Qu’est-ce qui est préférable, l’antisémite ou le philosémite? L’antisémite parce qu’au moins lui, il ne ment pas. Blague juive
Voici quel sera le droit du roi qui régnera sur vous. Il prendra vos fils, et il les mettra sur ses chars et parmi ses cavaliers, afin qu’ils courent devant son char; il s’en fera des chefs de mille et des chefs de cinquante, et il les emploiera à labourer ses terres, à récolter ses moissons, à fabriquer ses armes de guerre et l’attirail de ses chars. Il prendra vos filles, pour en faire des parfumeuses, des cuisinières et des boulangères. Il prendra la meilleure partie de vos champs, de vos vignes et de vos oliviers, et la donnera à ses serviteurs. Il prendra la dîme du produit de vos semences et de vos vignes, et la donnera à ses serviteurs. Il prendra vos serviteurs et vos servantes, vos meilleurs boeufs et vos ânes, et s’en servira pour ses travaux. Il prendra la dîme de vos troupeaux, et vous-mêmes serez ses esclaves. Et alors vous crierez contre votre roi que vous vous serez choisi, mais l’Éternel ne vous exaucera point. Samuel (I Samuel 8: 11-20)
Lorsque tu seras entré dans le pays que l’Éternel, ton Dieu, te donne, lorsque tu le posséderas, que tu y auras établi ta demeure, et que tu diras: Je veux mettre un roi sur moi, comme toutes les nations qui m’entourent, – tu mettras sur toi un roi que choisira l’Éternel, ton Dieu, tu prendras un roi du milieu de tes frères, tu ne pourras pas te donner un étranger, qui ne soit pas ton frère. Mais qu’il n’ait pas un grand nombre de chevaux; et qu’il ne ramène pas le peuple en Égypte pour avoir beaucoup de chevaux; car l’Éternel vous a dit: Vous ne retournerez plus par ce chemin-là. Qu’il n’ait pas un grand nombre de femmes, afin que son coeur ne se détourne point; et qu’il ne fasse pas de grands amas d’argent et d’or. Quand il s’assiéra sur le trône de son royaume, il écrira pour lui, dans un livre, une copie de cette loi, qu’il prendra auprès des sacrificateurs, les Lévites. Il devra l’avoir avec lui et y lire tous les jours de sa vie, afin qu’il apprenne à craindre l’Éternel, son Dieu, à observer et à mettre en pratique toutes les paroles de cette loi et toutes ces ordonnances; afin que son coeur ne s’élève point au-dessus de ses frères, et qu’il ne se détourne de ces commandements ni à droite ni à gauche; afin qu’il prolonge ses jours dans son royaume, lui et ses enfants, au milieu d’Israël. Moïse (Deutéronome 17: 14-20)
Tu compteras sept sabbats d’années, sept fois sept années, et les jours de ces sept sabbats d’années feront quarante-neuf ans. Le dixième jour du septième mois, tu feras retentir les sons éclatants de la trompette; le jour des expiations, vous sonnerez de la trompette dans tout votre pays. Et vous sanctifierez la cinquantième année, vous publierez la liberté dans le pays pour tous ses habitants: ce sera pour vous le jubilé; chacun de vous retournera dans sa propriété, et chacun de vous retournera dans sa famille. La cinquantième année sera pour vous le jubilé: vous ne sèmerez point, vous ne moissonnerez point ce que les champs produiront d’eux-mêmes, et vous ne vendangerez point la vigne non taillée. Car c’est le jubilé: vous le regarderez comme une chose sainte. Vous mangerez le produit de vos champs. Dans cette année de jubilé, chacun de vous retournera dans sa propriété. Lévitique 25: 8-13
Les Juifs ne doivent point être persécutés, ni mis à mort, ni même bannis. Interrogez ceux qui connaissent la divine Écriture. Qu’y lit-on de prophétisé dans le Psaume, au sujet des Juifs. Dieu, dit l’Église, m’a donné une leçon au sujet de mes ennemis : ne les tuez pas, de crainte que mes peuples ne m’oublient. Ils sont pour nous des traits vivants qui nous représentent la passion du Seigneur. C’est pour cela qu’ils ont été dispersés dans tous les pays, afin qu’en subissant le juste châtiment d’un si grand forfait, ils servent de témoignage à notre rédemption. Bernard de Clairvaux
Les étrangers qui n’étaient pas membres de la république d’Israël, n’étaient pas forcés à observer les rites de la loi de Moïse. Au contraire, dans le même endroit de l’exode (XXII, 20, 21), où il est dit que tout Israélite idolâtre sera mis à mort, il est défendu de vexer et d’opprimer les étrangers. Il est vrai qu’on devait exterminer entièrement les sept nations qui possédaient la terre promise aux Israélites. Mais leur idolâtrie n’en fut point la cause ; autrement, pourquoi aurait-on épargné les Moabites, et d’autres nations idolâtres ? En voici la raison. Dieu, qui était le roi des juifs d’une manière toute particulière, ne pouvait pas souffrir qu’on adorât dans son royaume, c’est-à-dire dans le pays de Canaan, un autre souverain. Ce crime de lèse-majesté au premier chef était absolument incompatible avec le gouvernement politique et civil que Dieu exerçait dans l’étendue de ce pays-là. Il fallait donc en extirper toute idolâtrie qui portait les sujets à reconnaître un autre Dieu pour leur roi, contre les lois fondamentales de l’empire. Il fallait aussi en chasser les habitants, afin que les Israélites en eussent une pleine et entière possession. C’est pour cela même que la postérité d’Esaü et de Loth extermina les Emims et les Horims, dont Dieu lui avait destiné les terres, par le même droit (Deuter., II, 12). Mais, quoiqu’on bannît de cette manière toute idolâtrie du pays de Canaan, l’on ne fit pas mourir néanmoins tous les idolâtres. La famille de Rahab et les Gabaonites obtinrent bonne composition de Josué, et il y avait quantité d’esclaves idolâtres parmi les Hébreux. David et Salomon poussèrent leurs conquêtes au-delà des bornes de la terre promise, et ils soumirent à leur obéissance divers pays, qui s’étendaient jusqu’à l’Euphrate. Cependant, de tout ce nombre infini de captifs, de tous ces peuples subjugués, nous ne lisons point qu’aucun d’eux fût châtié à cause de l’idolâtrie, dont ils étaient assurément tous coupables, ni qu’on les forçât, par des supplices et des gênes, à embrasser la religion de Moïse et le culte du vrai Dieu. D’ailleurs, si un prosélyte voulait devenir membre de la république d’Israël, il fallait qu’il se soumît aux lois de l’État, c’est-à-dire à la religion de ce peuple ; mais il recherchait ce privilège de son plein gré, sans y être contraint par aucune violence. Aussitôt qu’il avait acquis ce droit de bourgeoisie, il était sujet aux lois de la république, qui défendaient l’idolâtrie dans toute l’étendue de la terre de Canaan, mais qui n’établissaient rien à l’égard des peuples qui se trouvaient hors de ces bornes. John Locke (Lettre sur la tolérance, 1689)
Il se trouve qu’on pourrait aussi bien écrire une histoire (ce serait nettement plus court) du philojudaïsme. Elle commencerait avec ces presque Juifs, les «théophobes» de la Rome antique, que Nirenberg ne mentionne pas. Mais le meilleur exemple en serait fourni par les travaux des hébraïstes chrétiens (protestants pour la plupart) de la fin du XVIe et du début du XVIIe siècle, qui fouillaient les textes bibliques et rabbiniques à la recherche d’une Constitution conforme à la volonté divine et publiaient des ouvrages s’intitulant, par exemple, «La République hébraïque». Nombre de ces auteurs étudiaient aux côtés de savants juifs, surtout originaires des Pays-Bas. Pourtant, à quelques notables exceptions près, ils restaient le plus souvent fidèles à l’antisémitisme ambiant à propos des Juifs de leur temps. David Nirenberg a beau évoquer ces hébraïstes chrétiens avec son érudition coutumière, ils trouvent difficilement leur place dans son livre. Ces savants, utilisant les rabbins de l’époque talmudique comme d’utiles interprètes, étaient en quête d’un judaïsme ancien, biblique, qu’ils voulaient étudier, voire imiter. Nirenberg traite de la représentation hostile du judaïsme de toutes les époques, vision réaffirmée par des auteurs de toute sorte. Représentation qui a permis de construire le monde social, politique, théologique et philosophique, de nommer les ennemis et de renforcer les positions. Le philojudaïsme est une ambition; l’antijudaïsme se veut une explication. (…) L’histoire de l’antijudaïsme retracée par Nirenberg est à la fois puissante et convaincante, mais elle est aussi inachevée. Il n’évoque jamais le cas des États-Unis, où l’antijudaïsme semble avoir été beaucoup moins répandu et moins utile (comme clé d’interprétation des phénomènes sociaux et économiques) qu’il ne l’avait été dans l’Ancien Monde, et où le philojudaïsme semble avoir été bien plus fort. Michael Walzer
Les chrétiens commencèrent à considérer la Bible hébraïque comme une constitution, conçue par Dieu lui-même pour les enfants d’Israël. Eric Nelson
Why, in the 17th century, did Englishmen begin to argue that kings could never be acceptable rulers, that all sovereignty had to flow from the people? The standard, secular explanation would turn to Hobbes and Locke, who thought of the state as the product of a social contract in which the people delegate their powers to a ruler for the common good. Nelson shows, however, that the debate on this subject in the 17th century revolved around the example of ancient Israel—in particular, on the passage in I Samuel when the Israelites demand that Samuel give them a king, “to judge us like all the nations.” When Samuel tells God about this, God is clearly displeased: “They have rejected me, that I should not reign over them.” Samuel goes on to list all the abuses a king will commit—from conscripting men into his army to seizing land and cattle for taxes—before giving in to the people’s request and anointing Saul. Of course, Christian readers had always known about this passage. What changed during the “Hebrew Renaissance,” Nelson shows, was that they now had access to the debates about kingship in the Talmud and the commentaries). (…) Until the 17th century, even political thinkers who supported a republic had been absolutely opposed to the redistribution of wealth by the government. They were influenced in this, Nelson shows in another passage of wonderful scholarship, by their understanding of Roman history. According to ancient historians, the downfall of the Roman Republic had been caused by the introduction of a law that redistributed lands from wealthy aristocrats to the poor. The lex agraria, as the law was known, stood as a warning to future generations that the state must not be allowed to interfere with private property. But the Hebraists, turning from Rome to Israel, noticed that the Biblical Jubilee—which held that every 50 years all land must be returned to its original owner—was itself a kind of lex agraria, designed to prevent any one person from amassing too much land. They pored over the minute explanations of the property code in the Talmud, especially in Maimonides’s Mishneh Torah. And they concluded that if the laws of Israel were given by God himself, then they must trump even the example of Rome; redistribution of wealth must be God’s will. (…) Once again, a seemingly modern principle—redistribution of wealth by the government in the name of social equality—is shown to have Jewish roots. It is possible that Nelson somewhat overstates the influence that these Jewish sources and examples had on 17th-century thinkers. Did modern thought about government really come from the Bible, or—as seems more plausible—did reformers like Harrington look to ancient Jewish sources to justify their modern ideas, borne of their experiences in war and revolution? As Nelson himself acknowledges, “the encounter between Protestant theorists and Hebrew sources did not take place in a vacuum.” Adam Kirsch
Attention: un philojudaïsme peut en cacher un autre !
A l’heure où face à la furie et barbarie islamique …
Les postmodernes qui croyaient s’être enfin débarrassés de la religion …
Se voient contraints de revenir à leurs valeurs et de redécouvrir leurs racines oubliées …
Retour suite à la découverte de la dimension rhétorique de l’antijudaïsme …
A l’histoire, certes beaucoup plus courte et ambivalente mais encore plus méconnue, du philojudaïsme …
Qui au-delà de la préservation, obtenue de haute lutte – réfutation et conversion des Juifs obligent ! – par les savants humanistes tels que Reuchlin, de la Bible hébraïque et des textes rabbiniques …
Se révéla, avec la redécouverte desdits textes par la Réforme protestante, bien plus décisives que l’on croit …
Pour les plus grands noms et questions, entre Locke et Hobbes et républicanisme et loi agraire ou tolérance religieuse, de la philosophie politique occidentale …
Entre 1507 et 1509, un Juif de Cologne converti au catholicisme, Johannes Pfefferkorn, publia une série de pamphlets au vitriol réclamant l’interdiction des prêts d’argent par les Juifs, l’obligation pour eux d’assister aux sermons chrétiens et la saisie et la destruction de tous leurs livres à l’exception de la Bible. Il avait le soutien de l’Inquisiteur général de Cologne, Jacob van Hoogstraten, de plusieurs théologiens de l’université de la ville, des Franciscains et de la sœur de l’empereur Maximilien. Ce dernier se laissa convaincre de prendre un décret interdisant les écrits juifs, considérés comme blasphématoires.
C’était compter sans le courage et la détermination de l’humaniste catholique Johannes Reuchlin, un savant versé dans les études hébraïques, qui avait notamment publié une grammaire de l’hébreu. En octobre 1509, il adressa à l’empereur ses « Recommandations sur l’opportunité de confisquer, de détruire et de brûler tous les livres juifs », soulignant l’intérêt de conserver cette littérature pour étudier les Écritures.
Pfefferkorn commença à appliquer le décret impérial en faisant saisir la riche bibliothèque de la synagogue de Francfort. Les Juifs parvinrent à freiner quelque temps le mouvement en s’appuyant sur l’archevêque de Mayence, qui leur devait une somme d’argent considérable, mais leurs livres continuèrent d’être saisis dans toute la Rhénanie.
Cependant, l’intervention de Reuchlin avait fait son chemin, et l’empereur révoqua son décret. Il ordonna la restitution des livres et nomma une commission dont l’humaniste faisait partie. Celui-ci se retrouva seul à défendre son point de vue, arguant que les Juifs, n’étant pas membres de l’Église chrétienne, ne pouvaient être accusés d’hérésie, qu’ils étaient « citoyens de l’Empire », et que leurs livres pouvaient servir à mieux les comprendre afin de les convertir. Il perdit provisoirement la partie. La diffusion de ses écrits fut interdite.
