Like a Jew: Anti-Judaism in Early Islam and Medieval Iberia

Jonathan P. Decter 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

Prior to Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition, David Nirenberg was best known for his impressive study Communities of Violence: Persecution of Minorities in the Middle Ages, a work that is at once an exemplary piece of archival research and a theoretically sophisticated meditation on the historian’s craft. Nirenberg took issue with some of the commonplace tropes of the field — such as the image of medieval Iberia as an inter-religious convivencia of nearly utopian proportions — and championed localized studies rather than teleologically-driven treatments of minority persecution over the longue durée. He was wary of historians acting as “geologists” and set out to refute the belief that “we can best understand intolerance by stressing the fundamental continuity between collective systems of thought across historical time […].” Nirenberg was able to show, for example, that a critique of monarchy, more than an unwavering and “irrational” animus toward Jews, drove anti-Jewish violence during the Shepherds’ Crusade of the 1320s.

All this may have made Nirenberg an unlikely candidate to write Anti-Judaism, a work whose scope spans an extraordinary array of periods (ancient Egypt, Late Antiquity, early Islam, the medieval, early-modern, and modern Christian/Western worlds) and subjects (art, theology, literature, law, and philosophy). How does the author maintain an argument for treating his subject over the longue durée while deflecting his own criticisms that insist on understanding the local context and emphasizing the irreducibility of persecutory phenomena that, at first glance, seem similar? The answer is twofold. First, this project might be considered a series of localized studies (though usually not of an archival nature) tied together loosely by a motif: the “work” performed by Judaism — with valences of carnality and literality — as the antithetical pole of spirituality and figural reading, allowing for a cognitive structure to interpret the world.  Second, the book aims to be expansive but not over-determined by teleology, as though a simple path could be drawn from the Gospels to the Holocaust (though the author does concede that there might be some relationship beyond our abilities of discernment). The predominance of intellectual history over anti-Jewish events might surprise many readers; to take one example, the word “Holocaust” appears only one more time than the word “Ebionites” in the index. To be sure, the events are in there — massacres, expulsions, trials, burnings — but the weight of the book falls on theories of language, poetics, politics, and aesthetics.

As a piece of historical writing, Anti-Judaism, in its pursuit of (even minimal) continuity, utilizes a device I recognize from musical composition whereby thematic material is introduced early in a piece in an undeveloped or fragmentary form, only later to emerge with full force and clarity. Thus, toward the end of the chapter on the “Early Church,” the two sides of the Augustinian paradox — persecution and protection — are shown to play out simultaneously in the mid-twelfth century. A brilliant reading of Shakespeare’s Richard II comes at the end of the chapter on medieval Europe, tipping toward what is to follow three chapters later. And in reverse: the condemnations of Jewish hypocrisy in early Islamic sources hark back to those of the Pharisees in the New Testament. Such moments, of course, provide important signposts for the reader but also tie in to the book’s central argument about the existence of a “tradition,” something given, handed down.

The process of “handing down” seems to obtain in history itself. The political status of the Jew in medieval Europe, according to Nirenberg, as a “slave (Latin servus) … is very close to the theological status of the Jew as [Augustine’s] illiterate ‘living letter.’”  And the concept of the Jew as “slave” is Janus-faced, for here we have the “faint precursor of a political argument emerging,” namely that the Jew’s status is distinct from that of his Christian counterpart in the republic. Such threads are requisite for justifying a “Western Tradition” wherein anti-Judaism performed textually related yet diverse functions over time and space, whether Jews existed in the flesh or as a constructed phantasm.

Yet 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.”  This is undoubtedly true, and Nirenberg adds that the “prooftexts” for Islamic explanations of “the world’s struggles in ‘Jewish’ terms” pre-exist (in potential) their modern evocation (in actuality).

