Questions about Ashkenaz & Gender


Responding to colleague-friend-comrades calling for more serious look at East European Jewish history and culture, and with my own stakes in religion, here is another thought about what I’d like to call Ashkenaz. I’m also responding to colleague-friend-comrades Laura Levitt and Mara Benjamin, and also Naomi Seidman who weighed in with a critical take regarding the total absence of women’s voices at FB re: posts that I’ve been sharing there; and also, by way of deep implication, the absence of women in the Jewish (religious) thought canon of Ashkenaz.

What place is there for women in the interwoven thought-worlds of Maharal or Luzzato or Hasidism or the faith of the Mitnagdim, or Musar? Do they even exist there? Even as negative foils? Even a cursory re-reading of Paula Hyman’s Gender and Assimilation in Modern Jewish History would remind us, this was the traditional social milieu and religious ambiance against which young women rebelled. To spoof a movie title, maybe it’s the case that Ashkenaz is no country for Jewish Jewish Women; or another movie title: Get Out.

For intellectual historians, Ashkenaz is undoubtedly a must look at site of modern Jewish counter- or anti-modernity. But as a constructive spiritual or philosophical project it cannot be forgotten, especially by the people who want to promote its virtues, that this is the social and thought world that, for most of us, our grandmothers and grandfathers fled –when they came to America and Israel and already in the big city centers of Ukraine and Poland between the wars and before the Holocaust.

A women’s place in Ashkenaz is not by any means an impossibility when one considers how Jewish women have taken to Talmud over the last two decades, out in the real world and in the academy. It could be that there is in Talmud material with which to work. I will leave it to the experts to show if there is any such material in Ashkenaz. Or is it the case that Ashkenaz is in some way a uniquely closed site? The burden of proof is on them.

A quick thought about how gender might affect how we look at the thought world of Ashkenaz. The great intellectual leaders of Ashkenaz represent an intellectual avant-garde. Messianism has a little to a lot to do with this posture. About the avant-garde and messianism in relation to gender, I wrote something (caustic) which you can find here concerning the maintenance art project of feminist artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles about messianism and avant-gardism in general.

[[photograph by Alter Kacyzne, Unemployed seamstress at her sewing machine, Bialystok, Poland, 1926]]

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An Open Question Re: Eastern Europe and Contemporary Jewish Thought and Philosophy (Ashkenaz)


Looking for help from modern Jewish Studies and Jewish philosophy and thought people: I’m trying to think thru challenges posted by Eliyahu Stern and Shaul Magid that we need to take into account the thought-worlds of East European Jews into our theoretical frames and thinking. That’s well and good as intellectual history. But in terms of religion, what are we supposed to find there that [1] is not politically repulsive, [2] makes constructive philosophical sense for Jews who live outside the narrow social frame of haredi communities, [3] doesn’t fill one with sadness, even despair? German Jewish philosophy was able work in and out of the Sephardic tradition. What about Ashkenaz? So far I have imagination and picture-thinking, but that won’t be much of surprise for people who know me or the blog. This blogpost on Luzzato and “anthroposophy” was something by way of a first stab.

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Judaism, Gender, Secularism, and Religion (Cornell University)


Kudos to Cara Rock Singer for organizing Gendering and Embodying the Jew: Judaism, Secularism, and the Politics of Difference, a workshop held yesterday at Cornell. Alongside the intensive look at gender, most interesting for me is the way religion was woven into the discussion about “the secular,” and the openness around Jewishness.

Here is the statement, below which you’ll find the presenters and their paper-titles:

Jewish difference has been an essential feature of modern political discourse, at the center of debates about European emancipation, Zionism and nationalism, and acculturation and assimilation. European emancipation and American acculturation were predicated on the assumption that Jewish difference was redeemable because it was abstractable enough for citizenship in secular states. Meanwhile, anti-Semitic discourses have targeted “the Jew” as the epitome of abstract and unproductive financial labor. In these formulations, the subject is always implicitly a male figure. By contrast, both Jewish and non-Jewish discourses often cast Jewish women and Mizrachi/Sephardi Jews as material, emphasizing elements of embodiment, sexuality, and reproductive labor while rendering them invisible as political subjects.

