Tag Archives: Jack Jacobs

From the archive: Passages Through Dark Times

Been going through some of my old stuff, and found some stuff from the CUCR magazine Street Signs (archive online here). This is from page 18-19 of Volume 1, Issue 5, Spring 2003. The issue also has a lovely interview with Paul Gilroy about The Streets, Fran Tonkiss on “inner city values”, Michael Stone on Laurie Grove in New Cross, Les Back interviewing M Y Alam, Hiroki Ogasawara visiting Walter Benjamin’s grave, and a beautiful celebration of Flemming Røgilds.

The article below describes my first proper academic conference, in Leipzig, and reflects on the relationship between Jews and the left in the darkness of the 20th century, and how that darkness is remembered by historians and leaves its traces in urban space. Since I wrote it, some of the people in it have passed away, including Arnold Paucker in 2016 (age 95).

Memhardstrasse and Rosa Luxemburg Strasse

Passages Through Dark Times
Ben Gidley talks about Jewishness, Memory and Urban Space in East Germany

“You who will emerge from the flood in which we were drowned remember when you speak of our weaknesses the dark time from which you escaped…
Remember us with forbearance.”
–Bertolt Brecht “To Those Born After Us”

“Even in the darkest of times we have the right to expect some illumination, and such illumination may well come less from theories and concepts than from the uncertain, flickering, and often weak light that some men and women, in their lives and in their works, will kindle under almost all circumstances and
shed over the time span that was given them on earth…”
–Hannah Arendt “Men in Dark Times” 

The transit bus from the airport into Leipzig arrived at the exact time given on the time-table. The bus glided through the flat monotony of the Saxon countryside, entering a zone of urban sprawl, in which it was impossible to distinguish which low-rise concrete box contained homes and which contained factories, warehouses, offices. The grey postindustrial landscape was punctuated here and there by Vietnamese signs, testimony to the historic links between East Germany and Communist Vietnam.

From the bus station, we crossed over the no-man’s land of a wide ring road (“good for tanks”, as my Yiddish teacher, Gennady Estraikh, pointed out – a fact he knew from the bitter experience of living most of his life in the Soviet Union) into the beauty of the baroque town centre. Since reunification, Leipzig has been a jewel in the East’s crown, receiving heavy regeneration investment. “Leipzig is coming” is the bizarre slogan of the tourist office, which describes it as a cosmopolitan, multicultural town (not something apparent from the faces of the people I passed on the street).

It was Autumn 2001. I was in Leipzig to participate in a conference, held at the Simon Dubnov Institute for Jewish History and Culture, entitled “Jewish Questions, Communist Answers”, about the historical relationship between Jews and Communist parties. I was anxious about giving my first proper conference paper – especially as I was scheduled into the opening slot, at 9 a.m., sharing a platform with some of the most distinguished scholars at the conference. As it turned out, post-September 11 fear of flying had kept away many of the American delegates, including the one I was most scared about sharing a session with. The absence of Americans, however, also meant that the dominant language shifted from English to German, leaving me feeling a little marginal – something non-English speakers regularly experience in the often American-centric academic world. As with many European academics, most of the conference participants were able to slide with ease between languages. But the multi-lingualism of the conference delegates was part of something different. Continue reading


From the BIH blog: Racism, Antisemitism, Theory

From the BIH blog on a recent event I co-organised.

On April 24 scholars and activists packed out a large room at Birkbeck for a one-day workshop titled ‘Racism, Antisemitism, Theory’. Organised by Dr BrendanDr Ben Gidley and Dr Aaron Winter, the workshop was generously supported by the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities and the Pears Institute for the study of Antisemitism. The event brought together ten speakers to explore the relationship between racism and antisemitism.

For the organisers, the rationale for holding such an event was clear: across Europe, the United States and other parts of the globe, we have witnessed a resurgence of racism and nationalism, including anti-migrant xenophobia, Islamophobia and antisemitism, as well as the mainstreaming of far right and even fascist discourses. Alongside the emboldening of colour-coded forms of racism and racialisation, older forms of antisemitism have returned to the political mainstream – openly in cases such as Hungary’s Jobbik or Greece’s Golden Dawn or just beneath the surface as in France’s Front National – while both traditional and unorthodox forms of white supremacy and antisemitic conspiracism now have a foot inside the White House.

If the task before us is to understand these racisms, old and new, then it is a task that has provided no shortage of challenges. One such discussion that has proved to be especially difficult to navigate is the relationship between racism and antisemitism. The controversies of the racism/antisemitism debate are to be found in many regions of the world, but they have been particularly keenly felt in the UK, where in the last year, the tangled and tense discussion on antisemitism in the Labour Party has continued to rumble on, often generating more heat than light.

What these and other such debates have revealed is that there are a real set of difficulties in thinking about racism and antisemitism together. At the level of the political, those who shout loudest about antisemitism sometimes have little to say about other forms of racism, and the reverse is equally true. Within the academy, scholars of racism and antisemitism are all too rarely in dialogue with one another. What we aimed to do in the workshop was to take a step back from politics towards theory. Or as Stuart Hall once put it, to take a ‘detour through theory’ as a way of renewing anti-racist scholarship.

The workshop addressed three key issues. First, we explored not just the limits but also the possibilities of bridging the conversations on racism and antisemitism. Second, we explored a range of theoretical traditions and their capacities for making sense of the racism/antisemitism relationship. Third, and perhaps most importantly, we identified some of the barriers within our existing theoretical frameworks that prevent a bringing together of these issues.

The day was split into three panels, with two papers and a discussant in each session.

In Panel 1, Professor Jack Jacobs and Dr Christine Achinger explored Critical Theory and the role it might play in helping us think through the relationship between racism and antisemitism. Jacobs offered a close reading of the writings of Frankfurt School theorists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, arguing that their insights into antisemitism also provide a resource for thinking about racism and other forms prejudice. Achinger drew on more recent developments in critical theory to explore the racism/antisemitism relationship.

In Panel 2, our attention turned to intersectionality and whiteness studies. In the opening paper, Professor Avtar Brah highlighted the way differential racialisations pose difficulties for anti-racist practice. In the second contribution, Professor Anoop Nayak argued for the need to think more critically about the liminal category of ‘white other’. Whiteness, he argued, is not homogenous, but multiple and mutable. Dr Gail Lewis, in her comments, reminded us of the dialogues between black and Jewish feminists in the 1970s. She also raised concern about the tendency to construct equivalences when racism and antisemitism are brought together.

In the final panel, Professor Satnam Virdee and Professor Bryan Cheyette examined whether postcolonialism might help us to think about racism and antisemitism in conjunction. In a paper that argued against ‘supersessionist’ thinking, Cheyette explored the difficulties that postcolonialism has in accounting for ‘Jewish experiences’, and similarly, the inabilities of Jewish studies to come to terms with colonial histories. In the final paper of the day, Satnam Virdee spoke of the important contributions postcolonialism has made to the study of racism, but also its difficulty in capturing the racialisation of the ‘European interior’. This, he said, is a consequence of a flattening of ‘the west’ such that other modalities of racism are elided, including antisemitism and anti-Irish racism.

Given the direction of travel in global politics, it seems that the issues raised in this workshop are unlikely to go away any time soon.