Jewish Journal


August 8, 2013

The Anti-Judaism Exchange, Part 2: ‘The Majority of the Victims of Anti-Semitism were Not Jews’



Professor David Nirenberg

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).

(Part 1 can be found here.)


Dear David,

Thank you for your response. The nuance you point out between 'Jews being scapegoats' and between Judaism becoming 'a basic concept with which people tried to make sense of their world' is a very intriguing one. That being said, I still can't help but wonder whether many of your readers still won't see this as one story- 'the story of how Jews became eternal scapegoats and 'Jewish' became a pejorative term' ( people are used to searching for the Jewish scapegoat story; perhaps I'm used to searching for it myself) .

Anyhow, moving on to the latter part of your response- I was intrigued by the contention that your "goal is to make those reasons and that history clear" and by your (non explicit) suggestion that such clarity can somehow change the dynamics of "anti Judaism".

Pondering this possibility, the first question that comes to mind is about the readership you have in mind when you hint at such hope. In other words: in order for this to happen do we need Jews to read the book, and somehow change their habits in ways that would neutralize the forces of anti-Judaism – or maybe what you had in mind is non-Jews becoming more aware of those trends and consequently attempting to alter them. Of course, this is a question both about the past and about the future, a question about the power of Jews to make other people less "anti Jewish" (or, put more bluntly, a question of whether or not Jews share the blame for "anti Judaism").

Your book seems to convincingly suggest that Jews have very little to do with "anti Judaism". If that's the case though, I wonder: what would be the motivation of non-Jews to pay attention to "anti Judaism" and to try to end it? Would you say that "anti-Judaism" damages not just the Jews but also non-Jews – can you identify the possible motivations of a non-Jewish world to quit being "anti-Jewish"?

Thank you for your thoughts,



Dear Shmuel,


Far be it from me to object to your search for the "scapegoat story"! But finding the scapegoat story is only a first step. The second step, and one that seems to me much more important, is understanding why that story is so convincing. That was the point of the post-World War I joke about the Jews and the bicycle riders that Hannah Arendt re-told in her book on The Origins of Totalitarianism. The point of the joke was that blaming the Jews for the world's ills is arbitrary: they are no more responsible than the bicycle riders. Hannah Arendt invoked the joke to make a slightly different point. Her claim: if an ideology is to move millions, as Anti-Semitism had, it cannot be arbitrary. So, she argued, it must be the actions of the Jews themselves--in her scenario, their overly-enthusiastic participation in capitalism--that made them the objects of anti-Semitism, an ideology for which they were therefore, in her words, co-responsible.  

I hope you'll agree that my account is very different. In it the "scapegoating" of Jews is not arbitrary--there are powerful reasons for it!--but neither is it a reflection of something that the Jews "really" are, something for which they are themselves responsible. My history shows how thinking about Jews and Judaism came to provide such convincing explanations of the world to so many people, not so much because of what "real" Jews really did, but because of how those people had learned to think about the world, that is, the history of their habits of thought. (On the subject of "capitalism," for example, it is easy to shows how capitalism was thought of as "Jewish" long before there were Jewish capitalists.) In other words, and getting to your next question, I am taking a strong position on whether or not Jews "share the blame" for anti-Judaism. No, they do not.  

Of course what Jews do can affect how people think about them. And certainly Jews do blameworthy things, like any other people.  But Anti-Judaism, as a way of understanding the world, is not simply a reflection of what real Jews do. It is rather a projection of a system of thought into the world, one that shapes reality into its image. Of course Anti-Judaism itself can change and take new forms in response to events in the world. And those events can include the existence and actions of real Jews. For example, the immigration of hundreds of thousands of Jews into German-speaking lands in the nineteenth century certainly contributed to the transformation of the Anti-Judaism of those lands into modern Anti-Semitism. But this does not make modern Anti-Semitism any more accurate as a reflection of "real" Judaism or of the state of the world than earlier forms of Anti-Judaism had been. On the contrary, the fantastic power of Anti-Semitism as a way of explaining the world in the 1920s and 30s--remember, to many Europeans in that period, the Americans, the Soviets, the capitalists, the communists, and many others were all "Jews" or allies of the Jew!--cost untold millions of non-Jews as well as Jews their well-being and even their lives.

Which brings me to your last question: why read this book? Judging from the many responses I've received, Jews read my book because they want to understand a system of thought to which they feel that they themselves have been submitted at some point in their lives or in their history, the system of thought I'm calling Anti-Judaism. But why should non-Jews care? My argument is that everyone should care about Anti-Judaism, because it has a powerful effect upon the possibilities for everyone's existence in the world, whether Jewish or not. Remember again the example of the mid-twentieth century: the vast majority of the victims of the ideologies built upon Anti-Semitism were not themselves Jews.  

Similarly today, the ideological power of Anti-Zionism (which may or may not be a form of Anti-Judaism: I leave the topic open in my book) affects many millions, of which Jews are a tiny minority. The struggle against Zionism animates much of the Muslim world, and that Zionism is very broadly defined. Not only Israeli Zionists, not only Israelis, not only Jews, but also Europeans or Americans can all be resisted or attacked as Zionists or allies of Zionism. So can Muslims, ranging from Anwar Sadat (the President of Egypt assassinated after concluding a peace treaty with Israel) to the Islamicist rebels in today's Syria (characterized by Bashar al-Assad as lovers of Israel), to secularizing protesters in Tehran. 

As I wrote in my previous response, within the system of thought I'm calling Anti-Judaism, "Judaism" is not the monopoly of people who identify as Jews: that is precisely what makes it so powerful as a way of criticizing the world.  We should all want to be critical of the world in which we live: how else can we make it a better place? But as we set out to make critical sense of our world, we should also want to cultivate an awareness of the habits of thought that may be prompting us to see that world the way we do.  Otherwise how can we know the difference between thinking critically, and acting in the grips of fantasy or projection? This imperative confronts all of us, of any faith or none, and how we meet it affects the possibilities for our existence in the world, whether we are Jews or not. That is why I think the world should, as you put it, pay attention to Anti-Judaism.

With all best wishes, dear Shmuel,



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