“To plant our feet firmly”: identity politics and the secular Jew in France

I

Often when we were kids my mum reminded me and my brother that we were Jews. That we never went to synagogue, weren’t circumcised, never observed the sabbath, didn’t change that. It was explained to me in childhood as fact: my mum was a Jew, so I was a Jew. It wasn’t a choice, wasn’t an identity that could be lost, just a fact. My mother’s side of the family, although not religious for a generation and a half, were all Jewish. Words, meals, codes, jokes and opinions, between my mother, my uncle and my grandmother are littered with fragments of Jewish culture and my grandma in particular is very conscious of her secularity – taking much joy in teasing her more religious friends (also in their 90s) about how much they’re missing out on Christmas. When pushed, she will talk about her parents and the family of my (now-dead) grandpa and she will talk about the splits in the family between Zionists and socialists, around codes of child-rearing, of the loss of the more Jewish names, of the family members who tried so hard to slip on the costume of gentile-ness, to get further in business, to marry differently, whatever.

Growing up in Scotland in the 90s, the most common marker of religious, social and cultural alterity to a mainstream was to be a Catholic—to have Irish in your family—rather than to come from a (verging on secular) protestant tradition. As a kid growing up in a fairly racially and ethnically homogeneous city, I knew a couple of Sikh kids, a handful of Muslim kids, some kids from Irish Catholic families and a couple of secular Jews, but really never a religious Jew. I think as a child I didn’t really know they existed, thought that anyone else Jewish was Jewish in the same secular way I was. This would definitely have been different if I had grown up in a different neighbourhood or city, but this was my experience growing up in Edinburgh. The predominant religious preoccupation in Scotland has traditionally been whether you’re a Catholic or a Protestant and as the old jokes goes, it doesn’t really matter if you’re a Jew, what matters is if you’re a Catholic or a Protestant one.

I moved to France at the end of 2018, just when the dystopian gilet jaunes began to be proudly stuffed in car windscreens everywhere and to symbolise the garbled and mixed political movement which participated in the worst (or best, depending on your perspective) period of rioting in over fifty years – slowing the country to a halt for dozens of consecutive Saturdays. The banality of burning barricades, tear gas and police violence to so many working and lower-middle class people who filled the streets every weekend was shocking next to the apathetic, middle-of-the road “remainer” versus “brexiteer” spectrum of anger on display in the UK. Conditions were right in both countries for rioting to take off, but it never did in the UK. I was curious at the beginning of my time in France to discover what else would be different, what other facets of political culture would strike me as being worlds apart from the UK.

When I first arrived, a friend who had also lived in the UK warned me about the different ways in which the French talk about race and identity. The French don’t like to talk about race, she told me, they talk about ‘origin’. From the first time I heard it, origin felt to me like a concept lacking something, a concept which would imply that where your family was from, rather than where you found yourself now, could be used to speak for your experience of difference or of difficulty. I couldn’t imagine an anti-racist, anti-nationalist discourse which could or would omit the word race. How could a language like this account for diasporas? For third generation migrants? How could you talk about ethnicity, without the concept of race? They don’t use the word ethnicity either, she told me.

After some months in France I found myself in a conversation about families with a friend, and said in passing that I was a Jew. The person I was talking with asked me if I was religious and when I said no, he raised his eyebrow and asked me: then what makes you a Jew? At first I laughed, finding it strange to be questioned in this way, and told him that my family were secular Jews. He didn’t seem to understand. I told him that for me, and many other Jews, Jewishness is not only a religion, but also an ethnicity – remembering as the word came out of my mouth, that maybe this was going to be difficult to explain. But what’s an ethnicity? he asked me. I had to think. An aspect of identity, a kind of inheritance, including cultural practices, rituals, certain characteristics, even blood? His face curled at the word. Something underneath race maybe? The conversation didn’t feel easy, didn’t feel discursive, and some hours later he asked me – does everyone have an ethnicity? Do I? and I didn’t have an answer for him.

The conversation unsettled me. On the one hand I felt angry to be questioned about it in this way, and on the other, like I knew I knew that ideas about blood and history were complicated and that I wanted to understand better what I thought and why I thought it. I started researching online, wondering if this concept of the ‘secular Jew’—a concept so ubiquitous in the UK—could be absent in France. I started questioning some of my own ideas about blood and identity, questioning the unsaid and fucked up implications of any discourse that centers blood, and inherent characteristics in a debate around identity. I started to read about the identities of Jews in France, started to have conversations with Jews I know in the UK, who come from both secular and religious traditions and with Jews (or people-raised-in-Jewish-homes) in France and started to discover a gulf of difference in experiences.

