Relational Thinking: A Dialogue on the Theory and Politics of Research on Antisemitism and Racism

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Bryan Cheyette has been Chair in modern literature at the University of Reading since 2005. He was formerly Chair in twentieth-century literature, University of Southampton (1997-2005), and Reader in English and Judaic studies at Queen Mary, University of London (1992-97). His most recent book is Diasporas of the Mind: Jewish and Postcolonial Writing and the Nightmare of History (2013). Michael Rothberg is the 1939 Society Samuel Goetz Chair in Holocaust Studies and Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is the author of The Implicated Subject: Beyond Victims and Perpetrators, Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization, and Traumatic Realism: The Demands of Holocaust Representation.

The Separation of Research on Racism and on Antisemitism

Frage der Moderation (Felix Axster):

Michael and Bryan, in your respective work both of you argue for cross disciplinary thinking and research to overcome or to blur the boundaries between Holocaust studies, Jewish studies and Postcolonial studies, or between research on racism on the one hand and on antisemitism on the other. Before discussing why you think that this blurring or overcoming is important, I would like to talk about the historical development of these boundaries. Both of you stress the fact that they are in no way natural. Therefore you refer to the 1950s where anticolonial thinkers and activists (e.g. Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire, W.E.B. Du Bois) related to the Holocaust and survivors of the Holocaust (e.g. Hannah Arendt, Primo Levi, Jean Améry) related to colonialism and the history of slavery. Bryan, when and how did the mentioned separations come into existence? Was it predominantly an academic phenomenon that points to the general logics of disciplinary specialization? Or do we have to take into account political dynamics that happened outside academia?

Bryan Cheyette (BC):

There was a time when the idea of separating racism from “anti-Semitism” (as it was known only from 1870) would have appeared ludicrous. Nineteenth-century race theorists, such as Arthur de Gobineau and Robert Knox, both writing in the 1850s, located a hierarchy of “races” at the heart of human history. Both introduced “scientific” race-thinking to Western Europe in a bid to make the story of “race” a major determinant of culture, behaviour and character which influenced all aspects of Western civilization. Jews, to differing degrees in these works, endangered the superiority of white (Aryan) culture through “miscegenation”. This argument culminated with Houston Stewart Chamberlain in his Grundlagen des neunzehnten Jahrhunderts (1899) (translated into English in 1910 as The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century (1910)) which influenced Nazi racial ideology to the extent that he has been called Hitler’s “John the Baptist”. For the British-born Chamberlain, Jews throughout history have plotted to destroy the Aryan dimension of European civilization by, for example, founding the Roman Catholic Church. No wonder Hitler met Chamberlain with such enthusiasm.

Based in Austria and Germany, Chamberlain wrote Grundlagen in the German language after Wilhelm Marr had invented the term “Antisemitismus”. For this reason he was much more focused on the threat from “the Jews” to white or Aryan superiority. But his book grew out of a much broader narrative of “alien invasions” (in response to mass immigration) such as the “Yellow Peril”. My own belief is that “race” thinking was deployed most effectively as a response to the political emancipation of Jews and blacks (and the Irish in a British context). Once granted a form of equality, racist organisations were created (against Jews in Europe; blacks in the United States) as a means of denying large numbers of peoples (deemed less than human) complete access to the nation-state. What kind of nation-state one wanted politically depended on the integration (or not) of these minorities. 

After this contextual preamble, I should answer your question directly. The historical development of the boundaries between racism and antisemitism are most apparent when they become a means of defining the nation-state. But there is always the potential for these two historically formative racisms to bleed into one another given their mutual roots in “scientific” racist ideology.

The link between these nineteenth-century roots and Nazism is embodied in Chamberlain. There has been a great deal of work (not least by Michael and myself) which has shown some of the ways in which racism, colonialism, antisemitism and slavery were entangled in the transnational project to make the continent of Europe Germany’s empire. You rightly note some of the most important historic figures who experienced and wrote about these inter-related forms of genocidal dehumanization and slave labour. So why do we lack this sense of interconnectedness now?

Diasporas of the Mind and the roundtable in The American Historical Review have shown that a mixture of “disciplinary thinking” – dividing history into smaller and smaller specialisms – and identity politics outside of the academy have led to racism and antisemitism being confined to separate spheres. What I would like to elaborate on briefly now, which I hope will bring Michael’s work into the picture, is the extent to which nation-thinking continues to separate out racism and antisemitism. I will conclude with two strands of thought on this. The first is on the Jewish side. Since the Eichmann trial in 1961, and specifically Hannah Arendt’s response to this trial, the Holocaust was named as the site of suffering Jewish identity. To be sure, by the 1960s it was necessary to identify the specific crimes against the Jews which had hitherto been obfuscated by either Stalinism or the Cold War. Led by Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust became a site of “sacred” memory for both diasporic and Israeli Jews and thus it became an identity as well as a history. Any interconnections, to this day, can be read as a betrayal of the Jewish people. What is more, the narrative of antisemitism and the Holocaust is often instigated by the State of Israel and used in its national interests. This clearly doesn’t help to build bridges with other minorities of different political dispositions.

