Moshe Rosman on David Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition
[This review is the first of seven pieces in our forum, “His Blood Be Upon Us.” The forum’s home page is here.]
“You shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under Heaven. Do not Forget.”
Deuteronomy 25:19 is one of the more memorable — and malleable — commands the Torah proclaims. Elliott Horowitz, in Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence, traced how in Jewish lore and life Amalek developed from an ethnic category into a moral and metaphysical one. Among those it might denote were Romans, Christendom, Armenians, the evil inclination, evil itself, Arabs, Nazis, Soviets — or, in certain circumstances, even fellow Jews. Zionists, peace activists, and Henry Kissinger have all been named as incarnations of Amalek. It depends on who is doing the naming. Horowitz demonstrated that, at least from the Middle Ages on, many Jews (and a few biblically oriented non-Jews) dubbed as Amalekites those whom they considered to be their arch enemies.
David Nirenberg’s book is an erudite, eloquent demonstation of how, from the Ancient Egyptians until the mid-twentieth century, Jews (and just maybe Israel in the twenty-first century) have served as the Amalek of Western Civilization. “My pages will treat anti-Judaism as a mask,” Nirenberg writes. Whether the mask was worn by Augustine, the authors of the Qur’an, Luther, Shakespeare, Voltaire, or Marx, whoever or whatever they opposed, their Other was branded as Jewish in origin, nature, and malevolent effect. This makes for some anomalous pronouncements: Ambrose (d. 397) termed the Roman Emperor Maximus, who insisted on enforcing the law against monks who had torched a synagogue, “a Jew”; upstart Muslim Abbasids justified their overthrow of the previous Muslim dynasty, the Umayyads, by alleging the latter’s “Jewish” genealogy; Ferdinand and Isabel, Catholic monarchs par excellence and expellers of the Jews, faced accusations that they were of Jewish descent and that they favored Jews in their policies; and according to the early twentieth century German economist, Werner Sombart, “Puritanism is Judaism.”
The metaphor that Nirenberg employs throughout the book to capture the role of the Judaism/Jewishness trope in Western culture is “work” (the word appears on many, many pages of the book): “putting Judaizing to work: the Spanish Inquisition,” “the work done by figures of Judaism on Shakespeare’s stage,” “the sheer number of fields of modern thought in which figures of Judaism were put to work,” etc. Eventually, it becomes rather predictable. But that is what his book is about: “the labor done by Judaism in the workshops of Western thought,” generating the “Jewishness” it criticizes “from its own entrails,” always and everywhere.
Claiming that any phenomenon was a key component of history always and everywhere in the Western tradition means proposing a grand narrative, which has essentialist implications. Nirenberg knows that this is risky given that his audience has internalized Jean Lyotard’s definition of “postmodern” as “incredulity toward metanarratives.” He attempts to pre-empt such criticism (or at least get in the first punch) by “proudly confessing” at the outset that the three-thousand-year sweep of this history will “scandalize” many contemporary historians. Throughout the course of the book he meets the anti-essentialist critique by showing in chapter after chapter how the key concepts, questions, and figures of anti-Judaism were subject to unceasing transformations. In other words, while something called “anti-Judaism” has always existed, its forms are protean.
Lyotard’s insistence on the superiority of local narratives has lately metastasized into a style in which some scholars approach the study of anti-Semitism. David Engel, for one, in his “Away from a Definition of Antisemitism,” in Rethinking European Jewish History, sees it as “an invented analytical category, not a discovered one,” asserting that no necessary relation has ever been established among all of the manifestations of anti-Jewish animus over the centuries.
As the title of his book announces, Nirenberg’s strategy is to change the subject. He emphasizes that “… we can call our topic the history of thinking about ‘Judaism’.” He is researching the history of the hatred of Judaism/Jewishness and how it has served various people “to make sense of and criticize their world”; he is not interested in anti-Semitism as hatred of Jews. He explicitly declares that his subject is not part of Jewish history per se. In fact, at the magmatic level, his real subject is not even anti-Judaism. Nirenberg informs his readers that his magisterial presentation of anti-Judaism is ultimately no more than a vehicle for exploring such profound matters as “how past uses of the concepts we think with can constrain our own thought.”
However, the question of the relationship between Judaism-hatred and Jew-hatred dances around every chapter of this book. Nirenberg initially finesses it by declaring that sometimes the thinking about Judaism “took place in interaction with living Jews, but often it did not.” But by the end, in the epilogue, it seems that he realizes that avoiding this obviously fundamental issue leaves too loose an end. Moreover, the thirteen varieties of anti-Judaism he has delineated in the chapters of his book beckon for an articulation of what connects them. Is this an integral history or a just concatenation of episodes sharing some superficial features but having no organic coherence?
Many historians assign causative consequences to the religious anti-Judaism of the medieval Christians and Muslims and to the secular anti-Judaism of Enlightenment avatars like (the Jew) Spinoza, Bayle, Locke, and Voltaire. Anti-Judaism — whether religious or secular, liberal or conservative — faithfully provided a convenient rationale, if not the immediate cause, for Jew-hatred whenever and wherever. Does Nirenberg, who has just presented the most exhaustive catalogue and trenchant analysis of anti-Judaism, accept this view or not? And if he does, what does he say to the likes of Engel, who demands analysis of the causes of Jew-hatred on a case-by-case basis?
Nirenberg, somewhat evading the core question, understands these issues as enveloped in larger questions of causality and continuity in history:
My history of thinking with and about Judaism has been animated by the conviction that there is a relationship between past and present […] . By relationship I mean that some aspect of the past may contribute to the possibility of (or be realized in) a given future […]. This is certainly not to say that the relationship is one of responsibility, causality or necessity […]. What then is the relationship?
Contending with the limitations of both positivist linear causation and the postmodern allergy to historical continuities, Nirenberg posits that the risks of hyper-sectioning history are as real as those of overdetermining it. In the end, seeing — as so many of us do — the traces of truth in both approaches, he builds a bridge, one “that takes seriously the possibility that how we have thought about the world in the past affects how we think about the world in the present, while at the same time attempting not to forget that how we are thinking about our present affects how we think about the past.” We might add that our perceptions of our own particular present can sensitize us to aspects of the past that those with other life-experience would not see. We, like Nirenberg, continually formulate new questions. Our new histories are the answers.
Also Recommended from MRB:
- His Blood Be Upon Us. A Forum on Anti-Judaism
- Anti-Judaism and Early Christianity
- Anti-Judaism and Luther’s Jewish Question
- Like a Jew: Anti-Judaism in Early Islam and Medieval Iberia
- The Figure of the Jew: Anti-Judaism in the Enlightenment
- Anti-Semitism and the Evolving Catholic Conscience
- An Irish-American Zionist in the Age of Anti-Zionism