][2]this debate has been particularly lively and revived in the French context since the Six-Day War and well into the Twenty-first Century. On each occasion, intellectuals dispute the correct interpretation of Marx’s 1844 article published in response to the theses of Bruno Bauer, hence the often-misreported title: Zur Judenfrage (On the Jewish Question).[3]Among Jewish intellectuals, who are at the forefront of this debate, the relation to Marxism in toto is coupled with their specific positioning towards the State of Israel and Jewish identity.

Our article traces the multiple shifts in meaning assigned to Marx’s text throughout these debates by contextualising them within the broader political controversies of post-war and contemporary France. If ‘every generation rewrites Marx in a new way,’[4] then this article shows that such rewriting necessarily takes shape within an intellectual and political struggle that not only clarifies the positions present, but itself proves to be the driving force of the shifts in meaning within competing ideologies. In short, we demonstrate that claims about Marx’s supposed ‘antisemitism’ emerge out of politicised, anti-Marxist, and right-wing Zionist readings, against which an historicised reading of Marx is made necessary.

To conduct this critical inquiry, the article is split into two sections. First, it examines the French debate over ‘Marx’s antisemitism’ in detail, which serves a double function: to elucidate the context and reasons for opposition between French intellectuals regarding this trial and to extend our knowledge of which evidence must be considered to indict or exonerate Marx. While this lengthy historical overview may break the interpretation of Marx’s work into several pieces, it nonetheless allows us to comprehensively collect and assess all of the counter-arguments thrown at a politically-inspired and anachronical accusation. Second, it briefly sketches an argument for a better, more historicised criticism of Marx’s thinking on the Jewish question by working through a problem which haunts the young Marx’s mechanistic view of assimilation: namely, the flaws involved in his materialistic desecration of religious views that are brought to light by the contemporary crisis of secularism and the proliferation of racialised intolerance, especially against Muslims.


This piece is being made available as a preprint edition of the double-volume Marxism and the Critique of Antisemitism special issue of Historical Materialism. Further additions will still be made before then. The final published version of this text will be made available on the Brill website in the coming months. We ask that citations refer to the Brill edition. All Illustrations are by Natalia Podpora.


The Anachronistic Trial over Marx’s ‘antisemitism’

The problem: Profaning Bauer’s Theology and the Religious Jew

Let us recall that what paves the way for Marx's trial concerns a few sentences taken from the second part of his article.[5] Indeed, Marx launches out in a kind of brutal exercise of ‘profanation’ of the religious Jew, which many commentators have avoided addressing directly.[6] While seeking ‘to escape from the [Bauerian] theological formulation of the question,’[7] he borrows from the imagery of Jewish selfishness conveyed by Hegel and Feuerbach and uses radicalised formulas which reduce religion to its socio-economic function: in effect, reducing the sacred to the profane. ‘What is the profane basis of Judaism? Practical need,self-interest. What is the worldly cult of the Jew?Huckstering [Der Schacher]. What is his worldly god?Money’.[8] A few paragraphs later Marx adds: ‘Money is the jealous god of Israel, beside which no other god may exist.’[9] Left to their own devices, these sentences obviously nourish the most tenacious medieval prejudices about the figure of the Jew indulging in illicit trade and the cold calculation of interests.

This problem becomes more complex since the second part of Marx’s article proposes a mechanistic or assimilationist solution to the Jewish question. This causal mechanism has two inseparable components. In the first place, Marx dissolves practical Judaism into the generalised ethos ‘of the trader, and above all of the financier,’[10] into ‘the perfection of civil society,’ and into ‘the sway of egoistic need…namely money.’[11] He claims that the specificity of commerce traditionally vested in the Jew has spread to bourgeois society, thus echoing an analysis of money and its ability to alienate objects, including individuals, believed to have a practical origin in Judaism. We will see below that Marx is not at the origin of this reductive idea. However, this first step – mechanically posing Judaism as equivalent to the bourgeois egoism of civil society – consequently implies an equally mechanical solution.

If the basis of religion is necessarily profane, the abolition of a profane practice entails, in the second place, the abolition (Aufhebung) of the corresponding religious need. For Marx, achieving emancipation insofar as it is onlypolitical still maintains the split life of the citizen and the believer, which Bauer naively believes to be abolished by the suppression of religion. Thus, Marx seeks ahuman emancipation that abolishes this division itself and, consequently, implies the disappearance of Judaism.

While arguing in favour of this assimilationist option, the Judeophobic commonplaces that Marx inserts in his ‘profanation’ of religious Jews appear to loosely align him with nineteenth-century French socialists, such as Fourier, Toussenel, and Proudhon. Any reader showing antisemitic leanings could easily find in these few sentences a validation of their views, including among the late twentieth-century Holocaust deniers in France, such as Robert Faurisson, Roger Garaudy, and Pierre Guillaume. The same applies to any anti-Marxist reader who wishes to infer from these sentences alone a complete disqualification of Marx’s argument on the Jewish question (if not of Marx’s ideas on human emancipation entirely).

After World War II, this ‘profane perspective’ has regularly been labelled as ‘antisemitic’,[12] and the French intellectual context seems to give this accusation a renewable and recurring character. The virulence of this debate in France is so strong that it should be made clear from the outset that there is no code of ethics governing the field of rhetorical and political strategy. Nevertheless, following certain precautions allows us to approach the debate from a balanced position, the first of which involves asking the following questions: are notions of religious anti-Judaism or Judeophobia the same as antisemitism? Do they call for the same diagnosis and the same resolution? In his recent biography of the young Marx, Michael Heinrich distinguishes these terms:

In the case of anti-Judaism, a person’s Jewishness ends with their conversion to Christianity. Ethnic and national anti-Semitism regards converted Jews with considerable distrust; one is not sure whether converted Jews have really made a turn toward the cultural and religious community of a nation, but the possibility is fundamentally recognized. For racist anti-Semitism, conversion and cultural assimilation is irrelevant, since it assumes that supposed racial characteristics cannot be shed.[13]

Quite concretely, this typology explains why Marx’s father was able to overcome, around 1818, the anti-Judaism of his time by converting to Protestantism,[14] while on the other hand Walter Benjamin escaped racist antisemitism in 1940 only through suicide.

This elementary caution in the use of terms is not generally observed in the French debate. But even if militant or political reason often drive interpretations, we argue that the evidence produced by the various contributions to this 50-year-old debate, stretching from the Six-Day War to the recent publication of the Grande Édition Marx et Engels (GEME), tends to demonstrate the anachronism of the accusation of ‘antisemitism’ levelled against Marx.

Before reviewing the debate, let us also note that antisemitism has had several lives in France and that its presumed collusion with Marxism is the result of a change in the meaning of what is considered ‘antisemitic’ after the founding of the State of Israel in 1948. In post-war France, antisemitism was not only delegitimised, but it even seemed to be eradicated. ‘Morally, philosophically, [and] religiously, traditional antisemitism suffered irreparable blows after the war.’[15] From its existentialist premises, Sartre condemned antisemitism as a cowardly passion that invents itself a scapegoat – the Jew – in order to avoid responsibility for one’s own situation as a free and indeterminate human being.[16] The Shoah delegitimised antisemitism to its roots and bound both Christian and secular Europeans, accustomed to stigmatising the ‘Jewish deicide’, in the same guilt. Moreover, ‘the Shoah will have become not only the mental and psychic matrix of the Jews after World War II, but also the ultimate “proof” in favour of the historical necessity [of the Jewish nation-state].’[17] This necessity appeared obvious in 1948, when the Zionist project was devoted to the construction of a new secular, socialist democracy.[18] These several post-war developments earned Zionism strong support from the French left and put antisemitism on hold for a period of some twenty years.

The revival of Marx’s article after the Six-Day War

The first French scholarly translation of Zur Judenfrage by Jules Molitor was published in 1927 by Édition Costes.[19] Forty years after this initial publication, and twenty years after the birth of the State of Israel, ‘a disturbing news – the revival of French antisemitism since the Six-Day War in June 1967 – [had] prompted those responsible for 10/18 [a paperback publisher] to re-edit the little-known work of the young Karl Marx.’[20] Indeed, France fiercely debated the 1967 war and Israeli annexations, while President De Gaulle’s remarks on the Jews as ‘an elite people, sure of themselves and domineering,’[21] also fuelled a broad controversy against Israel. ‘The Jews of France went through a deep identity crisis during this period: publicly affirming effective solidarity with the Hebrew state, they were very marked by the hostile policy of the French government towards Israel.’[22] So much so, in fact, that the Chief Rabbi of France, Jacob Kaplan, protested and expressed ‘the deep emotion felt by all of Judaism in the presence of the theses presented by President [De Gaulle].’[23] Ben Gurion, former Prime Minister of Israel, also relayed his concerns to the French President,[24] while Raymond Aron broke the ‘silence des intellectuels’ and attacked De Gaulle, accusing him of opening ‘a new period of Jewish history and perhaps of antisemitism.’[25]

The new face of annexationist Zionism, which marginalised the Israeli left and the self-governing socialist experiment of the kibbutz, effected a shift in what Zionism could mean. According to the retrospective opinion of the French historian François Azouvi, the antisemitic passion described by Sartre would have been deprived of its justifications and would have slumbered ‘until the Six-Day War enabled a Third Worldist left to furbish a newlegitimacy to its antisemitism: anti-Zionism.’[26] This possible collusion between post-1967 anti-Zionism, the left, and the revival of French antisemitism fuelled in turn the controversy surrounding the young Marx’s article.

In this incendiary context, the Union générale d’éditions (UGE) put into circulation a new translation of Zur Judenfrage by Jean-Michel Palmier, along with the very first French translation of Bauer’s 1843 book.[27] Robert Mandrou wrote the short introduction to this paperback edition, using it to take a stand against ‘the critics of Marxism who pity the antisemitic Jew.’[28] To cut this accusation short, Mandrou minimises ‘the apparently contemptuous formulas’ or ‘terms of derision’ used in the second part of Zur Judenfrage. For him, only the malice of readers in a hurry can explain the distortion of Marx’s text when read in light of the ‘contemporary antisemitism [which] took shape at the turn of the [Twentieth] century’.[29]

This clarification surrounding the anachronism of antisemitic accusations against Marx was not deepened at this point, although the re-publication of the young Marxs piece in 1968, quickly followed by Marianna Simon’s translation (with introduction by François Châtelet) in 1971,[30] were undertaken with the aim of dissipating these various conceptual misunderstandings. That goal, however, was never achieved. Rather, Mandrou and Châtelet’s attenuations provided an occasion for a counter-exaggeration, that of an entirely antisemitic Marx posited by Robert Misrahi in 1972.

The ‘antisemitic’ Marx: from accusation to cross-examination

Born in Paris of Jewish parents, a contributor to Les Temps Modernes, and professor of philosophy at Sorbonne, Misrahi filled Marx’s anti-Jewish passages with speculative comments in Marx et la question juive (1972).According to Misrahi, Marx would have avoided slipping into such ‘antisemitism’ had he considered the possibility of a national solution to the Jewish question [which] existed in the Jewish and non-Jewish consciousness of Europe in the 1840s.[31] Against all historical cautionabout the limited space that even proto-Zionism would have had in the political spectrumof the early-nineteenth century, Misrahi goes further and reveals the heart of his anachronistic grievance towards Marx:

If he had mentioned the Zionist solution, he would have been forced to adopt it by the very logic of his system: to suppress the Jews is also to bring them together and bring them back to Israel. Mankind would have been emancipated from the Jews, and the Jews, emancipated from oppression.[32]

This sentence characterises Misrahi’s overall argument as well as the more general position of Marx’s accusers. On the one hand, he confuses the abolition (Aufhebung) of Judaism withthe suppression of the Jews, which is nowhere to be found in Marxs text yet clearly corresponds to the lexicon of racist antisemitism to which Marx is mixed up. On the other hand, Misrahi posits that Marx’s sin would have been avoided had he been a Zionist and a supporter of the Jewish nation instead of being critical of the state and nationalism. In short, to avoid accusations of antisemitism Marx would have had to not be Marx.

However, in arriving at these criticisms and accusations the broader position that Marx stood for was not adequately reported. For example, Misrahi partially quotes Marx’s March 13th, 1843 letter to Arnold Ruge:The Israelite religion inspires me with repulsion.[33] When placed in context, however, Marx’s position displays an entirely different perspective:

I have just been visited by the chief of the Jewish community here [in Cologne], who has asked me for a petition for the Jews to the Provincial Assembly, and I am willing to do it. However much I dislike the Jewish faith, Bauer’s view seems to me too abstract. The thing is to make as many breaches as possible in the Christian state and to smuggle in as much as we can of what is rational. At least, it must be attempted – and the embitterment grows with every petition that is rejected with protestations.[34]

Misrahi’s omission removes one of the few pieces of evidence of Marx’s clear support for Jewish emancipation in the wake of his own father’s commitment.[35] It conceals his analytical intention, which will have been sketched out in the 1844 article: to submit to an equal critique Bauer and his abstractions, the Jewish and Christian religions, and the PrussianState.

For the philosopher Elisabeth de Fontenay, a disciple of Louis Althusser in the 1970s and later a supporter of Zionism, this partial and partisan reading of Marx is due to the ‘hesitations of rigor’ on the part of the ‘antisemitic Marx’ camp. In her work, Les figures juives de Marx (1973), De Fontenay never mentions Misrahi but her contribution as a whole clearly aims to fill his silences and especially the ‘historical falsifications’ of any ‘reader-judge’ (lecteur-juge)[36] such as himself. Of Jewish descent through her mother, De Fontenay rejects the thesis ‘of a transhistorical ever reborn antisemitism,’[37] and seeks instead to historicise ‘the multiple anti-Jewish campaigns according to their irreducible forms’ and ‘to consider as decisive the date on which texts are drafted.’[38] To thwart the accusations of the anti-Marxists, De Fontenay reduces the violence of Marx’s lexicon to a ‘sole methodological dimension’ and favours a softened translation by speaking of the ‘Juif du change.[39] Nonetheless, the true strength of the work lies in De Fontenay’s restoration, development, and refinement of Marx’s argument in the Manuscripts of 1844, theTheses on Feuerbach, andThe Holy Family. It is also worth noting that the author produced a major piece of evidence against Marx’s accusers by appending to her book the first French translation of Moses Hess’Essence of Money.

The figure of Hess is a focal point in this debate. By drawing attention to this text, De Fontenay unmasked one of the strategies used by Misrahi for clearing Hess of the accusations set against Marx. Let us recall that Moses Hess (1812-1875) had a decisive influence on Marx and Engels’ adherence to communism and that he co-authored with them at least one section of the initial versions of The German Ideology. A few months before the forthcoming issue of theDeutsch-französische Jahrbücher, Hess placed in Marx’s hands his manuscript entitledEssence of Money [Über das Geldwesen], in which the brutal match between Jew and money is a leitmotiv.[40]

Misrahi reports these facts in a curious way – that is to say, without reporting them. He states: ‘To the articles of the Jew Moses Hess against money, property and the State, in 1843, answers the article of the liberal Protestant Karl Marx, son of a converted Jew and himself converted against the Jews and their religion of money.’[41] In this sentence, Marx is no longer only a Jew or a socialist; he becomes the author of theses which are in fact attributable to Hess himself. The attention to detail in portraying Hess’ political thought and his friendship with Marx is meticulous, except in the mention of the text submitted for publication in Marx and Ruge’s journal. Misrahi’s omission stands up to his polemical task, as Hess’ text is indeed a violent charge against Jews found guilty of the development of selfishness in mankind. Hess even speculates on the Hebrew etymology of the words blood (dam) and money (damim) and constantly alludes to cannibalism – i.e., the alleged link between human sacrifice and monetary punishment in Judaism.[42] The series of appalling passages which fill this anti-Judaic and Judeophobic article exceed in number and violence the statements endorsed by Marx:

Just as the animal tastes in blood only his own life in an animal-like, brutal way, so man tastes in money his own life in a brutal, animal-like, cannibalistic way. Money is the social blood, but externalised, spilt blood. The Jews had the world-historic mission in the natural history of the social animal world of developing the beast of prey out of man; they have finally fulfilled their mission. The mystery of Judaism and Christianity has been made public in the modern Jewish-Christian world of shopkeepers… In face of money, kings… have they only the right, like the other animal-men, arising from common natural right, from their common quality of beasts of prey, bloodsuckers, Jews, money-wolves… Money is the life-killing means of intercourse which has solidified into a dead letter just as the letter is the spirit-killing means of intercourse which has solidified into dead money. The invention of money and letters is attributed to the Phoenicians, the same people to whom is also attributed the invention of the Jewish God.[43]

Why does Misrahi not refer to these passages? Wouldn’t they be just as worthy of charges of ‘antisemitism’ from a ‘self-hating’ Jew as Marx’s writings? Are not these passages even more aggravated by the fact that Hess received, unlike Marx, a religious Jewish education and that these views on Judaism in 1843 cannot be explained by sheer ignorance or prejudice? This double standard is no secret, however, as Misrahi and most anti-Marxist Zionists see in Moses Hess the very model of the path to be taken from socialism to Zionism. By publishing Rome and Jerusalem in 1862, Hess pioneered modern Jewish nationalism with ‘one of the first major Zionist works’ which ‘advocates the resurrection of Palestine [sic] by a Jewish population.’[44] In a strange reversal, Hess’ later text is seen as the precursor of an idea (i.e., ‘to prefer [Jewish] nationality and to sacrifice to it an emancipation which would be illusory’)[45] that, according to Misrahi, the young Marx would have to have known and promoted before Hess. In fact, even before the rise of ethnic and national antisemitism, against which Hess rose in the 1860s and upon which he relied to criticise the assimilation of German Jews, Marx should have anticipated these developments and also refused ‘the possibility of emancipation through assimilation.’[46] In short, to use a contemporary label, Hess is portrayed as offering the correct version of a Jewish identity politics. Having become a Zionist, he has therefore taken the ‘right path’ since his anti-Jewish writings of the 1840s. This is enough to spare him a close examination of his pre-conversion writings, which is why Essence of Money is carefully ignored.

But Marx also traces his own path, and this very quickly in the short interval between 1843-1845. If his alleged ‘antisemitism’ were a key to understanding his work, then the Jewish figure should have continued to play a role, with all its weight, in his arguments. Rather, De Fontenay shows that Marx quickly detached himself from the Hessian phrases he reverberated in his 1844 article. Drawing on György Lukács, she argues that Hess’ moralising criticism of money could only be both ‘stuck in repetition and derailed in anti-Judaism.’[47] To get out of this dead end, Marx gradually avoids the language of Essence of Money. Hess’ chain of logic leading fromblood - money - egoism - Jews - bourgeois society becomes, for Marx,money - egoism - Jews - bourgeois society. However, in theManuscripts of 1844, Marx already speaks of money without the Jew and prefers to borrow from Goethe and Shakespeare to illustrate the simplified chain ofmoney - egoism - bourgeois society.[48] He even returns to Shakespeare – the favourite author of the whole Marx family – to seize upon the ‘essence of money.’[49] At the end of the section titled ‘The Power of Money’, Marx sums up the Shakespearean conception:

1. It is the visible divinity – the transformation of all human and natural properties into their contraries, the universal confounding and distorting of things: impossibilities are soldered together by it.

2. It is the common whore, the common procurer of people and nations.[50]

In a similar spirit of abandoning the Hessian perspective, Marx criticises Feuerbach for the fact that his material practice ‘is conceived and fixed only in its dirty-Judaical manifestation.’[51] Marx no longer wishes to stay on this phenomenal surface; he wishes to shift the terms of the question without yet providing an answer of his own. Nevertheless, these few traces of a reassessment of the question found in this series of posthumous writings inform us of the path Marx took before returning to the Jewish question for a second and final time.

