Anti-Caste Activism and Dwindling Numbers: David Mosse and Michal Kravel-Tovi discuss Diasporic Anxieties among British South Asians and American Jews

CSSH has a longstanding tradition of juxtaposing essays for comparative effect. Our readers enjoy this ritual, but we often wonder what our authors think of it. Under the Rubric gives CSSH authors a chance to respond directly to each other’s work, drawing additional insight and inspiration from their arguments.


Outside Caste? The Enclosure of Caste and Claims to Castelessness in India and the United Kingdom

The Specter of Dwindling Numbers: Population Quantity and Jewish Biopolitics in the United States

Our first rubric of 2020, Diasporic Anxieties, examines the contests that arise when ethno-religious communities (Hindus, Jews) reproduce themselves, simultaneously, in diaspora settings (Britain, the US) and in homeland states (India, Israel). Ideas of group membership, legal equality, and legitimate cultural difference are vigorously disputed across these locations. As our editors suggest, disagreements of this kind are common. So are the vexed solidarities they create:        

Homeland and diaspora communities are built on frictions as well as connections. Perhaps we could even say that their connectedness is based on their frictions; in knowing what to disagree about. Anxieties over questions of authenticity pervade diasporic social relations, as religious, national, and ethnic codes are shaped to fit new territories and needs, creating distance between homeland and diaspora visions of the “good society.” In “Outside Caste? The Enclosure of Caste and Claims to Castelessness in India and the United Kingdom,” David Mosse looks at the issue of caste and anti-caste activism as played out in India and in the UK. How is caste “enclosed” and encompassed within particular legal and social regimes, and to what end? Does the disavowal of “caste” merely disguise and hide its continued social force? Mosse compares the tactic of packaging caste within religion in order to exempt caste-based discrimination from the law, to claims in the UK that caste has no reality whatsoever and relegate it to an allegedly surpassed colonialism. All these strategies enlist anthropologists’ ideas of public space and “the social,” though to varying effect. Michal Kravel-Tovi considers Jewish fears of numerical decline in “The Specter of Dwindling Numbers: Population Quantity and Jewish Biopolitics in the United States.” The voluntary quality of the American Jewry relies on “making Jews” either biologically or through conversion, as well as maintaining them via cultural reproduction. The question of reproduction generates anxiety, and not only for reasons of religious intermarriage. Conversion and cultural reproduction beg questions of “how Jewish is Jewish enough”—including the issue, for example, of how much non-religious Jews “count” in a biopolitical metric. What constitutes an adequate quantity, and quality, of identity and resemblance? What is the biopolitical resemblance supposed to be in relation to: models of the past, or to an orthodox exemplar, or to a place? Kravel-Tovi shows that “minority community biopolitics” produce policy decisions and institutional forms in the United States that are very different from those in Israel, where issues of quantity and quality of Jewishness seem less at risk, or at least differently so.

To squeeze additional comparative insight from these papers, we’ve invited Kravel-Tovi and Mosse to say more about how their arguments intersect.  

CSSH:  Both of you are dealing with communities – or “populations” – that are nation-state majorities in one place, minoritized in others. The ironic source of friction in each essay is the challenge to group identity posed by “liberalism,” “choice,” “equal rights,” “voluntarism,” and “free association.” The friction comes with the fact that members of each group endorse these nominally modernist values but also see them as threats to the singularity (and effective size) of their communities. It’s a tricky position to be in; it usually involves a carefully managed distinction between in-group rhetoric and that designed for outsiders. One of the things we like best about your papers is how you move across those rhetorical boundaries without attempting to erase them or exaggerate their significance.

Having pondered your arguments, we’re left with a puzzle. Is it really im/possible to have large, integral communities of Hindus (abroad or in South Asia) without “caste,” and is it really im/possible to have large, integral communities of Jews (in Israel or abroad) that are mainstreamed, volitional, and inclusive of non-Jews? The answer would seem to be “yes” and “no,” with a clear element of “whether we like it or not.” At what point is that no longer a problem? Or, to put it differently, what other kinds of problems are built into your approaches, and why are they important?  

