November 9, 1938, anti-Jewish demonstrations broke out across Germany, Austria, and the Sudetenland region of then-Czechoslovakia. Over the next 48 hours, about 7,500 Jewish-owned businesses, homes and schools were destroyed. Ninety-one Jews were murdered, with another 30,000 Jewish men arrested and sent to concentration camps. The Jews were officially blamed for their own victimization and German Jews were fined one billion reichsmarks (today that would be worth over $7 billion) for the riot that rose up against them.
Kristallnacht (“The Night of Broken Glass”), the night when anti-Jewish rhetoric turned into state-sanctioned action that would culminate with the Holocaust, was over eighty years ago, yet Jews all over the world are still living with the reality – and the increasing prevalence – of violence against them for the sole reason of who they are.
The United States is unique in the world for recognizing the moral responsibility to respond to the rise in antisemitism. Yet President Joe Biden’s nominee to The Office of the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt, has still not gotten her confirmation hearing. The reason: political rancor over determining the country’s self-proclaimed identity.
The “Jewish question” was first asked in the 19th and 20th centuries as countries began debating what defined them as nations, and it is still the question that undergirds national identity. What to do about the Jew in society is just another way a society asks, “How do we define ourselves?” It is the leitmotif of the modern world’s life story.
The Jewish question always demands a reason for the Jew – since a Jew’s very being says something about everyone else. The very begging of the Jewish question reveals the structural antisemitism that pervades western society.
While antisemitism is obvious in the nationalist cries of white supremacy, it also bears itself in many social and political arguments, on both the Right and the Left. I am a philosopher and an ethicist, so I will bring a few examples only within modern philosophy of those thinkers who still shape social and political discourse. Scholars in other fields can dig up their own examples. They wouldn’t even have to dig that deep.
THE ANTISEMITIC remarks that modern philosophers have scattered through their writing are not offhand. They serve the purpose of clarifying their arguments and give practical example to the philosopher’s point. Martin Heidegger is not the exception – he was just the most self-aware.
Immanuel Kant, the philosopher who defined the Enlightenment, was systematic and comprehensive. He was not one to add a side comment that did not fit into his overall philosophy. So his comments about how Jews were immutably inferior to Christians were not just random instances of misspeaking. They were meant to paint a picture of contradistinction. Jews are “heteronomous,” never able to be truly free since they cannot exercise their will according to reason. In other words, he was telling his readers, “Don’t be like them. Rather, be autonomous, rational Christians.”
Kant’s relationship with Moses Mendelssohn should have proven his theory wrong. Mendelssohn and Kant were colleagues and Kant held his philosophical writings in high regard. Mendelssohn’s essay “On Evidence in Metaphysical Sciences” won first prize in a contest both he and Kant entered. Immanuel Kant’s essay came in second place.
Kant is not alone in his using the Jew to draw a contrast – using the Jewish question is a way to speak of self-identity. In order to defend his critique of liberalism, Karl Marx explained that “the Christians have become Jews” by adopting lives of practical need and self-interest. Marx’s answer was to push for the emancipation of humankind from Judaism. As someone born Jewish, was Marx self-hating or just writing ironically? At this point, it doesn’t really matter. After he wrote his essay, “On the Jewish Question,” any future Marxist economic vision caricatured Jews and Judaism, and any Marxist utopia would have to come through a revolution against Jews.
The most revealing study of the Jewish question – because it so honestly shows the structural nature of antisemitism’s relationship with national identity – is Jean-Paul Sartre’s study of the origins of hate. His analysis, as is the modern fashion, starts with the Jew. Sartre argues that hating the Jew is the way in which citizens affirm themselves. The only true statement Sartre makes in relation to Jews in his Réflexions sur la question juive is, “If the Jew did not exist, the antisemite would invent him.”
Eighty plus years after The Night of Broken Glass, as Biden’s nominee cannot get her confirmation hearing, it is time we recognize how the Jewish question and the question of national identity are tied together in mutually destructive ways. It is possible for a country to determine what it wants to be without also asking how Jews can fit into that picture.
As a Jew in America, I see no reason to entertain the question of what society should do with me. I also refuse to allow others to classify me as part of a race, ethnicity, religion, or nation. These categories create distinctions that force themselves upon Jews rather than seek to understand or know any individual Jews. This holds especially when their purpose is not for my sake but rather for society’s self-definition. Most importantly, I refuse to accept that the question of my existence as a Jew must be contingent on what I (or my people) have done for or to the world.
I am more than my Jewish genes or Jewish blood, though Jewish blood courses through my veins. I am much more than my history, though the past of my people lives with me every day. Antisemitism will not define me, and it should not be part of the country’s political struggle over its own identity.
There is no question of my being Jewish. In the words of the Biblical patriarchs and prophets – Behold, here I am!
The writer is director of the MirYam Institute Center For International Ethics & Leadership at Emory University, a publishing contributor at The Miryam Institute, and head of the Unit of the International Chair in Bioethics at Emory University.