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MICHEL FOUCAULT AND THE QUESTION OF ANTI-SEMITISM

Society must be defended : lectures at the College de France, 1975-76 / Michel Foucault ; edited
by Mauro Bertani and Alessandro Fontana ; general editors, Francois Ewald and
Alessandro Fontana ; translated by David Macey

Chapter V, 4 February 1976

Answer to a Question on Anti-Semitism/ Hobbes on Fear and Sovereignty (Drafts)

1. It is What You Wanted

We should not, therefore, be asking subjects how, why and by what right they can agree to being
subjugated, but showing how actual relations of subjugation manufacture subjects. (p. 45)
For sovereignty to exist, there must be – and this is al there must be – a certain radical will that makes us
want to live, even though we cannot do so unless the other is willing to let us live. (p. 96)
"It 's what you wanted, it is you, the subjects, who constituted the sovereignty that represents you."
(p. 98)

In the 5th chapter, Foucault poses the question of anti-Semitism, but he does not come to grips with it.
Anti-Semitism is not his basic problem – he is rather interested in the elucidation of something that he
calls "political historicism" – this is an alternative historical approach, or a specific "counter-history"
that appeared at the outset of modernity and that interpreted history in terms of war, race, struggle and
domination. This counter-history is always perspectival, always from the one side, from "the side of the
survival of the speaking subject himself " (p. 52.) He draws only a general picture of the anti-Semitism,
as a religious and racial attitude borrowed from Christianity, that was reutilized by State racism in the
nineteenth century.

This alternative discourse disguises some tendencies of modernity that the leading intellectual figures
of modernity, Hobbes par example, tried to hide - that the modernity is all about power. As Foucault
shows in this chapter, Hobbes negates that war has anything to do with the constitution of sovereignty;
even in the case of commonwealths by acquisition (pp. 94, 95), refutes the possibility that society may
be based upon dominion, slavery and servitude. Hobbes was the first one who defined the problem of
sovereignty in modern terms, talking about the social contract, about the decisions that people make,
which constitute society and sovereignty. But Foucault, inspired by this counter-history, tries to show
what is behind Hobbes' theory, to elucidate the depressed history of the Norman conquest of England
that constituted the British empire, as well as the discussion that came to light in Hobbes' time, about
"the presence and the effects of the Conquest", (p. 99)

Foucault shows the transformations of a discourse of power that he calls a counter-history of the race
struggle, against the historico-political discourse of Roman sovereignty. He gives us a sketch of this
counter-history, in all its abrupt changes and contradictions. With the appearance of the racist
discourse, which stemmed out of this counter-history, it finally turned against those who had forged it,
and it was used to preserve the sovereignty of the State. State sovereignty became the imperative – with
regard to that, Foucault shows how Hobbes gave the State too much power. The father of the modern
representative democracy also can be regarded as the father of the totalitarianism. In the twentieth
century, this racism underwent two further transformation – in Nazi state racism and in Soviet State
racism. Anti-Semitism was a distinguished feature of both. In that regard, Hannah Arendt placed anti-
Semitism in the context of totalitarian society. She saw anti-Semitism as being intertwined with
imperialism and totalitarianism,

The discussion on Hobbes can shad some light on this processes.


If Hobbes claims that the subjects constitute the sovereignty that represents them, Foucault claims that
there are something more basic that subjects and sovereignty – they are relations of domination that
constitute subjects – in other words, power produces subjects and there is no autonomy, self-
determination, rights, equality and freedom; they are all modernity's illusions. The subject is never
autonomous - it is always subjugated. In Nietzsche's words, it is no more that a grammatical illusion.
This is a glorious genealogy of subject – which is one of the key concepts of the Moderna.

In his analysis of modernity (I also need to add that he thinks that this word is devoid of meaning, but
we don't have a better one) Foucault follows the sober insights of Max Horkheimer and Theodor
Adorno about the dialectics of Enlightenment, about its totalitarian tendencies, about the "dialectical
link between enlightenment and domination, in the dual relationship of progress to cruelty and
liberation"1

But what the question of anti-Semitism, which Foucault rather reluctantly poses (and does not answer)
at the beginning of this chapter, has to do with those insights? So, what would be the genealogy of anti-
Semitism.

