TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Enlightenment and Pedagogy

This is part two of Matthias Küntzel’s article “Confronting Anti-Semitism — But How?” which appears in Telos 136 (Fall 2006). Part one appeared on Thursday, and part three will appear on Saturday. Click here to purchase the full issue. The German version is available on Matthias Küntzel’s website,

Enlightenment against Anti-Semitism

I will not be concerned in the following with the societal parameters (politics, media, culture) that more strongly shape the anti-Semitic consciousness than pedagogical endeavors can ever counteract. I also do not want to speak about those who no longer allow themselves to be educated or changed, those who have become unapproachable for enlightenment. For them, Adorno’s motto remains unchanged: “[T]he instruments of power, which really are at one’s disposal, must be applied without sentimentality, certainly not out of the need for punishment or in order to avenge oneself against these persons, but rather in order to show them that the only thing that impresses them, namely real social authority, is in the meantime, actually really against them.” And Adorno repeats, “Anti-Semitic utterances should be confronted very energetically: they must see that the one who confronts them is not afraid.” Today more than ever, these must be the criteria in schools, universities, and other educational institutions—independent of the question of whether the carriers of the anti-Semitic stereotype have a Muslim or a non-Muslim background. It is therefore absolutely right (and deserves emphasis during professional education) that, based on accepted work jurisdiction, trainees are to be let go without notice in response to anti-Semitic or racist comments.

However, here I am not concerned with those stubborn characters but rather with subjects capable of being enlightened, whom I can and want to influence through pedagogical methods. Unfortunately, it is not possible to present to this clientele recipes for success. Instead I will try to show, by means of three case studies from my field of occupation, how the confrontation of anti-Semitism at any rate does not work.

Emotion before Factual Information

The first case took place at a weekend seminar for students enrolled at technical training colleges, which was conducted in the spring of 2005 under the title “Dimensions of Anti-Semitism.” The program of the two-and-a-half day seminar was ambitious: senior speakers, including Prof. Brumlik, Prof. Gotzmann, Prof. Quindeau, and Prof. Kiesel, gave lectures on the forms of antagonism against Jews, on the construction of anti-Semitic images, on the psychological dimension of anti-Semitism, and on biographical and social experiences with anti-Semitic worldviews. I was placed as the last speaker of the seminar, with my topic, “Backgrounds and Motives of Jew-hate in Islamic Fundamentalism,” and I assumed some prior knowledge on the part of the seminar’s participants—all students at professional schools.

I was that much more surprised, then, when I opened the first round of questions halfway through my talk. Up to this point, I had talked about the beginnings and the characteristics of Jew-hate in the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in the 1930s and 40s, and I had expected questions or statements concerning this topic. Instead, something unexpected happened. The first question was: “Why does Germany still continue to deliver weapons to Israel?”

This objection had nothing to do with my talk. Nevertheless, two central resentments erupted remarkably at the same time with it. First of all, the “still” unearthed the aversion to the fact that the Germans are still, up until the present, confronted with the consequences of the Shoah. Second, the resentment toward Israel was suddenly the center of attention; it was not the red-green [the German governing coalition of Social Democrats and Greens] export of weapons in general that was criticized, but rather the export to Israel alone.

I attempted to answer this question in the quiet expectation that the other seminar participants would compel a return to my talk. But that was hardly the case! I soon realized that rather than my speech, the scandal that Germany still delivers weapons to Israel was actually more in line with the interests of the seminar participants. This concern seemed to me like a blockade against my intended topic of discussion. But for the majority of the participants, it acted as a kind of pressure-relief valve: the emotional necessity to speak about the support still granted to the Jews controlled the room. By necessity, I had to give up the second part of my talk in order to address this emotional uproar.

What happened here? The participants of the seminar had “evidently concerned themselves very little with the psychological dimension of the dealings with the Shoah and with the history of Israel,” I wrote to the organizers of the conference on the following day. “In this respect, this seminar ended with what, according to my conviction, had belonged at the beginning: the dealings with the most important starting points for anti-Semitic resentment: the attitude toward the Shoah (“Get it over with”) and the attitude toward (and the knowledge about) Israel. The last Heitmeyer survey confirmed, just as impressively as shockingly, the emotional weight of these two topoi in present-day Germany. It would come as a true miracle if the emotional infrastructure of yesterday’s students were significantly different from that of the average German.”

This experience showed me that abstract distancing from anti-Semitism can be compatible with concrete resentment against Israel and historical German obligations. As long as the subjective provisos against Israel and the shadows of German history are neither addressed nor vocalized, apparently an academic discourse of anti-Semitism can itself be turned into an instrument of suppression. One could speak of an appearance of an event against anti-Semitism: certain cognitive abilities of the students were expanded without having moved them, in an affective respect, even just one centimeter from their position.

There is no discussion in Germany about Jews, Palestinians, and Israel that is not subliminally influenced by the continual impact of the Shoah. This influence is all the more effective the more unconscious it remains. From this follows the necessity to strive continuously for a heightened sensibility of the after-effects of the Shoah on the collective consciousness: the subjective aspects of dealing with anti-Semitism need highlighting, instead of making a large detour around them. Secondly, it seems important, in my opinion, to understand that anti-Semitism always takes on new shapes. It is crucial to track down its new appearances in order to rebuff them. This could not have been the case in our example. A seminar conception, as described here, did not meet any of these goals. Let us turn then, in a second excursion, to the public schools.

