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Response To Finkel & Muraskin: Focus On The Lessons

Sherry Gorelick


Rather than quibble over the purity of Karl Marx's Marxist soul 125 years after his death, let's address the lasting issues raised by Kessler's book and my review. These are the issues that a present-day anti-racist, feminist Marxism must confront theoretically, politically, and practically. They involve understanding the limitations of mere opposition to discrimination and mere championing of "equality" within the unquestioned framework of the cultural hegemony of northern European Christian States.

One of Kessler's strengths is in understanding that our Marxist forbears, although far ahead of their times in many ways, were also limited by their times (as we are by ours). What have we learned since about their strengths and limitations that will help us to build on their legacies?

As Kessler shows, Marx and many of the Marxists who followed him (including Trotsky and Heller, to their peril) assumed that anti-Semitism would wither away with the demise of Capitalism. Assimilation or conversion would solve "the Jewish Question" by making Jews disappear. Whoosh! Abracadabra! The completely assimilated Social Democrat Trotsky fell victim to Soviet anti-Semitism not simply because, as Trotsky himself explained, Reaction uses scapegoats, nor simply because anti-Semitism remained available within Russian culture for scapegoating when Stalin needed it, but, I argue, because the cure, the answer to "the Jewish Question" via assimilation and democratic inclusion into Russian chauvinism, left Russian chauvinism and superiority intact.

If we build on Marx's perception, in his essay "On the Jewish Question," that the supposedly secular State in Christian society is deeply Christian, we can begin to understand what Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz has dubbed "Christianism." In her essay, "Jews in the U.S.: The Rising Cost of Whiteness" (in Names We Call Home: Essays on Racial Identity, ed. Becky Thompson & Sangeeta Tyagi [New York & London: Routledge, 1996]), Kaye/Kantrowitz says "In the U.S., Christian, like white, is an unmarked category in need of marking. Christianness, a majority, dominant culture, is not only about religious practice and belief, any more than Jewishness is. As racism names the system that normalizes, honors and rewards whiteness, we need a word for what normalizes, honors and rewards Christianity," an invisible, taken-for-granted system of domination that affects Muslims and other non-Christians as well as Jews (and, one might add, atheists and other secular people regardless of origin).

Christianism as distinguished from Christianity, the religion, refers to the entire system of cultural and institutional domination. It is far more problematic than the obvious trouble-making of U.S. Christian evangelists who wish to institutionalize their own particular sects more fundamentally into American government. Even religious liberalism has its limits. "Christianism" underlies the framing of "the Jewish Question" as solvable within an unchallenged Christian-dominated society, even a future socialist one.

Rather than taking ignorant swipes at "identity politics," Finkel would do well to read and ponder the 1977 manifesto in which the Combahee River Collective coined the phrase "identity politics" and articulated their vision of building on Marx's insights to combat racial, gender, and heterosexual oppression along with class oppression. ("A Black Feminist Statement" in All the Women are White, All the Blacks are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave, ed. Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith [Old Westbury, NY: The Feminist Press, 1982], 13-22.) It was a milestone in examining some of the hidden assumptions, the unfinished business, of socialist movements. The Combahee River Collective manifesto, along with the scholarship of the past thirty years, illuminates the limitations of assimilation into any dominant system (racial, religio-ethnic, sexual, etc.) as a mode of liberation, and proposes an anti-capitalist theory and political practice that is simultaneously, intersectionally, and fundamentally anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-homophobic, and revolutionary.

While socialist opposition to bigotry, discrimination and violence is necessary, these scourges have not been solved, and cannot be solved by democratically assimilating, and thereby "disappearing" their victims into their corresponding systems of domination. Mere assimilation does not solve the problem of racism, based on white supremacy, of homophobia, based on heterosexism, of sexism, based on male supremacy, or of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, based as they are on Christianism and white European imperialist supremacy.

"White" Euro-American imperial domination still frames "the Jewish Question" internationally and in Israel/Palestine, and as a Jewish feminist Marxist I consider it imperative that we turn the question around. As I said in my original review, we need a strategy to cleanse these dominant cultures of their Superiority Complexes. Just as anti-racists have turned around what used to be called "the Negro Question" to analyzing White Supremacy, and feminists have made clear that the problem is not "the Woman Question," but male supremacy, so the answer to "the Jewish Question" is destroying and dismantling all systems and ideologies of racial and religio-ethnic domination, and supplanting them with a culture and practice of real and substantive equality.


SHERRY GORELICK is the author of City College and the Jewish Poor: Education in New York, 1880-1924, Rutgers University Press, 1981. She has published articles on Jewish subjects, on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and on feminist methodology. She was Associate Professor of Sociology and Women's Studies at Rutgers University for over 30 years. She is an activist with Women in Black Union Square, NYC, and Jewish groups working for a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.


Debate: Anti-Semitism and Socialism

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