Judith Coffey and Vivien Laumann critique that antisemitism and Jewish perspectives have thus far often been elided in intersectional debates. At the end of 2021, they published their book Gojnormativität (Goynormativity) to make Jewish positions more speakable and visible. We had the privilege of talking to Judith Coffey about Goynormativity, the relationship between racism and antisemitism, whiteness and alliances of solidarity.
Today we’re speaking about a few aspects of your book Gojnormativität. Could you start us off by explaining how you came up with the term and what it means?
Goynormativity is analogous to heteronormativity. Goy is the term for non-Jews from a Jewish perspective. We asked ourselves why it is not common in relation to antisemitism to mark the dominant, non-Jewish position, as is done with heteronormativity or with critical whiteness. Especially in Germany, in a post-national-socialist society, it is actually absurd if there are no terms for this – that is, terms for goyish privileges, such as a family history free of persecution and murder. We also chose goynormativity because it is important to us to focus on structural aspects and not to talk about privileges in an individualizing way. Goynormativity describes the relationship between Jews and goyim.
Vivien Laumann and you situate yourselves in German-Austrian and queer feminist contexts. To what extent do these different contexts shape your concept of goynormativity? And do you think it is also useable beyond these contexts?
The fact that we refer primarily to queer feminist and leftist contexts has to do with the fact that this is where we locate ourselves and that these are the contexts in which we want to intervene. But the term goynormativity is definitely useable beyond that, especially in terms of hegemonic German Erinnerungskultur (politics of remembrance). It was important for us to say whom we are addressing in the book. There are already a fair number of critiques of memory discourses, but we wanted to look at what happens in leftist, queer feminist contexts, because we asked ourselves how it can be that the discussion about antisemitism is going so awry in these contexts. How can it be that antisemitism is often not an issue at all or is defined away, trivialized, or declared unimportant?
In terms of the German-Austrian context: We think it’s important to be specific. One of the arguments we emphasize in the book is that when we talk about intersectionality, we need to consider what is specific to the German or Austrian context. What aspects play a role in a post-national-socialist society that don’t play a role in the US, for example? How are hierarchical structures differently historically constituted?
Because we are talking about goynormativity and not Christian normativity, the concept may have the potential of raising questions about the place of Jewishness (or the non-place of Jewishness) also in predominantly Muslim societies, for example. But it would be too sweeping a statement to say that goynormativity can be a relevant analytical tool everywhere. Our book is an invitation to people to take this notion of goynormativity, think it through and further, and consider what it might mean for their context.
In the book, we intentionally do not give hands-on instructions on how goynormativity can be criticized in different contexts. The point is to first become aware of the questions, and then enter into an effort to grapple with them. It would be wonderful if people could continue to work productively with the concept of goynormativity.
Could you explain why the term ‘goynormativity’ is necessary. Isn’t ‘antisemitism’ sufficient?
In no way do we want to replace the concept or analysis of antisemitism. We think of the two terms more in the sense of the relationship between critiques of racism and critical whiteness. Antisemitism is surely in some sense the larger issue because it is the relation of domination. What’s more, antisemitism is also a model for explaining the world, a deeply rooted ideological foundation of German and Austrian society – and beyond. The term goynormativity cannot capture all this.
What we want to achieve by introducing goynormativity is – as with critical whiteness – to draw attention also to the mostly invisible and unmarked dominant position, and to call on the people who are socially assigned this position to think about what that means.
At the same time, we want to bring Jewish perspectives into greater focus. Because there is a tendency to talk about antisemitism either as a purely abstract ideological construct, or to project antisemitism into the past and implicitly assume that antisemitism only happened during National Socialism and now it may still exist among Nazis or right-wing conservatives, but it is not something that people are concretely affected by today. We want to make clear that people are affected, and to emphasize that these people need to be heard.
The idea of using the term goy here is based on the fact that it denotes the dominant position from a Jewish perspective. It is, so to speak, an externally-designated term for the dominant position, speaking from the Jewish point of view. So there is a shift: who actually names whom, who claims the right to look at whom?
In your book you directly address the relationship between antisemitism and racism on several occasions – can you briefly talk about parallels, entanglements and differences?
Sure. Instead of parallels, I would rather speak of thinking together. We do this because we find it problematic that racism and antisemitism are often spoken about in completely different contexts and with different vocabulary. We use what seems to make sense to us in other contexts, to see what we can learn from them for dealing with antisemitism. Nevertheless, I would always say that when dealing with any and all forms of discrimination or power structures, it is important to stay specific.
Antisemitism does not completely merge into racism. There are racist forms of antisemitism, but there are also, for example, very strong conspiracy-ideological tendencies that do not fit into most definitions of racism.