It should be apparent from this forum that it takes a team of scholars to mount a meaningful evaluation of Anti-Judaism — either in its parts or in its whole. It should also be obvious that the project of Anti-Judaism requires standing on the shoulders of giants (and also those of scholars of normal stature); yet Nirenberg proves himself to be not only a scholar conversant with the various fields engaged but also a scholar of those fields, or at least most of them. He impressively cuts through vast areas of debate and enters those parts that have direct bearing on his argument, but he does not drown the reader in oceans of disagreement. From my perspective as a specialist in Jewish culture in the medieval Islamic and Christian worlds, Nirenberg effectively maneuvers through such minefields as the nearly irrecoverable history of early Islam, the relationship of early Islamic materials to biblical and extra-biblical narratives, explications of Jews as servi (serfs, slaves, or servants) of the king, the origins of the blood libel, and whether or not “New Christians” in fifteenth-century Iberia were really crypto-Jews.

The first Islamic century is notoriously difficult to reconstruct due to the relatively late date of accounts of Muhammad’s life and sayings as well other traditional histories. Although the Qur’an is one of the more authentic sources from the period of Muhammad’s career, it is difficult to use because of its non-chronological and allusive presentation. One’s reading of events depends to a great extent on how one reconstructs the order and context of Qur’anic passages, an immense topic in traditional Islamic and Western scholarship. Nirenberg has done a fine job of jumping into the contentious scholarship on early Islam, including the recent history by Fred Donner, Muhammad and the Believers, which argues that Muhammad’s nascent community of followers — the “Believers” — did not observe fixed boundaries among Muslims, Jews, and others. Thus, as Nirenberg puts it, one might speak of a “Jewish Believer” just as one might speak of a “Jewish Christian” in the first Christian decades. At the same time, Nirenberg surveys the anti-Jewish tropes of the Qur’an and finds continuities with figures from the New Testament (Jews as prophet killers, hypocrites, etc.). Is there compatibility between Donner’s thesis and the anti-Jewish polemic of the Qur’an? If Jews make up part of the early Islamic community, does their presence not limit the reading of the Qur’an as anti-Jewish? Nirenberg’s way out of all this is to argue that the Qur’an deals largely with “timeless” Jews built out of earlier scriptural constructions and that the representations of Muhammad’s contemporary Jews follow this structural usage.

A further claim, more tendentious in my view, is that the Qur’an reveals a familiarity with Augustine’s notion of “included exclusion” in the foundational passage for the continued, protected, but humiliated status of Jews (and Christians) under Islam. Qur’an 9:29 enjoins Believers to fight against (at least certain) People of the Book unless they pay a specific tax (jizya) “with due submission” (or, most literally, “while they are small”). The passage and Augustine’s formulae do share a certain paradox, though such tensions are at the base of countless legal and theological principles. The verse’s call for dhimmi submission, humiliation, or smallness is probably meant to mirror the religious hierarchy, though it arguably pertains to the moment and mode of tax payment. Inclusion itself is not meant as a constant reminder of supercessionist theology, and the pairing of Jews and Christians seems to limit our ability to find a paradigm akin to Augustine’s “living letters.” The chapter on Islam goes on to consider the first biography of Muhammad, which Nirenberg identifies accurately as a “history of the founding of Islam.” He insightfully argues that in “each conflict with the Jews, a different aspect of the early Islamic ‘state’ articulates and solidifies itself.” Thus, Jews again perform “work” in Western thought, here serving as a counterpoint to Islamic political self-definition.

