Karin Stögner is Professor of Sociology at the University of Passau, Germany and co-ordinator of the Research Network on Racism and Antisemitism in the European Sociological Association. In this important essay she explains why the influential theory of ‘intersectionality’ so often fails to include global antisemitism and suggests a radical new approach that should command the attention of social theorists and political activists alike.
Intersectionality is an analytical instrument for critically understanding the multidimensionality of power relations. It emerged first in the 1970s, in debates on Black Feminism and signalled an intersectional struggle, i.e. a struggle on two fronts: against sexism within the Civil Rights Movement and against racism within the Women’s Movement. In this respect, intersectionality has always been both an analytical concept and a political practice. Currently, global antisemitism is only rarely included in intersectional theory, and Jews are often excluded from feminist anti-racist social movements that claim to be guided by intersectionality. The vehement anti-Zionist orientation of some of these movements, be it Women’s March on Washington, Chicago Dyke March or Black Lives Matter, poses the question: why does the intersectionality framework routinely exclude antisemitism? In this essay I will first contrast antisemitism and racism, before showing that antisemitism research and intersectionality need not necessarily exclude each other. I will go on to develop a specific approach to intersectionality that views ideologies in relation to each other, reads antisemitism itself as an intersectional ideology, and reads those forms of intersectional theory and practice that exclude Jews as themselves invoking antisemitism.
Antisemitism and racism – a complex relationship of similarity and difference
The difficulties in analysing antisemitism within the intersectionality paradigm arise to a large extent from a widespread misunderstanding about the relationship between antisemitism and racism. Antisemitism is not merely a form of racism, to be analysed with the tools provided by research on racism. Rather, antisemitism is a distinctive ideology that cannot be reduced to racism, any more than homophobia can be reduced to sexism. We have here a variation of the feminist paradox that we can not understand the circumstances and living conditions of women and men if we only look at them through the category of gender, but nor will we understand them without the category of gender. In regard of antisemitism as a phenomenon, we can say that we will fail to grasp its complexity if we see it only as a form of racism; but we will not understand it if we do not also recognise it as a form of racism.
In order to prevent competitive victimhood, and to facilitate alliances in the fight against antisemitism and racism, Glynis Cousin and Robert Fine (2012) proposed that we think of antisemitism and racism as related ideologies. They warned against the complete subsumption of antisemitism under the abstract umbrella term of ‘racism’, arguing that such conceptual fuzziness would only make the respective specificities of antisemitism and racism disappear.
There is no doubt that antisemitism operates with numerous racist elements, as well as with nationalist, sexist, and homophobic ones. Racism is evident already in the concept of antisemitism, a linguistic invention of Wilhelm Marr in the 19th century, when a political and social hostility towards Jews, with a secular and pseudo-scientific concept of ‘race’ to the fore, replaced a pre-modern, religious form of anti-Judaism. As I have discussed elsewhere (Stögner 2014), this shift became evident particularly in antisemitic body images that depicted Jews as having a distorted relationship to nature.
Capitalism and ‘the greedy Jew’
Racism is unquestionably an important moment for the functioning of antisemitism as a modern ideology, but it is not the only moment. Modern antisemitism operates substantially on the basis of a distorted perception of capitalist relations of production and their logic of exploitation. Antisemitism, in the figure of the ‘greedy Jew’, introduces a personalisation of what are in reality supra-individual, abstract, social processes. This is combined with an anti-intellectualism that sees Jews as a subversive and disintegrating spirit, ‘too clever by half’. Antisemitism is essentially about the rejection of ‘spirit and money’, expressing a deep unease and discontent in civilisation and an inability to understand abstract power relations and their institutions.
The differences between antisemitism and racism are clear. Both colonial and apartheid racism is based on the hierarchical construction of supposedly superior and inferior races (Balibar 2005). The enemy, constructed as primitive and inferior, represents a lack of civilisation and modernity, while racists consider themselves representatives of civilisation. Absent are conspiracy myths presuming People of Colour and colonised people secretly rule the world, control the media and finance, and accelerate the processes of modernisation, globalisation and cosmopolitanism. These are not usually part of racist ideology. Such conspiracy myths, however, are an essential feature of antisemitism, which suspects an intangible power resides among Jews, one that is ubiquitous and to which antisemites do not feel superior but rather inferior.
