[This text is a script produced for Nomen-collective’s series “The Colonial Gaze,” and was the basis of a public discussion on 22/11/2017, in Bilgisaray, Berlin-Kreuzberg. See: https://nomensiteblog.wordpress.com%5D
#1 What I want to talk about
When I started writing this text, I intended to throw a bold conclusion into the room. My first few lines read: “I have found an anti-colonial Jew, but he converted to Islam, which is why, strictly speaking, I have not found any anti-colonial Jew. I am relatively sure, too, that my search will remain futile. I will never find one.” This opening is admittedly pessimistic, too pessimistic, yet it does introduce the contours of my question: Does a radical dismissal of the colonial will require one to refrain from speaking as a Jew?
I will tackle this question through analyzing two kinds of crossings of religious boundaries: the move into Judaism and the move out of Judaism. What I am interested in here is, however, not the “spiritual” making or unmaking of a Jew, but rather the political meaning of a Jewish identity that is actively forged and publicly highlighted, versus one that is deliberately effaced. This is an analysis of political significations – not a dissection of the personal motivations behind anyone’s conversion, including my own. Thus, even if the analysis of political significations points at the difficulty of anti-colonial Judaism, this does not imply me jumping off the ship, but quite the contrary: It rather draws me into the direction of “radicalizing” my religious self. But I digress, and will go a few steps back in my search, to a walk across an almost deserted fairground in rain-swept, autumn Vienna.
Becoming Muslim, he mentioned in passing, was not exactly a move that thrilled his peers in a very positive way. This is plainly understandable, I thought, in case his peers were rabbis or pious family. Yet he was referring to left-wing liberals and anti-racist activists, whose dismay about their fellow’s conversion to Islam is somewhat less understandable: From the perspective of a non-Jewish Austrian left-winger, what is problematic about a secular Jew becoming a Muslim? Why does it even matter? Would any fuss have been made had he converted, say, to Catholicism?
According to one line of explanation, the left’s unease with a secular Jew’s conversion to Islam is rooted in its traditionally vexed relation to religion: Much of contemporary left-wing discourse is historically and ideologically bound to the liberational impetus of the 68’ties, which declared nations, borders, religions and other societal conventions to be either obsolete and/or evil and hence to be abandoned – just consider the hymn of the time, John Lennon’s “Imagine”: “Imagine there’s no countries, it isn’t hard to do, nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too.” For those who inherited the 68’ties’ suspicion of religions, the deliberate making of a religious self is thus naturally difficult to apprehend. It clashes with the left’s traditional commitment to secular subjects. A conversion to Orthodox Judaism or Catholicism is in this respect not much different from a conversion to Islam: The heirs of John Lennon will be at unease whenever a formerly enlightened individual chooses to embrace what they have identified as backward, oppressive, patriarchal and generally unreasonable.
Yet, it seems to me that this is not the whole story. A Jew’s conversion to Islam confronts the left with a challenge that by far supersedes the challenge of making the “wrong choice.” It is much “worse” than a Jew’s conversion to Catholicism, or a Catholic’s conversion to Islam, or a Catholic’s conversion to Judaism, even “unenlightened” Orthodox Judaism. But why is this so? Why is the crossing of this particular religious boundary so difficult? What kind of anxiety does a Jew, who becomes a Muslim, arouse? I will go back in time a few more steps, to a “burkini beach-party,” which took place last summer in Berlin, right in front of the Embassy of France.
#3 Berlin, “Burkini Beach Party”
“You are a Muslim right?” the journalist asked me, absent-minded, while positioning his microphone in front of me. I shook my head, “no, actually not, I am Jewish.” “Oh no, shit!” suddenly agitated, he exclaimed: “I need a Muslim! Can you quickly organize me a Muslim?”
I must have looked as if a dinosaur is standing right in front of me. This was the first and only time in my life that a journalist “needed a Muslim,” that a “Jewish voice” was rejected in favor of a “Muslim voice.” I was so surprised that I forgot to ask him why exactly he “needed a Muslim.” What is certain, however, is that this entirely exceptional scenery points at the mechanism of the norm, the non-exception: Once a public platform is occupied by a Jew and a Muslim, the “Muslim voice” matters insofar as it either affirms or counters the “Jewish voice.” That is, the prism, through which we look at Muslim existence, is the prism of the Jew, circling around the question of whether or not Muslim existence is or isn’t a threat to the Jew, whether the Jew is better served through an exclusion or rather through an education of Muslims.