According to De Fontenay, Marx’s first book, The Holy Family (authored with Engels), brings a new maturity to the question:the writing helps itself, the reflection recovers from what had been written a bit quickly and is given a chance to be seriously rethought.’[52] While the failure of the Deutsch-französische Jahrbücher project was confirmed after only one issue, Marx returned to the Jewish question in three subsections of the sixth chapter ofThe Holy Family, totalling a number of pages similar to his initial article.

As De Fontenay rightly urges us, reconstructing or criticising Marx’s thought on the Jewish question requires an account of the inflection of the argument in his work. In regard to The Holy Family, the first fact to report is that Marx, in his second duel against Bauer andhis Jewish question, completely drops the Hessian lexicon used in his 1844 article. The other new facts that must be reported, apart from the abandonment of the profanatory tone towards the ‘Sabbath Jew’, concern the support that Marx gives to a series of reviews by other Jewish rationalist and liberal writers who also reject Bauer’s theses. Marx aligns with these positions, pleads again for civil rights, and insists even more on the legitimacy of a Jewish difference (i.e., a freedom of religion). ‘Herr Bauer was shown that when the Jew demands freedom and nevertheless refuses to renounce his religion, he “is engaging in politics” and sets no condition that is contrary to political freedom.’[53] Jewish emancipation is even a criterion for judging the advancement of a state, because ‘states which cannot yet politically emancipate the Jews must be rated by comparison with the perfected political state and shown to be under-developed states.’[54] By way of Marx’s self-comments on his intentions in Zur Judenfrage, he returns at least ten times to his initial article. These make clear that his contribution inThe Holy Family is intended to be a clarification – not a revision – because the problem was, in the author’s opinion, already quite well positioned: political emancipation is progress for the Jews, but it does not yet amount to their social emancipation. ‘That is the point of view from which the “political emancipation” of the Jews should have been dealt with and is dealt with in theDeutsch-französische Jahrbücher.[55]

Right-wing Zionism’s attack on Marxism

Against all expectations, this turn in the debate and the evidence that accompanies it do not at all resolve the question in France. The discursive function of an antisemitic Marx is far too convenient to its proponents to be abandoned. Added to this was the aggravation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which, with the definitive victory of the Israeli right in 1977, infused the Zionist project with a good dose of religious fundamentalism and obsession with security. This rightward shift of Zionism reconfigured the ideological map of its supporters: ‘after having aroused sympathy within the non-communist left gathered within the Socialist International, it is mainly in US neoconservative circles and evangelical sects that he now reaps a full support.’[56] The legitimacy of anti-Zionism, within a left-wing horizon, diminished just as much as the discredit which struck Marxism increased during the 1980s. Indeed, since the conquest of the media space in 1979 by the anti-Marxist Nouveaux philosophes, Bernard Henri-Lévy and André Glucksmann, and the coming to fashion of totalitarianism’ studies, which in the 1980s brought together the Leftist critics of the USSR (e.g., Claude Lefort) and conservative critics of the revolutionary tradition (e.g., François Furet), the anachronistic ‘antisemitic’ reading of Marx has persisted all too well.

Claude Lefort[57] negatively judges Marx’s contribution to the criticism of the rights of man, even if the latter conceived them as ‘a necessary, but transitory, phase of human emancipation.’[58] Although these rights remain ambiguous, as Zur Judenfrage attempts to demonstrate by opposing the right to property to other formal rights inboth the French and American constitutions, Marx, according to Lefort, wouldn’t ‘give the notion of human rights its full meaning.’[59] Marx would not have seen that these rights challenge state sovereignty and the fiction of the One-People. Against the Marxist critique of civil rights, Lefort makes a call to go beyond the categories trapped in the 1844 article and recognise, contra Marx, that a social power arises from the democratic revolution of political rights, which then gives rise to new rights, including for social, identity, and gender issues. In the light of the Fifth French Republic – and not of the bloody repressions of 1848 or 1871 that Marx rightly links to bourgeois rule – Lefort sees in the struggle for the extension of human rights in the East (against Moscow) and in the West (against undemocratic tendencies) a common political will ‘to exploit the resources of freedom and creativity.’[60] Despite his post-Marxist critique of Marx and his critical judgment that accusations of an antisemitic Marx come from ‘some imprudent or foolish individuals,’[61] Lefort nonetheless contributes to the anachronistic critique of Marx himself, demonstrating that (at least in France) it still has wind in its sails.

To wit, Francis Kaplan, whose father, Rabbi Kaplan, criticised de Gaulle in 1967, invested this niche and reiterated the ‘antisemitic Marx’ thesis launched by Misrahi in 1972. Kaplan’s 1990 essay, Marx antisémite?, quickly rids itself of the question mark in its title. He admits with nuance that the first part of Marx’s article expresses a ‘non-antisemitic position’ and even claims that the link between the Sabbath Jew and the profane Jew contained in the second part is faithful to Marx’s materialism, and is not as such antisemitic in itself. For Kaplan, however, things are quite different in the rest of the article. From the moment when Marx connects Jews, egoism, and huckstering as well as money, god, and Israel, he lapses into an ‘antisemitism in itself scandalous,’[62] which takes a ‘delusional form’ in his 1844 article and returns in an ‘ordinary form’ in later works and in Marx’s private letters.

Kaplan’s book, unlike Misrahi’s, confronts the question of Hess’ possible youthful ‘antisemitism’, for which Essence of Money is briefly cited, but concludes that the latter’s antisemitism is ‘less violent than Marx’s’[63] while refraining from alluding to the blood–money linkage in Hess. Even if Kaplan conducts a fair analysis at times, he eventually unleashes against those interpreters of Marx who do not arrive at his conclusions – regardless of whether they are from France (Rubel, Mandrou, Châtelet, De Fontenay) or elsewhere (Hannah Arendt, Isaac Deutscher, Roman Rosdolsky). While geopolitical trends of the early 1990s crushed the vestiges of the USSR and really-existing socialism, Kaplan’s charges unfolded violently: ‘those who find Marx’s language normal are antisemites who dare not display themselves as such,’ and criticism of the State of Israel by these same interpreters acts merely ‘as the justification for current antisemitism.’[64] These out of place remarks did not give rise to any sustained response, but they do show that, for some, criticism of Zionism can never be legitimate.

Against Counterfeits: the ‘right path’ for Jewish identity formation

In this vein, the Jewish sociologist Pierre Birnbaum revived the French controversy over the ‘antisemitic Marx’ some fifteen years later. A child survivor of the collaborationist Vichy government, Birnbaum lived in hiding with peasants from the Pyrénées at the height of the Nazi deportations to the death camps. For him, the question of how the French state, having once emancipated the Jews and allowed them to attain high public offices, could suddenly reverse course and collaborate in their extermination,remains a ‘mystery’.[65]Birnbaum is thus interested in the history of the French Jews and of the antisemitic hatred of which France shows itself to be capable. It is in light of this last theme that he ventures, in Géographie de l’espoir,[66] into the field of political ideas by reviewing the life and work of some European Jewish intellectual figures including Durkheim, Simmel, Arendt, Aron, Berlin, and, first and foremost, Marx.

Birnbaum’s overall thesis still resembles the ‘right path that the Jewish identity-formation must take. The latter must be assumed by resisting assimilation or the fluidity of multiple identities. The author borrows heavily from Francis Kaplan’s argument, including from the exhaustive inventory of all of Marx’s anti-Jewish remarks in his letters. In Birnbaums narrative, Marx is cast as the anti-model: one should have “[convinced] him to take into consideration questions of identity without relating them solely to the logic based on means of production that are indifferent to popular values and imagination.”[67] Instead of Judaism disappearing through socialism, in and with human emancipation, Marx shall disappear through Judaism, in and with Jewish nationalism.

In the critical words of Enzo Traverso and Sai Englert, we could say that Birnbaum represents the culmination of a ‘conservative turn’[68]among many Jewish intellectuals, like Raymond Aron or Isaiah Berlin, who adhere to ‘an understanding of identity, one which assumes it to be static and individual.’[69] We note that Birnbaum’s approach innovates relatively little in the debate. It relies on the Zionist Moses Hess of 1862 to draw the right line while being completely silent on his anti-Jewish writing of 1843, which influenced Marx and from which Marx quickly detaches himself. The argument is, as in Misrahi and Kaplan, in the past conditional and therefore remains anachronistic or teleological: Marx should not have been materialist and socialist; he should have been a Zionist and a Jewish nationalist – even religious. This incriminating or exculpatory criterion, depending on whether it is Hess or Marx, still dictates the standards of evidence used to prove or disprove their ‘antisemitism’.

Two elements, however, distinguish Birnbaums approach. First of all, he is laudatory towards Bauer, who expresses ‘a surprising sensitivity to the most concrete history,’ especially when he uses the expression ‘Jewish people’ and when he ‘seems to briefly envisage favourably the Zionist hypothesis.’[70] What might seem like another mystery here – the sympathy for the reactionary Bauer – is explained by the fact that Birnbaum prefers an argument against the assimilation of Jews, even if it comes from an ethnic and nationalist antisemite, rather than an argument for the social emancipation of Jews from a materialist in search of human emancipation. As a result, even if Birnbaum concedes that the Jewish reference disappears from Marx’s work after The Holy Family, he sees this as more ground for suspicion. Therefore, he takes up the idea of a tight collage, already available in Kaplans work, of all the anti-Jewish occurrences in Marx’s private letters to infer a sort of basso continuo ofhis (mis)conceptions on the Jewish question. From this string of Judeophobic insults – especially towards the socialist Jew Ferdinand Lassalle, who also does not escape, paradoxically, the suspicions of ‘Jewish antisemitism’[71]Birnbaum goes further than all the anti-Marxists listed above and seeks to link Marx to the conspiratorial spirit of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.[72]With regard to the polemical goal he sets for himself, this testifies to Birnbaum’s lack of sensitivity to the most concrete history.

The anger of Birnbaum’s opponents followed soon after. This new anti-Marx argument not only provided another pretext for a new French translation of Zur Judenfrage by Jean-François Poirier, published by La Fabrique, but also for the very first French publication of Bauer’s second text criticised by Marx.[73] Herein, the Jewish Marxist theorist and activist, Daniel Bensaïd, presents a detailed, critical apparatus which is just as polemical as Birnbaum’s. The ground for this was prepared by a previous work by Jacques Aron, a Belgian-Jewish intellectual who takes issue with the false parallel between criticism of the State of Israel and antisemitism and with the role attributed to Marx in this anachronistic trial.

In Karl Marx, antisémite et criminel ?, Aron provides a strong argument in defence of Marx. He recalls that his ‘infamous’ 1844 article, which appeared in a German-language journal in Paris, had very little readership since the print was almost entirely seized at the French-German border.[74] To lend such influence to a text instantly forgotten is a material impossibility. Aron also insists on the anti-Judaic context (perfectly embodied by Bauer and the Christian State of Prussia in 1843) which determines the state of the question before Marx:

Marx’s article is at the same time a theoretical approach to the institution of the state, to the place that religion should or should not hold in it, to the notion of emancipation, and to the ‘Jewish question’, in the sole religious sense of the question both for Jews and non-Jews at this moment.[75]

He recognises that Marx proceeds to an ‘abusive criticism of Judaism’ and he excuses this along a line similar to De Fontenay by speaking ‘of a theory still in formation and still elementary in several matters.’[76] In short, his strategy borrows a little from a teleological perspective to compensate for what remains an anachronistic trial.

In Bensaïd, who was leader of the Revolutionary Communist League and of the Fourth International, teleology by excess of sympathy towards Marx also plays a compensatory role in the face of the dubious strategy chosen by the opposing camp. Thus, the conjunction of money and Jew would be ‘a pending concept’[77] and not a vulgar prejudice, because Marx’s fixation thereon would anticipate ‘without yet understanding... commodity fetishism,’[78] which he developed in the first volume of Capital some twenty years later. More rigorously, Bensaïd does recognise that Marx reflects from inside a theme imposed on young radical Hegelians, namely the criticism of religion which is coming to the end of its course. Bauer chooses to essentialise the Jews, like others do for Muslims today, who he believes ‘voluntarily excluded themselves from the common society by their stubbornness in cultivating their religious singularity and [who are held] therefore responsible for the oppression suffered.’[79] Marx tears this line of argument apart by pleading for freedom of religion and by reflecting not on the will but on theexternal circumstances which found religious beliefs.

Against the rigidity of identity that facilitates state power, Bensaïd closes his response with a critique of the State of Israel and the instrumentalisation of the Shoah. ‘The corollary of the absolute uniqueness of the Jewish tragedy is then the theological justification of the secular existence of Israel, and the absolution of its misdeeds in the name of the Jewish exception.’[80] These comments on contemporary politics reveal, as Sai Englert shows in the UK context, that Bensaïd is indeed very distant from Misrahi, Kaplan, and Birnbaum when he resists the ‘state’s essentialisation of Jewishness under the banner of Zionism.’[81]

In France, anti-Zionism is indeed either caricatured or fought by an ‘equally’ legitimate defence of intransigent Zionism. Yves Charles Zarka, director of the journal Cités, endorses this discourse:

Anti-Zionism today aims to completely delegitimise the Israeli fact. For some, this contestation is not only about the territories occupied since 1967, but about the very existence of this state. The theme of the radical delegitimisation is: Israel is one state too many. We must end it. New version of the final solution, no doubt.[82]

Similar to Judith Butler,[83] Bensaïd’s critical position, which relates to the minority current of Jewish anti-Zionism, certainly thwarts this equivalence between criticism of Israel and genocide.[84] However, Bensaïd reflects little, if at all, on the poverty of Marx’s analysis of religious beliefs and pleads for a resumption of the same critical and profaning attitude in the face of the return of theology. He is wary of ventures, à la Birnbaum, aimed at reconnecting the sacred and the is now commonin Jewish Studies,[85] and prefers by far Marx’s call to ‘transform theological questions into profane questions.’[86]

Finally, another upsurge in the anachronistic trial against Marx is found in the work of André Sénik, an ex-communist Jew and a particularly harsh anti-Marxist voice. Unlike Lefort’s nuances of Marx’s mistakes in his criticism of human rights, Sénik posits Marx’s youthful text as nothing less than ‘the origin of the communist catastrophe.’[87] His book, Marx, les Juifs et les droits de l’homme, is said to be inspired by Francis Kaplan, but the subject matter and quality of his commentary on Marx’s work are quite different. The author attacks the very idea of emancipation by equating it with totalitarianism. This shift is for us symptomatic of the exhaustion of the attempt to link Marx to antisemitism. As a matter of fact, the book’s equally anti-Marxist afterword is signed by a specialist in French antisemitism, Pierre-André Taguieff, who is careful not to repeat the accusation of an ‘antisemitic Marx’. He speaks of the 1844 article as an ‘essay with Judeophobic overtones.’[88] Nevertheless, he agrees with Sénik in deriding the word ‘emancipation’ used today by the left (from Jacques Rancière to Philippe Corcuff), with very little sympathy for the term which has historically described the advancement of Jews, Blacks, women, and ethnic and sexual minorities for two centuries.

From our standpoint, the French controversy over an antisemitic Marx, although it does not bridge the two camps together over the value of historical materialism, nonetheless helps develop a factual basis regarding this ill-founded accusation. The latest French edition of the unique issue of the Deutsch-französische Jahrbücher, published in the GEME by Alix Bouffard and Pauline Clochec, departs from this controversial field of debate. A new generation of scholars ‘rewrites Marx in a new way’ and proceeds meticulously to establish the 1844 text according to the best standards ofmarxologie, that is to say, by treating Marx as a nineteenth-century author and not as a weapon speaking directly to today’s struggles. Published in 2020, Clochec’s introduction claims to take a middle position, that is to say, it refuses to considerZur Judenfrage as an antisemitic textwhile recognising in it Judeophobic traits and a philosophical anti-Judaism.[89]

This position fits between the absolutions of Daniel Bensaïd and Jacques Aron and the calls to see in it a fully antisemitic text calling for the extermination of the Jews as do Robert Misrahi, André Sénik, and Pierre Birnbaum.[90] It should be noted, however, that as the translator of the disputed text, Clochec opts for the more neutral formulas of trade and greedto talk about ‘the everyday Jew’. This differs from the edition commented on by Bensaïd that speaks of ‘agiotage’, which is closer to the pejorative meaning associated with the wordSchacher used by Marx.Nevertheless, she does stipulate that Marx proceeds to a revival of the Judeophobic stereotypes attributing to an essence of Judaism the social activities to which medieval Christendom assigned the Jews.[91]

In a concise manner, the following observations that the GEME collects in its scholarly commentary on Zur Judenfrage nonetheless clear the young Marx of the accusation. These three statements (and their pieces of evidence) are certainly binding for any mind sensitive to historical caution: 1) ‘Against Bauer, [Marx] seeks to defend this emancipation for which he had signed a petition in March 1843[92] (e.g., Marx’s letter to Ruge); 2) ‘Judeophobic representations are common at the time and are even shared by intellectuals of Jewish origin, such as Hess and Marx[93] (e.g., Hess’ Essence of Money); and 3) ‘Marx does not reject all instrumental use of human rights. Rather, he relativises their use by making them the means of an only incomplete emancipation[94] (e.g., The Holy Family). Building from a long history of virulent debate in France that helped produce and refine a deeply-contextualised evidentiary basis for interpreting the young Marx’s text, these observations characterise an historically-cautious reading in light of which we cannot but view Marx’s trial as anachronistic. Nevertheless, to avoid the naivety of concluding that scholarly reason can guide political reason, let us simply note that the debate could be reopened at anytime as the relationships between Marxism, Zionism, and antisemitism are reconfigured in the years and decades to come.For now, however, we must admit that the anachronistic character of Marx’s trial over antisemitism does not excuse the flaws of Marxism itself. Whether in its understanding of late nineteenth-century antisemitism or of the persistence of the Jewish and religious questions to the present day, Marxism leaves us with several thorny problems that we shall now briefly examine.

Historicising Marx in the face of antisemitism, Islamophobia, and Secularism

Through his adherence to the democratic radicalism of the early 1840s, Marx adopted an assimilationist position that will never have left him and whose influence will have been present in the socialism of the following century.[95] As a consequence, Marx’s – and Marxism’s – prognosis for the abolition or ‘fade out’ (Aufhebung) of Judaism through the disappearance of its profane conditions does little either to foresee the perpetuation of Judaism (and other religions) or to explain the strength of racist antisemitism from the end of the nineteenth-century.

As Zionist and nationalist opponents have pointed out, Marx remains largely ignorant of the concrete situation of the Jews, their oppression by the Prussian state, and their real social position in the European economy. While Marx’s ‘pre-Marxist conception of capitalism’ is trapped in the sterility of the Jewish–bourgeoisie association, which is ignorant of the fact that ‘[Jewish traders] were rather pushed out by the nascent bourgeois classes,’[96] his democratic radicalism – tinged with the Enlightenment’s secular rationalism – leads to the underestimation of the scope and persistence of antisemitism.[97]

These issues are crucial. And if the ambiguity of classical Marxism with regard to antisemitism has led us to mention them, they are, however, only the prelude to a second challenge posed to the young Marx’s analysis. Namely, the post-2001 context that many identify with a ‘return of religion’, or even a ‘crisis of secularism’, indeed seems to correspond to ‘a revenge of the sociology of religions against a Marxian “master narrative.”’[98] Among the elements of this narrative, the ‘secular prejudice’ which characterises Marx’s article does not resolve the point ‘that religious consciousness does not fade or die with a secular commitment to its formal expungement from spheres or practices.’[99] The mechanistic thesis of the disappearance of religion through the disappearance of its profane conditions of existence still poses an analytical and, above all, political problem.

