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What Is the Meaning of “Anti”? by Christoph Menke

Titled “Anti-Anti-Semitism,” the September issue of Texte zur Kunst contains numerous assertions and assessments that are eminently contentious and have provoked vehement opposition. So what? When assessments are contentious, we argue over them. Such contention can turn fierce, and there is no reason to expect that we will agree. But if all goes well, clear front lines emerge.

In this instance, however, things are not so simple: this journal issue and the responses to it illustrate that it is not just individual pro or contra assessments that are at stake. Rather, it is the possibility of contention as such – intellectual, theoretical, moral, political, etc. – that is in dispute. Evidently, this is especially true of particular subjects: when it comes to the colonial past, gender-neutral language, and racism, the question is also whether and over what we can engage in contention at all and to what and how we must react in other ways: by ostracizing, canceling, delegitimizing, boycotting. The question of “What can we argue over and what must we boycott?” shadows the entire debate. It is the question that stands at the center of this issue on “Anti-Anti-Semitism” issue. But does this publication raise and address it? Before or beyond all particular substantial assessments that are contentious in this issue, it is haunted by a methodological problem. Which is to say, a problem of angle and approach. The problem is that it remains uncertain what “anti-anti-Semitism” means. What is the meaning of “anti”?

“Anti” means against. The publication’s title proclaims an antagonism, a stance against (anti-Semitism). For someone to take a stance against something, there must be another stance, taken by others. This basic observation already suggests the problem: when it comes to anti-Semitism, we cannot take this or that stance. There is only one stance on anti-Semitism. There is anti-anti-Semitism, but there is no pro-anti-Semitism. Anti-anti-Semitism is a stance without an opposite position, an anti without a pro.

But are there not anti-Semites? Are there not some who aggressively take an anti-Semitic position? Needless to say, there are; but they are not the focus of this journal issue. It is not a damning review of Chamberlain, Gobineau, Treitschke, and their historical heirs and revenants. None of the positions that the issue’s “anti” takes aim at is pro-anti-Semitic in the sense that the aforementioned were or are. Nor do the contributions to the issue assert as much. They do not assert that Badiou, Barghouti, Butler, Mbembe, etc. are pro-anti-Semites. To do so would be flatly absurd. But if the positions discussed in the issue are not pro-anti-Semitic, what is the title’s anti-anti-Semitism opposed to? And how do the contributors practice and define their opposition? It is difficult to say, and the more difficult the longer one reads through the issue. And that lack of clarity is not harmless; there is no point in pleading that the objective is not to provide a “scholarly” analysis (but to take a stance?): such unclarity not only clouds the insights presented, it compromises the issue’s ethical and political substance.

If the positions the September issue of Texte zur Kunst objects to are not pro-anti-Semitic, then being anti-anti-Semitic must mean and require something more than resolutely and courageously – at long last! – confronting anti-Semitic propaganda, agitation, and violence. The Bundestag flattered itself that it was showing such resolve by passing its resolution condemning BDS without first asking the question: How does the German parliament know that those who seek a boycott of institutions and individuals in Israel in the name of anti-racism are, in truth, anti-Semites? That is the question several contributors to the issue examine. They accordingly define their opposition in different terms: it is an opposition not primarily or most importantly to anti-Semitism – that goes without saying – but to the ways in which it is camouflaged and disguised, its existence denied and repressed. It follows, they argue, that to be anti-anti-Semitic it is not enough to oppose anti-Semitism; one must ferret it out, identify and pinpoint it, make it explicit, name names, etc. In other words, exposure, detective work, and interpretive acuity are required – a critical hermeneutic that uncovers what lies buried beneath the surface.

