Have Muslims Replaced Jews as the Other of the Twenty-First Century?

An excerpt from 'Modernity and the Jews in Western Social Thought'

The rise of Muslims as a prominent ethnoreligious minority in Western Europe and the United States raises a pertinent question for this study: Have they taken the position formerly occupied by Jews as a foil for the construction of modern European and American identities? Numerous scholars have suggested such a displacement. “Today, the ‘Jewish Question’ in Europe has largely been ‘solved,’” sociologist Krishan Kumar has declared, “mainly by getting rid of the Jews. But Muslims present a different problem…. Muslims are not only the most numerous of the new immigrant populations, but culturally they seem the most distinctive, and to many (in the host cultures, at least) they seem the most difficult to absorb. As such, they have become the new ‘other’ of Europe, replacing the Jews of an earlier era.”[1] David Theo Goldberg has described a similar “shift in Europe’s dominant fixation of concern and resentment” from Jews before World War II to Muslims today.[2] Likewise, Aziz Al-Azmeh has suggested that a negative stereotype of Muslims as homogeneous, “innocent of modernity,” “obsessed with prayer, fasting, veiling, medieval social and penal arrangements,” and incapable of reconstruction has “gathered force” in Europe “now that the previous internal enemy — the Jew — could no longer legitimately be conceived as such.”[3] Political scientist Amikam Nachmani concurs: “Without doubt, a strong parallel can be drawn between Europe’s ‘Jewish question’ and its mirror image, the ‘Muslim migrant question.’ In fact, the question ‘Are Muslims the Jews of Europe Today?’ is at the heart of an oft-heard debate nowadays argued by the three interested parties: the Muslim migrant minority, the European majority and the Jewish world.” Staking out his own position in this debate, Nachmani has concluded: “In the past Europe’s salient migratory grouping — one that has profoundly coloured its culture and civilization — was the Jew who was always branded the ‘foreigner,’ the ‘other,’ a threatening presence…. Today, the Wandering Jew is no longer the issue…. Now [Europe] is preparing to defend itself against … the immigrant, more specifically, the Muslim immigrant…. The Jew, Europe’s prototypal ‘other,’ has now largely been replaced by the Muslim ‘other.’ … Prejudice and discrimination once directed at European Jewry is now aimed at European Muslims.”[4] Jonathan Laurence has also drawn analogies between Jewish emancipation in the nineteenth century and the European integration of Muslims in the twenty-first century. He points out that contemporary European politicians themselves make such analogies, while the opponents of Muslim integration question the civic fitness of Muslims with arguments that resemble those previously used against Jews.[5] In sum, this scholarship suggests that Muslims are the new Israel, if by Israel is meant a pariah rather than a chosen people….

At a high level of abstraction, the experiences of Jews and Muslims in the West may be seen as variations on a common process of civil incorporation.[6] Nevertheless, the suggestion that Muslims are the new Jews is open to three major criticisms. First, comparisons of Jews and Muslims tend to overlook significant differences in the social and historical contexts of their incorporation. Second, these comparisons neglect important differences in the discursive representation of the two out-groups. Third, while Muslims have indeed emerged as an important other in contemporary European and American discourse, they have not superseded Jews as an object of concern, resentment, or antagonism. Let us consider each of these points in turn.