Finally, the nationalist anti-colonial strand within postcolonial studies similarly locates its politics within the national sphere. Here I want to draw attention to the routine dismissal of the (often Judaized) rootless cosmopolitan or hybrid or “the uncategorizable” (as Zygmunt Bauman puts it), within a mainly Marxian strand of postcolonial studies (on the side of the “organic intellectual”). To be sure this is only one strand of postcolonial studies but it remains quite dominant and is a way of both evacuating Jews from the colonized and antisemitism from colonial racism. The cosmopolitan is said to have disavowed nationalist anti-colonialism and, in doing so, is assumed to have disempowered and disregarded the wretched of the earth. 

What these examples draw attention to is that nation-thinking (not least Jewish nation-thinking) makes it difficult, if not impossible, to return to a time (the 1950s) when those who experienced antisemitism and racism were in dialogue with each other.

Michael Rothberg (MR):

Bryan has done a wonderful job of sketching a quick genealogy of “scientific” racism and of revealing some of the forces that have made it more difficult to perceive the entangled nature of what we call racism and antisemitism. Let me just add a few remarks.

The first thing that Bryan’s comments about the nineteenth-century origins of racial ideology suggest to me is the importance of taking the racists themselves seriously when we consider these comparative questions. I’m thinking, for instance, of the fascinating 2017 book by James Q. Whitman, Hitler’s American Model. Whitman shows that the Nazis themselves looked to American anti-black and anti-immigrant racism in formulating the Nuremberg race laws. For them, at least, racism and antisemitism were intertwined phenomena – and, as Whitman provocatively remarks, it was the most radical Nazis who were most enamoured of the American example. Thinking about how racists and antisemites would respond to these issues will also be important when we turn in more depth to the contemporary moment.

As Whitman’s argument – as well as Bryan’s comments above – suggest, the phenomena that interest us are transnational in nature and often continental in scope. But I also think it’s worth pointing out that – even within Europe – there are very distinct ways of thinking about the relationship between racism and antisemitism. National contexts continue to matter to the way these questions play out, even as both anti-racist activists and the purveyors of far-right ideology are networked across borders. Thus, the relation between antisemitism and racism in Germany is not identical to that in France, the UK, or the US.

My point is a bit different from Bryan’s argument about “nation-thinking,” I think. What Bryan points to is the importance of what I would call an identitarian logic in facilitating the separation of racism and antisemitism. I don’t believe that those logics emerge only – or even primarily – from nation-states today, although I agree with Bryan that Israel plays a significant role in propagating a certain understanding of the Holocaust and also of antisemitism. No doubt we’ll have more to say about that. But rather than emanating directly from nation-states, such identitarian logics are frequently propagated by diasporic and minority groups (even if they sometimes serve the ends of nation-states). What I’m saying is not meant to contradict Bryan’s point, but to reframe it slightly: even as we critically interrogate “nation-thinking” and identitarian logics, we also need to take national contexts into account in thinking about the variety of ways our key terms are related.

Thus, in the US at least, I think you could see the separation of spheres institutionalized in the university through the creation of Jewish Studies programs and Ethnic Studies programs starting in the late 1960s – programs that, to this day, rarely communicate across disciplinary lines. Of course, versions of Jewish Studies and Ethnic Studies existed before this moment, but I would note, for example, that the Association for Jewish Studies was founded in 1968, while the Department of Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Berkeley was founded in 1969. Obviously the late 1960s were a time of extra-university political ferment as well, both in the US and globally, so we can say that the forces driving these developments were simultaneously academic and political in the broadest sense. 

One final note about the question you posed, Felix. We should be careful of moving too quickly from the relationship between colonialism and the Holocaust to that between racism and antisemitism. Naturally, there are links, but this movement is not straightforward, as continued debate about the centrality of antisemitism to the Holocaust and about the nature of the Nazi racial state indicates. In other words, not only is the relationship between racism and antisemitism contested, but we’re still a long way from having a consensus definition of either phenomenon – and even the spelling of “antisemitism” is a source of controversy!

The Idea of Multidirectional Memory


Michael, your book Multidirectional Memory, published in 2009, is an attempt to overcome what you call identitarian logics. Could you briefly explain what the idea of multidirectional memory is about? And how do you think about multidirectional memory ten years later, especially with regard to the global rise of the far-right?


