Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.10.09 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.10.09

David Nirenberg, Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition.   New York:  W. W. Norton and Company, 2013.  Pp. 624.  ISBN 9780393058246.  $35.00.  

Reviewed by Andrew S. Jacobs, Scripps College (


David Nirenberg’s survey of anti-Judaism is ambitious. While the larger scope of this volume is admittedly broader than the typical volume reviewed by BMCR, it builds on antiquity and asks questions about the historical project that many of us will find valuable. Through a series of historical soundings he details how, in various times and places from ancient Egypt to post-World War II Europe, non-Jewish dominant cultures grappled with issues of nation, economics, and philosophy through complex "figures" of Jews and Judaism, figures which may or may not have had anything to do with "real Jews." What's more, Nirenberg posits a continuous history across these times and places, an accretion of ideas about Jews and Judaism that has structured and continues to structure the big questions of "Western" thought: what is the nature of reality? where is meaning located? what is the value of "exchange" (political, economic, and cultural)?

Europe, Nirenberg argues, has continuously, repetitively, and cumulatively produced useful figures of Judaism "out of its own entrails" (a favorite phrase from Marx’s "On the Jewish Question" that appears early and often in the book) to frame, but never quite resolve, the tensions of its own identities: "By the twentieth century," he boldly proclaims in his introduction, "any domain of human activity could be thought of and criticized in terms of Judaism" (6).

Behind such an ambitious project lies an equally ambitious historiographic assertion: "an argument for the vital role that the history of ideas can play in making us aware of how the past uses of the concepts we think with can constrain our own thought" (2). For Nirenberg, such a "history of ideas" eschews the (as he sees it) discontinuous, Foucauldian genealogies that have become politically fashionable: "the perils of fantasizing our freedom from the past are great," Nirenberg warns (11). If we do not recognize our cultural participation in a longue durée of anti-Jewish thought, we are doomed to keep reproducing it, in forms both tested and innovative, "from our own entrails."

The introduction lays out Nirenberg's historical and historiographic goals: (1) to outline the "labor done by Judaism in the workshops of Western thought"; (2) and how that intellectual labor produced the material conditions under which real Jews, on occasion, had to toil. (This second, social historical question irrupts often into the text but is, ultimately, subsidiary to Nirenberg's larger project: real Jews suffer the consequences of these "figures of Judaism," but are necessary neither for their construction nor their implementation in public discourse). The scope of the work is deliberately broad: three millennia, from ancient Egypt to our present moment.

The first chapter (on Egypt) ranges seven centuries from the thinly, but provocatively, documented conflicts surrounding the Jewish colony in Pharaonic Elephantine to Ptolemaic anti-Jewish histories to conflicts between Greek citizens, Egyptian natives, and Jews in Roman Alexandria. Judaism plays a complex but soon familiar role in the cultural and political construction of Egypt: produced and ejected from within (in a nasty inversion of the Exodus narrative), Jews mark the outer limits of politics (tyranny), religion (superstition), and personhood (disease). Later, Nirenberg admits that he might as well have started his long historical account in ancient Greece as ancient Egypt (469); his interest is not in finding the origins of this "thinking with Judaism," but rather, identifying its major and enduring themes.

The next two chapters treat the rise of Christianity, from a movement of Jewish critique to an imperial religion spanning the Mediterranean. The writings of the New Testament in Chapter 2 provide fodder for later anti-Jewish thought. Paul's arguments "helped to transform thinking about Judaism into a way of thinking about the world" (53); while the gospels' portraits of various Jews (but not, curiously, Judas) "generated the potential for the powerful interpretations they would produce over the next two thousand years" (71). In Chapter 3, a traditional list of Greek- and Latin-speaking Christian authors--from Justin Martyr to Augustine – chart for Nirenberg the multifarious but linked ways in which early Christians debated each other on topics theological and political, always evoking "Jews" and "Judaizing" to score points and flesh out their own positions.1 Nirenberg draws on Paula Fredriksen's similar arguments on the rhetorical role of Jews in intra-Christian debates, but also recalls hoarier hypotheses of the insubstantiality of Jews in Christian texts proposed by Adolf von Harnack.

The next chapter is somewhat of an outlier, as Nirenberg treats the early centuries of Islam (specifically the Qur'an and early biographies of Muhammad) without making clear how this non-Christian, mainly non-European context connects with the rest of the book. Indeed, the Islamic use of "figures of Judaism," like the pre-Christian texts in chapter 1, serves more as an illuminating parallel than a solid plank in a carefully constructed history of ideas. "Like Christianity" (Nirenberg repeats several times) early Islam structured its own political and theological claims through the "simultaneous inclusion and exclusion of Judaism" (165; see also 163 and 169).

Nirenberg hits his stride as he approaches his own historical "turf," the late middle ages and early modernity. Chapter 5 covers roughly five centuries, and the ways "the 'Jewish question' was amplified from a minor quarrel in the marriage of church and empire, into a central political paradox capable of generating a critical science of power" (189). Chapters 6 and 8 – based on previously published work – zoom in more tightly: the first treats post-medieval Spain, where the theological dream of a "world without Jews" that had structured earlier European polities "turned into a nightmare, and Christian Europe awoke haunted by the conviction that it was becoming Jewish" (218); the second is a close reading of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, in which the playwright "systematically staged confusion of Christian and Jew" (274) in a fruitful meditation on the (Jewish and Judaizing) dangers of contracts, exchange, and value. Chapter 7 closely reads Martin Luther's "'Jewish problem'," condensed into "the product of his theory of how biblical language works and how it should be interpreted – in other words, of hermeneutics, not of sociology" (256).