A current example of the idea of the all-powerful Jew that sits at the heart of antisemitic ideology is the conspiracy myth that Jews control migration flows and are thus responsible for what the extreme right wing calls ‘foreign infiltration and domination’, i.e. for the immigration of people regarded as ethnically or culturally inferior, which result in the destruction of ‘native’ identity. The portrayal of Jews as an abstract, intangible elite who secretly rule the world and oppress peoples and nations can be observed also on the left. In this version, antisemitism can even claim to be oppositional and on the side of the oppressed worldwide.
Whiteness and Jews
Many intersectional feminist movements that stand up against racism have great difficulty in grasping how antisemitism works. They understand antisemitism as only a form of racism, while they reduce racism itself to the dichotomy of White and Black, with Jews implicitly or explicitly identified with ‘Whiteness’. This is analytically disabling because antisemitism does not run along the colour line, and consequently not along the binary divide ‘privileged / non-privileged’. Jews are not ‘Whites’. However, both ‘whiteness’ and ‘privileged / non-privileged are central to the concept of racism that is prevalent today in academic discourse and in the discourse of intersectional political practice.
The Whiteness frame, as a tool for making visible structural racism, not only proves to be completely unsuitable for antisemitism, but can even confirm antisemitism, as David Schraub (2019) has pointed out. The privileges associated with Whiteness include power, influence, money, property, education, dominance, participation, being heard and having a voice, cliques and networks, and positions inherited over generations. If this frame is applied to the White majority society, ingrained power structures can be made visible. If, on the other hand, it is applied to the Jewish minority, this frame can actually result in the confirmation of antisemitic stereotypes such as the excessive influence of Jews in business, politics and the media. Jews appear as the super-Whites. Schraub observes that ‘The hope in applying the Whiteness frame to a gentile White is to unsettle received understandings of the White experience – to make people see things they had not seen before. By contrast, the effect of applying Whiteness to Jewishness is confirmatory: ‘I always thought that Jews had all this power and privilege – and see how right I was!’’ (2019, p. 15)
The exclusion of global antisemitism from anti-racist intersectional analyses and practices means that Jews are increasingly not recognised as a minority that has been racially persecuted and murdered for centuries, and Israel is not recognised as a refuge for Jews worldwide after the Shoah. Instead, Jews appear as representatives of an exploitative, structurally racist group and Israel appears as a bastion of Western imperialism in the Middle East, as an artificial and alien element in the midst of supposedly autochthonous Arab peoples (Hirsh 2018; Nelson 2019).
By completely subsuming antisemitism under the category of ‘racism’ it appear to be the problem of bygone times. In fact, while antisemitism and racism are historically closely related, they have developed in different directions after the Shoah and in post-colonial contexts. Contemporary antisemitism no longer primarily operates as a racism but has changed into post-national forms, in which Israel is utilised as a universal scapegoat for wars and crises worldwide. The discrimination against Jews today is different from that of PoC. If this difference is not recognised, current forms of antisemitism that differ from racism, such as antisemitism related to Israel, not only disappear from view, but can also mask themselves as anti-racist and oppositional. Thus, over-inclusion (treating antisemitism, simply, as racism) necessarily leads to the problem of under-inclusion: contemporary antisemitism is not viewed as racism at all and the fight against it is less and less recognised as part of the anti-racist struggle, and can even be considered to be itself conservative, reactionary, even racist.
Lost in Translation: ‘Intersectionality’ Across Contexts
Kimberlé Crenshaw defines intersectionality as ‘a way of seeing, thinking and acting’, thus raising the problem of the transferability of the concept to other oppressions. If intersectionality does not want to be merely a buzzword – or be mentioned purely doxographically according to the motto: ‘don’t use that concept, only mention it’ (Derrida) – then clear thinking about its translation from one context into another is necessary. To that end, Gudrun-Axeli Knapp (2005) advises us to conceive of intersectionality as a ‘travelling concept’, one that brings pieces of luggage on its journey, some of which may be inappropriate in a changed context.