Mosse:  Alongside the foregrounded issues of governing and being governed as minorities through policy and law, in considering these two essays together, I am challenged to think about different kinds of community identity, and the tension between investment and disinvestment prompted by different valuations of cultural identity. 

Michal highlights how Jewish leaders in the US facing this tension attempt to find policy levers to shift the balance towards investment in Jewish identity through measures that will produce the population necessary to sustain vital community institutions.

In the Indian case, the tension around investment/disinvestment in community identities produces sharper and different kinds of social divides. Hindu leaders in the UK might be regarded as working to protect and reproduce their minority community in a diaspora setting by warding off (external) threats to its solidarity and integrity. However, we find Dalit organizations disinvesting in identities of caste, religion, or culture that represent historical subordination or present-day discrimination, and investing in rights-based and claim-bearing identities by invoking the duty of state and international bodies. The politics of minority identity here includes sharply differentiated valuation of identities (an implication of caste hierarchy).

This community politics is strikingly relational and its effects are mutually enforcing. The Dalit appeal for legal protection against caste discrimination provides the “opposition” against which the Hindu community seeks public articulation of its identity; and Hindu nationalist denial of caste as a structure of discrimination (and elite privilege) reinforces the drive to “out” hidden caste effects, including through law. 

Are such conditions of minority community politics – the relationality of investment and disinvestment – a peculiar feature of caste? Surely not. In reading Michal’s account of Jewishness in the US and its “minority community biopolitics,” I am curious to know more about the tensions and ambivalences around Jewishness – the lift or the burden of identifying as Jewish in different settings, experiences of anti-Semitism, relationships with Orthodox Jews – and whether the disinvestment in Jewish identity against which community leaders set themselves is passive or active. 

When it comes to the biopolitics of numbers, in the Indian case this is an important aspect of the historical consolidation of the categories of our discussion: religion, Hindu, caste. But it is the Indian Hindu majority nation-state (not the minority diaspora setting) that today reveals a biopolitics of numbers: anxieties about religious conversion, or birth rates or migration, the targeting of minority groups – Dalits, “tribal” groups – for inclusion in the Hindu nation through reconversion, and Muslims for selective exclusion, most recently in the controversial and much-protested anti-Muslim 2019 Citizen Amendment Bill. This biopolitics does get woven into the controversies of caste in the UK. Despite potential parallels in the linking of biopolitics of homeland states and their diaspora populations, I would be interested to know if Michal shares my wariness about comparing religious nationalism in India and Israel.

It is equally difficult to draw parallels between American Jews and British Hindus as minority communities. They and their concerns are of different kinds. Michal points to the vulnerability of American Jews as that of an established ethno-religious minority with a robust community infrastructure but whose continuity is threatened by failures of reproduction and recruitment. And from this comes Jewish leaders’ impulse towards innovation in the internal governance of a voluntary community.

Hindu identity (of the sort discussed in my essay) is by contrast modern, politically-produced, and shaped by caste and religious politics. It’s often pointed out how in its diasporic, world-religion form, Hinduism embeds Brahmanic or upper-caste cultural norms and religious practices, while subjugating difference and the diversity of ritual and devotion. As a minority identity in British society, “Hindu” is forged in the context of histories of migration and racism, shaped by state policy on multiculturalism and religious minorities, by the ambitions of class and profession, and by counterpart identities such as Asian or Muslim. Correspondingly, the examined anxieties that Hindu leaders express focus not inwards but outwards, on how the community is to be known and governed; on the language of the state and its law, and the threat of intrusion in the management of internal community affairs by the same institutions around which Dalits mobilize for protection against discrimination. Despite evident differences, and regardless of the specific salience of numbers, these two cases both illustrate minority community concerns with the conditions for being model citizens – the right kind of Jews or Asians – in order to thrive in multicultural societies. The cultivation of such citizenship is, however, complicated by sedimented historical and homeland violence and atrocity, the scars of which irrupt into the present moment through explicit or implicit claims and judgments, including those of Dalits claiming legal protection for citizenship free from the prison of stigmatised community identity. 