En 1511, Pfefferkorn publia un nouveau pamphlet, cette fois dirigé contre la personne de Reuchlin, avec l’appui de l’Inquisiteur général. L’humaniste, qui entre-temps avait aggravé son cas en déclarant que les Juifs étaient « nos frères », fut sommé de comparaître devant l’Inquisition. Il refusa et, fort de sa réputation de savant, parvint à faire intervenir le pape Léon X en sa faveur. De fait, le Vatican était devenu un grand centre d’études hébraïques. Après une série de péripéties, dont une volte-face du pape et la demande formulée par Pfefferkorn que Reuchlin soit brûlé vif (il dit sentir déjà l’odeur des saucisses grillées…), l’affaire s’enlisa car l’Église se trouvait soudain confrontée à un problème bien plus redoutable : Martin Luther. Reuchlin mourut en 1522.*
* L’histoire est brillamment racontée par le juriste et sociologue John Flood dans un article du Times Literary Supplement, à propos d’un livre de l’universitaire américain David H. Price, Johannes Reuchlin and the Campaign to Destroy Jewish Books, Oxford University Press, 2011
An anthology on the concept of philo-Semitism shows that ‘Jew lovers’ have often been just a shade better than anti-Semites—and sometimes no better at all
May 31, 2011
Books about anti-Semitism are depressingly numerous. New studies of the subject appear in a constant stream, focusing on anti-Semitism in this or that country, in literature or politics, in the past, the present, or the future. In 2010 alone, readers were presented with Robert Wistrich’s A Lethal Obsession: Anti-Semitism From Antiquity to the Global Jihad and Anthony Julius’ Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England, which between them offer 2,100 pages of evidence of how much people used to and still do hate Jews.
If only as a change of pace, then, a book called Philosemitism in History (Cambridge University Press) should be cause for celebration. Never mind that it is a mere 350 pages, and not a continuous history but a collection of academic papers on fairly narrow subjects, from the Christian Hebraists of the 17th century to documentaries on West German TV. At least it promises a chance to hear about Gentiles who admired and praised Jews, instead of hating and killing them. There must have been some, right?
Well, yes and no. As every contributor to Philosemitism in History acknowledges, Jews have never been entirely happy about the idea of philo-Semitism. The volume’s introduction, by editors Adam Sutcliffe and Jonathan Karp, begins with a Jewish joke: “Q: Which is preferable—the antisemite or the philosemite? A: The antisemite—at least he isn’t lying.” This may be too cynical; closer to the bone is the saying that “a philo-Semite is an anti-Semite who loves Jews.” That formulation helps to capture the sense that philo- and anti- share an unhealthy interest in Jews and an unreal notion of who and what Jews are. Both deal not with Jewishness but with “Semitism,” as if being a Jew were the same as embracing a political ideology such as communism or conservatism—rather than what it really is, a religious and historical identity that cuts across political and economic lines.
This Jewish mistrust of philo-Semitism finds ample support in the history of the word offered by Lars Fischer in his contribution to the book. Fischer’s essay focuses rather narrowly on debates within the socialist movement in Germany in the late 19th century. But since this was exactly the time and place that the words “anti-Semitism” and “philo-Semitism” were coined, Fischer’s discussion of the political valences of the terms is highly revealing. From the beginning, when the word was coined by Wilhelm Marr in 1879, “anti-Semitic” was a label proudly claimed by enemies of the Jews. In Austria and Germany, there were political parties, trade unions, and newspapers that called themselves “anti-Semitic,” even when their political programs went beyond hostility to Jews.
Philo-Semitism sounds like it would have been the rallying-cry of the opponents of anti-Semitism, a movement with its own political program. But Fischer explains that this was not the case. In fact, “philo-Semitism” was invented as a term of abuse, applied by anti-Semites to those who opposed them. Though Fischer does not draw the parallel, he makes clear that “philo-Semite” was the equivalent of a word like “nigger-lover” in the United States, meant to suggest that anyone who took the part of a despised minority was odious and perverse. “Its obvious implication was that anybody who could be bothered to oppose anti-Semitism actively must be in cahoots with ‘the Jews,’ ” in thrall to the very Jewish money and power that anti-Semitism attacked.
What this meant was that, in Wilhelmine Germany, those who fought anti-Semitism—above all, Germany’s Social Democratic Party, whose leadership included many Jews—had to be careful to deny that they were philo-Semites. In 1891, for instance, the New York Jewish socialist Abraham Cahan, later to be famous as a novelist and the editor of the Forward, attended the International Socialist Congress at Brussels, in order to propose a motion condemning anti-Semitism. Victor Adler and Paul Singer, the leaders of Socialist parties in Germany and Austria—and both Jews—fought against Cahan’s motion, afraid that condemning anti-Semitism would only heighten the public perception of socialism as a Jewish movement. Finally, the motion passed, after it was amended to attack anti-Semitism and philo-Semitism in equal measure.
No one, it seems, wanted to be a philo-Semite; and for a long time, on the evidence of Philosemitism in History, almost no one was. Certainly, it takes pathetically little good will toward Jews to qualify for a place in the book. Robert Chazan, looking for “Philosemitic Tendencies in Western Christendom,” finds one in Saint Bernard’s warning to the Second Crusade not to repeat the anti-Jewish violence of the First. “The Jews are for us the living words of Scripture, for they remind us always of what our Lord suffered. They are dispersed all over the world, so that by expiating their crime they may be everywhere the living witnesses of our redemption.”
In this context, philo-Semitism means persecuting Jews to the brink of killing them, but no further. (Paula Frederiksen wrestled with this ambiguous Christian legacy in her excellent book Augustine and the Jews.) Likewise, Chazan shows, the medieval princes who invited Jews to settle in their lands did so not out of any love for Jewish people, but in order to create a taxable commercial class—and they often ended up killing the goose that laid so many golden eggs.
As early as the 11th century, then, we can see the ambivalence that continues to mark Christian philo-Semitism down to the present. Jews are valued, but only as long as they play the role assigned them in a Christian project or worldview. If Jews step out of that role, they are bitterly criticized. During the Renaissance, for example, a desire to read the Bible in its original language drove many leading humanists to study Hebrew. These Christian Hebraists engaged with Jewish traditions more deeply than any Gentiles had done before, even studying the Mishnah and Gemara for clues about historic Jewish practices. As Eric Nelson showed in his recent book The Hebrew Republic, the Israelite commonwealth became a major inspiration to English political theorists in the 17th century.
Three essays in Philosemitism in History focus on the Christian Hebraist movement. Yet as Abraham Melamed writes in “The Revival of Christian Hebraism,” “the big question … is whether the emergence and influence of Christian Hebraism in early modern Europe led to a more tolerant attitude toward the Jews, and additionally to any kind of philosemitism.” Reading Hebrew and admiring the Israelites were all well and good, but did they lead scholars like Johann Reuchlin and William Whiston to have any sympathy with the actual, living Jews of their time? “This is not necessarily the case,” Melamed answers. The English scholar John Selden was referred to, jokingly, as England’s “Chief Rabbi,” for his mastery of Jewish texts, but he seems not to have known any Jews, and he publicly endorsed the blood libel, citing Jews’ “devilish malice to Christ and Christians.”
A more complicated case of Christian philo-Semitism is the subject of Yaakov Ariel’s essay “It’s All in the Bible,” which explores the strong support of Israel by contemporary American Evangelicals. For centuries, but especially after 1967, evangelical Christians have been staunch Zionists, and their friendship has been welcomed by the Israeli government. Yet the premise of that friendship is a millenarian theology, based on a reading of the Book of Revelation, which holds that the establishment of a Jewish state in the Holy Land is a precondition to the Second Coming of Christ. On the road to the redemption, Christian Zionists believe, the majority of Jews will be wiped out in apocalyptic wars, and the remainder will convert to Christianity.
This philo-Semitism is, at its heart, deeply anti-Jewish, and the attempts of Israeli politicians to court evangelical support have been awkward, to say the least. In 1996, during Benjamin Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister, he supported a bill, urged by Orthodox members of the Knesset, to ban Christian missionary activity in Israel. When he realized that this would profoundly offend the American Christian Right, Netanyahu changed his mind and thwarted the bill. Here we have the Jewish leader of a Jewish state permitting Christians to try to convert Jews, as the price for Christian political support.
Does this count as “philo-Semitism”? And what about the painfully earnest documentaries aired on West German TV in the 1970s, discussed by Wulf Kansteiner, in which “self-pity and appropriation of Jewish culture went hand in hand with awkward silences”? Or the Jewish kitsch on sale in many Eastern European cities, which Ruth Ellen Gruber writes about? Lodz, in Poland, was once a great Jewish metropolis, and then one of the most lethal Nazi ghettoes. Today it is home to a restaurant called Anatevka, after the shtetl in Fiddler on the Roof, where you can be served matzoh by a “waiter dressed up in Hasidic costume, including a black hat and ritual fringes.” Gruber is rather indulgent toward this kind of thing, seeing it as a byproduct or precursor of a genuine rebirth of Jewish life in Eastern Europe. Seen in a colder light, this Jewish kitsch, like many of the phenomena on display in Philosemitism in History, might seem to call for a paraphrase of Oscar Wilde: Not “each man kills the thing he loves,” but each man loves the thing he killed.
But this is too bitter. There may be little to love about philo-Semitism, and little to be grateful for in its history; but that is because genuine esteem between Christians and Jews, like real affection of all kinds, cannot be grasped as an “-ism.” Ideologies deal in abstractions, and to turn a group of people into an abstraction, even a “positive” one, is already to do violence to them. That kind of violence is what historians tend to record, but most of the time, it is not the way real people think and live.
For instance, one of the most heartening stories in Philosemitism in History comes from 14th-century Marseilles, where a Jewish moneylender named Bondavid was tried for fraud. The trial record still exists, Chazan writes, and it shows that Bondavid called a number of Christians as character witnesses. A priest, Guillelmus Gasqueti, testified that “actually [Bondavid is] more righteous than anybody he ever met in his life. … For, if one may say so, he never met or saw a Christian more righteous than he.” This kind of genuine, personal esteem between Christians and Jews was “unusual,” Chazan writes, “but surely not unique.” And it is the proliferation of such face-to-face friendships in modern America that has made this country, not the most “philo-Semitic” in history, but the one where individual Jews and Christians have actually liked each other most.
Adam Kirsch is the director of the MA program in Jewish Studies at Columbia University and the author, most recently, of Emblems of the Passing World: Poems after Photographs by August Sander.
A new book examines the debt 17th-century republicanism owed to Jewish sources
March 16, 2010
The Hebrew Republic, Eric Nelson’s short but deeply learned and thought-provoking new book, sets out to resolve what looks like a strange historical paradox. Any standard textbook will tell you that 17th-century England was the birthplace of modern, liberal, secular ways of thinking about politics and government. At a time when England was convulsed by civil war, religious hatred, regicide, and revolution, philosophers like Thomas Hobbes and John Locke began to argue that the state should be considered as a purely human invention, whose purpose is not to follow God’s laws or promote the one true faith, but simply to secure peace and prosperity to its citizens. As Nelson summarizes this standard view, “the peculiar achievement of the seventeenth century [was] to have bequeathed us a tradition of political thought that has been purged of political theology.”
At the same time, however, the 17th century is also known, especially in England, as a time of intense religious passion and a new fascination with the Bible. As Nelson remarks, historians have called that period “the Biblical century,” and Hobbes and Locke both discuss the Bible in detail. The major reason for this new interest was, of course, the rise of Protestant Christianity, which taught that God’s will could be known only through the Bible and not through any church or priest. It became crucial, then, to read the Bible in its original form, undistorted by commentary and translation—that is, to read it in Hebrew.
As Nelson shows, it was not unheard of for Christians to study Hebrew before the 17th century. In particular, missionaries would “use Hebrew texts in order to refute Judaism and advance the cause of Jewish conversion.” But the 17th century saw what Nelson calls the “great flowering” of “Christian Hebraism,” as non-Jewish scholars began to study the Tanakh, and even the Talmud and rabbinic commentaries, at universities in Holland and England. The invention of printing, too, played an important role by giving non-Jews access to rabbinical texts for the first time. (The first printed Talmud was produced in 1520-23 by a Christian printer in Italy.)
Nelson argues that it was not a coincidence that Englishmen began to show an interest in republican government, redistribution of wealth, and religious toleration at just the same moment that they were learning more about Judaism than ever before. Rather, they were led to these new, seemingly secular ideas by their research into the laws and government of ancient Israel, as documented in the Bible and interpreted by the rabbis over centuries. “Christians began to regard the Hebrew Bible,” Nelson writes, “as a political constitution, designed by God himself for the children of Israel.” In a sense, then, traditional Jewish ideas—as interpreted, and misinterpreted, by Christian scholars—lie at the very origin of modern politics.
The Hebrew Republic traces a biblical and rabbinic genealogy for several important political concepts that, on their face, would seem to be strictly modern and secular. The first is what Nelson calls “republican exclusivism”—the idea that a republic, in which the people govern themselves, is the only valid form of government. Greek and Roman political theory always treated the republic as just one of several possible options for good government, alongside the equally legitimate monarchy and aristocracy. Why, in the 17th century, did Englishmen begin to argue that kings could never be acceptable rulers, that all sovereignty had to flow from the people?
The standard, secular explanation would turn to Hobbes and Locke, who thought of the state as the product of a social contract in which the people delegate their powers to a ruler for the common good. Nelson shows, however, that the debate on this subject in the 17th century revolved around the example of ancient Israel—in particular, on the passage in I Samuel when the Israelites demand that Samuel give them a king, “to judge us like all the nations.” When Samuel tells God about this, God is clearly displeased: “They have rejected me, that I should not reign over them.” Samuel goes on to list all the abuses a king will commit—from conscripting men into his army to seizing land and cattle for taxes—before giving in to the people’s request and anointing Saul.