This one-day workshop will explore the gendered Jew as a religious and secular subject. Bringing together scholars working at the intersections of Judaism, secularism, and gender and sexuality in American, European, and Middle Eastern contexts, it will probe how the consideration of sexual, bodily, and racial difference refigure “the Jew.” What might the study of the gendered, embodied, and raced Jew, in turn, reveal about the social, political, and religious hierarchies and structures of power within Jewish communities, and within Jewish Studies? Finally, what might the study of the gendered Jew, in conversation with scholarship on the Muslim other, contribute to debates about the normative structures of post-Protestant secularism?

Cornell Jewish Studies Workshop

“Gendering and Embodying the Jew:

Judaism, Secularism, and the Politics of Difference”

March 17, 2019

9:00 am                        Coffee and Tea at A.D. White House

9:30 am                        Opening remarks by Janet Jakobsen

9:45 am                        Daniel Boyarin, “What is the Jews? Towards an Older Future”

10:35 am                      Cynthia Baker, “Centering Differences”

11:25 am – 11:40 am      Coffee Break

11:40 am                      Sarah Imhoff, “Secularism and Jewish Women Zionists”

12:30 – 1:30 pm            Lunch at A.D. White House

1:30 pm                        Cara Rock-Singer, “The Negative Genealogical Spaces”

2:20 pm                        Laura Levitt, “Is this God’s Country?”

3:10 – 3:30 pm              Coffee Break

3:30 pm                        Vincent Lloyd, “Alice Walker as a Jewish Writer”

4:20 – 6:00 pm             Closing Remarks and Discussion led by Janet Jakobsen

As for my own takeaway, I’d share these thoughts as they reflect my own particular interests. The question about and as to “religion” as a contested category was raised most critically by Daniel Boyarin, who rejects the term as a Christian construct that does not speak to “Jewish doings” and Jewish group identity. But religion appeared throughout the morning and afternoon, popping up here and there, often unannounced, and then it resurfaced in the concluding discussion arranged and led by Janet Jakobsen. There was the question, asked by one person at the table (not me), with a certain frustration perhaps. What is is religion? Is it social form? That which we value? There was some hemming and hawing along the lines of Emile Durkheim and Kathryn Lofton. The idea that religion was something like football seems to have been rejected. But even Daniel Boyarin came sort of around to religion in a round-about way.

At one point, a guest at the table noted that the missing term was “the gods” and mentioned EB Tylor and the notion that religion “is” encounter with “spiritual beings,” in part if not in whole, in one way or another, and very specific to different cultural contexts. It was noted that this turn to “religion” reflected a certain narrowing in the discussion. And yet, to this guest, “spiritual beings” and other spectral presences were most manifest in the papers presented by Rock-Singer and Laura Levitt relating to loss, mikveh, trauma, and memory traces, not to mention the ghostly and antique feel of a turn of the last century mansion in Central New York on top of a hill overlooking a lake in late winter light.

Please understand that I am misrepresenting the work of the group by simplifying the discussion around the figure of religion, By right, the discussions were more wide-ranging. If religion was included in that range, it was not in terms of a vertical or hegemonic axis of attention and value, but situated, as I think is true of Jewish culture and Jewish Studies in so much of their expression, along a horizontal axis. On a horizontal access, the religion of spiritual beings is one thing next to other things, sometimes a thing that crops out and sometimes some thing obscured, certainly not as the essence of Judaism.

