Deconstructing Anti-Semitism and Eternal Anti-Judaism

Jonathan Judaken on David Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition

anti-judaism - the western tradition
David Nirenberg, Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition, W.W. Norton & Company, 2013, 624 pp., $35.00

David Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism is surely the most important single monograph on the history of representations of Jews and Judaism to appear in the last generation. Written in arresting prose, it is a book of remarkable erudition. Ranging across key texts in Greek and Latin, French, German, and Italian, Nirenberg even engages the Qu’ran in its Arabic original. Set off from his engagingly rendered, but nonetheless innovative interpretations, is a thick set of footnotes that evince the marvel of his scholarly heft. Nirenberg artfully shows how the figural construction of Jews and Judaism wends its way into the master thinkers of the West, especially in the wake of Paul’s Epistles, shaping the hermeneutic, conceptual, and ultimately cognitive habits of the whole Western tradition, with ontological consequences for Jews themselves.

There is, however, arguably nothing new in the larger narrative that unfolds. The doyen in the field of anti-Semitism, Léon Poliakov, originally laid it out. “To write the history of antisemitism,” noted Poliakov, “is to write the history of a persecution that, in the bosom of Western society, was linked with the highest values of this society, for it was pursued in their name.” His History of Anti-Semitism (Volumes I-IV) developed the archive and interrogated the articulators of anti-Judaism, covering the same territory as Nirenberg. The story Poliakov told has since been trumpeted repeatedly by the current dean in the field, Robert Wistrich, whose title, The Longest Hatred, summarizes what is now the dominant metanarrative for those concerned to understand the image of the Jew over the longue durée. In his dismissal of Hannah Arendt in his Epilogue, Nirenberg is not wrong when he says, “she dubbed these approaches ‘Eternal Anti-Semitism’,” which “could serve as an ironic title for my own book.”

Ironic, since Nirenberg’s method of interpretation offers unparalleled nuance; prior readers of this archive were simply not as sophisticated. This is because Nirenberg’s methodology is novel. Despite the fact that he cites critics like Erich Auerbach and Walter Benjamin as inspiration for his approach, Nirenberg has internalized the critical force of deconstruction. He shows in action what deconstruction articulated in theory. Derrida, in some of his autobiographical writings, referenced how anti-Judaism shaped deconstruction. “I sometimes wonder,” he wrote in “Abraham, the Other,” “whether the deciphering of the anti-Semitic symptom, as well the entire system of connotations that indissociably accompanies it, was not the first corpus I learned to interpret, as if I only knew how to read — others would say, how to ‘deconstruct’ — because of having first learned to read, to deconstruct even, anti-Semitism.” When Nirenberg draws his reading of Paul’s Epistles to a conclusion, he states, “He [Paul] arrayed word and meaning against each other in a set of aligned and hierarchically ordered polarities — at times expressed as a ‘table of oppositions’ — explicitly mapped onto the distinction between flesh and spirit.” Nirenberg shows how this “table of oppositions” was reworked again and again over the Western tradition.

As such, Nirenberg’s close reading of the great books of the Western canon is deconstruction at work. Jonathan Culler indicates how this could be the case in an article about the other guru of deconstruction, Paul de Man: “Never has there been so clear a case [as in anti-Semitism] of the deadly functioning of a culturally constructed binary opposition. Deconstruction seeks to undo oppositions that, in the name of unity, purity, order, and hierarchy, try to eliminate difference.” Jean-François Lyotard maintained that in his extensive analysis of “jews” he was addressing the structural and figural construct that has been constitutive for the Greco-Roman-Christian-Enlightenment West. Jews were the West’s repressed Other. Like Lyotard, Nirenberg repeatedly exclaims that he is not speaking about real Jews or Judaism, nor about “anti-Semitism,” but about a replicating set of tropes. He explores in his readings the inter-texts and sub-texts by which Judaism is produced out of the entrails of the acquired modes of interpretation in Western culture, thereby offering an account, in his words, “of the labor done by Judaism in the workshops of Western thought.” As such, he can exclaim at the end of the book that “Anti-Judaism, as have [sic] argued throughout this book, is precisely this: a powerful theoretical framework for making sense of the world.” Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism is powerful. This is because it lucidly deconstructs the classics of Western thought, showing: “The history of all the Western academic disciplines demonstrates how easily critical thought can collude with, rather than corrode, the cognitive claims of anti-Judaism.”