It is the omnipresence of this perspective, and the sheer unthinkability of its reversal, that explains why any address of anti-Muslim racism, any stance for Palestine, any agitation for the “other” of Western colonialism, has to perpetually stress that it is not anti-Jewish. The classical configuration of anti-colonial activism therefore goes something like this: “We fight all kinds of racism, regardless of the ethnicity of the wrongdoer. Muslims may be anti-Semites, homophobes, misogynic sexists, a heap of shit, but this is no reason to discriminate against them.” In line with this configuration, there does not exist one German left-wing organization, initiative or NGO that would declare its only mission to be the fight against anti-Muslim racism: If one’s cause is anti-Muslim racism, one is virtually duty-bound to position oneself also against anti-Semitism. One will not survive politically without this, because declaring one’s fight to be genuinely and uniquely about Muslims will inevitably be interpreted as implying an anti-Jewish/anti-Semitic/anti-Zionist agenda, or at least indifference toward it. It is for this reason, too, that the strategy that is by far the most successful when speaking about anti-Muslim racism, entails the demonstration of discursive parallels between anti-Muslim racism and anti-Semitism: Once anti-Muslim racism can be associated with anti-Semitism, one can legitimately oppose it, because then (and only then), it seems, is it “really and truly” evil. (As if in case anti-Muslim racism is unlike anti-Semitism, everything’s perfectly fine.)
Within this configuration, a person’s Jewishness matters, whether or not the individual Jew wants it to matter: he effectively crushes any suspicion of anti-Judaism and/or anti-Semitism. He fights anti-Muslim racism, or raises his voice for Palestine – yet be aware! He can be believed when claiming that such activism does not imply his consent with suicide bombings. Or even more valuable: He fights against the discrimination of Muslims – yet be aware! He does so because he knows what it is like to be discriminated against. The Jew here is a figure that legitimizes the fight for colonialism’s other through imposing a “Jewish” perspective on that fight. That is, through the presence of Jews, the fight against anti-Muslim racism can be plausibly conceptualized and legitimized as a fight, that is “actually” directed against anti-Semitism – an identification with Muslims “passes” as long as it is configured as an identification with Jews, too.
The Jew who turned into a Muslim thus became not only “useless” as far as his previous function is concerned. He became not only as irrelevant as any other Muslim, because he, in contrast to any other Muslim, has robbed the fight against anti-Muslim racism its “best” legitimizing base-line: His fight now cannot be configured anymore as representing the interests of a Jewish collective, or as being motivated by an identification with Muslims on account of being a persecuted people too. And as if this was not bad enough, his conversion cannot even be emotionalized (and therewith de-politicized): Conversions of men never are “the poor girl has succumbed to the pressures of her Arab boyfriend.” And worse: in this particular case, the conversion to Islam could not even be interpreted as the result of a radical disavowal of previous politics: “my” anti-colonial Jew continued to publicly act and speak in the realm of anti-racism also after becoming Muslim. He thus “forced” his surroundings to come to terms with a fact that as simple as shocking: his fight against anti-Muslim racism was motivated NOT by an identification with Muslims as a Jew, but an identification with Muslims as a Muslim. His peers’ dismay about his conversion to Islam then was not caused by seeing him turning his back against “the cause” – which he didn’t do in any case – but by his renouncement of his function as Jew in that same cause.
And this renouncement seems to hint at something like a nightmare, a scenario that is – even though it was throughout history the norm – extremely rare today: There can be a disparity between the function of the Jew and the Jew. And then, when the doll gets a life of its own, it can cause the entire doll-house to explode: When the fight for the Muslim other looses its Jewish other, then the fight for the “bad other” will have to legitimize itself without the prism of the “good other,” and Muslim existence will have to matter whether or not it affects Jewish existence – and “Jewish existence” here is, as I’d argue in the following two sections, a chiffre for much, much more than “just” the lives of actual Jews. Or maybe, it is not even primarily about the lives of actual Jews.
I will go back a bit further now, to a random conversation some years ago in Berlin.
#4 Berlin, Subway
“You know,” she said, hesitatingly, “there is something I’d like to ask. When I converted, basically everything remained the same. I mean, my parents, Christmas, friends, all that…but you, hmmm…” Hmmm, I answered, and wondered: How can the joining of a people, who have been Christianity’s Antichrist since its inception, be possibly perceived as less than a major rupture? How can a conversion to Judaism be something that hardly plays out in one’s actual life, something hardly even felt?
