The son of a Catholic mother and Jewish father who had converted to Lutheranism, the German philosopher and sociologist Theodor Adorno emigrated to the U.S. after the Nazis came to power. Thereafter he devoted serious attention to anti-Semitism, which he had fled, and American racism, which he was encountering for the first time. Eric Oberle, in a recent book, explores the connections between the two in Adorno’s thought. In his review, James Loeffler finds a thread running from Adorno’s theories to the inability of much current thinking about racism, prejudice, and “intersectionality” to account for the hatred of Jews:
Oberle’s book is full of pathbreaking insights rendered in a dense, fast-paced but crystalline prose. . . . In the end, though, it leaves unanswered the precise question of how Adorno saw the relationship between anti-Semitism and racism. It is not clear whether Adorno ever really resolved the tension between his Marxian universalism and “the demands of particularity.” Did he go far enough in his recognition of the pluralistic nature of human experience—and the varieties of identity that the world has produced? Happily, we can look forward to Oberle’s promised second volume, continuing this crucial endeavor of intellectual history.
Meanwhile, events in our day continue to exhibit the ongoing relevance of Adorno’s insight that [what he termed] “positive” and “negative identities”—subjective self-affirmation and external societal marking—operate in tandem. Any account of anti-Semitism must [therefore] grapple with the distinctive character of Jewish identity. That is why the problem of anti-Semitism continues to resist easy incorporation into a general theory of prejudice—generalization requires congruence among all units in the category. But where do Jewish people fit in the roster of other oppressed minorities? Neither color nor class neatly applies. Nor does sexuality. Even religion cannot capture the scope of anti-Semitism, as the case of Adorno himself, [who knew nothing of Judaism], perfectly illustrates.
That may help explain why Adorno’s latter-day heirs, the social theorists of intersectionality, have struggled so much with how to slot anti-Semitism into their theories of prejudice. Like the spokespeople of Columbia University, [who after the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre released a statement that mentioned neither anti-Semitism nor Jews], they remain captive to their own limited understandings of the Jewish identity under attack.