On the one hand, we could say that, due to an oversight in the materialist critique of religions and the persistence of the idealistic cult of secularism and the state, ‘the 1840s still lie ahead of us.’[100] The return of religious questions makes it thus possible to reconnect with Marx in order to unmask the hypocrisy of debates on secularism which are disinterested in the material and social condition of believers. On the other hand, we have to admit that Marx does not prepare us to understand how the ‘presumptions that implicitly forecast a combination of reason, science, liberal democracy, and the market as dethroning religious political authority and energies [never took place].’[101]

In light of the secularism crisis and growing Islamophobia in France, the question of religious minorities and their ‘assimilation’ to the ‘national majority’ is conducive to such a renewal of the question and the problem tackled by the young Marx. Indeed, theLaw on religious symbols in French public schools, voted into force in 2004, targets Muslim girls and reveals the specificity of France’s – and of a large part of the French left’s – conviction ‘that Muslim religious practices are incompatible with the secular, republican traditions of the French state.’[102] This rather ‘Bauerian’ conviction, which passes from the thesis of ‘unassimilable’ Jews to that of ‘unassimilable’ Muslims, is not shared, for example, by the Anglo-Saxon left which, in the vast majority of cases, has no principled opposition to the wearing of religious symbols. The troubled context of French secularism, which grants a historical privilege to Catholicism while crushing minority religions, perhaps means that its catholaïcité ‘has acquired an ethnic and exclusivist connotation, slipping into what amounts, relative to a more genuine and egalitarian universalism, to a racially coded particularism.’[103]

The French left, in particular Marxist thinkers, had to end up confronting these issues. Directed by Michael Löwy and Étienne Balibar, a special edition of Actuel Marx, entitled ‘Religions’, admits that ‘the current situation forces us to put into perspective what was for a long time a certainty of Enlightenment rationalism and of a certain Marxism, that of an irreversible progress of secularisation, and for republican France, oflaïcisation.’[104]

Against the return of the type of grievances that Bauer threw at Jewish ‘incapacity for emancipation,’ André Tosel notes that the context of the 1840s seems to ‘come back’ with the same arrogance on the part of the post-Christian states which are hunting for the ‘infamous’ from within:

On the one hand, Christianity would be the only religion to have exited from religion and, on the other hand, this character would speak to its own superiority. Western society, in the name of universalist and secularised Judeo-Christianity, comes to erect its superiority en bloc by developing a critique of foreign religions asothers, still ‘backward’ foreigners, and by granting this superiority to itself with a good conscience that touches on racialisation.[105]

This racialisation, now directed against Muslims, means that the so-called neutrality of secularism becomes more of an anti-immigration battle horse, prioritising post-Christians above Muslims in terms of their capacity for ‘secularisation’. This diagnosis joins that of Rogers Brubaker about a “civilizationist” [turn in] national populisms, founded on the notion of a civilizational threat from Islam.’[106]This shift is currently benefiting the rise of the far right[107]and confines the left, which criticises the ‘weaponisation’ of secularism, to the perimeters of the insult drawn by Islamo-leftism’ – a bad copy of the former antisemitic fear towards Judeo-Bolshevism’.[108]

In order to fight against new forms of racism, contemporary critical thinkers must again problematise Marx’s relationship to religion. Mohamed Amer Meziane criticises, for instance, the spirit of the Feuerbachian critique of religion and goes so far as to argue that its incorporation into Marxism leads to aporias in the anthropology of religious beliefs.[109] By adopting the ‘secular prejudice’ which makes the United States a norm in matters of religious concord under a secular state, Marx gives in to the conception of both religion and humanity ‘in general,’ and this abstraction leads him to reduce religion to ideology ‘in general.’[110] In a sometimes-cryptic way, the author reproaches the young Marx’s profanatory tone, an abstract atheism which dismisses a little quickly, according to him, the foundations of religious beliefs:

Atheism demands that humans liberate themselves from an illusion, but this requirement makes no sense if it does not require the suppression of the world that makes this illusion necessary and vital. The project of merely abolishing religion in an inhuman world equals a desire to suppress the only breathable air in a world where people suffocate without making this very world more breathable.[111]

While 1840s Germany made the air rather unbreathable to a whole generation of atheist philosophers who were banished, for this reason, from the academic profession, it must be recognised that the enlightened critique of religious beliefs, radicalised in different tones by Bauer, Feuerbach, and Marx, comes back to haunt the contradictions of the contemporary situation. A double movement of secularisation and de-secularisation is unleashing around the globe. ‘As Europe becomes more secular, it is increasingly represented as (Judeo-) Christian, in constitutive opposition to Islam.[112] The return of the religious might not be the mote in the Other’s eye, but rather the beam in the eye of the ‘proudly secular Euro-Atlantic societies [who] are “outing” their own religious predicates as they defend their expressly Christian nature and give the lie to the notion that secularism entails religious neutrality.’[113]

Actuel Marx recognises this critical perspective by translating an article by Talal Asad. The anthropologist of religions outlines a research program which poses a challenge to Marxism and which consists in re-examining the link between religion and the State, because ‘the categories of “political” and “religious” are involved with one another, in the final analysis, more deeply than we thought.’[114] In the competition to shape and govern life, including in its material, bodily practices, state and religion perpetually reformulate their relationship to one another, and this porosity that no secularisation has so far managed to contain ‘makes them both equally “political.”’[115]


In a formula which honours Marx and invites us to continue his critical work, Tosel does say that ‘secularisation becomes de-secularisation by realising a world full of fetishes and not void of religion.’[116] The religiosity that can quickly take hold of the ‘secular’ admirers of the state was already part of Marx’s sarcasm towards the theologian Bauer: ‘His faith in Jehovah changed into faith in the Prussian state.’[117] Among other new fetishes, the Jewish identity that Birnbaum et alii conceive ahistorically is also discredited by the young Marx who conceived the Jewish question only ‘through history,in andwith history.’[118]

Let us note again, by way of conclusion, that Marx remarked in 1843-1845 that political emancipation and formal equality recognise the citizen while maintaining the believer; they both recognise the exercise of citizenship in the state while consecrating the egoistic individual who enjoys their property in civil society. Thus, there is no contradiction between political emancipation and the supposed Jewish ‘essence’. Jews are just as fit as Christians for emancipation ‘within the framework of the prevailing social order.’[119] The Jewish question, and nowadays the Muslim question, points rather to the still unsolved problem of concrete human emancipation, the one which unites humans to their species ‘in [their] everyday life, in [their] work, and in [their] relationships,’[120] and which challenges the abstract idols of state, citizenship, and legal rights.

In this vein, the Israeli political scientist Schlomo Avineri inspires us with some further conclusive words about Marx’s intentions. In an article as short as it is illuminating, which appeared almost 60 years ago, Avineri already recalls that Marx was in favour of Jewish emancipation within the limited framework of bourgeois society.[121] Returning to his own analysis, he adds that there were, of course, two contradictory faces in Marx: ‘a radical critique of Judaism (and, incidentally, of Christianity) as a religion, coupled with unequivocal support for civic equality.’[122] The coexistence of solidarity and repulsion, which is nothing so unusual, is called in Freud ambivalence. This malaise is overcome the moment one considers ambivalence and contradiction as parts of a critical, self-critical, and analytical ethos open to movements in history.


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[1] An early version of this article was presented at the Relectures de Marx seminar, held by Michel Lacroix at the University of Québec in Montréal. I thank Émilie Bernier, Sai Englert, Frédéric Miville-Deschênes, Robert Sparling, Philippe Corcuff and the reviewers for their inspiring comments on the advanced manuscript. The actual version owes a lot to the careful reading of Robert Marinov, whom I warmly thank. I dedicate this article to the memory of Jean-Marc Piotte (1940-2022).

[2] See Leopold 2009, Stedman Jones 2016, and Fine and Spencer 2017. It is worth also noting that Yoav Peled brought out the detailed nuances necessary to understand the Marx-Bauer debate thirty years ago (Peled 1992).

[3] Karl Marx, Zur Judenfrage, MEGA I/2. Quoted hereafter in English translation (Marx 1844a).

[4] Jameson 2003, p. xi.

[5] The piece is part of the Deutsch-französische Jahrbücher, the only issue of which appeared in the winter of 1844 in Paris.

[6] For example, Kouvelakis (2003, 2005) does not deal with Marx’s criticism of Jewish religion. He takes up an interpretative line close to Georges Labica (1976) that Peled ranks among those who ‘downplay [Marx’] discussion of the Jewish question itself’ (Peled 1992, 463).

[7] Marx 1844a, p. 48.

[8] Marx 1844a, p. 48. Marx’s emphases. Isaac Deutscher recalls that this anti-Jewish prejudice is so common that the Oxford English Dictionary included it among the accepted meanings of the term ‘Jew’ (Deutscher 1958).

[9] Marx 1844a, p. 50.

[10] Marx 1844a, p. 51.

[11] Marx 1844a, p. 52.

[12] Edmund Silberner's early works seek all traces of antisemitism in socialism and help document the historical ambiguity of the latter towards the former. See Silberner 1949a, 1949b, 1953a, 1953b.

[13] Heinrich 2019, p. 51.

[14] Heinrich Marx (1777-1838) benefited from Jewish emancipation by pursuing a career as a lawyer following his conversion. He was in favour of Jewish civil rights and liberal Enlightenment, and it is reasonable to assume that his son Karl was aware of these political positions (Heinrich 2019, p.81).

[15] Azouvi 2016, p. 22.

[16] Sartre 1946.

[17] Zuckermann 2011, p. 172

[18] Greilsammer 2011.

[19] After Molitor, the French translations of Marx were momentarily placed under the responsibility of Maximilien Rubel, who published four volumes in the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade at Gallimard between 1963 and 1994. Les Éditions Sociales, initially aligned with the French Communist Party, took over the scientific edition of Marx within the GEME. Zur Judenfrage was retranslated in 1968 (UGE), 1971 (Aubier), 1982 (Pléiade), 2006 (La Fabrique), then in 2020 within the GEME.

[20] Mandrou 1968 p. 7.

[21] De Gaulle 1967.

[22] Danan 2007, p. 138.

[23] Danan 2007, p. 139.

[24] Gurion 1967.

[25] Aron, R. 2007, p. 59.

[26] Azouvi, 2016, p. 22. Author’s emphasis.

[27]Bauer 1968. For the English version, see Bauer 1958.

[28] Mandrou 1968, p. 7.

[29] Mandrou 1968, p. 10.

[30] Châtelet 1971.

[31] Misrahi 1972, p. 32.

[32] Misrahi 1972, p. 33.

[33] Misrahi 1972, p. 230.

[34] Marx 1843.

[35] Marx also signed the Merkens petition of May 23, 1843. See Monod 2016, p. 275.

[36] De Fontenay 1973, pp. 13-14.

[37] De Fontenay 1973, p. 15.

[38] De Fontenay 1973, p. 67.

[39] De Fontenay 1973, pp. 23-24.

[40] Bensussan 2017.

[41] Misrahi 1972, p. 233.

[42] Avineri 2019, p. 47

[43] Hess 1845.

[44] Misrahi 1972, p. 232.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Ibid.

[47] De Fontenay, 1973, p. 62.

[48] Marx 1844c.

[49]Shakespeare schildert das Wesen des Geldes trefflich [Shakespeare excellently depicts the real nature of money] (Marx 1844c).

[50] Ibid.

[51] Marx 1845b.

[52] De Fontenay 1973, p. 39.

[53] Marx 1845a.

[54] Ibid.

[55] Ibid.

[56] Charbit 2011, p. 120

[57] Lefort 1981. Quoted hereafter in English translation.

[58] Lefort 1986, p. 250.

[59] Lefort 1986, p. 245.

[60] Lefort 1986, p. 272.

[61] Lefort 1986, p. 250.

[62] Kaplan 1990, p. 50.

[63] Kaplan 1990, p. 87.

[64] Kaplan 1990, p. 68.

[65] Birnbaum 2020.

[66] Birnbaum 2004. Quoted hereafter in English translation.

[67] Birnbaum 2008, p. 38.

[68] Traverso 2016.

[69] Englert 2018, p. 150.

[70] Birnbaum 2008, p. 53.

[71]Silberner 1953b.

[72] Birnbaum 2008, p. 59-60.

[73] Bauer 2006. For the English version, see Bauer 1978.

[74] Aron, J. 2005, p. 167. Details of the seizure of this one-issue, almost confidential publication can be found in Mehring: ‘They succeeded in confiscating 100 copies […] on a Rhine steamer, and well over 200 copies on the French-Palatinate frontier near Bergzabern’ (Mehring 1962, p. 62).

[75] Aron, J. 2005, p. 50. Author’s emphases.

[76] Aron, J. 2005, p. 66.

[77] Bensaïd 2006b, p. 100.

[78] Bensaïd 2006b, p. 107.

[79] Bensaïd 2006a, p. 20. Emphasis added.

[80] Bensaïd 2006b, p. 133. This position is also shared by Traverso, who criticises the ‘civil religion’ of the Holocaust (Traverso 2016, pp. 113-127).

[81] Englert 2018, p.171.

[82] Zarka 2011, p. 17.

[83] Butler 2012.

[84] Philippe Corcuff, a close comrade of Bensaïd, is nevertheless of the opinion that ‘the current majority of so-called “anti-Zionist” discourses on the Internet and on social networks, in France, are antisemitic in style’ (Corcuff 2020, p. 408). This strengthens those who, against this disguised return of antisemitism, fully defend Israeli policy. For a radical critique of anti-Zionism in France, see Taguieff 2010.

[85] Bensaïd 2006b, p. 129.

[86] Bensaïd 2006b, p. 135. The author takes up a reading which, like Labica and Kouvelakis, penetrates as little as possible into the religious field to focus only on the Marxian critique of political emancipation.

[87] Sénik 2011.

[88] Taguieff 2011, p. 227.

[89] Clochec 2020, p. 35.

[90] Ibid.

[91] Clochec 2020, p. 32.

[92] Clochec 2020, p. 31.

[93] Clochec 2020, p. 34.

[94] Clochec 2020, p. 33.

[95] Traverso, 2018 p. 22. The author offers a comprehensive critical analysis of these problems. First published in France in 1990, The Jewish Question: History of a Marxist Debate, is not even mentioned once by Birnbaum or Senik. This omission is self-explanatory because, unlike proponents of the ‘antisemitic Marx’ thesis, Traverso retains Marx and Engels’ historicisation of social realities, including the Jewish question.

[96] Traverso 2018, p. 21. In 1942, Abram Leon brings nuances to these approximations of Marx by proposing the concept of people-class – ‘a social group with a specific economic function’ (Leon 1970, p. 74). Once made obsolete by the rise of the capitalist bourgeoisie, racist antisemitism instrumentalises the ghost of the largely dispossessed Jewish ‘people-class’. Leon denounces, Traverso recalls, the deadly ruse of Nazi antisemitism which ‘allowed the bourgeoisie to turn against the Jews the anti-capitalist radicalisation of the middle class’ (Traverso 2018, p. 191).

[97] The premises of the Marxist analysis, lavished by Engels, underestimate the scope of the phenomenon. Accordingly, Edmund Silberner shows that these ambiguities leave their traces in the ‘neither for nor against the Jews’ position taken by the Second International (Silberner, 1953a, p. 119). As for Engels, Mario Kessler recalls that he had two successive positions with regard to the Jewish question: the first corresponds to an anti-Judaic context (from 1840 to 1878), the second to an antisemitic context (after 1878). As racist variants of antisemitism replaced long-standing anti-Judaism, Engels revised his positions (Engels 1890) and attacked the theses of Eugen Dühring, who brandished ‘the killing and extermination’ as a solution to the Jewish problem. Around 1890 he even wrote an introduction to the Yiddish edition of the Manifesto (Kessler 1998, p. 40). Despite his sympathy about the appeal that socialism has held for generations of Jews, Isaac Deutscher also acknowledges that international socialism did not resolve the Jewish question (Deutscher 2017).

[98] Toscano 2010, p. 4.

[99] Brown, 2014, p. 112.

[100] Toscano 2010, p. 6.

[101] Brown 2014, p. 110.

[102] Callinicos 2008, p. 144.

[103] Callinicos 2008, p. 163.

[104] Tosel 2018, p. 8.

[105] Tosel 2018, p. 11.

[106] Brubaker 2017, p. 1193.

[107] Corcuff 2020. For the author, the strength of the far-right is primarily due to the imposition of its discursive themes within the entire political spectrum, from the right to the far-left. The result is a particularly dangerous ideological fog which he labels as ‘confusionism’.

[108] Traverso 2016, p. 90.

[109] Meziane 2018. Quoted hereafter in English translation.

[110] Meziane 2020. pp. 226-227.

[111] Meziane 2020, pp. 232-233.

[112] Brubaker 2017, p. 1212.

[113] Brown 2014, p. 110.

[114] Asad 2018, p. 100.

[115] Asad 2018, p.99.

[116] Tosel 2018, p. 11.

[117] Marx 1845a.

[118] Marx 1845a. Marx’s emphases.

[119] Marx 1844a, p. 35. Marx’s emphasis.

[120] Marx 1844a, p. 46.

[121] Avineri 1964.

[122] Avineri 2019, p. 53.

Containing Muslims

Europe’s lower-strata working-class Muslims and the weaponisation of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia

Cihan Özpinar

With the elevation of Islamophobia to an alarming degree in Europe and beyond, and the pressing problems of Muslim immigrants and second- and subsequent-generation descendants of immigrants coming to occupy a central subject of debate, critical scholars of racism have drawn politically-relevant parallelisms between the historical ‘Jewish question’ and today’s ‘Muslim question’. On the one hand, some Marxists rose to the challenge of rereading Marx’s 1843 polemic Zur Judenfrage in the contemporary context, while drawing strategic implications for the pressing issues of today’s political and social crisis around Muslims.[1] On the other hand, such parallelisms entailed emphases on the similarities, or enabled comparisons, between antisemitism, as the discursive background of the Jewish question, and Islamophobia, as that of the Muslim question.[2] Other parallels were drawn between the successive shifts of the racialised populations, from the Eastern European Jews to the Muslims, who immigrated to countries such as France, formed the lower strata of the working class, and became subject to derogatory labels such as the métèque.[3] Scholars working in both Marxist and progressive traditions formulated, in different ways, the idea that modern nation-state, with its rigorous secularist and universalist claims (particularly in the French case), is generating the mechanisms for the discrimination and misrecognition of its ethnic or religious minorities. These minorities are increasingly racialised and gendered, as in the case of Muslim women’s veiling practices, vis-à-vis a supposedly integrated, culturally harmonious, if not homogenous, majority.[4] Moreover, there are important and dangerous parallels between the Jewish question and the Muslim question in the form of a wide range of conspiracy theories that are embedded in the Islamophobic discourse – just as those that could be found in the antisemitic discourse.[5] Resonating some of the conspiratorial elements of the ‘redemptive antisemitism’ that laid the ideological basis of Nazism,[6] today’s Islamophobic discourse relies on such scaremongering theories as ‘Eurabia’ and ‘great replacement’, and it is obsessed with the ‘demographic change’ that is taking place in the heart of the Western civilisation.[7]            

However, in order to avoid the pitfalls of quick analogies between the Jewish question and the Muslim question, one needs to take seriously the cautious standpoint of Enzo Traverso on the historical particularities of these two questions.[8] Instead, what I would like to do in this article is to analyse antisemitism and Islamophobia – the ideological backgrounds and discursive tools beneath these two questions – on new grounds, by focusing on how they are weaponised, and what effects such weaponisation produces, with a special emphasis on France. The framework of this article is bound to the following argument I advance: (i) the weaponisation of each discourse, itself understood as a discursive strategy, directly concerns Muslim immigrants and descendants of immigrants in the European, and particularly in the French, context; and(ii) the consequences of such discursive strategies, within a given structural framework, are articulated in what would be called the containment of the lower-strata working-class Muslims in Europe.


