Alain Badiou’s essay “The Uses of the Word Jew“ is surprisingly popular and equally disturbing. While Badiou admits the return of a more banal and covert, but no less pernicious, form of anti-Semitism due to a lowering of the threshold at which public opinion no longer tolerates this sort of racialist provocation (paragraph 2) he nonetheless, unwittingly (I assume), creates the conditions for the possibility of a more overt form of anti-Semitism.
In the essay, Badiou suggests the elimination of identity predicates such as “Jew,” “Arab,” “Palestinian,” “French,” “Muslim” etc. in political discourse. The focus of the essay is specifically aimed at the use of the identity predicate “Jew”. Badiou asks if in the general field of public intellectual discussion, the word “Jew” constitutes an exceptional signifier, such that it would be legitimate to make it play the role of a final, or even sacred signifier (paragraph 4). Badiou argues that racial discrimination (anti-Semitism) and racial consciousness (philo-Semitism) are equal contributors to the problem of anti-Semitism and call for the same egalitarian and universalist reaction because both raise the identity predicate to a paradigmatic position that erroneously sacrilizes it so that it constitutes an exceptional signifier (paragraph 4). This shocking claim makes the exceptional use of the word Jew by Hitler in Mein Kampf and the use of the word Jew in Elie Wiesel in Night equally anti-Semitic.
Badiou’s chief claim is that the word Jew has achieved an unwarranted transcendent status as a result of the the Shoah which conferred upon the victims a sacred status. This status is rooted in what Badiou calls a victim ideology which he rejects because he does not accept that an atrocity confers a surplus value on a predicate (paragraph 9). In short, the victims of the Shoah and their descendants are of no more value than any other victim of an atrocity, or community in general. He argues that the use of identity predicates in public discourse disrupts the identitarian configuration of the cosmopolitan state (paragraph 11.) Applying his analysis to the current Israeli-Palestinian crisis, Badiou argues instead for a secular and democratic Palestine… subtracted from all predicates where private and political uses of identity predicates are strictly separated (paragraphs 11, 13). He recommends that Israel no longer refer to itself as Jewish or Palestinian state.
Badiou’s essay seeks to reduce the unique communitarian identities of private citizens to a zero-level of national homogeneity in the political realm as a resolution to hostilities arising from these differences. Essentially, Badiou’s argument is that there can be no racial discrimination if there are no racial predicates in use. This argument is similar to offering decapitation as a remedy for headaches: no head, no headache. Unfortunately, this reduces the particular identities and histories of citizens to political insignificance. The very assertion that the history and identity of Jewish people (or Palestinians, black South Africans, Native Americans or American descendants of slaves for that matter) is politically insignificant is ethically abhorrent.
A re-reading of Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism is instructive before reading Badiou’s essay. Arendt spends a good deal of time in this work highlighting the precursors to the Shoah. She points out that the alien was a threat to the totalitarian state. Difference was viewed with distrust and had to be eliminated. She writes:
The reason why highly developed political communities, such as the ancient city-states or modern nation-states, so often insist on ethnic homogeneity is that they hope to eliminate as far as possible those natural and always present differences and differentiations which by themselves arouse dumb hatred, mistrust, and discrimination because they indicate all too clearly those spheres where men cannot act and change at will, ie., the limitations of the human artifice. The “alien” is a frightening symbol of the fact of difference as such, of individuality as such, and indicates those realms in which man cannot change and cannot act and in which, therefore, he has a distinct tendency to destroy… No doubt, wherever public life and its law of equality are completely victorious, wherever a civilization succeeds in eliminating or reducing to a minimum the dark background of difference, it will end in complete petrification and be punished, so to speak, for having forgotten that man is only the master, not the creator of the world (Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, 301-302.)
One of the first acts of the Nazi regime was the transformation of European Jews and other undesirables into a “stateless mass”. European Jews were stripped of their citizenship and consequently were no longer protected by the law or subject to it. As Giorgio Agamben, has pointed out, The Jew living under Nazism … may be killed but not sacrificed (Agamben, Homo Sacer, 114.) Badiou’s argument seems to be a linguistic equivalent of the Nazi’s political policy of de-nationalization. By removing the legal identity predicates from the Jews of Europe the Nazi’s created a group that was outside the law and could then be murdered without impunity. While one may concede that it was the elevation of the identity predicate “Jew” that allowed for this exceptional status under the Third Reich it must be admitted that the Nazis were systematically eliminating all identity predicates except one: Aryan. One wonders if Badiou’s suggestion might lead to exactly the same situation. Whenever identity predicates are removed from the political realm and human beings are denied the right for “self display”(cf. Selbstdarstellung “the urge for self display’ Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind, Thinking, 29); that is the natural expression of difference, which Arendt argues is an innate impulse to reveal oneself as an individual, the conditions for the possibility of extermination are present. Arendt writes:
… whatever can see wants to be seen, whatever can hear calls out to be heard, whatever can touch presents itself to be touched. It is indeed as though everything that is alive – in addition to the fact that its surface is made for appearance, fit to be seen and meant to appear to others -has an urge to appear, to fit into the world of appearances by displaying and showing, not its “inner self” [which would be a zero-level predicate] but itself as an individual (Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind, Thinking, 29)
The innate impulse for self-expression that takes the form of identity predicates in discourse can only be repressed at our own peril. Badiou’s call for the elimination of identity predicates in public discourse creates the conditions for the possibility of a new anti-Semitism. Let us take the time to read Arendt before we read Badiou.