Of course, Christian readers had always known about this passage. What changed during the “Hebrew Renaissance,” Nelson shows, was that they now had access to the debates about kingship in the Talmud and the commentaries. Particularly influential was the discussion of monarchy in Devarim Rabbah, a collection of midrashic commentaries on Deuteronomy translated into Latin in 1625. “The Rabbis say: God said unto Israel: ‘I planned that you should be free from kings,’ ” the midrash begins, going on to cite a wide variety of verses and commentators:
Rabbi Simon said in the name of Rabbi Joshua ben Levi: Whosoever puts his trust in the Holy One, blessed be He, is privileged to become like unto Him. Whence this? As it is said, “Blessed is the man that trusteth in the Lord, and whose trust the Lord is” (Jeremiah 17:7). But whosoever puts his trust in idolatry condemns himself to become like [the idols]. Whence this? As it is written, “They that make them shall be like unto them” (Psalms 115:8).
This midrash, Nelson shows through some impressive textual analysis (in Hebrew, Latin, and English), helped inspire English republicans to the radical new claim that kingship was inherently sinful, because it was a form of idolatry. It was cited by John Milton in his attack on the English monarchy, and it influenced several passages of Paradise Lost. Republican theorists like James Harrington and Algernon Sidney drew on the same rabbinic sources. Even Thomas Paine, defending the American Revolution in Common Sense, was echoing Devarim Rabbah.
Another key text in this debate was Deuteronomy 17:14, where Moses, looking forward to the time when the Israelites have conquered the land of Canaan, says: “When thou art come unto the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee … and shalt say, I will set a king over me, like as all the nations that are about me.” This, at least, is how the King James Bible translated it. But the Talmud records a debate about whether the Hebrew word “ve-amarta” should be understood as a description—“you will say”—or an imperative: “you shall say.” If the former, then Moses is simply predicting that the Israelites will demand a king; if the latter, he is ordering them to demand a king. Amazingly, Nelson shows, this Talmudic dispute became very well-known among English Christians, to the point that Harrington could refer to it knowingly in an anti-monarchist tract: “The one party will have the law to be positive, the other contingent and with a mark of detestation upon it.” Harrington even cites Gersonides and Maimonides in his discussion.
Nelson’s second and third chapters pursue a similar strategy, showing how Christian readings of Hebrew texts influenced other major political debates. Until the 17th century, even political thinkers who supported a republic had been absolutely opposed to the redistribution of wealth by the government. They were influenced in this, Nelson shows in another passage of wonderful scholarship, by their understanding of Roman history. According to ancient historians, the downfall of the Roman Republic had been caused by the introduction of a law that redistributed lands from wealthy aristocrats to the poor. The lex agraria, as the law was known, stood as a warning to future generations that the state must not be allowed to interfere with private property.
But the Hebraists, turning from Rome to Israel, noticed that the Biblical Jubilee—which held that every 50 years all land must be returned to its original owner—was itself a kind of lex agraria, designed to prevent any one person from amassing too much land. They pored over the minute explanations of the property code in the Talmud, especially in Maimonides’s Mishneh Torah. And they concluded that if the laws of Israel were given by God himself, then they must trump even the example of Rome; redistribution of wealth must be God’s will.
So, Harrington, in the imaginary model society he called Oceana, called for all estates beyond a certain size to be confiscated by the state. His reason, he explained, was that he was following “the fabric of the commonwealth of ancient Israel,” which was “made by an infallible legislator, even God himself.” As late as 1795, Nelson finds an American minister (Perez Fobes of Boston) sermonizing on “the wisdom of God in the appointment of a jubilee, as an essential article in the Jewish policy. This, it is probable, was the great palladium of liberty to that people.” Once again, a seemingly modern principle—redistribution of wealth by the government in the name of social equality—is shown to have Jewish roots.
It is possible that Nelson somewhat overstates the influence that these Jewish sources and examples had on 17th-century thinkers. Did modern thought about government really come from the Bible, or—as seems more plausible—did reformers like Harrington look to ancient Jewish sources to justify their modern ideas, borne of their experiences in war and revolution? As Nelson himself acknowledges, “the encounter between Protestant theorists and Hebrew sources did not take place in a vacuum.” No doubt specialists will be debating the arguments of The Hebrew Republic for some time to come—which is a testimony to Eric Nelson’s profound and original book.
Adam Kirsch is the director of the MA program in Jewish Studies at Columbia University and the author, most recently, of Emblems of the Passing World: Poems after Photographs by August Sander.
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Michael S. Roth
April 26, 2013
Oh, the Protestants hate the Catholics,
And the Catholics hate the Protestants,
And the Hindus hate the Muslims,
And everybody hates the Jews.
So sang Tom Lehrer in his satirical song “National Brotherhood Week.” It’s no news that even those who preach “love they neighbor” have often combined their striving for community with the hatred of a scapegoat, the Jews. David Nirenberg’s “Anti-Judaism” is a thorough, scholarly account of why, in the history of the West, Jews have been so easy to hate. And this story goes back a very long way.
’Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition’ by David Nirenberg (W. W. Norton)
Nirenberg returns to ancient Egypt to examine traditions that portray Jews as “enemies of Egyptian piety, sovereignty, and prosperity.”This was already old in the 7th century BCE! Ancient Greeks and Romans would have their Jews, too; they found use for an “anomalous” people who stuck together and followed their own rules, who were “neither disenfranchised nor citizen, neither conquered nor conquering, neither powerless nor free.” Over the centuries, when there was trouble in the kingdom, be it corruption or military threat, famine or political chaos, pagan ideologues developed a handy solution: Attack the Jews.
Jews were useful for those who were contending for power in the ancient world, and the Egyptian model of scapegoating was often repeated. But it was the Christians who refined anti-Judaism into a core theological and political ideology. Christianity had a particular problem: to show that it had overcome Judaism — overcome its adherence to the laws of the “old” testament, overcome its tribal particularity with evangelical universalism. The idea of Judaism — together with the fact that there were still people in the world who chose to remain Jews — was an affront to that universalism. “To the extent that Jews refused to surrender their ancestors, their lineage, and their scripture, they could become emblematic of the particular, of stubborn adherence to the conditions of the flesh, enemies of the spirit, and of God.”
Throughout the centuries theologians returned to this theme when they wanted either to stimulate religious enthusiasm or quash some perceived heretical movement. Not that you needed any real Jews around to do this. You simply had to label your enemies as “Jews” or “Judaizing” to advance the purity of your cause. In the first through fourth centuries, Christians fighting Christians often labeled each other Jews as they struggled for supremacy. And proclaiming your hatred of the Jews became a tried and true way of showing how truly Christian you were. Centuries later, even Luther and Erasmus agreed that “if hatred of Jews makes the Christian, then we are all plenty Christian.”
Islam followed this same pattern of solidifying orthodoxy by stoking anti-Jewish fervor. Muhammad set Islam, like Christianity, firmly within an Abrahamic tradition, but that made it crucial to sever the new religion from any Judaizing possibilities. Rival Islamic groups, like rival forms of Christianity, often painted their adversaries as hypocritical Jews scheming to take the world away from spiritual truths essential for its true salvation.
Nirenberg shows how consistently the struggle for religious and political supremacy has been described as a struggle against the “Jews.” The quotation marks are especially important as his account moves beyond the medieval period, because between 1400 and 1600 Western Europe was more or less “a world free of Jews.” Banished from most countries, and existing only in the tiniest numbers through special exemptions, actual Jews were hardly ever seen. But it was in this period that “Christian Europe awoke haunted by the conviction that it was becoming Jewish.” In this period of cultural change and doctrinal and political disputes, patterns as old as the age of the pharoahs were reactivated: My adversaries must be extinguished for the polity to be purified; my adversaries must be Jews. And in early modern European eyes, the adversaries were especially dangerous if they were secret Jews who appeared to be Christian. Were Jews hiding everywhere?
Martin Luther brought this rhetoric to a fever pitch. In 1523 he accused the Roman Church of becoming “more ‘Jewish’ than the Jews,” and as he grew older he tried to convince his contemporaries that “so thoroughly hopeless, mean, poisonous, and bedeviled a thing are the Jews that for 1400 years they have been, and continue to be, our plague, pestilence, and all that is our misfortune.” Don’t believe in conversions, the aged Luther urged; the only way to baptize Jews was by tying millstones around their necks.
Nirenberg’s command of disparate sources and historical contexts is impressive. His account of the development of Christianity and Islam is scholarly yet readable. And his portrayal of the role that Judaism has played as a foil for the consolidation of religious and political groups is, for this Jewish reader, chilling. Nirenberg is not interested, as he repeatedly insists, in arguing that Christianity and Islam are “anti-Semitic.” Instead, he is concerned with tracing the work that the idea of Judaism does within Western culture. He shows that many of the important conceptual and aesthetic developments in that culture — from Saint John to Saint Augustine to Muhammad, from Shakespeare to Luther to Hegel — depend on denigrating Jews.That’s what’s so chilling: great cultural achievements built on patterns of scapegoating and hatred.
In the modern period, revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries continued to employ “the Jewish problem” as something to be overcome. “How could that tiny minority convincingly come to represent for so many the evolving evils of the capitalist world order?” Nirenberg asks. He shows that for thousands of years the patterns of anti-Judaism have evolved to provide great thinkers and ordinary citizens with habits of thought to “make sense of their world.” He doesn’t say that these patterns caused the mechanized, genocidal Nazi war against the Jews in the 20th century, but he argues convincingly “that the Holocaust was inconceivable and is unexplainable without that deep history of thought.”
Presaging Tom Lehrer, Sigmund Freud in 1929 wrote ironically that Jews, by being objects of aggression, “have rendered most useful services to the civilizations of the countries that have been their hosts; but unfortunately all the massacres of the Jews in the Middle Ages did not suffice to make that period more peaceful and secure for their Christian fellows.” Even when “everybody hates the Jews,” patterns of intolerance and violence remain intact. Nirenberg offers his painful and important history so that we might recognize these patterns in hopes of not falling into them yet again.
Michael S. Roth is the president of Wesleyan University and the author of “Memory, Trauma, and History: Essays on Living With the Past.”
Book:Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition
New York, NY, W. W. Norton, 2013, ISBN: 9780393058246; 624pp.; Price: £20.00
King’s College London
Citation:Christopher Smith, review of Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition, (review no. 1558)
Date accessed: 6 December, 2015
David Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition is an impressive scholarly accomplishment that matches a dauntingly large subject matter with a vast vault of personal knowledge. At 474 pages and 13 chapters covering more than 3000 years, it is thorough without being exhaustive. (1) The book cogently follows the development of anti-Judaism from Ancient Egypt through to the de-Judaising theories of Martin Heidegger and Joseph Goebbels. It is, however, first and foremost a history of ideas rather than of societies and some of Nirenberg’s focus and conclusions may sit uncomfortably with readers expecting a straight socio-political history of anti-Judaism. Jewish communities and their religion Judaism appear infrequently in the context of Nirenberg’s sources. They haunt his history like invisible ghosts, invoked to attack perceived enemies who were as likely to be non-Jews as Jews. Take for instance the war of words between the fourth-century Christian theologians St Jerome and St Augustine. Jerome (340/2–420CE) accused Augustine (354–430CE) of ‘Judaising’ tendencies by defending Jewish Law, who in turn labelled Jerome a ‘Judaiser’ for reading original Hebrew texts rather than the Greek translations. Neither knew or had any actual contact with Jews, but their debates on the dangers of Judaism remained seminal guidelines for generations of Christian theologians (pp. 120–34).
Nirenberg focuses rather on how certain aspects of Christian teaching and culture used criticism of Jews and Judaism to make sense of their own religion and society. It is not a history of anti-Semitism, and Nirenberg differs from Robert Wistrich antithetically.(2) He does not examine anti-Judaism to explain the Holocaust, or contemporary western and Middle Eastern attitudes towards Israel. His purpose is more ambitious than this; he aims to show that ‘pathological’ fantasies of Judaism are central to the history of ideas that became deeply ingrained in the Western tradition (p. 468). Ancient civilisations, medieval kingdoms and modern industrial states each developed discourses on the Jewish threat that society could be defined against. For Nirenberg, the barbarism of the Holocaust is the conceivable product of the encoded threat of Judaism in western thought, but was not made inevitable by it. Previous historical instances of anti-Judaism did not create the anti-Semitic ideologies of the 20th century, but they did build on each other to create the cultural and political conditions for them to occur (pp. 469–70).
Nirenberg buttresses this argument with reference to influential thinkers from each era. The Ptolemaic historian Manetho’s (282–246BCE) demonising of the Jewish ‘shepherds’ was central to the development of a unique Egyptian historical and political thought (p. 22). St Jerome and St Augustine’s theological slanging match influenced the medieval Church and monarchies’ treatment of minorities (pp. 120–34). Martin Luther accused his papist opponents of ‘Pharasaism’ and attempted to ‘drain’ Jewish letters from the word of God (p. 252). Both Voltaire and Kant identified Jewish vices in the Old Testament as the source of intolerance in Ancien Régime society (pp. 352–60). And Marx, Heidegger and Sobert provided the philosophical context for Joseph Goebbels’ 1933 declaration ‘The age of rampant Jewish intellectualism is now at an end’ (p. 423).
With a book this ambitious, however, a wide ranging and generous smattering of primary source material drawn from lesser known thinkers is expected. Second-century writers such as Justin Martyr (pp. 100–3) and the chronicler Hegesippus (pp.92–8) inform the reader of the early Church’s anti-Judaism as much as Augustine and Jerome in Nirenberg’s narrative. Likewise Nirenberg uses Sebastian Brant’s Ship of Fools in 1494 to reveal the dramatization of Early Modern English concerns with the ‘Jewishness’ of Christian commerce as relevantly as Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (1598) or Christopher Marlow’s Jew of Malta (1589). It is a testament to Nirenberg’s masterful scholarly skills that his interweaving of diverse primary sources – often across eras and continents – feels appropriate and convincing.