This piece is being made available as a preprint edition of the double-volume Marxism and the Critique of Antisemitism special issue of Historical Materialism. Further additions will still be made before then. The final published version of this text will be made available on the Brill website in the coming months. We ask that citations refer to the Brill edition.All Illustrations are by Natalia Podpora.


The argument

The weaponisation of antisemitism (see Section 1) and the weaponisation of Islamophobia (a counter-discourse that responds to Islamophobia, a racist discourse that bears racialising effects on Muslims – see Section 3) are two discursive strategies that follow two different logics and, accordingly, adopt two different discursive tactics (see Figure 1). The logic of the former discursive strategy amounts to upholding that a new form of antisemitism is endemic among Muslim communities, especially the youth, in Europe and beyond; it propagates that the anti-Zionist, anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist sentiments among them allegedly bear antisemitic elements. In order to legitimise imperialist policies in the neoliberal age, this strategy goes on to delineate between good and bad Muslims, and therefore de-essentialises them, while marginalising and isolating the lower-strata working-class Muslims – along with the anti-imperialist Left – by primarily identifying them with antisemitic tendencies. The logic of the latter discursive strategy amounts to upholding that the racialisation of Muslims in Europe through the racist discourse of Islamophobia, which requires a stronger unity of Muslims in organisation and collective action. For that aim, this strategyre-essentialises Muslims in order to give way to a Muslim identity-formation that is abstracted from the material differentiations within Muslim communities. The consequence is the blockage of channels for the lower-strata working-class Muslims’ from-below, democratic organising and the elite capture of politics.

Figure 1. Operational framework for the weaponisation of antisemitism and Islamophobia.

Discursive strategy

Discursive tactic

Mode of containment

Weaponisation of antisemitism


De-essentialisation: good vs. bad Muslims


Isolation of lower-strata working-class Muslims


Weaponisation of Islamophobia



class-indifferent Muslim identity

Elite capture of politics


However, the operational framework of the two discursive strategies is not self-sustaining. The many actors at work behind these strategies and the strategies themselves operate within a larger framework that involves political, economic and institutional structures stemming from social-property relations. As far as the agencies are concerned, each discourse is enabled, and their effects are realised within the restraints of these structures that pertain to the workings of a historically-specific phase of capitalism. In the weaponisation of antisemitism (see the sub-section of Section 1 below), the agency is carried by neoliberalism-embracing intellectuals who reflect the specifically neoliberal sketches of imperialism inscribed in the unilateralism of the US and its allies. These sketches are determined by the specific interests of certain fractions of the capitalist class in the US and elsewhere that are vested in militarism and global racism. Their implications correspond to the selectiveness of the European states vis-à-vis their Muslim communities under a neoliberal capitalism that is marked by political and economic structural changes. These changes include the retreat of the activist state and the long downturn in advanced capitalist economies.[9] In this schema, the discursive strategy carried by neoliberalism-embracing intellectuals – the weaponisation of antisemitism – bears legitimising effects on the existing neoliberal framework and enables such state policies as the equation of antisemitism and anti-Zionism. This in turn leads to, or intensifies, the isolation of the sections of the Muslim population in Europe who are opposed to imperialism and neoliberalism, along with the Left.

In the weaponisation of Islamophobia (see Section 4), agency is carried by multiple actors – including organisations and associations. Their discursive inputs for consolidating and fostering Muslims’ self-identification in religious, ethnic, and national terms (and stripped away from working-class identity) interact with the organisational and collective-action forms that encompass European Muslims (see Section 3). In this schema, Muslim identity-formation based on non-class identities – that the Muslims make sense of their social beings and the reality surrounding them in non-class terms – is not the result of such ideological persuasions. It is in fact the outcome of how these ideological persuasions are embedded within the existing structures that dominate Muslims’ social, cultural and political lives.[10] Such class-indifferent identity-formation and collective action in turn enables the tendential dynamics of elite capture due to the elite-controlled designs of the Muslim organisations and collective action.  Moreover, this hinders the reach of the power of the more democratic, from-below, grassroots organisations due to their lack of interest in building a working-class identity peculiar to Europe’s lower-strata working-class Muslims (see Section 4). The aggregate outcome of these two discursive strategies – isolation and elite capture – can therefore be understood as the ‘containment’ of lower-strata working-class Muslims’ potential to engage in democratic mass politics organised based on a working-class identity that is not colour-blind (see Conclusion).

In what follows, I will first provide the context for the theory of the ‘new’ antisemitism and its ramifications for European Muslims, particularly the youth. This is followed by a discussion on the theoretical, organisational, and strategic problems entailed by the weaponisation of ‘new’ antisemitism against Muslims. In Section 2, I will situate Islamophobia as a racist discourse and a form of social relation within the contemporary context. Emphasising the central role of the material structures in identity-formation processes, I will then go on to offer a tentative model of European Muslims’ organisational and collective-action forms with a particular focus on France in Section 3. In Section 4, I will discuss whether the counter-discourse of Islamophobia – its weaponisation – could be understood in terms of ‘elite capture’. Finally, I will conclude by describing the common effects of the both discourses in terms of a politics of containment that is effective on the lower-strata working-class Muslims.

The ‘new’ antisemitism and European Muslims

Muslims’ association with terror by right-wing media and neoliberalism-embracing intellectuals, and state measures taken against Muslim minorities in the West, have been accentuated with the declaration of the war on terror in early 2000s. This association went hand in hand with accusations towards Muslims, and especially Muslim youth, of an inherent antisemitism, allegedly displayed in their attitudes towards Jews in the West, and the Israeli state. France has been perhaps the most significant battleground for the neoliberalism-embracing public intellectuals’ attacks on younger generations with North African backgrounds, with charges of a ‘new’ antisemitism that is now reaching an alarming degree.[11] It is in this context that ‘the weaponisation of antisemitism’ has been effectively launched as a discursive strategy targeting both left-wing activism that protested Western aggression in Afghanistan and Iraq and the Israeli aggression in Palestine, as well as Europe’s mostly younger-generation Muslims who identified themselves with the victims of these military operations in the greater Middle East. In the first half of the 2000s, different figures who adopted a neoliberal discourse fostered by the war on terror advanced the following arguments: a ‘new’ antisemitism was present especially in the French banlieues and among their young second-generation immigrants; with this new antisemitism, the security of French Jews was increasingly at risk; and this new antisemitism lay at the core of the anti-Israeli sentiments espoused by a new generation of Muslims in France and the Middle East.[12]

According to this logic, anti-Zionism, in the context of the Second Intifada and Israeli aggression, was nothing but a surrogate of this new antisemitism. Therefore, the criticism of Israel and the Zionist project had to be marginalised and criminalised. The discursive strategy developed out of this logic attempts to establish an equation between antisemitism and anti-Zionism through the critique of the Israeli state, which is defined as the outpost of Western civilisation and democracy in the middle of Middle Eastern autocracies. Combined with American unilateralism – particularly under the George W. Bush administration that adopted a similar civilisational discourse and launched a self-fashioned liberal-democracy crusade into the Middle East – the critique of Israel and US-led Western interventionism became synonymous with hostility to democracy in the wider neoliberalism-embracing intellectual milieus.[13] Moreover, Muslims in the West and elsewhere, as well as the now ‘outmoded’, ‘Third-Worldist’ left-wing critics of anti-imperialism, came to be designated what Liz Fekete has called ‘a suitable enemy’.[14]

Despite the common threads in the forms of Islamophobia and racialisation of Muslims, the discursive strategy behind Judeophilia and the designation of the concept of new antisemitism – the weaponisation of antisemitism – is, in relation to Europe’s Muslim population, qualitatively different from the far-right discourse that came to dominate and mobilise right-wing populisms in Europe in the second half of the 2010s. One important feature of the former should be acknowledged here. The weaponisation of antisemitism makes the strategic distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Muslims, best formulated in the moderate vs. radical Islam classification, by producing discourses that follow along the lines: ‘not all Muslims are terrorists’, ‘not all Muslims are anti-democratic’ or ‘not all Muslims are anti-Western or anti-Israeli or anti-US’; and by appealing to the generic dictums such as Islam is a religion of peace, tolerance, etc.[15] This discursive tool enabled the US and its allies during the invasion of Iraq to further strengthen their alliances with such states as Turkey – a model for the Middle East’s decaying autocracies.[16] Thus, at the global level, the then-US president George W. Bush stated that ‘[t]he face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That’s not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace. These terrorists don’t represent peace. They represent evil and war.’[17] Moreover, it was also a useful tool that worked for the Muslim population in Europe and the West – useful like a carrot for those willing to comply with the order of things, and like a stick for those unwilling. Thus, at the French national level, Alain Finkielkraut, one of the most hawkish supporters of the war on terror, cautioned that ‘But pay attention: this “us” is not only “us, the French”, “us, the Europeans”, not even “us, the Westerners”. This has to encompass equally the traditionalist moderate Muslims, the secular Muslims, the emancipated Muslim women, or those who aspire to be, as well as the Christians living on the Muslim soil.’[18]

Theoretical, strategic, and organisational questions

Within the workings of the theory of new antisemitism, there appear three major issues concerning theory, left-wing strategy and organisation. First is the question of agency. There is an intricate relation between ideology – the adoption of discursive strategies such as the weaponisation of antisemitism – and European states’ policy choices – assuming roles in the military incursions and containing contestation against these roles by adopting legal measures and policing. But what causal mechanisms lie behind this relation? A certain Marxist analysis of this neoliberalism-embedded new antisemitism theory puts a strong, and crucially important, emphasis on the agency of states in terms of their role in promoting the Jewish diaspora’s identity-formation and Jewish self-identification with the Israeli state.[19] Given the recent legal actions that equated antisemitism and anti-Zionism in France and the stretching of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism towards anti-Zionism in coordination with states, there is indeed an important state agency reflected in the implementation of such formulations and the socio-political impacts on those opposing them. This emphasis, however, seems to be dislocating the strategic locus of the mechanisms beneath the state-sponsored assaults on the Left and minorities by conflating the implementation of the premises of the ideological discourse on new antisemitism with the structural effects that created the conditions for such formulations in the first place.

My contention is that, to solve this puzzle, the emphasis should be shifted to the agency of the non-state actors (most notably, the neoliberalism-embedded discursive strategies undertaken by neoliberal intellectuals), whose ideological interventions bear legitimising effects on the policies and actions of states. In other words, the ideology beneath the theory of new antisemitism plays a mediating role between the two following factors: (i) fractions of the propertied classes whose vested interests lie heavily in military campaigns and global racism which give rise to American unilateralism in the first place, but also lead to other states bandwagoning with the latter;[20] (ii) individual capitalist states’ adoption of the racialising legal and political actions regarding their minorities – such as Muslims but also other communities of colour – and the contending Left. This ideology is structured in the wider context of a hegemonic neoliberalism to which its ideologues – the neoliberalism-embracing intellectuals – tune in their discursive strategies. The effects of this ideology, in turn, are realised in a way that legitimises actions of the states that take such political and legal measures – often conforming, and consolidating, their already embedded structural selectiveness, which is shaped on the bases of class composition and class struggle   encompassing their minorities and the Left.

The second major issue concerns the question of whether the theory and discourse of new antisemitism holds for realities on the ground that can be observed amongst both Muslim communities – especially the youth – and the Left in Europe. Is there any truth to the claims of a new antisemitism within these groups, or are they altogether fabricated? This question goes beyond the well-attested fact that the discourse of new antisemitism is indeed being used as a weapon directed particularly at Muslim youth and the Left, conforming to much of European states’ selectiveness-bias; its significance, as dangerous as it is, is somewhat exaggerated to the extent of scaremongering. In response to the question, some of the polemical work addressing the theory of new antisemitism tends to neglect any sort of antisemitism to be found among both Muslim communities and the Left.[21]Anthropological scholarship in the field confirms European Muslims’ self-identification with Palestinians and against Israel, and situates their anti-Jewish sentiments within that particular framework. It nevertheless does not neglect the prevalence of antisemitic elements among them, though correctly gives to it a significance proportionate to the reality.[22]

On the flip side, there lies the weaponisation of (new) antisemitism against the Left, particularly in the UK, during the period of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership in the Labour Party (and in France with the right-wing discourse, also adopted by the neoliberal Macronists, which has prevailed in terms such as islamogauchisme). These assaults clearly bear the strategic implications of destabilising a revitalised Left that has begun truly contending neoliberalism. The question nonetheless remained of crucial importance: Does antisemitism exist within the ranks of the Left and Muslim communities who oppose the war on terror, and, if so, how to address it without risking the important task of criticising and opposing Western imperialism, Zionist colonialism, and the ongoing settlement expansion in the occupied Palestinemanu militari?

Such questions, and the explanations to tackle the issues raised by them, have led to stimulating exchanges of ideas within the Left today. On the one hand, the emphasis is placed on the actual persons ranking in left-wing organisations whose worldviews can easily fall prey to the traps of old antisemitic narratives while staunchly embracing anti-imperialist positions; on the other hand, the agency of the state that marginalises and helps liquidate the radical, non–colour blind Left is underlined.[23] In these exchanges, however, the complicated nexus of class–ideology–state seems to remain unaddressed. Different than the first major issue outlined above, here the nexus appears to be operating in the following mode: the lower strata of European working classes embodying much of immigrants and descendants of immigrants of Muslim backgrounds live through severe conditions of socio-economic insecurity, political misrepresentation and cultural misrecognition, which are in turn conditioned by European states’ structural selectiveness in an age of the global retreat of the ‘activist state’ and a ‘long downturn’ in the advanced capitalist economies. Under such conditions, the precarious position of these lower strata, increasingly subject to racialisation, paves the way for them to make sense of their social being based on their ethnic or religious identities and community bonds regulated through the organisations and networks that encompass Muslims. This further facilitates their self-identification with the oppressed people across the world, in particular with those whose associated identities, often expressed in political forms, match with theirs – as in the case of Palestinians. As the self-identification with the oppressed is realised in terms of ethnic or religious terms, the ethnic or religious identity of the oppressor – Jewishness of the Israeli state – becomes a substitute for the self-identifiers’ oppressor.[24] Moreover, this process of making sense of the oppressed of their social being may, though not necessarily, incorporate, with a sense of helplessness, the old anti-Jewish narrative that the super-powerful Jews, backed by superpower states, are waging a Judeo-Christian war – culturally, militarily or otherwise – on the oppressed Muslims worldwide and trans-historically.

This brings me to the third major issue. All this is not to claim that antisemitism, old or new, is endemic among the lower-strata working class Muslims and the non–colour blind Left. If there is any truth that antisemitism (or some of its components that stem from a one-sided interpretation of complex power relations) exists among the contenders of neoliberalism and the imperium, both among the Left and the lower-strata working-class Muslims, there arises a strategically-relevant question with implications for political education that needs to be taken seriously. My contention is that anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist positions make sense when imperialism and such settler-colonial practices as those taking place in Palestine are not only firmly, and necessarily, rooted in the logic of capital and the class relations it entails,[25] but also when their critique is related to the prospect that intends to abolish this logic and move towards human emancipation.

Short-sighted and one-sided positions of anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism, and anti-colonialism are not only theoretically misleading, but also bear in strategic terms undermining effects on the possibilities of developing more mature, more effective forms of political organising and political education. As far as lower-strata working-class Muslims are concerned, who have been the target of the theory of new antisemitism, their self-identification in ethnic or religious terms with the oppressed and how they make sense of their social beings render them susceptible to a partial and deficient understanding of capital, imperial domination, and settler expansion. To this their response develops accordingly. The claims under the theory of new antisemitism suggesting that there is an increasing antisemitism among the lower-strata working-class Muslims bear effects on these Muslims’ isolation and marginalisation from the rest of the society; they function as constant pressures that seek to prevent meaningful ways for these Muslims to confront imperialism. Moreover, the favourable conditions that can – and do – give rise to anti-Jewish sentiments are also obstructing the possible channels through which they could develop forms of organisation that would tackle not only Zionist aggression and Western imperialism but the very conditions they suffer in Europe and elsewhere, because opposition to Zionism and imperialism can, and sometimes does, translate into such anti-Jewish sentiments.

In this section, I discussed how the theory and discourse of new antisemitism, advanced by the intellectuals whose aggregate efforts serve to legitimise neoliberal policies on national-political and geopolitical levels, seeks to undermine the legitimacy and credibility of the critiques of imperialism and colonialism, as seen in US unilateralism and Israeli occupation of Palestine, respectively. This theory and discourse operates in ways exaggerating to the level of scaremongering the antisemitism in Europe’s Muslim youth, as well as in anti-imperialist Left, in order to marginalise the critics of imperialism and therefore isolate them. It is true, of course, that those in Europe’s Muslim youth and anti-imperialist left are not immune to antisemitism. As such, this poses serious dangers for a better understanding of the workings of global capitalism, which would otherwise be conceived one-sidedly and lead to lack of understanding why and how imperialism and colonialism are beneficial to the propertied classes in the neoliberal era. Therefore, both as a weapon and the symptom of the fetishistic conception of capital and power, antisemitism functions in the containment of lower-strata working-class Muslims in Europe.

In the remaining part of this article, I will offer an analysis in which ways the weaponisation of Islamophobia operate within the structural framework of Muslim political lives. But before that, a materialist understanding of Islamophobia as a racist discourse and a form of ‘social relation’ requires elaboration. 

Islamophobia and ‘racism as social relation’

The last two and a half decades have seen a dramatic increase in Europe and the US of anti-Muslim sentiments due to an association of Muslims with different forms of violence – jihad, terror, the autocratic tendencies of the regimes in Muslim-majority countries threatening the non-Muslim minorities, as well as patriarchal/macho violence against women and LGBTQ+ people. This has been propagated by mass media and the politicians and pundits ranging from right-wing to centre-left, which has resulted in the racialisation of Muslims, and made them subjects of an increasing prejudice based on their religious, ‘ethnic’ and cultural identities. In the political and scholarly lexicon, such sentiments have come to be dominantly described under the term Islamophobia. Although initially resisted by some scholars on the basis that Islam, a religion, would have nothing to do with ‘race’, meaning that Islamophobia would not be an apt way of describing what Muslims experience,[26] those who insisted on the specific racialisation of Muslims in the western world due to their affiliation with Islam, along the lines of what Stuart Hall called ‘race as a sliding signifier’,[27] made the strong case of conceiving Islamophobia as a form of racism[28] – or, in Brian Klug’s words, the concept came of age.[29] The racialisation of Muslims, incorporated into the European states’ structural selectiveness, has increasingly translated into the creation of a specific form of racism as a social relation of domination and power. This form surpasses its ideological and discursive boundaries and conforms to the framework, suggested by David Camfield, that stems from the existing forms of social-property relations which not only favour conditions of profitability for capital and imperialist domination,[30] but also create differential patterns of generational social reproduction along the lines of race, ethnicity and religious affiliation.[31] In turn, anti-Muslim racism operates among the segments of the white working class in ways in which Muslims are perceived to benefit from welfare-state provisions in domains such as housing much more generously than they do, therefore bolstering the racial divides within lower classes and consolidating what is often called ‘racial capitalism’.[32] In other words, racist ideology and discourse becomes a surrogate for the continued interests vested in the existing forms of social and economic inequalities that benefit even socio-economically disadvantaged people.

