Unignoring anti-Semitism

Monday, April 30, 2012

Unignoring anti-Semitism in contexts of critical knowledge production[1]

I would like to react to the open letter by Eduard Freudmann and the discussion it opened on the issue of the belittlement and concealment of anti-Semitism in the Austrian artistic and academic community specifically related to philosophy, theory and the arts.[2] More precisely, I would like to share some thoughts of mine and bring up a set of questions specifically on how to act against anti-Semitism in the contexts of critical knowledge production.

Anti-Semitism in “our” spaces 

Anti-Semitism is an irrational phenomenon and in the same time an extremely violent social and political discriminatory mechanism of power that is at stake in everyday life as well as in political fields. It occurs in almost every part of the spectrum of politics that tend to be categorized into the Right and the Left. [3] The hatred against Jewish people, their degradation and devaluation has been reshaping throughout history, taking a large variety of forms, ranging from Christian anti-Judaism to modern anti-Semitism (that culminated in the eliminatory anti-Semitism of the Shoah) and new forms of anti-Semitism after the Shoah, to name a few. However, the history of anti-Semitism has been overlapping with the history of the political Left since the inception of the Left.[4] Even a minor research on the historical and contemporary forms of anti-Semitism shows the phenomenon’s entanglement with the Left and other spaces of critique whose protagonists would locate themselves beyond the above mentioned binary division. Anti-Semitism in the Left has been amalgamating with foreshortened critiques, e.g. with a foreshortened critique of capitalism that is historically related to the construction of the Jews being the incarnation of capital, or a foreshortened critique of imperialism that departs from the assumption that the state of Israel would be the incarnation of contemporary imperialism.[5] Here ambivalence appears as one aspect of anti-Semitism that is central to its occurrence. Anti-Semitic resentment is rarely unambiguous and anti-Semitic argumentation tends to even contradict itself.

Surely, it makes a difference where on the political spectrum anti-Semitism appears and accordingly, the reaction to and the criticism of it differs. As long as anti-Semitism occurs in the Right many are very ready to declare and act against it. But, when it occurs in the Left and in other platforms of critical thinking and action, one is often confronted with a strong resistance towards bringing the issue of anti-Semitism to the table. In such cases discussions on anti-Semitism or the acknowledgement of its existence, are repeatedly being resisted, (self-)censored and silenced; acting against anti-Semitism is often paralyzed and blocked with the presupposition that talking about it would damage the image of these spaces.

However, no matter how much the Left strives towards a political thinking and acting against discrimination, it seems unable to create or detect situations that are free of discrimination and its reproduction (which doesn’t mean that this is not discussed, reflected and worked on). Therefore it is clear that anti-Semitism operates in “our” spaces, spaces that we[6] inhabit, where we collaborate and build alliances with people with whom we believe to share similar political horizons, spaces we don’t want to abandon. With leaving the occurrence of anti-Semitism uncommented we become protagonists of its maintenance. As we are active in a field of critique and politics, it is clearly our task to deal with the occurring anti-Semitism, to think what to do with it, how to react on it and how to fight it. Since this is not always a very easy task, I would like to look at an example related to my own recent experience and base some proposals and conclusions upon it.

Dispute on the textual production of the decoloniality theorist Walter Mignolo

I was very surprised when a couple of weeks ago I called up the new issue of the transversal web journal with the title unsettling knowledges published by eipcp, the European Institute for Progressive Cultural Policies in Vienna.[7] I have been following this web journal for some years now and I contributed to it with my own textual production. For me and many others this magazine has been a great source for exchanging and producing knowledge on very different and important topics related to progressive politics and knowledge production and I have great respect for the colleagues involved in the work of this magazine. What was so surprising to me was the fact that the editors of the mentioned issue published a text by the decoloniality theorist Walter Mignolo knowing that his work has been conflictually debated in Viennese academic and university contexts for more than one year. The reason for the contestation of Mignolo’s work is that certain theoretical reflections of his are criticized for being based on anti-Semitic constructions, specifically in his text “Dispensable and Bare Lives. Coloniality and the Hidden Political/Economic Agenda of Modernity.”[8]

