Pariah Sensibilities

Reading group

June 14th and 25th, July 3rd and 17th (further dates tbd)

In the theoretical endeavors of Jewish authors from the 19th and 20th centuries, the examination of exclusion plays a pivotal role. The figure of the outcast, the stranger, the rejected finds its most distinct expression in the concept of the Pariah. Originating from the Tamil expression ‘Paraiyar’, which refers to a lower caste group in the South Indian states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, the notion of the Pariah later became a fertile ground for Jewish intellectuals to negotiate their own experiences of ostracism. Initial considerations of the "Pariah people" (Paria-Volk) can be found in the sociological observations of Max Weber and the critiques of the French journalist Bernard Lazare. However, the most prominent attempt to comprehensively define the Pariah was undertaken by Hannah Arendt. Similar to Lazare, Arendt's portrayal of the Jewish Pariah transcends mere reconciliation with one’s fate. Instead, Arendt links the Pariah with the Parvenu – someone who (un)consciously denies his otherness in order to fit into dominant society. Not only has this led to a quasi-emancipation but also triggered immense intellectual productivity.

Arendt later asserted that, with the reappraisal of the Holocaust and the founding of the State of Israel, the Jewish people, as global enemy, and hence the figure of the Pariah, had not only undergone a metamorphosis but had also lost its foundational basis. The Italian historian Enzo Traverso recognizes this as marking the end of "Jewish Modernity," a longue durée spanning the 19th and 20th centuries and serving as a catalyst for the golden age of Jewish intellectuals. Similar to Arendt, Traverso views the violent expulsion and marginalization of the Jewish people not as ontologically predetermined but rather as a historical category. This distinction is of particularly significant when considering the vehement defense of Israel’s security as the cornerstone of Germany’s raison d’état.

Traverso further suggests that while “Jewish modernity was a product of the cataclysms of the twentieth century”, modern racism “reached its apogee” in the latter half of the last century. In other words, while the exterminatory antisemitism of the Nazi regime ended, ethnocentrist, differentialist racism was on the rise. The height of this post-fascist hatred finds is most vile expression in anti-muslim racism. Consequently, the image of the immigrant, most often imagined as Muslim, replaced the “dangerous class” of the 19th century. Traverso hence questions whether the discursive practice of “antisemitism has thus transmigrated into anti-muslim racism.” Particularly, the renewed conflict in the Middle East and the genocidal eradication and displacement of the Palestinian people suggest that the Pariah Sensibility has shifted.

Drawing from several excerpts of Traverso’s seminal work, "The End of Jewish Modernity," and various text fragments by Edward Said, Maxime Rodinson, and Hannah Arendt, we aim to elucidate what precisely is meant by the Pariah or Pariah Sensibility. In what ways did the historical context of the 19th and 20th centuries shape the development of the Pariah Sensibility? How can this figure be applied to other experiences of exclusion? How does the Pariah Sensibility help us understand the dynamics of modern conflicts, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? To what extent does the discourse exhaust itself in the face of new racisms? What role do decolonial intellectuals play in reshaping our understanding of the Pariah Sensibility today?
The reading group is not limited to these texts, and we are very open to further reading and welcome suggestions. It takes place in a hybrid format, and digital participation is encouraged. The text discussion will be held in academic English.

We look forward to fruitful discussions. 

If interested please send an e-mail to receive the text:

Additional reading references will be added successively

For online participation:


14.06. 17-19h: Enzo Traverso The End of Jewish Modernity (Introduction and Chapter 1)

25.06. 18 – 20h: Enzo Traverso – The End of Jewish Modernity (Chapters 2 – 4)

03.07. 18-20h: Enzo Traverso – The End of Jewish Modernity (Chapters 5 & 7), Hannah Arendt (tbc)