It seemed for the few Jews who I spoke to in the UK, whether you were raised in a religious or secular home, whether you were practicing or not, Jewish identity was not something you could voluntarily or involuntarily take off, it was with you forever in some way – it could be understood as an ethnicity. But my two friends in France raised in Jewish homes, had both found that their experiences of discovering their atheism as adolescents, lead them—through the values and beliefs of their families—to conclude that they were in fact no longer Jewish. Being Jewish, for their families, was to be religious. One of them found this liberating; the other a kind of punishment. For this second person, moving to Scotland as an adult, she was shocked to meet other non-religious people, who shared many of her politics and values but called themselves Jews. Could it really be the case that the secular Jew didn’t exist in France?

II

The first day that I sat down to try to think about this, I googled “what makes someone Jewish?” and came to the Wikipedia page Who Is A Jew? After a paragraph explaining the religious schisms about whether Jewishness is passed through the mother’s line or the father’s line, the introduction said that “the majority of Jews see being Jewish as predominantly a matter of ancestry and culture, rather than religion”. The page covered some religious ideas about who is a Jew; then had a section on “ethnic definitions” and finally a long chapter on the thoughts of Israel. In the section on ethnicity statistics, it cited that 65% of Jews in the US believe that Judaism is an ethnicity, with only 15% believing it is solely a religion.

Broadly speaking, the page told me everything I expected it to tell me, confirmed the ideas I’d grown up around. I clicked on Français, to look at the translation and to check some of the words, and see how they translated ethnicity among other things. I found a page called Qui est Juif? with just two sections: one on the Halakha, the Jewish religious code, and one on Definitions Historiques, including sections on the New Testament, the Inquisition, Nazism and the State of Israel. I searched laïcité (secularity), and nothing came up. If I had googled Qui est Juif? I would have come straight to this page and been told authoritatively that Judaism is solely a religion, one you can be born in to, but one which is characterised by and to some extent limited to, religious beliefs. This word laïque—so important for so many of us—and in fact so important for French culture, was completely absent from the page. I had always imagined that clicking a different language at the edge of a Wikipedia page would simply bring you to a translation, and not a position an ideological chasm apart. But after talking with a friend, I’m reminded of the naïvete of this idea – in fact, it seems obvious that nation-states would guard their information production, and that something as open and accessible as Wikipedia would also fall victim to the pushing and pulling of strong national narratives.

There are around half a million Jews in France, the most after Israel and the US, and they carry with them a long and dark history of anti-Semitism. After a recent uprise in (always-present) violence—in particular the attacks in Paris in 2014 and 2015—many Jews have left France, as many as 150,000 in the last fifteen years. The French centre-right blame this upsurge of anti-Semitic violence on Islam, and the “rise of Islamic Extremism”, bizarrely taking their traditional target—the Jew—and turning her into the latest victim of the cultural onslaught of Islam, in desperate need of protection. In the UK we often think about the French and their intense and often violent drive to make a secular society, to rid public space of religious symbols. In this epoch, their state-sponsored crusade is so often against Islam, and their inability to address the causes of extremism as being worsened by Islamophobia is—as in the UK—embarrassing. But in 2014, when the “burqa ban” as it was called in the UK, came into play in France, we didn’t think so much of the kippas which students would no longer be able to wear to mainstream state schools. Far more important than Islam or Judaism, Secularism, it seems, is the most important religion in France.

Image source: Élysée

III

In the UK, collapses and unravelings of Empire, coupled with the huge loss of life in WW2 found the UK in desperate need of immigrants by the end of the 1940s. Immediately following the war, the Labour cabinet of Clement Atlee—the only left government in a thirty-year political winter—pushed through many social and cultural reforms to lay the foundations of civic and social superstructures still present in the UK today. The NHS, free for all at the point of need; the nationalisation of many industries; the beginning of the welfare state – and most importantly for any analysis of race and identity, the British Nationality Act of 1948, which granted the potential for something like British citizenship for everyone who lived in the colonies. In the 1940s and 50s, boat after boat arrived from the Caribbean, from South Asia, from Cyprus.