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Anti-Zionism & Anti-Semitism & Jewish Power

israel racst endeavor

Apologies for this long, unpleasant post and the reactive content. Some of the material began to gestate last summer. Rather than string them out over a number of days as individual blogposts, I have composited a set of smaller single posts into the longer super-post. It runs the equivalent of 10 pp. on Word with a 14 pt. font.  The attention given to the relations tagged in this post does not mean that the author believes that most of the serious problems facing the Jews and Jewish society today are not in the greatest part self-inflicted. These problems have nothing to do with either anti-Zionism or anti-Semitism, and that the won freedom vis-à-vis anti-Semitism enjoyed by Jews today has everything to do with political power and social capital.

For the purpose here, anti-Zionism will simply stand for opposition to Zionism. By Zionism is meant an idea and the putting into practice of the idea. That idea is that the Jews are a people with a legitimate right to have created a political home in a place of their own, historically in Palestine or a part of Palestine, and today in the borders of the State of Israel. Part of a modern political project, theoretically and practically, that right (posited, fought for, secured, and subject to critique) has been considered to be dependent upon international recognition, the democratic character of that polity, and is limited in relation to Palestinian rights. Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the settlements there are outside the international consensus.

For its part, anti-Semitism is formed out of many compacted things, more or less active and more or less subliminal. These include [1] eruptive acts of violence directed against Jews and Jewish symbols as such, [2] contempt for real and perceived Jewish things (people, culture, religion), [3] the programmatic subordination (supersession) of Jewish interests from real and putatively superior positions (cultural, economic, moral, political, social, religious), [4] the contribution to Jewish invisibility in general, including the denial of anti-Semitism, and [5] actual or implied attribution of nefarious qualities to Jews and Jewish things that exist only, primarily, largely, or mostly in the imagination of the anti-Semite.

Ignored in discussions about these two things (anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism), is a third thing: real and imagined Jewish power. About them one can make this group of tentative claims. [1] While anti-Semitism and Zionism, historically, were tied at the hip, anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism constitute two distinct “things” that over time have become difficult to separate. [2] This dynamic owes itself to structures, not persons, insofar as discourse in general operates outside the bounds of good and bad intentions. As a Jewish thing, the State of Israel and its founding ideology are the subject of many of the same characteristics attributed to Jews. Whether one is or is not an anti-Semite, one can “be” anti-Semitic without intending to do so or knowing that one is doing so. [3] Subject to legitimate critique, power is the pivot between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. How much power does one attribute to Jewish biological, social and/or political bodies and under what circumstances? Anti-Semitic is the attribution of insidious omnipotence and other hypnotic powers to Jews and to real and perceived Jewish things, including the State of Israel.

Summer 2018

Summer 2018 was a clarifying moment, what with the simultaneous passage of the Jewish Nation State Law in Israel, widely panned as racist, and the ongoing anti-Semitism/anti-Zionism outbreak in the British Labour Party. For the purpose of this blogpost, I will not try to convince critics either to my right about the Jewish Nation State Law in Israel or on the left about the anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. Not every criticism of Israel or criticism of Zionism is anti-Semitic, as the right wants to have it; neither is violent resistance to the State of Israel and Israeli state-actors, at least not necessarily. But, while anti-Zionism may not “be” anti-Semitism, it consistently offers itself to anti-Semitism, a contention resisted bitterly by the anti-Zionist left. The distinction between a thoughtful, political anti-Zionism and explicit and subliminal anti-Semitism hangs on the balance between criticism based on evidence, on the one hand, and antipathy and fantasy, on the other hand. So if being anti-Zionist and anti-Israel is not ipso facto anti-Semitic, they lend themselves to the antipathy and fantasy that are at the root of anti-Semitism as an affective structure.

Not every criticism of Israel or criticism of Zionism is anti-Semitic. One only needs to consider manifestations such as the Jewish Nation State Law, Jewish supremacism and anti-Arab racism, the 1967 occupation and settlement of West Bank lands, an electoral democracy that flouts liberal principles of minority rights, inclusion, and equality. Criticism is critique about power and, most importantly, the conditions and limits of power, in this case, both internally as matters of intra Jewish politics, and, externally, in relation to Palestine and Palestinian rights. Both cool and hot criticism invites conversation and contention.

