Law, Jewish identity, and the question of difference

Mareike Riedel

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Drawing on critical approaches to law, my research explores the impact of identity politics on Jewish communities, as manifested in law. Although Jews are today often seen as a successful and well-integrated ‘model minority’ across Western societies, a number of recent legal conflicts regarding Jewish practices suggest that there is an ongoing tension between dominant ideas about liberal law and Jewishness as embodied in these contested practices. In these legal disputes, the Jewish practices in question are often rendered as different, as symbols of Otherness. One set of such cases concerns the spatiolegal regulation of Jewish identity, involving Jewish cemeteries and the construction of eruvin - notional spaces for the observance of Shabbat. Another set of cases involves the body as a site for the construction of identity and difference, most notably the growing number of legal and political debates about the practice of male circumcision. Through a critical analysis of such cases, I take a closer look at the legal techniques and argumentative tools through which Jewishness is constructed as an Otherness. In particular, I investigate the images and representations of ‘the Jew’ in law and legal discourse in order to highlight the culturally productive role of law for the creation of religious and racial difference.

In this research, I pursue two main aims: One aim of this research is to illuminate the ambivalent role that the figure of ‘the Jew’ has played in the Western imagination and to show how law is mobilised for this imagination, thereby challenging the persistent myth of law as a neutral arbiter in the management of religious and cultural diversity. A second aim is to integrate the contemporary Jewish experience into existing scholarly theorising on the legal construction and regulation of religious and racial difference, where Jews, Judaism, and Jewishness have so far received little attention.

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