Despite such evident connections, Camfield’s model is useful in distinguishing the structuralised race relations that subordinate Muslims to racism as a system of social relations from the Islamophobic discourse and ideology. Whereas the ‘racism-as-social-relation’ theory provides room for analysing the inner differentiation dynamics within racialised peoples and communities on a materialist basis and in a non-essentialising manner, the ‘racism-as-discourse’ theory tends to treat the racialising effects of a racist discourse and ideology like Islamophobia in a way that essentialises Muslims as a monolithic category with an indifference to the multiple divisions – most notably, class divisions – running through them. This latter, I argue, is the critical node in which the uses of Islamophobia can become a tool for subjectivising the Muslims based on their religious-cum-ethnic identities while concealing these divisions.

The causal mechanism in this process of subjectivation through Muslims’ identity-formation in relation to their religious and ethnic identities needs elaboration, however. My argument here is not that Islamophobia-as-racism as a counter-weapon is used and directed by multiple actors on the ground against the bearers of the Islamophobic discourse that subjectivises Muslims. Otherwise put, it is not a counter-discursive strategy that leads to the Muslim self-identification in religious and ethnic terms. What I argue instead is that the effects of this essentialising counter-discourse on identity come into play with the existing framework of social-property relations as well as the organisational and collective-action forms that encompass Muslims’ social, cultural, and political lives. It is essentially these material structures through which Muslims, like any other group of people, make sense of the meaning of their conditions in religious and ethnic terms, since these structures are formed along these very lines.

As a discursive counter-strategy, the use of Islamophobia in the critique of Islamophobic racism, by espousing the notion that the racialisation of Muslims takes place in such a totalising way that it leaves intra-community differences aside and renders them invisible, consolidates the existing structures of organisation and collective action and further contributes to Muslims’ identity-formation and subjectivation within the confines of these structures rather than launching subjectivation processes that could lead to new forms of identity-formation. Therefore, the ‘class-blind’ formulations of Islamophobia without addressing the structural framework which encompasses many of the Muslims of the lower-strata working class might in fact strengthen this framework. Moreover, insofar as these structures remain intact and even consolidated, such formulations might rather serve as a weapon that obstructs the channels for lower-strata working-class Muslims’ new forms of organisation and collective action that are more democratic, ‘from below’, and more efficient in contesting and transforming the material conditions of racism as a system of social relation.

The causal mechanism I suggested above operates within the framework of what I outlined in the three organisational and collective-action forms that encompass European Muslims’ political, religious, and cultural lives. This brings me to the following question that concerns the interlocking material structures (organisational and collective-action forms) stemming from social-property relations and ideology. These material structures are either elite-biased due to their designs or insufficient in so far as mobilising lower-strata working class Muslims in collective-action forms through which they would not surmount the class hierarchies within Muslim communities themselves. Therefore, in what terms would the effects of the ideological and discursive roles played by the weaponisation of Islamophobia – essentialising Muslims and remaining indifferent to class boundaries – be realised?

In order to answer this question, one needs to first analyse the structural framework of the Muslims’ political lives in Europe. The structures of organisational and collective-action forms in which Muslims’ majority engage today, I suggest, provide the key to understanding how the counter-discourse on Islamophobia developed within Muslims would lay the ground for its weaponisation.

European Muslims and organisational and collective-action form

If Muslim population’s, especially its youth’s, self-identification with the Palestinian cause particularly through an adoption of an identity-formation on the basis of ethnic, national and religious terms, it would be useful here to elaborate on the forms of organisation and collective action into which the European Muslims are incorporated in order to have a better grasp of how the counter-discourse on Islamophobia is related to the social and associational structures stemming from social-property relations. Taking France as the main country of focus, I will suggest three main forms that characterise Muslim organisation and collective action:[33] (i) elite-controlled vertical organisations; (ii) elite-controlled networks; (iii) grassroots organisations.[34]

Elite-controlled vertical organisations

In France, prior to the 1980s, a considerable part of Muslim organising concerned Muslim immigrant workers’ religious and cultural identities, alongside their working-class identities. Two main problems surfaced since the beginnings of the immigration from Muslim-majority countries to Europe:[35] (i) from the perspective of the receiving states, it was the problem of ‘governing Islam’ under circumstances where European states had little to no expertise and resources of their own to address the fundamental cultural and social needs of the Muslims in their countries – such as religious rituals, funeral services or meals in the workplace; (ii) from the perspective of the home states, it was both ‘governing Islam abroad’ and the concerns about their citizens’ activities abroad, especially political activities, in the countries to which they had emigrated.[36] 

Against the background of economic stagnation, subsequent increasingly high levels of unemployment and the weakening power of working-class organisations, the second-generation Muslims, mostly born and raised in France, have been very precariously integrated into economic life. Since the 1980s, this has resulted in the shifting ways in which Muslims, along generational lines, make sense of their social beings and reality, moving away from working-class identities and increasingly towards ethnic, cultural and religious identities.[37] By the 1980s, organisational efforts around Muslim identity began to intensify, especially under the strong influence of the Muslim Brotherhood ideology and with the financial support of Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. These efforts culminated in the creation of umbrella organisations such as Union des Organisations Islamiques en France, which then led to mirror developments, such as the co-optation of pre-existing organisations by home states, as in the case of the Fédération Nationale des Musulmans de France (FNMF) and Morocco, alongside the French state’s own efforts to bring together these Muslim associations within one ostensibly representative national body with strong connections to the French state. These efforts have represented France’s own vision to create an official ‘French Islam’ and reduce the transnational character of Muslim French identities, which in some cases have become even more transnational due to French Muslim associations’ dependency on the financial and ideological resources of Muslim countries around the Mediterranean and in the Gulf.[38]

The central role of the institutions established in order to address these problems and to govern Islam and Muslims made holding strong ties to both home states and France a prerequisite and necessary at the same time, which in turn required them to be structurally designed as what I call elite-controlled vertical organisations.

Elite-controlled networks

European Muslims’ increasing self-identification in ethnic, national and religious terms corresponded to a proliferation of associations and ‘networks’ organised around such identities in the 1980s. Against the background of the increasing influence of the so-called ‘Islamic revival’ in Muslim-majority countries in the 1970s onwards, religious movements such as Tablighi Jamaat began to find fertile ground for their proselytist activities in the Muslim-populated working-class neighbourhoods in French suburbs in the late 1970s and early 1980s.[39] In Germany, the Netherlands and elsewhere, the Turkish political-Islamist Milli Görüş community or religious congregational groups such as the Süleymancılar similarly expanded their networks within local Muslim communities under the guidance of spiritual or politico-religious (or, in the case of Gülenists, both) leaders, and the auspices of local notables.[40]

Although the nature of such forms of congregational and politico-religious organising is loose due to their network character – in the sense that congregation attendees, mere members or ‘sympathisers’ are subject not to strictly-defined associational rules under accountable check-and-balance mechanisms, but rather to non-written mores and customs – these networks are firmly controlled by the network elites and reflect the rigid hierarchies that subordinate the rank and file to the leaders and notables. They are not only in charge of providing charity and provisions to the poor, whose loyalties in turn consolidate their social basis, but they also function as channels for essential aspects of everyday and socio-economic life such as job-finding or house-searching.[41] Therefore, the logic of this form of organising operates firmly within the workings of civil society, somewhat distanced from the state (whose selectiveness already ignores the rank and file), which in turn brings about, at the same time, both class hierarchies and their immediate concealment through the adherents’ narrower self-identification with the network and wider self-identification in ethnic, national and religious terms.

Grassroots organisations

Not all forms of Muslim organising retain religious identity stricto sensu, and since early 1960s, such organisations as the Association des Marocains en France (1961) or, later, the Mouvement des Travailleurs Arabes (1972) have organised Muslims based on working-class identity and around left-wing causes.[42] Given their members’ guest-worker status, the social power of these earlier organisations had been limited by two factors due to citizenship: the fragile position vis-à-vis the French state; and the threat perceived by the home states due to their ‘undesired’ political activities, which could pose several problems back in the home countries.

Demarcating these earlier, first-generation immigrants’ grassroots organisations from the second generation–led grassroots organisations is important in terms of their organisational capacities stemming from their social power. In the former, this capacity was delimited by the legal framework of the rank and file’s citizenship and guest-worker status and the double bind between home and receiving states. In the latter, their organisational capacity was delimited by the grassroots organisations’ growing disconnection from the forms of collective action based on class power. This latter was due to structural socio-economic changes related to post-crisis capitalist restructuration, deindustrialisation, the increasing levels of unemployment that have set additional barriers to second-generation Muslims’ incorporation into the economy, the changing labour regime and the problems tied to organised labour ­­– all in the context of the ‘long downturn’ in advanced capitalist economies.[43] Therefore, the focus of the second-generation Muslim grassroots organisations moved, or had to move, away from class identity to non-class identities largely because of these structural effects. Important as they are, the significant weakness of these struggles is that, within their scopes, collective action does not exact the social power which, counterfactually, could have been obtained by class power in different structural circumstances or by the creation of new forms of labour organising and mobilisation of workers under elevated precarious working conditions.

Two moments are of crucial importance for the grassroots organisations of the descendants of Muslim immigrants in the post-1980s. First, in the period that Gilles Kepel has called the ‘Islam of the youth’ during anti-globalisation protests and in the context of war on terror, Muslim descendants of immigrants, disillusioned by the previous generation’s Ikhwanism that had been hegemonic with the previous generation in the 1980s and 1990s, sought ways of subjectivation detached from the ‘elite-controlled vertical organisations’. One of the primary ways was by becoming involved in the alter-globalisation movement through Attac in France and through other organisations elsewhere, all the while retaining a certain degree of self-identification in Islamic terms but associating this religious identity with left-wing causes such as anti-capitalism, anti-globalisation and anti-imperialism, and seeking alliances in the non–colour blind Left.[44] In France, such attempts were met with typically non-constructive class-reductionist responses from a reluctant Left – with important exceptions such as certain segments within the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (later, Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste) – and did not succeed in forming solid alliances whereas, in Britain, a weaker Muslim rank-and-file mobilisation has succeeded in forming alliances with the Left within the Stop the War Coalition and Globalise Resistance,[45] as well as the solidarity in challenging the UK’s counter-terrorism strategy, Prevent, albeit with increasing fragilities.[46]

Despite the differences in the attitudes of the Left on both sides of the Channel,[47] the net effect of such attempts on forming alliances remained minimal in both cases. Moreover, the ideological motivations behind these attempts, along with the associational power of the organisations involved in such causes, in terms of the lack of mobilising a working class–led mass movement, remained problematic in view of these movements’ engagement with the very objects of their analyses. First of these problems is the treating of global capitalism one-sidedly through opposition to global trade and financial power, which is understood in terms of a hegemonic US or Anglo-Saxon model of capitalism and the perspective that this model could be confronted with a counter-hegemonic one.[48] The second is the ‘avoid[ing]’, in the words of Marcos Ancelovici, of ‘old themes of the Left, such as the class struggle’, and the ‘stress [on] the inclusive identity of the citizen’, as in the case of ATTAC France.[49] Finally, the confrontation to contemporary imperialism was often reduced to anti-Americanism and opposition to other US allies such as Israel, but not as part of the global economic architecture of capitalism.[50] The dislocation of the working class from the centre of political organising and mass mobilisation in these movements in turn delimited Muslim grassroots organisations’ potential attempts to bridge the gaps between class and non-class identities, and instead left the necessary correlation between class inequalities and non-class inequalities largely unestablished while focusing overly on the latter.

Second, in the wake of failed alliances between Muslim grassroots organisations and the Left and the banlieue riots of Fall 2005, the foundation of the Indigènes de la République (PIR – first movement, then party) in 2005 following and transcending the earlier efforts of neighbourhood and community organising by establishing a political organisation of the cadres has been one of the most significant developments that involved Muslim organising, along with other people of colour.[51] The Indigènes rejected the elite-controlled vertical organisations’ hegemony and their co-optation by both the French state and the states of the ostensible ‘countries of origin’; they defended and proclaimed the prospect of a youth who rejected the Ikhwanist UOIF’s infamous fatwa that forbade the 2005 riots; and they developed an organisational model that aspired to go beyond the religious confines of the elite-controlled networks and empower the rank and file. Ideologically committed to anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism, and theoretically drawing on postcolonial studies and critical race theory with strong influences from figures of anti-colonial struggle and the black liberation movements such as Frantz Fanon, Angela Davis and Malcolm X, they defended a political line that underlined the urgent necessity of decolonising the Republic’s indigènes at the heart of the metropole.[52] Their political commitment pointed out the intrinsic relation of class exploitation and non-class, particularly racial, forms of domination – though often overemphasising the latter and underemphasising the former.[53]

From the outset, their analysis of the French state and society – a white colonial society that is sustained by a whites-only political sphere and a colour-blind republican model, which, under its Fifth Republican period, was formed upon a ‘colonial counter-revolution’[54] – informed the following political strategy they adopted: if racism and white supremacy is institutionalised in the current French model, then, for a decolonial project, it becomes necessary to reform or transform these institutions in the first place insofar as a new model would establish the conditions for an autonomous indigène political, cultural, and of course religious life to flourish.[55] The Indigènes’ clear prioritisation of the liberation of ‘social races’ in their political agenda before other forms of oppression and exploitation apparently delimited alliances with an already reluctant, crude class-reductionist Left; but more importantly, their negligence of forming a working-class identity peculiar to the indigènes, and their lack of interest in mobilising theindigène sections of the working class as such, hindered the reach of the influence and effects of their collective action and confined it to the limits of non-class identities, especially ‘social race’.

Above, I analysed the structural framework of the Muslim political life with a particular focus on France. I argued the collective-action and organisational forms that encompass Muslims create certain deficits that hinder the prospects of more democratic, class-based organisations in which lower-strata working-class Muslims could have been more empowered. In the next section, I will describe and discuss the effects of the weaponisation of Islamophobia which plays a mediating role within this structural framework.

Elite capture?

The notion of ‘elite capture’ is a useful term to analyse and describe such effects. Stemming from developmental economics and sociology in the context of foreign aid to Global South communities, the term describes how individuals with disproportionately more access to power benefit from such allocations for their own interests instead of the common interests of the community and the interests of those with little to no access to power. In recent years, the term has become more frequent in political analyses. Most notably, its use by those involved in critical social theory has reformulated the term as a concept to grasp the ‘unintended’ consequences of emancipatory movements organised around race, gender or sexuality that come about when those with more access to power structures among oppressed communities end up benefiting disproportionately more from these emancipatory movements, consolidating, and often strengthening, their positions by the virtue of collective struggles and organisations.[56]

That elite capture is a general feature of politics is particularly related to the designs of the organisations and associations that mobilise their adherents or members. Where there is a lack of democratic design and participation, these organisations and associations tend to consolidate the existing patterns of inequalities, especially across class lines, eventually obstructing and weakening democracy that is detrimental for maintaining both racial and other non-class forms of justice as well as socio-economic equality.[57] In this scheme, discursive inputs mobilised through the notions that pertain to the oppression of unprivileged and disadvantageous groups, organised around race, gender, class or some ‘intersection’ thereof, become effective within the structural framework of organisational and collective-action forms, thus enabling the elite capture of politics. The same scheme also applies for Muslim organisations and politics when the counter-discourse of Islamophobia is mobilised in the essentialising, non–class specific ways that result in different ways of elite capture. This can be observed most obviously in the elite-controlled models of organisation and collective action: both elite-controlled vertical organisations and elite-controlled networks are structurally lacking democratic participation and decision-making as they are designed in a ‘top-down’ fashion in the first place and, particularly in the case of networks, they operate specifically in the mere sphere of civil society that is dominated by the intertwined economic and religious lives of the Muslims. The role of Islamophobia as a weaponised, counter-discursive strategy in relation to Muslims’ identity-formation processes based on religion is, therefore, structurally biased towards reinforcing the elite-controlled designs and securing elite capture.

A more complex situation occurs in the case of grassroots organisations. In these grassroots organisations, channels for the democratic participation of the rank and file and their involvement in decision-making processes are not absent since their designs involve ‘from-below’ participatory mechanisms. Therefore, they are less prone to elite capture of politics than the elite-controlled models of organisation and collective action. However, as discussed above, the limited reach and impact of the grassroots organisations’ collective action due to lack of interest in forming a working-class identity peculiar to lower-strata working-class Muslims renders them susceptible to remaining within the confines of a politics revolving around non-class forms of identity. This prioritises the struggles against non-class forms of oppression which, in effect, bear the marks of class-determining socio-economic inequalities that run through the very identity group at stake. Prioritisation of racial or racialised religious identities over class, therefore, enables concealing the class differentiations that cut across non-class identities, consequently laying the groundwork for elite capture against the grain of the democratic designs of their organisational and collective-action forms.

An illustrative example can be found in the work of Sadri Khiari, who played a substantial role in the foundation and development of the PIR. In his most important book, for example, he holds that ‘a Muslim indigène voting in the local elections for a Sarkozyst candidate who promises to construct a mosque is much more of a problem for the Republic compared to a secularindigène voting in the legislative elections for socialists with the hope that they raise wages. … [The two parties] take parts in the White Power; with sometimes differing strategies, they aspire to break our resistance and instrumentalise us in the competition in which they oppose each other.What I want to untangle is how a politics of the indigènes takes form through contradictory, and sometimes aberrant, mediations.’[58] What is problematic in these arguments put forth by Khiari is not this or that right-wing party or candidate could be tactically seen an alternative to Socialist Party. The logic behind Khiari’s argument relies on a certain reading of world capitalism and modern racism, and this is the source what makes his account problematic.

The kind of decolonial project the Indigènes pursue assumes that, if capitalism existed before colonialism, it could not have developed fully fledgedwithout the colonial expansion and the entailing modern racism, which first came ‘in 1492, and again in 1830’.[59] We therefore have ‘modernity’ as an encompassing system, with its institutions and ideologies such as nation-states, universalism and Enlightenment – all structuring the societies from early modernity onwards due to that civilisational logic and the structural racism that is operating at levels ranging from local to global wherever colonialism reaches. This leaves the agential role of social classes to an inconsequential, exiguous level, divorced from the structuration effects of the development of capitalism on a global scale. In this interpretation, Khiari, drawing on an anti-statist methodology that is informed by postmodernist critiques of the state, formulates an opposition between the politics of the Indigènes and the ‘universalist’, ‘centralist’, ‘secular’ nation-state in a postcolonial setting. It is by this opposition that any development capable of undermining the logic of the modern nation-state – therefore its inherent colonialist, racist and (equivocally) capitalist character – becomes favourable to endorse the ‘lesser-evil’ political choices.

He notes, for example, how Muslim organisations formed along the lines of what I called ‘elite-controlled vertical organisations’, despite their collaborationism with the French state, as well as the ‘home states’, and their functioning in the immediate setbacks of the decolonial agenda, play a positive role in furthering the ‘expansion’ of Islam in the midst of the postcolonial metropole, in an implicitly dialectical way.[60] Therefore, according to Khiari’s logic, ‘through contradictory, and sometimes aberrant, mediations’, elite forms of politics could be more beneficial to such radical agendas as decolonisation. In Khiari and other Indigène theorists and activists there is perhaps no lack of structural interpretation of existing inequalities along racial and class lines; but the lack of accounting for economic structures, socio-economic transformations and entailing class composition that results in the depiction of figures such as François Bayrou or a Sarkozyst candidate as lesser evils,[61] or furthermore, attributing positive roles to elite-controlled vertical organisations or networks, could be considered a way of justification of a particular form of elite capture of politics.