While Jews and Muslims have experienced similar processes of civil incorporation in the West, these processes have been shaped by different social and historical conditions. In demographic terms, the number of Muslims in Western Europe today far exceeds that of Western Europe’s prewar Jewish population, which totaled fewer than two million.[7] Furthermore, though Jews and Muslims in the West can both be seen as strangers in Simmel’s sense, the Jews had “no country where they could claim not to be visitors or strangers” before 1948. Thus, “their strangeness was not confined to any particular place; they were universal strangers.”[8] In contrast, Muslim guest workers came to Western Europe from Muslim-majority countries, and the governments of their countries of origin continue to “keep a hand in European Muslim life” so that “the interaction of religious policies in Europe and the Muslim world has geopolitical resonance.”[9] In this respect, Muslims in Western Europe are comparable not to Jews but to Italian emigrants between 1880 and 1915 and to Mexican emigrants in the first decade of the twenty-first century; in both cases, the Catholic Church and government officials in the countries of origin sought to maintain relations with these emigrants.[10] The socioeconomic contexts of Jewish and Muslim incorporation also differ. Most French and German Jews had joined the ranks of the bourgeoisie by the late nineteenth century, but alongside them arose a Jewish working class comprised mainly of recent immigrants from eastern Europe. The Jewish class structure was thus more differentiated in contrast to the economic disadvantage prevalent among Muslims in Western Europe today. Last, in terms of the political context, there was no analogue among Jews in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Europe to the radical Islamist terrorism that has struck at European and American cities and stoked fear and suspicion of Muslims in the West.[11] Although Jews, too, were frequently viewed as a threatening presence in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, bourgeois Jews were generally thought to menace by nonviolent and especially pecuniary means. To be sure, some Jews were involved in revolutionary movements, but such involvement, even when disproportionate, did not make these movements Jewish. Unlike Islamist terrorism, which is based upon an interpretation of Islam, revolutionary violence in Western Europe was not based upon an interpretation of Judaism.[12] In short, the civil incorporation of Muslims today and Jews in the past has proceeded under different conditions, which include the relative size, type of “strangeness,” and socioeconomic status of the out-group, as well as the presence or absence of organized and religiously inspired political violence.[13]

The notion that Muslims are the Jews of the twenty-first century also neglects important differences in the collective representations of the two out-groups. Again, at a high level of abstraction, these representations will look similar: opponents of incorporation stigmatize out-groups as carriers of anticivil traits, while proponents of incorporation strive to counter the stigma of incivility with favorable representations that foster identification with out-groups and broaden the boundaries of solidarity….[14] However, … we find that representations of Jews and Muslims are linked in different ways to the opposition between tradition and modernity. As we have seen, Jews have appeared in modern social thought both as personifications of a backward Orient and as agents of Western modernity. In contrast, Muslims are rarely represented in contemporary European or American discourse as agents or symbols of modernity….

There is a final reason to doubt that Muslims are the new Jews: The old Jews have not disappeared from the Western imaginary. While Muslims have surely emerged as an important and significant touchstone in their own right, they have not displaced Jews in contemporary discourse. On the contrary, the Jews — and now the Jewish state — continue to serve as a touchstone for defining the meaning of European or American modernity in the twenty-first century….

Jewish solidarity in the form of Jewish nationalism (which today means Zionism) is frequently decried as atavistic and retrograde. This view is more than a diffuse prejudice; intellectual elites like the British-born historian Tony Judt and the Italian-born historian Enzo Traverso have given it elaborate theoretical expression.[15] Perhaps the best example can be found in the work of Alain Badiou, who describes himself as “the most widely read and translated French philosopher in the world.”[16] Badiou’s “Uses of the Word ‘Jew’” reproduces all of the motifs that [Mitchell] Cohen identified in classical antisemitic discourse and deploys them in the service of a new narrative of supersession…. To him, Israel signifies “obsolete” colonial oppression and a “kind of archaism,” not only because it occupies the West Bank, but because “Israel has called itself a ‘Jewish state’ with an ‘Arab minority.’”[17] “Truly contemporary states or countries are always cosmopolitan,” Badiou insists.[18] “The modern conception of a state is an open conception,” a “creative patchwork” made up of “all the people who live and work there.”[19] Holding up the European Union as a model, he asserts that “Israelis and Palestinians,” like “France and Germany,” are “fiancés by war” who must be “fused, pure and simple.”[20] “Today’s equivalent of Paul’s religious rupture with established Judaism” is thus “a subjective rupture with the State of Israel,” which is to say, with “its exclusive identitarian claim to be a ‘Jewish state,’ and with the way it draws incessant privileges from this claim.” In Israel’s place he proposes to create an abstract, “secular and democratic Palestine, one subtracted from all predicates, and which, in the school of Paul — who declared that, in his view of the universal, there is no longer ‘Jew nor Greek’ and that ‘circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing’ — would show that it is perfectly possible to create a place in these lands where, from a political point of view … there is ‘neither Arab not Jew.’”[21] The venerable opposition between backward Jewish particularism and progressive Christian universalism … is hence pressed into service again in the twenty-first century.