If this ‘baggage’ means that antisemitism cannot be adequately grasped, then the analytical value of the concept of intersectionality must come under question. The concept of intersectionality actually functions today to underpin some of the assumptions of contemporary antisemitism
For example, in the political practice of certain queer and feminist activists – the so-called Queer International – Israelis en masse are considered to be on the privileged side of global power relations, and so antisemitism is no longer perceived as a concrete danger. There is a great deal of ingenuity in interpreting Israel as a depravity for doing what activists are actually advocating elsewhere: women’s and LGBTIQ rights. For Israel, however, all is reversed, making possible the accusation of ‘pinkwashing’ and ‘homonationalism’ (Schulman 2012; Puar 2013). There has arisen resistance to the exclusion of Jews from queer and feminist initiatives such as Women’s March on Washington, Chicago Dyke March or Black Lives Matter. The journalist and LGBTIQ activist Gretchen Hammond lost her job at the Windy City Times after she made public the antisemitism of the Chicago Dyke March organisers. Feminists such as Emily Shire (2017) refuse to accept the argument of Linda Sarsour, the former organiser of the Women’s March on Washington, that Zionism and feminism would exclude and contradict each other, while Anna Isaacs (2016) elaborated on the complexity of the Black Lives Matter movement, which in the beginning did not exclude Jewish experiences and also included a focus on antisemitism. Likewise, former Jewish comrades of Women’s March on Washington have been forced to withdraw or to launch their own feminist intersectional campaigns that are dedicated to educating the public about antisemitism, such as Women For All or Zioness.
Bringing Antisemitism Back In: Reclaiming Intersectionality for the Jews
In the face of this growing political abuse of the concept of intersectionality in many feminist and anti-racist movements, and the opening it has offered to antisemitism, some reject it completely. I argue for a critical reclaiming of the approach. Suitably reformed in ways I suggest below, informed by certain advances made by the Frankfurt School, I believe the concept can strengthen our analysis of contemporary societies and be particularly fruitful for ideology critique.
Learning from the Frankfurt School
A closer look at the history of sociological and social psychological thought shows that the treatment of antisemitism in the early critical theory of the Frankfurt School anticipated later concepts of intersectionality. The broad empirical studies in the Authoritarian Personality conducted by Theodor Adorno, Else Frenkel-Brunswick and colleagues at Columbia University in the 1940s had the aim of measuring the authoritarian-fascist potential across the American population. One of its most prominent discoveries was that ideologies such as antisemitism, racism, sexism, homophobia, ethnocentrism and nationalism rarely occur as isolated phenomena but develop within a broader framework – the authoritarian ideological attitudinal syndrome (Adorno 1975). Ideologies, then, are certainly intersectional: they permeate and reinforce each other, constantly reforming and reactivating themselves in this process. Moreover, depending on political expediency, one ideology can come to the fore at any one time, while the others continue to operate in the background able to be called up.
The Intersectionality of Ideologies
This insight from Adorno et al helps us to pose the question of how the ideology of antisemitism intersects with the ideologies of sexism, racism, and nationalism. How do antisemitic motives shine through in anti-feminism? How does nationalism or anti-genderism – as a particular variation of antifeminism – cover up latent antisemitism? To address such questions I have developed the concept of the intersectionality of ideologies (Stögner 2014; 2017b; 2018; 2019a; 2019b). I do not mean that ideologies are interchangeable or should be equated. Rather, following Oskar Negt, I believe we can distinguish between ideologies while understanding that ideologies gain their respective specificity precisely from their interaction with other ideologies. Such an approach has radical implications for our understanding of the functioning not only of antisemitism, but also of anti-feminism, sexism, homophobia, racism, and nationalism.
I am proposing a change in perspective in intersectionality research. My ideology critical approach would shift our attention from the level of identity-formation, which is often in the foreground today, to the level of the ideological concealment of social contradictions. Furthermore, this approach also focuses on the question of why repressive social categorisation and identification takes place at all. This further shift in focus, by making visible our compulsion to categorise and identify as a ruling practice, also helps us grasp why and when this compulsion may sometimes permeate identity politics itself, with bad consequences.
Ideologies are best understood as being interdependent. They not only usually appear in a bundle, but each ideology also carries moments of the other ideologies within themselves and they thus merge together. Due to its complexity, antisemitism is particularly suitable for an understanding of this kind, which we can call an intersectional analysis. Antisemitism is permeated by sexism, racism, and nationalism, while reflecting the economic class relationship in a completely delusory and distorted way, masquerading as a critique of capitalism. Antisemitism can be understood as the example par excellence of an ideology shot through with the marks of other ideologies.