Such examples could be multiplied; what, however, can be deduced from such instances is that elite capture of politics, in the case of French Muslims and possibly others, is not necessarily an absolute victory of the elites but rather a tendential dynamic that benefit the elites as a result of the existing organisational and collective-action forms. Therefore, despite such perils, there is also a large room for political education and strategic thinking towards a more sustained integration of racially-marginalised people into class-centred left-wing organisations. Yet the negligence of complex causal mechanisms that relate class exploitation to racial oppression, whose intricacies become more discernable in the historiographical identification of modernity and capitalism, would lead to erroneous political positions informed by inadequate theory.

Conclusion: Containing Muslims

If elite capture is a tendential dynamic from which the elites can benefit, it could be maintained as a result of blocking the channels that favours grassroots, democratic participation of the Muslim rank and file within political processes in general, and subordinating them to organisational structures in which either they have little to no power (as in the cases of elite-controlled vertical organisations and networks), or in which the differential class locations are relegated to an inconsequential level (grassroots organisations). Borrowing from the political-history lexicon, and from the work of Arno J. Mayer,[62] this sort of blockage could be understood in terms of ‘containment’. In Mayer’s work, containment appears in the framework of categories such as ‘conservative’, ‘reactionary’ and ‘counterrevolutionary’ in the context of nineteenth- and twentieth-century European political history, and it relates to the containment of democratic mass politics – in contradistinction to mass politics in the wider sense – so as to include not only revolutionary but also reformist elements.[63] Adopting this framework, it becomes possible to conclude that the obstruction and blockage of the means for European Muslims’ democratic mass politics, through the interplay of delimitations brought about by elite-controlled structures and the indifference or neglect of underlying intra-community inequalities such as class, which in turn leads to the tendential dynamics of elite capture, produces the containment of lower-strata working-class Muslims.

The two discursive strategies I have focused on – the weaponisation of antisemitism and the weaponisation of Islamophobia (or, what I alternatively termed the counter-discourse of Islamophobia) – become effective in this politics of containment in two different ways that are often competing but somewhat complementary. This paper discussed the following: the weaponisation of antisemitism, as borne by neoliberalism-embracing intellectuals, suggests that antisemitism is a feature of some parts of Muslim communities that are deeply immersed in Islamic fundamentalism by delineating goodvs. bad Muslims, and thus following the tactic ofde-essentialising Muslims. Its ultimate goal is the isolation of Muslims and the anti-imperialist Left wary of and opposed to the ongoing politics of military aggression in the Middle East perpetrated by the US and the Israeli state. Such a strategy and tactics conform to the neoliberal logic of the ‘war on terror’ as represented by the imperialist policies of US-led interventionism and unilateralism (garnering support even from such states as France, with more autonomously-pursued foreign policies traditionally but over time during the two decades from 2000s onwards aligning with pro-US and pro-NATO positions, albeit with usual tensions). This goal of isolation is reflected in the structural selectiveness of the European states that are visibly less affirmative towards their minorities after long periods of neoliberal transformation. Moreover, despite several common threads such as the racialising Islamophobic discourse, just like the differences between conservatives and reactionaries, they should be considered differently from those adopted by the new right-wing populisms – mobilising anti-democratic mass politics as a revolt to the centrist establishments – which essentialise Muslims in reference to a supposedly monolithic ‘Islamic’ culture and religion. This is best exemplified by the parties such as, Partij voor de Vrijheid,Alternative für Deutschland or Le Front/Rassemblement National. The weaponisation of Islamophobia, on the other hand, seeks tore-essentialise Muslims through discursive means by concealing the class differences and inequalities within Muslim communities and building an identity-formation detached from working-class identity. This counter-discursive strategy does not build such an identity-formation through its own capacity, but it becomes enabled by the structural framework of organisational and collective-action forms that encompass European Muslims, and through which they make sense of their social beings and reality surrounding them. Whereas elite-controlled structures, in particular networks, provide especially the Muslim lower-strata working class with several means of subsistence, safety nets, and even job access in a top-down fashion, thus consolidating and strengthening their structural designs under the control of the elites through Muslims’ identity-formation along non-class (ethnic, national and/or religious) lines, democratically-designed grassroots organisations’ negligence of, or indifference to, forming working-class identities hinders the reach of power stemming from their organisations while enacting the tendential dynamics of elite capture. In short, this paper has argued that the comparison of antisemitism and Islamophobia could be best captured in their weaponisation which, starting from very different premises, ends up with the same consequence: the containment of the lower-strata working class Muslims.


The author gratefully acknowledges the comments, criticisms, and suggestions from Benjamin Bruce and Cemil Yıldızcan. Also, many thanks to Jack Boas, Ali Yalçın Göymen, Maral Jefroudi, Omar Refaat, Omar Sadik, Sinem Uz, and Halil İbrahim Yenigün for their helpful comments on the various drafts of this paper. I greatly benefited from the detailed comments and suggestions from the three referees, as well as those from the Special Issue editors, Sai Englert and Alex de Jong. I also wish to acknowledge the support of Priya Kapoor and Leopoldo Rodriguez in International & Global Studies Department at Portland State University which helped me keep on researching and writing. The usual disclaimers apply.


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[1] Kouvélakis 2005; Farris 2014.

[2] Meer and Modood 2009; Meer and Modood 2012; Klug 2014; Zia-Ebrahimi 2018; Bracke and Hernández Aguilar 2020. Also see: Said 2003, for the parallelism between antisemitism and Orientalism, as a precursor to Islamophobia.

[3] Badiou and Hazan 2013.

[4] On the notion of continuity from the Jewish to the Muslim question in European context, formulated as the ‘European question’, see: Anidjar 2012, De Genova 2018; on the gendered racialisation of Muslim women in Europe, see: Scott 2007, Delphy 2015; Farris 2017; on the race–class–gender nexus in the Muslim question, see: Farris 2015.

[5] Zia-Ebrahimi 2018; Bracke and Hernández Aguilar 2020.

[6] Friedländer 1997; Mayer 1988.

[7]For the great replacement theory, see: Camus 2011. For a ‘mainstream’ version of this account, see: Caldwell 2010.

[8] Traverso 2019, pp. 74–5.

[9] I will refer here only to a select number of authors who have addressed these notions. For capitalist state selectiveness, see: Offe 1974; for the retreat of the activist state, see: Fung and Wright 2001; for the theory of long downturn, see: Brenner 2006.

[10] For this materialist framework of identity-formation, I draw on Chibber 2017, 2022. My understanding of the workings of ideology and discourse is partly informed by Therborn 1980.

[11] Pascal Boniface (2014) calls the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the major geopolitical issue that makes the French society ‘sick’. Also see: Boniface 2017.

[12] Brenner 2002; Taguieff 2002, 2004; Finkielkraut 2003; Lévy 2004; Weill 2004.

[13] For a critique of the extended version of hostility to democracy equated to opposing American unilateralism, see Segré 2013, chap. 1.

[14] Fekete 2009.

[15] Mamdani 2004.

[16] Tuğal 2007; Tuğal 2012.

[17] Bush 2001.

[18] Finkielkraut 2006. (Emphasis and translation mine.)

[19] Englert 2018.

[20]The particular interests of these other countries’ propertied classes, often invested in reviving old colonial ventures, pressure to shift their states’ policy choices towards alignment in the midst of sometimes fierce inter-elite political rivalries. This could be observed in France between the pro-NATO positions and the Gaullist legacy. Ostermann 2019; Rieker 2017; Banégas 2014.

[21] Badiou and Hazan 2013; Segré 2013.

[22] Silverstein 2008; Peace 2009.

[23] The debate in the pages of Salvage magazine between Barnaby Raine and Sai Englert is an illustrative example. See: Raine 2019 and Raine 2021 for the first position; Englert 2019 for the second.

[24] This should not be understood as that religion is the most important factor in the self-identification of the Muslims. Maxwell and Bleich (2014), drawing on the 2008­–9 Trajectoires et Origines survey (Beauchemin, Hamel and Simon 2015), make a compelling case that, regarding the entirety of the Muslim population in France, religious self-identification does not present an accurate picture.

[25] Englert 2020. Halliday 1999; Miles and Brown 2003.

[26] Halliday 1999; Miles and Brown 2003.

[27] Hall 2017.

[28] Meer and Modood 2012; Opratko 2017.

[29] Klug 2012.

[30] Camfield 2016.

[31] In a working-paper presented earlier I try to offer an analysis of the outcomes of a such structural-selectiveness on the differential patterns of generational reproduction among immigrant communities in France, by drawing on the 2008–9 TeO survey. See: Özpınar 2021.

[32] Ali and Whitham 2021.

[33] Here and in the following sections, I use Muslim organisation/organising as a practical term to describe the organisational and collective-action forms that encompass Muslims, who are designated as such due not to a religious identity on the basis of one of many interpretations of Islam, but to the racialisation of a sociological group that involves even those who do not associate themselves with any interpretation of Islam.

[34] This tentative taxonomy is informed partly by Frégosi 2013; however, Frégosi’s model essentially draws on Muslim organisations’ relation to religion and excludes the class aspect from the picture. Parvez 2013, 2017, on the other hand, provides crucial insights for a class-based model, though she does not go on to offer one. I am loosely drawing on these works for my own purposes in this section.

[35] For the history of immigration to France from its former colonies and elsewhere, see: Sayad 1977; Noiriel 1988.

[36]Despite this very important transnational dynamic at play in the Muslim organisations in Western Europe, out of which it could be deduced that elite-controlled vertical organisations are a function of home and receiving states’ policy concerns of governing Islam, the purposes of this article have to leave its concrete analysis out of the scope. For a fuller analysis, see: Bruce 2019.

[37] Kepel 2012, pp. 150–2.

[38] Bruce 2019.

[39] Kepel 2012.

[40] Kortmann 2012.

[41] Perhaps the most extreme case – in the sense of its operational mode in the strict confines of civil society and its deliberate distance to politics – of this form is the non-political, ‘quietist’ Salafism in France, where more powerful community members assume such roles. See: Adraoui 2013; Amghar 2008.

[42] Bruce 2019; Dumont 2007; Aissaoui 2006, 2009.

[43] Notwithstanding my argument based on the changes in material structures, the relatively-autonomous role of ideology and discourse also plays an important role – see: Yilmaz 2016.

[44] Kepel 2012, pp. 244–91.

[45] Peace 2015.

[46] Harris 2021.

[47] Callinicos 2008.

[48]Bieler and Morton 2004.

[49] Ancelovici 2002, p. 435.

[50] Rupert 2003.

[51] Bouteldja and Khiari 2012.

[52] Kipfer 2011.

[53] The Indigènes have always had a certain sensitivity to class exploitation, as Bouteldja and Boussoumah (2021) insist; the foundational texts of the movement, such as Khiari 2009 and Bouteldja 2017, however, treat class exploitation with a secondary importance to racial oppression. More on this will follow in the next section.

[54] Khiari 2009; also see: Khiari 2006.

[55] Khiari 2010.

[56] Táíwò 2022. Similarly, though from a more sociological perspective, Cedric Johnson (2022) employs terms such as ‘elite-brokerage dynamics’ or ‘elite-driven politics’ in his work on the class contradictions of black political life in the US.

[57] Cohen and Rogers 1992; Fung and Wright 2001; Wright 2010.

[58] Khiari 2009, pp. 126–7. (My translation.)

[59] Bouteldja 2017, p. 30. On the same page, she notes: ‘I only have one conscience, which awakens my memories of 1492’; and later on, she concludes: ‘… in 1492, what was imposed in the Americas was less an economic system than a civilization: Modernity’ (p. 118).

[60] Khiari 2009, pp. 133–5.

[61] For that Bayrou could be seen as ‘lesser evil’, see Khiari 2010.

[62] Among his many works, I specifically refer to Mayer 1971; also see: Grandin 2010.

[63] Grandin 2010, p. 417.

Marxism and the Critique of Antisemitism

Sai Englert and Alex de Jong

01 September 2023

Antisemitism has grown exponentially over the last decade or so. While it has done so in tandem with other forms of racism, oppression, and prejudice, fuelled by a growing global far right, its recent trajectory from the periphery to the centre of Western racist ideas, discourse, and action deserves attention.

In the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century, antisemitism could easily be considered to have become a fringe phenomenon. The Holocaust and its memory were central – as they still are – to Western states’ self-image, not without irony (forgetting in the process that European ruling classes had fuelled antisemitism throughout the continent and supported fascism and Nazism as a counter force to the threat of Communism at home and abroad).[1]

Simultaneously, a newly rising far-right appeared to have abandoned antisemitism altogether – or at the very least having pushed it to the outer edges of its political organisations. This process was most strikingly captured by the struggle within the French National Front (now renamed the National Rally), between Le Pen father and daughter, over the place of antisemitism in the party and the centrality of Islamophobia as a mobilising mechanism.[2]

Yet, perhaps predictably, the stronger the far-right became, the bolder it grew and ideas that were previously considered to be incompatible with ‘dediabolisation’ resurfaced. Antisemitism reappeared more obviously within its arsenal and continues to be normalised as far-right parties take power (Hungary, Italy, Brazil, India) or exert growing influence on elected officials (the US government under Trump and most European countries). We are now in a situation in which antisemitic violence carried out against Jewish people and places of worship repeatedly occur, most strikingly in France and the United States, while antisemitic ideas about ‘globalists’ and other ‘Jewish space lasers’ have taken central stage in the far-right’s rhetoric. They played a central role in the election of Donald Trump, are reappearing in the Tory right, and are now a regular feature in the public pronouncements of the Forum for Democracy in the Netherlands, to name but a few.


This piece is being made available as a preprint edition of the double-volume Marxism and the Critique of Antisemitism special issue of Historical Materialism. Further additions will still be made before then. The final published version of this text will be made available on the Brill website in the coming months. We ask that citations refer to the Brill edition.All Illustrations are by Natalia Podpora.


The Left

In the face of such a striking and worrying phenomenon, one could be forgiven to assume that the response of those who claim to maintain the liberal status quo would have been swift and uncompromising. Unfortunately, the opposite is true. While playing into the hands of the far-right on issues of migration, Islamophobia, trans-rights, and law-and-order narratives – thereby severely constraining their ability to challenge its rise – centrist politicians, journalists, and commentators have turned their ire against the left and its support for Palestinian liberation instead. Through conflations of antisemitism with anti-Zionism – itself based on the antisemitic notion that Jews everywhere and the state of Israel are synonymous – pro-Israeli activists and lawmakers have constructed a narrative that the real danger to Jewish people in the West are not those violently targeting them or resuscitating old and dangerous conspiracy theories, but left-wing parties, movements, and organisations. It is worth restating in passing that, more often than not, the very same organisations are at the forefront of the fight against the growth of the former.

While pro-Israeli – or indeed Israeli – politicians continue to cosy up with far-right demagogues (Steve Bannon), far-right governments (Italy and Hungary) or antisemitic politicians (Poland), they simultaneously aim to institutionalise the criminalisation of pro-Palestinian voices and movements as a threat to the Jewish people. They have done so through the widely discredited International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working-definition of antisemitism (most recently rejected by the UN special rapporteur), as well as decrees aiming to outlaw the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement in France, Germany, Austria, numerous US states, Canada, and (so-far unsuccessfully) Britain.[3] 

The story of the “Hijacking Memory: The Holocaust and the New Right” conference is a useful illustration in this regard.[4] Organisers and participants – among the leading specialists in the field – gathered in Berlin to discuss the importance of Holocaust memory and its (mis)use by the political right, including the growing threat of outright Holocaust revisionism. One solitary contribution in the three-day conference came from a Palestinian participant, Dr Tareq Baconi,[5] who pointed out the dangers of weaponising Holocaust memory in order to deny the Palestinian people’s right to liberation. Nothing, at first glance, controversial or out of place given the conference’s stated aims. Yet, first Baconi and then the conference organisers, were accused of antisemitism, dragged through the German press, and the venue where the conference was held was even threatened with losing its funding by the state. The real danger in the eyes of the German establishment were not those weaponising or trivialising the Holocaust. It was the very people targeted by said weaponisation.[6]

The tendency to flip reality on its head in order to delegitimise the left – and any anti-systemic critique that it might offer in a time of simultaneous ecological, economic, and political crisis – was perhaps most visible in the sustained campaign waged by pro-Israeli organisations and right-wing politicians (in both the Labour and Conservative parties) against Jeremy Corbyn.[7] A life-long campaigner against racism and antisemitism was vilified as an existential threat to the Jewish people, while Tory politicians built statues to Nazi-sympathisers and maintained friendly relations with Steve Bannon and Viktor Orban.[8] Unfortunately, many on the left similarly failed to see the wood for the trees and participated in the construction of a narrative of a specific, if not primary, left-wing problem with antisemitism.[9]

This issue is certainly not limited to Britain, or to those who failed to understand the attacks on Corbyn, the left, and the Palestine solidarity movement for what they were. As Leandros Fischer reminds us in his paper, the conflation of antisemitism and anti-Zionism, the characterisation of Palestine solidarity activism and migration as the sources of contemporary European antisemitism, and the failure to challenge the (often pro-Israel) far-right as the key driver of antisemitic reaction has a long history on the left, especially in Germany. In dissecting the political history and theory of the anti-German current, he offers us the tools to understand, critique, and challenge these wider processes that have become so familiar, well beyond the borders of the German state. Jean-Pierre Couture, in focussing on France and the specific history of the systematic (and wilful) misreadings of Marx, recasting the radical thinker and the movements that take inspiration from his thought as antisemites, similarly helps us make sense of the current impasse and the intellectual tools necessary to break out of it.

This is where the impulse for this special issue is located. How to make sense of the contemporary rapid growth of antisemitism, its importance in the rise of the (far-)right, and the striking inability to name, locate, and fight it effectively that has paralysed much of the left? What can Marxism offer us in this process, beyond the well-rehearsed reflections on the Marxist classics of the beginning of the twentieth century? And if these classics remain of importance to our present moment, how are we to understand, engage with, and mobilise them today? How can the left rebuild an analysis of contemporary antisemitism – and social movements against it – which neither counterpose it to support for Palestinian liberation, nor isolate it from wider structures of racialised, gendered, or sexual oppression, discrimination, and violence. It is in the hope of addressing these issues – or at least to offer an impetus to the necessary discussion and debates surrounding them – that we put together this collection of essays. We hope that they will elicit critical engagement, reflection, and responses in the months and years to come.

Marxism and the Jewish Question

When discussing a Marxist approach to the issue of antisemitism, a number of texts are widely shared reference points. This special issue contains papers discussing two of such texts; Marx's essay 'On the Jewish Question' (written in 1843, published in 1844) and Moishe Postone's 1979 essay 'Anti-Semitism and National Socialism'.[10]  Both contain valuable insights but need to be read in their historical context.

Out of all of Marx’s writings, this article might be the most misunderstood. ‘On The Jewish Question’ has often been read as showing antisemitic tendencies in Marx’s thought, or even as proof of the thesis of ‘an antisemitic Marx’ as Couture writes in his article on ‘The French Debate on ‘Zur Judenfrage’: From an Anachronistic Trial to the Crisis of Secularism’. For a supporter of this thesis, like historian Pierre Birnbaum in his Géographie de l’espoir, ‘Marx advocated nothing less than the necessary and unavoidable end of the Jews’[11].

