The “problem of Judaism” in the Western Tradition
Judaism has inspired a hatred that has shadowed the Jews from the ancient world to the present day. Tracing the length of this poisonous trail, David Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism reveals how religious, political, and cultural figures across millennia re-imagined the “problem of Judaism” to suit the needs of their times, regardless of the number or significance of the Jews in their midst. Ambitious in its scope and scale, Anti-Judaism invites debate and discussion. The contributors to this forum, specialists in different historical periods and geographical spaces, will offer some of the first focused responses to this sophisticated study. One review will appear each day beginning December 8th, and David Nirenberg’s response to the collection will be published the following week.
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.”
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Nirenberg’s allegiances are clear, and he construes them as an ethical mandate: the dark star of horrific, homicidal, irrational, modern anti-Judaism exerts terrific gravitational pull over his story. To what degree does this pull frustrate his efforts to present material “in the context of its own time?”
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Luther’s ideas about reform and about the Jews gained traction not only because they resonated for readers but also because he was a best-selling author whose writings were accessible in the German vernacular, both in print and in sermons. The impact of his anti-Jewish writings was as much a product of the medium through which his ideas were conveyed as it was of his specific message.
Jonathan P. Decter
Nirenberg also avoids the teleological march to the gas chambers through the language of the “potential” and the “actual” — a paradigm that is decidedly peripatetic. Returning to the protective and persecutory sides of the Augustinian paradox, each existed in potential, both to become realized later in actuality, which also means that neither of the outcomes was strictly necessary. As a point of contrast with medieval Christendom, Nirenberg argues that in the Islamic world (with a few exceptions), arguments of “Judaizing” were seldom put to use as cultural critique. Though such figures existed in potential, they were not “actualized as frequently.”
Jonathan M. Hess
The exceptionally nuanced story Nirenberg tells tends to pay minimal attention to moments in the Western tradition where a critical awareness of anti-Judaism rose to the surface. Nirenberg’s book is productive, of course, because it stresses long continuities over time, studying the remarkable resilience of a long tradition of anti-Judaism that has shown an uncanny ability to adapt to different contexts and situations. But was there really no significant “outside” to this tradition before Nirenberg’s much-needed critical intervention?
The Spanish Inquisition was bound to the Church and theology, not to the bureaucracy of a modern nation-state. The comparison is even more incongruent when we consider that a mass political party with a redemptive anti-Semitic ideology controlled Nazi Germany. Its leaders employed the technologies of advertising and modern forms of media to socially engineer its racial utopia. Understanding these differences demands understanding the discontinuities in the history of anti-Judaism.
Where our historical attention dwells, the methods we choose for a particular project cannot be independent of the questions we find most interesting or most pressing at a given moment (often, as Rosman points out, for reasons that are quite personal). And of course, neither can they be independent of the needs of our intended audiences. The choices we make when we write for our fellow sub-specialists will not be the same as those we make when we attempt to write across fields. As critical historians, we can only strive to make these dependences clear.