‘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’.

It may seem odd to include a chapter on Islam in a history of Western anti-Judaism. It makes sense, however, since Islam’s attitude to Judaism shares important features with Christianity’s, draws on Christian materials, and gives rise to figures of Judaism that are similarly detached from real Jews. Here, too, the story is one of disappointed love. In his fight against paganism, Muhammad expected Jews and Christians in seventh-century Arabia to be his natural allies. After all, he claimed to inherit the tradition of Hebrew and Christian prophecy (Islam considers Jesus an important prophet, but not the son of God). When they refused to recognise his prophetic mission, however, he turned against them, and more bitterly against the Jews than the Christians. Nirenberg illustrates this relation of proximity and rupture by quoting a Quranic verse: ‘And remember We took your Covenant and We raised above you [the towering height] of Mount [Sinai], saying: “Hold firmly to what we have given you, and hearken [to the Law].” They said: “We hear and we disobey.”’

The Quran’s intimate acquaintance with the language and motifs of the Bible and rabbinic literature is clear here. It refers to Mount Sinai in Aramaic (tur) and reworks a story from the Babylonian Talmud in which the rabbis wonder how much obedience is worth if God secures it by threatening to crush his people under a mountain. The Quran, by contrast, highlights the stubborn refusal of the Jews to submit to God. Even when a mountain is dangling over their heads they say, ‘We hear and we disobey,’ alluding to, and subverting, the assurance they give to God in Deuteronomy: ‘We hear and we obey.’ Nirenberg lists many passages in which the Quran casts Jews as disobedient, unfaithful, hypocritical and so on. The Jews oppose Muhammad, just as they opposed Jesus and their own prophets. In this way Muhammad can claim to be the heir of Abraham, Moses and Jesus.

The early Islamic tradition collected the deeds and teachings attributed to Muhammad in order to construct a biography of the prophet that would serve as a model of piety to his followers. This is the Sunnah, the second foundation of Islam after the Quran. Here, too, Jews played a pivotal role, as Nirenberg shows: Muhammad asserted his religious and political authority by overcoming Jewish enemies who exemplified the impious life the faithful must avoid. Later, when theological and political strife reached Islam, Muslims, like Christians in late antiquity, accused one another of Judaising. Every Muslim heresy, Nirenberg contends, was traced back at one time or another to a Jewish troublemaker by its opponents. All this provides evidence for one of the more controversial claims in his book: that anti-Judaism was ‘every bit as important in shaping Islamic ideas’ as it ‘had been for the early Christians’. Nirenberg knows, of course, that, unlike in Christian Europe, anti-Judaism did not become a dominant theme in the Islamic world and was rarely translated into persecution. He thinks, however, that Muslim anti-Judaism is just as vicious as its Christian counterpart. I am not convinced he is right. True, Jewish life under Islam wasn’t as straightforward as it is sometimes made out to be. But most of the time Jews were protected by a stable legal framework based on Quran 9.29: ‘Fight against those who do not … practise the true religion from among the People of the Book, until they pay the poll tax [jizya] from their hand with due submission.’ As long as Jews acknowledged their subordinate status by paying the jizya and keeping a low profile, they were by and large free to run their communal affairs and take part in the cultural, economic and even political life of the Islamic world.

Contemporary Muslim anti-Judaism is ubiquitous and often fantastic: Jews are seen to be pulling the strings of everything Muslims consider bad (a taxi driver in Istanbul recently told me that Jewish billionaires were not only paying Turkish youths to demonstrate in Taksim Gezi Park, but providing cheeseburgers for lunch). Their views, however, seem to draw more on European anti-Semitism and conspiracy theories than on the portrayal of Jews in the Quran and the Sunnah. A couple of years ago I lectured in Indonesia and visited several bookstores where I found a wide range of old and new anti-Semitic literature in Indonesian translation, prominently placed on each bookshop’s central display table. The books included Mein Kampf, a history of the Waffen-SS, an abridged version of Henry Ford’s The International Jew (with a free brochure of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion), and a book called Holocaust: Fact or Fiction? This is certainly disturbing, but there may be a silver lining: anti-Judaism among Muslims today appears to be based largely on non-Muslim sources. Yet even if anti-Judaism in its rabid form was absent from the pre-modern Islamic world for more substantive reasons than Nirenberg allows, his key thesis remains convincing: enmity towards the Jews significantly shaped Muslim identity during the emergence of Islam.