The final issue I’d like to raise is how research and analysis become implicated in the subjects of study. Perhaps this is more evident in the antagonistic debates on caste. It is not just that I have a long engagement with and commitment to Dalit communities and their varied struggles against injustice. It is also that my (and other social scientists’) concepts, categories of description, and analyses are subject to critical appraisal (positive and negative) by those engaged in the controversies we describe; or even that the nature or possibility of social-scientific knowledge has itself become the site of contest. I’m interested to know what resonance this has in Michal’s framing of Jewish biopolitics in the United States.

Image courtesy of Michal Kravel-Tovi

Kravel-Tovi:  David is correct in pointing out the difficulty of drawing parallels between the respective diaspora anxieties of American Jews and British Indians. To further David’s point, I would also stress that the histories and realities of immigration, violence, and racism have cohered in markedly different circumstances for these two minority communities. The overwhelming majority of American Jews, for one thing, are the descendants of immigrants from Europe, rather than Israel/Palestine. Beyond this, the diasporic experience of Indians in the United Kingdom—that of a model minority exemplary of civic virtue—is embedded in postcolonial sensibilities; the current diasporic experience of American Jews on the other hand, as model minority citizens who have excelled in actualizing the American dream, is embedded in post-Holocaust dynamics. However, since I gained a great deal from the literature on conversion policies and religious nationalism in India in my earlier work on Jewish and Zionist biopolitics, I do value being pushed into thinking comparatively about these two diaspora communities—including the divergences between the two. 

David’s account of the relational engagement and dis-engagement of Dalit activists and Hindu nationalist activists with the British state highlights the pivotal role of the state in the respective communities’ negotiations of their minority realities. In this case, what could have unfolded as an internal communal conflict between Hindu organizations and Dalit activists concerning social hierarchies, is projected onto public spheres of government; it thus becomes a political playground, a site for resolving (or not) the historically loaded relationship between the community and the state. Dalit activists “scale-up” their fight against caste-based discrimination by trying to “pull in” the state, that is, by mobilizing its legal devices and liberal agendas; Hindu nationalists, for their part, work to “push out” the state, to secure their cultural integrity and communal autonomy vis-à-vis the state. The first group frames the state as a key interlocutor, while the second seeks to “other” and mute it, in part by reversing the course of conversation, as if saying: instead of talking about us, Indians, let’s talk about you, missionary and colonial Britain. These dynamics underscore the irrelevance of the state (i.e., the USA) as a political actor in my account of the population-related anxieties articulated by American Jews. To be sure, in the face of other kinds of communal challenges—most strikingly rising antisemitism—American Jews are increasingly negotiating their minority experience by holding the state, and President Trump’s politics of hate, accountable for their increasing insecurity. The recent uptick of attacks on Hasidic Jews (i.e. a hyper-visible Jewish community) in New York and New Jersey is a clear case in point. But the biopolitical system that lies at the heart of my article is divorced from state infrastructures of knowledge, logics, and interventions. Ironically, whereas American Jews seek the involvement of the state in dealing with the politics of hate, the same state is irrelevant—to put it baldly— in the organized community’s management of the politics of love. Mirroring this difference between the two case studies, one can see that while Indians in Britain clash over the legitimacy of statist intervention, deliberations regarding legitimate and appropriate intervention are targeted at the communal level in the American Jewish context. 