The last century of non-converted Jewish life in Spain has also been the focus of vast attention. Were the riots of 1391 that left perhaps a third of the Jewish population converted to Christianity motivated by religious hatred or more mundane concerns? Angus Mackay argued that scholars should not be “hypnotized” by the riots’ anti-Jewish character. Nirenberg, in contrast, sees the cries during the riot to “convert or die” as emblematic of a “vision of a Christian society freed from its Jews.” This was not the anti-Jewish violence of the Shepherds’ Crusade. Ultimately, Nirenberg invokes, at least in the chapter title, the  “Extinction” of Spain’s Jews (less sinister than “Extermination,” darker than “Conversion and Expulsion”). Benzion Netanyahu, in a book that his son, the current prime minister of Israel, just gave the Pope as a “gift,” famously argued that charges of Judaizing served as an “insidious pretext” for persecuting Iberians who were racially Jewish. For Nirenberg, though the inquisitors were “ever on the lookout” for Judaizers, the numbers of those tried stood at a modest ten percent. Were those tried truly following Jewish customs as their confessions often admit? Perhaps, but even some of the attested practices cannot be described as “exclusively, or even obviously, ‘Jewish.’” Thus, some “Natural Christians” might have engaged in the same activities, but their genealogy protected them from accusation. Nirenberg argues that the Inquisition had the effect of magnifying the charge of Judaizing such that it became increasingly predicable of non-Jews; the “Jewishness” of Spain was thus produced through inquisitorial methodologies. Within the span of a few pages, Nirenberg steers through treacherous waters and brings the reader back on course to the argument of the book.


If I could choose a title phrase to stand before a colon, after which Anti-Judaism would follow, it would be Like a Jew (or better, Like a Jewe). The book is in many ways an unpacking of this single simile, not only what it meant at different historical moments but also how it meant, what systems of thought were preconditions for the simile to sound, and how the simile worked as a paradigm of thought in itself.

One area in which I would like to have seen deeper development is what we might call “missing thirds.” Can we fully appreciate the simile “like a Jew” without understanding “like a Christian” in Islamdom, or “like a Muslim” in Christendom (whether or not there were real Muslims present)? For example, on the subject of divine sovereignty versus worldly tyranny, we find the charge of having “gone Christian” leveled against an Umayyad prince of al-Andalus who wore, at the urging of his Visigothic wife, a crown rather than a turban. Though the turban, worn traditionally by Caliphs, was known proverbially as the “crown of the Arabs,” an actual crown signified mundane power and human haughtiness. In such an anecdote, do we not have a formulation of corrupt rule in Christian terms that could serve just as nicely as Judaizing sovereignty (albeit in a different manner)? (Note here also the conflation of love for the religious Other with the contamination of sovereignty, a theme Nirenberg picks up in connection with Alfonso VIII, storied to have had a Jewish mistress and who was actually served by the Jewish courtier Ibrahim Ibn al-Fakhar). And while Nirenberg notes that in late-medieval Christian Spain Muslims were “sometimes included with Jews in the rhetoric of sermons and edicts, but almost never in their implementation,” I would urge that this warrants greater scrutiny, especially insofar as Anti-Judaism is concerned with structures of thought more than the enactment of policy.

In the “epilogue,” Nirenberg mulls over the interplay between past and present and between thought paradigms and events — “some aspect of the past may contribute to the possibility of (or be realized in) a given future, and that conversely we can gain some sense of the possibilities of our present by thinking critically about our past.” The great literary critic Eric Auerbach presages his conclusions: “a word may grow into a historical situation and give rise to structures that will be effective for many centuries.” Maybe the word really does become flesh. Or is this another paradigm of thought, an ontology, at least as powerful in the Western imagination as that of anti-Judaism? Many authors, upon realizing that we cannot think about the past in paradigms other than those we receive from the very past we seek to describe, would either claim some aporetic transcendence or simply succumb to paralysis, unable to write the first words on page one. Thankfully, in Nirenberg we have an author who can think, and does think, deeply, about the past and what it is we do when we write about it.

Finally, Nirenberg is keenly aware of scholars sitting in their places and times (e.g., Auerbach in Istanbul, 1938) and knows that he too is not immune to the contingencies of a moment when the world looks back to European Jewry’s near annihilation, just half a century ago, and speculates about a possible future, a future about which he is not particularly optimistic. Perhaps there will be (or is) some thought structure built upon, or out of, the paradigms of anti-Judaisms past, one that is both historically circumscribed but also a part of the Western tradition.

[Featured image: 1683 painting by Francisco Rizi depicting the auto-da-fé held in Plaza Mayor, Madrid in 1680. Via Wikimedia Commons.]

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