Anti-Judaism: The History of a Way of Thinking, by David Nirenberg
Reviewed by Lawrence Douglas
Anti-Judaism: The History of a Way of Thinking
Head of Zeus
Tracing strands of anti-Judaic thinking all the way back to the Egyptians, Nirenberg shows how ancient views, which castigated the followers of Moses as misanthropes and enemies of the gods, later became caught up in the works of early Christian thinkers, who sought to distinguish their new belief from their testamentary forerunner.
Nirenberg does an excellent job of showing how the idea of Judaism became the rubric that accommodated the negative terms in a rich theological debate that pitted Jewish law against Christian love, Jewish carnality against Christian spiritualism, and Jewish clannishness against Christian universalism.
Here again Nirenberg emphasises that such expressions of anti-Judaism cannot be dismissed as mere theological excrescences or doctrinal aberrations. Rather, he insists that such anti-Judaic concepts, figures and tropes were constitutive of Christian cosmology.
Through a series of close readings of canonical texts – including everything from Luther’s theological treatises and Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice to Hobbes’ Leviathan and Kant’s metaphysical writings – Nirenberg traces this argument forwards in time, artfully demonstrating that as theological discourse evolved into philosophical inquiry, negative figures of Judaic practices and values continued to supply critical ordering terms of western intellectual thought.
In telling this story Nirenberg proves himself to be an excellent writer, nimbly drawing connections between diverse bodies of material, and gifted at compressing complex ideas into tight, understandable prose. And while Nirenberg’s capacious intellectual history provides ample evidence in support of the author’s thesis, it also delivers many local dividends, two of which deserve particular notice.
Many scholars have noted that Nazi anti-Semitism was predicated on mutually exclusive stereotypes of the Jew as ruthless capitalist on the one hand and as crusading Bolshevik on the other.
But Nirenberg’s broad canvas shows the concept of Judaism played such an overdetermined role in European intellectual discourse that antecedents abound in which the Jew supplied both sides to a negative pairing – as symbol, for example, of both carnality and cold abstract reason.
Second, and more importantly, Nirenberg’s synthetic history makes clear the astonishingly small role that Jews actually played in these critical debates. The fierce and convoluted theological controversies that relied heavily on critical understandings of Judaism were almost entirely intramural affairs, waged between rival Christian thinkers with little to no contact with flesh-and-blood Jews.
Later, anti-Judaic ideas both evolved and hardened at a time when western Europe was almost entirely free of Jews. “Judaic” ideas and practices were thus largely products of the European imagination, useful foils against which a rich variety of thinkers could define and defend their specific intellectual agendas and commitments.
Indeed, according to Nirenberg, it was the rapid influx of actual Jewish immigrants into western European countries in the 19th century that created the crucible for the transformation of this ideational anti-Judaism into a powerfully noxious form of modern anti-Semitism.
Nirenberg rightly refuses to say that such a potent mix made the Holocaust inevitable; still, he insists, as his book convincingly demonstrates, that such genocidal excess was inconceivable in the absence of a larger history that “had encoded the threat of Judaism into some of the basic concepts of Western thought”.
Lawrence Douglas is James J Grosfeld professor of law, jurisprudence and social thought at Amherst College, in the US. His latest book, The Vices, was a finalist in 2011 for the National Jewish Book Award.