European Sociological Association Research Network 31: “Ethnic Relations, Racism and Antisemitism”

European Societies Forum

Our ESA Network on Racism and Antisemitism brings together, into a common forum of discussion, research activity in each of these areas. An informing idea behind setting up this network is that a prevailing current in the sociology of race has been that of a black-white binary which excludes other forms of racism that do not fit this binary. Our conviction is that an explicit connection between racism and antisemitism (and other intra-European racisms) helps us redress such exclusions. We also recognise that prevailing currents in study of antisemitism have generally not led scholars to situate this phenomenon with the context of racism more broadly but rather to view antisemitism sui generis as an independent phenomenon. Our belief is that Sociology can play a more universalistic role in overcoming tendencies toward particularism and that the broadening of our sociological imagination will flow from recognition of connected sociologies.

The connection between racism and antisemitism may appear uncontroversial, almost banal, but today any sociology that seeks to connect the phenomena of racism and antisemitism must be willing to confront serious resistance arising from a number of related sources. On the one hand, there are specialists who have an interest in maintaining a kind of sub-disciplinary specialization and in saying that this form of racism is real whilst that form of racism is minor or marginal or not real at all.  There are emphatic theories of difference that construct walls between one form of racism and another and find it difficult to recognize the sheer versatility of racism. There are standpoint epistemologies that say that only the victims can properly understand the racism or antisemitism directed at them and slip into paradigms of competitive victimhood that refuse to acknowledge the victimization of others.

In relation to antisemitism, most social scientists acknowledge that antisemitism was a major issue in the past but there are many who deny that antisemitism is any longer a significant issue in the present and argue that antisemitism has become more rhetoric than reality. They may embrace a philosophy of history that sees the new Europe as having overcome its darker, nationalistic temptations; or they may say that the conditions in Europe that once led to antisemitism have now been superseded and Islamophobia and other racisms have substituted for antisemitism. There is a temptation in sociology to resort to the symbolic erasure of antisemitism and disregard the mythological images antisemitism inherits from the past, because they are unwanted reminders of the subterranean streams of European civilization.

In terms of political argument it is sometimes said that the charge of ‘antisemitism’ is employed dishonestly as a means of deflecting attention from the allegedly racist character of Zionism and the Israeli state. It is said that a focus on Jews as victims of antisemitism serves to obscure the wrongs Jews themselves commit as victimisers. In these political debates we have to acknowledge that anti-racists can represent concern over the ‘antisemitism’ question mainly as a smokescreen for racism against Moslems, Arabs or Palestinians; and conversely we have to acknowledge that anti-antisemites can represent ‘antiracism’ as an ideology of those whose hostility to Israel is antisemitic in its effects if not its motives.

In the face of all these resistances, which we only touch upon here, our conviction is that the project of connecting racism and antisemitism – which is not at all the same as identifying them – is worth doing.  Racism and antisemitism evolved together in European societies as coeval manifestation of how Europeans at once turned on non-Europeans outside Europe and on one another within Europe. To see their connectedness today is our way of keeping in mind the universalistic promise of the sociological imagination.

Robert Fine and Claudine Attias Donfut

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