Left antisemitism, gender critical feminist transphobia, and the (il)logic of essentialism

“Any demand that people clearly be men or women, let us be clear, is the patriarchal world view. But from the view that sex is material, that biological sex is immutable, comes a requirement that bodies line up, to appear as men or women. Biological sex is used to create a social line, that we have the right, even moral duty, to enforce. Any costs become regrettable. In such a world view, deviation is seen as dangerous, even deadly. This is how, by treating the idea of two distinct biological sexes not as the product of the sex-gender system, but as before it and beyond it, “gender critical” feminists tighten rather than loosen the hold of that system on our bodies. To breathe in feminism we have to loosen this hold.” [Original emphasis] (Sara Ahmed, 2021)

“As a fascist trend, the anti-gender movement supports ever strengthening forms of authoritarianism. Its tactics encourage state powers to intervene in university programs, to censor art and television programming, to forbid trans people their legal rights, to ban LGBTQI people from public spaces, to undermine reproductive freedom and the struggle against violence directed at women, children, and LGBTQI people. It threatens violence against those, including migrants, who have become cast as demonic forces and whose suppression or expulsion promises to restore a national order under duress. That is why it makes no sense for “gender critical” feminists to ally with reactionary powers in targeting trans, non-binary, and genderqueer people. Let’s all get truly critical now, for this is no time for any of the targets of this movement to be turning against one another. The time for anti-fascist solidarity is now.” (Judith Butler, 2021)

In November 2021, three motions relating to academic freedom were tabled at my local UCU branch: two explicitly addressed the case of the sacking of David Miller (one of which called out his antisemitism) and one implicitly related to both the cases of David Miller and the resignation of Kathleen Stock. This latter motion is noteworthy in the differentiation it made between those who label the views of others as “‘hate’” and contributing to feeling “‘unsafe’” (note the use of single speech marks) and those who experience “genuine hate speech and threats to safety”. Two groups are implied here: Jewish students and staff, and trans students and staff. Whether intentional or not, this motion reflects a wider phenomenon in the leftist and feminist milieux: both Jewish and trans people are delegitimised when they call out, respectively, antisemitism and transphobia, since both are accused of manipulating their ‘apparent oppression’ for sinister ends.

Left antisemitism and the transphobia of gender critical feminists while separate also intersect: Jews (who do not denounce Israel) are seen to be complicit in a Zionist network of world destructive power; trans women are viewed as carrying patriarchal power and as seeking to both destroy sex-based rights and invade women’s spaces and bodies. Both Jews and trans women are deemed as having especially dangerous, invisible and lurking hegemony. The Jew vis-à-vis Israel and Zionism is ‘the Other’ of the Left and the trans woman is ‘the Other’ of gender critical feminism.

Essentialism is precarious territory for leftists and feminists to slip into. The idea of a hierarchy of inferior to superior biological ‘races’ is both intellectually out-dated and regressive; this includes the delineation of naturalised culturally essentialist ‘races’. The gender critical feminist fixation on and essentialisation of – and primacy given to – biological sex is fundamentally incompatible with a project for human liberation and emancipation. Any intellectual and political endeavour that ascribes power to the skin colour or the religion or the genitalia that one is born with will find itself intersecting with a trajectory of far Right ideology.

Students of the Deutsche Studentenschaft, organized by the Nazi party, parade in front of the Institute for Sexual Research on Beethovenstraße, Berlin, on 6 May 1933 (Wikimedia Commons)

Joni Alizah Cohen (2018), in her article, The Eradication of “Talmudic Abstractions”: Anti-Semitism, Transmisogyny and the National Socialist Project, elucidates on the history of the far Right and antisemitism and transphobia:

“The earliest entanglement of Nazi anti-semitism and transmisogyny occurred in response to the emerging gay and trans liberation movement in Weimar Germany. The earliest development of an organised effort for gay and trans liberation emerged in Germany in the late 19th century, and reached a new level of power in 1919, with the establishment of the Institute of Sexual Science in Berlin. The Institute’s founder was Jewish Marxist scientist and political campaigner Magnus Hirschfeld. Hirschfeld was a committed organiser in the German Social Democratic Party, and headed the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee – the world’s first gay and trans advocacy group. Hirschfield is credited with the coining of the term “transvestite” and “transsexual”, and in his research and advocacy he was committed to opposing the eugenic homophobic and transphobic science of sexology that emerged in Germany at the end of the 19th Century, a science which had come to dominate state understandings of sexual and gender issues and which profoundly influenced the sexual and gender politics of National Socialism. […] Eugenic sexology understood homosexuality essentially through the lens of gender, specifically as the corruption of the male body and psyche by femininity. […] Transness is here understood as a dysgenic biological defect that must be eliminated for the health of the species.”

The denial of trans rights and existence on the basis of sex trumping gender is premised on the notion that trans existence is biologically false and unnatural and thus harmful to the body politic – the intersection and potential slippage here from gender critical feminist thought to fascist thought is plain.