Over the following decades, those diasporas discovered ways to assimilate, to integrate—what to take from British culture, what to leave—and how “Black-British” or “British-Asian” identity would form, would become intelligible, would become part of Britain’s own ideas about itself. It has been the intention of every Conservative (and several Labour) governments since to dismantle this migration route, to narrow the circle of who can migrate to Britain until it is barely visible in a vast expanse of bloody sail. But while the subsequent acts of immigration law arrived and were assimilated into the systems of power, an idea pervaded for liberals; many of the left and many on the centre-right, namely that one of Britain’s strengths was multi-culturalism – the idea that people could retain their difference and live side by side; that communities should be able to keep their practices, their ways of dressing, eating, worshipping, talking, and still be part of the fabric of ‘British life’. But the fact that England’s multi-ethnicity goes back centuries means that it’s hard to identify some kind of distinct ‘English’ culture which is being eroded by immigration. This multiculturalism was and is, starkly in contrast to the strategy in France, where culture production differs, and the canon of Frenchness—more brittle than porous—requires immigrants to wipe their histories clean, to defiantly become French: to shed their other skins, to wash off the dirt of their journey.

This might be partly due to the ideas of France’s supremacy as a Republic and as a “democratic” nation state. One of the founding tenets of the first French republic, founded by the revolution which established the well known, state-sponsored jingle of liberté, égalité and fraternité, was secularism, laïcité, and a separation of church and state. More than two hundred years ago the French had realised the importance in Europe of secular society and the lessening of powers from the church, while today in the UK, the Queen—still the reigning head of state—remains the head of the Church of England. It feels important also to remember that while the French were in the streets, debating sovereignty and society (often at the end of a pistol), the Industrial Revolution was sweeping fast through the United Kingdom, and the government were passing anti-organising laws which made internment of radicals legal and easy to do. France’s rise to being a colonial power also helped to aggrandise their ideas about their own supremacy: the idea being prevalent that French language and cultural values should be spread among the colonies. As racialised thinking became more popular, it was used in support of the colonial project, and the mission civilisatrice, which offered citizenship to those who fully and truly assimilated to French culture, and learned the language. For champions of colonial expansion like Jules Ferry, the “higher races” had a duty to teach the “lower” ones. This, the British and the French could agree on, with the much-loved white supremacist Winston Churchill famously saying—on the subject of Native Americans and Aboriginal people, that “a stronger race, a higher grade race” had replaced them and that this was no “great wrong”.

Much like in Britain, the Second World War sheds much light on the forces which have shaped immigration and identity in France the latter half of the twentieth century. In some ways, the French lost the war, being occupied by the Nazis from 1940 to liberation, and in other ways they won – ultimately seeing the foreign occupier repelled, and being able to reflect hard on the rich history of resistance during the Vichy period. After the War, in schools the French broadly learned about themselves as the good guys: at first the innocent country under siege and later the brave resisters. But since the mid-90s, when Chirac finally spoke to the subject, this position has changed a little. But regardless of who was at fault, the toll taken on France was immense and the aid from Marshall Plan ushered in an era where the French metropole was simultaneously weakened and rebuilding, while determined to assert its place in a new post-war Europe. But the French had more humble pie to eat, and soon.

While Britain’s colonial subjects gained independence through several wars, over long periods of time—and with many countries remaining in the Commonwealth and under the ‘protection’ of the monarch—the top-down violence stayed very much away from the UK itself. Likewise, the punching up of decolonizing violence—with the exception of the IRA—also stayed largely outside of the UK – most of the blood shed, was shed overseas. This has enabled a deep form of cultural amnesia and historical revisionism in Britain. This was not possible for the French, who not only had to witness the violence of their own state in the Algerian War of Independance as it spilled into the metropole, but who also continue to hold several colonies ‘overseas’—in the old sense of the world—held practically in chains by their archaic administrative classifications. But even if it’s possible for the average French person to keep life in Guadeloupe out of mind, for those over sixty, many if not all of their lives were in some way touched by the Algerian War, or the “events in Algeria” as it was euphemistically known for a long time: either that they found themselves or their loved ones actually sent to Algeria to fight or to work or that they witnessed the violence which made it into France – either bombings of the FLN or, to take one example, the shooting and drowning of upwards of a hundred pro-Algeria protesters by the police in Paris in ‘61. A friend tells me that the silence in the generation of her grand-parents is deafening.