Anti-Zionism slips into anti-Semitism with such frequency that one has the right to posit a hypothetical relation.  By formal definition, anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism represent two distinct phenomenon. Anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism have different intentional objects, the State of Israel on the one hand, and Jews on the other hand. But the spectacle in the British Labour Party indicates how an anti-Zionist environment can turn into an anti-Semitic hothouse given what Israel has come to mean for Jews particularly after the Holocaust. About this dynamic there is more to say below. Unless one wants to deny that there is now under Corbyn an anti-Semitism problem in the Labour Party, then what seems to be the utter invariability with which anti-Zionism slips into anti-Semitism suggests a formal relation having to do with the relation between Zionism and Jewishness in the modern period. Statements like “Zionism is racism” and “Zionism is a racist endeavor” are conversation stoppers. Antipathetic and thoughtless, the people who make these kinds of judgment skirt a border with anti-Semitism insofar as they write off a central chapter in the modern Jewish experience. The judgment is passed as if there was no principle of sufficient reason at work in the emergence of Zionism as a cultural, political, and social movement leading up to the creation of the State of Israel and after, particularly in relation to anti-Semitism and other problems relating to Jewish life and minority status in majority gentile society.

Jewish anti-Zionism in the Diaspora is its own thing. It has historical roots that go back into the early twentieth century when the Zionist movement represented a tiny and marginal political and social avant-garde, and when the Jewish settlement in Palestine (the Yishuv) represented an isolated outpost under Ottoman and then British rule. But what to do after the establishment of the State with the political and social fact and force of some six and a half million Jews living today in Israel? Israeli Jews constitute half or more than half of the world Jewish body, and they comprise a demographic majority within internationally recognized borders; and “support” for Israel remains an amorphous consensus position in the American Jewish community, especially among the most active members of the community. There are also practical questions. Do young Jewish anti-Zionists really want to exclude “Zionists” from left politics? Do they want to join and legitimate efforts to exclude Hillel from campus events or to expel Hillel from campus as part of a pro-Palestinian anti-normalization plank? Are American Jews supposed to renounce Zionism? Can they be “forced” to do so? Do anti-Zionist Jews want to legitimate the kind of exclusion of other Jews by setting themselves up as the token Jews who count? Anti-Zionist Jews want to be good allies, but because of the perception of majority Jewish whiteness, one could argue that the Jews have no genuine allies on the left, where, at moments of collision between Jews and others, anti-Semitism is not regarded anymore as systemic. A parallel to the historical subordination of women’s rights and racial justice in the left or the subordination of race in the women’s movement, might that programmatic subordination of Jewish political interests not count as a an active or subliminal form of anti-Semitism?

Anti-Zionism, Anti-Semitism, Jewish Power

Anti-Zionism is not “essentially” or necessarily antisemitic. But structurally, the fact that anti-Zionist rhetoric so often slides into anti-Semitism suggests not only that the two are on adjacent planes, but that they are drawn up closely and stitched together along the edges. What has not been sufficiently theorized is the hinge or pivot that holds them together. Anti-Zionism is preoccupied to the point of obsession with the same thing as anti-Semitism, i.e. with the actual and notional exercise and existence of Jewish power.

Zionism in its historical development is the exercise of Jewish political power, inevitably the turn to state power to secure as a movement of self-determination the national and political interests, and the very survival of the Jewish people. Viewed broadly, power was something that fascinated Zionist ideology across the board and with few exceptions, in political Zionism and also cultural Zionism going back to the late 1890s and early 1900s. With all due respect to the thesis drawn by historian David Biale against the simplistic binary between Zionist power and Diaspora powerlessness, power was the crux of the matter for a vulnerable people living precarious lives at a particularly sustained moment of crisis from the 1880s through the 1930s and 1940s, and in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Systemic anti-Jewish violence and broad anti-Semitic prejudice in this historical period establish the principle of sufficient reason for the emergence of Zionism with which anti-Zionism has the most trouble coming to terms.