Antisemitism pushes the Jews beyond the stable categories of intersectionality
Most societies are organised along binary markers such as bottom-up, inside-out, white-black, male-female, hetero-lesbian/gay. Accordingly, ideologies such as racism, sexism, homophobia, nationalism, and ethnocentrism position PoC, women, gays and lesbians, foreigners, and strangers more or less unambiguously along these binary codes. Antisemitism, by contrast, is characterised by ambivalence with regard to these markers. It does not position Jews unambiguously on one or the other side of these markers, but rather attributes to Jews a position beyond binary categorisation. The history of antisemitism shows that Jews are regarded as unclassifiable in the three dimensions that are central to the classical intersectionality approach: gender/sexuality, class and race/ethnicity/nation. This can be seen in the 19th century figure of the anti-national Jew, who supposedly questioned the principle of nationhood, no less than in the image of the Jew as a ‘gender bender’ who thwarts gender binarity. In antisemitism, Jews are not clearly assigned to classes either, but identified simultaneously with communism and capitalism, especially with financial capital. Jews do not so much represent a foreign, hostile identity, but rather a non-identity, in other words the threat of the dissolution of identity itself, of unity itself.
The anti-categorical character of antisemitic stereotypes makes it hard to grasp for dominant intersectional approaches that assumes the interdependence of stable categories. Antisemitism denies Jews any clear categorisation and derives its effectiveness and efficiency from an almost ‘queer’ thwarting of familiar binaries and from undermining clear categorisations. Antisemitism itself blurs the categories and portrays the Jew as not belonging to any identity criteria.
Antisemitism is a particular fear that the unity and identity of the nation, religion, community, etc. might be infiltrated and decomposed. Conspiracy myths are a manifestation of this fear. In this context, Jews do not represent a foreign and/or hostile identity, but rather an anti-identity, i.e. the dissolvant of fixed boundaries of collective, cultural identities. Here, a difference to newer forms of racism like cultural racism and ‘racism without races’ becomes clear. For example, anti-Muslim resentment ascribes to Muslims a hermetically sealed and fixed identity. In antisemitism, by contrast, Jews are characterised as lacking identity or roots. The National Socialist mania saw Jews not as an ‘alien race’ that was to be subjugated and exploited, but an ‘anti-race’, the ‘negative principle as such’, on whose extermination the salvation of the world was to depend (Horkheimer and Adorno 2002). The mania of redemption through exterminatory antisemitism emerged from a view of Jews as settled in a non-place beyond the authoritative categorical order of the world. Let us review the various non-places to which the Jew is consigned by anti-Semitism.
The ‘anti-national Jew’
Antisemitism depicts Jews as not loyal to any nation and incapable of establishing true statehood. It dates back to the time of the European nation-state formation in the late 18th and 19th centuries and inverted the fact that Jews as a people had no nation-state of their own into the stereotype that they would infiltrate other nations and undermine the national principle from within. They were considered international, cosmopolitan, free-floating, rootless, inauthentic and untrustworthy in terms of their national identification. Nationalism and the construction of a homogeneous national community were not only directed against external enemies, but also developed through the explicit exclusion of ‘foreign’ and ‘non-belonging’ elements within the national borders.
The figure of the anti-national Jew served thereby as a projection screen for unacknowledged uncertainties and antagonisms within the modern nation-state, as well as for the legitimation of nationalistic exclusions: Ethnic (and to a lesser degree also civic) nationalism effectively covers up the division of society according to economic classes and pretends a unity that is in reality highly fragile. The break in the unity is projected onto the ‘anti-national Jew’. This motif recurs in extreme anti-Zionism, which rejects Jewish statehood as an ‘artificial entity’ and today ranges from neo-Nazi to Islamist and ‘anti-imperialist’ discourses.
