Anti-Judaism: The West­ern Tradition

  • Review
By – April 11, 2013

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. 

Michael N. Dobkows­ki is a pro­fes­sor of reli­gious stud­ies at Hobart and William Smith Col­leges. He is co-edi­tor of Geno­cide and the Mod­ern Age and On the Edge of Scarci­ty (Syra­cuse Uni­ver­si­ty Press); author of The Tar­nished Dream: The Basis of Amer­i­can Anti-Semi­tism; and co-author of The Nuclear Predicament.

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