If we want to understand how the French think about race and nationality, and trace the lineage of secularity as religion, we have to turn our gaze to the Algerian War of Independence. The French arrived in Algeria in the 1830s, killing almost a million Algerians in the first thirty years. Unlike many of the other 19th century colonies of France, Algeria was considered an integral part of France, and from 1946, Algerians were able to take up French citizenship – not dissimilar to the 1948 act in the UK. So it was a shock for the French when just a few years later, Algeria rewarded France not with gratitude, but with a loud and violent demand for Independence. For the FLN (the National Liberation Front of Algeria), by 1952, the conflict was already deeply underway, already un-reversibly racialised, already about religion.

The end of WWII, and the Algerian War itself, ushered in the Fifth Republic – and an era in France where de Gaulle (coming back to power after ten years away) pushed a platform of Europeanness—connectedness—in stark contrast to the Atlanticisim being pursued by the UK. By the end of the 1960s in France, he declared an arms embargo to Israel mere days before the Six Day War begun. “The Jews,” he had said, stirred as he had been by everything that had happened in the Maghreb, “are an elite people, sure of themselves and domineering.” This position, or something close to it, continued for close to 30 years: the butcher of Beirut, Ariel Sharon, famously in 2004 urging French Jews to leave the metropole, as fast as they could, and find a new life waiting for them in Israel. The anti-Zionist campaign of the French state in the 70s and 80s, coupled with the surge of Front National anti-Semitism in the 1990s, flattened a lot of nuance around Jewish identity in France and since the second intifada, there has been an enormous groundswell of support for the Palestinian cause, not least in the population of second-generation Arab immigrants to France. All of these things combine to create a society where significant numbers of people are critical of Zionism, where significant numbers of people conflate Zionism with Judaism, and where anti-Semitism is rife.

IV

French culture, valuing as it does enlightenment ideas of equality, of being all on a level – is keen to minimise the concept of race. Rather than be Black and French, why not just be French? Why use a concept which only further serves to divide us? A friend tells me that the only time they heard the word race in school was when talking about the history of colonialism, when talking about the now completely debunked ideas from the beginning of scientific racialism – the skull measuring, the faux scientific experiments made in order to demonstrate essentialist racial characteristics, which could be used to make a pyramid of races. At the beginning of the 20th century, this ideology was applied heavily to Jews, whose Jewishness became a final mark, became a race rather than a religion. But since the end of WW2, scientific racialism has been completely debunked and many countries have moved on to the idea that while race is not a biological fact, it is a cultural one – and while the characteristics, traits and dispositions of a certain race may not be inherent, in many cases they have been created by the pigeonholing, by those with power, and by the ghettoisation of non-white communities in the west or by the structural legacies of post-colonial neglect in the global South.

But the paranoia in much of the French left is that by using the term race, you create it. A friend tells me about her sister, who is black and was adopted into her white family. I asked her how her parents would have responded if you had asked the difference between the children, and she said that it was just colour maybe like other people would comment on eye or hair colour. I find this colour-blindness terrifying. If you minimise and deny this difference so strongly, it completely disappears structural inequality and, as my friend points out, people can be left powerless to build resilience through community. How can people make a language to understand what they share or don’t share with their friends, comrades or lovers, when it’s taboo to even acknowledge their difference?

In many of these conversations, I’ve been told that it’s been illegal since 1978 in France to gather statistics on race without expressed consent. France collects no census data on race or ethnicity. This colourblindness means that they cannot be held accountable for their demographic failures along racial or ethnic lines. In the UK it is common to read a statistic about a percentage of people of a certain ethnicity or race who experience a certain facet of inequality or privelege. For example that black people in the UK are 6.3 times more likely than white people to be stopped and searched, and that if found in possession of class A drugs, 78% of them will be charged, compared to only 44% of their white peers. Without statistics like this, how can a case be made against structural inequality? Against police racism? Against the police? It seems like France’s desire for colourblindness extends much deeper into public policy, preferring to target geographical areas or class groups, rather than racial or ethnic ones. The French state’s approach to racism focuses far less on discrimination in jobs, housing and access to social life and far more on hate crimes – which are obviously in many ways a symptom of the former.

