Jewish practices have come increasingly under legal and political pressure across several countries of the West. Iceland is currently debating a ban on male circumcision and in 2017, the Belgian region of Wallonia joined other countries such as Sweden, New Zealand, and Switzerland by drafting a law which bans the kosher and halal slaughter of animals for meat production.
In the United States, in New Jersey, a number of municipalities tried to prevent the establishment of an eruv, a ritual boundary used by Orthodox Jews to allow them to carry items on Shabbat in public. How can we understand these confrontations? Are they conflicts over human rights, animal welfare, planning or constitutional law? Clashes between secular law and religious tradition? Expressions of religious intolerance or Antisemitism?
In this research, I use the concept of ‘ambivalence’ as my vantage point in order to understand encounters between Jews and non-Jews in the arena of law and legal conflict. Ambivalence aims to capture the range of different attitudes towards Jewish particularity, all of which single out Jews as ‘different’ – as ‘others’. Taking a cultural approach to law, I show how such ideas about Jews as ‘different’ and ‘others’ emerge in these conflicts over Jewish practices at a time when cultural insecurities are pervasive across Western societies.
In two case studies, the German circumcision controversy and an Australian dispute over an eruv in the north of Sydney, I explore the ways in which people use law and legal language to express their attitudes towards Jews, Jewishness, and Judaism. Contrary to popular narratives that locate bias towards Jews at the deviant fringes of society, my argument is that ambivalent perceptions of Jewishness continue to shape certain encounters between Jews and non-Jews as they unfold in the supposedly neutral and secular realm of state law.
In this research, I am thus concerned with bias and prejudice in law. By showing how law becomes complicit in turning a specific group of people into strangers in their own society, I highlight the role of law in the making of collective identities.
Before joining RegNet as a PhD scholar, Mareike Riedel was a member of the Law & Anthropology department at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology. Holding degrees in both law and literature, she is interested in the legal narratives through which people imagine their communities and the boundaries of those communities.