It is hard to avoid the impression that Anti-Judaism: the History of a Way of Thinking represents for Nirenberg the culmination of a career volte-face in respects to his methodological approach. His 1996 work Communities of Violence: Persecution of Minorities in the Middle Ages rejected a longue durée history of anti-Semitism.(3) This approach, Nirenberg argued, was liable to assess individual events in structures contextually grounded in the Holocaust, and not in the climatic conditions in which they occurred. The Montcluse massacre of 1320 was more relevant for understanding socio-economic relations between Jews and their Aragonese overlords than explaining the Holocaust, for example.(4) Communities of Violence used a relatively narrow belt of sources covering southwest France and the Crown of Aragon. With Anti-Judaism, his work takes in 3,000 years of historical thought from the Ancient Egyptians to Nazi Germany on a subject almost impossibly vast: how anti-Judaism became the basis for people to criticise and understand their societies, and subsequently, how this became the bedrock of the Western tradition.
In Anti-Judaism, Nirenberg allows for a continuation of trends in the development of a shared concept of anti-Judaism built on and progressed over the periods covered in his book. Nirenberg would not consider this a determinist argument: that questions of Judaism in the history of ideas necessarily connected with each other, or culminated in 20th-century anti-Semitism (pp. 456–7). He attempts to combine his disdain for a structural approach by viewing anti-Judaism within the context of each period ‘and with an awareness of potential futures- that is, of how that material will be put to the work of generating different worldviews in later periods and places’ (p. 11). This leads to dead ends as often as open doors. It is a history of how ideas on Judaism drove forward key concepts of Western thought concerning Christian (and Muslim) society, but that this tradition was not what inherently drove Western civilisation towards the Final Solution. This is perhaps an unsettling conclusion: by implication that the Holocaust was far from inevitable, but equally that it could have occurred not in Germany but in France, Britain, the United States or anywhere in the Western world (p. 458–9).
The great focus of the book is on the Christian history of thinking about Judaism, but the influence of pagan writers and concepts from antiquity were instrumental to the guidance of the early Church on Jewish subjects. In chapter one (‘The ancient world: Egypt, exodus, empire’) Nirenberg shows how Egyptian scholars used negative stories and stereotypes of Jews and Judaism, assigning a centrality to them that helped explain Egyptian civilisation’s past – and just as importantly its future direction. The Passover festival for Jews celebrated their liberation; for Egyptians it was an offensive celebration of their society’s destruction and the defeat of their gods (p. 18). In this context, Nirenberg asserts (conjecturally as the source base provides little assistance) that ancient Egyptians created their own pro-Egyptian versions of the ‘Passover’. Nirenberg quotes Manetho (282–246BCE), an Egyptian priest from Heliopolis, who relates an invasion of Egypt by a people called the ‘shepherds’ residing in Judea, bringing rapine pillage and murder, but more shockingly in Manetho’s view, impious destruction of temples and divine images (p. 23). Ultimately the Shepherds were resisted, and this became the basis for the Egyptian version of the exodus as well as Nirenberg’s first example of how ‘a people’s sense of their past and present place in the world could be articulated through the construction of a fundamental opposition to Jews and Judaism’ (p. 24).
Nirenberg shows how Egyptian anti-Judaism had a powerful influence on the two powers that bequeathed the West its political and cultural heritage: Rome and Greece. Greek thinkers such as Lysimachus (Second century BCE, p.30) accepted Egyptian narratives of Jews acting as the enemies of native piety and prosperity, and Alexandria saw some of the most brutal anti-Jewish riots of antiquity (pp. 40–1). By lobbying for the exclusion of Jews from the privileges of citizenship, Nirenberg asserts that Greeks in Alexandria were in effect defending their own sovereign rights, and by the act of anti-Jewish violence were hypostatizing political and theoretical criticism of the imperial power of Rome onto a powerless minority. Roman generals and governors used Egyptian histories to draw their own conclusions about how to deal with the perpetual rebelliousness of the state of Judea. However, unlike for the Egyptians and Greeks, the Jews mattered little to how Romans thought of themselves. Nirenberg leaves this unexplained but it perhaps resulted from a lack of physical threat from Jews in Roman historical origins (p. 46).
It was within the framework of the Greek cultural world (although deeply within the political sphere and territory of the Roman Empire) that the early Christian Church developed a contrary attitude towards Judaism which Nirenberg discusses in chapters two and three. Nirenberg details the overriding concern amongst early Christians (who were themselves predominantly of Jewish background) to define ‘true teaching’ from ‘false’ in their interpretations of the New Testament (p. 87). It was with the consolidation of the early Church that ‘false teaching’ became equated with ‘Jewish practice’. Second-century CE Christian theologians such as Marcion used the teachings of Paul and the other apostles to denounce as ‘Judaisers’ Christians who adhered too closely to the flesh (i.e. acceptance of circumcision or placing too much focus on Jesus’ mortal status) rather than the spirit (pp. 97–9). This marked a crucial phase in early Christian history. As the Church became increasingly a Gentile movement independent of Jews, they became the medium for which Christians condemned bad practice. Judaism became the ‘Anti-Christianity’ to which the narrative of their own Church and wider gentile society could be favourably compared.
Nirenberg focuses on the continuation of this theme in the medieval period, which became increasingly politicised (chapters four to six). Jews – barred from communal economic activities and guild membership – often found employment as money lenders or tax collectors with tacit sovereign approval. Despite not usually predominating in either professions, Jews became associated with them and therefore with sovereign and fiscal power. Political opponents would accuse rulers of becoming ‘Judaised’. Thus Simon De Montfort based the righteousness of his rebellion against Henry III of England in the King’s endorsement of Jewish economic activity. Nirenberg shows how this built on the teachings of St Augustine – that Jews should be tolerated only as an example to Christians of the ‘wandering’ fate awaiting adherents to a failed and tainted religion. As a De Montfort supporter, the 13th-century CE theologian Robert Grosseteste, stated, toleration should not extend to princely protection and favour: ‘Such lords, like the Jews, drink the blood of their subjects’ (p. 198).
Such powerful anti-Judaist sentiment contributed to the mass expulsion or forced conversions of Jewish populations by European monarchs. Vast tracts of Europe became Jew-free zones. Paradoxically, Nirenberg shows how this widened the scope and range of anti-Judaism in the West. The line between Jews and non-Jews suddenly became blurred. The Inquisition in Spain to root out secret Jews led to accusations of ‘Jewish tendencies’ for as little as refusing to buy an apple on the Sabbath or nodding one’s head during prayer (p. 242). In a Europe largely free from Jews, now potentially everyone could be a Jew or be accused of being ‘Judaisers’.
This was true also of the world of the Reformation as Nirenberg relates in chapter seven. Martin Luther in his polemic ‘That Jesus Christ was born a Jew’ (1523) inferred that the Catholic brand of Christianity was worse even than Judaism in its focus on the flesh and hypocrisy (p. 261). His later hard line towards ‘real’ Jews (‘On the Jews and their lies’, 1543) was perhaps influenced by Catholic counter attempts to Judaize him, and contributed towards the violent expulsion of Jews from most of the German lands by the 1570s (p. 262). But Luther was more concerned with attacking his Christian opponents, seeking to portray them as more ‘Jewish’ than the Jews for their perversion of the sacraments and other ‘Jewish’ crimes (p. 260).
Nirenberg shows how Luther refocused the debate surrounding the interpretation of the Scriptures and the word of God, and made the ghostly spectre of Judaism a ‘real’ threat to which Christian teaching was set against in the Confessional age. The centrality of the threat of Judaism within Europe did not diminish with the gradual move from a divinely to a secularised conception of the ordering of the world – it merely shifted (chapter ten – ‘Enlightenment revolts against Judaism: 1670–1789’). Enlightenment philosophes from Voltaire to Kant derided Christianity for its coupling with, and origin from, the ‘sterile’ and unreligious ‘legalism’ of Judaism (p.359). Only by throwing off the shackles of Judaism could Christianity become the true universal religion of humanity, by separating religious institutions and observance from the mechanisms of state. Here again then, Nirenberg shows political thinkers using Judaism to characterise their opponents and conceptualise the evils they observed in their society.
19th- and early 20th-century Germany provides Nirenberg’s focus in his later chapters. He shows how German philosophers from Hegel (1770–1831) to Schopenhauer (1788–1860) saw the remnants of Jewish law as the principle barrier to the freedom of the individual and human spirit (pp. 404–5). Concerns at the creeping calamity of industrialisation, urbanisation and commercialisation from 1750 onwards animated the writings of Heine (1797–1856), Fichte (1762–1814) and Marx (1818–83) with each equating in their own way these ‘dangerous’ processes with ‘Judaism’ (p. 422). Werner Sombart (1863–1941) saw the origins of capitalism deeply rooted in the migrations of the Jewish people; Max Weber (1864–1920) counters this with his assertion that Protestant capitalism and the ‘capitalist spirit’ originated separately from what he saw as the unethical history of Jewish economic activity. Marx, Sombart and Weber remain towering figures within the modern social sciences, and Nirenberg shows how all of them developed their theories to some degree by thinking about Judaism. And it was within the influence and schooling in such high intellectual German culture that Goebbels’s propaganda developed and provided the context in which it was delivered and received (p. 448).
Ultimately, Nirenberg seeks to show how each era of anti-Judaism to differing degrees built upon one another to develop the 20th-century political and cultural framework in which the Holocaust was realisable, if not inevitable. His is a history of anti-Judaism, but not particularly a history of interaction between Jews and non-Jews. It seeks to ask why so many people through history have thought negatively about Judaism. There is consequently little room for Jewish voices, or evidence of ‘Judeophilia’. The reader is left waiting in vain for a Jewish champion to stand up to the blistering barrage ‘Jews’ are subjected to in this history, or at least for someone to throw in the towel. Nirenberg no doubt would argue that this is not for him to provide; his focus is anti-Judaism and its relevance to Western thought, not the history of philosemitism. However, some acknowledgement of tolerance and co-existence between Jews and non-Jews would provide a useful counterbalance to the relentless pursuit of evidence of anti-Judaism which occasionally feels laboured.
This book is primarily a history of thought not a social history. Given this, Nirenberg is occasionally too quick to inflate the societal importance of the ideas he discusses. Broad socio-economic, cultural and political developments are summarised and dogmatic doctrinal debates between scholars indulged. Generalisations litter these summaries, such as the assertion that the rise of a stock capitalised banking system meant ‘every man became willy nilly a speculator’ (p. 425). 19th-century workers in sweated industries may have had something to say about this statement. It perhaps falls outside the scope of Nirenberg’s work, but I find the general reluctance to directly explore the impact and influence of anti-Judaism on the societies from which his thinkers originate (and vice versa) a tad frustrating. For instance, was the rhetoric and nature of anti-Semitism in 19th- and early 20th-century German towns and villages influenced by the anti-Judaism of Heideger, Marx and Sombert? Was support for the Third Reich a product of this continually evolving process of self-perlustration-by-Judaism?
A case in point is the Russian Jewish community of London during the First World War. A particularly nasty anti-Jewish incident occurred in September 1917 in Bethnal Green; Jewish businesses were looted and vandalised, and hundreds of immigrant Jews subjected to violent attacks in the streets. In determining the motivation driving the English crowd to violence against their Jewish neighbours, documentary analysis has uncovered several key determinants. Anger at a perceived non-commitment on behalf of the Jewish community to Britain’s war cause; war-strain and shortages on the home front; economic xenophobia resulting from Jewish encroachment in traditionally English industries such as tailoring and cabinet making.(5) In truth all three factors – their perception as much as reality – blended together to create the conditions for local fury to pour forth. Local memory mythologised how English tailors serving in the war were muscled out of their territory by entrepreneurial Jews ‘shirking’ their responsibilities, making quick bucks whilst East London families starved.
But was this focus on their supposed fiscal avarice a further example of an historic in-grained anti-Semitic discourse of Jews as money grabbers? A link perhaps from the time of the expulsion under Edward I, which has animated English perceptions of Jews ever since, from Shakespeare to Lord Northcliffe? Was it the legacy of the development of the ideology of anti-Judaism? If only such developments could be explained so simply. The Bethnal Green disturbances in 1917 were the product of a diverse and overlapping set of factors, the chief amongst which was a seemingly indiscriminate economic xenophobia on the part of the East End working class that spared few newcomers, be they French, Irish, Jewish, or Bangladeshi for that matter. In any case Nirenberg does not attempt to answer such questions; his is a history of ideas not a history of peoples. Besides, if Nirenberg had attempted this, his book would take on a length that would necessarily negate the punchy pace and direction that makes it such a delight to read.
This book represents a scholarly feat few writers could hope to match, engagingly tracking the history of how influential thinkers – from ancient Egyptian historians to Weimer Republic philosophers – negatively interpreted Judaism to better understand their own religions and society. But the focus on high philosophical thought, the broad sweeps through major societal transformations, and the brevity of analysis on how anti-Judaism influenced communal interaction between Jews and non-Jews will trouble some historians, perhaps even a young David Nirenberg.
This rises to 610 pages with notes and index.Back to (1)
R. A. Wistrich, Lethal Obsession: Anti-Semitism from Antiquity to Global Jihad (New York, NY 2010).Back to (2)
D. Nirenberg, Communities of Violence: Persecution of Minorities in the Middle Ages (Princeton, NJ, 1996), pp. 6–7.Back to (3)
Ibid, pp.69–93.Back to (4)
PROHO 45/10822/318095/478, ‘Anti-Jewish Demonstration’, Report of Superintendent J. Best, Hackney Police Station, J Division, 24 September 1917.Back to (5)
The strange history of antisemitism in Western culture
October 12, 2013
Sometime in the middle years of the sixteenth century, after the bodies were brought up for Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell made England modern, a brilliant Oxford scholar named John Jewel discovered what we now call Late Antiquity. Oxford has always been a city of books, and Jewel—a member of two bookish colleges, Corpus Christi and Merton—came across his newfound land between the leather covers of great folios. A nine-volume edition of the works of Saint Jerome, now preserved in the library of Magdalen College, excited him to fever pitch. Jewel tore through it, underlining passages and leaving notes on every page. And he took away some powerful messages. Jerome taught Jewel that the first Christian bishops had not been silk-clad princes who lived in palaces, but ascetic servants of the Christian believers entrusted to them. When Jewel became Bishop of Salisbury under Elizabeth, he wore himself out defending the Church of England and reorganizing his diocese. Reading had consequences in the sixteenth century.
