The fight against antisemitism: Avoiding a few common traps

Sophie Heine

In this brief article, I would like to outline a few reflections on how to make the fight against antisemetism more audible. Similarly, to many fights against injustices, this battle is a hard and painful one that can only be won if it is heard, supported and understood by the majority of the population. For that purpose, it might be useful to tackle a few limitations characterising the discourse of those who militate against the scourge of the hatred against the Jews.

Avoiding Dogmatism

First, it is necessary to avoid all dogmatism. Far from being a typical feature of antisemitic discourse, dogmatism can also imbue those who abhor it. This is for instance the case when militants imply, in a defensive way, that all criticism against Israel is necessarily antisemitic. Certainly, considering that Israel, as a state, needs to be eliminated because it would be inherently colonial, racist or evil, is antisemitic; particularly when it is asserted that this supposedly evil character is due to its Jewish nature. However, questioning some of the Israeli policies and institutions should not be labelled as necessarily antisemitic.

A similar dogmatic danger happens when certain categories, considered as more prone to antisemitism than others, are perceived as holistic communities deprived of internal divisions. Instead of endorsing unquestioned assumptions, it is essential to approach reality with a liberal, nuanced and critical mind. This means looking at the divisions characterising social groups, including so-called ‘communities’.

In order to avoid falling in any forms of dogmatism, some useful tools can be borrowed from academia: rigour, referencing, the comparison of contradictory sources, logical reasoning, a combination of deductive and inductive approaches, constantly testing subjective postulates and assumptions, highlighting one’s own subjective beliefs, admitting that they can influence our research and using the adequate methodological tools to protect ourselves against such biases1.

Positive message and Alliances

Secondly, it is indispensable to complement the fight against antisemitism with a constructive and propositional message. Indeed, only projects that combine a deconstruction of injustices and a set of alternatives are likely to convince broadly. Purely negative messages usually do not go very far. They need to be complemented by a positive discourse on what should be done to improve society. This is, in many ways, a much harder enterprise than a purely critical approach: in order to build an alternative message to antisemitism, one needs a project
about what a just society would look like. This inevitably leads to broader questions on equality, freedom, identity, democracy, sovereignty and so many more key concepts in the debate on justice.

Thirdly, elaborating an alternative discourse also means asking the question of alliances with other oppressed groups: does it make sense to focus exclusively on the fight against anti-Semitism or should one not also embrace struggles against all forms of discriminations? This means that militants against anti-Semitism should establish a more dynamic dialogue with those who denounce other forms of racism and gender domination, among other things. This could also help avoid some of the dogmatic traps mentioned above by contributing to more nuanced discourses. Building such alliances would be both strategically useful and normatively desirable.

Away from communitarian biases

Fourthly, it is vital to highlight how the irreducible diversity among Jewish people contradicts the communitarianism pervading this debate. In other words: not all Jews share the same ideological, axiological and normative beliefs; they do not share the same interests either.

Postulating that there is or should be a general unity within the Jewish community on
interests, norms, values, ideologies and identity comes down to falling into the communitarian trap often denounced in the adversaries’ discourse. Communitarianism indeed supposes that there is or should be a community of beliefs, interests, values and norms among those who allegedly share the same identity2.

It can go further and become political when it also assumes that political legitimacy has to rely on this common identity. Those who believe that Israel’s main legitimacy derives from a particular Jewish identity adopt this communitarian approach. Even when this identity is accepted as plural, open and democratic, supposing that it is the main ground for legitimate institutions is a sign of political communitarianism.

Of course, when a “community” has suffered from oppression or discrimination, this position is often understandable. It does not mean that this is the most effective way of reacting against potential new discriminations. Instead, it carries the risk of creating a mutually reinforcing dynamic of identity politics.

It would be much more fruitful to open up the debate to other important topics, related to values, interests, norms and beliefs; although the result might be surprising and the new alliances created unsettling, it might be worth trying. In that endeavour, one needs to stress the role played by selfish motives in mobilisations along more selfless drives3.

At the end of the day, communitarianism is harmful not only when racist people defend it. It can also be harmful when it imbues the discourse carried by victims. More precisely, it tends to create an “us versus them” opposition in which the “us” is valued over others and in which the ‘them’ or the ‘others’ are devalued. Yet, it is much easier to mistreat the members of a devalued community. This also tends to prevent internal criticism since the entire community is grasped as a coherent whole, erasing other relevant divisions. This can lead to various dangers and instrumentalisations – leaders justifying their policy in the name of the interest of the community or denying minorities or individuals certain rights and freedoms. Instead of an insistence on intrinsic links between identity and militancy or political legitimacy, it would be fruitful to embrace a clearly cosmopolitan approach4.

To sum up my argument: being against antisemitism is a noble cause but is not a project that everyone can easily relate to: and in order to be effective, it needs to persuade the majority. This requires getting rid of all forms of dogmatism and simplistic and unquestioned assumptions, complementing its critical part with a positive, alternative message, building alliances with other oppressed groups and overcoming all strands of communitarianism.

1 See the seminal definition of “axiological neutrality” given by Max Weber in Le savant et le politique, Ed
10×18, 201
2 For a more detailed discussion of the various forms of communitarianism and their dangers, see: Chapter 2
in Sophie Heine, For a sovereign Europe, Peter Lang, Oxford, 2019.
3 Sophie Heine, “Social Change in Progressive Thought: Analysis and Propositions», Journal of Political
Ideologies, Vol 7 (3), Oct 2012; Sophie Heine Pour un individualisme de gauche, J.C. Lattès, Paris, 2013.
4 For a more detailed discussion of this concept, see: Sophie Heine, “The dangers and Inanity of (Euro-)
Nationalism: From Communitarianism to Cosmopolitanism, Egmont Paper 77, 2015; and Heine, chapter 2,
For a sovereign Europe, op.cit.

Published by sophieheineauthor

As a critical and creative thinker, I have built that blog in order to share my stories and ideas faster and more efficiently but my ideas are more thoroughly developed in my books.

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