First of all, it is true that my book Multidirectional Memory emerged in part out of a critique of identitarian logic. In the case of memory, this is the idea that particular groups “own” particular memories. Memory becomes a piece of exclusive property. At the time I started writing the book – in the first decade of the twenty-first century – that identitarian, property-based logic was playing out in the US and elsewhere in what was called a “competition of victims,” and which I called “competitive memory.” I found that there was a broadly shared understanding of memory – both inside and outside the academy – as a scarce resource that obeyed the logic of the zero-sum game. According to this understanding, if public memory of the Holocaust was prominent, that must mean that other memories were being ignored – the memory of slavery, of colonialism, and so on. Inversely, those who were concerned about upholding Holocaust memory believed that every public invocation of slavery or other histories of racism was detracting from the importance of the Holocaust or even relativizing or denying its significance. That zero-sum logic struck me ten years ago as the wrong way of understanding public memory and it still does. My counter-proposal was that memory actually works productively: the memories of one group are not only interwoven with those of other groups (think of the importance of experiences of slavery and exile for diasporic Blacks and Jews, for instance), but those memories also feed into each other. Far from operating according to a zero-sum logic, memory operates “multidirectionally” – that is, dynamically and through cross-referencing, borrowing, and other ricochets. The emergence of Holocaust memory did not suppress other memories; it helped create an arena in which they could be articulated. Such a perspective does not imply that all memories are “equal.” Memories are contoured by power relations, but the operation of power does not simply obey what Foucault called in another context “the repressive hypothesis”; rather, power is productive and enabling.

In some ways this story has become familiar: we now speak readily of the “globalization” of Holocaust memory and the ways that memory of the Holocaust shapes and facilitates memories in other locations – think of the forms taken by the commemoration of the Rwandan genocide or of the dictatorships in Latin America. My argument was that it also goes the other way: the very memory of the Holocaust we now take for granted emerged in and was shaped by the era of decolonization. In the late 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, the writers you mentioned earlier, Hannah Arendt, W.E.B. Du Bois, Aimé Césaire, and Frantz Fanon, along with others like André Schwartz-Bart and Charlotte Delbo, were explicitly reflecting on what we now call the Holocaust in relation to other race-based and colonial forms of violence. 

Now, it is clear that much has changed – not only since the era of decolonization that I focus on in my book, but also since the first decade of the century when I was writing the book. Although of course there were other waves of far-right violence in the decades after the Holocaust, I don’t think any of us could have predicted the extent to which noxious racist, nationalist, and antisemitic ideologies would attain the degree of mainstream success they have in the last few years on a global scale. What I have noticed – especially since the 2016 US election – is the rapid growth of a multidirectional memory of the far-right: social media and digital culture have facilitated the transnational sharing of various memories, memes, and rhetorics that draw on varieties of historical fascism, colonialism, and racism and mix them with contemporary conflicts. This scenario is also ripe for new progressive forms of multidirectionality countering those reactionary forms, and indeed we have seen these too. I’m thinking, for example, in the US context, of slogans such as “Never Again Is Now,” which both Jewish-American and Japanese-American activists have been deploying to counter contemporary anti-immigrant policies with memories of genocide and incarceration during World War II. 

Within this new context there is certainly increasing awareness of the links between racism and antisemitism: thus, coincidentally, in the same year that Whitman’s book on Nazi racial policy and its relation to Jim Crow America appeared, neo-Nazis demonstrated in Charlottesville, Virginia to “defend” Confederate monuments that had always been designed to uphold white supremacy – and when they demonstrated, one of their slogans was “Jews will not replace us.” This conjunction of anti-black and anti-Jewish racisms made a deep impression on many people and you can see its legacies in subsequent works of popular culture like Spike Lee’s 2018 film BlacKkKlansman.

But to understand the present we need to include a couple of other issues that complicate the relation between racism and antisemitism: Islam and Israel. Islamophobia or, as I’d prefer in many ways, anti-Muslim racism is a conduit through which the far-right has been able to articulate itself to mainstream politics both in Europe and the US, since disdain for Muslims and anxieties about immigrants are quite widespread and relatively salonfähig. At the same time, contestations over Israel and the politics of opposition to Israel through forms such as BDS (the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement) have divided liberals and leftists.