Besides referring to Mignolo’s theoretical production in my own work, I have been taking an active role in these debates on several different occasions as a curator, writer, PhD student, teacher and as one of the members of the editorial board of a book that is comprised of colleagues – students and teachers – at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna. These conflictual discussions and processes, however did not materialize in any public statement or text so far. Anyhow, the book we have been working on, with the initial title Vocabulary of Decoloniality, was referencing Walter Mignolo’s work related to the concept of decoloniality in many different ways. Once we got to know about the above mentioned text, we had extensive discussions about which implications arise from the situation for our work, resulting in fundamental conflicts and gaps within the editorial board that seem to be unbridgeable. However, we did agree on the point that publishing the book without addressing the conflicted subject at all would not be an option. Precisely because of the difficulties of finding an appropriate way to deal with the situation, the book has still remained unpublished and its future is in question. In the course of the above mentioned disputes and as one of the attempts to open a discussion on the topic, I wrote an analysis that was supposed to be part of a larger dialogic text comprised of individual contributions by the editorial board members. Eventually the format turned out to be dysfunctional, so the text was not finished and never published. However, the analysis, which I will expose below, relies mainly on these thoughts which themselves are based on the knowledge I, as a migrant coming from the post-Yugoslav space, have acquired in the process of working, studying and researching in the post-Nazistic space of Austria.

The text “Dispensable and Bare Lives. Coloniality and the Hidden Political/Economic Agenda of Modernity” by Walter Mignolo extensively deals with the analysis of the formation of modern/colonial racism and the concepts of dispensable and bare life which is pointed out in two specific situations: in slavery and in the Shoah. In the conclusive remarks of the text, Mignolo states that “[t]he larger frame in which the racial formation of the modern/colonial world has to be understood should take account of the context of concurrent transformations of Christianity and the emergence of the Atlantic economy—an economy of investment and accumulation of wealth (wealth of nations for Adam Smith) that we call ‘capitalism’ (after Karl Marx).”[9] These two concurrent moments are summarized in the conclusion in five points. In the first three Mignolo explains how he sees the transformation of Christianity throughout the centuries. The last two points and the subsequent conclusive sentence constitute the most disputed part of the text, so I will quote them fully:

“d) The emergence of secular ‘Jeweness’ in Eighteenth Century Europe transformed religious ‘Judaism’: the believer became, simultaneously, a citizen; a condition that was not open to other ‘religions.’ One, because Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus or Incas, were not European residents at the time and, second, it was the complicity between Christianity and secular Christian Europeans who managed to negotiate, maintaining imperial control, Christian believers with European secular citizens;

e) Last but not least, all of these went hand in hand with the consolidation, during sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, of homo economicus imperiali. If homo economicous, in the West, could be traced back to the thirteenth century, homo economicous imperiali, in the West, is without a doubt the transformation prompted by the economic change of scale opened by the conquest of the New World and the subsequent massive exploitation of labor. Secular Jewness joined secular Euro-American economic practices (e.g., imperial capitalism). The major consequence of the complicity between secular Jews and Euro-American economic and political practice ended up in the construction of the State of Israel—what Marc Ellis describes as ‘Constantine Jews.’

Anti-Semitism today is clearly a consequence of the historical collusion between Western (neo) liberalism and secular capitalism, backed up by Christianity, on the one hand, and Constantine Jews,’ on the other.”[10]

Mignolo’s proposal for the comprehension of the larger frame in which the “racial formation of the modern/colonial world” has to be understood is problematic for a number of reasons. First of all, he constructs Jews as a privileged group in Europe, by stating that what is referred to as the emancipation of Jewish people (“the believer became […] a citizen”) “was not open to other ‘religions’” as “they were not European residents at the time.” Mignolo here produces a misconception of what Europe was and is – by excluding great parts of it. As a matter of fact, Mignolo seems to talk about Western Europe only. As is well known, Jews were not the only non-Christians living in Europe, for instance Muslims have been for centuries European residents, and in certain historical periods and spaces Muslims were definitely not less privileged than Christians – for example during the Ottoman rule in the Balkans. Furthermore, what Mignolo terms as condition of the believer becoming a citizen did not end oppression and violence. Throughout the European history, before during and after the Jewish emancipation, harm was done to Jews, pogroms against Jews were conducted and Jews (including the so called “secular Jews”) were discriminated against on many levels.