These ideas are confusing to me, but I can imagine quite easily how a society imagines itself in this way. I can understand them, in the same way that I can understand why for so many British people – “diversity” is Britain’s greatest strength, even if I find the culture around it liberal and superficial in it’s understanding of structural inequality. But in the UK, it at least feels like the anti-authoritarian left have made commitments to visioning the struggle against white supremacy and fascism in other ways – like we don’t need to employ the language of the mainstream culture of a vast colonial power. We know that Britain’s lies about itself, about it’s tolerance for diversity, are just that—lies. So I was curious to discover how much these hegemonic ways of thinking in France still hold weight in anti-authoritarian circles.

V

To deny race as a material category is a vital value of French republicanism, and one which services to benefit white people massively. That race discourses have crept into French political discourse over the last years, is a result of a more Marxist, materialist analysis of the conditions around race and racism, but they’ve not arrived without controversy. In 2004 the hijab was banned in schools, and in 2005 a massive period of rioting shook the banlieues. It was in this context that the Movement of the Indigenous of the Republic—a coalition of leftist anti-colonial and anti-racist groups, began making noise in France around the idea that a) France remains a colonial state and that b) France must begin to talk about race. As I read more around this subject, the name of one of their key figures—Houria Boutledja—came up over and over again, and in particular her book Les Blancs, Les Juifs et Nous (The Whites, The Jews and Us). The more that friends and comrades wrinkled their noses at my mention of her name, and even her party, the more curious I was to read the book. Critically, a strong consensus about this book seemed to be that its analysis is anti-Semitic (as it places Jews in a role where they have elevated themselves to oppress Arabs and other POC); homophobic (with a kind of macho virility) and, tediously, as missing the point about class. But the more these charges are levied against her, the more clear it seems to be that the things she says are threatening to white feminism, and are threatening to the deeply colonial double-think of the French left.

On my first read of Les Blancs, Les Juifs et Nous I found it deeply problematic, essentialist and, more than really anything else, really challenging. At its core it’s a scathing critique of whiteness, of Zionism and of France but ideas of identity—and maybe crucially her identity—plague it with questions. For her, whites are on the top of the pyramid, Arabs on the bottom, and Jews have betrayed their Semitic roots to make a buffer in between – to take a seat at the table. While her lack of analysis of anti-blackness—and the role that the Black population in France are forced to take—is clear, I don’t think her positions are anti-Semitic. In some ways, the book, and in particular the chapter Vous les Juifs (You the Jews), is a love story to Jews – but to a type of Jewishness which is increasingly being dominated and sidelined by a colonialist tendency of Zionism. She laments the loss of the multi-ethnicity of Jewishness, the loss of Yiddish, the cultural amnesia which is helping Zionists turn their head towards their own tragedies and away from those they are causing. Is it the case that Zionism, she asks, is just another name for capitulation?

I think it’s not so much what she thinks on these subjects which caused so much controversy in France but rather her complete lack of reverence, her unwillingness to elevate the suffering of the Jewish people above all else, and in a deeper sense, her unwillingness to be politically correct as a way to buy approval from an establishment she finds deeply morally bankrupt. In particular, she writes about the Shoah in a way designed to shock: recounting with laughter that her cousin in Algeria had never heard of Hitler, that Hitler is in fact someone she knew very well, but who she met “on the benches of the schools of the Republic”. Her flippancy, while difficult to read, is informed by her desire not to bury the other genocides and tragedies of the last centuries under the weight of the Shoah– to avoid singularising it as a historical event. She knows, very well, that like the Arabs, the Jews are not the “legitimate bodies of the nation” and the end of the chapter extends a hand to them – rather than prolonging their servitude to nationalism and racism, why not “follow in the footsteps of the proud militants of the Bund and to continue their dream of liberation”. The book—and here we speak only of it’s approach to Jewishness, never mind her blistering critique of whiteness and of France—is compelling, and deeply challenging. I doubted myself in being touched by it, wondering if I was in fact being sucked in by something anti-Semitic, but climbed out of this hole by telling myself that had it been written by a Jew, it would feel almost completely uncontroversial to me. It’s clear in this strange moment of guilt-reflex that the power of Identity Politics in and around this discourse is strong.