There is, of course, a principle of sufficient reason against Zionism, and it should go without saying that anti-Zionism on the left today, after 1967 and 1948, rejects not Jewish power as such. In this it is different from anti-Semitism. It reacts instead against Jewish state power in Israel, and the way the Palestinian people has borne and continues to bear its brunt. Anti-Zionism tracks what is already a long history pocked to the core by daily violence and moments of eruptive violence. But as an ideological formation, anti-Zionist rhetoric always heats up when real Israeli power is most manifest. A quick review of Palestinian nationalist documents will show that Israel was once looked upon as merely a local platform for Zionism, which is represented as a global phenomenon with a much larger economic and political reach. Zionist control of Palestine slips into wild claims regarding Israeli and Zionist influence over and control of the media, U.S. policy in the Middle East, banks, anti-black policing in the United States, and so on and so on.

The more and more Israel and Zionism become objects of overt hatred, the more anti-Zionism has already taken shape in increasingly bizarre form of anti-Jewish expression obsessed with imagined Jewish power. There are activists who replace swastikas for stars of David. One activist scholar once claimed that Zionists cost him an academic post at the American University in Beirut. A well-regarded theorist maintains that the Israeli state intentionally maims Palestinian people in the deliberate exercise of bio-power. With or without knowing, there are activists on the left who will have sometimes embraced anti-Semitic racists and Holocaust deniers. Then there are claims that a diffuse Zionist Lobby not just has influence but actually controls U.S. policy and owns the allegiance of American citizens and political representatives. An index to the severity of the phenomenon of anti-Semitism on the left is that some prominent activists might turn to Louis Farrakhan for inspiration, never minding what he says about Jews or members of the LGBT community, while David Duke might endorse statements made by activists on the left that “Zionist” money like AIPAC controls Congress.

(Disavowal) Anatomy of Left-Wing Anti-Semitism

With roots in the French Enlightenment, liberal and leftwing anti-Semitism in the west is a form of social contempt that pales before the violence of rightwing anti-Semitism. But since the liberal-left became over time the home inhabited by most American Jews, it is this form of anti-Semitism that draws a unique share of attention, particularly from liberal Jews. Liberal and leftist anti-Semitism is also more interesting than rightwing anti-Semitism because it is so convoluted and difficult to track. Not an active antipathy, anti-Semitism on the left is structured on disavowal.

Today, the disavowal involves [1] the polite or condescending assumption that Jews are white, that antisemitism has lost its social and political force, that it isn’t systemic. Unlike rightwing anti-Semitism which exaggerates Jewish difference, old school and contemporary anti-Semitism on the left suppress Jewish difference under universal categories of moral and political value, judgment, and belonging. Parochial Jewish interests are forced into the background before some more important class position or racial other. [2] Leftist anti-Semitism stands in opposition to anti-Semitism. Overt expressions of anti-Semitism are held at a distance, where they are safely put away, assuming that anti-racists do not engage in prejudice. [3] What then happens is that the attention of those on the anti-Zionist left snaps back and latches onto an object, onto figures of power like Israel or AIPAC, whose actual power the left fails to assess critically and about which it begins to imagine as lurid and nefarious in its power to control, dominate, hypnotize. It’s at this point that things get said on the left about Jewish power that cannot be distinguished from something that a neo-Nazi might say. [4] Then comes denial; these are the increasingly furious claims that there is no anti-Semitism on the left and that such expressions as do appear there are only marginal and, ultimately, unimportant. [5] This denial is followed by anger and abuse directed at Jews, especially liberal and leftist Jews who are not anti-Zionist for pointing this out. At this point, anti-Semitism on the left has nothing anymore to do with Israel and Zionism per se. Increasingly untethered, the phenomenon has become sublimated.