Practical issues did not claim all—or even most—of Jewel’s attention. He wanted to explore and to map the whole world of early Christian life, and thought, and liturgy. Nothing in the whole massive set of books fascinated him more than the long and pointed letters that Jerome exchanged with his younger contemporary Augustine about the Hebrew language and the Jews. Augustine fired the first shot, protesting Jerome’s effort to retranslate the Old Testament from the original Hebrew. By doing so, he insisted, Jerome would call into question the authority of the apostles, who had used the Greek version. Worse, he would make Jews the arbiters of biblical truth, even for Christians. When consulted, some of them had told Christians disturbed by Jerome’s new translation of a word in Jonah that Jerome was wrong. Jerome, in his turn, denounced Augustine. The younger man claimed that Paul had been right, as a born Jew, to continue observing Jewish rituals even after his conversion to Christianity. But Jewish rituals, Jerome insisted, had lost their meaning with the Incarnation. Paul had observed them only to make his dealings with the Jews go more easily.
Jerome also attacked another powerful idea that Augustine was putting forward, in his letters and elsewhere. Many Christians—such as Jerome himself—thought that Jews deserved only their hatred (at least once they had revealed the secrets of their sacred language). Augustine momentously rebutted them. God had chosen the Jews, he taught, and had given them His law, as preparation for the coming of the Messiah. He wanted the Jews to survive, and to continue practicing their religion, because in doing so they provided a vital form of witness to Christianity. Enemy testimony, after all, offered powerful proof that the church had fulfilled the promises that God had made and the prophecies that He had inspired. Christians should not persecute or harm Jews, but should leave them to wander the Earth as Cain had, protected by the special mark of their sinfulness, eternally stuck in an antiquity that they could not leave.
Imaginary Jews often turned out to be not good, but strangely good to think about.
Jewel sided with Augustine. “Oh Jerome,” he wrote in the margin (in Latin), appalled at the argument that Paul had pretended to follow Jewish customs in order to deceive Jewish converts. “You’re babbling,” he noted at another passage, where Jerome insisted that Jewish rituals had lost all their value with the arrival of Jesus. It seems a strange scene. At this point, Jewel had probably never seen a Jew in the flesh, since England had expelled them centuries before. Only a handful perched in precarious niches in London. Yet we can still stand beside him as he sits, pen in hand, absorbed to the point of obsession by what two ancient men had to say, very much in the abstract, about Jews. You could not easily meet a real Jew in the streets of London. But the intellectuals of the sixteenth century did much of their wandering in the margins of their Christian books, and there they met imaginary Jews of every kind. Often they turned out to be not good, but strangely good to think about.
For David Nirenberg—whose Anti-Judaism
is one of the saddest stories, and one of the most learned, I have ever read—Jewel, and Jerome and Augustine are typical figures from an enormous tapestry. From antiquity to more recent times, an endless series of writers and thinkers have crafted versions and visions of Jews and Judaism that are as ugly and frightening as they are effective. Some of them—for example, the Egyptian priest Manetho—probably drew on older traditions that can no longer be reliably reconstructed. Some of them—Paul, Spinoza, Marx—were Jews by birth. Most of them knew few real Jews and had little or no direct knowledge of Jewish life or thought. Yet working in sequence, each in his fashion and each for his time and place, they have created beings at once complex, labile, and astonishingly consequential: call them, for want of a better term, imaginary Jews. These animated figures rival vampires in their ability to survive for centuries and zombies in their refusal to be defeated by rational argument. And they are of far more than antiquarian interest. Over the centuries, imaginary Jews have found their places, sometimes vital ones, in some of the loftiest intellectual edifices ever raised. Surprisingly often they have been the caryatids: the pillars on which everything else rests.
Anti-Judaism is an astonishing enterprise. It is certainly not the first effort to survey the long grim history of the charges that have been brought against the Jews by their long gray line of self-appointed prosecutors. During World War II, a learned rabbi named Joshua Trachtenberg brought out The Devil and the Jews
, an erudite and wide-ranging effort to explain why Christians found it rational to associate Jews with Satan and malevolent magic, and charge them with crimes that would have been as ludicrous as the indictment of the witch in Monty Python and the Holy Grail if the punishments meted out had not been so savage. In 1955, Léon Poliakov, a Russian émigré who settled in France, published the first of four volumes in which he traced the history of anti-Semitism from antiquity to 1933. As the memory of the Holocaust spread outside the Jewish world, historians began to excavate in the archives that preserved its documents. New social and cultural explanations of the Judeocide, by professional scholars and passionate amateurs alike, now appear every year.
But Nirenberg is after different quarry: he does not trace the millennial story of the Jews and their conflicts with non-Jews, though he does describe individual and communal fights. Nor does he compile a catalogue of the vile ideas about Jews that non-Jews have entertained and publicized. He wants to know why: why have so many cultures and so many intellectuals had so much to say about the Jews? More particularly, he wants to know why so many of them generated their descriptions and explanations of Jewishness not out of personal knowledge or scholarly research, but out of thin air—and from assumptions, some inherited and others newly minted, that the Jews could be wholly known even to those who knew no Jews. Nirenberg’s answer—and to summarize it, as to summarize so much of this impassioned book, is to flatten it—is that ideas about the Jews can do, and have done, many different and important jobs. True, they are anything but stable: this is not a paper chase after some original idea of the Jew that crops up everywhere from early Christianity to early Nazism. Visions of the Jews change emphasis and content as the larger societies that entertain them change shape and texture. Ideas have multiple contexts, and Nirenberg shows dazzling skill and a daunting command of the sources as he observes the changes and draws connections between them and his authors’ larger worlds.
Jews have been characterized by non-Jews for their obstinacy—their refusal, for example, to recognize the known truth that the Messiah had come, which enabled them to become the villains of both early Christian and early Muslim narratives. They have been characterized by non-Jews for their viciousness—their desire to desecrate the sacrament and murder Christian children, which allowed them to be used both by rebels against royal authority, and by kings, in the Middle Ages, as each side could claim, when the wind blew from the right quarter, that Jews were polluting society through their materialism and greed. They have been characterized by non-Jews for their greed—their failure to understand the difference between the value of material things and that of people, which inspired Shakespeare to compose some of the most memorable lines in The Merchant of Venice, when Solanio reports how the Jew cried, “My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter!” Each account differs from the rest—Shakespeare, using the case of a Venetian Jew to think about capitalism, does not much resemble Martin Luther, using the Jews to think about the relations between God and the created world. Yet somehow, part of each imagined Jew persists in the collected body of them all. Read the radical German philosophers who created the world anew in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Kant, Hegel, and Schopenhauer, through Nirenberg’s eyes, and you see them “Judaize” their opponents—the idealists Judaizing the empiricists who did not see the power of critical reason, and Hegel, for a time, Judaizing the Kantian idealists.
Labile though they are, imaginary Jews have served—and still serve—an extraordinary range of purposes. Like the topics of ancient rhetoric or the harmony of the spheres, they have played a whole series of central roles in the drama of Western culture. They have served controversialists as weapons, provoked political thinkers, and inspired playwrights. Most remarkable—and perhaps most frightening—of all, they have sometimes been vital to the creation of Europe’s most critical and innovative ideas. What Nirenberg is offering, then, is less a history in any standard sense, or a genealogy in any trendy one, than a microscopically precise examination of a set of tools that Western thinkers have wielded for millennia, forging and re-forging and honing them as new tasks required it.
At the end of his book, Nirenberg evokes Erich Auerbach, whose Mimesis surveyed the multiple ways of representing reality practiced by Western writers, every chapter based on his own reading of the original texts—and whose article “Figura” traced the ways in which the Western Church Fathers rejected allegorical readings of the Old Testament for figural ones, which preserved the historical integrity of the ancient Hebrews.1 Like Auerbach, Nirenberg is a scholar of towering erudition as well as towering ambition: his mastery of languages and his command of secondary literature enable him to range the millennia with apparent ease, and, like Auerbach, he finds new and penetrating things to say about texts that scholars and critics have been working over for centuries. Yet this is a profoundly different enterprise from Auerbach’s: a study of the many ways in which language does not show us the world but shapes it for us. In some ways, it reminds me more of the work of E. R. Curtius, Auerbach’s great rival and antithesis, whose European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages
traced the lives and afterlives of classical tropes and forms across the centuries. Like both Auerbach and Curtius, Nirenberg writes with astonishing clarity and panache. He has devised a language equal to the demands of his subject and his sources—a language that not only serves his analytical purposes but also conveys his findings in a form that stamps them on the reader’s memory and imagination: “Secular power could never quite escape Cain’s conjoined significations, as both ‘founder of the earthly city’ and ‘a figure of the Jews.’ Sovereigns therefore trod a path haunted by monsters of Judaism even more ferocious than those that beset readers of biblical texts. Augustine did not seek to slay these monsters. Instead he tried to immure them, like the furies under Aeschylus’s Athens, at the foundations of the Christian city.”
In the end, though, Nirenberg is a historian, and this gives his story qualities found neither in Auerbach nor in Curtius.2 He carefully points out, again and again, that the way thinkers use Jews and Judaism in their work often tells us nothing about their personal relations with Jews. Yet his own story begins not only in antiquity, but also in a real conflict, which he documents in detail: in the Egypt of the first millennium BCE, a culture deeply committed to believing that it had never changed—and all the more deeply as it was conquered, first by the Persians and then by Alexander the Great. Jews enjoyed a privileged status in Egypt, not for the last time, thanks to royal patronage. But they were not seen as true Egyptians, and they suffered criticism and attacks from natives who resented their presence and their peculiar ways of living and worshipping. The ancient Greek version of the Old Testament, which was made in Egypt, shows traces of an effort to scrub Judaism of its traditional, and offensive, denunciations of polytheism. But this and other soft answers failed to turn away wrath. Manetho, an Egyptian priest, composed an elaborate work in Greek in which he described the ancient Jews as lepers—a diseased and antisocial people who, far from suffering servitude in Egypt, had conquered the country and mistreated its native inhabitants until they were expelled by force. Later writers, such as the Greek-Egyptian grammarian Apion, accepted his views and developed his critique.
The Jews as the enemy of mankind: this image, like the statue of the four empires in the book of Daniel, had legs. Though Roman writers had little good to say about the Jews, they did not take a deep interest in them. In Egypt, by contrast—the Greek-speaking Egypt that steamed and grumbled under Roman rule—the diseased and antisocial Jews called into being by Greek-writing scholars proved provocative and fertile. Egyptians rehearsed the crimes that Jews committed against them. They appealed to the Roman emperor Titus, after the defeat of the Jewish revolt, to strip Alexandria’s Jews of their civil rights. Finally, over a period of civil war, they slaughtered most of the thousands of Jews who lived in Alexandria. Even more remarkably, they rejoiced. As the great historian of science Otto E. Neugebauer once remarked, Egyptians normally showed little or no interest in that spirit of heroism that so often made life in ancient Greece a hell on Earth. But in Oxyrhynchus, the city of the sharp-nosed fish, they remembered, and celebrated, the crushing of the Jews, eighty years after it happened.
More subtle—and in a way even more deadly—were the complementary versions of Jews and Judaism elaborated by the early Christians—many of whom were born into Jewish communities, and some of whom continued to practice Jewish rituals throughout their lives. Nirenberg starts with Paul, the Pharisee who became the earliest and greatest Christian writer. In those dazzling works of Jewish exegesis, his New Testament epistles, Paul interpreted the history and the future of the world in terms of a series of opposites, tabulated with breathtaking precision and assurance: death and life, letter and spirit, outward observance and inner faith. In his early letter to the Galatians and sporadically after that, Paul accepted that Jewish converts to Christianity could go on practicing the rituals of their ancestral religion. Gentile converts, however, need not do so. Christ’s sacrifice, already complete, was the one and only thing that could save them, if they could only manage to have faith in Him. And only that—not circumcision of their flesh—could make them members of the true religious community.
Paul’s argument was balanced and tolerant, but his language had a power of its own. He associated Jews with letter rather than spirit, death rather than life, ritual rather than faith—and stasis rather than salvation. As Paul’s own message evolved, as he responded to opposition in some communities, and as his letters were read by later Christians in the light of later events, Judaism came to seem, if never wholly bad, at least wholly wrongheaded, the chosen people’s disastrous march in the wrong direction on a one-way street.
Even more than Paul, the Gospel writers are central to Nirenberg’s story. They transmuted theory into narrative: the table of oppositions came into play in action and dialogue to separate Jesus and his followers, parable by parable and sermon by sermon, from the Jews. Paul’s task had been to explain why Jesus and his sacrifice completed the history of Judaism. That of the evangelists was in some ways harder: they had to explain why, though the Messiah had come, the Romans had destroyed the Temple—and why, in their time, it seemed necessary to exclude Christians who wished to continue living as Jews from the church community. In their complementary accounts, the Pharisees and other Jews misunderstand, because they read too literally, every sign and interpretation that Jesus offers them. The seeds of truth fall on stony ground, and the Jews betray, denounce, and finally kill their savior. And as they commit this collective crime, the Jew is named and defined: he is the one who does not see, who always chooses the external, the letter that kills, over the internal, the spirit that gives life.
The Pharisees, strict in their upholding of the law and proud and unbending in their daily lives, think themselves splendid but in fact resemble the tombs of the prophets, which they guard: “You are like whited sepulchers,” Jesus tells them, “which look handsome on the outside, but inside are full of the bones of the dead and every kind of corruption.” Nirenberg appreciates the terrible beauty of this and other Gospel texts. Unlike Paul, the evangelists mobilize their unforgettable images not only to distinguish but also to condemn: to identify the Jews not only with the dead letter and the flesh, but also with Satan, the ruler of this world and the enemy of Christian followers of the spirit.
In Nirenberg’s first two cases, ideas about the Jews do not float free in the air: they are connected with, and sometimes generated by, the ways in which actually existing Jews and non-Jews confront one another at community borders. In an earlier period of his career, Nirenberg wrote as a master choreographer of the past, tracing the tense and intricate interplay, and occasional violence, that Jews, Muslims, and Christians engaged in as they lived, in close quarters, in medieval France and Aragon. It is not surprising, accordingly, to see this book begin with well-documented excursions into the social history of ideas.