In juxtaposing the two case studies, other forms of political relationships between state and community come to mind: specifically, the transnational relationship between the “homeland” nation-state and its diaspora community. Once again, I find this comparison productive. I read David’s account as portraying this relationship as metonymic and mutually productive in nature; in my case study, the relationship is, at best, a tension-filled collaboration. David highlights the political alliances between Hindu nationalist organizations in the United Kingdom and the Indian state—all the more evident in the current political moment, marked by Modi’s nationalistic and Global Hinduism aspirations. Interestingly, within this grand scheme we find strategic and ideological similarities between the campaign of UK-based diaspora Hindu organizations to internalize caste vis-à-vis the state, and India’s same struggle vis-à-vis international forces. American Jews, for their part, rely upon the Israeli state as an anchor—and key backdrop—for their identity work; Israel, concomitantly, is actively involved in American Jewish biopolitical endeavors to sustain the community’s population. But at the same time, Israel and American Jewry, each with its distinct Jewish biopolitical agendas, are implicitly competing over the same pool of Jewish bodies and souls, and ultimately over demographic supremacy. Notably, the politically heterogeneous and liberal-inclined community that is American Jewry does not necessarily endorse the right-wing and overtly nationalist politics of the State of Israel. Not only do a significant proportion of American Jews (including American Jewish organizations and leaders) find themselves alienated by Prime Minister Netanyahu’s politics and policies on multiple fronts; they also feel betrayed by his implicit compromise of the fight against antisemitism (and, thus, of their own security) in return for a dubious political partnership with the Trump administration. 

These stark differences between the British Indian and American Jewish contexts open up a set of related questions regarding other Indian diaspora anxieties, and their transnational embeddedness. I am curious, for example, about whether Indian diasporas in other locations share similar struggles and transnational affinities; whether Hindus in the United Kingdom collaborate with Hindu diaspora organizations outside both that country and India; and whether there are non-nationalistic Hindu organizations in the UK interested in exploring alternative transnational alliances with India. 

I am also curious about the move, in both cases, across rhetorical boundaries. To this, I will add my curiosity about the move across epistemological boundaries—a move that conflates the rhetorical shifts, and which underpins debates about legitimate intervention. In David’s account, this move is enacted partially by “othering” social science—anthropology included—as a missionary and colonial governing lens. In the American Jewish context, social scientific “truths” are the raison d’etre of the specter of dwindling numbers and its ensuing policy formations. Yet, as I have written elsewhere, debates regarding the immense investment in quantified, social scientific knowledge, and the value of such a portrait of American Jews, flesh out deeper tensions regarding the kinds of Jewishness that the community can—and should— invest in. As for anthropology itself: while the accounts of highly esteemed ethnographers of American Jewry are well received in communal conversations, they hardly feature in the endeavor to craft a biopolitical infrastructure that I describe here. Interestingly, anthropology, in both the Indian and Jewish contexts, is somewhat tainted, albeit for different reasons. In the Indian context, this derives from the role played by anthropology in constructing colonial and even postcolonial categories of thought and political action (for predicaments of the latter, see Middleton 2011). In the American Jewish context, anthropology has, historically, been both used and misused as a tool for handling the issue of Jewish difference (from Boas to Myerhoff, and several others; Frank 1997; Glick 1982). Virginia Dominguez’s astute question, whether “anthropology has a Jewish problem,” has much resonance in this context (Dominguez 1993).  

This leads me to David’s question about how my research and analysis are implicated in the field I study. David briefly describes how his lifelong ethnographic commitment to Dalit communities has led him not only to a more nuanced engagement with the lived experience of caste and religion beyond political rhetoric, but also to personal involvement in the struggle for equal rights for the Dalit community. My project is still in progress; my position as a Jewish Israeli ethnographer studying Jewish leaders—social scientists included—in the USA is yet to be fully determined. I will say, however, that this project emerged from a personal interest in the role played by social scientists in and for the community, while pondering my place as a concerned Israeli citizen offering a critical yet empathic ethnography of my own country. I think (and actually, fear) that long-maintained hierarchies between “rigorous” quantitative data and anthropology will ultimately inform how my ethnographic analysis of quantitative social science will itself be evaluated by the groups I study. In the meantime, it seems that voices critical of (what I interpret as) the biopoliticization of American Jews are gaining public presence (e.g., Kafrissen 2016, 2018; Rosenblatt, Stahl, and Corwin Berman. 2018; Tanenbaum, 2010), and they are becoming a crucial aspect of how the American Jewish public articulates its diaspora anxieties.

CSSH: You’ve made several intriguing observations, and you’ve proven (yet again) that wary comparisons are worth the risk. In fact, several of your claims would develop into superb CSSH papers in their own right. 