Cohen (2018) continues:

“For his crime of arguing against this strand of eugenic science it is not surprising that Hitler is reported to have named Magnus Hirschfeld “The most dangerous Jew in Germany” […] The Institute was seen by the Nazis as a hub for Jewish Marxist intellectuals and their nefarious plans to undermine the purity of Aryan racial biology and culture. […] We can see that Nazism understands itself to be engaged in a culture war with Jews over gender roles and gender/sexual variance. But, just as we saw in the original National Socialist regime, Nazism also understands the fundamental terrain of this war to be on the level of biology. There is a deep anxiety expressed in Nazi and far-right thinking which is constantly concerned about the biological undermining of the white race yes, but also the white male, and his hormone balance, his testosterone level. Nazi political ontology understands the biological as one of, if not the most important terrains of political dispute. We know this in our understanding of Nazi race theory, but what has been neglected is the centrality of endocrinological purity and security to Nazi ideology. In this sense, endocrinological purity is the gender/sex corollary of the Nazi eugenic project of racial purity.”

Far Right ontological thought elevates the biological terrain in its quest for racial and sex purity. Social categories and material reality are reduced to biology, including the demand for men to be men and women to be women. Drawing on the work of Moishe Postone, Cohen (2018) offers an explanation for this biological materialism:

“[…] it is not only the concrete ‘side of the antinomy which can be naturalized and biologized… the manifest abstract dimension was also biologized – as the Jews. The fetishized opposition of the concrete material and the abstract, of the “natural” and the “artificial,” became translated as the world-historically significant racial opposition of the Aryans and the Jews.’ The “natural rootedness” of the Aryan Volk is contrasted to “rootless cosmopolitanism” of the wandering Jews, who in their diasporic state, abstracted from territory or nation, become a perfect candidate to represent the transnational abstraction of the capitalist world-system. The essential content of National Socialism then is ‘a biologization of capitalism – which itself is only understood in terms of its manifest abstract dimension – as International Jewry.” The National Socialist project is therefore a fetishized ‘overcoming of capitalism and its negative social effects’ through the total eradication of the Jews.”

Similarly, Cohen (2018) demonstrates (drawing on Gonzalez and Neton’s essay The Logic of Gender) that the far Right has:

“[…] an understanding of gender/sex wherein gender is understood as a social construction (an abstraction), but the naturalisation of sex is redoubled. Gender is therefore historical and mutable whilst sex forms the natural and transhistorical substratum upon which it is written. Following Postone, the authors argue that ‘the transhistoricisation of sex is homologous to a foreshortened critique of capital, which contends that use-value is transhistorical rather than historically specific to capitalism.’ If we take the structure of Postone’s argument about anti-Semitism and apply it here, we can begin to see where the foreshortened critique of gender posits sex as the concrete reality which must be protected from the pernicious abstractions of gender. In the National Socialist framework of fetishized concretism the concrete biological reality of sex is figured as primary and pure; along with a thorough renaturalisation of gender as a reaction against the mainstreaming of denaturalised nature under late capitalism. For National Socialism, the primacy of sex is reinforced in opposition to the ‘Talmudic abstractions’ of multiple and fluid genders then cast as the pernicious force which seeks to dominate and even erase the sensuous, simple and concrete sexual dimorphism and the natural binary gender roles which flow from it.”

Cohen (2018) concludes:

Just as the Jew becomes the concrete manifestation of the abstraction of capitalism and the law of value, the trans woman becomes the concrete manifestation of the abstraction and denaturalisation of gender. The trans woman is a woman without the concrete biological content of womanhood. She is woman in the abstract, separated from her biological foundation, and therefore her use as the conduit for the reproduction of the Aryan race in this grand Darwinian struggle. She is everything that is detestable about womankind, for Nazism, without any of the redeeming biological expediencies. Further, she represents the worst excess of the cultural degeneration of modernity and contemporary capitalism. Just as the “rootless cosmopolitan” Jew represents abstraction by being rooted in no Nation, trans people demonstrate a rootless cosmopolitanism of gender/sex – with disregard for rootedness of sex and the allegiances of gender. She is a product of a culture so abstracted and so sick, in their eyes, that it actively encourages the corruption of the purity of biological sex and the destruction of gender roles so essential in the battle for racial primary.” [Original emphasis]

The powerful insight delivered by Cohen (2018) is that both antisemitism and transphobia operate on the same (il)logic of a concrete biological reality of ‘race’ and sex: the purity of the Aryan ‘race’ to be protected against the pernicious Jew, and pure and primary sex to be protected against the pernicious abstractions of gender. As long as the culturally naturalised and essentialised Jew vis-à-vis Israel and Zionism is ‘the Other’ of the Left and the biologically essentialised trans woman is ‘the Other’ of gender critical feminism, the related ideas and arguments of the leftist and feminist milieux will intersect with fascist ideology. Our comrades and sisters are not fascists. The battle for ideas is absolutely critical here if we are (to paraphrase Sara Ahmed’s opening quote) to breathe in a politics for the liberation and emancipation of all of humankind.

References:

Ahmed, Sara (2021) Gender Critical = Gender Conservative, Feminist Killjoys, https://feministkilljoys.com/2021/10/31/gender-critical-gender-conservative/, last accessed 21 November 2021.

Butler, Judith (2021) Why is the idea of ‘gender’ provoking backlash the world over?, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/commentisfree/2021/oct/23/judith-butler-gender-ideology-backlash, last accessed 21 November 2021.

Cohen, Joni Elizah (2018) The Eradication of “Talmudic Abstractions”: Anti-Semitism, Transmisogyny and the National Socialist Project, Verso Blog, https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/4188-the-eradication-of-talmudic-abstractions-anti-semitism-transmisogyny-and-the-national-socialist-project, last accessed 21 November 2021.

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