But with the rise of a recognizable early Church, an institution with a sacred Scripture, a liturgy, and a table of organization of its own, the music changes. One after another, the theologians appear, and disagree—from heretics such as Marcion, who rejected the entire Old Testament and its God as irreconcilable with the message and values of Christ, to system-builders such as Eusebius, who insisted that Christians must not only take over the histories and prophecies of the Jews, but also reimagine them retrospectively in Christian terms. Marcion wanted to eliminate all traces of Judaism from Christianity. Eusebius, more influentially, set out to appropriate all of them for Christianity—turning Palestine from the promised land of the Old Testament, marked by invasion, battles, and revelation, to the Holy Land of the New Testament, marked by preaching and miracles.3 The patriarchs and prophets of the Old Testament, Eusebius reassured his Christian readers, were not Jews but Hebrews—and could be embraced in retrospect even as their descendants could be ignored.
If the visions of Judaism varied, their uses did not. Again and again, Nirenberg shows, Christians saw those imaginary literalists with their marks of Cain appearing under the priestly garb of friends and rivals. Again and again, Christian thinkers denounced their critics and enemies as “Jews”—that is, Christians who read too literally, or with no inspiration. And almost every one of them was denounced in his turn for the same crime of Jewish deviationism. In this world, in which imaginary Jews haunted real cities and their imaginary crimes became the object of real sermons, Jerome could find it reasonable to insist, almost in the same breath, that the Christian scholar must master Hebrew in order to understand the first half of his own sacred scripture and that Jewish liturgy and practice had lost their entire positive value with the coming of Christ, so that his own duty, as the pupil of a Hebrew teacher, was to hate the entire Hebrew race.
Those whom Jerome denounced, Augustine defended. The Jews must live and worship as they always had, wrongly, but Christian rulers must protect them: not because Augustine had any particular fondness for Jews—the evidence suggests that he had little direct contact with them—but because they would serve, in their endless, sterile wandering of the Earth, as proof that Christianity had superseded their obsolete religion. Paula Fredriksen, a great student of Augustine, has re-created the development of Augustine’s ideas in a profound book called Augustine and the Jews
. She argues that Augustine’s notions about the Jews actually saved lives—during the Crusades, for example, when popes and preachers invoked them to prevent the destruction of more Jewish communities.
Nirenberg appreciates Fredriksen’s insight but reads the evidence differently. The Fathers had far less to do with actual Jews than Paul or the evangelists—which is why Nirenberg’s enterprise really takes wing when he reaches them. In the fourth and fifth centuries, the Jews whom Jerome fiercely hated and Augustine drily pitied were largely abstract figures of thought rather than individuals of flesh and blood. Yet they were central to the two men’s visions of the past and the future—and their errors provided vital weapons with which Jerome could fight those who denied his readings of the Bible, and Augustine the Manicheans who did the same to his. Fictional Jews, as vivid as they were imaginary, began to fill the virtual world that the writers conjured into being. No wonder that Jewel watched with such fascination as the two great men shadowboxed, surrounded by Semitic phantasms.
Nirenberg’s parade of imagined and imaginary Jews—the most hideous procession since that of the flagellants in The Seventh Seal—stretches from the Arabian peninsula to London, and from the seventh century BCE to the twentieth CE. Working always from the original sources in their original languages, he observes the multiple ways in which imaginary Jews served the purposes of real writers and thinkers—everyone from Muhammad, founding a new religion, to Shakespeare, observing a new commercial society. God, here, is partly in the details: in the careful, tenderly observant way in which Nirenberg dissects everything from fierce political rhetoric to resonant Shakespearean drama. In works of the imagination, profound treatises, and acts of political radicalism, as he analyses them, imaginary Jews are wielded to powerful effect. He shows us the philosophes of the Enlightenment, those friends of humanity and enemies of tyrannical “infamy,” as they develop a viciously negative vision of Jewish sterility and error to attack Christianity at its origins or to characterize the authorities whom they defied.
Nirenberg’s lucid, searing narrative and analysis rest on extraordinarily wide reading, the contours of which are charted in his ample and informative notes. He never hesitates to take issue with authorities in many fields, and at times—as when he explains that “I intend no resonance with Jacob Taubes’s treatment of Romans”—his language has a touch of Carthago delenda est. But he conducts his arguments with a seriousness rare in our intellectual life, and vanishingly so in works of historical synthesis. Even when he piles paradox on paradox—as when he argues that Spinoza built the portrait of biblical Judaism in his Tractatus from the stockpile of materials that non-Jewish thinkers had created over the centuries—Nirenberg grounds his arguments in close reading of the texts and engages with the modern authorities whose interpretations he rejects.
An intellectual historian myself, I have no quarrel with Nirenberg’s view that ideas matter, and I have nothing but respect for the methods that he brings to their study. This does not mean that I entirely share his perspective. As a social historian of conflict and an intellectual historian of the uncanny imagination, Nirenberg is unbeatable. But Jews and non-Jews lived other histories together as well. As Josephus recalled, when the thousands of diaspora Jews settled in the cities of the Roman world, across Asia Minor and Italy as well as Egypt, many of their pagan neighbors found their ways attractive. Pagans admired the Jews’ pursuit of a coherent code for living and their worship of a single, unseen god. Some became “god-fearers,” who accepted the Jewish god but did not hold full membership in the Jewish community. Some converted. Jews, meanwhile, pursued their own visions of high culture—whether these involved learning to write Greek tragedies about the Jewish past or rebuilding one’s foreskin to make possible appearances at the gymnasium.
This story of loose borders and unexpected sympathies is hard to re-create—but scholars have teased out some of its contours from the evidence of inscriptions and papyri as well as satirical poetry and the Gospels. The intellectual story that Nirenberg tells—like the story of modern Judeocide—becomes harder to understand, demanding of more interpretation rather than less, when these conditions are brought into it. And they have been the objects of a vast, wide-ranging, and contentious scholarly literature, ever since the great Jewish and Christian scholars of the sixteenth century first realized that the Jews of antiquity had not lived closed off from the societies around them. Nirenberg himself refers to these points in his account of Egypt, but they do not figure largely in his analysis, and seem less prominent in later chapters.
There is another perspective that I wish Nirenberg had also brought to bear—one for which my great colleague Natalie Zemon Davis has always stood. Norms are norms, Davis has always acknowledged: societies have their ways of doing things, and intellectuals have their assumptions, those ideas so seductive that no mere fact can refute them. Historians can use their knowledge of these patterns to fill in gaps in the preserved documents. Yet somehow there are also, always, moments of contingency that unfold differently: moments when the cloud of assumptions clears, when eyes and minds meet across barriers that usually seem as high and deadly as the old Berlin Wall. There were real Jews in early modern Europe—more Jews than Nirenberg has room for in his account: not just the Portuguese in Amsterdam but also Sephardic merchants in other great ports, and smaller communities that survived in more hostile places. Frankfurt, for example, had a small Jewish community. And Frankfurt also housed the spring and fall book fairs, which scholars, writers, agents, and publishers from all of Europe attended, as they still do. No wonder, then, that Christian visitor after Christian visitor heard part of a synagogue service or smiled to see the Torah carried with devotion by the hard-pressed but pious and learned members of the Frankfurt congregation. Contacts would be far closer—and more intimate—in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Amsterdam, which Nirenberg comes close to dismissing as too unusual to matter much.
Nirenberg has rebuilt the walls, and shown us that, though they were abstract and immaterial, they were nonetheless real. They channeled most of the traffic—but not all of it. Sometimes men saw things they should not have seen—as when Montaigne, observing a circumcision in Rome, noted that the baby cried, like a Christian baby (“one of ours”) being baptized; or as when Joseph Scaliger would go from Leiden, where he was a professor, to Amsterdam, on Saturdays, for the sheer joy of seeing the Portuguese Jewish women sitting outside their houses, observing the Sabbath; or when Scaliger and other Christians began to read Jewish texts, and came to see that the ethics of the early rabbis and those of Jesus had far more in common than the Gospel writers suggested. The consequences of these little breaches of the wall could be disproportionately big.
Think of Paul Fagius—Reformed minister, Hebraist, often bitter critic of Jews—writing his commentary on Pirqe Avot, or The Teachings of the Fathers. Yossi ben Yo’ezer, so Fagius read, “used to say, let your house be a meeting place for the sages, cleave to the dust of their feet, and drink thirstily their words.” Yes, Fagius wrote, this was true: it was what Mary Magdalene was doing when she clung to the feet of Jesus, her teacher. This tiny insight, recorded in a technical little book in Hebrew and Latin, could be seen as the beginning of some very large changes in the way that Jews and Christians saw one another—a triumph of the scholar’s sharp eye over the beam that usually obstructed it. Fagius had some help: he worked for several years, day after day, with the great Ashkenazi Jewish scholar Elijah Levita. But from the eyes of Nirenberg’s scholars and writers, sadly, the beams are never removed, and in their lives the moments of communion across religious barriers are few.
Yet even in uttering these very small complaints, I feel like one of the critics who occupy the Temple of Dulness in Pope’s Dunciad
. David Nirenberg sets out his argument with a learning, a panache, and a style—as well as a range of interests and of erudition—that put workaday scholars like me to shame. Anti-Judaism is that rare thing, a great book, as much in its ability to provoke disagreement as in its power to shape future writing on the vast territory that its author has so brilliantly mapped. I only wish that John Jewel could come back to life and read it, pen in hand. It would take a multilingual bishop who knew his Hebrew Old Testament and Greek New Testament, his Jerome and his Augustine, his Erasmus and his Luther, to confront this extraordinary and troubling book with the intensity and the erudition that it deserves.
Anthony Grafton is a contributing editor at The New Republic, the Henry Putnam University Professor at Princeton University, and the author of Worlds Made by Words: Scholarship and Community in the Modern West
As a learned friend sums up Auerbach’s secondary message: “We’re still here.”
Nirenberg is based not only in the Department of History, but also in the Committee on Social Thought at Chicago, perhaps the only academic institution designed for scholars and teachers whose range makes them impossible to pigeonhole.
Eusebius also managed to eliminate most traces of Jews and Judaism—as opposed to ancient “Hebrews”—from his influential history of the early Christian church.
The Western Tradition
By David Nirenberg
Norton. 610 pp. $35
March 20, 2014 Issue
Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition
by David Nirenberg
Norton, 610 pp., $35.00
In 1844, Karl Marx published his essay “On the Jewish Question.” This wasn’t an engagement with Judaism, or with Jewish history, or even with the sociology of German Jews. Its occasion was the contemporary debate about Jewish emancipation, but its real purpose was to call for the overthrow of the capitalist order. The call was expressed in a language that is probably not surprising to readers today and that was entirely familiar to readers in the nineteenth century. Still, it is a very strange language. Capitalism is identified by Marx with Judaism, and so the overthrow of capitalism will be, he writes, “the emancipation of mankind from Judaism.” The argument is worth quoting, at least briefly:
The Jew has already emancipated himself in a Jewish way…not only insofar as he has acquired financial power, but also insofar as, through him and without him, money has risen to world power and the practical Jewish spirit has become the practical spirit of the Christian peoples. The Jews have emancipated themselves to the extent that the Christians have become Jews.
“Through [the Jew] and without [the Jew]”—mostly without him: as Marx certainly knew, Jews made up a very small part of the moneyed elite of England, the most advanced capitalist country, and an even smaller part of the “rising” German bourgeoisie. His own father had converted to Protestantism in order to facilitate his entry into bourgeois society, where Jews were not welcome in the early nineteenth century.
What Marx is doing here, David Nirenberg argues in his brilliant, fascinating, and deeply depressing book Anti-Judaism, is exactly what many other writers have done in the long history of Western civilization. His essay is a “strategic appropriation of the most powerful language of opprobrium available to any critic of the powers and institutions of this world.” That sentence comes from Nirenberg’s discussion of Martin Luther, but it applies equally well to Marx. Still, we should be more surprised by Marx’s use of this language than by Luther’s, not only because of Marx’s Jewish origins but also because of his claim to be a radical critic of the ideology of his own time. He might, Nirenberg says, have questioned the association of Judaism and capitalism and written a critical history aimed at making his readers more reflective about that association. Instead, he chose to exploit “old ideas and fears about Jewishness.”
Consider another famous use of this language of opprobrium, this time not in support of but in fierce opposition to revolutionary politics. In his Reflections on the Revolution in France, published in 1790, Edmund Burke compared what was going on in France to previous revolutions (like England’s in 1688) that were led by noblemen “of great civil, and great military talents.” By contrast, he wrote, the revolutionary government in Paris is led by “Jew brokers contending with each other who could best remedy with fraudulent circulation and depreciated paper the wretchedness and ruin brought on their country by their degenerate councils.”
In Burke’s case, the choice of this language was probably not “strategic.” The choice was structural—anti-Judaism was a feature of the worldview with which Burke was able to recognize what Marxists later described as a “bourgeois” revolution. “Given the complete absence of Jews from the actual leadership, whether political, pecuniary, or philosophical, of the French Revolution,” Nirenberg writes, the line about “Jew brokers” (and also Burke’s proposal to help the revolutionaries by sending English Jews to France “to please your new Hebrew brethren”) may, again, seem very strange. In fact, it is utterly common; only Burke’s ferocious eloquence is uncommon.
Friendly writers have worked hard to exonerate Burke of anti-Semitism. Nirenberg says only that they miss the point. Burke certainly knew that Danton, Robespierre, Saint-Just, and their friends and enemies among the revolutionaries were, all of them, Catholics and lapsed Catholics (plus a few Protestants). They were only figurative Jews, imaginary Jews, who came to Burke’s mind, and to many other minds,
because the revolution forced him…to confront basic questions about the ways in which humans relate to one another in society. These were questions that two millennia of pedagogy had taught Europe to ask in terms of “Judaism,” and Burke had learnt the lesson well.
