The Jewish question after the Holocaust: Jürgen Habermas and the European left
I have, of course, long since abandoned my anti-Zionism, which was based on a confidence in the European labour movement, or, more broadly, in European society and civilisation, which that society and civilisation have not justified. If, instead of arguing against Zionism in the 1920s and 1930s I had urged European Jews to go to Palestine, I might have helped to save some of the lives that were later extinguished in Hitler's gas chambers. For the remnants of European Jewry – is it only for them? – the Jewish State has become an historic necessity. (Isaac Deutscher, The Reporter 1954)1
The Holocaust becomes a sort of university, an educational experience – a great learning experience, you might say – from which Jews were ethically obliged to have graduated with First Class Honours. But Israel, and those Jews who support Israel, are the overwhelming proof that they flunked their studies. … Thus are Jews doubly damned: to the Holocaust itself and to the moral wasteland of having found no humanising redemption in its horrors. (Howard Jacobson, When will Jews be Forgiven for the Holocaust?)2
After the Holocaust, European antisemitism did not simply vanish like a puff of smoke. On her return to Germany in 1950 Hannah Arendt wrote of the resentment some ‘ordinary Germans’ felt for being blamed for Auschwitz. It was as if the real culprits were Jews who exploited the Holocaust for their own benefit, made money out of their suffering, denied the right of Germans to express their own suffering, and accused the Germans of being uniquely evil in their treatment of others.3 In 1959 Theodor Adorno deployed the term ‘secondary antisemitism’ to conceptualise the opinion he found not uncommon within Germany that the Jewish people were culpable of exploiting German guilt over the Holocaust.4 It was not only in Germany that Jewish survivors met with indifference and hostility. Some survivors spoke of the reluctance of their fellow human beings to hear the story of their experiences; some told of the hostility they faced when they tried to return to their old homes; some told of the official restrictions imposed on them by Western governments.5 On the other side of the Iron Curtain, new regimes in Eastern Europe presented the nations they ruled as victims of National Socialism, not as perpetrators against Jews, and official antisemitic campaigns were planned and conducted in the Soviet Union and its satellite countries in the name of extirpating Zionism and cosmopolitanism.6 The historian Tony Judt summarised the issue very well when he commented that ‘what is truly awful about the destruction of the Jews is not that it mattered so much but that it mattered so little’.7
There were exceptions to this norm.8 The enactment of ‘crimes against humanity’ and two further founding documents of the postwar epoch, the Genocide Convention and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, passed in1948 within 24 hours of each other, were all informed by the common sense that human beings need protection from the violence of which the modern state has shown itself capable. These were very important innovations in International Criminal Law. They represented, as Karl Jaspers put it, the hint of a cosmopolitanism to come – ‘a feeble, ambiguous harbinger of a world order the need of which mankind is beginning to feel’.9 However, they were considerably marginalised with the onset of the Cold War. In 1960–1961 consciousness of the destruction of the Jews took an arguably more national form in the trial of Adolf Eichmann and then with the re-conceptualisation of the ‘final solution to the Jewish question’ (the Nazi formulation) as the ‘Holocaust’ (a Greek word for a burnt sacrificial offering) or ‘Shoah’ (a Hebrew word for destruction or catastrophe). In the 1980s, consciousness of the enormity of the event itself – and of German and European culpability – found public expression in narratives told in books, films and television series and in the spread of official apologies, commemoration sites, Holocaust museums and laws criminalising Holocaust denial.10 The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 drew some former satellite countries of the Soviet bloc into the orbit of Holocaust commemoration. The Holocaust, Shoah, Auschwitz – these names became universal references for radical evil and the barbarism of our age.11
The difficulties of understanding the wilful destruction of a whole people, addressed by the old generation of critical theorists under the immediate shadow of the Holocaust, also shaped the political thought of critical theory's leading postwar representative, Jürgen Habermas. Habermas sought to face up to the legacy of genocidal antisemitism by addressing its connections with the rise of emphatically nationalistic forms of political community and by crafting a vision of postnational political community as the normative potential of our age. One of the markers of critical theory, as Habermas understood it, was to recognise that overcoming antisemitism lies at the centre of any worthwhile project of European reconstruction.12
Jürgen Habermas: antisemitism and the postnational project
Habermas conceived the postnational constellation as a multi-layered global order, consisting of a reformed basis of solidarity within the nation state, the development of new transnational forms of political community such as the European Union beyond the nation state, and the enhancement of international laws and institutions regulating relations between states and guaranteeing human rights at the global level. The idea of the postnational constellation entailed a differentiated and multi-layered architectonic of legal and political forms, as well as a complex re-invigoration of cosmo-political ways of thinking and acting in the world. Habermas presented the postnational constellation both as a desirable idea for the future and as a contested but tangible social reality in the present. We see it as a response both to the top-down forms of state socialism advanced within orthodox Marxism, and to the populist principle that all political life must derive exclusively from below.