Subject before Object

The subject of anti-Semitism is the anti-Semite. The object is his victim, the Jew. The cause of anti-Semitism is known to have little to do with its object, and, in contrast, very much to do with the mental disposition of the subject, its carrier. Nevertheless, educators, whose best intentions are concerned with the growth of knowledge, have always attempted to link enlightenment to the object, in other words, the Jews.

There is rational education, which banks on reason and explains to students, with the help of statistics, that there were, and are, by no means only rich Jews, that the Jews are, even in the United States, only a minority, and that even an Ariel Sharon cleared out a number of Jewish settlements. Nothing against the mediation of facts—enlightenment could not do without them. Yet such empirically oriented enlightenment can have little impact on the anti-Semitic worldview, since it is not a matter of a lack of knowledge.

Then, there is an experience-based education, which, for example, organizes the meeting of non-Jewish students and Jews. Here our children learn that even Jews are normal people, that two Jews can have three different opinions, and that the typical cliché of the Jews, as they are portrayed in recent thrillers with titles like The Butcher or The Golem, is simply not true. All of this is meaningful because it forces them to listen, and is an event. Yet the individual experience (“I once talked with a Jew who was really nice. . . . “) cannot really shatter the anti-Semitic outlook of the world: here “daily understanding” and experience operate on different levels—the map and its territory remain isolated from each other.

Then there is a third kind of educational program, which rests on moral comprehension, and which confronts the students with the sufferings of the Jews in history. This approach, too, can by all means be fruitful, similar in form to “shock therapy.” But the peril hides in the didactic detail: whoever moralizes, disregards that a bad conscience seldom gives good advice. Whoever leaves nebulous guilt standing in the air, or leaves students alone with the weight of National Socialist crimes, instead of moving its subjective processing into the center of the lesson, provokes defiance and sometimes even a sympathy “that wallows in its own sentiment”—or in other words, remains unconscious. [1]

I believe that academic instruction focuses much too infrequently on the subject—the students and their prejudices and resentments. One should have attempted—and here I again follow Adorno from 1962—”to induce [the students] to reflection about the form of thought . . . the mechanisms of thought, which themselves cause anti-Semitism in them, would be made aware to them.” He continues by claiming that it is about “crystallizing out the anti-Semitic tricks, making them known, and using this as a kind of immunization.”

You will perhaps object that such a reflection on the thought process is hardly compatible with the conditions of the classroom. That is, however, not true, as I can perhaps demonstrate by means of two examples from my own instructional praxis.

My first example deals with the effort to reflect on the racist (not anti-Semitic!) resentment in a vocational school for industrial mechanics. A smart-aleck among the vocational students explained to me during a class discussion that xenophobic prejudices, based on his experience, were something positive: “If I see a group of Turks in front of me and am prejudiced, then I steer clear of them. But if I don’t have prejudices, but rather walk straight through them, I might get punched in the face.”

In this situation, I was saved by the recess bell, for I needed time in order to figure out how to respond to this unreflected realism. Naturally, my response had to recognize a reality principle. My considerations were: No one likes to play the idiot. No one wants to be voluntarily manipulated by the ruling circumstances. The majority want to recognize how manipulation functions, and so did my pupil. My question on the next day of instruction was: “Through what is manipulation more likely aided: through prejudice or through an independent position?” The answer was evident. Later, this student especially excelled at finding examples of manipulation through language, with the aid of Bild [the popular, mass-distributed press] articles.

My second example involves a situation that may be familiar to many teachers. I mean the highly emotional rejection whenever an aspect of the Shoah is supposed to be covered in class. Yet in this case too, the pupil’s articulation is hardly less important than the issue itself. My vocational school pupils did not seem overtaxed at all whenever it had to do with discussing the resistance to dealing directly with the Shoah as a class topic, or with considering why all other historical topics elicit a certain factual interest, while only here spontaneous rejection dominates. Reflection over this collective emotion (which attests to the continual mental entanglement in the crime) proved frequently to be a precondition for speaking about the actual topic—the genocide of the Jews by the Germans. [2]

These examples from the school day might at least suggest that it is not only possible, but should also go without saying, that in the classroom too—to quote Adorno—”to reflect about oneself and one’s own relation to those against whom an obdurate consciousness rages.”

Part three will appear on Saturday.

Translated by Kate McQueen.


1. Hannah Arendt writes: “Pity may be the perversion of compassion, but its alternative is solidarity. It is out of pity that men are ‘attracted toward les hommes faibles,’ but it is out of solidarity that they establish deliberately and, as it were, dispassionately a community of interest with the oppressed and exploited. The common interest would then be ‘the grandeur of man,’ or ‘the honor of the human race,’ or the dignity of man. For solidarity because it partakes of reason, and hence of generality, is able to comprehend a multitude conceptually, not only the multitude of a class or a nation or a people, but eventually all mankind.” Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (New York: Viking Press, 1963), p. 84.

2. This form of instruction presupposes on the part of the teacher an enlightened and open relationship regarding his/her own involvement with contemporary history.

Comments are closed.