“Anti Judaism” by David Nirenberg. Book review by Oscar Clarke

The History of thinking about Judaism

Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition, Nirenberg, David. Norton, 610pp.

Jean-Paul Sartre, in his post-war Portrait of the Anti-Semite, came to the conclusion (borrowing a phrase from Voltaire) that if the Jew did not exist then the anti-Semite would have to invent him. This “existentialist” interpretation earned the scorn of Hannah Arendt, who did not deign to linger upon his argument, summarily dismissing it as “fashionable nonsense,” before returning to her more serious reflections upon the sickness which had nearly destroyed Europe. And perhaps she was right. Perhaps a more serious, sober, fact-based study of this curious hatred was in order. Then again, one such study, produced in the late 1960s by Norman Cohn, would be treated, in the preface Arendt produced for later editions of her Origins of Totalitarianism, to just the same scorn – not even worthy of mention in the main text, Arendt scolded Cohn for the asininity of his Warrant for Genocide in a footnote.

Might it be possible, though, that fashionable as Sartre’s ideas may have been, they may yet have contained at least a grain of insight? His essay is, at least, occasionally still read today, even if it pales in insignificance beside Arendt’s weighty, learned tome. David Nirenberg’s new history of anti-Judaism, majestically subtitled “The Western Tradition,” documents three-thousand years of (predominantly western, though there is a chapter on the Islamic East) obsessiveness regarding the “chosen” people. The effort to oppose and overcome the perils of Judaism, argues Nirenberg, has been the greatest task in the western intellectual tradition. From Matthew to Marx, Jewish questions have exerted such a strain upon the western mind that, regardless of the actual existence of those who practice it, the striving for emancipation from Judaism has been the primary preoccupation of our history.

Nirenberg’s history starts in Hellenised Egypt, but I’m not entirely convinced that this is where it should have started. For whilst there was much early anti-Jewish persecution during this period, I am not convinced that it was here that the tradition of thinking in terms of, and in opposition to, Judaism really got started. His central argument being that Judaism has occupied a vaunted position in western history – the struggle against it having been at the forefront of every idea which has espoused some version of universal destiny – his history should, I believe, have started with early Christianity: on the Road to Damascus, to be precise.

He gets to this in the second chapter. Paul’s vision of Christ, who accuses him – “I am Jesus, whom thou persecutest” (I’m using the King James Version; Nirenberg uses the New International Version, which, aesthetically, is a shame) – and his subsequent conversion, is, on the one hand, a symbolic example by which successive generations of Jews might be convinced to convert. But those successive generations would not have become such a special case in the Christian mind-set, Nirenberg argues, had Paul severed completely his relationship to Judaism. Instead, he chose to see Christ as the culmination of Jewish scripture. He:

desire[d] to understand Jesus’s gospel as the fulfilment of God’s promise to Abraham… Had Paul dreamed of abandoning Hebrew scripture or condemning it as false, “Judaism” might indeed have become no more important to ancient Christians than any other of the myriad ethnic identities they were capable of ignoring as spiritually insignificant, such as Scythians. But he did not. Instead… he taught his followers a new way to unlock the meaning of scripture and its promises. Paul was a pedagogue, his letters primers for the practice of reading he was advocating. In them we can see the principals of a new science of scriptural interpretation – exegesis, hermeneutics – being built on a foundation of questions about the believer’s relationship to “Judaism.”

Paul’s new science can be summarised by a line from his second letter to the Corinthians: “For the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.” While the literal Jews read scripture in order to establish and follow God’s law, thus becoming arrogant in their worldly wisdom, Paul instructs the new Christians to follow the spirit of Christ, by which they might be brought closer to God, and to salvation:

And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the spirit and of power: That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God. (1 Cor. 4-5)

What Nirenberg demonstrates is that Paul begat, for Christianity, the tradition of interpreting scripture in terms of opposition to Judaism. By the time of the composition of the gospels, this opposition had become scornful. Human (read: Jewish) wisdom was an insult to heaven: “I thank thee, oh Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and has revealed them unto babes.”

After the apostolic century, Nirenberg draws the reader’s attention to troubles faced by the early church in attempting to reach a consensus about exactly what should be considered Christian orthodoxy. Christians today know the “New Testament” confidently but,

There was no such confidence among the early Christians, no agreement about what constituted Christian scripture or how it should be read. From its very first moments, the Jesus movement was marked by a struggle between “true teaching” and “false.”

In trying to decide upon what merited inclusion in the new canon, it was inevitable, following the intellectual example of Paul, that anxiety about which texts were suitably Christian and which might in fact be a little too Jewish would arise. Equally, for early Christians, interpreting Paul meant trying to grasp the difference between Jewish and Christian readings of scripture. In all of this, as Nirenberg points out, “the penalty for a wrong choice was high: nothing less than eternal damnation.” In something of an alternative history of the early Church, Nirenberg then takes us methodically through the efforts of Justin Martyr, Eusebius, Augustine and just about every one of the early church fathers to overcome carnal Judaism.