In the light of this account of Christian and Muslim attitudes to Judaism, it’s no surprise that Nirenberg’s new book, Neighbouring Faiths: Christianity, Islam and Judaism in the Middle Ages and Today, isn’t a feel-good story about how we can all get along. The identities of Jews, Christians and Muslims, he argues, are fundamentally enmeshed: how one group thinks about itself cannot be separated from how it thinks about the others. Central to this ‘co-production’, as Nirenberg calls it, is a ‘process of simultaneous identification and dis-identification’: neither Christianity nor Islam can completely cut its ties to Judaism despite their deep hostility towards it. Christ, for example, claims to fulfil the Hebrew prophecies and to renew God’s covenant with man. So the Jewish revelation, while superseded, is authentic. For Augustine, this was a reason not to slaughter the Jews. Although as enemies of God they had no right to exist, they bore witness to the truth of the prophetic texts. And their misery was living proof that God had replaced the old covenant with a new one. In this way the Jews are useful signs, even though they ignore what they signify: they are ‘like milestones along the route’ that ‘inform the traveller, while they themselves remain senseless’. As far as Christian ‘identification’ with Judaism goes, that’s as good as it gets. A similar tension defines Islam’s relation to Judaism and Christianity. A pattern emerges: the younger religions accept earlier revelations as authentic, but deny that their adherents are legitimate custodians. The older religions flatly dismiss all new revelations as fakes.

Most of Nirenberg’s new book consists of case studies showing how this dynamic played out in different social and political settings in the Middle Ages. One chapter examines the Christian representation of Islam. It starts as a theological challenge: Islam’s resounding success – including the swift conquest of Jerusalem, Christianity’s holiest site – raises the question whether God has made a new covenant that supersedes Christianity. The answer Christians settle on is that Islam is a false religion and a carnal one at that, characterised by lust and violence. Its success is either God’s punishment for Christian sins or the beginning of the apocalyptic war between good and evil. Throughout the Middle Ages, Nirenberg contends, this picture changed little. Whatever Christians learned about Islam, they fitted into a fixed theological frame. At the same time, this picture was used for different purposes. Anti-Muslim rhetoric, for example, increased among Christians just as the military threat of Islam began to fade. To account for this seeming paradox, Nirenberg points to shifts within Christianity itself: the recourse to a common enemy helped to unite and pacify Christian Europe and to consolidate political institutions such as the papacy.

Nirenberg is particularly interested in how ideas influence and are influenced by the social and political contexts. Tales about the Jewish mistresses of Christian rulers, for example, show how political theology is used to back up claims to power. If the king has succumbed to a Jewish mistress, rebelling against him helps restore good order under the rule of Christian men. As enemies of God, Jews have no right to live, but as long as the king needs them to implement his policies, they are under his protection. Killing Jews thus becomes an emblematic way of contesting the king’s sovereignty and expressing discontent with his rule. In Valencia in 1391 the massacre was presented as the execution of God’s will: divine power trumps the king’s power, which had been corrupted by the Jews.

This combination of intellectual with social and political history characterises Nirenberg’s understanding of the way history works. He isn’t a Hegelian who thinks that ideas alone drive history, or a Marxist who thinks that ideas are a by-product of socio-economic conditions. The Holocaust, for example, can’t be explained in terms of Western anti-Judaism alone. But we can’t ignore the deep-seated ‘habits of thought’ which allowed modern anti-Semitism to make so much sense to so many.

Nirenberg insists that his book isn’t just a historical exercise, but that it contributes to his readers’ ‘critical awareness’ and will, in turn, influence ‘how we act in the world’. So how do the book’s historical project and its political agenda hang together? According to one widely held view, the West’s conflict with Islam is fuelled by religious and cultural differences, and not, like the Cold War, by political and economic rivalry. It’s also said that there’s a shift taking place in the sociology of religion. Sociologists like Max Weber had predicted the world’s gradual secularisation: the better we learn to explain the world scientifically and control it technologically, he argued, the less we need to rely on God, priests, miracles and the like. But God, priests and miracles have proved resilient, leading to claims that we now live in a ‘post-secular’ age. So, Judaism, Christianity and Islam are here to stay and we can’t take it for granted that they’ll treat one another well. With this in mind we can see more clearly why Nirenberg wants Jews, Christians and Muslims to adopt a critical attitude to their own religions. Too often they conceive their own faiths as stable and capable of tolerance instead of seeing them for what they are: changing through history, shaped by polemics and often deeply intolerant.