The struggle to work through the experience of antisemitism was a vital element in this overall project. Habermas' guiding intuition was that antisemitism was the product of emphatically nationalist forms of political community and that postnationalism could introduce a new political order in which the conditions that once gave rise to antisemitism would no longer exist. He emphasised the modernity of antisemitism, rooting it in the perverted forms of nationalism the modern age is prone to generate.
The key issue, as Habermas saw it, is that the Volksnation, the nation of the people, was a modern democratic invention which crystallised into ‘an efficient mechanism for repudiating everything regarded as foreign, for devaluing other nations, and for excluding national, ethnic, and religious minorities, especially the Jews. In Europe, nationalism became allied with antisemitism, with disastrous consequences’.13 Habermas maintained that the historical strength of nationalism was due to its capacity to act as a binding power enabling individuals to coalesce around commonly shared symbols, and that the formation of the modern state was dependent on the development of a national consciousness to provide it with the cultural substrate for civil solidarity: ‘only a national consciousness crystallised around the notion of a common ancestry, language and history, only the consciousness of belonging to “the same” people, makes subjects into citizens of a single political community – into members who can feel responsible for one another’.14
For Habermas, the nation state is a Janus-faced phenomenon characterised above all by normative ambiguity: it did become the bearer of a regressive credo that unreflectively celebrates the history, destiny, culture or blood of a nation, but it could also be the bearer of a progressive and inclusive form of political consciousness, which Habermas called ‘constitutional patriotism’ and understood as a consciousness capable of inspiring rational loyalty on the part of citizens.15 Habermas maintained that some kind of national consciousness is needed to inculcate willingness on the part of citizens to do what is required of them for the common good, such as maintaining public services through taxation and accepting democratic decisions as legitimate, and that the virtue of constitutional patriotism is to perform these integrative functions in ways that do not exclude people deemed not worthy of belonging to the nation in question. Constitutional patriotism seemed to bridge the gap between shared attachment towards universalistic principles and the actualisation of these principles through particular national institutions. Habermas did not reject the national aspect but sought to render it benign through the harmonisation of the universal and the particular.
Habermas' concession to nationalism suggested by his conceptual approach to constitutional patriotism became more pronounced when the concept was applied in practice to Germany. He adopted constitutional patriotism as an antidote to German ethnic nationalism and as a device to re-integrate the Federal Republic of Germany and later a united Germany as a pluralistic, multicultural political community. He deployed the idea very effectively as a critical resource against the resurgence of ethnic nationalism he saw in the ‘Historians Debate’ of the 1980s. He criticised one historian (Michael Stürmer) for celebrating the ‘higher source of meaning’ that only nationalism could provide; another (Andreas Hillgruber) for identifying with ‘the desperate and costly struggle of the German army in the East […] who were trying to save the population of the German East from the Red Army's orgies of revenge’, a third (Ernst Nolte) for normalising Auschwitz as a response to a ‘more original Asiatic deed’, that of the Gulag.16 Habermas maintained, by contrast, that German national identity could only be rebuilt on the basis of a joint responsibility for the past, carried over into next generations, so that the dead would not be cheated out of the ‘memory of the sufferings of those who were murdered by German hands’. It was not resurgent nationalism but the liberating power of ‘reflective remembrance’ that could rebuild German identity.17