I would argue that the contested status of Islam and Israel have transformed the relation between racism and antisemitism, along with the forms of activism opposing them. In a forthcoming essay on “Trump and the ‘Jewish Question,’” which introduces a special issue of the journal Studies in American Jewish Literature, Neil Levi and I argue that we’ve moved into a new, unsettled political context in which Jews and Jewishness occupy very ambivalent positions: because of their absolute commitment to Israel, “conservative Jews can be networked into ethno-nationalist alliances, but Jews as a group also remain targets of the far- right. Meanwhile, many Jews have aligned themselves with the multiracial social movements of the left, yet Jewishness and the status of antisemitism remain sources of unease and tension in such coalitions, not least because of the vexed Israel/Palestine question.” 

I believe that’s the situation in which we find ourselves. I don’t claim to know where all of this is heading, but I feel certain that what I call multidirectional memory – in both its progressive and reactionary forms – will occupy a significant place in the struggles over the future of democratic societies.


In Britain, the level of “competitive victimhood” could not be more polarized with a rather ghastly division of labor; the radical right Conservative Party is largely Islamophobic and the socialist Labour Party is currently being investigated by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) for being institutionally antisemitic. There is a base realpolitikleading to this crude identitarianism as the vast percentage of Muslims will vote Labour and the vast percentage of the much smaller Jewish community will vote Conservative (this has changed radically over the past decade). The globalizing of the Holocaust may be a resource for less competition and more intersectionality within new scholarly and activist work (as I surely hope) but this has not, in Britain at least, touched politicians or their outriders. Worse still, there is an instrumentalization of anti-antisemitism by the political right and of anti-Muslim racism by the political left. As I write, there is a nasty, polarized election campaign ongoing in Britain (echoed throughout most of Europe and the U. S.) which means that “never the twain shall meet” when it comes to Jews and Muslims. The suffering of minority groups has been turned into political fodder.

One way, perhaps, of addressing these issues more conceptually (and certainly away from raw electoral politics) is to look at multidirectionality as a form of affect. So far our discussion has left unquestioned a rather one-dimensional definition of both antisemitism and racism as a phobic discourse based on fear and disparagement. But this is only one set of emotions (out of a mixture of emotions) associated with these discourses. 

What I mean by multidirectional affect is that antisemitism and racism, at least within the context of a broadly liberal nation-state, are discourses of both fear and desire. Minorities are both figures of desire (which is often gendered) andfigures of horror. This is because minorities are on the side of absorption and integration – which demonstrates the superior values of the supposed tolerant state – but can just as easily be accused of undermining the traditions and values of the nation-state (which is close to where we are now in relation to the anti-immigration policies of most of Europe and the U.S.). In other words, minorities are differentiated invariably into “good” and “bad” citizens. Such bifurcations resonate within gendered discourses concerning “good” and “bad” women in society. 

Jews historically experienced these differentiating processes with good Jews learning that they were made “good” by the heteronormative family, the community, entrepreneurship, professionalism, and suburbanization. Bad Jews, on the other hand, tended to be unassimilated, lower class, and lived in inner city ghettos or enclaves. They spoke their own mother tongues instead of the national language and could be rather too publicly religious and politically too radical. State agencies often explicitly categorized them as “bad”, as did Westernized Jewish establishments. I have on my desk three accounts of the contemporary “good Muslim” (otherwise known as “Islamophilia”) which shows me that these processes are very much alive today.

My argument is that this multidirectional affect, interconnecting figures of fear and desire in multiple ways, might help us to bring together racism, sexism, and antisemitism within the mainstream. One reason that the Labour party has got itself into such trouble over antisemitism is that it has incorporated these mainstream discourses and divided Jews up into good and bad. They’re “good” if they’re socialists, they support “the leader”, they are actively pro-Palestinian, and are self-proclaimed universalists (i.e. not too Jewish). They’re “bad” if they are part of the established “pro-Zionist” community which is more conservative (both politically and socially) and have been deemed to have done rather well in the era of “neo-liberalism”. There is, of course, an illiberal tradition of unequivocal racialization but it seems to me that the focus in the first instance should be on the mainstream. In other words, the way racial and sexual discourses intersect within broadly liberal culture is via the mainstream, and not just at the extremes, is at the heart of our culture and not just at its margins. Recognition of these multidirectional affects (from periphery to center and back again) may be another way of combatting alt-right multidirectionality which borrows from the mainstream in a bid to normalize their extreme illiberalism.

Epistemological Dimensions, National Contexts


Coming back to (the historical development of) the separation of research on racism on the one hand and on antisemitism on the other. I’d like to address the epistemological dimension of this separation. To put it simply: Within the German context researchers on antisemitism often relate to the so-called Frankfurt school, whereas researchers on racism predominantly refer to postcolonial theory and discourse analysis. Thus, the tension between the two fields of research corresponds with the tension between Critical Theory and poststructuralism. Do you observe this constellation in your countries, too? Or would you rather say that this has to do with the specific conditions in Germany, regarding both the history of national socialism/the Holocaust and the related emergence of the so-called Anti-Deutsche after reunification? And if the latter is the case, what are your thoughts about it?