Nirenberg’s book is about those two millennia and their pedagogy. It isn’t a book about anti-Semitism; it isn’t a history of the Jewish experience of discrimination, persecution, and genocide; it isn’t an example of what the historian Salo Baron called the “lachrymose” account of Jewish life in exile; nor is it an indictment of contemporary anti-Zionism or a defense of the state of Israel. The book is not about Jews at all or, at least, not about real Jews; it deals extensively and almost exclusively with imaginary Jews.
What Nirenberg has written is an intellectual history of Western civilization, seen from a peculiar but frighteningly revealing perspective. It is focused on the role of anti-Judaism as a constitutive idea and an explanatory force in Christian and post-Christian thought—though it starts with Egyptian arguments against the Jews and includes a discussion of early Islam, whose writers echo, and apparently learned from, Christian polemics. Nirenberg comments intermittently about the effects of anti-Judaism on the life chances of actual Jews, but dealing with those effects in any sufficient way would require another, and a very different, book.
Anti-Judaism is an extraordinary scholarly achievement. Nirenberg tells us that he has left a lot out (I will come at the end to a few things that are missing), but he seems to know everything. He deals only with literature that he can read in the original language, but this isn’t much of a limitation. Fortunately, the chapter on Egypt doesn’t require knowledge of hieroglyphics; Greek, Hebrew, and Latin are enough. Perhaps it makes things easier that the arguments in all the different languages are remarkably similar and endlessly reiterated.
A certain view of Judaism—mainly negative—gets established early on, chiefly in Christian polemics, and then becomes a common tool in many different intellectual efforts to understand the world and to denounce opposing understandings. Marx may have thought himself insightful and his announcement original: the “worldly God” of the Jews was “money”! But the identification of Judaism with materialism, with the things of this world, predates the appearance of capitalism in Europe by at least 1,500 years.
Since I want mostly to describe Nirenberg’s argument (and, though without the authority of his erudition, to endorse it), let me note quickly one bit of oddness in it. One could also write—it would be much shorter—a history of philo-Judaism. It might begin with those near-Jews, the “God-fearers” of ancient Rome, whom Nirenberg doesn’t mention. But the prime example would be the work of the Christian, mostly Protestant, Hebraists of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, who searched in biblical and rabbinic texts for God’s constitution and produced books with titles like The Hebrew Commonwealth. Many of these writers studied with Jewish scholars, chiefly from the Netherlands, but (with some notable exceptions) remained in most of their references to contemporary Jews conventionally anti-Semitic.
Nirenberg writes about these Christian Hebraists with his usual learning, but they don’t fit neatly into his book. They were looking for an ancient, biblical Judaism (with the rabbis of the talmudic age as helpful interpreters) that they could learn from, even imitate. Nirenberg’s proper subject is a hostile understanding of Judaism, early and late, reiterated by writers of very different sorts, with which the social-political-theological-philosophical world is constructed, enemies are identified, and positions fortified. Philo-Judaism is aspirational; anti-Judaism claims to be explanatory.
What is being explained is the social world; the explanatory tools are certain supposed features of Judaism; and the enemies are mostly not Jews but “Judaizing” non-Jews who take on these features and are denounced for doing so. I will deal with only a few of Judaism’s negative characteristics: its hyperintellectualism; its predilection for tyranny; its equal and opposite predilection for subversive radicalism; and its this-worldly materialism, invoked, as we’ve seen, by both Burke and Marx. None of this is actually descriptive; there certainly are examples of hyper-intellectual, tyrannical, subversive, and materialist Jews (and of dumb, powerless, conformist, and idealistic Jews), but Nirenberg insists, rightly, that real Jews have remarkably little to do with anti-Judaism.
Speaking to German students in May 1933, a few months after the Nazis took power, Joseph Goebbels proclaimed that “the age of rampant Jewish intellectualism is now at an end.” Goebbels was a third-rate German intellectual (the word is unavoidable: he had a Ph.D.; he wrote articles; Nirenberg suggests that we think of him as an apostate intellectual). But he was making an argument that had been made by many less infamous, indeed, more worthy, figures. It begins in the Gospels, with the earliest attacks on the Judaism of the Pharisees. Christian supersessionist arguments—i.e., arguments about what aspects of Judaism had been superseded by Christianity—were based on a set of oppositions: law superseded by love, the letter by the spirit, the flesh (the material world, the commandments of the Torah, the literal text) by the soul. “I bless you father…,” writes Luke, “for hiding these things from the learned and the clever and revealing them to little children.”
The Pharisees were indeed learned and clever, as were their rabbinic successors; the discussions and disputations of the Talmud are a particularly revealing display of learning and cleverness. By comparison (it’s a self-description), the early Christians were naive and innocent children to whom God spoke directly, evoking the faith that brought salvation (which law and learning couldn’t do).
The difficulty here is that the Christians very quickly produced immensely learned, clever, and disputatious theologians of their own, who were then accused, and who accused each other, of Judaizing—thinking or acting like Jews. The earliest Christian writers, Paul most importantly, were engaged with actual Jews, in some mix of coexistence and competition that scholars are still trying to figure out. Nirenberg writes about Paul with subtlety and some sympathy, though he is the writer who sets the terms for much that comes later.
By the time of writers like Eusebius, Ambrose, and Augustine, the Jews had been, as Nirenberg says, “a twice-defeated people”—first militarily by the Romans and then religiously by the imperial establishment of Christianity. And yet the threat of Judaism grew greater and greater as the actual Jews grew weaker and weaker. According to their triumphant opponents, the Jews never gave up their hostility to Jesus and his followers (indeed, they didn’t convert). They were endlessly clever, ever-active hypocrites and tricksters, who mixed truth with falsehood to entice innocent Christians—in the same way that those who prepare lethal drugs “smear the lip of the cup with honey to make the harmful potion easy to drink.”
That last charge is from Saint John Chrysostom, who was such a violent opponent of “the Jews” that earnest scholars have assumed that Judaism must have posed a clear and present danger to Christianity in his time. In fact, Nirenberg tells us, there was no such danger; the people mixing the poison were Christian heretics. If Saint John feared the Jews, “it was because his theology had taught him to view other dangers in Jewish terms.”
The critique of Jewish cleverness is fairly continuous over time, but it appears with special force among German idealist philosophers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, who repeat many of the supersessionist arguments of the early Christians. Kant understood the heteronomy he sought to overcome—action according to moral law externally imposed rather than freely accepted by the agent—in Jewish terms, but he was himself considered too Jewish by the philosophers who came next, most importantly by Hegel. Kantianism, Hegel claimed, was simply a new version of “the Jewish principle of opposing thought to reality, reason to sense; this principle involves the rending of life and a lifeless connection between God and the world.” According to Hegel, Abraham had made a fateful choice: his rejection of the world in favor of a sublime God had alienated the Jews forever from the beauty of nature and made them the prisoners of law, incapable of love. (Needless to say, Schopenhauer, in the next generation, thought that the academic Hegelians of his time were “Jews” and followers of “the Jewish God,” but I shall stop with Hegel himself.)
It isn’t Nirenberg’s claim that any of these philosophers were anti-Semites. Indeed, Hegel defended the rights of Jews in German universities and thought that anti-Semitic German nationalism was not “German-ness” but “German-stupid-ness.” Nor is Nirenberg arguing for any kind of intellectual determinism. He doesn’t believe that Goebbels’s attack on Jewish intellectualism was the necessary outcome of the German philosophical identification of Judaism with lifeless reason—any more than German idealism was the necessary outcome of Christian claims to supersede Pharasaic Judaism or of Lutheran claims to supersede the Judaizing Catholics. In all these cases, there were other possible outcomes. But philosophers like Hegel used the language of anti-Judaism to resolve “the ancient tension between the ideal and the real,” and their resolutions were enormously influential. The idea of Judaism as the enemy of “life” had a future.
Judaism’s associations with worldly power and subversive rebellion are closely linked, for what is rebellion but an effort to seize power? So Jewish bankers can rule the world and Jewish Bolsheviks can aspire to overthrow and replace the bankers. In some alcoves of the Western imagination, the two groups can almost appear as co-conspirators. The populist anti-Semitism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (what August Bebel called “the socialism of fools”) has a long history. One very early example is Saint Ambrose’s response to the emperor Maximus, who punished the leaders of a Christian mob that burned a synagogue in the Mesopotamian city of Callinicum: “That king,” Ambrose said, “has become a Jew.” What made Maximus a “Jew” was not that he defended the Callinicum Jews but that he ranked enforcement of the law over the demands of the spirit (and the religious enthusiasm of the mob).
Often in the Middle Ages, Christian rulers were accused of Judaizing by populist rebels; the accusations had a curious doubleness. Tyranny was, first of all, imagined as a feature of Judaism, both when there were Jews at court (as physicians, advisers, tax collectors, and money-lenders) and when there were no Jews at court. The Jewish “seduction” of princes was one common way of understanding tyranny. Of course, Jewish seduction was often princely exploitation: the Jews were allowed to collect interest on loans to the king’s Christian subjects so that he could then “expropriate a considerable share of the proceeds.” It was a kind of indirect taxation, at a time when the royal power to tax was radically constrained. The indirectly taxed subjects resented the Jewish money-lenders, but, Nirenberg stresses, the resentment was politically acted out, again and again, in many times and places, though Jews rarely predominated in royal financial affairs “and then only for short periods of time.”
Anti-Judaism also had a second and rather different political usefulness. Jews were imagined not only as tyrants or the allies of tyrants but at the same time, and more realistically, as oppressed and powerless. Given their rejection of Jesus Christ and their complicity in his death, the oppression of the Jews was justified; but when a tyrannical ruler oppressed his Christian subjects, he could be accused of trying “to make a Jewry” out of them, which obviously wasn’t justified. “We would rather die than be made similar to Jews.” That last line is from a petition of the city council of Valencia to King Peter in 1378. So tyranny was twice understood in Jewish terms: a Judaizing prince treated his subjects like Jews.
Populist rebels obviously did not think of themselves as Jews; the construction of subversion and rebellion as “Jewish” was, and is, the work of conservative and reactionary writers. Among modern revolutionaries, the Puritans actually were Judaizers (focused far more on the Old than the New Testament), though with their own supersessionist theology. The use of the tropes of philo- and anti-Judaism during the English civil war made some sense, even though there were no Jews in England in the 1640s. The French revolutionaries were neither Jews nor Judaizers, though Burke and others understood them by invoking the “old ideas and fears.” But it was the Bolsheviks who, more than any other group of rebels, were widely understood as “Jewish.” It is true that many of them were Jews, though of the sort that Isaac Deutscher called “non-Jewish Jews.” Judaism had nothing at all to do with Bolshevism and yet, if Nirenberg is right, the Bolsheviks would have been explained in the language of anti-Judaism even if there had never been a Trotsky, a Kamenev, or a Radek among them.
The identification of Jews with merchants, money-lenders, royal financiers, and predatory capitalists is constant in Nirenberg’s history. I will focus on one moment in that history, Shakespeare’s England and The Merchant of Venice, which will give me a chance to illustrate the difference between his anti-Judaism and the anti-Semitism that is the subject of more conventional, but equally depressing, histories. Anthony Julius’s Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England includes a long and very intelligent discussion of Shakespeare’s play.1 Julius calls The Merchant of Venice an anti-Semitic drama that is also a dramatization of anti-Semitism and the beginning of its literary investigation. Shakespeare, as always, writes from opposing perspectives, but he clearly leans toward Shylock’s enemies.
Shylock himself is the classic Jew: he hates Christians and desires to tyrannize over them; he loves money, more than his own daughter; he is a creature of law rather than of love. He isn’t, indeed, a clever Jew; in his attempt to use the law against his Christian enemy, he is unintelligent and inept. (A modern commentator, Kenneth Gross, asks: “What could [he] have been thinking?”) But in every other way, he is stereotypical, and so he merits the defeat and humiliation he receives—which are meant to delight the Elizabethan audience.
Julius doesn’t ask Nirenberg’s question: What put so many Jews (like Shylock or Marlowe’s Jew of Malta) on the new London stage, in “a city that had sheltered fewer ‘real Jews’ than perhaps any other major one in Europe”? His answer—I can’t reproduce his long and nuanced discussion—is that London was becoming a city of merchants, hence a “Jewish” city, and Shakespeare’s play is a creative response to that development, an effort to address the allegedly Judaizing features of all commercial relationships, and then to save the Christian merchants by distinguishing them from an extreme version of the Jew. But the distinction is open to question, and so the point of the play is best summed up when Portia asks, “Which is the merchant here, and which the Jew?” The play is about law and property, contracts, oaths, pledges, and promises. Shylock is the Jew of the gospels: “I stand here for law.” But he is defeated by a better lawyer and a more literal reading of the law: Portia out-Jews the Jew—which is surely an ironical version of Christian supersession.
So Shakespeare understands the arrival of modern commerce with the help of Judaism, though he knew no Jews and had never read a page of the Talmud. He knew the Bible, though, as Shylock’s speech about Jacob multiplying Laban’s sheep (Act 1, scene 3; Genesis 30) makes clear. And Paul and the gospels were a central part of his intellectual inheritance. Shylock emerges from those latter texts, much like, though the lineage is more complicated, Burke’s “Jew brokers” and Marx’s “emancipated Jews.” The line is continuous.
Nirenberg’s epilogue addresses one major theorist’s denial of that continuity. In the preface to The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt mocks what she calls the doctrine of “eternal antisemitism” (this could serve, Nirenberg writes, “as an ironic title for my own book”) and insists that the “specifically Jewish functions” (banking and finance) in the capitalist economy made the Jews partly “responsible” (her word) for the hatred they evoked.2 This is much like Marx’s claim that “the Jews have eagerly contributed” to the triumph of their “worldly cult,” “Haggling,” and their “worldly God,” “Money.”
Arendt actually draws on the statistical work of Walter Frank, a Nazi economist, who headed an Institute for the History of the New Germany, to support her account of the role of the Jews in the German bourgeoisie. It can’t be the case, she argues, that the Nazis, who had “to persuade and mobilize people,” could have chosen their victims arbitrarily. There has to be a concrete answer, a local socioeconomic answer, to the question: Why the Jews?
