Antisemitism and Islamophobia in Europe: A Shared Story? eds. by James Renton & Ben Gidley, and: Whites, Jews, and Us: Towards a Politics of Revolutionary Love by Houria Bouteldja
Race remains a taboo term and topic in Europe today. This post-Shoah silence is both political and, until very recently, academic.1 The two books under review aim to break this silence by tackling the complex and entangled questions of antisemitism, islamophobia, and white (Christian or secular) supremacy and to demonstrate that racism in Europe cannot be separated from the question of religion (and I would add well beyond Europe). The essays collected in Antisemitism and Islamophobia in Europe: A Shared Story?, edited by James Renton and Ben Gidley, provide the rich histories and complexities concerning the race-religion intersection, in terms of [End Page 280] the shared stories of antisemitism and islamophobia, in Europe.2 Whites Jews and Us: Towards a Politics of Revolutionary Love, by Houria Bouteldja, is a passionate political appeal for action against the violence, exclusion, and power games experienced by excluded groups in Europe today.3 Read together, these two books offer a theoretical and applied analysis of racism in Europe today.
Let me first provide the reader with a summary of the contents. When Renton and Gidley selected and edited this volume, based on the proceedings of a 2008 conference, what was their ambition? With the nuance of erudite scholars, nuance sometimes lacking in Bouteldja's book, Renton and Gidley refuse to take up the question of the complex relationship between antisemitism and islamophobia in a reductive or simplistic manner. Is it possible to focus on similarities without sacrificing differences or vice versa? The approach chosen by the editors is, in this vein, judicious. "We have to excavate and concentrate on a shared story of evolution; in short, we need a diachronic framework, in which we can identify moments of beginning, change, separation (6)." The aim is thus to focus on how this relationship has changed or unfolded over time which leads to the four-part diachronic structure of the book: Christendom, empire, divergence and response. While I welcome the aim, it might have been too ambitious as it would have required more active engagements with the respective contributions and an editorial conclusion. As it is, several of the essays feel rather misplaced. This is unfortunate as the structure and aim creates possibilities that would have been both timely and relevant. One concrete example is that of antizyganism. While the editors, and several authors, mention discrimination against the Roma, none consider how the exclusion and persecution of Roma might be related and entangled in this relationship—precisely because of the diachronic structure, this might have been possible.
Most contributions also engage with the problem of the antisemitism-islamophobia relationship as one intricately tied up with questions of political-theology, secularism/laicite and Christianity. This for me is one of the strengths of this volume as several authors explicitly take up what I have elsewhere conceptualised as the race-religion constellation in Europe.4 It is important aspect of racism in Europe that requires more scholarly attention. This however also highlights what I see as both a strength and weakness of this collection of essays—its interdisciplinarity. Several of the essays are approached historically, while others [End Page 281] involve qualitative anthropology, and others are much more abstract and philosophical, … there is something for everyone—but also something that is not for everyone.
In the first part, entitled Christendom, Andrew Jotischky begins with a historical analysis of the categories and treatment of Jews and Muslims during the Crusades. Its specifically medieval focus is an excellent contribution to the field of European critical race studies in that most scholars tend to overlook this period and begin either in 1492 or as late as the nineteenth century. By focusing on this historical period, Jotischky presents an original binary that, to the best of my knowledge, has not been engaged with by this field—that between Frank and non-Franks (27). This of course already brings to light the entanglement of religion, ethnicity as precursors to categories of race and culture. Another original contribution is his analysis of gender differences and sexual relations in relation to religious categories. The second essay, by Francois Soyer, in also historical but focuses on medical practices and conspiracies in early-modern Spain and Portugal. It is rich with new research for scholars in this field and connects to many important debates on race-religion in Europe such as notions of racial purity, loyalty and conversion.