Indeed, I think the situation in the US – both inside and outside the academy – is quite different from that in Germany. As a side note, I find it fascinating that in such an interconnected world there are still significant national differences and that even countries as closely linked as the UK, the US, and Germany differ quite significantly around these questions! 

I wouldn’t say that approaches to antisemitism in the US have drawn significantly on the Frankfurt School (although my co-author Neil Levi does so in his book Modernist Form and the Myth of Jewification). My impression, in fact, is that there’s quite little sophisticated, theoretical work on antisemitism in the US, although that may be changing thanks to the emergence of a young, activist-inflected theoretical engagement. Up until now, I’d say the predominant approach has been historicist in character and that the overarching purpose has been to establish the longue durée of anti-Judaism, with some attention to historical transformations, such as the nineteenth-century emergence of “scientific,” race-based antisemitism, but with much emphasis also on continuities over time. The Holocaust has inspired a great deal of theorizing in the US, but I wouldn’t say any of it has been particularly focused on antisemitism; rather, it has had to do with questions of representation, trauma, testimony, ethics, and the form of the camp.

I also don’t think theories of racism in the US are in any way limited to postcolonial theory, although anticolonial figures such as Fanon have played a big role, of course. In this realm there is an extraordinary amount of sophisticated theorization, but rather than emerging directly from postcolonial theory or what you call discourse analysis I think it emerges primarily out of Ethnic Studies and Black Studies. While in Germany the Holocaust has long dominated these kinds of discussions – with only belated attention coming to Germany’s colonial history or the impact of postwar labor migration, as you well know – in the US approaches to race have taken place largely in the shadow of the afterlives of slavery and the genocide of indigenous people. I emphasize afterlives because the key point is that neither slavery nor genocide are merely “historical,” they live on into the present in various structural forms of violence, poverty, incarceration, and – as indigenous scholars increasingly insist – settler colonialism. Theories of race and racism have thus drawn on such movements as critical legal theory, Foucault-inspired accounts of biopolitics and necropolitics, critiques of settler colonialism, and intersectional approaches, including contemporary forms of queer theory. 

Given these very different genealogies of thinking about antisemitism and racism, it is not obvious how these two “traditions” can be brought into dialogue. My own approach in Multidirectional Memory was to create a counter-genealogy. I proposed a return to the earlier postwar moment in which decolonization movements and grappling with the aftermath of National Socialism created a particular “laboratory” – not least among French-speaking intellectuals – for thinking jointly about relational forms of racialized violence. In my new book, The Implicated Subject, I draw on both post-Holocaust reflections by Jaspers, Arendt, Levi, and others, and intersectional feminist theory in order to develop a new theory of political and historical responsibility. My concern, however, is less with the specificities of different forms of racism (including antisemitism) than with the question of how racialized violence is produced structurally and how we can account for what I called above its afterlives. 

Yet, although I think we in the US have a long way to go in thinking antisemitism and racism together, there are two factors that lead me to think this could still turn out to be one of the intellectual waves of the coming years. The first, “negative” reason is that it becomes more obvious every day that these different forms converge in contemporary (and historical) white supremacy. After Charlottesville, so to speak, it is impossible to ignore this convergence. The second, “positive” reason I am optimistic about the future of this kind of theorizing is that I see my students doing it: I have several students at the dissertation stage who, in their different ways, are approaching these issues from relational, connected perspectives. One student, Ben Ratskoff, is doing original research on radical Black intellectuals’ responses to Nazism and fascism during (not after) the National Socialist era. Another, Naomi Taub, is considering the vexed relation of Jewishness to whiteness in transnational perspective, with attention to colonialism, Zionism, apartheid, and American anti-blackness. 

The work of my students inspires me and, I think, will make a significant mark on how these questions play out. But I also can’t simply conclude this answer on a positive note. Since you’ve framed the question in relation to Germany and have mentioned the Anti-Deutsche, I also have to say that the possibility of thinking about racism and antisemitism together – and, even more important, the possibility of actively combatting them – is stymied by attitudes that I think are widespread in Germany but that are also present in the US and beyond. 

These attitudes take a few related forms. First, there is the fetishization of the uniqueness of the Holocaust. While I actually think this sacralizing discourse has lost some of its traction in recent years, it remains powerful in Germany and can be deployed there and elsewhere to shut down discussions of other forms of racial violence. In Germany especially, this sacralization (which, of course, has some clear historical reasons behind it) is linked to a refusal to think about antisemitism in relation to other racisms. I remember, for example, the 2008 Zentrum für Antisemitismusforschung conference in Berlin, “Feinbild Muslim, Feinbild Jude,” which generated great controversy and, as I remember it, protest by the Anti-Deutsche because of the way it brought together Jews and Muslims as targets of racist ideologies. 