2. The Dark Side of Modernity

Enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-imposed immaturity." 2


Enlightenment, understood in the widest sense as the advance of thought, has always aimed at liberating
human beings from fear and installing them as masters. Yet the wholly enlightened earth radiates under
the sign of disaster triumphant.3
… the German Aufklärung and the Jewish Haskala recognize that they belong to the same history; they
are seeking to identify the common processes from which they stem. And it is perhaps a way of
announcing the acceptance of a common destiny -- we now know to what drama that was to lead. 4

I would like to put the problem in the words of Shmuel Almog: "Modern anti-Semitism was almost a
contradiction in terms: did not the Great French Revolution put an end to the discrimination against the
Jews? "5Horkheimer and Adorno show that the roots of anti-Semitism and Holocaust lie in the
aforementioned dialectical link.

"The Age of Reason" is a very illustrative synonym for the Moderna. For the father of modern
philosophy, Descartes, the faculty of reason (or ability of abstract thinking) is the basis for human
freedom and the mastery of nature. Casted by the dark shadow of the Holocaust, Horkheimer and
Adorno's analysis shows that reason has become irrational. In Heideggerian terminology, the essence
of Subjectivity appears here as brutality and bestiality.6 A hidden tendency of the enlightened
aspiration for the cognition of the Nature – i.e. to rule over the Nature and mankind - woke up in the
Nazi will to rule over the whole world, where, "the Jews are marked out as the absolute object of
domination pure and simple".7

The cold, clear and steady world of Reason shattered – inconceivable things are happening now – even
though Descartes in the Sixth Meditation assumes that exist only the things of which we have a clear
and distinct idea.
As Horkheimer's, Adorno's and Foucault's analysis shows, modernity has its dark side, Irrationality,
that burst out in the Holocaust is the other side of reason, Anti-Semitism as irrational hatred – a dark

1
M. Horkheimer and T. W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, p.169
2
Immanuel Kant – An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?
3
M. Horkheimer and T. W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, The Concept of Enlightenment, p. 1
4
Michel Foucault – What is Enlightenment ?, p. 32
5
Theorizing about Anti-Semitism, the Holocaust and Modernity
6
Cf. Martin Heidegger, Nietzsche, vol. 4, pp. 147-48
7
M. Horkheimer and T. W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, Elements of anti-Semitism, p. 206
side of assimilation– dominion and conquer – a dark side of liberation, barbarism – a dark side of
progress, the punitive and disciplinary mechanisms – a dark side of parliamentary democracy.
In regards to anti-Semitism, the modern period is marked by two seemingly contradicting phenomena
– assimilation and anti-Semitism. The Enlightened Europe is in the sign of so-called Jewish Question.
This question is only a modern form of the obsession with Jews through history, that preoccupied the
imagination of the European peoples. The Jewish question was a debate about the Jewish emancipation
and assimilation, about the rights for the Jews in European societies, and their becoming the equal
citizens. This debate was followed by the rise of modern anti-Semitism in the 1870s. On the side, a part
of the Jewish people believed that the Jews should integrate into European societies. The Haskala
movement advocated the enlightened values and the rule of reason.
The emancipatory will of the enlightened Jewish subjects coincided with the emancipatory will of the
enlightened absolute sovereigns. Was it a happy coincidence or it was rather fear that produced this
will, fear aroused by the punitive politics of the enlightened sovereigns that formed the will of the
Jewish subjects. Simply said, they only wanted to live, to stay where they are, to escape expulsion. In
the episode with Hobbes, Foucault shows that the subject's will is only an illusion that masks the
relations of power.
One historical episode illustrates this link between assimilation and the relations of domination: "The
goals of the maskilim were affected by the absolutist rulers of the time. Joseph II issued one typical
edict for the Jews of Bohemia, Moravia, Hungary and Galicia in the 1780s. He decreed that Jews must
establish "normal" schools or send their children to state schools, Jews were allowed to attend general
secondary schools and universities, marriage was prohibited without a certificate of school attendance
and anyone who studied Talmud before completing the school curriculum could be imprisoned. As a
result of this decree, many new, modern Jewish schools were created."8