Second, Mignolo’s next step is based on one of the most fundamental and wide spread anti-Semitic constructions: the alleged complicity between Jews and capitalism. He puts: “Secular Jewness joined secular Euro-American economic practices (e.g., imperial capitalism).” Relying on generalization and simplification, this argumentation categorizes an extremely manifold, heterogeneous group of people, fully neglecting differences within it. It is impossible that the whole part of one group of people that ceased to practice Judaism but were still identified as Jews by themselves or by others (the so called “secular Jews”) could “join” the “Euro-American economic practices.” Many Jews in Europe were poor, many constituted a great part of the proletariat in the 19th and 20th century.[11] Furthermore, some of them participated in the conceptualization and spreading of anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist ideas playing an important role in the history of leftist movements such as the anarchist, the communist or the socialist ones. Reading Mignolo’s argument another question arises, which is whether it is possible to relate a group of people, such as the “secular Jews,” to “Euro-American economic practices” by presuming a process of “joining,” meaning a process of decision making that is based on “their” free will. And last but not least, how is it possible to assume that any group of people or even a part of it could avoid capitalist economic practices in an increasingly capitalist world? Through such analogies, Mignolo rather reproduces the myth of the so called “homo Judaicus economicus”[12] that has been an obsession of anti-Semitic discourses for centuries, both in the most conservative and in the most progressive circles and both in the Left and the Right (including Nazism).

Third, although Mignolo bases a large part of his thesis about the dispensability of human life on his analysis of Shoah, he concludes that “[t]he major consequence of the complicity between secular Jews and Euro-American economic and political practice ended up in the construction of the State of Israel,” thereby ignoring that the formation of the state of Israel is causally connected to anti-Semitism and the Shoah. Thus he once again reproduces the myth of Jews being complicit with capitalism which now, as he presumes, granted the Jews another privilege: the creation of a state. Here a myth is reproduced, that is central in the argumentation of new anti-Semitism and based on a foreshortened critique on imperialism: that the Jews are complicit with imperialism.

Moreover, in the lines quoted above, he reduces all “secular Jews” to one sole aspect of life – their relation to capitalism. This is remarkable not only because it implies that all of them were capitalists, but also because it presumes that no one from other groups of people mentioned in his text, such as the ones in colonies and post-colonies have had any active relation to capitalism. On the contrary they are being portrayed as exploited by its mechanisms. I mention this here, because Mignolo claims the intention to, as he points out, show the “larger frame in which the racial formation of the modern/colonial world has to be understood[13] taking into consideration the transformation of Christianity and the emergence of capitalism. However, he concludes with showing us on one hand his perspective on how Christianity transformed and on the other his construction on how “secular Jews” “joined” capitalism. If this is the author’s conception of the “larger frame in which the racial formation of the modern/colonial world has to be understood” – and the way the conclusion is organized shows that it is – Mignolo ends up reproducing precisely what he announced to criticize and deconstruct: “the racial formation of the modern/colonial world.”

The culmination of the problem of Mignolo’s analysis is the last sentence where he not only once again brings into relation Jews and capitalism but also defines that relation as collusion, that is a “secret agreement or cooperation especially for an illegal or deceitful purpose.”[14] Furthermore, he states that Jews are responsible for today’s anti-Semitism. As a matter of fact he doesn’t refer to all Jews but rather to one group of Jews, the so called “Constantinian Jews” (that he misspells as “Constantine Jews”) in reference to Marc H. Ellis’ debatable categorization of Jews in the USA and Israel. According to Ellis’ text, which is published in the same book as Mignolo’s article, “Constantinian Jews” are those who form the Jewish establishment in these two countries.[15] But, knowing about the long history of anti-Semitism and the racialization of Jews, about the Shoah and about the crucial role that the perpetrator-victim inversion plays in the new forms of anti-Semitism today, it is absolutely unacceptable to accuse any Jews for being guilty of anti-Semitism. We can assume that Mignolo refers here to the Middle East conflict and Israeli politics within it, an issue that is largely being reflected and debated on and that is excessively being instrumentalized for a huge number of different political means, an issue about which’s complexity or simplicity one can argue, but an issue that definitely cannot be considered as the reason for today’s anti-Semitism, not in the Middle East, not in Europe, not anywhere else in the world.

