JVL Introduction

This essay is published in a special issue of the Marxist journal Historical Materialism, responding to ongoing debates around what is termed ‘identity politics’. The overarching theme of the collection is that ” all identity categories are spatially and temporally contingent – socially constructed, yet naturalised”.

This essay by Sai Englert teases out some implications of this approach in the case of Jewish identity-formation in recent times, particularly the role played by the state in this process, concluding controversially that far from operating as a shield against antisemitism, the state remains the central agent in its reproduction.


Judaism, Zionism, and the Nazi Genocide

Jewish Identity Formation in the West between Assimilation and Rejection

Sai Englert, Historical Materialism
Issue 26 [2], 2018


This paper explores contemporary Jewish identity-formation, identity politics, and the centrality of state-sanctioned commemoration of the Nazi genocide and Zionism – understood as the ongoing settler-colonial project aimed at the formation and maintenance of a Jewish-exclusivist state in Palestine – to both. It argues that dominant identity politics within the Jewish community are based on an understanding of identity, one which assumes it to be static and individual.

Firstly, this paper discusses the importance of studying processes of identification rather than assuming identity to be static, a-historical, or immutable. It argues that the state is a central actor in structuring processes of identification from above, and that it is in the contested relationship between the state and the population which it attempts to identify that identities are continuously re-created. It further places these processes within the emergence of European modernity and colonialism.

The paper then moves on to a discussion of modern processes of Jewish identification. It locates their origin within the emergence of the European nation-state. It highlights the different, and often opposing ways in which Jewish communities have historically responded to these state-led processes. The paper moves on to discussing how a political framework focussed on a fixed Jewish identity, and the centrality of Israel to that identity, has become dominant in recent years.

The paper then offers a critique of the classical Marxist approach to the Jewish question before analysing the development of new processes of identification of Jewish people in the West. Central to these are the strategic role of the Israeli state in the Middle East, and the crucial nature of official Holocaust history to Western self-representation.

Finally, the paper argues that contemporary Western states perpetuate antisemitism, albeit under a different guise, through the essentialisation of Jewish communities as an extension of the Zionist project in Palestine and as bearers of official state-sanctioned history. In doing so, the state mobilises these communities as representatives of its policies abroad, and discriminatory policies at home.

The paper’s conclusion is that far from operating as a shield against antisemitism, the state remains the central agent in the reproduction of antisemitism. The identification of many within the Jewish community with Israel and the Zionist project in Palestine, and with an official account of the Nazi genocide that whitewashes Western states, is an outcome of state processes of identification. The paper will focus mainly on Anglo-Saxon realities and examples, especially the UK but also the US, which constitute the largest and the fourth-largest Jewish communities outside of Israel. Additionally, the two states’ historic and contemporary role in supporting the Zionist movement in Palestine warrants this focus. 

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You can read the full paper on the Historical Materialism website here.