Allegedly holding more than others to an outdated history that must be abolished, the Jews, “Zionists,” or the Jewish state appear as an obstacle to all of the contrary qualities required by modern progress. Such characterizations bring to mind earlier representations of Jews as backward Orientals…. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to conclude that the contemporary denunciation of Israel as an anachronism is simply a revival of Orientalist thinking. In contemporary discourse, the Jewish state is not deemed to be backward because it is Oriental. Rather, in a cruel historical irony, the Jews who were once denigrated as an Oriental presence in Europe are now denounced as a European or Western presence in the Middle East.[22] But if the Jewish state is discursively constructed as an expression or manifestation of the West, it is not the purportedly progressive, postnationalist, and contemporary West extolled by Badiou and others, and hence not the West’s collective ego ideal.[23] Through processes of projection and splitting well known to psychoanalysis, what the Jewish state really represents to the Western intellectuals who most vehemently detest it today is the West’s polluted and polluting past: ethnic nationalism, racism, religious intolerance, colonialism, imperialism, militarism, and so on. When this process is taken to an extreme, Israel is equated with Nazi Germany and its treatment of the Palestinians with the Shoah.[24] The Jewish state is imagined to recapitulate the worst crimes of old Europe and to lack all of the virtues of the new, postwar, postnationalist Europe, or at least of Europe’s most enlightened forces….[25]

The Jews or the Jewish state still serve as an intermediary for self-reflection in our own time…. Whether as the chief threat to modern values or the personification of them, Jews are repeatedly placed at the sacred center of society…. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the immense significance that some political elites attribute to the Jewish state. Not content to criticize the real injustices for which Israel is responsible, they make this tiny state the font of all troubles in the Middle East and even the world….[26] The problem … is not that it is always antisemitic to confer symbolic centrality upon the Jews. The problem is that repeatedly placing Jews at the sacred center renders them prime targets in ongoing conflicts over society’s sacred ideals, images, and symbols, even when Jews may be peripheral to those conflicts or have little real influence over them.[27]


Reprinted with permission, from Modernity and the Jews in Western Social Thought by Chad Alan Goldberg, published by University of Chicago Press. © 2017 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved.


[1] Kumar, “Nation-State, the European Union,” 54.

[2] D. T. Goldberg, “Racial Europeanization,” 349.

[3] Al-Azmeh, “Afterword,” 209.

[4] Nachmani, Europe and Its Muslim Minorities, 9, 140–41.

[5] Laurence, Emancipation of Europe’s Muslims, 8, 121–26, 130–31.

[6] Alexander, Civil Sphere.

[7] Laqueur, Changing Face of Antisemitism, 126. Wasserstein, On the Eve, 1–2.

[8] Bauman, Modernity and Ambivalence, 85.

[9] Laurence, Emancipation of Europe’s Muslims, 5.

[10] Choate, Emigrant Nation. Fitzgerald, Nation of Emigrants.

[11] Of course, not all Muslims subscribe to an Islamist political ideology, and only a small minority of Muslims are involved in terrorism. See Pew Research Center, Muslim Americans (49–56), on Muslim attitudes in Europe and America regarding Islamic extremism and terrorism.

[12] Traverso asserts in La fin de la modernité juive (123, my translation) that “the specter of Islamist terrorism has replaced that of Judeo-Bolshevism,” but the analogy is misleading because the former is quite real while the latter was an invention of antisemitic propaganda. Prominent Bolsheviks were Jews, but Bolshevism was never based upon an interpretation of Judaism.

[13] I do not mean to suggest that Islam is uniquely capable of inspiring violence. It would not be difficult to adduce examples of contemporary violence inspired by extremist interpretations of other religions.

[14] Alexander, Civil Sphere. Alexander, “Struggling Over the Mode of Incorporation.”

[15] According to Judt, “Israel: The Alternative,” Israel “imported a characteristically late-nineteenth-century separatist project into a world that has moved on, a world of individual rights, open frontiers, and international law.” Israel thus became an “anachronism” in a world of “pluralist states which have long since become multiethnic and multicultural.” … Traverso provides another variation on the theme of Jewish backwardness in La fin de la modernité juive. From 1750 to 1950, he argues, Jews exhibited a predominantly progressive, critical, nonconformist, and cosmopolitan outlook rooted in their experience of dispersion and exclusion. But since the mid-twentieth century, he contends, they have taken a conservative turn…. He traces this supposed reversal to two events: the Shoah, the consecration and memory of which has allegedly eliminated antisemitism as a serious problem, and the establishment of Israel on a purported foundation of ethnoreligious nationalism “when, in the Old World, national sovereignties were coming into crisis,” Germany was freeing itself from its “chauvinist past,” and the construction of “European unity” had begun (24). All translations from Traverso are my own.