Silence, wilful ignorance and belittlement

Although being given little space the problem of anti-Semitism in Mignolo‘s thinking is addressed by Jens Kastner and Tom Waibel in the footnote of the introduction of their recently published translation of Mignolo’s work “Desobediencia epistémica. Retórica de la modernidad, lógica de la colonialidad y gramática de la descolonialidad” into German language. They state: “In the book at hand Mignolo repeatedly addresses the role of Jews as being suppressed and excluded within Europe and within European thinking. Though at this point he stays ignorant towards the Holocaust as trigger and motivation for the foundation of the state of Israel. The indication of a ‘complicity’ between Jews and the ‘current power structure’ mainly serves anti-Semitic clichés.”[16] Although some of the positions participating in the present public debate (including myself) think that the problem requires a more in-depth analysis, it needs to be acknowledged that these authors at least mentioned the subject of anti-Semitism in relation to Mignolo’s theoretical production.

Looking at the whole situation from my own troubled experience of failure to address the problem, while in the same time seeing how my respected colleagues in the field have addressed (or have not addressed) the same problem and with all the understanding for the difficulties related to it, I would like to share my thoughts on what could be a constructive critique in the existing case.

What we have at stake here is a body of theory written by Walter Mignolo which is by many of the conflict’s protagonists considered as an important enterprise in the destabilization of hegemonic power relations, mainly for its contribution to Post-Colonial theory through its engagement in the theory of decoloniality and the decolonial option as a proposal for radically questioning and overcoming “Western” epistemological mechanisms and its power structures. At the same time the produced theory is partly anti-Semitic and thereby reproduces violence through knowledge which produces social injury (violence in this case operates as discursive violence). However, in a very contradictory way a theory that presumes to question domination itself repeats mechanisms of domination by factually enforcing what was intended to be criticised and deconstructed: the “racial formation of the modern/colonial world.”

Considering the reactions to and the criticisms of Mignolo’s contested text in mind, it seems to me that it is impossible to dissociate the problematic text from the “unproblematic” text by publishing the latter while not addressing the former. Cutting away the problematic part of thinking from our perception doesn’t mean the problem has gone away. It remains chasing us and others, no matter how much we let ourselves be inhabited by spaces of paralysis not speaking about anti-Semitism. Looking at how the discussions and the conflict has developed it seems to me that acting as if the problem wouldn’t exist by not addressing it while publishing the author, we would make an active decision to take part in belittling and wilfully ignoring anti-Semitism and thereby (intentionally or not) maintain not only any structure of discrimination but a structure that has had a long history, plenty of continuities and a vivid presence in this post-Nazistic space of Austria.

Addressing, unignoring and unlearning anti-Semitism

Conflictual situations like the one described above are ambivalent and contingent. The dynamic of work in such antagonisms depend on many different factors: power relations, competition, previous knowledge, experience, authority of who can speak and from which position and how much respect, understanding, patience, self-critique and will for listening, learning and exchanging exists in such a conflict. Yet, such situations serve as a platform for gaining and producing knowledge (in this case about anti-Semitism and the way how it is being dealt with): we think, learn and research and we reflect more in depth about politics, ideology, interpellation, subjectivity and agency. Speaking and thinking from my own experience as one of the protagonists of the conflict I would like to propose what could be done in such situations though being aware that every situation is specific and that there can’t be one “formula” to be applied in any case.

So, what could we do, out of the experience we have now, if we in our publishing projects refer to a body of theory we know is in parts performing anti-Semitic theories, clichés and myths? How to act in public when we are confronted with anti-Semitism in the knowledge production that aspires to decenter hegemonic power relations?

For the beginning, I would suggest to take the existence of ambiguities and contradictions in spaces of critique seriously. This would first of all mean doing away with the assumption that a space can be an innocent one (though ambiguities and contradictions might temporarily change due to our and others’ political actions and interventions but most probably new ones will arise in their place). And secondly it would mean to understand anti-Semitism as a political category that is ambiguous and contradictory and can appear in many different forms, on many different levels and sometimes closer to us and “our” spaces than we might have assumed.