Habermas was not prepared to dissolve the murder of Jews into some universal reference to the victims of Nazism, as Soviet Marxism insisted. In a discussion of the Berlin Holocaust memorial in Die Zeit in 1999, he criticised the argument that ‘exclusive reference to the murdered Jews now reflects a particularism that ignores the victims of other groups’ or that it represents ‘an injustice to the Sinti and Roma, the political prisoners, the mentally handicapped, the homosexuals, the Jehovah's Witnesses and the deserters which demands some redress’. He acknowledged that the moral intuition to which this universalism appealed was powerful and that the special ‘significance of the Jews for us Germans must not neutralise the unconditional obligation to show equal respect in commemorating all victims’, but he could not accept a line of argument that seemed to him universalistic only in the abstract. He wrote: ‘Were we to ignore the special relevance of the Jews for the social and cultural life of Germany, the historically fraught, quite specific proximity and distances of both these unequal poles, wouldn't we once again be guilty of a false abstraction?’18 Habermas understood that there is no contradiction between attending to the genocide of Jews and drawing universalistic ethical conclusions. To focus on the genocide of one particular people is not to sign up to particularism.19 Quite the reverse: we learn to generalise from particular cases and, if required, to allow new cases to modify our generalisations.20
A more problematic aspect of Habermas' argument was the role played by ‘the German question’ in his approach. Habermas presented Germany as a model for Europe as a whole on the grounds that the trend toward postnational self-understanding was more pronounced there than in any other European state. Germany appeared as the nation that, by virtue of learning from its past excesses, now most fully acknowledged ethnic nationalism as a horrific regression.21 It was as if Germany, above all European nations, had the reflective resources required for a genuinely ‘critical appropriation of ambiguous traditions’. Habermas treated Germany as a normative model for postnational political community on the grounds that in Germany nationalism was no longer normatively defensible.22 He articulated very well the normative content of the postnational ideal – rejection of nationalism; loyalty to constitutional principles; cultivation of a reflective consciousness; ability to relativise one's own way of life; granting strangers the same rights as ourselves; recognising the heterogeneity of populations, including all citizens regardless of origin, colour, creed, or language, etc. – but he was tempted to represent Germany as the privileged site of this ideal.23 Habermas traded on an ambiguity between two distinct propositions – that constitutional patriotism was a desirable goal for German reconstruction, and that Germany was already an exemplary case of constitutional patriotism. His own resolution was to say that constitutional patriotism operates in a space ‘between facts and norms’, that it walks a tightrope between what is and what it might be, but this formulation still enables reversion from his original commitment to work through the catastrophe to the fixed idea that Germany has in fact learnt the lessons of the catastrophe it caused.24 The postnational approach Habermas put forward opened a space for those who wish to situate the problem of German antisemitism emphatically in the past.
If the German rendition of constitutional patriotism left it uncomfortably close to a new kind of nationalism, this was one reason why Habermas turned to a wider European stage. He was well aware that while there was a specific German responsibility, genocidal antisemitism was a phenomenon that found support in nearly all European countries, not only in Germany. Habermas emphasised the responsibility of all Europeans to commemorate the victims – primarily for the sake of the victims themselves but additionally as a means of ‘reassuring ourselves [i.e. all Europeans] of our own political identity’. He endeavoured to keep in mind ‘the gruesome features of a century that “invented” the gas chambers, total war, state-sponsored genocide, and extermination camps’, but at the same time not to become ‘transfixed by the gruesomeness of the century’, not to evade ‘conscious assessment of the horror that finally culminated in […] the annihilation of the Jews of Europe’.25 This active stance toward the whole of Europe learning from the past has profoundly shaped Habermas' work.
The turn to Europe, however, also conjured up the spectre of a new nationalism writ large. The nationalistic temptation was the idea of Europe as a civilisation whose normative values, civic traditions and forms of life made it peculiarly ‘capable of learning’ and ‘consciously shaping itself through its political will’.26 Habermas' anti-gemeinschaftlich image of Europe avoided construing European identity along essentialist lines, but there rested a tendency not only to advance a postnational project for Europe but also to represent Europe as the privileged site of postnationalism. The equivocations of postnationalism between a critical and positivist approach encouraged the belief that Europe has learnt its lessons and thus made it possible after all to ‘historicise’ antisemitism as a phenomenon of the past. One of the most paradoxical conclusions others have drawn from this idealised view of postnational Europe is that the only people deemed not to have learnt these lessons were the victims themselves!