Fast-forward to the Middle Ages and not a great deal had changed. Though the Christian canon, by this point, was very firmly established, insecurity among Christians about the influence that Judaizing ideas could have upon their faith abounded. From Gilbert Dahan’s study of anti-Jewish polemic in the Middle Ages, we learn that Christian authorities were regularly advising against dialogue with Jews. Here is Peter of Blois on the subject:

Let no one dispute with a heretic or a Jew unless it is to have his wits sharpened. Actually, it is because of illicit and unwise discussions that the insiduous growth of heresies has become so widespread and rampant.

In France, the Council of Bouges went as far, in 1276, as to ban Jews from small towns to counter the influence that their ideas were having upon “simple,” rural Christians. Years earlier, Joachim of Fiore had warned that, under the influence of “the enemies of the cross… those without strong characters may be subject to a ruination of their faith.” The epigraph with which Nirenberg choses to introduce his chapter on medieval Europe points to the ubiquity of this feeling:

What do you think the devil can accomplish through the Jews… almost all educated and most adept at trickery… so secretive in their deceptions that they display a remarkable appearance of being truthful. (Ramon Marti, The Dagger of the Faith)

It is in this atmosphere of insecurity that we find the first rumblings against princely power, not because the wealth of the sovereign offended the lowly peasants, but because the materialism of rulers was associated with Jewish carnality. To the intensely apocalyptic medieval mind, this world was only a prelude to the glorious heavenly kingdom to come: “And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof; but he that doeth the will of God abideth forever.” To delight in the pleasures of this world was not only to miss its point – a spiritual journey, nothing more – but to behave like a Jew.

But what about the post-Christian world? In the era of Enlightenment universalism we might imagine that Jewish questions became somewhat irrelevant. Not so, argues Nirenberg. The new moral philosophers may have introduced some new ideas about human destiny but, as exemplified in the work of Immanuel Kant, one of the old ideas – thinking in terms of opposition to Judaism – stuck around.

Kant rejected the empiricism of the British philosophers Hume and Locke. He rebelled, in his most famous work, The Critique of Pure Reason, against their idea that reason could be subject to the laws of nature, for that would make reason a slave to necessity; freewill an illusion; man a mere slave. The world of spirit transcends the carnal world – this is Kant’s primary contention. And it was also St. Paul’s primary contention. This might seem tenuous ground upon which to portray Kant as a secular figure in the grand Christian tradition of counterposing Christian spirituality and Jewish carnality. However, Nirenberg is perceptive enough to notice that Kant chose a familiar hero with which to demonstrate the ascendency of the spirit over nature. In Religion within the Bounds of Reason Alone, Kant makes of Jesus a Kantian:

A rebel against Jewish materialism, a revolutionary who “opened the doors of freedom to all who, like him, choose to die to everything that holds them fettered to earthly life to the detriment of morality.”

After Kant came Fichte. Once a Jacobin, Fichte gave up on France during Napoleon’s Prussian campaign. He became a staunch nationalist, but he gave to nationalism something new, borrowed from his Jacobean days – this was an idea of universal history, which he never gave up on. Like Kant’s universal reason, Fichte’s universal history defined itself in opposition to Judaism. Fichte laid out his picture of history in his Characteristics of the Present Age. The first of the ages, the “original state of human innocence,”

[Nirenberg’s summary] was all too quickly succeeded by a long ice age of blind faith and obedience, which ran from the beginning of recorded history until the Enlightenment. The third and present age was one of “completed sinfulness,” in which men’s souls are entirely ruled by materialism and self-interest… [but] a new people being born will make the coming age the real age of reason.

This age of reason was to be also an age of love, as he explained later in his Addresses to the German Nation, for all of history had been “a long-running war between love and self-interest.” Only a people with a true and pure nationalistic love could truly bring about Fichte’s age of reason. This was a German characteristic, and it certainly was not a French one. Unsurprisingly, it was by comparison to the materialistic and egoistic Jews that Fichte condemned the French as a people incapable of “having a national character.” In the words of one of Fichte’s followers, which I take from Paul Rose’s work on revolutionary anti-Semitism in nineteenth century Germany, German liberation will be one: “not only from the Napoleonic conquest of 1806, meaning simply from a political exterior situation, but also from our spiritual inner slavery… from the bondage of Egypt.”

Nirenberg devotes many pages to the complicated figure of Hegel. The most famous of the philosophers of universal destiny – for whom the end of philosophy and, indeed, history had already arrived – Hegel considered Judaism a dead religion; a stage in the dialectical unfolding of the spirit whose time had passed. And yet, as Nirenberg demonstrates, Judaism had not died for Hegel himself; in fact, it was the tool with which he critiqued the philosophy of Kant.