Now, dealing with ambiguities and contradictions could take different paths: paths away from silence and towards speech. Public speech would be the optimal political move (in this case it would be the speech on anti-Semitism in Mignolo’s work). But, speech is not always easily performed. Nevertheless, it can have a form of a process and it can require certain pre-steps, spaces between, that can constitute the failure of speech but in the same time ensure that the failure is on the trajectory towards the speech. For example, if the transversal editorial board decided not to analyse the anti-Semitism in Mignolo’s work, then it could at least inform its readers that there was a discussion among them and share the reasons that had led to the decision.[17] However, this would not be a solution to the problem, but at least it would open a possibility for working on it.

Biases, ignorance, prejudices and all the other elements pertaining to structures of violence are the problem of us all, they affect our lives, limit our possibilities and freedom of what and who we might become (this has turned out very clearly in the course of the on-going antagonism, no matter if the protagonists were Jewish or not). Albeit these limits affect us to very different degrees and in very different qualities, directly and indirectly and depending on the specificity of the situation, anti-Semitism exists in our lives (as well as any other violent vector of power such as different forms of racism, homophobia, islamophobia, sexism). [18] We all do have reasons to confront it – especially if we consider ourselves to be actively involved, through our work, in the fields of critical thinking and acting.

Therefore it seems to me that it would be much more constructive to treat anti-Semitism as a political category and a concrete problem that has to be dealt with instead of silencing ourselves and others, being negatory and apologetic towards it. Zooming in on it, i.e. exposing precisely the violent vector of power that is materialized in the theory and opposing it, rather than downplaying it would allow us to learn more about it. Specifically this would mean that before (or at least along with) setting any thoughts of an author who reproduce anti-Semitism into further circulation, the problematic writing would have to be contested. Instead of dichotomically condemning and defending, it would be rather necessary to discuss the problem, looking at the relation between the explicitly problematic and non-explicitly problematic text of the theoretical production in question. It would be important to examine if and until which extent anti-Semitism in one text of the contested author is related to others of his or her theoretical reflections and to the field of study and action. Moreover, it would be necessary to think further, asking not only what is the presence but also the history and the genealogy of anti-Semitism in the spaces of critique in question. This, by no means, would mean dismissing post-colonial theory, decoloniality or critical leftist theories as no space is free of anti-Semitism (why should we expect that these are)? To get into a discussion about contradictions does not make the postcolonial or any other theory’s point weaker: on the contrary anti-Semitism has to be addressed. Addressing and unignoring anti-Semitism actually empowers critical thinking and opens possible self-reflective projects in these fields in order to make unlearning and fighting anti-Semitism a political claim and practice.

[1]               This text is partly based on reflections and discussions among my friends, students and colleagues during the last one and a half years in Vienna. I would like to thank all of them, from whom I learnt a lot during this process.
[2]               In an open letter published on April 5, 2012, Eduard Freudmann addresses friends and colleagues who recently published works by the decoloniality theorist Walter Mignolo. Freudmann criticizes the concealment respectively the belittlement of the author’s anti-Semitic constructions within those very publications and poses a number of related questions to the publishers. See: Eduard Freudmann, “Offener Brief: Antisemitismus! Was tun?” [Open Letter: Anti-Semitism! What is to be done?], http://antisemitismus-wastun.blogspot.com, retrieved April, 2012. Links to all the answers and statements that comprise the discussion can be found later in this text and on the blog as well.
[3]               I use here the terms Left and Right knowing the problematic of such a binary division. However, I consider both, the Left as well as the Right constituting no monolith categories.
[4]               See short overview of that history in the book by David Cesarani, The Left and the Jews. The Jews and the Left, London, Labour Friends of Israel, 2004.
[5]               This new anti-Jewish configuration is analysed for instance by Pierre-André Taguieff who shortly explains it in the following way: “…the argumentative form of this new thought-slogan, which developed since the end of the Sixties, can be put like this: ‘all Jews are more or less hidden Zionists; Zionism equals colonialism, imperialism and racism; therefore the Jews are colonialists, imperialists and racists, openly or not’. ‘Zionism’ - as repulsive myth and not as socio-political reality - became the incarnation of the absolute evil.” See the translation of the interview with Pierre-André Taguieff published in the Observatoire du Communautarisme, September 7, 2005: “Preachers of Hate. Pierre-André Taguieff on the new ‘anti-Zionism’” http://bartoncii.xanga.com/?uni8836469-direction=p&uni8836469-nextdate=2%2F9%2F2007+11%3A54%3A48.153, retrieved April, 2012.