Finally, a large deterrent to comparative and relational thinking is what I would describe as the weaponization of charges of antisemitism that is actively being promoted by Israel and its allies around the world in the context of the anti-BDS campaign. There is a shocking rise of violent antisemitism today, as armed attacks in the US and Germany in the past year make clear, but these are coming from the far-right, not from critics of Israel. I’m not denying that there is antisemitism on the left or among critics of Israel – of course, those things exist. But the attention to them at the expense of focus on the far-right has made Jews (and racialized minorities) more vulnerable, and it has allowed actively antisemitic regimes, like those in Hungary and Poland – not to mention Trump’s White House – to legitimate themselves through alliance with Netanyahu’s government. The world has been turned upside down when antisemites like Orban and Trump consort with Jewish leaders, while Jews who are critical of the occupation of Palestine are targeted as “antisemites.”


First of all, I would like to reinforce the ending of Michael’s last response. There is a growing divide between Netanyahu’s government and the Jewish diaspora. Netanyahu has given up on any kind of global consensus by aligning with Trump, Orban and, most crucially, fundamentalist Christian “pro-Zionists” or, as I prefer, philosemites. Midwestern Christian desire is a version du jour of the age-old Christian belief that the conversion of the Jews will bring about the Second Coming. Today this “conversion” may include a Middle Eastern apocalypse to simplify matters but I believe is better understood as a form of multidirectional affect. After all, this form of conversionist desire returns us to the alliance in the nineteenth-century between British Christian Zionists and the nascent Jewish Zionist movement. History does not always remain in the past.

Netanyahu’s alliance with the disruptive “hard men” of the quasi-fascistic, far-right is in stark contrast to the lethal threat to diaspora Jews (and other minorities) by white supremacists who are a product of the same far-right. The alliance with right-wing Christian philosemitism and Trump’s White House enables Netanyahu to establish a de facto “one-state” solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, whereas another far-right movement leads to violent antisemitism in the diaspora. Here the limitations of the terms “antisemitism” and “philosemitism” are exposed as mirror-images of each other and reveal the necessity for more sophisticated, conceptual work on what is understood as “antisemitism”.

Where I demur from Michael is in his assumption that this work hasn’t yet been done and that we will have to wait for younger activists to show us the light. But the reason for this sense of antisemitism as singularly untheorized (with notable exceptions such as Neil Levi) is interesting in itself. Jewish communal and national definitions of antisemitism are so dominant that it is, at the moment, difficult to see beyond them. The early theorizing of antisemitism in Jewish cultural and literary studies in the 1990s has been drowned out by non-scholarly definitions that can be used instrumentally in the interests of defending Israel’s far-right government. In other words, this scholarly work can be thought of as a (still to be heard) counter-narrative to the received communal and national narratives on antisemitism.

The key figure here is Zygmunt Bauman who, influenced by the Frankfurt School (especially Adorno, Arendt and Horkheimer), published Modernity and the Holocaust (1989) with a radically re-conceptualized account of antisemitism. This was summed up in a later essay where he argues that the terms “antisemitism” and “philosemitism”, which focus on either hostility or sympathy toward “the Jews”, are two relatively distinct aspects of a much broader history of differentiating Jews from other human beings. The danger, for Bauman, is that the communal account of antisemitism essentializes Jews as uniquely timeless, unchanging victims and thereby positions the history of antisemitism outside social, political and historical processes which gave rise to this history in the first place. For Bauman, the conceptual “Jew” is not just another case of “heterophobia” – or the resentment of the different – but is, instead, a case study in “proteophobia” (the apprehension or anxiety caused by those that do not fall easily into any established categories). For this reason, Bauman speaks of “allosemitism” and my early work, influenced by Bauman, speaks of “semitic discourse”.

The focus on ambivalence – multidirectional affects – and the broader social, historical and political processes (within which Jews are differentiated from other human beings) is a way of connecting racism and sexism with everyday “antisemitism”. All activists that I encounter on social media are at pains to argue that differentiating discourses of all kinds intersect with each other and are not confined to separate spheres. Scholars can act as important resources for these activists by desacralizing antisemitism (following Bauman) so that it is understood as a form of structural differentiation within mainstream, liberal culture.