Hegelian dialectics treats the history of philosophy as a quest towards the absolute, or truth. This truth is arrived at through the reconciliation (or synthesis) of opposing ideas. But these ideas must participate in some small way in the absolute (the real). The downfall of Kant’s philosophy – like all dualist philosophies – was that it opposed itself from the real so that no reconciliation (and therefore no progress) could be achieved. In other words, Kant’s was a phony philosophy. Divorcing itself completely from empiricism, Kant’s idealism was, for Hegel, to be equated with Abraham and Noah’s decision to turn to a vast abstract power (reason instead of God) and oppose it to the world. Kant opposed thought to reality: a “Jewish principal.”

Nirenberg is discussing a young Hegel, and acknowledges that he altered some of his ideas later in life, but whether or not Hegel was anti-Semitic is unimportant. What his ideas demonstrate is that the Western penchant for thinking in terms of opposition to Judaism is extremely malleable. The Jews, having been derided for their carnality and materialism throughout the Christian centuries (a theme adopted by Kant) are, for Hegel, the first people to reject the world in favour of an abstraction (which is the reason why Jewish philosophies – such as Kant’s – cannot participate in the journey toward the absolute). Indeed, Heine, citing his early master Hegel, labelled the Jews “the people of the spirit.”

Heine himself, once he relinquished his Hegelianism, and his Christianity – to which he briefly converted – had some interesting thoughts on the place of Judaism in the human drama. Having struggled to come to terms with being Jewish, he came, later in life, to embrace his origins, and began to write passionately about what Judaism had given to the world:

Moses created a nation that was to defy the centuries – a great, eternal, holy people, the people of God, which could serve as the model for all humanity. If all pride of ancestry were not a silly paradox in a champion of the revolution… [I] could well be proud… of those martyrs of Israel who gave the world a God and a morality.

Précis: Judaism, in spite of Hegel’s contention that in turning away from the world and the real it had no role in the attainment of the absolute (and was a dead religion), gave to humanity the idea of universal destiny.

Heine was proud of this, but it seems to me as though this might have been – to the western mind (the subject of Nirenberg’s study) – Judaism’s original sin. For, above all else, it is the philosophers of universal destiny who have turned opposition to Judaism into a principle. For the Jews, as the originators of this idea, naturally assumed the role of primary adversaries to all variations upon it. Whatever has been advanced as the answer to the salvation of humanity, the Jews have been found to be proposing the opposite. Paul Berman, who writes for the New Republic, gave an interview a few years ago in which he offered this summary of the role of Judaism in the western psyche:

The unstated assumption is always the same. To wit: the universal system for man’s happiness has already arrived (namely, Christianity, or else Enlightenment anti-Christianity; the Westphalian state system, or else the post-modern system of international institutions; racial theory, or else the anti-racist doctrine in a certain interpretation). And the universal system for man’s happiness would right now have achieved perfection – were it not for the Jews. The Jews are always standing in the way. The higher one’s opinion of oneself, the more one detests the Jews.

In his only reflection upon attitudes towards the modern Jewish state, Nirenberg writes,

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.”

Might European animosity towards Israel be the latest chapter in the western tradition of opposing Judaism to the moral imperatives of mankind? This is a question for another book, but it should be depressingly unsurprising to readers of Nirenberg’s history that we might have to ask it.

There is just one glaring omission in Nirenberg’s study, and that is the counter-revolutionary movement which started in France (and Russia) and produced the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Whilst there is a section on Edmund Burke, who looked at Robespierre and Danton, and only saw the Jewish financiers who must have been orchestrating the revolution in the background, that is where Nirenberg’s discussion of counter-revolution ends.

I find this odd because the counter-revolutionary movement provides such an excellent example of his thesis. They looked at every aspect of the modern world – the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, industrialisation, the advent of capitalism, and the advent of communism – and the critique which they developed for every despised development turned out to be a critique of Judaism. This is what Norman Cohn noticed, pointing out that “regardless of the real situation of Jews in society” Judaism was the explanation provided for its ills. It is what Sartre noticed, too. In short, it is what Nirenberg’s book is all about. So he is entitled to his criticisms – reserved for the epilogue – of Hannah Arendt’s proposition that anti-Jewish ideas must have some basis in reality; and that the Jews must assume partial responsibility for their greatest tragedy. He has compiled a three-thousand yearlong dossier of evidence to the contrary.


One thought on ““Anti Judaism” by David Nirenberg. Book review by Oscar Clarke

  1. There is just one glaring omission in Nirenberg’s study, and that is the counter-revolutionary movement which started in France (and Russia) and produced the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion




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