Like liberal racism and racism on the white left, anti-Semitism on the left is hidden deep into conscious and unconscious structures of feeling and thought. Unlike anti-black racism, which demeans its object and presumes the power of white supremacy, anti-Semitism on both the right and the left rests on assumptions made about Jews, Jewish power, and Jewish privilege. The idea, both true and false, that Jews can pass into majoritarian whiteness on the basis that most Jews in the United States are “white,” is one aspect to the larger problem regarding the paradoxical relation between Jewish invisibility and Jewish power. That a Jew can maybe pass, (and this is not always true) is the potential of Jewish invisibility. Jews can always disappear, into the social fabric. They don’t have to be so Jewish, and even if they choose to be so, they won’t be abused in and by the justice system, shopowners won’t hassle them, banks won’t refuse to loan to them, and so on. And the left will support them as long as they and their “oppression” comport to movement norms.

Viewed one way from the other side, the occultation of Jewish difference and Jewish power is the fear and panic lived, imagined, and expressed by Jews in the face of being, at once, made invisible and, at the same time, being made visible and exposed. A lot of Jews since the election of Trump in 2016 now weigh the real and imagined threat of being powerless in the face of re-emergent anti-Semitism as a threat in the public sphere. Will what has happened to Jews in the Labour Party in Britain happen here in the Democratic Party? Most probably and definitely not because America has been different for Jews. But liberal and progressive Jews might have to do so without allies on the radical left, which has turned more and more to anti-Zionism, and which seeks to subsume Jews into a general body under the condition of a litmus test regarding Zionism and Israel. Furious with Israel, Zionism, and the “Jewish establishment,” many Jews on the anti-Zionist left are willing to pay a price that is the flip side of rightwing anti-Semitism.

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Jewish Nation State of the Jewish People (Avi Katz)

avi katz

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Allies (Code Pink + Neturei Karta)


The question is whether one should expect more from the anti-Zionist left than one would from the Neturei Karta in terms of political and moral judgment. Only a universe composed of infinite possibilities can do justice to the alignment of Ariel Gold from the feminist activist group Code Pink joining up with representatives from the Neturei Karta, along with Miko Peled. No, this is post is not about American Muslims, but about Jews. This ad hoc group all showed up, at the same time,  and created a little media circus at the Congressional office of Rep. Rashida Tlaib. The Congresswoman has since clarified that they came unannounced, took the photo, and left. For her part, Rep. Ilhan Omar has apparently refused to meet with the Neturei Karta. And Codepink? Gold herself has since tried to walk the episode back. Over the top, this little demonstration was not about the occupation. When you hate something so much, this is what can happen. As a piece of political ephemera, what’s noteworthy is what can go wrong, the strange conjoining of contrary forces around a single inflection point, namely deep-seated wells of animus for the State of Israel.

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(2’s) Jews & Muslims & POC


This is the pattern:

More and more, Jews and Muslims and POC are going to be bound together at the hip in an incredibly complex and painful dynamic of twos.

[1] Prominent Muslim Americans and people of color say dodgy to anti-Semitic things about [2] Jews and/or about Israel.

This provokes [1] the expression of genuine anger from liberal and liberal-left Jews, and [2] racist backlash from the right.

Combined together, these create splits in liberal and liberal-left political communities down the middle between [1] the advocates of one community and [2] advocates of the other community.

This is the gift brought by [1] the anti-Zionist left and [2] rightwing support of rightwing and racist Israeli politics.

All of this has been volatized by the global spikes in [1] anti-Semitism and [2] Islamophobia.

There is no unexposed middle ground on which to hash out these differences.

It won’t stop until someone steps into the breach.

No one has that moral authority and political weight to carry that weight.

The rest of us left flailing [1] backwards and [2] forwards to no good end and with no end in sight.

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