I tried to follow this story through the media. A friend tells me that in late 2016 there was an event in Marseille which echoed loudly around parts of the anarcho left in France. There was a public event advertised as taking place in one of Marseille’s leftist bookshops, to talk about the racialisateurs, and their dangerous new import of race theory. An intervention was made by a group of personnes racisé.e.s (a controversial term itself often in France, but one which might echo POC in English, or more literally a racialised person) who in the storm of their departure left behind flyers critiquing these anti-racialisateurs for their inability to talk or seriously think about the subject. The people there were shocked – how could they be called racist, for not wanting to talk about race, for not wanting people to organise along racial lines? I have a strong suspicion that those in this delegation would not be aligned with the PIR, but the shock of this non-mixité is worth noting. The French left seem to feel very threatened by the idea of POC-only spaces and there is a fear that the lessons gained from gender separatism since the 1960’s will be passed over to origin and ethnicity and will degenerate into a kind of “blood law” – a paranoia based on fears of both scientific racialism and of essentialism. I still don’t know what I find more frightening, the refusal to see outside of one’s blood, or the refusal to see it at all?

Houria Bouteldja, whether you love her or hate her, is often the target for a lot of this anger and mistrust on the left. This reached a frenzied peak in November 2017 when a group of 37 public intellectuals signed a letter in Le Monde about the banalisation of anti-Semitism that she was encouraging, about their fear of non-mixité, and about how they felt morally obliged to act against these “idéologies d’exclusion profondément antirépublicaines”. Part of their critique would then seem to be that to make a space accessible only by identity (POC-only space, LGBTQ-only space, etc) would be to play Identity Politics and that that, at the base, is fundamentally anti-French, as it creates a situation where everyone is not on exactly the same level. The letter rings with the smug tone of an elite class who are determined to use structures of political correctness to flatten any nuance or subtlety. On the subject of her position and this ‘new tendency’ in France, Liberation wrote, a week later – Ce vent mauvais est ravageur. This bad wind is devastating.

Unsurprisingly, Bouteldja had a response and unsurprisingly, Le Monde refused to publish it. In January 2018 it appeared on the PIR website – scalding hot, coiled and precise. A telling interaction between the two articles was about a photograph of her which was doing the rounds: Bouteldja posing, smiling, next to a chair on which someone had written sionistes aux gulag (Zionists to the gulag). Outrageous anti-Semitism cried La Monde. In the article, she is crystal clear, less glib than in the book, that the conflation of Jews with Zionism is an enemy, that these critics are trying to make anti-Zionism into anti-semitism and she will not let them. She talks of the 2000 dead in Gaza in 2014 and asks: how would it be to say racists aux gulag, or settlers aux gulag; why not, it’s a thousand miles from speaking just of Jews. The answer of course, from an anarchist perspective, should be an end to Zionism, but also an end to the gulag, but the sentiment I can understand. After responding to their critiques methodically, she turns her attentions on her accusers, saying that rather than the return of anti-semitism to the University, what really frightens these academics of the Left is that their moral authority in explaining the world was being questioned, was being challenged, was being undermined.

Photo by Hassan Kodak

VI

Despite not sharing everything, I share her frustration at the conflation of Jews with Zionists and the other side of the same coin—of anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism. I look the anti-semitism scandals in the Labour party in the UK during the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn and instead of feeling frustrated with anti-Semitism, I feel frustrated with those Jews who think to critique Israel is to be anti-Semite. Never, a friend tells me, call them Jews. They are Zionists and that’s the name you should use. I forget. It was a late 90s surge of right-wing intellectualism which spawned the idea that to critique Israel and Zionism was to be anti-Semitic. A horrible cycle: when anti-Semitic violence from the right (read: violence against Jews) spikes, another part of the right can point to militant critiques of Israel and call them anti-Semitic as a form of political cover. The danger is that this understanding of a “new” anti-Semitism (read: critique of Zionism) makes it harder to recognize real anti-Semitism. I also think about what Bouteldja has to say about the multi-ethnicity of Jews and how they start to lose it, how people don’t speak Yiddish in Israel. I think about my grandmother, whose socialist politics—for someone who was seventeen at the end of WW2—seem impeccable but who was reluctant to trust Corbyn in case he is an anti-Semite. Ce vent mauvais est ravageur.