This is not the road, however, that Habermas took. His postnational journey took a further step toward the reconstruction of world society and its global institutions, its international laws and its human rights. Habermas maintained that the normative effect of the ‘monstrous mass crimes of the twentieth century’ has been to acknowledge that ‘states as the subjects of international law forfeited the presumption of innocence that underlies the prohibition on intervention and immunity against criminal prosecution under international law’.27 He did not reject the principles of classical international law – self-determination of peoples, respect for treaties, non-intervention in the internal affairs of other peoples, agreed norms regulating the conduct of war – but emphasised the need to elaborate international law in accordance with more cosmopolitan principles: states are bound to honour human rights; the principle of non-intervention may be suspended in the case of serious atrocities; and the authority of international organisations such as the United Nations must be upheld. Habermas defended the principle that the international community has a legal as well as moral duty to intervene where and when states commit heinous crimes against the people and that atrocity-committing states should not be allowed to hide behind the fig leaf of national self-determination and non-interference. He laid the ground for a constitutionalised global order to come, incompatible with the order that once made the ‘final solution’ possible.
Habermas had the vision of constructing a fully-fledged legal framework to protect people from the violence of states. He hoped to realise this vision by extending the reach of global remedies, granting the International Court of Justice compulsory jurisdiction, sharpening the definition of humanitarian crimes, reforming the Security Council, constructing a UN army, and so forth. He acknowledged that this cosmopolitan vision was far from an accomplished fact: human rights interventions were fraught with difficulties, particular interests were dressed up in the universalistic rhetoric of international law, and indeed a culture of human rights had yet to be developed if social actors were to judge and act on political matters from the perspective of ‘citizens of the world’.28 His approach, however tended to concieve of change in ideal terms as a transition from a world in which law was in the service of power to a world in which power will be in the service of law, a formulation that did not address his own understanding of law as a form of power – witness the struggles for power waged for control of the institutional bodies through which human rights are enacted on the world stage. He defended the legitimacy of human rights bodies in terms of supplementing the functional capacities of nation states and tempering the temptation of powerful states to imagine themselves as all-powerful, but this defence did not address the legitimacy problems human rights themselves encounter in addressing social inequalities, regulating the aggression of state powers, matching the democratic validity possible at the national level, or resisting expropriation by corporate capital and state power. He argued that the limited democratic legitimacy of international institutions was justified by the limited functions they perform, rested on legal principles tried and tested within democratic constitutions, and received supplementary legitimacy through the activism of global civil society,29 but this vindication of cosmopolitan law could not obscure the existence of a chasm between the abstract idea of universal human rights and concrete norms of social and political inequality.30
These problems were unresolved but the more troubling aspect of this stage of the postnational journey was that the idealisation of human rights made it possible to suspend the formal principle of equality between states and reconfigure a hierarchy of states based this time on human rights criteria. One such strategy was employed by the philosopher, John Rawls, when in the Law of Peoples he elevated to the top of this hierarchy of states those labelled ‘liberal’ that uphold all human rights, placed below them states labelled ‘decent’ that only respect some human rights, and placed at the bottom of the hierarchy states labelled ‘outlaw’ that respect no human rights at all.31 While the classification of states according to human rights criteria was not part of Habermas' own project, the equivocations of postnationalism – caught between norms and facts, critical engagement and uncritical rationalisation – introduced an inegalitarian mindset into the very concept of international law. In the work of Rawls, this mindset became all the more pronounced when he substituted the category of ‘peoples’ for that of ‘states’. His intention was that of emphasising equality under international law rather than absolute sovereignty, but it obscured the distinction between state and civil society and invited slippage from condemning a state for its human rights abuses to condemning a people on account of the human rights abuses committed by the state to which they belong. The erasure of this distinction between state and civil society opened a door to the admission of a stigmatising way of thinking in international law. The condemnation of a ‘people’ as a ‘pariah nation’ was not inherent in the postnational project but it did become a potentiality within it. One of the key relevancies of this turn was to offer a philosophical aperture through which it became possible to reinstate the Jewish question under a postnational or cosmopolitan banner.
The new radicalism and the deformations of critical theory
Habermas' postnational project was part of a magnificent intellectual and political movement, whose aim was to reconstruct the Enlightenment project for modern times and to develop the categories of understanding and standards of judgment needed to confront the barbarism of the modern age. Its main offering has been the development of a genuinely universalistic critique of European antisemitism as an integral part of its critical and emancipatory programme. It aimed to translate the slogans ‘never again’ and ‘universal responsibility’ into tangible, practical and enduring measures. Our contention, however, is that the successive idealisations we have sought to identify – nationalism writ benign in Germany, nationalism writ large in Europe, the absolutism of human rights as standard of judgment in world society, faith in the social learning Europe achieved through the Holocaust – all left cracks in the postnational edifice that allowed less critical forces to enter. Habermas himself cited Thomas Mann's aphorism in Germany and the Germans (1945) that there were ‘not two Germanys, an evil and a good, but only one that through devil's cunning transformed its best into evil’.32 If the devil's cunning can turn the best of modern civilisation into the worst, we should acknowledge the possibility that this can also be the fate of postnationalism itself. Like other forms of universalism, postnationalism can be abused to label others ‘nationalist’ or stigmatise others as its enemies. While postnationalism, as Habermas conceived it, had as its aim the supersession of the Jewish question and its replacement by a vista of Jewish emancipation appropriate to its time, the cracks in the postnational edifice allowed a different agenda to enter. It was to turn the Jewish nation into the ‘other’ of the postnational. The Jewish nation becomes in this version of the postnational project the personification of radical alterity.33
A distorted universalism of this type has become increasingly evident within the mainstreams of the contemporary political left, who are wholly opposed to antisemitism but who base their opposition on reconfiguring the very Jewish question that lay behind antisemitism in the first place. We can illustrate the kind of radicalism we have in mind with a few brief examples drawn from leading left intellectuals of the recent period. The historian Tony Judt wrote in the New York Review of Books that Holocaust memory crowded out all other injustices by treating the Holocaust not as one evil among many but as ‘radical evil’. He maintained that the charge of antisemitism was being politically instrumentalised:
Today, when Israel is exposed to international criticism for its mistreatment of Palestinians and its occupation of territory conquered in 1967, its defenders prefer to emphasise the memory of the Holocaust. If you criticise Israel too forcefully, they warn, you will awaken the demons of antisemitism. Indeed, they suggest, robust criticism of Israel doesn't just arouse antisemitism. It is antisemitism.34
The philosopher Judith Butler pursued the same line of argument when she expressed the view that ‘the charge of anti-Semitism’ was exercising a ‘chilling effect on political discourse’ and maintained that ‘certain actions of the Israeli state – acts of violence and murder against children and civilians – must not be objected to … for fear that any protest against them would be tantamount to anti-Semitism’. She held that the ‘charge of antisemitism’ was being used to ‘translate what one is actually hearing, a protest against the killing of children and civilians by the Israeli army, into nothing more than a cloak for hatred of Jews’.35 The cultural historian Matti Bunzl contended that the focus on antisemitism deflects attention from the ‘real racisms’ coursing through postnational Europe, especially the Islamophobia fuelled by social forces that brought millions of Muslims to Europe and based on ‘the notion that Islam engenders a world view that is fundamentally incompatible with and inferior to Western culture’.36 The sociologist Goran Therborn wrote of the ‘complete delegitimation of anti-Semitism in mainstream discourse after the discovery of the horrors of Auschwitz and the complete defeat of Nazi Germany’ and maintained that the charge ‘anti-Semite’ has become a ‘Totschlagwort, a killing word … a lethal weapon in public polemics’. Maintaining that the word ‘antisemitism’ functions to dismiss ‘fundamental critical questions about the state of Israel’, he contrasted the old ‘European time’ in which he claims Israel still exists – time rooted in ‘ethnic nationalism’, ‘divine right of Jews’ and ‘European atonement for the Holocaust’ – with modern ‘world time’ that is supposedly rooted in ‘de-colonization, universal rights, and the assertion and recognition of indigenous peoples and of non-European religions and cultures’.37
The Marxist philosopher Alain Badiou, who for many years continued to profess loyalty to Maoism and Pol Pot, has the virtue of articulating what is muted in others.38 He condemns what he describes as a powerful and reactionary current in contemporary political life that speaks in the name of ‘the Jews’ and claims to see ‘antisemitism everywhere’ (L'antisémitisme Partout is the French title of a book he co-authored with Eric Hazan).39 He maintains that this powerful and reactionary current has constructed a ‘victim ideology’ around the sign of ‘the Jew’, which renders other forms of victimisation invisible, demands that Israel's crimes be tolerated and accuses those who do not tolerate them (like Badiou himself) of antisemitism. He opines that ‘purveyors of antisemitism’ are not only on the side of Israel against Palestinians but on that of all repressive power against popular resistance. Badiou aligns himself to the tradition of universalism he traces back to St Paul's disconnection of Christianity from established Judaism, and from this ‘universalistic’ vantage point denounces ‘Israel’ as the placeholder for all that is hostile to the modern cosmopolitan and non-identitarian state.40 He draws a parallel between the fact that ‘Hitler once took power in the name of a politics whose categories included the term “Jew”’ and the fact that Israel has taken power in the name of a politics whose categories also include the term ‘Jew’.41 He objects to the characterisation of the Nazi extermination of Jews as ‘radical evil’, on the grounds that it is thereby declared ‘unthinkable, unsayable, without conceivable precedent or posterity’, only to accuse Zionists of doing to Palestinians what the Nazis did to the Jews.42