Theoretical Assumptions, Political Dynamics: Pitfalls, Framings, Gaps


Bryan, your reference to Bauman reminded me of the debate about the figure of the third within critical theories of antisemitism. The idea is that “the Jew” is perceived differently within antisemitism (compared to for example PoC’s within racism) because s/he is ascribed not only a certain racial type or status but also the power of destabilizing race (or nation) as such. In other words – whereas there is a binary opposition at work within racism (or nationalism), antisemitism is always about the fear that the concepts at heart of this opposition (or the conditions and dynamics of differentiating in binary ways) might be undermined or destroyed by “the Jew”. Does this make sense to you?

In both your answers you mostly refer to the far right when talking about the threat posed by antisemitism. I wondered why you did not mention Islamist attacks or antisemitism in the Arab world/among Muslims in general. Of course, this is a complicated debate full of pitfalls, but not mentioning it at all when talking about threat might run the risk of leaving the picture incomplete. What do you think?


The “figure of the third” does relate to Bauman’s early theories of “allosemitism”. For Bauman the figure of the “conceptual” Jew was essentially disruptive – he names “the Jew” “ambivalence incarnate” – and he placed this figure at the heart of what he called “solid modernity” which included the history of Stalinism and the Holocaust. The problem here, as you indicate, is that “allosemitism” is a unique form of racism which is incapable of intersecting with other forms of oppressive discourses. My own work, also influenced by Homi Bhabha’s version of ambivalence within colonial discourse, and Edward Said’s theories of orientalism, wished to extend the history of ambivalence beyond Jewish exceptionalism into colonialism so that semitic discourse could both intersect and be incorporated into other discourses. 

While Bauman initially located allosemitism within the extremities of the Nazi and Stalinist eras (both of which he experienced first-hand), this proved to be time-bound. His later work on “liquid modernity” is made up of exiles and refugees which correspond to the doubleness of his earlier conceptual “Jew”. One is on the side of emancipation, the other on the side of suffering; one determines and resists while the other is functionless and placeless; one thinks critically while the other is faceless and barely lives. But the figures of the exile and refugee do not merely supersede the proteophobic Jew. Rather than a linear form of supersessionism, Bauman’s metaphorical thinking proposes that the “solid” and “liquid” variants of modernity are interrelated or multidirectional (moving from past to present and back again). Arendt’s formulation of the “Jew-stranger”, which Bauman uses, speaks both to the particular and general within this hybrid, proteophobic figure.

Much of Bauman’s work, over a fifty year period, includes the ghetto, the camp and the stranger as non-places and non-people inside and outside of Jewish experience. The ghetto, which is the subject of my new book, is invoked by Bauman in relation to the Warsaw Ghetto (where his wife escaped from), the “separation wall” in Israel/Palestine, and what he calls a “dumping ground for those for whom the surrounding society has no economic or political use” within, most noticeably, America’s Northern cities. This is not to say that Bauman is equating these radically different forms of ghetto (using Michael’s criteria) but that he illustrates the multiple political affects (again borrowing Michael’s vocabulary) that the ghetto can have within overlapping Jewish, Palestinian and black contexts.

To conclude, I will refer briefly to the absence of discussion concerning what you call “Islamist attacks” or “antisemitism in the Arab world and/or among Muslims in general” which has been an absence in our discussion. The reason for this absence, on my part at least, is because of the focus on the intertwining commonalities of racism and antisemitism (beyond identity politics) rather than the Palestinian-Israeli conflict which, in the main, can be reductive by definition if we only focus on one side. “Arab” and “Islamist” antisemitism (not to mention Jewish or Israeli Islamophobia) are vast generalizations which function both inside and outside the conflict. The wise words of Edward Said – that Jews and Palestinians “cannot coexist as two communities of detached and uncommunicatingly separate suffering” – come immediately to mind. Now, more than ever, we need to engage in more dialogue, not less. We need to be speaking to each other, not dehumanizing the other. We need to be speaking across orthodoxies, across borders, across identities and not just in abstractions. I suppose my short answer to your question, and in the spirit of this most enjoyable discussion, is that I have no wish to add to a century-old conflict by generalizing unnecessarily.


Before turning to the last question, let me just supplement my previous answer by saying that I agree with Bryan that there has been sophisticated theorization of antisemitism in the English-speaking world. His references to Bauman as well as his own extension of Bauman’s framework are useful reminders. Naturally, those of us in the US were also reading both Bauman and Bryan, and the early 1990s were a moment of intellectual ferment for what Daniel and Jonathan Boyarin called “the new Jewish cultural studies.” This moment also included psychoanalytically-inflected work by figures such as Sander Gilman. I think my overly generalized picture still holds true precisely in a general way, though: in comparison to the work in critical race theory there has been a deficit of sophisticated theorization of antisemitism in the US context. I hope that situation now changes, and not just because of the intervention of activists; it will take scholarly work as well to get beyond what Bryan aptly calls the “communal” definition of antisemitism.

