Critical Jewish Studies?

The first two areas I could say I had an actual scholarly interest in were Church/State law and Critical Race Theory. This wasn’t an accident — I got interest in CRT because the method of analysis it used really spoke to me as a Jew. It seemed to do a better job of capturing the various problems and barriers faced by members of marginalized groups beyond the standard, thin liberal story.

When I finally got access to Lexis as an undergraduate at Carleton, one of the first things I did was run a search for something approximating a “Critical Jewish Theory”. And I came up with … virtually nothing. With one very notable exception — Stephen Feldman at the University of Wyoming (I know, I know: Jewish studies in Wyoming — could it get any more cliched?) — it was a virtual dead-end. Even Professor Feldman’s work, which I admire and has influenced me greatly, focuses primarily on the American Church/State context. An important topic, to be sure, but hardly the only one which intersects with Jewish lives and areas of concern (international law, in particular, seems like a gimme).

This absence struck me as very strange. In general, the CRT movement has been pretty good about extending itself to a variety of different identities. Though the original works focused primarily on African-Americans (and really, African-American men), we now have Critical Race Feminism, LatCrit, Asian-American themed CRT, Queer Studies, and a host of others. The lack of an analogous school of discourse applied to the Jewish experience is not a function of disciplinary narrowness.

So what gives? I have some thoughts, but I don’t find any of them particularly satisfactory. The cheap answer is that CRT is a “left” movement and contemporary anti-Semitism is primarily a leftist project. I reject that for two reasons: first, because I don’t think right-wing anti-Semitism is as dormant as conservatives like to claim, and second, because the various crit movements have never really shied away from “friendly fire”. There have been some particular points of tension between CRT writers and the Jewish community — Mari Matsuda’s famous hate speech article in the Michigan Law Review strongly considered the possibility of labeling Zionism “hate speech”, one of Daniel Farber & Suzanna Sherry’s critiques of CRT was entitled Is the Radical Critique of Merit Anti-Semitic? (83 Calif. L. Rev. 853 (1995)) — but nothing severe enough to force a permanent fissure.

Possibly the best answer I have relies on the particular form in which anti-Semitism is often instantiated in the modern world. Most other -isms are predicated on inferiorizing their targets. This can be done contemptuously (as often is the case in racism), or clothed as paternalism (as often is sexism). Modern anti-Semitism, by contrast, does not treat Jews as incompetent or inferior at all. Much the opposite — it views them as hyper-powerful; a conspiratorial, parochial sect whose tentacles control the government, the media, and the banks, but whose loyalty lies only with themselves. There’s often a grudging respect to it, but the respect one gives to a particularly dangerous villain. It’s easy to see these tropes popping up again and again in “anti-Zionist” discourse worldwide, where accusations of dual loyalty are very much part of the discussion and standard Jewish interest-group lobbying is seen as uniquely nefarious and abusive. Still, the crits, focused on groups whose problem is that they don’t have enough voice or sway, are ill-equipped to talk about a group whose “problem” is that they are seen in the popular eye as being too influential. Couple this with the fact that Jews, as a group, are relatively well-off (though this flattens distinctions within Jewish subgroups) and it can be hard to see them as suffering from an “oppression” worth analyzing.

But obviously, economic wherewithal is not the alpha and omega of CRT-style analysis (after all, a considerable portion of the movement’s energy is dedicated to refuting the idea that “it’s not race, it’s class!”). And Jewish history in particular is replete with instances of Jews being placed in the role of the “buffer”, given a fair amount of influence but designed to be the targets of popular resentment. Simply taking at face value that Jews have it all and that prejudice against them has been relegated to sporadic acts of rabid hate by Klansmen is precisely the sort of quiescence that Crits tend to rebel against.

Indeed, the fact that the mechanics of anti-Semitism in particular are not adequately captured by contemporary stories of oppression is all the more reason why it desperately needs analysis akin to what CRT has provided in the context of race. And I do believe a similar approach has a lot to offer in the Jewish context. The allegedly pervasive presence of the “race card” is the old nemesis of anti-racist workers everywhere, but of late the “anti-Semitism card” has been an increasingly prominent method of dismissing claims by Jews of unfair treatment. The myth of the “Judeo-Christian” tradition (which, as a political trope, is invariably 100% Christian) acts to sublimate an independent Jewish political voice — while there are many Jews in politics, there are very few who speak “as Jews”, particularly when doing so would seriously challenge dominant conceptions of the Jewish role or place. It is highly notable, in my view, that “Judeo-Christian morality” is seen as a deeply conservative normative commitment, despite Jews being among the most socially liberal denominations in America today. That Christians politicians have appropriated Jewish experience in ways foreign to the actual Jewish political and theological tradition is an example of the boundaries on the “love” they have for us; that Jews have been unable to effectively resist is an example of our marked political limitations. And while Israel certainly has its fair share of sins, the massively disproportionate vitriol and condemnation directed its way (indeed, directed to the very concept of it existing) by international legal actors clearly implicates anti-Semitic norms (and the fact that I, an early supporter of J Street and a strong critic of the Netanyahu administration, feel compelled to verify that “yes, I can tolerate criticisms of Israel without labeling them anti-Semitic” is itself symptomatic of a discourse gone badly awry).