The final four chapters bring us a modern age characterized by new ways of thinking about the person (Enlightenment) and the state (Revolution). Alternating chapters treat politics (Chapters 9 and 11) and philosophy (Chapters 10 and 12). Here the "history of ideas" becomes more concrete as Nirenberg focuses on a familiar cast of European thinkers and theorists: Hobbes, Spinoza, Voltaire, Montesquieu, Locke, Burke, Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, and Heine. As Nirenberg launches into these last crucial centuries, he restates his central thesis: "because basic ideas about human action in a divinely ordered world had long been conceptualized in terms of Judaism, revolutions and counterrevolutions in those ideas could be (and often were) fought through figures of 'Judaism' descended from those that had sustained the earlier political and theological order" (301). Romantics and rationalists, Idealists and Kantians, revolutionaries and monarchists, all could be configured as "Jews" in the larger service of identity building.

If there is an overarching "theory of Judaism" in Western thought, it perhaps emerges most succinctly in Nirenberg's discussion of Marx in his final chapter: "'Judaism' is… a type of engagement with the world and one's neighbors, an excessive and misplaced attention on the accumulation of the signs, tokens, and objects of exchange" (436). Misapprehension of this world and its elements has become, in Western thought, a Jewish fault. This "engagement" stretches to its breaking point in this last chapter (from Marx to World War II), encompassing not only philosophy and politics but the social sciences, race theory, and even mathematics. The Nazi shadow hovers most materially over this last chapter (and an epilogue, emphasizing again the stakes of this history), as the propaganda of Goebbels is configured as just one more mile in a long, winding, and unfortunate intellectual road.

Nirenberg writes with verve and passion, with a penchant for understatement, alliteration (""Charlemagne stretched a polity painfully from Pamplona to Prague" [189]), and a deft turn of phrase (Max Weber's "sociology recapitulates soteriology" [444]). Because of its capacious historical sweep and intended general audience, the book must balance broad, aerial summaries of huge swathes of history (such as a "breathless tour of early modern confessional politics" [309]) alongside tightly considered close readings of individual texts and authors.

Such a broad range cannot help but evoke what is missing: the Crusades; counter-Reformation Italy; the Byzantine East (which, Nirenberg acknowledges, lies outside both his linguistic capabilities and his general theory of "anti-Jewish logics"); and, perhaps most conspicuously in the final chapter, Freud (whose absence is compounded by the cameo appearance of his outlandish Moses and Monotheism in Chapter 1). Even a very long book cannot cover everything, but our expectations are only heightened when that book aims "to show how, across several thousand years, myriad lands, and many different spheres of human activity, people have used ideas about Jews and Judaism to fashion the tools with which they construct the reality of their world" (468).

Nirenberg is an exceptional historian who has not only crafted a compelling narrative of the role of Jews in Western thought, but is acutely aware of the limitations of his own historiographic ambitions. More than once he comments on the difficult balance of reading texts both as part of a larger historical sweep and also as symptoms of particular historical moments (see p. 408). He also remains sensitive to the tension between a "history of ideas," in which Jews and Judaism function as "masks" for interior debates, and a more materialist consideration of how these "ideas" become incarnated in actual Jewish-Christian conflicts.

As someone who has written similarly about Christian thinking about Jews in an imperial context, I am easily persuaded that Christians found Jews good to "think with" in multiple periods of their history. Indeed, I might push Nirenberg's favored quote about Jews being produced "from the entrails" of Christian culture to imagine Jews as the abject figures of Christian identity: never expelled, never truly exteriorized, but always haunting an interior boundary of unfixed, and unfixable, identity. Anti-Judaism, then, would not only be the sign of Western intellectual unease, but would actually signal the failure of "Western identity" from its inception.

I nevertheless find myselfless persuaded by the "history of ideas" that refuses to "liberate" discrete historical moments from a longer chain of intellectual descent. Nirenberg's goal in pressing this line is, I think, to instill a sense of moral responsibility and awareness in us as historical subjects: we are the products of our past, and cannot disclaim or disavow it. But what is the quality of that connection, in the end, between Manetho's anti-Judaism and Marx's? What is "the West" that keeps organically producing this anti-Judaism in such diverse and creative ways, and how do we escape it? Even if I find myself resistant to Nirenberg's larger historiographic scope, nonetheless, I think historians of diverse times and places will find Nirenberg's argument good to think with.


1.   Of the few quibbling mistakes in this section: Although Nirenberg suggests Jews do not appear in the Didache, they are present – as unnamed "hypocrites" – in ch. 8; "Jewish-Christian" not a "native" early Christian term (as suggested on 94) but coined precisely by German theological historians in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; Origen's Hexapla was not a compilation of "six languages" but rather two languages in six columns (108); the Serapeum was torn down in Alexandria, not "Syria" (123). It is also clear in this section how much Nirenberg must rely on secondary sources as guides to the primary literature, as when on p. 501n46 Epiphanius' classic text is called Heresies, cited from the Patrologia Graeca while on p. 502n49 it is the Panarion, cited from the critical Griechischen christlichen Schriftsteller (cited as "GCS" without further spelling out). I should be clear: Nirenberg speaks more learnedly about early Christianity than I could ever hope to about, say, late medieval Spain. These slips and gaps are an expected byproduct of such an enormous intellectual undertaking.

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