What this conversation indicates is, that conversions into Judaism and Islam are not necessarily two parallel moves – namely, transitions into so-called religious minorities – but diametrically opposite moves: As far as their political signification is concerned, a conversion into Judaism is a move into the hegemonic, whereas a conversion out of Judaism (and so the more a conversion out of Judaism and into Islam) is a move out of the hegemonic. Which is why conversions into Judaism are, particularly liberal “conversions,” relatively widespread, while conversions out of Judaism are practically non-existent: This is not so because Jews are suddenly more pious, or because non-Jews suddenly just “happen” to be attracted to Judaism, but because people make their political, religious and aesthetic choices in a manner, that improves (or at least safeguards) the greatest possible utilization of the resources and privileges available to them: Today Judaism is a desirable commodity on a cultural marketplace that can, under liberal umbrella-terms such as “diversity,” entail pretty much anything and everyone. It is thus precisely the completely exceptional character of the deliberate and conscious move out of Judaism, too rare even to be grasped statistically, which indicates the extent to which Judaism has become part and parcel of political hegemony: For the first time in history, people today remain Jews, or even desire to become Jews.
This does not contradict the fact that Jewish communities are, in their non-liberal versions, an “other” to Western secularized Christianity (a circumstance that would make political cooperation with Islamic communities seem inevitable). Yet mutual religious otherness notwithstanding, it is an otherness that is endowed with very different political meanings. A case in point may be the interpretation, which the “Antideutschen” have offered for Jewish and Islamic circumcision some five years ago, during Germany’s infamous “circumcision-debate.” According to the “Antideutschen,” Jewish circumcision is wholly compatible with Western values, and entirely different from its Muslim counterpart. Lunatic as this interpretation may sound at first, it seems to be, in fact, a correct analysis of colonial inscriptions: A rite that is practiced by Jews and Muslims alike can be made to bear diametrically opposite political meanings. The bodies of Jews and Muslims may be alike, but the way these bodies are read, is not. The way these bodies are valued is not: One captured Israeli soldier was swapped for 1027 Palestinian prisoners.
I know that some declare the anti-colonial, anti-Zionist Jew to be the “real Jew.” The Boyarin brothers, for example, write that “(t)he solution of Zionism (…) seems to us the subversion of Jewish culture and not its culmination. It represents the substitution of a European, Western cultural-political formation for a traditional Jewish one that has been based on a sharing, at best, of political power with others and that takes on an entirely other meanings when combined with political hegemony.” However, even though anti-Zionism was a relatively common element of pre-war orthodox discourse, this is today not so anymore, and the anti-Zionist Jew really does not (with the exception of the Neturei Karta maybe) represent a Jewish collective of significant numerical size or impact. That Jews’ political alliances have shifted over the past decades all over the world rightwards is thus not a “poor choice,” but an apt reflection of concrete interests: Going along Jewry’s “Israelification,” Jews vote for those parties that propagate an “Israelification” also of their home-countries in Europe or the United States, that is, parties, that interpret the world along the lines of a clash between the West and the East, between so-called Judeo-Christianity and Islam. This then is the first time in history that actual Jews fit into the mold of Christendom’s figure of the Jew, that there is a harmonic correspondence between what Jews think and do, and what Christians think Jews think and do: For the first time in history, a conversion to Judaism can be, indeed, as disruptive as the touch of a feather.
I will jump now to an incident, which some of us here remember, and which does, I think, shed light on the function of “Jewish existence” within a hegemonic Jewish-Christian harmony-game. Let me take a very quick glance on a “neighborhood-brunch,” that was organized by a certain Neukölln-based activist group under the auspices of a certain Rabbinerstudent.
#5 Berlin, neighborhood-brunch
“So you are a Muslim yes?” the lady from the local church inquired, very friendly. “No. Jewish.” “Oh amazing! I am so glad having asked! I would not have recognized you on the street! I would have thought you are…the thing on your head! Dear what a pity! Such a pity Jews are not recognizable on the street!” I wanted to be swallowed by the couch and screened the crowded room for a place of refuge: In the corner stood Armin providing comfort for three crying, old German ladies, while the founding director of the “Achse des Guten” came dangerously close to Ozan. The others handled a representative from the organization that awarded us the “Band für Mut und Verständigung,” or stood outside smoking, with facial expressions that indicated rising levels of stress. How the fuck could all this go so terribly wrong, I thought, so profoundly wrong.
The new Jewish-Christian harmony is of a kind, that carefully watches over the preservation of its Jewish part as “other.” Just that this time, this otherness does absolutely not need to be eliminated, but instead, is constantly showcased and accentuated: Far from being irrelevant, Western States use the presence of Jews in their midst in order to legitimize their superiority: The contemporary “good state” (pretty much like “the good man”) is not the one that physically crushes and tortures its others, nor the one that has no power to crush and torture. It is the one, that hints at its capability to do so, but refrains doing so in any explicit, bloodthirsty kind of way. (Even our wars abroad are sterile, point-on-point “operations,” not massacres.) The West’s embrace of a Jewish “good other” is thus integral to its own legitimation, its own exercise of power – and it is an embrace that does not require a Jew’s consent at all, for even a Jew’s rejection of the colonial will not undo his identification with it, will not undo him as a colonial figure of thought: A Jew who fights anti-Muslim racism or uses his voice for the Palestinian cause, will – whether he wants this or not – function as a figure that secures the compatibility of the fight for the “bad others” with the West’s investment in Jews as “good others.” He is inscribed as “good other” and this inscription cannot be rubbed away.
From the point of view of a secular Jew, who radically renounces colonialism then, jumping off the ship seems to make sense: For how much can one stretch one’s identification with the anti-colonial, when one’s own Jewishness is inevitably, all the time, co-opted as a figure that strengthens the colonial? Is there any way to speak and act without serving as a “good other” and providing hegemony with one of its most important legitimatizing asset?
#6 The radicalization of a religious self
I have, in the beginning, hinted at my own answer to the difficulty of anti-colonial Judaism: a “radicalization” of a religious self. The quotation marks framing “radicalization” here are deliberate, because I do absolutely not think of myself as a radical person. I simply seem to have fallen into a reality, in which Judaism is radically co-opted, commodified and appropriated, in which diametrically opposing causes can be legitimized through turning them into “Jewish causes”: “The Jew” is used to turn Palestine-activism into a “kosher” cause, just as “the Jew” legitimizes the spread of anti-Muslim hatred, a restriction of refugees in European states, or an assault on Gaza. “The Jew” then is irredeemably signified, and the only one move, I think, that just cannot be appropriated is a return to the tools, through which Jews have acted in this world for the past 1600 years, that is, the commandments. Observance does not absolve one from accountability regarding all those things, that are being done in the name of Judaism, yet it restores the Jew to the immanence of his or her body, to some kind of physical, material being, that will not dissolve in the larger projects within which Jewish existence is woven.
 It is hilarious to assume, I think, that left-wing dismay about a Jew’s conversion to Islam is somehow related to a concern for Jewish continuity, aka, “Jews have to remain Jewish, so that they may produce the next generation of Jews.” If this were the matter, one would expect scandal also about intermarriage. Yet for obvious reasons, no non-Jew has ever considered this to be any of his business (which is good, of course).
 I have described the difference between left-wing and right-wing discourses about religious difference as one of “colonial optimism” versus “colonial pessimism,” meaning, the left, in an attempt to incorporate difference, seems to believe in the education of the other and thereby universalizes and neutralizes him, whereas the right (correctly) acknowledges difference as difference, yet aims at its exclusion.
 In Germany, more than in other countries, the interchangeability of these terms is a given. The very questioning of their interchangeability is perceived of as a threat, that is, as a vindication of (Muslim) anti-Zionism as being not equal with anti-Semitism.
 This does not mean, I hasten to add, that I reject the obvious discursive parallels between contemporary anti-Muslim discourses and “enlightened” anti-Semitic discourses of the Weimar Republic, that is, I certainly see anti-Muslim tropes as a historical continuation of anti-Semitic tropes – even though there are also vast differences between the two, not only in terms of political context, but also, mainly, theologically: Islam never constituted a theological root-problem to Christianity akin to Judaism.
 Germany is sometimes referred to as Ger-mania.
 Daniel and Jonathan Boyarin, “Diaspora: Generation and the Ground of Jewish Identity,” Critical Inquiry 19:4 (1993), 693-725.
 Even biographically, a conversion into Judaism is often framed not as a transition, a switching of sides, but as a mere enactment of “what one has been all the time in any case.” Converts often refer to their conversion as no more than a little paperwork to get done, the acquisition of a little “official” stamp, a minor bureaucratic disturbance. The Jewish grandmother, whom the Nazis mysteriously didn’t find, and whose Jewishness has not left any documentable traces, is one of the most widespread tropes of the self-stories, which German converts to Judaism tell about themselves.