Moder­ni­ty and the Jews in West­ern Social Thought

Chad Alan Goldberg
  • From the Publisher
December 22, 2017

In the late nine­teenth and ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­turies, promi­nent social thinkers in France, Ger­many, and the Unit­ed States sought to under­stand the mod­ern world tak­ing shape around them. Although they worked in dif­fer­ent nation­al tra­di­tions and empha­sized dif­fer­ent fea­tures of mod­ern soci­ety, they repeat­ed­ly invoked Jews as a touch­stone for defin­ing moder­ni­ty and nation­al iden­ti­ty in a con­text of rapid social change.

In Moder­ni­ty and the Jews in West­ern Social Thought, Chad Alan Gold­berg brings us a major new study of West­ern social thought through the lens of Jews and Judaism. In France, where anti­semites decried the French Rev­o­lu­tion as the Jew­ish Rev­o­lu­tion,” Émile Durkheim chal­lenged depic­tions of Jews as agents of rev­o­lu­tion­ary sub­ver­sion or coun­ter­rev­o­lu­tion­ary reac­tion. When Ger­man thinkers such as Karl Marx, Georg Sim­mel, Wern­er Som­bart, and Max Weber debat­ed the rela­tion­ship of the Jews to mod­ern indus­tri­al cap­i­tal­ism, they repro­duced, in sec­u­lar­ized form, cul­tur­al assump­tions derived from Chris­t­ian the­ol­o­gy. In the Unit­ed States, William Thomas, Robert Park, and their stu­dents con­ceived the mod­ern city and its new modes of social orga­ni­za­tion in part by ref­er­ence to the Jew­ish immi­grants con­cen­trat­ing there. In all three coun­tries, social thinkers invoked real or pur­port­ed dif­fer­ences between Jews and gen­tiles to elu­ci­date key dualisms of mod­ern social thought. The Jews thus became an inter­me­di­ary through which social thinkers dis­cerned in a round­about fash­ion the nature, prob­lems, and tra­jec­to­ry of their own wider soci­eties. Gold­berg rounds out his fas­ci­nat­ing study by propos­ing a nov­el expla­na­tion for why Jews were such an impor­tant cul­tur­al ref­er­ence point. He sug­gests a rethink­ing of pre­vi­ous schol­ar­ship on Ori­en­tal­ism, Occi­den­tal­ism, and Euro­pean per­cep­tions of Amer­i­ca, argu­ing that his­to­ry extends into the present, with the Jews — and now the Jew­ish state — con­tin­u­ing to serve as an inter­me­di­ary for self-reflec­tion in the twen­ty-first century.

Discussion Questions