Anti-Judaism: The History of a Way of Thinking, by David Nirenberg

Reviewed by Lawrence Douglas

Sat, Sep 14, 2013, 01:00


Book Title:
Anti-Judaism: The History of a Way of Thinking


David Nirenberg

Head of Zeus

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‘A hideous Jew . . .was standing by the entrance, smoking a vile cigar. He had greasy ringlets, and an enormous diamond blazed in the centre of a soiled shirt.”

This description of a Jewish stage manager in a “third-rate theatre” comes courtesy of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, a book that I recently read for the first time. While I admired the risks Wilde was willing to assume in telling a story of homoerotic desire, I also found myself dismayed by the alacrity with which the novelist traded in dreary anti-Semitic stereotypes.

Hideous, vile, greasy, soiled – add an “enormous diamond” to the mix and we have a classic image of the Jew as rich, rank, slimy and corrupt.

I happened to purchase an exhaustively annotated edition of Dorian Gray, which gave me a chance to track the redactions that Wilde’s cautious editor made to the author’s typescript. Apparently the editor saw it necessary to tame Wilde’s “Is Sybil Vane your mistress?” to a more decorous “What are your relations with Sybil Vane?”

And yet no editorial alarm appeared to sound at Wilde’s caricature of the “fat Jew manager” – nothing in that description threatened to shock contemporary sensibilities.

Shortly after finishing Dorian Gray I read Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s classic story of Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated trip to the South Pole, The Worst Journey in the World. There I came across this description of Scott’s rival Roald Amundsen, the great Norwegian explorer who beat Scott to the Pole and lived to tell of it: “The truth was that Amundsen was an explorer of the markedly intellectual type, rather Jewish than Scandinavian . . .”

In the moment I found Cherry-Garrard’s description so bewildering that I scurried to Wikipedia to see if it stated a biographical fact. (It does not: Amundsen came from solid Lutheran stock.) What, then, are we to make of Cherry-Garrard’s claim? It is hardly anti-Semitic; to the contrary, one can detect an element of admiration in Cherry-Garrard’s praise of Amundsen’s Jewish “sagacity” and “pure judgment”. Still, the portrait is less than complimentary. While Scott heroically and perhaps fatally indulged in a spirit of scientific discovery, the “Jewish intellectual” from Norway shrewdly organised his expedition in a single-minded effort to get to the Pole; his success left the Scott team with “the feeling that he had stolen a march on us”.

Both of these evocations of Jews came to mind as I read David Nirenberg’s extraordinary new book, Anti-Judaism: The History of a Way of Thinking.

The term “anti-Semitism”, which entered use in the latter half of the 19th century, is often criticised as incoherent because overinclusive: Arabs, after all, are Semites, too. Nirenberg, however, finds the term underinclusive, as it principally addresses the kind of sloppy stereotyping that we encounter in Dorian Gray.

“Anti-Judaism”, by contrast, gestures towards something larger and deeper; it denotes “a way of critically engaging the world”, and so invites us to probe the meaning of the figure of Jewishness that we unexpectedly encounter in The Worst Journey in the World. Anti-Judaism, Nirenberg insists, should not, then, be “understood as some archaic or irrational closet in the vast edifices of Western thought. It was rather one of the basic tools with which that edifice was constructed.”

Nirenberg, who teaches history in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, develops this bold argument in a synoptic intellectual history of the West that manages to be both sweeping and subtle.

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.