On April 24 scholars and activists packed out a large room at Birkbeck for a one-day workshop titled ‘Racism, Antisemitism, Theory’. Organised by Dr Brendan McGeever, Dr Ben Gidley and Dr Aaron Winter, the workshop was generously supported by the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities and the Pears Institute for the study of Antisemitism. The event brought together ten speakers to explore the relationship between racism and antisemitism.
For the organisers, the rationale for holding such an event was clear: across Europe, the United States and other parts of the globe, we have witnessed a resurgence of racism and nationalism, including anti-migrant xenophobia, Islamophobia and antisemitism, as well as the mainstreaming of far right and even fascist discourses. Alongside the emboldening of colour-coded forms of racism and racialisation, older forms of antisemitism have returned to the political mainstream – openly in cases such as Hungary’s Jobbik or Greece’s Golden Dawn or just beneath the surface as in France’s Front National – while both traditional and unorthodox forms of white supremacy and antisemitic conspiracism now have a foot inside the White House.
If the task before us is to understand these racisms, old and new, then it is a task that has provided no shortage of challenges. One such discussion that has proved to be especially difficult to navigate is the relationship between racism and antisemitism. The controversies of the racism/antisemitism debate are to be found in many regions of the world, but they have been particularly keenly felt in the UK, where in the last year, the tangled and tense discussion on antisemitism in the Labour Party has continued to rumble on, often generating more heat than light.
What these and other such debates have revealed is that there are a real set of difficulties in thinking about racism and antisemitism together. At the level of the political, those who shout loudest about antisemitism sometimes have little to say about other forms of racism, and the reverse is equally true. Within the academy, scholars of racism and antisemitism are all too rarely in dialogue with one another. What we aimed to do in the workshop was to take a step back from politics towards theory. Or as Stuart Hall once put it, to take a ‘detour through theory’ as a way of renewing anti-racist scholarship.
The workshop addressed three key issues. First, we explored not just the limits but also the possibilities of bridging the conversations on racism and antisemitism. Second, we explored a range of theoretical traditions and their capacities for making sense of the racism/antisemitism relationship. Third, and perhaps most importantly, we identified some of the barriers within our existing theoretical frameworks that prevent a bringing together of these issues.
The day was split into three panels, with two papers and a discussant in each session.
In Panel 1, Professor Jack Jacobs and Dr Christine Achinger explored Critical Theory and the role it might play in helping us think through the relationship between racism and antisemitism. Jacobs offered a close reading of the writings of Frankfurt School theorists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, arguing that their insights into antisemitism also provide a resource for thinking about racism and other forms prejudice. Achinger drew on more recent developments in critical theory to explore the racism/antisemitism relationship.
In Panel 2, our attention turned to intersectionality and whiteness studies. In the opening paper, Professor Avtar Brah highlighted the way differential racialisations pose difficulties for anti-racist practice. In the second contribution, Professor Anoop Nayak argued for the need to think more critically about the liminal category of ‘white other’. Whiteness, he argued, is not homogenous, but multiple and mutable. Dr Gail Lewis, in her comments, reminded us of the dialogues between black and Jewish feminists in the 1970s. She also raised concern about the tendency to construct equivalences when racism and antisemitism are brought together.
In the final panel, Professor Satnam Virdee and Professor Bryan Cheyette examined whether postcolonialism might help us to think about racism and antisemitism in conjunction. In a paper that argued against ‘supersessionist’ thinking, Cheyette explored the difficulties that postcolonialism has in accounting for ‘Jewish experiences’, and similarly, the inabilities of Jewish studies to come to terms with colonial histories. In the final paper of the day, Satnam Virdee spoke of the important contributions postcolonialism has made to the study of racism, but also its difficulty in capturing the racialisation of the ‘European interior’. This, he said, is a consequence of a flattening of ‘the west’ such that other modalities of racism are elided, including antisemitism and anti-Irish racism.
Given the direction of travel in global politics, it seems that the issues raised in this workshop are unlikely to go away any time soon.