David Nirenberg Traces The Long, Bewildering History of Anti-Semitism

Study Encompasses Shakespeare, Luther, and Marx

Quality of Mercilessness: In his study of anti-semitism, David Nirenberg considers Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice.” The titular character, as played by John Gielgud, is shown here.
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Quality of Mercilessness: In his study of anti-semitism, David Nirenberg considers Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice.” The titular character, as played by John Gielgud, is shown here.

By Raphael Magarik

Published June 11, 2013, issue of June 14, 2013.
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● Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition
By David Nirenberg
W.W. Norton & Company, 624 pages, $35

Anti-Semitism’s eternal recurrence is so puzzling that it can invite mystification. Even the secularist Yiddish poet Yitzchak Katznelson, grappling with the Nazi extermination of European Jewry, resorted to religious myth. In his “Song of the Murdered Jewish People” (completed shortly before he was deported to Auschwitz, where he later died), he writes of a “tale that began with Amalek and concluded with the far crueler Germans.” Similarly, Lamed Shapiro, a great Yiddish chronicler of pogroms, once wrote of Jewish victims’ cries “as eternal as the Eternal God.” Shapiro and Katznelson may have needed religious language just to register their horror, but they were responding to a real enigma: Why anti-Semitism? The sheer variety — of people who have hated Jews, of the places and times in which they have done so, and of the implausible reasons they have given for their dislike — defies explanation.

In his magisterial “Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition,” David Nirenberg considers a bewildering range of cases, starting with ancient Egypt and running through 20th-century Europe, encompassing literary criticism of “The Merchant of Venice,” medieval political theory, the talmudic allusions in the Quran and Nazi mathematics. This is heady stuff. Nirenberg has written an old-fashioned intellectual history, and though he is sensitive to historical context, the book’s core is his careful reading of the works of such thinkers as Augustine, Voltaire, Martin Luther and Marx.

Through these readings, Nirenberg develops his central argument, which is that anti-Judaism frequently reflected not the presence and activities of real, living Jews, but the importance of “Judaism” as a concept in a broader structure of ideas. Using Marx’s pivotal essay, “On the Jewish Question,” as a framing device, Nirenberg argues that Christian, Muslim and secular Western societies produce the idea of “Judaism,” in Marx’s phrase, “out of their own entrails” — that is, to express the unpleasant corollaries of their cultural ideals, satisfy the needs of conceptual systems and think through important abstract binaries.

If this theory sounds hifalutin, one small example will help to make it more concrete: take Luther. In early writings, the great German Reformation leader expressed sympathy toward Jews, writing famously, “If I had been a Jew and had seen such dolts and blockheads govern and teach the Christian faith, I would sooner have become a hog than a Christian.” Luther apparently believed that a better church could convert the Jews. According to the traditional account, once he saw for himself the Jews’ recalcitrance (and their attempts to convert German Christians), he turned against them; his 1543 “On the Jews and Their Lies” calls Jews a “base, whoring people.” This interpretation sees Luther’s shifting attitudes as stemming from his observations of and experiences with real Jews.

Nirenberg places Luther’s attitudes in the context of his broader Protestant theology and biblical interpretation. Luther, like other reformers, stressed the principle of sola scriptura — that is, that salvation requires just reading of the Bible, not the exercise of external human reason. Sola scriptura, Nirenberg claims, created Jews “out of its entrails.” Because Luther rejected traditional Catholic readings of biblical passages as allegory, he used the idea of forced, external rabbinic interpretation rhetorically, to paint his opponents as poor, “Jewish” readers. In this context, his suggestion that Christians have mistreated Jews, who might convert if the church were better, does not reflect sympathy for real Jews. Rather, Luther was criticizing Catholicism, which — he suggested — was hardly better than full-fledged “Judaism.”


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