The distorted form of universalism presents itself as a continuance of critical theory, but advances quite different propositions. First, it relegates antisemitism to the past. Its narrative is that the genocidal antisemitism that once stalked Europe has been discredited and marginalised by the horror it generated and that no new forms of antisemitism have emerged. Hostility to what is called ‘new antisemitism theory’ is its informing passion. Second, it claims a radical dissociation of antisemitism from other forms of racism. Its narrative here is that in the past people of colour and people of Jewish background may have been ‘brothers in misery’ and that antisemitism and racism may have represented the ‘same bankruptcy of man’,43 but that today Muslims have become the ‘new Jews’ and Islamophobia has become the ‘new antisemitism’.44 Third, it maintains that the universal significance of the Holocaust has been sacrificed to a particularism, which treats it only as an event in Jewish history and stigmatises other groups of people – be they Muslims, Arabs, Europeans or the left – as wholly antisemitic.45 Finally, it disparages the motives of those who raise concerns about antisemitism, on the grounds that ‘they’ abuse collective memory and the charge of antisemitism for clandestine ends – for instance, to discredit critics of Israel or pathologise victims of Israeli power. The mark of this distorted form of universalism is to treat the problem of antisemitism as unserious compared with that of raising antisemitism as a problem.
The elements of this new ‘critical theory’ – emphatic historicisation of antisemitism, dissociation of racism and antisemitism, particularisation of Holocaust commemovation, a cynical reading of resistance to antisemitism – demonstrate that while it claims to oppose antisemitism in the name of a universalistic ethos, its conviction is that antisemitism is a problem of the past, that to focus on it in the present is an anachronism, that the priority of contemporary antiracism should lie with other racisms, that opposition to antisemitism has been consumed by a damaging particularism, and that a conspiratorial agenda lies behind the charge of antisemitism. We are confronted here by a discourse that subverts the universalism it espouses by turning the signifier ‘Jew’ into its other. In place of the deep and careful reflections we find in critical theory on what overcoming antisemitism requires, we find ourselves once again in the grip of the Jewish question. All formulations of the Jewish question come back to the harm ‘the Jews’ allegedly inflict on humanity at large and what is to be done about this harm. Its contemporary reconfiguration gives it a more symbolic edge. The question is no longer posed about ‘the Jews’ as a race apart but rather about those who invoke the sign of ‘the Jews’ in order to imagine themselves as a race apart. Its concern is over the harm caused to humanity by those who invoke the word ‘Jew’ in the lexicon of self-identity – be it the Jewish state, the Jewish nation, Jewish collective memory, or even Jewish opposition to antisemitism – and the need to find solutions to the harm they cause. The Enlightenment credo that ‘we must refuse everything to the Jews as a nation and accord everything to Jews as individuals’, re-emerges as a discourse valuing Jews as individuals but correspondingly open to the devaluation of Jews as a nation.
The key defect of this discourse does not lie in its theoretical claim to universalism but in the ways it belies these claims in practice. There are doubtless some individuals and groups who combat antisemitism from a more or less particularistic point of view but there are so many others who – in the tradition of Marx, Horkheimer, Adorno and Arendt – see antisemitism as an occasion to raise universal issues concerning what it is to be human in the modern age and who seek answers to how humanity in its diversity can be protected. A cursory review of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust website reveals the many connections it has drawn between the Holocaust and other genocides.46 While Holocaust commemoration addresses the murder and suffering of Jews or of those defined as Jews, its focus on the particulars of Jewish suffering emphatically does not entail a particularism unconcerned with the sufferings of others. The apparently universalistic demand advanced by some critics of Holocaust Memorial Day, that it be replaced by a Genocide Memorial Day, demonstrates its own resentment of any focus on Jewish suffering in the claim that ‘the Jews’ overstate what was done to them.47 It is resonant of how the annihilation of Jews was subsumed in the Soviet Union to generic formulations concerning ‘victims of Nazism’ and with the collapse of Communism in East Europe to generic formulations like ‘victims of Stalinism’.48 Concern over particulars is not to be confused with particularism or, to put the matter another way, it is a bogus universalism that represses the particular.