The last question is indeed a tricky one and some of the difficulty can be seen in the very framing of the question in terms of “Islamist attacks or antisemitism in the Arab world/among Muslims in general.” I would begin by saying something similar to what I said earlier regarding left-wing antisemitism and antisemitism that emerges in critiques of Israel: antisemitism can be found in the Arab world, among Muslims, and certainly among self-professed Islamists. Such antisemitism is to be condemned unequivocally. Although some of it certainly emerges within the context of the politics of Israel/Palestine, that doesn’t excuse it, and I am not so naïve as to think that solving the Israel/Palestine issue in a just way will eliminate all expressions of antisemitism. 

Beyond such condemnation – an essential first step – there are two complicating factors. First, to address the issue of the framing: the “Arab world” and “Muslims in general” do not exist in any simple way. The Arab world, if it exists, is riven by internal conflicts and contradictions, most of which have nothing whatsoever to do with Jews or Israel. I’m not an expert on Arab societies, and I leave it to experts to describe the role played by antisemitism there (which I am certain can be significant, as it can also be, for example, in Turkey.) Even more problematic is the category of “Muslim,” which seeks to pull together people of all races and ethnicities living on all continents of the Earth. There are no “Muslims in general.” I could name plenty of examples of people who might be identified as “Muslim” opposing antisemitism and working with Jewish-identified groups or individuals, but the larger point is that generalizations about Muslims are part of the problem in discussions of racism and antisemitism.

Second, and perhaps more to the point: if antisemitism exists among people who identify as Muslim or Arab, this strikes me as a relatively marginal phenomenon in Western democracies that tends to be exaggerated for political purposes (think of Netanyahu trying to blame the Holocaust on the Mufti instead of Hitler!). Statistics in both the US and Germany, the societies I know best, reveal quite starkly that antisemitic attacks emerge, by a vast majority, from far-right, white supremacist milieus. In a January 2019 report, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) – a group not known for whitewashing Muslim antisemitism – studied 17 domestic terrorist attacks that took place in the US in 2018. They concluded, “Every one of the perpetrators had ties to at least one right-wing extremist movement, although one had recently switched to supporting Islamist extremism. White supremacists were responsible for the great majority of the killings, which is typically the case” ( I know that there is some controversy about how statistics are assembled in Germany, but the results are fairly similar: according to police reports, something like 90% of attacks on Jews and Jewish sites are perpetrated by the far-right. Another distressing similarity between the US and German contexts is that in both places the far-right has actually infiltrated mainstream political spaces. In Germany, it is the AfD that is in the Bundestag, not Islamists. In the US, it is the Republicans who are in power, and it is the president who regularly provides legitimacy to white supremacist and antisemitic tropes and memes, despite the presence of Jews in his inner circle and even family. Ultimately, I’m more worried about what Bryan calls “Christian philosemitism” than I am about “Muslim antisemitism.”

Beyond the political questions, the important issue would be whether and how inclusion of a purported Muslim or Arab antisemitism would inflect our theorization of racism and antisemitism. Do we believe there are multiple antisemitisms that correspond to different demographic groups? How would these multiple antisemitisms interact with multiple racisms, including those that might be perpetrated by white Jews (because Jews are not by definition free of racism)? Perhaps we need to have a discussion about the relation between subaltern and hegemonic forms of racism and antisemitism.

These are complex and politically loaded questions and it is not possible to address them with as much depth or nuance as one would like in an interview of this sort. There are clear and evident dangers in Europe and the US (and beyond) and strange alliances have been created that cut across expected lines – such as those between conservative Jewish political actors and quasi-fascist leaders and governments. As far as the contemporary “scene” of antisemitism and racism goes, I think we could do worse than to conclude that we are in a moment of realignment and transformation. Such a moment calls for careful conceptualization and theorization. To return to the initial framing of this conversation, I’d say that we should draw on the theoretical resources we have – from the Frankfurt School and postcolonial theory to contemporary intersectional approaches – but we should also be self-reflexive about our own assumptions and ready to change our thinking as the world changes.


Thank you very much for the discussion.


AHR Roundtable: Rethinking Anti-Semitism, in: American Historical Review 123/4 (2018), S. 1122-1245.

Bryan Cheyette: Diasporas of the Minds. Jewish and Postcolonial Writing and the Nightmare of History, New Haven 2014.

Neil Levi: Modernist Form and the Myth of Jewification, New York 2014.

Michael Rothberg: Multidirectional Memory. Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization, Stanford 2009.

Michael Rothberg: The Implicated Subject. Beyond Victims and Perpetrators, Stanford 2019.


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