- Guest Editors’ Introduction: Trump and the “Jewish Question”
The election of Donald Trump has brought the “Jewish Question” back onto the intellectual agenda in a way that it has not been for decades. As a term, the “Jewish Question” was first employed in the nineteenth century during debates about the conversion and emancipation of Jews and has subsequently been used to describe the vexed relationship between Jewishness and the dominant social formations of the modern world—whether Christianity, Europe, the West, the nation-state, Enlightenment, or “the people.” In other words, the “Jewish Question” named, and names, a fundamental and unstable self-other relationship that is central to the production of both Jewish and non-Jewish identities in modernity. As David Nirenberg puts it in a discussion of Marx’s controversial “On the Jewish Question,” “the ‘Jewish question’ is as much about the basic tools and concepts through which individuals in society relate to the world and to each other, as it is about the presence of ‘real’ Judaism and living Jews in that society” (2013, 3).
To be sure, the United States has not had a “Jewish Question” in the same way that European nations in the age of emancipation did. Jews in the United States, as Ben Ratskoff documents in his contribution to this special issue, were from the beginning granted entry into the most significant category of belonging in the United States: that is, some Jews have always been considered white. Even if the degree of Jewish whiteness in the United States has been historically variable and has not always served as a shield against antisemitism and xenophobia, there has never been a fundamental incompatibility between being Jewish and being [End Page 4] American as there was between being Jewish and being a member of many European nations. Recognizing the vast differences between the contemporary United States and eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe, we nevertheless take inspiration from historians of the latter era who have considered Jews as “good to think” with in addressing the dilemmas of modernity.1 In turning our gaze to the U.S. context, while holding the wider world in view, we seek to explore whether Jews—despite their small numbers and relatively privileged status vis-à-vis other minorities—might nevertheless offer a salient vantage point for understanding contemporary social and political forces. By no means do we believe that such a vantage point is the only relevant one for understanding our world. We do, however, hold that Jewishness and antisemitism play structuring roles in political imaginaries that far outstrip the quantitative presence of actual Jews in national and global affairs.2
We conceived of this special issue in the fall of 2017, one year after the 2016 presidential election and several months after the inauguration of Donald Trump as the forty-fifth president of the United States. The articles included here were written and rewritten during 2018 and 2019 and sent to press in fall 2019, a period in which we seemed to lurch almost daily from one crisis to another. When we began work on this issue at least one of us hoped that the questions raised in our call for papers might have become yesterday’s news by the time the issue was complete. Yet as we worked on this introduction a seemingly endless stream of ugly tweets with “Jewish” content issued from the White House, culminating (for now) in the antisemitic charge that Jews who did not vote for Trump were at once disloyal to Israel and to the United States. (And as we are finishing the introduction, an impeachment inquiry has begun—the future is certainly unclear.)
If such tweets are frequently mere distractions from political maneuvers happening elsewhere, some of them have also had large-scale geopolitical implications, such as the banning of members of the U.S. House of Representatives from Israel and occupied Palestine. Although it is impossible to ignore the role played by Trump in inciting violence—against immigrants, against Muslims, and sometimes against Jews—the special issue that has resulted from our efforts does not place Trump at the center.3 Rather, our contributors read widely...