Many readings of 'On the Jewish Question' are in fact anachronistic, missing the emergence of a specific, modern form of antisemitism. As Postone pointed out, ‘modern anti-Semitism’ (a term popularised in Germany in the early 1880’s by the agitator Wilhelm Marr)[12] should not be confused with ‘everyday anti-Jewish prejudice’ – it rather is an ideology, a form of thought, which emerged in Europe in the late nineteenth century.[13] Although building on older forms of Christian hostility towards Jews, modern antisemitism drew on a wider field of references, themes, and identities than only the religious, such as national belonging and ‘scientific’ notions of race.[14] A lack of attention to the historical specificity of modern antisemitism is part of the explanation for the many misreadings of ‘On the Jewish Question’.

To understand ‘On the Jewish Question’, it is necessary to keep the polemical character of the text in mind.[15] 'On the Jewish Question' was Marx’ response to two articles by Bruno Bauer that had appeared in the two previous years, ‘Die Judenfrage’ [The Jewish Question, 1842] and ‘Die Fähigkeit der heutigen Juden und Christen, frei zu werden’ [The capacity of today’s Jews and Christians to become free, 1843]. Before the break between the two authors in 1842, Bauer had been Marx’s closest friend, and he likely exercised a lasting influence on Marx’ conception of critique.[16] Bauer argued that political emancipation entailed human emancipation but would only be possible after the state and its citizens had become ‘emancipated’ from religion.[17] To become ‘truly’ free, the Jews needed to renounce Judaism, and the constitutional state needed to renounce Christianity. Any attempt by Jews to maintain themselves as a group defined by religion was incompatible with such emancipation.

Marx rejected this thesis and argued that the ideas of liberal democracy, such as freedom and equality, in practice are embedded in the bourgeois right to private property:

But, the right of man [menschenrecht] to liberty is based not on the association of man with man, but on the separation of man from man. It is the right of this separation, the right of the restricted individual, withdrawn into himself. The practical application of man’s right to liberty is man’s right to private property.

What constitutes man’s right to private property? […] The right of man to private property is, therefore, the right to enjoy one’s property and to dispose of it at one’s discretion (à son gré), without regard to other men, independently of society, the right of self-interest. This individual liberty and its application form the basis of civil society. It makes every man see in other men not the realisation of his own freedom, but thebarrier to it.[18]

According to Daniel Bensaïd, ‘On the Jewish Question’ marked a decisive moment in Marx’s surpassing of radical liberalism and its illusions.[19] It is the starting point of Marx’s critique of the limits of the French Revolution, of the democratic state, and human rights.[20] In this special issue, Igor Shoikhedbrod shows how Bauer’s opposition to the equal rights of Jews ‘is used by Marx as a foil for dissecting the potential and limitations of political emancipation within the framework of the modern constitutional state’ while simultaneously recognising the necessity of such emancipation, thereby informing a ‘Marxist internationalism – one that is sensitive to the global history of persecution and oppression’.

‘On the Jewish Question’ is first of all a critique of the limits of political emancipation, and was, perhaps unfortunately, of limited use for Marxist movements that were confronted, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with the rise of modern antisemitism. The leaders and thinkers of these movements initially interpreted antisemitism as a response to economic crises and increased competition between different parts of the petite bourgeoisie. One of the most prominent leaders of the German SPD in that period, August Bebel, claimed that only in 1877 antisemitism came out in the open as a political current in Germany. According to Bebel this was the ‘natural effect and consequence of the economic conditions’ that arose after the crash of 1873. It was economic misery and precarity that made the middle-layers of society susceptible to demagogues who scapegoated ‘Jewish’ exploitation. An accident of European history meant that Christian religious hostility against Jews had as an effect that they were over-represented in economic middle layers, in roles associated with finance and trade, and they thereby appeared as convenient scapegoats.

This economic misery was however inescapable as capitalist development increasingly rendered intermediate social layers obsolete. According to Bebel, this meant that antisemitism itself was doomed to become obsolete as its bankruptcy would be revealed by the development of capitalism itself. Even expelling all Jews from German areas, Bebel concluded, ‘would not change the foundations of our society by one inch’; ‘not the Jews, but capitalism is the enemy of the anti-Semitic middle-layers’. It was inevitable that the ‘declining middle-layers’ would increasingly realise this; ‘and they will then come to the realisation that they have not only to fight against the Jewish capitalist, but against the rule of the capitalist class’. At this point, ‘against its will and by necessity’, antisemitism would ‘become revolutionary, and thus play into the hands of us, the Social Democracy.’[21]

Bebel’s faith that the development of capitalism would force even antisemitism to play into the hands of socialism was an extreme example of a belief in progress that characterised much of the Marxist approach in this period. In ‘Rasse und Judentum’ [Race and Jewishness] from 1914, Karl Kautsky likewise expected that capitalist development would inexorably lead to the assimilation of Jews into wider society, thereby dissolving their difference and antisemitic hostility towards it. It had been in the interest of the development of industrial capitalism that the walls around the Jewish ghettos had come down in Europe, and the further development of capitalism towards socialism would end the last vestiges of antisemitism.[22] Antisemitism was the regressive ideology of an outdated petite bourgeoisie, and especially in Tsarist Russia a device with which the state tried to divide the working class. Kautsky denied any historical resilience to the social and cultural distinctions of Jewish populations. Because of their specific social and economic functions and antisemitic hostility towards them, Jews formed a ‘caste’, according to Kausky. Otto Bauer shared a similar approach, explaining the existence of Jews as a national group in historical terms, as supposedly the outcome of their role as merchants in pre-capitalist societies.[23]

‘Only in the ghetto,’ argued Kautsky, ‘in enforced isolation from their environment and under political pressure, without rights and amid hostility, does Jewishness persist.’ Wherever Jews were treated as free and equal, it supposedly dissolved as class contradictions developed among the Jewish population along parallel lines as in the rest of society.[24] The way to their liberation, and hence their assimilation, for Jews was participation in the proletarian class struggle.[25] As individuals, Jews had played revolutionary roles in the workers’ movement, Kautsky recognized, but Jewishness was only reactionary, a ‘feudal remnant’ that ought to disappear ‘the earlier, the better’ for the whole of society, clearing the way for the creation of a higher form of societal organisation.[26]

Bebel’s and Kautsky’s approach was shared by later writers. Otto Heller, a faithful Stalinist, in ‘Der Untergang des Judentums’ [The Decline of Jewishness] (1930) added that the Jewish question was partly a national one. ‘The demise of Jewishness in its social conception’ according to Heller meant ‘the dissolving of the Jewish cast, bourgeois emancipation and assimilation of the Jews in the West; the solution of the Jewish question where it is simultaneously a social and national question, in the East, through the proletarian revolution: all of this destroys the social preconditions for the return of antisemitism’.[27]

As Traverso writes in his survey of the Marxists and the Jewish Question, the ‘classic’ approach to antisemitism probably found its most sophisticated example in the work of Abram Leon, a young Polish Jewish intellectual who was murdered in Auschwitz in 1944 at the age of 26.[28] In his work The Jewish Question, completed in 1942 but published posthumously in Paris in 1946, Leon built on earlier analyses of Jewish history as the outcome of the supposed ‘socio-economic function of the Jews’; ‘Above all the Jews constitute historically a social group with a specific economic function. They are a class, or more precisely, a people-class’.[29] According to Leon, it was capitalism that posed the Jewish Question when, by destroying feudal society, it also ‘destroyed the function of the Jewish people-class’ while being unable to absorb ‘the Jew liberated from [this] social shell’.[30] But this also meant that modern forms of antisemitism were only ‘manifestations of the economic antagonism created by capitalism’.[31] ‘The plight of the Jews has never been so tragic’, wrote Leon, ‘but never has it been so close to ceasing to be that’.[32] Supposedly, ghettos and yellow badges did not prevent ‘the workers from feeling a greater solidarity with those who suffer most from the afflictions all humanity is suffering’. Socialism would open the way for resolving Jewish plight. Traverso observed that Leon concluded the traditional Marxist approach to the Jewish problem, ‘assimilation as a historical trend and an outcome of 'progress'’, ‘at a time when Auschwitz was sounding the death knell for a century of Jewish assimilation’.[33]

It was the horrors of Auschwitz that in the eyes of Adorno ‘makes all talk of progress towards freedom ludicrous’; ‘if freedom and autonomy still had any substance, Auschwitz could not have happened’. Confronted with the direct merger of politics with mass murder in Auschwitz and other camps, such talk becomes ‘the mere assertion of a mind that is incapable of looking horror in the face and that thereby perpetuates it.’[34]  In his contribution to this issue, Traverso considers the work of one thinker who did look the horror in the face, Günther Anders. For Anders, Auschwitz and Hiroshima named the transition to a new historical epoch, one in which humanity itself was ‘exterminable’ (tötbar).[35]

Whereas as the socialist movement historically tended towards a linear vision of progress, there is a need for what Michael Löwy has called ‘a dialectical conception of progress, which takes into account the negative aspect of capitalist modernity’.[36] In his contribution to this special issue, Löwy offers a reading of Kafka as an observer of one such aspect, of a bureaucratic ‘justice’ system ‘crushing the innocent individual under the wheels of the State machine’. In a different view of history Ishay Landa calls to ‘complete the revolution of 1789 and to follow the process of modernity through’ by recognizing the ‘locomotive of world history’ as a force for emancipation.

In a similar impulse to reassess the Marxist classics, Neil Levi subjects Postone’s essay to an immanent critique. Such a critique is all the more relevant because the essay has become a widely cited reference, including among Marxists who otherwise have little in common with Postone’s approach. Part of the explanation is the paucity of Marxist analyses of Auschwitz. While National-Socialism and fascism have been the subject of intense scrutiny, much less attention has been paid to the analysis of Auschwitz and of the processes leading up to it.

Postone’s essay itself dates from 1979. An English translation was published the following year, in New German Critique. The essay starts by examining the West-German response to the televised filmHolocaust and goes on to discuss the lack of attention to Auschwitz specifically in the West-German New Left. Only the second half of the text develops an analysis of antisemitism. According to Postone, this film was the first time that the majority of the generation politicised after 1968 had ‘concretely and viscerally been confronted with the fate of the Jews’; ‘they had known, of course, but apparently only abstractly.’

For Postone, ‘The post-war insistence on not having known should probably be interpreted as a continued insistence on not wanting to know. ‘‘We didn't know’’ should be understood as ‘‘we still don't want to know.’’ Admission of knowledge – even if acquired post factum – would have necessarily demanded an internal distancing from past identification and would have led to political and social consequences. Such consequences would have required among other things that former Nazi-officials could not have continued exercising their functions in the Federal Republic. But rather than an anti-fascist reckoning, ‘the demand was for ‘‘‘normalcy’’ at all costs, one to be achieved without dealing with the past. The strong identification with that past was not overcome, but simply buried beneath a surfeit of Volkswagens’.[37]

At this point, Postone’s essay can be read as an implicit critique of the Holocaust’s use as a universal key to understanding antisemitism as such. The failure to reckon with the specific nature of Nazi-antisemitism ‘was psychic self-denial and repression.’ The German left’s lack of knowledge about concrete Nazi-policies led, on Postone’s assessment, to an incomplete view of National-Socialism. Against this, Postone insisted on the ‘specificity of Nazism and the extermination of European Jewry’ and argued against interpretations of the Third Reich in ‘historically non-specific terms’. According to Postone, German feelings of guilt and shame led to a concern with the Nazi-past but one that avoided ‘the specificity of the past’.[38] In other words, Postone’s essay was not intended to be an analysis of antisemitism in general, nor of murderous, ‘redemptive’ antisemitism, but of specifically National-Socialist antisemitism.[39]

The main argument that Postone developed is that Nazi-antisemitism identified the figure of the Jews with ‘abstract’, financial capital as juxtaposed to concrete ‘industrial’ capital. Where the former was parasitic and rootless, the latter was productive. In Nazi-antisemitism, Jews became identified not only with money and the circulation of capital, as they had been already in pre-existing forms of antisemitism, but ‘were identified with capital itself’.[40] National-Socialism was, in terms of its self-understanding, a movement of revolt.[41] Nazi-leaders described their movement as driven by a ‘great anticapitalist yearning’, even a part of a ‘racial world revolution’.[42] Clearly, this was a very specific form of antisemitism, and an analysis of this form of antisemitism cannot simply be generalised.

Regardless of the value of the analysis developed in the second part of ‘Anti-Semitism and National-Socialism’, attention to the often neglected first part of the text should warn against attempts to use it as a general explanatory model.[43]

What then to make of the widespread use of the text and its analytical categories in ways that ignore Postone’s insistence on the specificity of German National-Socialist antisemitism? ‘Anti-Semitism and National-Socialism’ itself offers a critique avant la lettre of this use of the text; by ignoring the specificity of National-Socialist antisemitism, the antisemitism that had led to Auschwitz, other issues, such as the confrontation with authoritarian policies in the Federal Republic of Germany could be understood ‘as a direct struggle against fascism, an attempt to make up today for the lack of German resistance then.’[44] A similar mechanism can be seen in the contemporary so-called Antideutsch (Anti-German) milieu analysed by Fischer. Although Postone’s essay gained cult status in such circles, Anti-German currents are a stark example of the mechanism of German deflection described by him: attention to the specificity of German National-Socialism is replaced by opposition to a supposedly universal antisemitism. Instead of a reckoning with the German past and its consequences, the current focusses on attacks on the other, foremost on Palestinians and solidarity activists, and, as Fischer shows, a turn towards conformity with German raison d’etat. As Postone wrote in 1979, ‘What happened to the Jews has been instrumentalized and transformed into an ideology of legitimation for the present system’.[45]

Antisemitism, Zionism, and Palestinian Liberation

One important aspect of the contemporary debate – both because of the break it represents with most classical Marxist interpretations of the early twentieth century, and because of its centrality in contemporary public discourse – is the relationship between antisemitism, Zionism, and Palestinian liberation.[46] As already pointed out above, the current dominant narrative propelled by pro-Israeli organisations and politicians, and given material form through IHRA policies and anti-BDS legislation, is that the roots of modern antisemitism are located in the activities of the Palestine Solidarity movements and, by extension, Muslim migrant populations in Europe.[47] In this view, antisemitism is neither a European problem nor one that finds its roots in the classical arsenal of fascism on the one hand, and European nation-state formation on the other.

The so called ‘New Antisemitism’ was theorised around the turn of the millennium by a series of French neo-con intellectuals, some of whom had old roots in the 1968 left, who saw the rise of a new left and militant anti-racist politics in the banlieues as existential threats to the republic – for its stability at home, and its interests abroad.[48] At the very moment when fascism, in the form of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front, grew to becoming a key contender in national politics for the first time in post-war history (the same Le Pen who described the Holocaust as ‘a detail of history’), the French right launched a sustained attack on the left and Muslim populations as the key danger faced by Jewish populations in the republic, to great and long lasting effect. In recent years, for example, the Macron government – following in the footsteps of its predecessors – anxious to demonstrate its ability to challenge the now renamed National Rally on its right, took aim at so-called ‘islamo-leftism’ while banning pro-Palestinian demonstrations and BDS initiatives.[49] The echoes with the similarly racist and repressive scarecrow of Judeo-Bolshevism of a century ago are obvious.

In their early and still seminal critique of this phenomenon, Alain Badiou and Eric Hazan identified the centrality of Palestine to this process.[50] The narrative functions in three steps: i) equate critiques of Israel and of French support for it with antisemitism; ii) claim that Jews are therefore under threat from growing support for Palestinian liberation, which in turn pre-supposes a perfect overlap between Jews and Zionism; iii) identify the left and Muslim populations’ support for Palestinian liberation with antisemitism – even (especially?) when those accused make a clear distinction between antisemitism and anti-Zionism. All protestation critiquing Israel’s ongoing colonial rule over the Palestinian people is therefore not only pre-emptively silenced but also further proof of guilt: it is but a trick of the ‘New Antisemitism’ in order to hide its true colours. If, as Bensaïd wrote in 2005, antisemitism can become ‘the anti-imperialism of fools as it once was the socialism of fools’, the policies of the Israeli state and its allies will have done much to bring this about.[51]

Under this narrative, Palestinians and their treatment at the hands of the Israeli state – supported, armed, and financed by western states – are disappeared from view. Their demands are ignored or, worse, immediately turned into suspicious attempts to ‘single out’ the only ‘Jewish state’ in the world. Jewish populations, on the other hand, are made collectively synonymous with Israel and thereby positioned, as a sort of ideological shield, between the states in question and those protesting their imperialist and colonial practices.[52] This attitude points to a much longer-term historical shift in the imposed identification on Jewish populations in the West, under the dual influence of the Holocaust and the creation of the Israeli state.

Indeed, a number of the contributors to this special issue point to these much longer histories, both of attempts to delegitimise anti-Zionism by conflating it with antisemitism, as well as different forms of resistance against it. Salim Nadi, for example, introduces readers to the figure and work of Abraham Serfaty, a Marxist, Jewish, Moroccan revolutionary who thought through the connections between colonialism, antisemitism, and Zionism as a basis for revolutionary politics in the Maghreb. Readers are also presented with a text, previously unavailable in English, where Serfaty illustrates some of these connections and their practical consequences by focussing on the fate of Moroccan Jews, oppressed at home, exploited in Israel, and yet mobilised as cannon fodder by the reactionary regimes in both countries. Only internationalism, solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for liberation, and the reclaiming of a pre-Zionist North African Jewishness can, for Serfaty, offer a road out of the impasse. If the text today reads more like a testimony of a road not taken, it points to a set of strategic commitments which remain nonetheless vital today.

Benjamin Balthaser and Sune Haugbølle also return to the 1960s and 1970s, in the United States and Denmark respectively, to present us with historical examples of how the left engaged in solidarity with the Palestinian people, addressed accusations of antisemitism, and fought to link their struggles together. Similar to their incarcerated Moroccan comrade, these movements developed ways to think about their own liberation in connection with that of the Palestinians – different circumstances linked through the structures of capitalism, racism, and imperialism.

The period that these texts engage with is crucial if we are to understand the changes to the nature of Western antisemitism, which have led to our current moment. Indeed, from the 1960s onwards, Western States shifted their attitude towards Jewish populations.[53] Under pressure from growing anti-colonial movements in the Global South and anti-racist movements at home, Western states re-imagined their history as one centred around the lessons of the Holocaust. Remembering the Nazi genocide –- without acknowledging the collective responsibility of European and North American ruling classes in financing the Nazi party and whipping up antisemitism in their own states – became a way to claim a newly imagined anti-racist identity for the very states that had either organised the extermination of the Jews in Europe, or been the fertile ground for half a century of antisemitic reaction in the run up to it. This white-washed Holocaust memory became, as Traverso has argued, a civil religion. As he warned: ‘Institutionalised and neutralised, the memory of the Holocaust thus risks becoming the moral sanction for a Western order that perpetuates oppression and injustice’.[54]

Indeed, alongside this process taking place from the early 1960s onwards in Western Europe and North America, Western support for Israel could then be constructed not as the continuation of the very imperialist and colonial policies that were being challenged across the globe, but as a form of anti-racist solidarity and a commitment to the most narrow and reactionary interpretation of the slogan: ‘Never Again’.[55] From pariahs and proto-typical enemies of the state, Jewish populations were re-invented by their oppressors of yesteryear as the defenders of Western civilisation par excellence. This defence was mobilised against racialised communities at home, and anti-colonial/imperialist struggles abroad. Far from protecting them or freeing them from oppression, Western states repositioned Jewish populations at the centre of their racist regimes, albeit in an inverted way. The consequences of this approach are all around us. Western states justify their support for Israel as support for an abstracted Jewish community, rather than self-interested imperialist policy. Jews who dissent are cast out. And the many hundreds of thousands who support Palestinian liberation and challenge their own states’ complicity are no longer anti-racist or anti-colonial activists but antisemites.