Religious apologists like to stress the tolerance of their own religion. This was a common defence of Christianity made by those who support David Cameron’s assertions that Britain is a Christian nation and that Christians shouldn’t be shy to stand up for their faith. But if Jews in the Christian West can for the most part live without fear, it’s not Christianity they should be thankful to. Rather, the moral shock of the Holocaust put anti-Judaism – and xenophobia more generally – out of fashion. At the end of Anti-Judaism, Nirenberg expresses concerns about the ‘future’s dangers’ without specifying them. In part, I think, he isn’t quite sure that the anti-Jewish ideas he’s written about are really dead. If we congratulate ourselves on how tolerant the West has always been, such ideas may well come back to haunt us. Nirenberg illustrates how deeply entrenched anti-Jewish attitudes are through the case of Hannah Arendt. A Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany herself, she seems an unlikely example. Yet she insisted that Jews were ‘co-responsible’ for anti-Semitism because of their outsized share in capitalist exploitation, drawing on statistics that, as Nirenberg shows, often came ‘from work produced by Nazi economists in support of party propaganda’.

Muslims argue that true tolerance can be found only in Islam. Nirenberg quotes a passage from the Hamas Charter of 1988 which holds that Palestine should become a Muslim country because only ‘under the wing of Islam’ can Muslims, Christians and Jews ‘coexist in peace’. For Nirenberg, this benign picture of Islam, like that of Christianity, is a fantasy. That it is rooted partly in what Jews have had to say about Islam is an irony not lost on him. By insisting on how good the conditions for Jews were in Muslim lands, Jewish intellectuals from the Enlightenment onwards intended to put the anti-Semitism of supposedly civilised Europe to shame. In the 20th century, Muslim scholars picked up this narrative and gave it an anti-Zionist twist: if Muslims had treated Jews so well, why should they pay for the crimes committed against Jews in Christian Europe?

If Nirenberg is right that ideas matter, especially once they harden into what he calls ‘habits of thought’, our concern about future relations between Jews, Christians and Muslims should make us study the ideas they had about themselves and one another in the past. But there’s another way in which historical scholarship and contemporary worries intersect in Neighbouring Faiths. The view that geopolitical conflict is driven by cultural and religious difference has led to intense public interest in how the Judeo-Christian West and Islam get along. One camp argues that irreconcilable divisions separate them or, worse, lead them to clash. The other claims that we can’t meaningfully separate them because of their many shared religious and intellectual traditions. Both sides dig up examples to buttress their case, cherry-picking from a complicated history of commonalities, differences and conflict. Pope Benedict set Christian Europe against Islam in his Regensburg lecture of 2006: Europe’s cultural foundation, he argued, is the successful union of Hebrew faith and Greek reason embodied in the Catholic Church. This union enables Europeans to engage in a rational dialogue with others – to argue for Christianity rather than imposing it by the sword. Islam, by contrast, is all faith, but no reason. To support his claim the pope quoted a single Muslim source and a medieval Christian polemic. Shutting out Islam from civilised conversation (incidentally, Benedict opposed the inclusion of Turkey in the EU) smacks of the Orientalism that justified the Western colonial enterprise. Many scholars came to the rescue of Islam: not only did Muslims embrace reason, they argued, but Greek philosophy reached the Teutonic tribes in Europe through Islam. Indeed, some scholars claim that medieval Europe would have been better off if the Muslims had won the Battle of Tours in 732 and brought the tolerant culture and the scientific and literary achievements of Muslim Spain to the heart of Europe. Both sides in the ideological battle, Nirenberg stresses, use the same cultural norm either to exclude Islam from or include it in some ahistorical category of civilisation.

Can Jews, Christians and Muslims embrace their religions, including their unpalatable aspects, and still hope for better neighbourly relations? Nirenberg seems cautiously optimistic. Being mindful of the past doesn’t mean being imprisoned by it. The Hebrew Bible, the New Testament and the Quran don’t offer clear guidance on how to respond to other religions. As Nirenberg writes, they can ‘sustain any number’ of interpretations, ‘ranging from love and toleration to total extermination’. The New Testament, for example, commands that one loves one’s neighbour, strangers and even the enemy. But Christ also says: ‘As for my enemies who don’t want me as their king, bring them here and slaughter them before me’ (Luke 19.27). Even the commandment to love has been interpreted in novel ways: medieval theologians described crusading as an act of love towards the Muslim enemy who was better off dead than living in mortal sin. By reconstructing the contingent circumstances – intellectual, social and political – that gave rise to such interpretations historians can make room for new interpretations that aren’t just escapist fantasies, but serious alternatives to old habits of thought.