These critiques and discourses around identity and anti-Semitism are inextricably linked with identity politics and with ideas of wayward bodies, illegitimate subjects, of integration and of assimilation. How would France have felt about Bouteldja’s book had she been a Jew? Is it an investment in identity politics to want to hold on to a Jewish identity even if you are not religious? To arrive first at Identity Politics, you need an analysis which tells you that the world is unjust and that people experience oppression because of facets of their identity which are often (but not always) impossible to change. This leads us to attempt to redress this by centering or prioritizing the voices of those who experience these oppressions on the subject of them. But in practice we have in many situations merely inverted the pyramid of power. There are two fundamental problems with this: the first is that often this is deeply tokenistic, where for example we can give the appearance that we have reshuffled things to centre these voices – but nothing is done to adjust the structural inequalities, merely their appearances. The second problem, and the reason why Identity Politics cannot be truly liberatory from an anti-authoritarian perspective, is that to try to invert the pyramid of power is simply to reshuffle something rotten, rather than to try and obliterate the structure itself. While it may be necessary in moments and places and times, and while it certainly helps to shift and change discourse and elevate often unheard voices (something which any anti-authoritarian should and could get on board with), it is by no means an ideological end-point for our thinking on identity and liberation. We need to ask for more.

While parts of the anti-authoritarian community around the world are already beginning to move on from Identity Politics (something which ten years ago felt to many like something to fight for), it seems like France is still arriving at its gates. Identity politics have been and are a temporary relief in a violent world – but are not a liberatory process in and of themselves, more like a reshuffling of a cabinet. In the UK Identity Politics have been rendered so centrist that even the Conservative party plays at being identity politicians – presenting the black or brown people in the cabinet as showing their commitment against racism, while these same black and brown people write legislation increasingly hostile to to the communities from which they come. In moments it feels like Identity Politics needs to be passed through, before a really anti-authoritarian critique of identity can emerge from the other side, and the discourse around secularism, Jewishness and race in France, seems stuck in the gate – two wheels beyond the threshold, but yet unable to pass through.

How does this apply then to Jewishness? To the power of definition often given to Jews with regards the identification of anti-semitism? In a culture which for hundreds of years has been trodden on and preached to about its deficiency, shamed for its Jewishness, it makes sense to me and to many other non-religious Jews, to not bury the word in our families. Firstly, because it’s crushing to think of the thousands of Ashkenazim Jews who migrated to Western Europe and the United States and were forced to change their names and modify their cultural practices to survive: to erase this somewhat uniquely often invisible ethnicity. Secondly because I think it’s important that we remember the radical left history of the Jews and that there are many Jews whose voices remain loud and strong in saying that to be a Jew you need not be a Zionist, you need not support the state of Israel.

In the UK, where Identity Politics is strong and there are such deep ideas about multiculturalism and about integration before assimilation, it makes sense that many non-religious Jews hold on to their identities. But in France, where Identity Politics for many still feel like a controversial and imported ideology, coupled with a strong cultural preference for assimilation for religious or ethnic minorities, that identification just doesn’t compute. Maybe part of my discomfort with the subject is that I have on the one hand a strong feeling that we should be allowed to express and define not only our own identities, but the aggressions against them, and on the other hand, an awareness that this form of Identity Politics will not lead us to liberation, will not lead us away from essentialist thinking. It seems that this path laid out for people to feel empowered to describe their own realities can be taken for all sorts of different reasons, and that in order to mask the authoritarianism of Zionism, it’s protagonists have taken it and are using it to try to flatten all nuance around Jewish idenity.

History tells us already about the dynamism, the amorphous nature of Jewishness. If Identity Politics strives to find a way for communities to define a narrative that works for them, then the problem is perhaps not the narrative itself but rather the singular article. How can we recuperate, nourish and amplify a Jewishness which is anti-Zionist, when the halls of power dictate which voices will be heard? Is it useful to hold on to an identity like this in a speculative future devoid of this geo-political conflict? At its base, all of this is really a discussion about something deeply anti-thetical to the Nation-State, both as process and a mentality: having the right to take decisions for and about ourselves and the conscience to take them with the needs of others in mind. To borrow from the Bund and their concept of ‘doikayt’ (or ‘hereness’): we must struggle, with feet firmly planted where we stand, for the liberation of ourselves and all other people.

~L Munro

Thanks to L, M, A, C , K and L.


If you wish to get in touch with the author, email them at elemaye(at)riseup.net

Photo by Jeanne Menjoulet, published under CC BY 2.0