Part 2, "Empire," is made up of two essays—both historical in terms of methodology. Robert Crews contribution focuses on the role of Jews and Muslims in the Russian Empire. As with the previous essays it is an important and original contribution to the field as there is much less research on race in Eastern Europe. He discusses many of the important laws and policies, both political and theological, as well as the violence experienced by both groups in relation to the state and exclusionary rhetoric. The second essay, by James Renton, is one of the longest as well as one of the gems in this collection. The category of the Semite is one fundamental to any research on racism in Europe as it connects the theological category of Shemites (as Shem was one of Noah's three sons), the racial category of Semites (whether specifically referring to Jews or inclusive of Arabs), and the notion of orientalism. How these categories and distinctions relate to nations, language, and race are all engaged with by Renton by means of a meticulous analysis of the works of Ernest Renan, a scholar whose contributions—scholarly and political—are key in the field. This essay also connects these eighteenth- and nineteenth-century categories to political events of the first half of the twentieth century such as the Balfour Declaration and Nazi racial policies. [End Page 282]
Part 3, "Divergences," includes three essays, two historical and one philosophical, and each focusing on a different contemporary debate. Sander Gilman considers why practices by these groups, such as circumcision, kosher/halal etc., are deemed controversial by the secular/Christian population. His essay raises a fundamental question with regard to the question of racism in Europe: Why is there a Jewish and/or Muslim 'problem' in post-Enlightenment Europe? Moreover, his answer does not avoid one of the most complex aspects of any meaningful answer to this question, how is the Christian legacy of Europe related to current (often exclusionary) practices and policies justified in terms of secularism. Hoare's essay again highlights a forgotten part of Europe's story in terms of Jews and Muslims by focusing on the Balkans, an area in which there has been a significant Muslim presence—albeit forgotten by scholars focusing on Western Europe. The structure of this contribution is convenient in that each separate nation has its own individual analysis. The author also engages with the question of the entanglement of race and religion in relation to both Jews and Muslims. The third essay by Gil Anidjar engages with the complexity of the notion of antisemitism and the "anti-antisemite." Its philosophical self-reflective questioning style is unique in the volume and connects, by way of its conclusion, to the issue of islamophobia.
The final section, "Responses," includes three essays, again with a variety of methodologies, all of which seek to grasp the effects of both antisemitism and islamophobia in Europe today. In this way, it concludes this volume by considering how this shared, and divergent, story of Jews and Muslims in Europe is relevant to contemporary questions—both political and academic. Daniel Gordon's historical contribution considers the search for common grounds in terms of combating racism in France in the past century. This essay brings to light how complex, and at times incoherent, the anti-racist movements were in that part of the political struggle has been how to fight both antisemitism and islamophobia under the umbrella of anti-racism while avoid a competitive victimhood. This raises the question of whether solidarity is possible under the cloak of secularism and how the latter intersects with whiteness and class.
The second essay, while focusing on the Netherlands and Germany, engages with the question of inclusion, assimilation and integration—all very controversial issues for both communities today. What is the cost of [End Page 283] entrance to Western Christian Europe? David Wertheim attempts to answer this question by considering the lives and obstacles of two exemplary figures: Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Heinrich Heine. Without explicitly using the term "Christian privilege" in this essay, like several others, he makes clear how relevant "religion" is in Europe and how the non-Christian other has been racialized. Sadly, it seems that just as Jews in the nineteenth century struggled with an impossible inclusion, as described by Marx in his essay "The Jewish Question," so do Muslims today. The concluding essay, is unique for two reasons. First, its methodology is anthropological, it is based on forty in-depth qualitative interviews with Jews and Muslims in Britain today and secondly, it is the only contribution (to the best of my knowledge) cowritten by a female scholar Yulia Egorova (with Fiaz Ahmed). Aware of the unique story of Jews and Muslims in the UK, often forgotten by scholars focusing on Western Europe, these interviews introduce the voice of those being studied in the rest of the volume focusing on questions of memory and experience—both of which are complex, and often painful, topics. Indirectly this essay also raises an important and often silenced question about how antisemitism in Europe is all too often, and inaccurately, blamed on and framed as a Muslim problem. Unfortunately, the authors do not turn the gaze on secular, or Christian, Europe and demand that white Europeans to take (at least partial) responsibility for both antisemitism and islamophobia.
This is one of the reasons I included Houria Bouteldja's book Whites, Jews, and Us: Towards a Politics of Revolutionary Love in this review. Bouteldja's work is a response to many of the complex political struggles engaged with by the scholars in the previous volume. By turning the gaze on white Christian Europeans, exemplified by France in the past century, her book strongly echoes Emile Zola's 1898 "J'Accuse … !" Her accusation is painfully confronting, for whites, feminists and Jews, and refreshingly frank. While once "coloured" and excluded, European Jews, who have now almost become white, should ask themselves—with whom have I, and ought I, and ought I, show solidarity, and how should I express it. Similarly, her book forces white feminists to ask these very difficult but essential questions. Without this self-confrontation, no real inclusion and solidarity (let alone respite from the violence necessary for any real peace) is possible.
