Jewish Journal

The wrath of history

by Jonathan Kirsch

Posted on Feb. 20, 2013 at 3:16 pm

Much has been written about anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, but “anti-Judaism” is something else again.

“ ‘Judaism’ ... is not only the religion of specific people with specific beliefs, but also a category, a set of ideas and attributes with which non-Jews can make sense of and criticize their world,” explains David Nirenberg in “Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition” (Norton, $35). “Nor is ‘anti-Judaism’ simply an attitude toward Jews and their religion, but a way of critically engaging the world.”

Thus does Nirenberg drill deeply into the cultural and intellectual wellsprings of Western civilization in a way that daringly reframes the role of Judaism in history. He rejects the use of the word “anti-Semitism,” because it “captures only a small portion, historically and conceptually of what this book is about.” Rather, Nirenberg invites us to see how the idea of Judaism — a false idea, as he demonstrates — transcended the religion and its practitioners and was a term of opprobrium that was used to condemn anything new or different in the Western world.

Nirenberg is the Deborah R. and Edgar D. Jannotta Professor of Medieval History and Social Thought at the University of Chicago, where he also served as director of the Neubauer Family Collegium for Culture and Society. His previous books include “Communities of Violence: Persecution of Minorities in the Middle Ages” and “Judaism and Christian Art: Aesthetic Anxieties From the Catacombs to Colonialism.”

Nirenberg reaches all the way back to ancient Egypt and Israel and then moves steadily forward in history, pausing along the way in “medieval Europe, inquisitorial Spain, Luther’s Germany, Shakespeare’s England, the France of Voltaire’s Enlightenment and Robespierre’s Terror.” He readily acknowledges that he “speaks scarcely at all about the thoughts and actions of people who would have identified themselves as Jews.” Rather, “Anti-Judaism” is what he calls “a history of thinking about Judaism,” and most of the thinkers whom he examines are non-Jews.

The ancient Egyptian chronicler Manetho, for example, is often cited as a font of classical anti-Semitism, but Nirenberg invites us to regard Manetho from the perspective of Egypt after its conquest by Alexander the Great, then the Persians and finally the Romans. “It is not the ‘collective memory’ of a society,” he argues, “but the creative redeployment of stories about the past in order to make sense of the present.”  Manetho’s account is a mirror image of the Book of Exodus, making the Israelites into the villains, but Nirenberg suggests that Jews are actually standing in for more recent enemies of Egypt.

The most artful, enduring and volatile example of anti-Judaism comes with the advent of Christianity, which acknowledges the Jewishness of Jesus Christ and the disciples — and insists that the Hebrew Bible confirms their messianic claims — but, at the same time, seeks to distinguish itself from Judaism. The author of the Gospel of John insists that the Jews “are not children of Abraham but of the devil,” and while he credits the Jewish prophecy with the power to foresee the coming of Christ, he consigns the Jews to hell.

“You have placed your hopes on Moses, and Moses will be the one who accuses you,” Jesus is depicted as saying to his Jewish adversaries. “If you really believed him, you would believe me, too.”

The thought-crime of false belief, which has driven the engine of persecution in Christendom throughout its existence, was not limited to flesh-and-blood Jews but also was applied to believing and practicing Christians, who were condemned by their enemies as “Judaizers.” When Jerome, the translator of the Bible into Latin, was accused by one of his doctrinal adversaries “of having been ‘captured by the Jews,’ a charge meant to indict [Jerome] not merely of having had Jewish teachers, but of adopting an excessively carnal attitude toward God and his teachings.” Jerome felt obliged to defend himself by proclaiming his own hatred for the Jews. “If it is expedient to hate any people and to detest any nation, I have a notable hatred for the circumcised,” argued Jerome. “Even now they persecute our Lord Jesus Christ in the synagogues of Satan.”

Nirenberg’s eloquent and forceful book tracks the same habit of mind across 20 centuries of Western history. Whenever the Western world was confronted with change — urbanization, the industrial and scientific revolutions, capitalism and communism, the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution, and all the other manifestations of modernity and “futurity” — Judaism was blamed. So it was, for example, that innovations in music, medicine, mathematics, physics and much else were all characterized by some fearful observers as “Jewish.” By 1933, Joseph Goebbels — a man with a doctorate in German literature — embraced the same “figure of thought,” as Nirenberg puts it, when the Nazi propaganda minister issued a dire threat: “The age of rampant Jewish intellectualism is now at an end.”

Nirenberg is a careful and disciplined scholar, and he recognizes that Auschwitz and Babi Yar cast a long shadow over the intellectual enterprise that he has undertaken in his brilliant and erudite book. “I am not claiming that the long history of thinking with and about ‘Jewish questions’ inevitably led to or caused the ‘Final Solution,’ ” he writes. “But I do believe that the Holocaust was inconceivable and is unexplainable without that deep history of thought.” 

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. His next book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris,” which will be published in 2013 under the Liveright imprint of W. W. Norton to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch can be reached at books@jewishjournal.com.

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