It’s not the case that nobody has done any writing on these topics. In addition to Feldman, Albert Memmi’s The Liberation of the Jew would have to be considered a foundational text in any “CJT” movement, and David Hirsh has recently written a stellar paper entitled Anti-Zionism and Antisemitism: Cosmopolitan Reflections (Hirsh also writes often for the Engage blog, which is essential reading for anyone interested in this subject). But there’s a lot more to be done, and I still find it odd that the disciplinary gap has persisted for this long.

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7 Responses

  1. A.J. Sutter says:

    Why should a “Critical Jewish Studies” be reduced to a focus on anti-semitism? You talk of a “school of discourse applied to the Jewish experience” analogous to Critical Race Feminism, etc., but your approach in the post (and from what I could see, that of the Engage blog as well) is unduly reductionist. While antisemitism hasn’t been entirely absent from my own experience, b”H it’s certainly not been central to it. Might the excessive narrowness of your proposed field explain in part why you don’t find it constituted as a living acronym?

  2. Lawrence Cunningham says:

    Suzanne Stone?

  3. Mark Fenster says:

    For roots and a base, you might also look to Jewish Studies, one of the largest growing identity studies fields in the humanities (if anything could be said to be growing in the current economic climate — which is to say, it’s at least standing still, especially in terms of named/ endowed programs and chairs). Jonathan Boyarin (currently in Jewish Studies at UNC) has a JD from Yale, and published both a note (on Kiryas Joel) and an article in the Yale J. Law & Humanities. His is in no way the kind of prescriptive, functionalist work you seem to prefer (as AJ Sutter noted in comment 1 above); rather, it’s steeped in critical theory (as the original CLS were and some of those in CRT were and are), and suggests that there’s at least a makings of a diverse CJT. The fact that Boyarin went back to Jewish Studies rather than enter the legal academy may be telling, though, at least for the kind of work he does. But why must “CJT” be located solely in law?

  4. Kirsten says:

    About your primary hypothesis (that the absence of CJS might be explained by the fact that anti-Semitism often manifests as a trope about excessive influence): Maybe this is descriptively correct. But it seems like this ‘reason’ should fail as soon as you’ve articulated it this clearly.

    Not all of the groups accepted in the family of Crit studies that you describe fit the “inferiorized” category. For example, LGBT folks have often been cast in the “dangerous, controlling cabal” category. Possibly this is changing over time (perhaps, the media emphasis more recently has been on, say, the isolated rural suicidal teen rather than the law-school-controlling gay clique of the Romer dissent) but I think the “superiorized” cabal trope is still out there for at least gay men. And, if a group does change from one category of prejudice to another, then I think this is worth pondering.

    More generally, on the notion of a bigotry that expresses itself as a fight against the too-powerful, I think of Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s book The Anatomy of Prejudices. It’s probably been twelve years since I had my hands on it, but on my memory, she does an excellent job articulating these different modalities of prejudice (whether or not one is much interested in her psychoanalytical approach more generally). I believe she puts the “superiorizing” form of both anti-Semitism and homophobia in her “obsessional” category.

    None of this is meant to suggest that there isn’t an important specificity to the varieties of anti-Semitism. I think it is really valuable to have critical scholarship that zeroes in on one group’s experience (just as we also want scholarly ‘moments’ in which we look at interconnections and similarities).

  5. David Schraub says:

    Stone was just an oversight on my part. And I certainly don’t think a CJT has to be limited to law schools (indeed, of the three names I mentioned, only Feldman is in law. Memmi is a philosopher by training, and Hirsh is a sociologist). Extending outward, there are lots of other people doing interesting work (Sander Gilman and Eric Goldstein are two names that spring immediately to mind). And then there are people who are doing critical analysis aimed at internal reforms to Jewish practice (like the Jewish feminist movement), and those who use an identifiably Jewish perspective to reflect on broader social problems (like Robert Cover).

    So it’s not a desert. But Mark is right that I tend to prefer prescriptivism, and there in particular I think there’s a lack (Cover is prescriptivist, but again he’s less about prescribing what he thinks Jews need in order to obtain equality than using Jewish sources and perspectives in order to cast light on issues of more universal concern).

  6. Interested Observer says:

    The New York Review of Books frequently publishes provocative pieces that could arguably pass for CJS. I do not find the pieces to be anti-Semitic (anti-Zionist, for sure, but that is quite different).

  7. David Schraub says:

    In general, I think anti-Zionist Jewish discourse is a closer cousin to modern conservative Black political thought (a Clarence Thomas or Shelby Steele), in that it (a) represents a minority position within the community (b) on an issue that the majority of the community thinks very important to their identity and well-being.

    That doesn’t make it illegitimate — minorities-within-minorities have every right to try and press for their preferred vision of what the community should do. But I don’t think it is analogous to what CRT is doing, which isn’t seen as and doesn’t cast itself as a dissenting voice within its own community.