Antisemitism, Structural Racism, and Oppression

In this context, the analyses which identify, as Aimé Césaire and Hannah Arendt once did, the continuity between Nazi exterminationist policies and those carried out by the different European empires across the globe, help us to undermine these ideological constructions and to rebuild collective forms of solidarity and action.[56] Already in 1942, Karl Korsch noted that: ‘[t]he novelty of totalitarian politics in this respect is simply that the Nazis have extended to “civilized” European peoples the methods hitherto reserved for the “natives” or “savages” living outside so-called civilization’.[57] This approach, far from belittling the Holocaust or antisemitism, points to vital possible alliances in fighting all forms of oppression and exit the system that produces them as necessary to its reproduction and survival.

The question of the comparability of the Holocaust remains controversial and fractious today. Accusations abound that placing the Nazi genocide in the context of the long history of colonial processes of racialisation, dispossession, mass murder, and extermination, is synonymous with undermining its gravity – or even akin to revisionism. Germany, where furious debate has raged over the nature of the Herero and Nama genocide and its connection to the Holocaust for the last decade, once again serves as a helpful example in this regard.[58] As Jürgen Zimmerer has convincingly shown, it is not only appropriate but necessary to put the genocide carried out by German soldiers and settlers in Namibia in the early twentieth century in relation to the Holocaust in order to understand the latter fully.[59]

Whether in terms of the development of ideas of racial superiority and purity, the need for the German Volk to secure itsLebensraum, or the actual overlap in personnel in developing colonial and occupation policy in Africa and Eastern Europe, respectively, or settling the two territories, Zimmerer shows that the connections are as fundamental as they are numerous. This is of course to say nothing of the ways in which Nazi officials, not least amongst them Adolf Hitler himself, were wont to make these connections and comparisons explicit in their thought – from the racialisation and genocide of Indigenous populations in North America to British colonial rule in India.[60] Yet Zimmerer and others’ careful analyses of these parallels has been met with opprobrium in German public debate. To link the history of the Holocaust to that of colonial genocides is, in the eyes of the defenders of official history, paramount to undermine its gravity.

Leaving aside for now what this approach might tell us about the value such commentators attribute to the lives of former colonial subjects across the Global South, it is clear that positioning the Holocaust as an exclusive event, located almost out of time, is key to the process described above: making its remembrance – ritualised and de-politicised – central to Western self-image, cleansing it of its racist past. If the Holocaust remains disconnected – and implicit in this disconnection is the idea that it is ‘worse’ in an imagined hierarchy of barbarism – from the long history of 500 years of genocidal violence across the world, then Western states can reconcile the recognition and remembrance of one, with the disavowal of the others. It is, in fact, very much this question of recognition and reparations for its colonial crimes in Southwest Africa which lies at the centre of the contemporary German controversy.

It is worth noting, however, that another form of comparison has, in certain quarters, become all pervasive. Both Fisher and Miriyam Aouragh discuss in the pages of this special issue the ways in which Palestinians are repeatedly recast as a modern embodiment of the Nazi party. This phenomenon is long lasting and well documented in the history of Israeli depiction of the Palestinian national movement and its organisations.[61] Not only are early Palestinian notables accused of being the ideological source of the exterminationist policies of the Nazis, despite ample historical evidence to the contrary, but Arab and Palestinian national movements are regularly recast as the contemporary expression of this supposed desire, not to free Palestine, but to wipe the Jewish people of the map.[62]

 As both authors show, the tendency to obscure European histories of colonial and racial violence by projecting responsibility for them on their contemporary victims is not limited to Israel. Palestinians, the global solidarity movement, as well as other racialized groups – primary amongst which are Muslim populations in Europe – have been cast in much the same light by the propagators of the ‘New Antisemitism’ discourse. With the Western elites whitewashed and Israel made synonymous with Jewish people everywhere, any critique of the Israeli state can only be read through the prism of the unaddressed demons of the Western collective past. It is not out of Europe that modern antisemitism emerged, in this narrative, nor is it in the re-emergence of its far-right parties and movements that the danger lies. Instead, it is immigrants, Muslims, Palestinians, and their supporters who are ‘importing’ the scourge of antisemitism into the enlightened West. We return once more to the image with which we started: while Jean-Marie Le Pen announced freely on national television that the Holocaust had been ‘a detail’ in history, the French neo-cons argued it was from the banlieues that the danger came.

Comparison and connections are not only important to understand and identify the threat, but also in developing ways to fight it. If antisemitism is one specific expression of a wider framework of reactionary ideas and structures, then the struggle against it also needs to make these wider connections. Both Peter Drucker and Cihan Özpinar direct our attention to these issues. Drucker shows the striking parallels between the place that antisemitism and homophobia have and continue to play in the organisation of fascist and far-right parties. Both were key in the so-called period of ‘dediabolisation’ in the 1990s and early 2000s, when upholding supposed western values such as the equality of genders, religions, and sexualities in the face of imagined reactionary Muslim invasions became central to these movements’ narratives. It is also striking that as the far-right has grown in strength, this strategy has increasingly fallen to the wayside. Özpinar explores the connections between class and racialisation. While working class Muslims are targeted and isolated from wider society through the ‘New Antisemitism’ discourse, Muslim elites are turned into disciplining agents of ‘their’ community. Both processes, Özpinar argues, work in tandem to disorganise and weaken movements of contestation among Muslim populations in Europe.

It is not possible to understand the nature of antisemitism nor its different expressions without placing it within a broader framework of oppression, repression, and racialisation. Failing to do so also undermines the possibilities to challenge it. Put plainly, in the words of civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer: “nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”[63]

Where Next?

The need, then, for an adequate analysis of what antisemitism is, how to recognise it and fight it, could not be clearer.

Although many of the conclusions of the classical Marxist canon have proven mistaken – not least its emphasis on assimilation as a quasi-automatic (or desirable) process that would prove to be the solution to the oppression faced by Jewish populations – its approach, which insists on historicising the problem and confronting it within specific and changing circumstances, remains crucial. Similarly, the emphasis on reading (and fighting) antisemitism as one part of a broader network of oppression and exploitation, so central to the reproduction of capitalism, is one which serves as an important corrective to contemporary tendencies to exceptionalise and de-contextualise antisemitism.

The Marxist tradition and the socialist movement itself should not be exempt from investigation. Brendan McGeever’s work on antisemitism in the Russian revolution is a powerful example of this. Simon Pirani’s review discusses the crucial importance of not-only acknowledging the ways in which the Bolshevik revolution was a crucial step forward in the struggle against antisemitic terror in Eastern Europe, but also to recognise the ways in which revolutionary movements are not hermetically sealed off from the hegemonic reactionary ideas of their time. Here too, reading antisemitism and the struggle against it in a situated, historically informed, and interconnected manner opens up important avenues for analysis.

Although the Marxist tradition has valuable insights to offer, which we hope the pages of this special issue demonstrate, we also suggest that there is a need to overcome a certain Eurocentrism within it, which projects European patterns of antisemitism onto the world stage. Too often have the contributions of non-European Marxists been neglected, as both Nadi and Aouragh demonstrate. The same is true in how we approach the European Marxist tradition and its classical texts. Levi demonstrates in his critique of Postone, how crucial bringing in the wider history of empire, racialisation, and violence is if we are to understand antisemitism effectively.

However, if a Marxist approach to antisemitism is to be fruitful, that is to be useful both analytically and practically, it needs to turn its attention to the present. The late nineteenth century gave birth to a form of antisemitism that emerged out of the racialisations of the colonial world on the one hand and the emancipation of the Jewish populations in Europe on the other. Jewish difference was being made increasingly fundamental, biological even, at the very time when ‘the Jew’ from the mediaeval ghetto was vanishing from view. No longer kept in place by religious persecution but granted civil rights, ‘he’ could be everywhere. No longer defined religiously but racially, ‘he’ could never assimilate. These processes are not those faced by Jewish populations in the present. If Marxism is to be relevant, it must recognise and engage with the new ways in which ‘the Jew’ is being constructed by the material and ideological structures we face in the present.

This introduction and the special issue as a whole give some possible avenues for reflection: connection with Islamophobia, the place of Zionism and Holocaust memory in the projection of Western power, the rise of a new far right, and the shifting class position of both Jewish and other racialised communities, imperialism, and the ongoing crises of capitalism. We hope this special issue will not only reinforce the need to follow these paths of analysis and critique further, but also be a modest contribution to the renewed Marxist engagement with the critique of antisemitism - and the struggle against it.

[1] See for example, Traverso, Enzo 2016, The End of Jewish Modernity, London: Pluto Press, for a longer discussion of this phenomenon.

[2] Peter Drucker’s excellent essay in this special issue returns to this question and discusses a comparable phenomenon in regards to the far right’s relationship with homophobia.

[3] See for example, Rebecca Ruth Gould (2020), ‘The IHRA Definition of Antisemitism: Defining Antisemitism by Erasing Palestinians’, The Political Quarterly, 91(4), pp.825-831, for an overview and critique. For a full timeline see Palestine Legal (undated),’ Distorted Definition: Redefining Antisemitism to Silence Advocacy for Palestinian Rights’, Palestine Legal,

[4] Joshua Leifer’s account, ‘The Challenge of Defending Memory in Germany’,Jewish Currents (7th July 2022) is instructive,

[5] Baconi is the author of (2018), Hamas Contained: The Rise and Pacification of Palestinian Resistance, Stanford: Stanford University Press, and the president of the board of the Palestinian policy Network Al Shabaka,

[6] For an excellent discussion and analysis of the relationship between the Holocaust and the Nakba, see Bashir Bashir and Amos Goldberg, eds., (2019), The Holocaust and the Nakba: A New Grammar of Trauma and History, New York: Columbia University Press.

[7] For a critical overview of this process see Jamie Stern-Weiner, ed. (2019), Antisemitism and the Labour Party, London: Verso; Alex Nunns (Forthcoming),Sabotage: The Inside Hit Job That Brought Down Jeremy Corbyn, Or Books; Ed McNally (2020), ‘Jeremy Corbyn Was Successful When He Stuck to His Socialist Principles’,Jacobin, 7th October,

[8] Zoe Tidman (2019), ‘Theresa May unveils statue of 'virulently antisemitic' first woman MP’, The Independent, 29th November,

[9] See for example, David Renton (2021), Labour's Antisemitism Crisis: What the Left Got Wrong, Routledge; Daniel Randall (2021), Antisemitism on the Left: Arguments for Socialists, No Pasaran Media.

[10] Different versions have appeared of ‘Anti-Semitism and National-Socialism’. The first English-language publication was ‘Anti-Semitism and National Socialism: notes on the German reaction to ‘‘Holocaust’’’, New German Critique 19 (1980), pp. 97-115. A reworked and shortened version appeared in A. Rabinach and J. Zipes, eds., (1986),Germans and Jews since the Holocaust, Holmes & Meier. Moishe Postone (2005),Deutschland, die Linke und der Holocaust. Politische Intervention, Barbara Fried et al., eds., Ça ira-verlag contains a version incorporating different English and German language versions of the essay.

[11] Quoted by Daniel Bensaïd in: Karl Marx (2006), Sur la Question Juive. Présentation et commentaires de Daniel Bensaïd, La Fabrique, p. 25.


[12] Enzo Traverso (2000), Nach Auschwitz, ISP-Verlag, p. 38.

[13] Postone, ‘Anti-Semitism and National Socialism’, p. 106.

[14] Philippe Burrin (2005), Nazi Anti-Semitism. From Prejudice to the Holocaust, The New Press, p. 23.

[15] Detlev Claussen (2005), Grenzen der Aufklärung. Die gesellschaftliche Genese des modernen Antisemitismus, Fischer, p. 99.

[16] Michael Heinrich (2019), Karl Marx and the Birth of Modern Society: The Life of Marx and the Development of His Work (Volume I: 1818-1841), Monthly Review Press, pp. 286-288.

[17] Ilse Yago-Jung, introduction to Iring Fetscher, ed., (1974) Marxisten gegen Antisemitismus, Hoffman und Campe, p. 15.

[18] Karl Marx, On the Jewish Question, online:

[19] Marx (2006), Sur la Question Juive, p. 13.

[20] Ibid, p. 29.

[21] August Bebel, ‘Sozialdemokratie und Antisemitismus. Rede beim Kölner Parteitag 1893’, online at

[22]  Karl Kautsky, Rasse und Judentum, in: Iring Fetscher, ed., (1974)Marxisten gegen Antisemitismus, Hoffman und Campe, p. 90.

[23]  Enzo Traverso (1994),The Marxists and the Jewish Question. The History of a Debate, Huminaties Press, pp. 76-82.

[24]  Kautsky, Rasse und Judentum, p. 92.

[25]  Ibid., p. 115.

[26]  Ibid., p. 119.

[27]  Otto Heller (1931) Der Untergang des Judentums, Wien/Berlin: Verlag für Literaur und Politik, p. 150. 

[28]  Traverso,Les Marxistes et la Question Juive, p. 225.

[29]  Ibid., p. 226.

[30]  Abram Leon (1970),The Jewish Question. A Marxist interpretation, Pathfinder Pres, p. 258.

[31]  Ibid., 266.

[32]  Ibid., p. 262.

[33] Traverso, Les Marxistes et la Question Juive, p. 243.

[34]  Theodor W. Adorno (2008) History and Freedom. Lectures 1964–1965, Cambridge: Polity, p. 7.

[35]  Enzo Traverso (2020),Critique of Modern Barbarism. Essays on fascism, anti-Semitism and the use of History, Amsterdam: IIRE, p. 48.

[36]  Michael Löwy (2000), Marx’s dialectic of progress: open or closed?,Socialism and Democracy, 14(1), pp. 35-44.

[37] Postone, ‘Anti-Semitism and National Socialism’, p. 99-101.

[38] Ibid, p. 102.

[39] It should be noted that at a later point Postone wrote that ‘modern anti-Semitism’ as such could be understood as ‘as a fetishized one-sided form of anticapitalism’ that ‘biologistically identifies’ Jews with ‘abstract capital’. See Moise Postone (2003),Time, Labor, and Social Domination. A reinterpretation of Marx’s critical theory, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[40] Moishe Postone, ‘The Holocaust and the Trajectory of the Twentieth Century’, in: Moishe Postone and Eric Santer eds., (2003),Catastrophe and Meaning. The Holocaust and the Twentieth Century, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p. 93.

[41] Postone, ‘The Holocaust and the Trajectory of the Twentieth Century’, p. 84.

[42] Alfred Rosenberg (2015),Die Tagebücher von 1934 bis 1944, Jürgen Matthäus and Frank Bajohr ed., Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, p. 629.

[43] For one recent critique of Postone’s thesis, also see Michael Sommer (2022),Anti-Postone: or, Why Moishe Postone's Antisemitism Theory is Wrong, but Effective, Cosmonaut Press.

[44] Postone, ‘Anti-Semitism and National Socialism’, p. 102.

[45] Ibid., p. 98.

[46] For a sustained and insightful reflection on the relationships between both over the long durée, see Bashir Bashir and Leila Farsakh, eds. (2020), The Arab and Jewish Questions: Geographies of Engagement in Palestine and Beyond, New York: Columbia University Press.

[47] For an excellent study of these processes see Hil Aked (2023), Friends of Israel: The Backlash Against Palestine Solidarity, London: Verso.

[48] See for example Emmanuel Brenner, ed. (2002),Les Territoires Perdus de la République, Paris: Mille et une nuits; Pierre-André Taguieff (2002),La Nouvelle Judéophobie, Paris: Mille et une Nuits; Pierre-André Taguieff (2004),Prêcheurs de Haine: Traversée de la Judéophobie Planétaire, Paris: Mille et une Nuits; Pierre-André Taguieff (2021),Liaisons Dangereuses: Islamo-Nazisme, Islamo-Gauchisme, Paris: Hermann; Alain Finkielkraut (2003),Au Nom de l’Autre: Réflexions sur l’Antisémitisme qui Vient, Paris: Gallimard; Nicolas Weill (2004),La République et les Antisémites, Paris: Grasset.

[49] Selim Nadi (2021),’Emmanuel Macron’s Government Has Banned Palestine Solidarity Demonstrations’,Jacobin, 14th May,

[50] Alain Badiou and Eric Hazan, ‘“Anti-Semitism Everywhere” in France Today’, in Alain Badiou, Eric Hazan, and Ivan Segré (2013), Reflexions on Anti-Semitism, London: Verso.

[51] Daniel Bensaïd (2005), Fragments mécréants. Mythes identitaires et République imaginaire. Paris: Lignes.

[52] In responses to the imposition of the IHRA working definition in British universities, more than 120 Palestinian and Arab scholars, artists, and intellectuals, published a letter highlighting how their oppression - both historic and present - was being silenced and denied, while the struggle against antisemitism was being undermined by this weaponisation. See ‘Palestinian rights and the IHRA definition of antisemitism’,The Guardian, 29th November 2020,

[53] For a more detailed account of this process see Sai Englert (2018), ‘The State, Zionism and the Nazi Genocide: Jewish Identity-Formation in the West between Assimilation and Rejection’, Historical Materialism, 26(2), pp.149–177.

[54] Enzo Traverso (2016),The End of Jewish Modernity, London: Pluto Press, pp.126-7.

[55]  For a detailed account of the reimagination of the German State as an anti-racist actor and a friend to the Jewish people - via its support for Zionism - see the excellent Daniel Marwecki (2020),Germany and Israel: Whitewashing and Statebuilding, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[56]  Hannah Arendt (1973), The Origins of Imperialism, London: André Deutsch, pp. 123, 138, 143, 218, passim. Aimé Césaire (2000),Discourse on Colonialism, New York: Monthly Review, pp . 35-40.

[57] Karl Korsh (1942), ‘Notes on History: The Ambiguities of Totalitarian Ideologies’, New Essays: A Quarterly Devoted to the Study of Modern Society, Vol. 6 (1942), no 2 (Fall), p. 1-9.

[58] Thomas Rogers (2023) provides a helpful English language overview of these recent debates in his ‘The Long Shadow of German Colonialism’,The New York Review, 9th March,

[59] Jürgen Zimmerer (2006), ‘The Birth of theOstland out of the Spirit of Colonialism: a Postcolonial Perspective on the Nazi Policy of Conquest and Extermination’,Patterns of Prejudice, 39(2), pp.197-219. See also Patrick Wolfe (2016),Traces of History: Elementary Structures of Race, London: Verso, for an excellent discussion of modern antisemitism within the general emergence of ‘race science’ and racism.

[60] Jürgen Zimmerer (2008), ‘Colonialism and the Holocaust – Towards an Archeology of Genocide’,Development Dialogue, 50,  p.95. Mahmood Mamdani (2020), Neither Settler Nor Native: The Making and Unmaking of Permanent Minorities, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, pp. 105-106

[61] Joseph Massad (2006),The Persistence of the Palestinian Question: Essays on Zionism and the Palestinians, New York: Routledge. See especially pp.132-134. Tom Segev (1993),The Seventh Million: The Israelis and the Holocaust, New York: Owl Books.

[62] For a careful and detailed debunking of these arguments see Gilbert Achcar (2009),The Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives, New York: Metropolitan Books.

[63] Maegan Parker Brooks and Davis W. Houck (eds.) (2010), The Speeches of Fannie Lou Hamer: To Tell It Like It Is,University Press of Mississippi, p.134.



Judaism, Zionism, and the Nazi Genocide

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


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 modernantisemitism. 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 andantisemitism.

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 ofantisemitism. 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 ofNever 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.