The ‘Jewish gender bender’
Countless are the images, especially in the late 19th and early 20th century, which ascribed an ambiguous gender and sexuality to Jews. Antisemitism traditionally considered Jewish men to be effeminate, Jewish women to be masculinised. They were said to blur the clearly drawn boundaries between the genders, to dissolve gender identity, reversing gender roles and the gender-specific division of labour. Consequently, women’s emancipation was also interpreted as Jewish machination against the unity of the people. Due to the intermediate position regarding gender and sexuality attributed to them, Jews were seen as an essential threat to the unity of the cultural community, which is still inseparably linked to the heteronormative order today.
Emancipated women who claimed autonomous subjectivity and sexuality were considered part of a Jewish conspiracy: the ‘Jewish democratic feminist mammon spirit’, as the Nazi mastermind Ludwig Langemann formulated it in 1919. This is by no means overcome today, as we can see in the right-wing anti-gender ideologies across Europe and America, in which feminism functions as the new scapegoat of current identity crises. Islamists express the close connection between antisemitism and antigenderism more explicitly: for example, the supreme spiritual leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, sees in the ‘objectification of women’ in the West and ‘concepts like gender justice’ a ‘Zionist plot to destroy human community’, Or take the Algerian Islamist Malek Bennabi, who in the 1960s swaggered about the ‘century of the woman, the Jew and the dollar’ and thus summarised the threats to the Islamic Umma that were central to him (Bensoussan 2019).
The Jew as ‘misfit bourgeois’
One major characteristic of antisemitism’s classical inventory is that Jews are identified with the intermediary economic sphere of circulation, i.e. with trade, banking and money transactions, and so are primarily seen as speculators and financial capitalists. In feudal, traditional societies Jews were denied access to landed property and to craft guilds, just as in modern, functionally differentiated, capitalist society, they were excluded from ownership of the means of production, the source of surplus value, for a very long period. They were therefore increasingly forced into the intermediary spheres of circulation.
That all bankers were Jews and all Jews were engaged in money transactions, on the other hand, has always been an antisemitic cliché, closely linked to the antisemitic idea that Jews will not work. This in turn announces the ideological division of the capital relationship into ‘productive’ and ‘rapacious’. The position of the trader is an intermediate one that makes the class position appear ambiguous and vague: Jews were neither masters nor servants. If they attributed themselves to the class of the bourgeois, they encountered the cliché of the ‘misfit bourgeois’ (Adorno 1975), who would only imitate the capitalist business while lacking any feeling for real and sincere entrepreneurship and therefore representing the negative effects of capitalism in its purest form. As the voice of the working class, they were seen as hypocrites, speaking from a position alienated from all physical labour, about things they knew nothing about.
Conclusion: Intersectionality cannot be an emancipatory theory while excluding antisemitism
Inconsistency, ambiguity and comprehensive unclassifiability; fluid boundaries and manifold overlaps with other ideologies; these are the reasons why antisemitism has developed into a comprehensive and delusional world-view in the course of the rapid and disruptive modernisation process. It has helped to stabilise a system of values and norms that appeared to be under threat. More than other ideologies, antisemitism helps to maintain the traditional rules of capitalism, patriarchy, and nation-state order by always being sexist, homophobic, nationalist, and racist and in addition by posing as anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist. The consistently anti-categorical moment, by positioning Jews beyond the categories, distinguishes antisemitism from other ideologies, which are much less ambiguous.
This insight challenges those approaches that assume there must be a critical potential in an anti-categorical view. Antisemitism itself transgresses categorisation effectively, positioning Jews beyond gender, sexuality, class, race, ethnicity and nation. Antisemitism gains its effectiveness from exactly this characteristic. We have to understand the banality that in antisemitism everything can be interpreted against the Jews – particularly that they allegedly do not correspond to the socially prescribed categories.
An intersectional approach must not be limited to the insight that society is structured by certain categories, but must, in a radical critique of power, uncover the social reasons and conditions of these categories. The process of perennial categorisation of people in society and the underlying traditional identity logics must also be criticised. The approach of intersectionality of ideologies proposed here is therefore critical of approaches that support an identitarian and cultural-relativist discourse and can tip in the direction of antisemitism and homophobia under the guise of anti-racism. The critique of intersectionality presented here is intended to open the approach to a dialectical feminist theory that does not blind out antisemitism, and which is therefore connected to truly emancipatory practice.
 I would like to thank Elke Rajal (Vienna) and Alexandra Colligs (Frankfurt) for their useful comments on this text.
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