Another episode, during the debate over the emancipation of the Jews in the French National Assembly
in 1789, shows the same thing. Comte de Clermont-Tonnere declared: " To the Jews as individuals we
should grant everything. But to the Jews as a nation – nothing."9 In a similar way, Napoleon instituted
the Great Sanhedrin, whose only purpose was to legislate a new Jewish law enabling the Jews to cease
being a nation and to become Frenchmen 'professing the religion of Moses'."10 The French Revolution
abrogated the right of the Jews to be different from the other nation, and endowed the Jewish
individuals with the right to be equal citizens, the Nazi state finally abrogated the right of the Jews to
live, both as a nation and as individuals.

We see here the effects of totalizing powers of modernity – to assimilate all the differences – in order
to make subjects – to subjugate them. In the strange and conflictual genealogy of Enlightenment I tried
to sketch, the tendency of assimilation turns, with the Nazi state, in the tendency of annihilation. The
drama of German Jewry that begun as a drama of their dual identity,11 bifurcated between universal and
particular, a drama of their emancipation and assimilation, finally lead to Holocaust. Participants in this
drama are such great figures as Moses Mendelssohn, "the first German Jew", that was both an
observant Jew and a proud German 'professing the religion of Moses', as well as Horkheimer, Adorno
and Hannah Arendt, the Jews who abandoned their Judaism both in the national and in the religious
sense, who fit perfectly into Deutscher's description of non-Jewish Jews of Moderna, who, like the
Talmudic Akher, left the boundaries of Judaism, and "had the deepest roots in intellectual tradition and
in the noblest aspirations of their times".12 Their perspective is the universal and humanistic perspective
of Jewish German philosophers, remaining deeply loyal to the German culture, even though they
shared their destiny with the other Jews and their position was a position of a persecuted Jew, .

8
Shira Schoenberg, The Haskalah
9
Yoram Hazony, The Jewish State: The Struggle for Israel's Soul, p. 88.
10
Ibid.
11
Cf. Paul Mendes-Flohr – German Jews
12
Isaac Deutzscher, The Non-Jewish Jew (1958), in: Zionism Reconsidered, (ed. Michael Seltzer), New York, 1969, p. 74.
Bibliography:
Immanuel Kant – An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment? (1784)
http://www.english.upenn.edu/~mgamer/Etexts/kant.html
M. Horkheimer and T. W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments (1947), ed.
G. S. Noerr, trans. E. Jephcott, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002.

Michel Foucault – What is Enlightenment ? , in Rabinow (P.), ed., The Foucault Reader, New York,
Pantheon Books, 1984, pp. 32-50.
http://foucault.info/documents/whatIsEnlightenment/foucault.whatIsEnlightenment.en
.html

Michel Foucault, Society must be defended : lectures at the College de France, 1975-76 ; edited by
Mauro Bertani and Alessandro Fontana ; general editors, Francois Ewald and Alessandro
Fontana ; translated by David Macey

Yoram Hazony, The Jewish State: The Struggle for Israel's Soul, New York, Basic Books, 2000
Shira Schoenberg, The Haskalah
http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/Haskalah.html
Prof. Shmuel Almog - Theorizing about Anti-Semitism, the Holocaust and Modernity
http://sicsa.huji.ac.il/modernity.html
Ronald Aronson, After Marxism, New York : Guilford Press, 1995.
Martin Heidegger, Nietzsche, vol. 4, San Francisco, trans. from the German by David Farrell Krell.
New York : Harper Collins, 1979.
Paul Mendes-Flohr – German Jews, Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 1999.
Isaac Deutzscher, The Non-Jewish Jew (1958), in: Zionism Reconsidered, (ed. Michael Seltzer), New
York, 1969.