But what are the limits of Nirenberg’s method? Anti-Judaism is an interrogation of what we might term “Jewish Questions”: the questions philosophers, theologians, and scholars asked themselves over the course of the Western tradition, referring to Judaism as the anti-type in their answers. But the book is far less concerned with “Jewish Problems”: how the repeated form of the questions functioned differently in different historical contexts from the ancient world to the rise of Christianity, from the early Church to the foundations of the Islamic world, from Medieval Europe to the Spanish Inquisition, from the Reformation to the rise of Atlantic capitalism in England, from Early Modern and Enlightenment thought to the French Revolution, and into nineteenth-century German philosophy.

Nirenberg does insist that “in each chapter, and for each time and place, I have attempted to understand those sources as they might have been understood within the contexts in which they were produced or circulated. This historicism, as it is sometimes called, is itself a potentially powerful test of our habits of thought.” If historicism entails ranging across the great minds in each era that he discusses, then Nirenberg delivers on this promise. But too rarely does Nirenberg address the social, technological, and economic contexts that shaped why certain recurrent images of Jews and Judaism took hold of the imagination in each epoch. The exceptions to this make for some of the most illuminating sections of the book, like his chapter on the Spanish Inquisition.

Still, what Nirenberg methodologically forbids is what Hannah Arendt insisted upon. He refuses to consider the riskiest element in her call for the historicization of anti-Semitism: the interactions between Jews and the dominant culture of which they were a part. Nirenberg prefers to show how even in many contexts where Jews had been expelled, in Elizabethan England for example, they continued as a perennial reference for the key cultural questions of the day, as in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.

The refusal to indicate how the recurrent images of Jews functioned interactively in these shifting historical frames underpins Nirenberg’s argument regarding anti-Judaism’s continuity. This results in a shadow version of the Whig history he condemns. Nirenberg’s consistent analysis of semantics rather than social formations — the signs of Jewishness rather than institutional forces, the signifiers of Judaization rather than the technologies of their dissemination —  ultimately cannot explain how these webs of meaning were woven around the persecuted bodies of Jews or led to the assault on Jewish communities in different ways at different times. As Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi once explained in comparing the Spanish Inquisition to the Nazi period, the Inquisition was not the Gestapo and “limpieza de sangre” was not yet racism despite their shared lexicon, with its upshot as expulsion, not extermination. 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.

Arendt had an important insight that opened The Origins of Totalitarianism: “Antisemitism, a secular nineteenth-century ideology — which in name, though not in argument, was unknown before the 1870’s — and religious Jew-hatred, inspired by the mutually hostile antagonism of two conflicting creeds, are obviously not the same.” As Nirenberg shows, she was wrong in the line that followed: “[E]ven the extent to which the former derives its arguments and emotional appeal from the latter is open to question.”

To understand anti-Jewish discourse anew, we need to appreciate discontinuities as attentively as their recurrence, which requires attention to how ideas were put into practice on the ground. Nirenberg makes evident how the reprocessing of the negative construction of Jews and Judaism poisons the wellspring of the Western tradition. But the story of eternal anti-Judaism he tells itself risks recycling a favorite leitmotif of anti-Semites that Arendt pointed out: if everywhere Jews were hated, there must be something in the Jewish character that produces this contempt. Perhaps more dangerous in the present context, the eternal anti-Semitism narrative reinforces what Poliakov called the “sacrificial lamb complex,” positioning Jews as perennial victims. This, Poliakov indicated “corresponds to a wish to identify with the dominant society,” which was, after all, “that of the executioner.”

[Image: Israel’s Department Store in Berlin on April 1, 1933 at the start of the Nazi boycott of Jewish-owned businesses. These are members of the SA (Sturmabteilung) holding placards that say: “Germans defend yourselves! Don’t buy from Jews.” (“Deutsche! Wehrt Euch! Kauft nicht bei Juden!”). Via Wikimedia Commons.]

Also Recommended from MRB: