2014 Ralph Waldo Emerson Award

By Victoria Mariconti

In early October, Phi Beta Kappa announced that David Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition (W.W. Norton, 2013) would be the recipient of the 2014 Ralph Waldo Emerson Award. In contrast to other historical works on anti-Semitism, Nirenberg’s penetrating text of intellectual history does not reconstruct a narrative of the Jewish community in the West. As Michael Walzer clarifies in his review of Anti-Judaism for The New York Review of Books, “the book is not about Jews at all or, at least, not about real Jews; it deals extensively and almost exclusively with imaginary Jews.” Nirenberg’s feat of scholarship chronicles the ways in which Christian (as well as Egyptian, Greek, and Islamic) concepts of Judaism and Jewishness were employed to define Western thought and visions of the world—even when these communities had no contact with actual Jews. 

Nirenberg received his doctorate from Princeton University in 1992. He presently occupies several roles at the University of Chicago, where he is the Deborah R. and Edgar D. Jannotta Professor of Medieval History and Committee on Social Thought as well as the Dean of the Social Sciences Division. In 2012 he became the founding Roman Family Director of the Neubauer Family Collegium for Culture and Society. In the biographical section of Nirenberg’s faculty profile, he writes:

“Much of my work has focused on the ways in which Jewish, Christian, and Islamic cultures constitute themselves by interrelating with or thinking about each other…In more recent projects I have taken a less social and more hermeneutical approach, exploring the work that ‘Judaism,’ ‘Christianity,’ and ‘Islam’ do as figures in each other’s thought about the nature of language and the world.”

Anti-Judaism joins Nirenberg’s three other books on this topic, each of which provides a different window on the interface of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic cultures: Communities of Violence: Persecution of Minorities in the Middle-Ages (1996); Judaism and Christian Art: Aesthetic Anxieties form the Catacombs to Colonialism (2011); and Neighboring Faiths: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism Medieval and Modern (2014). 

Nirenberg’s command of a depth of primary source material, as well as his facility in more than five languages, allows him to trace the foundational role of anti-Judaism in the formation and definition of Western communities from Ancient Egyptians through the Third Reich. In reflection upon Nirenberg’s disturbing revelations of how integral the intellectual and physical persecution of Jews has been to the formation of Western identity, reviewers have unanimously expressed deep sadness … and also hope that the discomfort of confronting these realities will prevent a relapse into the intolerant discourse that individuals and groups have invoked for millennia.  

Selected Book Reviews: 

“Imaginary Jews” Reviewed by Michael Walzer for The New York Review of Books.

“Imaginary Jews: The Strange History of Anti-Semitism in Western Culture” Reviewed by Anthony Grafton for New Republic.

“‘Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition’ by David Nirenberg” Reviewed by Michael S. Roth for The Washington Post.

“Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition” Reviewed by Benjamin Sax for the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies.

Phi Beta Kappa has offered the Ralph Waldo Emerson annually since 1960. The award recognizes scholarly work done in the humanities and social sciences that significantly contributes to the understanding of humanity’s cultural and intellectual conditions. A $10,000 cash prize is attached to the award. 

For more information on this year’s book award winners, visit the Phi Beta Kappa website.

Victoria Mariconti is a senior at Boston College majoring in music. She became a member of Phi Beta Kappa in her junior year. Boston College is home to the Omicron of Massachusetts Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.