‘We hear and we disobey’

Carlos Fraenkel

  • Anti-Judaism: The History of a Way of Thinking by David Nirenberg
    Head of Zeus, 624 pp, £25.00, July 2013, ISBN 978 1 78185 113 5
  • Neighbouring Faiths: Christianity, Islam and Judaism in the Middle Ages and Today by David Nirenberg
    Chicago, 320 pp, £31.50, October 2014, ISBN 978 0 226 16893 7

In scope and ambition David Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism: The History of a Way of Thinking is reminiscent of Edward Said’s Orientalism. Both offer a strident critique of Western civilisation. For Said, the West’s representation of the Orient is an ideological distortion in the service of Western imperialism. The Oriental is the Other against whom the West defines itself and whom it tries to dominate. Nirenberg, by contrast, is concerned with the conflicts and anxieties inside Western civilisation, and comes at this from a surprising vantage point: when Westerners find fault with some aspect of society or culture, he argues, they always disparage it as a Jewish aberration. This pervasive anti-Judaism, Nirenberg believes, often isn’t directed against real Jews, but against Jews of the imagination – the Church Fathers and atheists, revolutionaries and conservatives, capitalists and communists, empiricists and idealists.

According to Nirenberg, people who have a bone to pick or a score to settle accuse their opponents of ‘Judaising’. ‘To Judaise’ here means to display stereotypical features associated with Judaism that the person making the charge holds in contempt. Nirenberg has opened a Pandora’s box from which the evils of the world emerge as ‘figures of Judaism’. These figures, he insists, are not individual prejudices or the deviations of extremists. Although they serve different purposes at different times, they are central to the way Westerners have made sense of themselves and the world. Nirenberg’s picture of the West isn’t any prettier than Said’s, but it is much more complicated: the Jew is the Other within – the punch-bag for everyone involved in the internal struggles of Western civilisation. While one can quibble over the details, the evidence Nirenberg lays out to back up his argument is overwhelming.

More than half of his book is a ghastly parade of Christian anti-Jewish tropes: the carnal Jew, the hypocrite Jew, the vicious Jew and so on. The New Testament lays the foundation, documenting the transformation of Christianity from a Jewish sect into a community in its own right. In part this is a story of disappointed love: Christ comes to save the Jews, but few of them embrace him as saviour. Christian identity therefore comes to be defined against Judaism. Christians blame Jews for being stuck in carnality; that’s the reason they can’t see the spiritual meaning behind the letter of their law which really is an allegory of Christ. Blind to the truth, they deliver the saviour to the cross. Jews childishly expect divine reward for good deeds, unlike Christians, who seek salvation though faith. The piety of the Pharisees epitomises Jewish hypocrisy: they are ‘like whitewashed tombs that look handsome on the outside, but inside are full of the bones of the dead’ (Matthew 23.27). As the rift deepens, so does the anti-Jewish rhetoric, culminating in the gospel of John, which describes the Jews as descendants of the devil and murderers of Christ. To be a Christian means, in an important sense, not being a Jew. As Erasmus put it: ‘If hatred of Jews makes the Christian, then we are all Christian.’ These anti-Jewish themes have been a staple of Western culture from the Church Fathers to modern times. Nirenberg’s main contribution lies in combining this essentially familiar story with an examination of the many ways in which the discourse about Judaism has taken on a life of its own. In the countless conflicts within Christianity, for example, opponents consistently accuse each other of Judaising. Martin Luther’s anti-Jewish invectives were closely tied to his critique of the Catholic Church: practices like the trade in indulgences – as if God’s mercy could be bought – showed the Jewish corruption of a church that valued works more than faith. The Catholics paid Luther back in kind: his case for a literal reading of the Bible, they claimed, revealed the Jew in him who preferred the letter over the spirit. But the language of opprobrium reached far beyond its theological origins. The carnal Jew who pursues earthly goods rather than heavenly ones was invoked to criticise rulers for holding on to worldly power and rebels for trying to snatch it from them. The Jew similarly came to embody greed: from Shakespeare, who in The Merchant of Venice expresses the early modern unease with commercialism, to Marx, who argues that the debate about emancipating Jews is futile in a world in which everyone is a Jew – a worshipper of money. The overthrow of capitalism for Marx is ‘the emancipation of mankind from Judaism’.

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