Judith Butler Discusses History of Anti-Semitism in Review of Bari Weiss's How to Fight Anti-SemitismHistorians in the News
tags: book reviews, Judith Butler, Bari Weiss
Judith Butler is a professor in the department of comparative literature and the program of critical theory at the University of California, Berkeley.
Weiss’s title makes the book sound like a manual for fighting antisemitism, but this is somewhat misleading. Instead, it moves from an introductory chapter on the shock of the Squirrel Hill massacre, to an all-too-brief history of antisemitic thought, to a series of chapters on present-day “mutations” of antisemitism. “The Right” and “The Left” each receive one chapter, as we are meant to see an equally bad enemy on both sides; a chapter on “Radical Islam” trots out a familiar catalogue of right-wing Muslim leaders (muftis with Nazi inclinations, the Ayatollah Khamenei) in order to reach the likewise familiar Islamophobic conclusion that “there is reason to worry” about Muslim immigration to Europe. By the time she tries to answer the question of how to fight back, we are left with a few pages that mainly focus on what can be done in interpersonal exchanges. Apparently, an opposition to identity politics (which presumably excludes Jewish identity politics), and a primary identification as “American” are crucial elements of the fight—but we do not hear about alliances, and certainly not transnational modes of resistance to antisemitism and all forms of racism.
It is not only the lack of a broader political approach, but also a lack of historical analysis that afflicts this impassioned book. Weiss often uses epidemiological language to understand antisemitism: it is a “thought virus,” an “intellectual disease,” an “ancient malady,” “a cancer.” As such, antisemitism seems to exist outside history, recurring in all possible spaces and times. The metaphor extends to a diagnostic approach to contemporary politics: “When our society’s immune system is healthy and functioning normally, the virus of anti-Semitism is kept in check.” In other words, antisemitism is a latent feature not only of our (presumably US) society but of all societies. Elsewhere, she describes it as part of “our cultural DNA,” a metaphor that suggests it is transmitted through the generations as part of the deep structure of collective life, and perhaps implies more broadly that cultural attitudes are like genetic material—a confusing and potentially deterministic point of view. Such metaphors proliferate throughout the text precisely at moments when one expects a fine-grained answer to fundamental questions about the history and definitions of antisemitism.
One reason this book would profit from a more thorough engagement with history is that Weiss’s argument draws heavily on a definition of antisemitism that appeared as recently as the 1970s. In 1974, Arnold Forster and Benjamin R. Epstein, national leaders of the Anti-Defamation League, published The New Anti-Semitism, a book that claimed a novel form of Jew-hatred—made manifest in viewpoints critical of the State of Israel—was emerging on the left. Many scholars have taken up this argument in the ensuing decades, and some of us have countered that an actual rise in antisemitism is obscured when views critical of Israel are mistakenly taken to be the paradigmatic form of antisemitism. Weiss sometimes seems to borrow from this debate without actually engaging it. Instead, she broaches the problem through a series of elisions. She writes, “here I am—a Jew, an American, a Zionist, a proud daughter of Pittsburgh.” This affirmation of Jewishness is also an affirmation of Zionism—but why? Weiss makes clear that there can be criticisms of Israel that are legitimate, but only if they take the form of demanding that Israel live up to its higher ideals. Under such conditions, we are barely permitted to ask the more fundamental question: what political form would lead to the flourishing of all the people who now lay claim to that land?
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