We especially like how you’ve framed your conversation in relation to “investment” and “disinvestment” (concepts well-suited to analyzing the neoliberalization of ethnoracial identities in Britain and the US) alongside “intervention” and “disengagement” (which are good for making sense of governmental policies and resistance thereto). Also useful is your insistence on the relationality of these processes, not only as it pertains to in-group dynamics and state entities, but also as it pertains to ethnoracial and religious groups that are variously opposed to the interests of Jewish and Hindu/South Asian communities in diaspora settings and in homeland states. The interests of homeland states, you note, cannot be factored out; they pervade the politics of love and hate across minoritized and majoritarian contexts. So do the accumulated histories of stigma and protection, incorporation and atrocity, that give diaspora anxieties their durability and shaping power. 

Finally, you are both alert to the role your research plays in reproducing the communities you study, and you realize that the people you write about are alert to it as well. This awareness increases the stakes for everyone, and it intensifies the sense of responsibility, the ethical investment, so evident in your work. It’s not simply an analytical stance. It’s essential to the processes of community formation you analyze. There is specific moral content that drives the project of being an American Jew, a Hindu nationalist, a Dalit activist struggling against caste discrimination, and not all of that content can be effectively located within contemporary structures of polity and economy. In both your papers, there are massive reserves of value that elude biopolitical metrics. They cannot be expressed in modernist idioms of citizenship, or normative equality, despite the (sometimes) pressing need for the latter. 

You’ve challenged us to think about those moral reserves in new ways. Thanks for sharing your work with CSSH. 


Dominguez, Virginia R. 1993. Questioning Jews. American Ethnologist 20:618-624.

Frank Gelya, 1997. Jews, Multiculturalism and Boasian Anthropology. American Anthropologist 99(4): 731-745.

Glick, Leonard B. 1982. Types Distinct from Our Own: Franz Boas on Jewish Identity and Assimilation. American Anthropologist 84:545-565.

Kafrissen, Rukhl. 2016. “How the Jewish-American Elite Has Manufactured the Intermarriage ‘Crisis.’” Haaretz, October 27.

Kafrissen, Rokhl. 2018. “How a #MeToo Scandal Proved What We Already Know: ‘Jewish Continuity Is Sexist.’” Forward, July 20.

Middleton C. Townsend, 2011. Across the Interface of State Ethnography: Rethinking Ethnology and its Subjects in Multicultural India. American Ethnologist 38:249-266.

Rosenblatt, Kate, Ronit Stahl, and Lila Corwin Berman. 2018. How Jewish Academia Created a #MeToo Disaster.” Forward, July 19.

Tenenbaum, Shelly. 2000. “Good or Bad for the Jews? Moving Beyond the Continuity Debate.” Contemporary Jewry 21: 91-97.

About the Authors

Michal Kravel-Tovi is an Associate Professor of Sociocultural Anthropology at Tel Aviv University. Her work focuses on political dimensions of contemporary religious Jewish life. Her book on Jewish conversion, When the State Winks: The Performance of Jewish Conversion in Israel (Columbia University Press, 2017) received the second prize of the Clifford Geertz Award (SAR, within the AAA), and won the Jordan Schnitzer Book Award (AJS). She currently works on two projects, one about the role of socio-demographic knowledge in the making of American Jewry, and the other about an emergent anti-sexual violence campaign among ultra-Orthodox communities in Israel.    

David Mosse is Professor of Social Anthropology at SOAS University of London. His research ranges across the anthropology of religion, the environment, and international development. He is author of The Saint in the Banyan Tree: Christianity and Caste Society in India (University of California Press, 2012); Cultivating Development: An Ethnography of Aid Policy and Practice (Pluto Press, 2005) ; and The Rule of Water: Statecraft, Ecology and Collective Action in South India (Oxford University Press, 2003). He has recently undertaken a collaborative research project, “Caste out of Development,” concerned with civil society activism and transnational advocacy for Dalit rights and development. He is currently engaged in anthropological research on mental health care.

By ltwstu

Lecturer of Anthropology University of Michigan Associate Managing Editor Comparative Studies in Society and History