Nirenberg agrees that the choice of the Jews was not arbitrary; nor does he find Arendt’s argument surprising—though he rejects all the usual hostile explanations: her assimilationist childhood, her long relationship with Heidegger, and so on. He does think it remarkable that Arendt “clung” to her argument about Jewish responsibility “even after the full extent and fantastic projective power of Nazi anti-Semitism (including its vast exaggeration of the Jews’ economic importance) became clear.” But his whole book is a kind of explanation for why she found it so easy to connect Jews and finance: the connection was one of “the a priori ideological commitments that structured her selection and interpretation of ‘facts’ about the Jews.”
The disagreement with Arendt nicely sums up Nirenberg’s book. His argument is that a certain view of Judaism lies deep in the structure of Western civilization and has helped its intellectuals and polemicists explain Christian heresies, political tyrannies, medieval plagues, capitalist crises, and revolutionary movements. Anti-Judaism is and has long been one of the most powerful theoretical systems “for making sense of the world.” No doubt, Jews sometimes act out the roles that anti-Judaism assigns them—but so do the members of all the other national and religious groups, and in much greater numbers. The theory does not depend on the behavior of “real” Jews.
Nirenberg’s history of anti-Judaism is powerful and persuasive, but it is also unfinished. It never gets to the United States, for example, where anti-Judaism seems to have been less prevalent and less useful (less used in making sense of society and economy) than it was and is in the Old World—and where philo-Judaism seems to have a much larger presence. The modern state of Israel also makes no appearance in Nirenberg’s book, except for one sentence on the next-to-last page:
We live in an age in which millions of people are exposed daily to some variant of the argument that the challenges of the world they live in are best explained in terms of “Israel.”
So we have a partial discontinuity (the US) and an unexplored continuity (contemporary Israel) with Nirenberg’s history. There is still work to be done. But here, in this book, anti-Judaism has at last found its radical critic.
1Oxford University Press, 2010, pp. 178–192. ↩
2Harcourt, 1968, pp. 5–7, 9. ↩
Voir par ailleurs:
610 à 1492
De l’antijudaïsme à l’antisémitisme
On appelle antijudaïsme les manifestations d’hostilité à l’égard des juifs, c’est-à-dire des pratiquants du judaïsme. Il est antérieur au christianisme comme l’attestent des écrits chez les auteurs « païens » de l’Antiquité, adeptes des religions traditionnelles de Rome et de la Grèce.
Le mot antisémitisme a, quant à lui, été inventé tardivement par un journaliste allemand, Wilhelm Marr, pour désigner la haine des Juifs (avec une majuscule), considérés par les antisémites comme un groupe ethnique ou racial.
Invention de l’antisémitisme
Wilhelm Marr publie en mars 1879 un pamphlet intitulé : La victoire du judaïsme sur la germanité considérée d’un point de vue non confessionnel. Dans la foulée, il participe le 26 septembre 1879 à une réunion en vue de la création d’une « Ligue des antisémites » (Antisemiten-Liga).
Dès le 2 septembre 1879, le journal juif Allgemeine Zeitung des Judenthums révèle le projet de Wilhelm Marr de créer aussi un hebdomadaire antisémite (« antisemitische Wochenblatt »). C’est ainsi qu’apparaît pour la première fois ce mot appelé à une sinistre diffusion.
De la science à l’idéologie
Bien avant Wilhelm Marr, les linguistes européens ont identifié une origine commune aux langues hébraïque, arabe, araméenne, assyrienne et guèze (éthiopien ancien). En souvenir de la Bible, ils ont rangé toutes ces langues sous l’épithète sémitique.
Le mot tire son origine de Sem, fils de Noé et ancêtre d’Abraham. Selon la Bible, Abraham engendra Ismaël avec sa servante Agar et Isaac avec son épouse Sara. Du premier descendraient les Arabes et du second les Hébreux !
En employant le mot antisémitisme pour désigner la haine des juifs et d’eux seuls, Wilhelm Marr et ses émules commettent une double erreur : 1) ils assimilent une catégorie linguistique (les langues sémitiques) à une catégorie raciale, 2) ils réduisent les usagers des langues sémitiques aux juifs en oubliant les Phéniciens, les Arabes… Du fait de cette étymologie déficiente, le mot antisémitisme suscite une question récurrente : un arabophone qui hait les juifs peut-il être qualifié d’antisémite ? Le mot antijuif serait mieux adapté… mais la tradition historique s’oppose à son emploi.
Le christianisme n’a pas inventé l’antijudaïsme mais il l’a renouvelé.
L’opposition entre chrétiens et juifs remonte au premier siècle de notre ère. À cette époque, dans l’empire romain, le christianisme est volontiers assimilé à une secte juive. Les communautés chrétiennes tout juste naissantes sont confondues avec les communautés juives du pourtour de la Méditerranée (la diaspora). Aussi les chrétiens, soucieux de se démarquer de leurs aînés en religion, tendent-ils par réaction à souligner leurs différences d’avec les juifs.
Devenue dominante au IVe siècle, grâce à la faveur de l’empereur Constantin le Grand, l’Église commence à se méfier de l’influence que pourrait exercer le judaïsme sur les chrétiens. Les successeurs de Constantin répriment le prosélytisme juif et interdisent la construction de synagogues dans le centre des villes. Au VIe siècle, tandis que les chefs barbares anéantissent ce qui reste des institutions romaines en Occident, les juifs perdent les avantages dont ils bénéficiaient au temps de Rome (comme la dispense de célébrer le culte de l’empereur). « Peu à peu, les privilèges juifs sont abolis, des prohibitions apparaissent. La religio licita devient statut d’exception » (Josy Eisenberg, Une histoire des juifs).
La « Treizième Tribu »
En Orient, le prestige qui s’attache au judaïsme est assez grand pour susciter la conversion d’un roi khazar, Bulan, autour de 861.
Les Khazars, d’origine turque et apparentés aux Huns, formaient un empire nomade dans la région de l’actuelle cité d’Astrakhan, entre le Don et la Volga. Beaucoup se convertissent au judaïsme à la suite de Bulan. Un siècle plus tard, leur État s’effondre sous les coups portés par les Slaves. Ils se dispersent dans les populations environnantes (Polonais, Ukrainiens, Russes, Lituaniens).
Une grande partie des juifs occidentaux actuels, les ashkénazes, descendraient de cette « Treizième Tribu » (c’est le titre d’un essai intéressant d’Arthur Koestler sur cette péripétie méconnue du judaïsme).
L’antijudaïsme chrétien au Moyen Âge
Au Moyen Âge, l’Église qualifie les juifs de « peuple déicide » et leur reproche d’avoir mis Jésus en croix mais elle ne manifeste aucun désir de les éliminer. Bien au contraire, elle a le souci de les préserver comme un témoignage vivant de l’injustice faite au Christ. Les juifs sont ainsi les seuls non-chrétiens tolérés en Occident !
Saint Bernard de Clairvaux exprime ce point de vue au XIIe siècle : « Les Juifs ne doivent point être persécutés, ni mis à mort, ni même bannis. Interrogez ceux qui connaissent la divine Écriture. Qu’y lit-on de prophétisé dans le Psaume, au sujet des Juifs. Dieu, dit l’Église, m’a donné une leçon au sujet de mes ennemis : ne les tuez pas, de crainte que mes peuples ne m’oublient. Ils sont pour nous des traits vivants qui nous représentent la passion du Seigneur. C’est pour cela qu’ils ont été dispersés dans tous les pays, afin qu’en subissant le juste châtiment d’un si grand forfait, ils servent de témoignage à notre rédemption » (*). On observe un point de vue similaire chez Abélard, théologien rival de Saint Bernard.
Notons qu’en Espagne, en 1150, en pleine Reconquête chrétienne, le roi Alfonso VII de Castille se proclame roi des trois religions (christianisme, islam et judaïsme). À la même époque, dans l’ensemble de l’Europe, les seigneurs octroient des privilèges aux juifs afin de les attirer dans leurs villes « pour l’honneur et la prospérité de leurs États » (selon une charte de l’évêque de Spire).
Beaucoup de juifs se font banquiers en tirant parti de ce que l’Église déconseille aux chrétiens le commerce de l’argent et le prêt avec intérêt, pour cause d’immoralité. Les réseaux communautaires en terre chrétienne comme en terre d’islam leur sont d’une grande aide dans ce métier. Mais la fonction de prêteur leur vaut un surcroît de haine de la part des débiteurs chrétiens.
La rupture judéo-chrétienne est concomitante des croisades. En Rhénanie et en Europe centrale, à partir de 1096, on évalue à 5.000 le nombre de juifs massacrés par les foules désireuses de faire place nette avant leur départ pour la Terre sainte. Toutefois, à l’occasion de ces drames (on n’emploie pas encore le mot pogrom), les seigneurs et les évêques font en général de leur mieux pour protéger leurs sujets israélites, ne serait-ce que parce qu’ils leur fournissent taxes et impôts en abondance….!
Au XIIe siècle, face à la menace de conversions forcées, des chefs de famille juifs préfèrent tuer leur famille et se suicider. Ces actes de désespoir révulsent les chrétiens qui en ont connaissance. Ils sont peut-être à l’origine d’une rumeur selon laquelle les juifs égorgeraient des enfants chrétiens et utiliseraient leur sang pour la fabrication du pain azyme.
La première accusation de meurtre rituel est attestée à Norwich, en Angleterre, en 1146, soit un demi-siècle après la première croisade et les pogroms de Rhénanie. Aussi absurde qu’elle soit, cette rumeur va cheminer à travers les siècles jusqu’à nos jours. Ainsi la retrouve-t-on dans le Protocole des Sages de Sion, un faux antisémite diffusé par la police du tsar avant la Grande Guerre de 14-18 et dont se repaît encore aujourd’hui la presse antisémite du monde musulman.
Des relations de plus en plus difficiles
La situation des juifs européens se dégrade dans les derniers siècles du Moyen Âge, au XIIIe siècle, quand se développent les villes, et surtout au XIVe siècle, après les drames de la Grande Peste (1347).
Les juifs se voient progressivement interdire le métier des armes et celui de la terre, ce qui les cantonne dans les occupations artisanales et commerciales. Les monarques en mal d’argent abusent de leur précarité pour s’enrichir à bon compte. C’est ainsi qu’en 1181, le roi de France Philippe Auguste fait arrêter les juifs de Paris et les libère en échange de 15.000 marcs or. L’année suivante, il les fait expulser et saisit leurs biens. Enfin, en 1198, il leur permet de revenir à Paris en échange d’une nouvelle somme d’argent.
En 1242, un juif converti, Nicolas Donin, assure au pape que le Talmud, livre sacré des juifs, contient des injures contre le Christ. Une controverse a lieu à Paris entre rabbins et prêtres, à la suite de quoi le roi Louis IX (futur Saint Louis) décide de faire brûler tous les manuscrits hébreux de Paris en place publique. Le total représente 24 charrettes.
Dans le même temps, en 1269, le petit-fils de Philippe Auguste impose aux juifs de porter sur la poitrine une « rouelle », c’est-à-dire un rond d’étoffe rouge, pour les distinguer du reste de la population et prévenir les unions mixtes. Saint Louis applique ce faisant une recommandation du concile de Latran (1215) de marquer les juifs à l’image de ce qui se pratiquait déjà dans le monde musulman, tout en interdisant qu’il leur soit fait du mal.
En 1254, le roi bannit les juifs de France mais comme souvent au Moyen Âge, la mesure est rapportée quelques années plus tard en échange d’un versement d’argent au trésor royal. Les juifs sont réexpulsés de France par Philippe IV le Bel le 22 juillet 1306, rappelés par son fils Louis X le Hutin puis à nouveau expulsés en 1394.
En Allemagne, suite à une recommandation du concile de Vienne (1267), les juifs sont désignés par un chapeau plat surmonté d’une tige avec une boule, le « Judenhut ».
En Angleterre, suite à une campagne de calomnies, 18 juifs de la ville de Lincoln sont pendus puis, le 12 juillet 1290, poussé par l’opinion publique, le roi Édouard Ier donne trois mois aux juifs de son royaume pour partir. 16.000 personnes traversent la Manche et il s’écoulera quatre siècles avant que les juifs ne reviennent en Angleterre.
En Espagne, les juifs commencent en 1391 à être victimes de violences meurtrières. Ceux de Castille et d’Aragon, au nombre d’environ 200.000, sont définitivement bannis en 1492, quelques semaines après que les Rois Catholiques eurent chassé le dernier roi musulman de la péninsule. « Au fond, on ne craint pas le Juif mais la fragilité de la conviction chrétienne » (*).
Les communautés juives d’Europe sont peu à peu enfermées dans des ghettos d’où les habitants ne peuvent sortir la nuit. Le mot ghetto vient d’un quartier de Venise ainsi nommé parce qu’on y jetait les déchets des fonderies voisines et où, pour la première fois furent confinés les juifs, en 1516.
Dans le monde musulman, de l’autre côté de la Méditerranée, les juifs sont de la même façon enfermés dans des quartiers réservés appelés mellahs.
Beaucoup de rescapés des massacres et des expulsions d’Espagne, de France ou d’Angleterre s’enfuient en Pologne où le roi Casimir III Jagellon leur accorde en 1334 le Privilegium, ce qui va contribuer à l’extraordinaire rayonnement intellectuel et artistique du pays aux XIVe et XVe siècles. D’autres juifs se réfugient dans… les États du pape : dans le Comtat Venaissin, à Carpentras ou Avignon , ainsi qu’à Rome, où ils sont assurés de vivre en sécurité.
Ces relations ambivalentes entre juifs et chrétiens, faites d’intolérance religieuse et de jalousie sociale, forment l’essence de l’antijudaïsme médiéval. Elles vont muter à la fin du Moyen Âge vers une haine d’essence raciale, à la base de l’antisémitisme moderne…
De la rouelle à l’étoile
Au XXe siècle, les nazis réactivent la tradition médiévale en imposant aux Juifs le port de l’étoile jaune, mais avec des intentions autrement plus lourdes de conséquences : il s’agit pour eux de stigmatiser les Juifs avant de les exterminer, tout en leur interdisant d’échapper à leur sort par la conversion.