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Marx on the Jewish Question


Jewish People

“It is by no means sufficient to ask: Who should emancipate and who should be emancipated? Criticism has to be concerned with a third question. It must ask: What kind of emancipation is involved and what are the underlying conditions? Criticism of political emancipation itself is primarily the final critique of the Jewish question and its true resolution into the 'universal question of the age'.” (pp. 220-221)

“Bauer asks the Jews: Have you the right to demand political emancipation from your standpoint? We ask on the contrary: Has the standpoint of political emancipation the right to demand from the Jews the abolishment of Judaism and from man the abolishment of religion?” (p. 221)

There are two separate counter-arguments advanced by Marx against Bauer's position. The first claims that the existence of religion is not incompatible with the full development of the state, and that the criteria for the acquisition of civic rights in a truly political state should not include any demands regarding one's religion. Marx takes the case of North America to buttress this point, and claims that the order of things in the political realm is far from necessary and fixed, as Bauer assumes. As Marx puts it, in those states of America where the Jewish question ceases to be treated theologically the state is foreign to all faiths and the question of political rights is no longer treated as a privilege granted to a minority group either by the good will of a monarch or by a decision of a majority defined by its commitment to a religion.
The second counter-argument deals with the general issue of human emancipation: it explains “what it is like to be humanly emancipated” and shows how human emancipation is connected to political emancipation. Starting from the bottom line of Marx's resolution of the Jewish question, his immediate message to the Jews is this:

“We thus do not say with Bauer to the Jews: You cannot be politically emancipated without emancipating yourselves from Judaism. Rather we tell them: Because you can be emancipated politically without completely and fully renouncing Judaism, political emancipation by itself is not human emancipation. If you Jews want to be politically emancipated without emancipating yourselves humanly, the incompleteness and contradiction lies not only in you but in the essence and category of political emancipation” (p. 232)

Soon, we will explain what these two types of emancipation are, and what sort of contradiction that precludes the political emancipation of the Jews Marx was talking about. According to Marx's argument, because Bauer's demand has been proved to be logically untenable, political emancipation as the receiving of political rights does not require the renunciation of one's religious creed. This right can be exercised equally well with the others, for they make sense and can be realized only within a society.
However, the matter of the freedom of creed does not stand alone in Marx's thinking. The emptiness of his seemingly favorable approach becomes evident when Marx claims that the political elevation of man above religion shares all the defects and advantages of any political elevation: the commitment to religion should be eliminated as a relevant factor for entering into the political realm and making claims for rights, just as private property had been discarded as a factor according to which persons could enter the political realm (ibid., p. 224). The consequences of this comparison should not be overlooked. To compare the right to private property to the right of the freedom of creed, one must be either extremely ignorant or bold in the same degree. In what sense is the right to the freedom of creed similar to the former? The first right is of an essentially social nature and in many senses one's creed seems to be truly decisive in respect to one's self-identification and belonging to an encompassing group. For example, being a Jew, whatever quarrels this question might trigger, remains a question of cultural origin, and whatever differentiation one may discover within the Jewish people there is still a wide common denominator which distinguishes it from other peoples and gathers them into one group.
What could be more dissimilar to it than the right to private property, which is only contingent and does not seem to importantly define one's cultural identity? Right now we are close to the answer to the question we set out to explore. Marx treated both rights equally, claiming that they are both politically irrelevant to human emancipation. And so he killed the Jewish question by neutralizing the very content of the right of the freedom of creed and ignoring its importance in shaping the different identities of different groups in civil society. Any final doubts about the accuracy of this diagnosis fade away when the issue of human emancipation is considered.
The rights of man, according to Marx, are those interests which stem from the very human condition, which, at the most fundamental level, is the same for everyone. The rights of man are only the rights of a member of civil society, that is, of egoistic man separated from other men and from the community. On the most fundamental level man is as a monad withdrawn to himself, who has the right to equality, liberty, security and property, while the goal of all political association is the preservation of these rights, which are natural and imprescriptible. These sketchy considerations are sufficient for understanding what Isaiah Berlin meant in saying that Marx decided to kill the Jewish question. What he meant was that Marx neutralized the Jewish question by making it a universal question: not the questions of Jews per se, but rather the question of general human and political conditions. Everything which had somehow to do with the question of Jewish identity was of no interest for Marx, or at least, not in the spectrum of factors to be taken into account.

Let me now explain in what sense Marx's account of the Jewish question is relevant today. I shall start from the suggestive and obvious - the historical point of view. Given that Marx's ideas lie at the heart of the left-wing movement as such and socialism in general, one may assume that they might somehow find an expression in their ideology, rhetoric and actions. Many aspects in the history of the founding and running of the state of Israel point in this direction. Two examples: firstly, the very idea of kibbutz – liberation through collective work, abolishment of private property, and an attempt to overcome the natural alienation of man within a collective framework. Second, the very conception of the melting pot as integration and the forming of a collective identity, which proved to be unsuccessful in Israel in respect to Sefardi Jews (for its being in essence insensitive to different cultural identities), but the effects of which are still very tangible. However, I will not discuss these heavy issues here. I merely refer to them as the most natural and straightforward loci of the implementation of Marx's ideas in the recent past.
What I do want to point out is the connection between the familiar views about the desirable character of Israel as a normal, democratic, liberal, Western, constitutional state and Marx's discussion of the Jewish question. To recall, what lies at the heart of his solution is the equalization and universalization of all men at the expense of ignoring their different identifications with different groups, and their different identities thus acquired. The cost of this proposal should not be underestimated, for speaking in Marx's parlance, the shape of one's identity is largely independent of one's will, and is therefore natural and imprescriptible. I claim that this is the same problem that lies at the heart of contemporary left-wing movements that hold on to the dream referred to above. This dream can only come true if the state “will be foreign to all faiths” and will treat everyone according to the unique criteria of social justice, which, again should not take the matter of faith and cultural identity into account. It is in this sense that Israel will become the state of all its citizens, with a unique constitution, and the removal of what has always been treated as the dictate of religion from the public sphere to the sphere of private right.
I am not going to extend the modest goal I have set myself to achieve here. Namely, I will not discuss whether the view just mentioned is totally wrong, for the spectrum of issues and problems to be dealt with extends the limits of this composition. I suggest that the reader to reflect upon it. If I have succeeded in pointing out the relevance and value of Marx's views today, and showing that the claim about his anti-Semitism has far reaching consequences, I shall be satisfied.

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