[6]               I use here we as a collectivity of critical subjects that doesn’t form a fixed category but is rather related to what we believe we are part of and what we can become. The critical textual production I contribute to tends to play a role in such process of constituting a we.
[7]               http://eipcp.net/transversal/0112, retrieved April, 2012.
[8]               The text is published online in Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge with the title Historicizing Anti-Semitism in 2009, edited by Mohammad H. Tamdgidi and co-edited by Lewis R. Gordon, Ramón Grosfoguel and Eric Mielants. See http://www.okcir.com/JournalVII2Spring09.html, retrieved April, 2012.
[9]               Ibid. p 86.
[10]             Ibid. pp 86-87; emphasis and misspelling in original.
[11]             See Marvin Perry and Frederick M. Schweitzer, Antisemitism: myth and hate from antiquity to the present, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2005 [2002], pp. 134, 135.
[12]             See: Ibid., pp. 119-173.
[13]             Op. cit. p 86; (emphasis mine).
[14]             http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/collusion, retrieved April, 2012.
[15]             As Marc Ellies put: “Roughly speaking the three groups are found in America and Israel, and can be defined as the Constantinian Jewish establishment, Progressive Jews and Jews of Conscience. For definitional purposes, these groups can be grouped into three categories; neo-conservative, liberal/left of center and radical. The identity politics each group holds are important in the selfunderstanding of each: Constantinian Jewish life revolves around the Holocaust and Israel as central to Jewish life and thus increasingly adopt a neo-conservative politics of remembrance and empowerment; . . . Though perhaps a bit too easy, a shorthand understanding of where each group stands can be summarized as follows: Constantinian Jews form the Jewish establishment; Progressive Jews, as critics while being indebted to Jewish power, form the Left wing of Constantinian Judaism; Jews of Conscience are seeking a way out of the closed circle of Constantinian Jewish reality.” Marc H. Ellis, “On Jewish Particularity and Anti-Semitism: Notes From a Jewish Theology of Liberation,” http://www.okcir.com/JournalVII2Spring09.html, retrieved April, 2012.
[16]             Translation mine. Original quotation: “Mignolo thematisiert im vorliegenden Buch wiederholt die Rolle von Jüdinnen und Juden als innerhalb Europas und im Inneren des europäischen Denkens Unterdrückte und Ausgegrenzte, doch an dieser Stelle bleibt er verständnislos gegenüber dem Holocaust als Auslöser und Gründungsmotivation des Staates Israel. Die Andeutung einer ‚Komplizenschaft’ von Jüdinnen und Juden mit der ‚aktuellen Machtstruktur’ bedient vor allem anderen antisemitische Klischees.“ Jens Kastner and Tom Waibel, “Einleitung: Dekoloniale Optionen. Argumentationen, Begriffe und Kontexte dekolonialer Theoriebildung,” [Introduction: Decolonial Options. Arguments, Terms and Contexts of the Decolonial Theory making], in: Walter D. Mignolo, Epistemischer Ungehorsam Rhetorik der Moderne, Logik der Kolonialität und Grammatik der Dekolonialität [Epistemic Disobedience. Rhetoric of Modernity, Logic of Coloniality and Decolonial Grammar], Vienna, Turia + Kant, 2012, p 26, (footnote 25). See the development of their argument in the answer to Freudmann’s open letter published on 09.04.2012: http://argument-wasnun.blogspot.com/, retrieved April, 2012.
[17]             Only after being addressed by Freudmann’s open letter, eipcp gave their view on the situation on 12.04.2012: http://eipcp.net/n/aw, retrieved April, 2012.
[18]             I believe that any occurring form of discrimination should be addressed without competition.

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