David Nirenberg has produced a sweeping and exhilarating new intellectual history of Western thought, including Islam, that argues that hostility to Judaism is at the heart of Western culture, not incidental to it and not the product of economic crisis, historical tension, or political tendencies. Rather it is a formative element of our culture, the marrow of its bones, and one of the critical tools of self-definition. From Ptolemaic Egypt to Early Christianity, from the Spanish Inquisition and Catholic Middle Ages to the Protestant Reformation, from the Enlightenment to modernity, from revolutionary politics to fascism, whenever the West has wanted to define what it is not, whenever it has tried to define and name its deepest fears and aversions — Judaism is the name and concept that came most easily to mind. Anti-Judaism, Nirenberg contends, “should not be understood as some archaic or irrational closet in the vast edifices of Western thought. It was rather one of the basic tools with which that edifice was constructed.”
This is an important book, and if Nirenberg is correct, a deeply disturbing one because Jews are still living within that intellectual edifice and even if they are not, it is the “idea” of the Jew that is determinative, not actual Jewish-non Jewish interaction. That is the difference between anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism. Anti-Semitism needs actual Jews to persecute; anti-Judaism can flourish without them since the target is an idea, not a group of people.
Nirenberg takes the reader on an exciting intellectual journey. Much of what he presents is known, but his remarkable learning, elegant and trenchant prose, and power of synthesis connect these varieties of anti-Judaism into a convincing narrative. His chapters on early Christianity and the founding of the Catholic church that explore the struggle to define Christianity against the faith from which it sprung, are particularly strong, as are his reflections on Islamic traditions that acknowledged the truth of Jewish scripture and rejected the Jews as false adherents of it. Particularly insightful is his treatment of modern thought from Spinoza, Voltaire, and Kant to both the revolutionary and counterrevolutionary philosophies that shaped modern politics, ending with the Nazi application of anti-Judaism in genocidal obsession. Nirenberg writes, “I do not believe that the history of thought I have attempted to sketch…determined why Germany moved from anti-Judaism to genocide… But I do believe that the Holocaust was inconceivable and is unexplainable without that deep history of thought.” Furthermore, we now live in an age when millions of people are exposed daily to some variant of the argument that the challenges they face are best explained in terms of “Israel” and the faith-culture that defines it. Nirenberg wrote a history that takes seriously the possibilities that how we have thought about the world in the past will inform how we think about it in the present. Ideas can not only lead to creativity and progress, they can also lead to destruction and annihilation.
This is an extraordinary book that will leave the reader informed, stimulated, and shaken. It is not to be missed.