It is a common characteristic of groups subjected to racism to resist racism from a nationalist point of view. Nothing may appear more natural, as Arendt once remarked, than that if you are attacked as a Jew, you may well fight back as a Jew. The same may be said for any other category: if you are attacked as a Black or a Muslim, you may well fight back as a Black or a Muslim. While Arendt saw the national character of resistance to racism and antisemitism as a limitation, within some sections of the Marxist tradition the ‘nationalism of the oppressed’ has long been advanced as the ideal form of struggle against the racism of oppressors. Cosmopolitan thinking addresses the determinate character of nationalism as a form of resistance to racism but it is the echo of an old prejudice to heap upon Jewish nationalism the defects of nationalism in general. Similarly, we may acknowledge that the ‘charge of antisemitism’ can be instrumentalised on behalf of particular interests, but so too can any charge of racism. The scent of old prejudice is present if instrumentalism, self-interest and deceit are turned into the kernel of the ‘charge of antisemitism’. Of course it is undesirable to resist antisemitic abstractions of ‘the Jews’ by means of equally homogenising typifications of ‘the Muslims’ or ‘the French’ or ‘the left’ as antisemitic. The sociologist Raymond Aron sought to capture the nature of this reversal in a discussion of Jean Paul Sartre's Antisemite and Jew:
Anti-antisemites tend to present all the colonisers, all the antisemites, all the whites as essentially defined by their contempt for natives, hatred of Jews, desire for segregation. They paint a portrait of the coloniser, the antisemite or the whites that is as totalising as their stereotypes of the Jew, the native or the Blacks. The antisemite must be wholly antisemitic.49
The cycle of inversion is merely repeated, however, if those who express concern about the rise of a new antisemitism are themselves treated as a homogeneous category defined by their collective stigmatisation of others.
The spirit of critical theory
We have argued that the array of concepts Habermas put forward for the reconstruction of political community, both in Europe and worldwide – constitutional patriotism, postnationalism, civic ethos, human rights, cosmopolitanism, etc. – provides us with universalistic means of combating antisemitism, but that they have been re-deployed in ways that corrode their critical content from within. The process of learning from catastrophe Habermas looked to has been converted into the fixed idea that antisemitism belongs only to the past. The valid distinction between nationalism and postnationalism has been turned into a categorical opposition that stigmatises Jewish expressions of nationalism and represents Holocaust memory as culpably nationalistic. In place of a critical theory in which the legacy of European antisemitism is centre stage, we encounter resistance to the notion that antisemitism is any longer a problem for Europe or that a new antisemitism can possibly arise. In place of combating antisemitism, we find suspicion of the motives of those who believe that it has arisen anew and ought to be combatted.
Stripping postnationalism of its critical content has not been the work of Habermas himself. If the project is to be blamed, it is only for the cracks in the postnational architectonic that have enabled others to reconfigure the Jewish question under a progressive, universalistic mantel. What we can say is that the reconfiguration of the Jewish question raises issues that Habermas has understandably not kept his eye on. Perhaps this explains his ‘fright’ when he was personally confronted with concerns about a new antisemitism coming not from the right but from the left. He recommended for publication a book by a Marxist philosopher who drew certain conclusions about the conflict in Israel-Palestine that Habermas did not share: notably in his failure to ‘distinguish political evaluation of Palestinian terrorism from the moral justification of it’.50 Habermas wrote that the author had made generalising statements that made him ‘groan slightly’, statements like the following: ‘Having been the principal victims of racism in history, Jews now seem to have learned from their abusers’.51 In response to a letter charging the book with antisemitism Habermas wrote that he did not agree: ‘Sentences like this can always be used for antisemitic purposes, even against the author's intention, if they are taken out of context’. At the same time he qualified his own disagreement thus: ‘I can well understand the reasons and fears of an apparently large section of our Jewish population. […] If I have offended these feelings by my recommendation of this book, I am sorry’.52 Whether or not we agree with Habermas' judgment in this case, the spirit of his engagement with the legacy of European antisemitism contrasts markedly with the purported radicalism of those who also claim to oppose antisemitism but whose universalism is actually deployed to bring the Jewish question back in.