[16] Badiou, “Uses of the Word ‘Jew,’” 234.

[17] Badiou, “Uses of the Word ‘Jew,’” 162, 214.

[18] Badiou, “Uses of the Word ‘Jew,’” 163.

[19] Badiou, “Uses of the Word ‘Jew,’” 214.

[20] Badiou, “Uses of the Word ‘Jew,’” 212. The formation of the European Union did not, of course, fuse France and Germany into a single state. No matter for Badiou, whose answer to this objection is that Israel must be held to a higher standard: “The Zionist state must … become the least racial, the least religious and the least nationalist of all states. It must become the most universal of all” (209). Elsewhere Badiou appears to back away from a conceptual opposition between Europe and Israel. In one instance, he concedes that Europe, too, has “‘national’ states (Croat, Serb, Slovene, etc.) that are totally archaic,” but only because it “accepted” the breakup of Yugoslavia (214)…. Badiou also concedes in at least one instance that Israeli policies are “neither more nor less cynical and particularist than those of any other States” (242). However, even if Israel’s alleged wickedness is not exceptional, it remains exceptional in his view by virtue of the talismanic power of its Jewish name, shared by no other state, which supposedly shields it from criticism, his own notwithstanding.

[21] Badiou, “Uses of the Word ‘Jew,’” 163–64.

[22] Buruma and Margalit, Occidentalism, 138–39. Shepherd, State beyond the Pale, 218–25.

[23] It is incorrect to say that Jews are viewed in Western Europe as “the veritable embodiment of the postnational order” (Bunzl, “Between Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia,” 502) and misleading to assert that Jews, “after having historically embodied a figure of otherness internal to the Western world,” now symbolize the Western world (Traverso, La fin de la modernité juive, 116, my translation). The implication of such claims is that Jews have become privileged insiders of a dominant Judeo-Christian, European, or Western order at the expense of new out-groups, particularly Muslims. These claims fail to recognize how the positive image of a modern, postnational Europe is constructed in opposition not only to the Muslim other but also to the Jewish state….

[24] Shepherd, State beyond the Pale, 55–60.

[25] With the end of the Cold War, “intellectuals and publics” began to identify nationalism with “the negative antimonies of civil society,” while counterposing it to a “newly universalized discourse of the good” that gave “new legitimacy” to the United Nations and the European Community. Alexander, “Modern, Anti, Post and Neo,” 93. This is especially true of Jewish nationalism…. Others have made arguments similar to my own about Israel and European postnationalism, to which I am indebted, though I do not necessarily agree with them in all details…. To the extent that Israel serves as Europe’s other, European anti-Zionism functions similarly to anti-Americanism. Alexander, “‘Globalization’ as Collective Representation,” 87–88. Heins, “Orientalising America?” Markovits, Uncouth Nation.

[26] French diplomat Daniel Bernard reportedly said in 2001 that “the current troubles in the world were all because of ‘that shitty little country Israel.’” “Why,” he reportedly added, “should the world be in danger of World War Three because of those people?” Amiel, “Islamists Overplay Their Hand.” BBC News, “‘Anti-Semitic’ French Envoy under Fire.” In a poll of seventy-five hundred Europeans conducted by the European Commission in October 2003, respondents identified Israel as the biggest threat to world peace. Fuller, “European Poll Calls Israel a Big Threat to World Peace.” In 2015, Irish statesman Dermot Ahern reportedly referred to “the destabilising of the entire region, because of the Israeli-Palestinian issue, and that has been the source of all the problems in that part of the world.” Ó Raghallaigh, “Israel-Palestine Conflict Is Not the Source.”

[27] Hirsh, “Corbyn Left.” Maltz Bovy, “Comparing Syrian and Jewish Refugees.”

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