August 21, 2013 | 5:48 am
David Nirenberg is the Deborah R. and Edgar D. Jannotta Professor of Medieval History and Social Thought at the University of Chicago, where he is also director of the Neubauer Family Collegium for Culture and Society. This Exchange focuses on Professor Nirenberg's critically acclaimed book Anti-Judaism:The Western Tradition (W.W Norton, 2013).
My last question was going to be about modern anti-Zionism, but you probably saw it coming and already began answering it in your previous response. In fact, your response is somewhat intriguing: on the one hand you mention the fact that your book leaves the question of anti-Zionism open - that is, the question of whether current anti-Zionism is the contemporary manifestation of the familiar anti-Judaism. On the other hand, your response seems to contain more than a hint suggesting that this isn't really an open question, that there are many signs supporting the suspicion that anti-Zionism is anti-Judaism (the first hint: using the word "similarly" at the beginning of the paragraph about anti Zionism).
So let me end with the following question (before I let you off the hook and send my readers to purchase and read your truly illuminating book). I see three reasons for which one might not want to explicitly state that anti-Zionism is anti-Judaism:
1. Because it is just too soon for us to authoritatively conclude what anti-Zionism means.
2. Or because delving into a discussion about anti Zionism - current affairs - will be disruptive and might spoil the chance to educate the public on an important historical phenomenon.
3. Or maybe because in the case of Zionism - and this also goes back to your previous response - Jews were no longer passive participants and thus might share more of the "blame".
Are these some of your reasons for leaving the question open? (In the book you seem to reject option number three- again, mentioning Arendt- leaving it for the reader to wonder about). What would it take for us to be able to connect everything you describe in your book with contemporary anti-Israelism?
Thank you again for the great book and for the opportunity to discuss it,
Only "somewhat intriguing"! Dear Shmuel, you wound me in my vanity! But in all seriousness: I'm very grateful for your questions, which push me to think about the implications of my arguments about the past for the present and future: something that is always hard for historians, since we are after all neither politicians nor prophets.
You yourself provide me with three reasons why I ended my book in the mid-twentieth century, without reaching a conclusion about Zionism and Anti-Zionism, or indeed taking on any of the times in which I have myself lived. (I was born in 1964.) I think there is some truth to all three. Time does provide some sort of test for our convictions. One can imagine, for example, a German citizen completely convinced in 1933 of the view that the Jews posed the greatest threat to the well-being of their country and of the world, who in 1948 suddenly realizes that this conviction had been mistaken. Of course we shouldn't be too optimistic about the clarifying powers of time. We can easily imagine plenty of people who never come to question their convictions, or who, after having done so, "return like a dog to their vomit." (Proverbs 26.11)
And it is also true that there is some pedagogical advantage in not making things too immediate, too presentist. There are plenty of people who might be open to the type of argument I am making about the past, but would resist its application to the present. "Yes," they might say, "in the Middle Ages, or in Luther's time, or in early twentieth century Europe, people had unfortunate habits of thought about Judaism. But today we are emancipated from those habits, and our view of the world is uninfluenced by them. Our views of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for example, are purely realistic: they have nothing to do with any of these prejudices or habits of though." By avoiding the present, we can open up space, as my book seeks to do, for recognition of the place of Anti-Judaism in Western thought, without raising the stakes to the level of self-indictment. And that is already a huge and I think important task. Besides, once we recognize this centrality of Anti-Judaism in our past, it might be easier to interrogate our own confidence that we have overcome it.
One of the foundations of that confidence is the sense we have that today Jews are active rather than passive participants in the creation of Anti-Judaism. "It isn't Anti-Judaism that shapes my views of Israel," many people might say. "It is the actions of the Israelis/Zionists/Jews themselves." To this I'd reply that people have always said this. Anti-Judaism has always nourished itself on the conviction that it was accurately perceiving reality, and criticizing the actions of real Jews. This is as true of the 1930s as of the 1530s, as true of places where there were indeed living Jews with certain types of active agency (albeit not a country of their own), as of places where there had been no living Jews for centuries. Are Jews today more active and less passive than they were in the Diaspora? Perhaps: that is a subject for a different book. But whatever their activity, power and agency in the present may be, it does not suffice to explain how Jews or Israel are seen today, any more than it suffices to explain the Anti-Semitism of the early 20th century, or the Anti-Judaism of the earlier periods my book touches upon. Always, everywhere, Anti-Judaism has understood itself to be opposing a real and an active entity.
The goal of my book is to provide a sense of just how central Anti-Judaism has been to the formation of our concepts and tools of thought. With that sense in hand, it should be easier for us each to interrogate our own sense of reality, and to want to cultivate a sensibility of critical reflection about those moments when we might be projecting Anti-Judaism into our vision of the world. But that cultivation is something that must be left to each reader, indeed to each person in the world (wouldn't I be happy if they would each buy a copy of my book!). My own sense is that there are countless such moments, and that many of them do revolve around the State of Israel and the importance we attribute to it today in our understanding of the world's complexities, challenges, and dangers. But rather than simply state my sense and expect others to share it, I think it much more useful to provide readers with an explanation of the cultural formations that may be shaping their views of the world's "realities." To reiterate the psycho-therapeutic metaphor from our first exchange: by becoming more conscious of the ways in which our past has shaped our sensibilities, we can hope to be happier in the future. Of course a stimulus to consciousness is no guarantee of improvement. But perhaps as in psycho-therapy, a stimulus to consciousness is all that the historian has to offer.
With warmest gratitude for your questions and your interest,
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