Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition

David Nirenberg. W.W. Norton, 2013. 624 pages. $35.00.

Short-listed for the 2014 Phi Beta Kappa Ralph Waldo Emerson Award

By Jonathan Bronitsky

Fear that Judaism was usurping culture reached an unprecedented height during the Renaissance, a period in which Jews were essentially absent from Western Europe. The revolutionary legislators of the doomed National Assembly obsessively deliberated over the citizenship status of Jews, who were virtually nonexistent in late-18th century France. And of the 112 artists featured at the Nazi Party’s infamous “Degenerate Art Exhibition,” held in Munich in 1937, only six, lo and behold, were Jewish. 

These are but three examples from David Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism that illustrate that the presence of Jews was rarely needed in order for non-Jews to fixate on Judaism, or rather certain notions that had become synonymous with Judaism. The origins of these notions, contends Nirenberg, the Deborah R. and Edgar D. Jannotta Professor of Medieval History and Social Thought at the University of Chicago, were dualisms abstracted by followers of Jesus of Nazareth throughout the first centuries of the Common Era. Their purpose was to situate, vis-à-vis Judaism, Christianity’s burgeoning beliefs within the cosmos. Indeed, they identified “Jewish” qualities and “Christian” qualities, distinguishing dark from light, flesh from spirit, material from grace, literal from metaphorical, reason from faith, and decay from progress. So widespread was their reach, penetrating was their influence, enduring was their effect, and yet vague their valuations that, by the time of Auschwitz, “any domain of human activity could be thought of and criticized in terms of Judaism.” “Anti-Judaism,” therefore, is a distinctive spin on “the other,” a concept promoted by post-structuralists and immortalized by Edward Said’s 1978 work, Orientalism. It was—and, as contemporary events have proven, remains—“a powerful theoretical framework for making sense of the world.”

Fittingly voluminous, Anti-Judaism boldly goes where innumerable other titles have gone before: in search of the fount behind the ubiquitous phenomenon of anti-Semitism. But whereas many investigations have ended in an existential abyss—and the classification of enmity toward Jews as irrational and, thus, inexplicable—Nirenberg’s offers an iconoclastic metanarrative, awe-inspiring in terms of its breadth and depth, but also haunting with respect to its explanatory capacity. Its originality springs from not only outlining the dualisms of antiquity, but also meticulously tracing their tempestuous evolution across time and space. (Incessant Christian efforts to ascertain just the right distance between the New Testament and the Torah—without severing the former from the latter—and comprehend the meaning of the ongoing survival of Jews, not surprisingly, generated endless controversy.) As the dualisms morphed and suffused Western European culture, they supplied an ever-expanding array of conspiratorial tools to those who sought to cast theological, ideological, and political adversaries as “Jews,” individuals rejecting the divinity of Jesus, cleaving to the Old Testament, and engaging in carnal, temporal pursuits.

Witches, obviously, are merely figments of fevered imaginations. Witch-hunts, almost inevitably then, culminate with inquisitors turning upon themselves. Because the longer that phantasmagorical figures elude detection, the greater the lust for blood—and the greater the lust for blood, the more the ordinary resembles the extraordinary. And in the epic tragicomedy that is the history of anti-Judaism, Christians, habituated to observing their surroundings through Manichean lenses, increasingly discerned the menacing sway of “Judaism” among coreligionists. Vociferous and preemptive indictments were discharged to discredit opponents as well as to inoculate against the prospect of allegations. Western European civilization descended into “a system of thought in which law, language, and flesh are typed as Jewish” and even the most renowned orthodox leaders were branded as “Jews.” Rufinus reproached Jerome, who had studied Hebrew with a converted Jew, for having been “captured by the Jews.” Luther, by associating the teachings of his rivals with the purported wrongdoings of Jews, ended up condemning the entirety of Catholic orthodoxy. Conversely, Luther’s rivals asserted that Protestantism and its sects were nothing more than guises of Judaism. French Catholics censured French Protestants for Judaizing while French Protestants rebuked the pope for favoring Jews over Christians. (All Frenchmen, nonetheless, were united in their abhorrence of Hapsburg Spain, their “Jewish” nemesis.) German Idealists and, similarly, counter-revolutionary thinkers deemed the philosophes and their foot soldier activists, “Jews,” rationalistic brutes devoid of spiritual sentiment. Hegel belittled the excessively legalistic nature of the Jewish mind and, accordingly, upheld Abraham as the patriarch of Kantian Idealism. Not to be outdone, Schopenhauer painted the whole of his opposition—partisans of Hegel, Fichte, and Schelling—as “Jews.”  