If one speaks of antisemitism only as a sub-category of racism, the people affected are again lost from view. When it comes to racism, most people don’t think of Jews as those affected. And sometimes – and this would be the criticism now – it seems that it is actually about something other than the question of the best analytical category when people insist vehemently on defining antisemitism as a form of racism. In such cases, there is often a reverberation of the antisemitic notion of Jews always wanting something extra, a special category of their own. At the same time, in relation to other forms of discrimination, work is often done to create new terms that can more accurately describe the specific power relationship in question, like, for instance, anti-Muslim racism.
In German-language contexts, the English collective term BIPOC (Black Indigenous People of Colour) has become established to describe people who are affected by racism. I once followed a discussion on Twitter in which Max Czollek said that BIJPOC would be better for the German context (i.e. Black, Indigenous, Jewish and People of Colour). Malcolm Ohanwe then suggested: “SOJARIME: Black, Eastern European, Jewish, Asian (West, East, South Asian), Roma, Indigenous, and/or racialised as Muslim, as well as other ethnicized minorities.” They both seem to be invested in specification. Is this something you and Vivien Laumann are also interested in?
Yes, exactly. We want to specify and, at the same time, to ask why there is so much resistance to naming antisemitism. We are not so hung up on the concrete forms in which the specification is made.
We had a really interesting discussion recently where one person asked, “Why don’t you use the term POC the way it was meant to be used, as an umbrella term for everyone who is racialized?” It would then clearly include Jewish people in Germany and Austria. In principle, I have nothing against doing it that way. I have sympathies with the term POC. But it is not currently used in this way. When POC is currently used, in the vast majority of cases it is not intended to include Jewish people. That’s okay, and I don’t need to demand to be included, but then we need another means of designation for the position that Jews occupy.
One of your guiding questions in Goynormativity is how to think about the relationship between whiteness and Jewishness. Why is this question central to you and what answers have you found?
It is indeed central because it seems to us to be central to the discourse. Especially when it comes to intersectional debates, Jewish people are often assigned to the white position – certainly in the USA, and increasingly also in the German context. Our starting point was to find this very problematic. There is one issue that is actually quite obvious: regardless of what concept of whiteness you have, not all Jews are white. This is a very remarkable omission. There is a homogenization of Jews that writes them out of the group of the discriminated and assigns them to the dominant, privileged group.
We look at this from different perspectives in the book, also in relation to intersectionality and the definition of intersectionality. If there is a focus on race, class and gender in the intersectionality discourse, then Jews already occupy an ambivalent position in terms of the categories. In order to move forward, conceptual work is needed: thinking about these categories and what Jewishness actually is – namely not just a religion.
On the other hand, we look at the antisemitic images that are called upon when Jews are homogenously marked as white and privileged. This is about ideas of Jewish power, secret Jewish plots, i.e. very old antisemitic stereotypes. In an additional twist, this is then projected onto Israel, which in its extreme form leads to Israel being called a white supremacist state. From the point of view of white supremacists, however, Jews are in no way white. This is an active withdrawal of solidarity, a real threat.
Can I come back to the first point on intersectionality? In your book you mention intersectional alliances in Germany in the 1990s that tried to include Jewish positions and that were not only about race, class and gender, right?
There were definitely attempts to form alliances. But the interesting thing is that some of the Jewish activists who were there at the time say today that these attempts failed. There is a subchapter on this in the book. If you look at the documentation of these alliance meetings, the legitimacy of Jewish participation was always in question. The discussion was not about how alliances could be formed, but whether Jewish women should be allowed to participate at all, despite their (perceived) whiteness. This in itself is a problematic question that does not take place on equal footing.
With our book, we do not want to set things off against each other or equate them. In fact, secular Jews who are read as white can often move safely in everyday life and are not exposed to racist attacks. It is important to consider and name the diversity of experiences. But it is also important to emphasize that this is only ever an ostensible safety. For Jewish people this can never be the same self-evident fact it is for white goyim. Blending into the white mass is fragile and can fall apart at any time.
A common accusation against new terminologies is that they can lead to fragmentation and make it harder to form alliances. But with Goynormativity, you argue for new alliances. How does this work?
Differentiation is actually a prerequisite for alliances and not an obstacle to them, because it makes it possible to meet on equal footing in the first place. One problem in the 1990s, for example, was that at that time there was only the category of Black. That was a collective term that many non-Black Jews found very difficult. It was somehow presumptuous and inappropriate to identify oneself as Black. We first have to know where we stand in order to be able to enter into alliances. In the end, positioning is a practice that we all have to learn.
Above all, we would like to see more willingness to critically engage with antisemitism, also and especially with one’s own antisemitic images and argumentations. This is a prerequisite for alliances to work without always causing hurt.