Yet how does this critical hermeneutic that proposes to expose anti-Semitism operate? It is a question that many of the essays shed little light on. How, for instance, does the demonstration that those who wish to boycott Israel are in truth anti-Semites proceed? Is it a matter of the motives behind their pursuit? But how do I know about those motives? Is it a matter of their boycott’s resemblance to the boycott of Jewish stores and institutions in Nazi Germany? But are all boycotts alike (remember South Africa)? Is it because certain supporters of BDS’s boycott policy do not draw a structural distinction between racism and anti-Semitism? But why should such indiscrimination be in and of itself anti-Semitic? Is it because the boycott of Israel that is being criticized shows affinities with other positions that make similar claims and that are (more) manifestly anti-Semitic? But is there such a thing as guilt by association? Is it because of the consequences of the boycott being called for, which is to say, because it is apt to aid and abet anti-Semitism? But who is to be held responsible for those consequences? The issue leaves these questions largely unanswered.

That is due, first and foremost, to a structural problem. Time and again, the two meanings of “anti” (-anti-Semitism) are at cross-purposes in the issue: the fight against anti-Semitism as an immoral position and the effort to expose it as a covert motive. Or is it that the very idea of a critical hermeneutic uncovering latent anti-Semitism is a self-contradictory endeavor? It is true that the stances of hermeneutics and critique are defined by implicit claims to authority and strategies of power, a fact that we have discussed in all its facets for the past several decades. Yet however deeply power differentials are engrained in these stances, they still address themselves to their object in such a way that they speak not just about it but to it. Hermeneutics and critique, ultimately, aim to gain the other side’s assent. Without this aspiration they would lose their footing.

Yet if that is the case, there cannot be a critical hermeneutic that exposes the other’s position to in truth be anti-Semitic. For anti-Semitism is evil in thought and feeling – as torture is evil in action. “Evil” does not mean the only evil. Anti-Semitism is evil in thought and feeling, just as racism is. And “evil” also does not mean the greatest evil (whatever one might suppose that to be), it means unconditional evil. For there is no condition under which anti-Semitism and racism and torture are not evil (in contrast with hatred and contempt and even the killing or injury of another, which, under certain conditions, are not evil). It follows that to say something is anti-Semitic is in itself enough to unconditionally condemn it.

That is the crux: it is impossible to be anti-anti-Semitic in both senses at once. Either the critic undertakes a critical hermeneutic of exposure – then she abides in the same discursive space as the other position. Or she identifies a position as anti-Semitic – then she fights it as unconditionally evil. The weakness or, if you will, the contradiction at the heart of “anti-anti-Semitism” is that it wishes to open the debate and by the same token must close it. And that blunts both prongs: the effort to fight anti-Semitism is hobbled and half-retracted (just offering a critique!) while the critical hermeneutic turns out imprecise and prejudiced (fighting it, not trying to understand it!).

Here and there in the issue, reflections are sketched out (I spotted them in the conversation with Delphine Horvilleur and the essay by Noit Banai and Sabeth Buchmann in particular) that can point a way out of this dilemma. They do so by practicing a mode of inquiry into anti-Semitism that functions differently. They conceive of it not as a conviction, a feeling, a stance, or a set of objectives that can be attributed to individuals as a more or less conscious mindset. Instead, they inquire into how anti-Semitism informs discourses, representations, images, institutions, etc.; how it weaves in and out of view in these fields, how it ramifies, allies itself with other complexes, and resurfaces under new names. In short, they define it as a constellation, and thereby they may well be much better positioned to comprehend its mainsprings, its structures, its persistency and, yes, ubiquity than those who try to detect it in the hidden and elusive inner minds of agents. It is a shift of perspective that lets us see much more clearly. But it does not ipso facto engage us in the fight against anti-Semitism. It is precisely by pointing out how we can better understand anti-Semitism – indeed, how we can begin to understand it in the first place – that these contributions bring the question into focus that the practitioners of critical hermeneutics never need to face because they always already claim to accomplish both at once: the question of how understanding and fighting relate to each other.

Christoph Menke is Professor of Philosophy at Goethe-University Frankfurt am Main.