The first half of the book is made up of three chapters written to incite this type of self-reflection. The first chapter begins by naming the elephant in the room, in any political or academic discussion about racism in Europe: the state of Israel. While many of the essays in the collected volume refer [End Page 284] to Isreal, it is often from a sheltered scholarly distance. Bouteldja does not play it safe and thus it is no surprise that she has been unfairly attacked as an antisemite (as well as a non-feminist). She engages with the taboo topic of Israel in an ingenious fashion—via Sartre's philosophical and political positions on the state, his views on Palestinian self-determination, and how this issue plays out on the left in France. This sets the stage for the next two chapters, "You, White People" and "You, the Jews," which puts the race-religion intersection as central to the discussion about antisemitism and islamophobia in Europe. In line with Ramon Grosfuguel's excellent decolonising work, Bouteldja turns the gaze onto Western Christian Europe, and specifically the left which fails to recognize its whiteness, and tries to make clear that it, and not the excluded other, is the problem, and has been since Descartes stated (in her re-interpretation) "I think therefore I am modern, virile, capitalist, imperialist man. The Cartesian 'I' will lay the philosophical ground for whiteness. It will secularize God's attributes and confer them to the Western God, who is, in fact, none other than a parable of the white man (34)." The chapter includes so many examples which demonstrate this claim that one cannot continue to live under the illusion that violence and genocide are accidents of the West.
This sets the stage for the following chapter addressed to the Jews of France (or Europe). The subtext of this chapter is laid out in Renton's chapter on the Semites as Bouteldja is asking when and how, did Europe succeed in destroying a possible Semitic solidarity and how does this relate to the intra-Judaic racism in Israel? When did the Jews go from being the excluded eliminable other to being white "Judeo-Christian" Europeans? For the author, the answer is as glaringly obvious as it is painful—after the Shoah, at the same time as Europe imposed a silence on race. By agreeing to allow Europeans to define the Shoah as an accident, making it exceptional, and thus disconnecting it from the list of violence and crimes committed by the Cartesian I, the Jews—those few who survived—were granted "access" to European civilization (61). Is this real inclusion or just an illusion? What if, as Cesaire does, we engage in a decolonial reading of the Shoah? Would this help make European Jewry more aware of its non-whiteness and potential partner in peace with the indigenous peoples of Europe?
It is to the latter group, the indigenous and women specifically that Bouteldja addresses in the final three chapters. In the spirit of Fanon, we are introduced to the painful and desperate existential voice of this excluded [End Page 285] group, the daily and structural racism. This is one of the voices missing from the preceding volume (with the exception of the last chapter). Bouteldja maps white patriarchy as experienced by its newest others and asks the million Euro question—why would those with power and privilege give it up? Her answer is that it must be taken, and this taking requires real solidarity between people of diverse genders, sexualities, races and religions (and the myth of secularism) as well as new rules. We must stop playing the game according to rules in which the other can never win. This is what she means by demanding that when we aim to decolonise Europe we must also decolonise feminism. In this vein, she makes a demand for real intersectionality, a project the left has failed to make its own (among others) and which requires a rethinking of what Europe is, and has been, since at least 1492.
What the first volume reviewed here makes clear is that a diachronic analysis of the issue of racism in Europe begins well before 1492 and is thus much more complex than the story told by Bouteldja suggests. Antisemitism and Islamophobia in Europe is a must-read for anyone interested in understanding the manifestations and multiple faces of racism, and its intersection with religion in Europe. Nonetheless, Bouteldja's book is a necessary addition to the former, which fails to express the real political urgency of these questions for those violently and structurally excluded in Europe today.
anya topolski is an assistant professor in ethics and political philosophy at Nijmegen University, Netherlands. Her current research focuses on the intersection between race and religion in Europe. Her most recent monograph is Arendt, Levinas and the Politics of Relationality (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015); she coedited the volume Is There a Judeo-Christian Tradition? A European Perspective (De Gruyter, 2016).
1. Alana Lentin, "Europe and the Silence about Race," European Journal of Social Theory, 11, no. 4 (2008): 487–503.
2. Antisemitism and Islamophobia in Europe: A Shared Story?, ed. by Ben Gidley and James Renton (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).
3. Houria Bouteldja, Whites Jews and Us: Towards a Politics of Revolutionary Love, trans. by Rachel Valinsky, 22 (South Pasadena, CA: La Fabrique Editions), Semiotext(e).
4. Anya Topolski, "The Race-Religion Constellation: A European Contribution to the Critical Philosophy of Race," Critical Philosophy of Race 6, no. 1 (2018): 58–81.