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Pointing Fingers: Anti-Judaism in Western Civilization

Monday, February 17, 2014 | Permalink

Today, Brian Zimmerman of Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership reflects on a recent event with David Nirenberg, author of Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition.

In her book about World War I, The Origins of Totalitarianism, German philosopher Hannah Arendt begins not with an introduction but with a joke. It goes like this:

An anti-Semite and a Jew are having a conversation. “You know,” says the anti-Semite, “it was the Jews who started this war.”

“You’re right,” says the Jew. “It was us and the bicyclists.”

Puzzled, the anti-Semite asks, “Why the bicyclists?”

To which the Jew replies, “Why the Jews?”

Sure, the joke isn’t a knee-slapper, but it does emphasize an attitude toward Jews and Judaism that has persisted throughout history. For centuries Jews have faced near constant discrimination for the things they believed and the traditions they held. A lot of this discrimination has taken the form of anti-Semitism, which is the racial stereotyping of Jews and Jewish culture. But the kind of discrimination illustrated through the joke is different. It doesn’t stem from any actual racial stereotype, but merely from the idea that something needed to be blamed on someone. Understood this way, the joke’s punch line becomes a more serious question. When conflict arises, why do Jews get the blame?

It’s a question Dr. David Nirenberg, a professor of history at the University of Chicago, tries to answer in his new book Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition. Speaking at Spertus Insititute for Jewish Learning and Leadership in January, he made it clear that anti-Judaism, which he defines as the tendency to equate Judaism with devious ideas, is an age-old problem.

To get to the root of it, he set out to map anti-Judaism from the very beginning. One of the earliest examples he could find was from the 1st century, when early Christians were beginning to compile a system of beliefs distinct from their Jewish neighbors. As is noted in Galatians, St. Paul once argued with St. Peter about how new Christians should think about the Bible. Paul, intent on creating his own church, wanted to make sure his new converts wouldn’t “Judaise” their Christian beliefs. He explains that by “Judaising,” he means giving priority to the letter of scripture over its allegorical meaning, as well as priority to the flesh over the spirit.

For St. Paul, Judaism became a symbol for the opposite of what the early Christians wanted to believe. Whereas Jews believed in continual self-improvement, early Christians believed in the singular acceptance of a savior. Whereas Jews believed in dietary rules and Sabbath prohibitions, early Christians believed in moral teachings and temperate living. It wasn’t that Judaism posed an ideological threat to Christianity – it was simply positioned as an opposite. But as Dr. Nirenberg makes clear, that mode of thinking carried dangerous implications.

Consider the French Revolution. This was crucial moment in France’s history, with warring factions fighting for control of the French government. It was a battle not of religion but of political and philosophical opposites. So where does anti-Judaism fit in? Everywhere.

During the revolution, anti-revolutionary English philosopher Edmund Bruke decried the proletariat uprising as a victory for the Jewish bankers, which he thought were secretly benefiting from the toppling of the French aristocracy. Meanwhile, across the revolutionary aisle, the pro-revolutionists were forming their own battle cry, only they, too, heralded their cause as a victory of Europeans over Judaism.

How could one side supporting order and aristocracy and another side supporting democracy and freedom both wind up hating the Jews? It was easy. They were both using Judaism as a stand in for the enemy, or the opposite of what each one believed. The irony of the situation is that Jews made up only 0.14% of France’s population at the time. Clearly, the gripe with Judaism’s role in the French Revolution wasn’t really about Jews.

It hardly ever is. In fact, Dr. Nirenberg believes that anti-Judaism is much more deployed against non-Jews than it is against actual Jews. Throughout history, Christian reformers, Muslim revolutionaries, and public intellectuals of no religion at all have been attached or criticized for promoting Judaism. This fact was made obvious by what are perhaps the world’s most notorious practitioners of anti-Judaism: the Nazis.

Early into the war, the Nazis, led by German artist Alfred Zigler, put together a Degenerate Art Exhibit, which was designed to showcase art that “revealed Jewish racial soul.” The whole point was for the Nazis to demonstrate how “Jewish ideas” like impressionism and abstractionism were poisoning Germany’s art tradition. One problem? Of the 112 artists exhibited, only six of them were Jewish.

The Nazis didn’t stop with just art. For them, even academic disciplines like math and physics were labeled as Jewish, simply because these disciplines challenged the status quo of the natural world. It was for this reason that German physicist and Nobel Prize recipient Philipp Lenard once warned physics students not to take too much mathematics, since the field carried with it “Jewish influences that killed feelings for natural scientific research.”

This pattern of anti-Judaism has repeated itself even into our modern age. In 2009, for example, when protesters took control of Tehran and demanded a recall of disputed president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, fundamentalist clerics from nearby countries derided the protestors for acting “Jewishly.” This is a bold claim, especially since these protestors never aligned with Judaism or the Jewish people. But the accusation makes sense through the lens of anti-Judaism. Seen this way, we have one group of people – the protestors – trying to impose a new value system on another group of people – the fundamentalists – who are desperately clinging to an old one. In scenarios like these, someone is always going to be looking for a scapegoat. Dr. Nirenberg’s point is that more often than not the scapegoat will be Judaism.

And this is precisely the danger Dr. Nirenberg sees in anti-Judaism. As long as there are warring factions, disagreeing governments, or national conflicts, the potential for anti-Judaism will always arise. That’s because anti-Judaism isn’t about hating actual Jews; it’s about using Judaism as a channel for hate. But an even greater danger is when no one steps up to intervene.

Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition can be purchased at the Spertus Shop by visiting Starting March 15, Dr. Nirenberg’s lecture at Spertus Institute will be available on the Spertus website as an online resource.

Read Jewish Book Council's review of Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition here.

Brian Zimmerman is the Marketing & Communications Associate at Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership. His blog, People of the Books, appears on JUF News.