Several chapters spanning the Enlightenment—an era in which reason, progress, and liberty supposedly prevailed over superstition, tradition, and bondage—throw the peculiarity of Judaizing recriminations into sharpest relief. In the Anglo-Saxon dominion, politics actually became more confessional. “Only by denying the historical particulars of its Jewish origins,” Nirenberg stresses, “could Christianity fulfill its destiny as the truly universal religion of humanity.” To be sure, the Enlightenment’s most celebrated treatises explicitly separated Christianity from Judaism, with the latter styled as an archaic creed thwarting the advancement of civilization. See, for instance, Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration and Kant’s Religion within the Bounds of Reason Alone. The Leviathan by Hobbes, of course, radically refashioned the sovereign as the sole arbiter of scripture. Regularly neglected, however, is the second half of the masterwork, comprised of two parts respectively titled, “Of a Christian Commonwealth” and “Of the Kingdom of Darkness.”

Across the Channel, analogous currents were swiftly flowing. “If even the Jews could be ‘regenerated,’ then there were no limits to the emancipatory powers of Enlightenment anthropology,” writes Nirenberg, describing the utopian logic of Revolutionary France. “But if they could not, it simply meant that reason had reached the boundaries of its authority, and that the Jews lay on the other side.” This is why, as alluded to above, the political rights of Jews were so extensively debated after the fall of the Ancien Régime. The capacity to conquer destiny itself appeared to be inextricably tied to the ability to master Jewish deficiencies. The preoccupation with this theme is starkly reflected in the ARTFL Project’s database of French literature. In 18th-century volumes, the words “Jew, “Hebrew,” and “Israelite” and their various forms occur 6,624 times while Anglais and its associated forms occur less often, 6,523 times. Additionally, the vast writings of Voltaire include 4,394 references to Jews, nearly double the number of allusions to the English, 2,303. 

Not just informative, Anti-Judaism is also didactic. Nirenberg forthrightly admits that his “goal,” like that of Horkheimer and Adorno, is “to encourage reflection about our ‘projective behavior.’” In pursuit of a more benevolent world, he implores his readers to criticize “tools of perception and conception that our cultural and biological heritages have taught us are useful,” to think carefully about the ways in which our idiosyncratic interpretations of the past shape—or rather hinder—possibilities for the present and future. With the expansion of democracy, the propagation of education, and the proliferation of information technology, there is certainly reason to be optimistic about what lies ahead. At the same time, confrontation between “Christianity” and “Judaism” looks fated to persist as long as inimical dogmas rule the minds of masses sparring to dominate the levers of history. Supporters of Israel are often flabbergasted by the vivacity of the pro-Gaza movement in Western Europe. Lacking any other explanation, they scream “Anti-Semitism!” What they fail to grasp is the dynamic underpinning the tension. The very idea of the Jewish state abrasively cuts against the grain of the postwar European project, a universalist endeavor that touts itself as “enlightened,” meaning post-nationalist, post-ethnic, and post-religious. 

Anti-Judaism is a triumph, a provocative and compelling tribute to, in the words of Nietzsche, the “all-too human” forces that have and continue to demarcate the parameters of our collective consciousness.   

Jonathan Bronitsky (ΦBK, The Pennsylvania State University, 2006) is a political commentator and strategist. He recently completed his doctorate in history at the University of Cambridge. Pennsylvania State is home to the Lambda of Pennsylvania Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.