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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In support of his argument, Nirenberg not only reads Luther brilliantly, but also cites evidence that in Luther’s time, German Jews were quite rare. Thus, it seems unlikely that Luther’s late-life polemics against Jewish attempts to convert Christians responded to actual Jewish activity. Rather, Nirenberg suggests, these tracts reflect Luther’s war with increasingly radical Protestant sects, who took sola scriptura and anti-hierarchal reform further than he did. Even as he labeled Catholic opponents “Jewish” for insisting on the importance of external reason, Luther criticized the radicals for their “Jewish” over-literalism. Just like Jews, Luther argued, the radical failed to transcend the letter of the law for Christ, the spirit.

“Judaism,” in other words, did not refer to real Jews. Rather, it stood for undesirable religious possibilities, deviant methods of reading scripture and heretical philosophies.

Though Nirenberg is arguably at his best on Luther, “Anti-Judaism” contains many gems. The analysis of Luther resonates with earlier themes in the book; for example, the contortions through which church fathers used Judaism to attack each other and delimit the boundaries of Christianity. The same Christian polarities — truth and error, love and justice — recur not only in medieval European politics (and, surprisingly, in the Quran), but also in Enlightenment philosophy. Both French revolutionary philosophies and the 19th-century German idealists employed, perhaps unthinkingly, inherited patterns of thought. Whether they were attacking religion or Kant, they always used Judaism to frame their quarrel.

Though “Anti-Judaism” weaves together millennia of history into one story, Nirenberg resists the urge to mystify, instead consistently qualifying, limiting and clarifying his argument. He cannot, he admits, explain the causes of any particular outbreak of anti-Semitism, just habits of thought that make these outbreaks possible. Disappointingly, though his epilogue alludes to widespread, often hysterical anti-Zionism in the Muslim world, he does not tackle the present directly. This is understandable, and not just because the present is a political quagmire. The basic premise of “Anti-Judaism,” that anti-Judaism responds less to Jews than to (useful) gentile concepts of “Judaism,” largely describes a world of Jewish weakness. Jews, like many other oppressed groups, barely influenced how they were represented. Zionism promised to return — and did in fact return — Jews to the historical stage as actors.

Indeed, today, in both Israel and America, Jews not only wield great power; we also, increasingly, are responsible for our society’s representations (both good and bad) of Jews and Judaism. Americans debate Israel today, it seems, through the frames of Alan Dershowitz and Judith Butler; we learn about the relation between Jesus and the Hebrew Bible from Daniel Boyarin and Shmuley Boteach. Surely Shapiro and Katznelson resorted to the supernatural in part because they were powerless. Just as myths explain the inexplicable, they tame the uncontrollable. After Nirenberg’s levelheaded, careful examination of anti-Jewish stigma over a history of Jewish weakness, we now need the more difficult work — an analysis of the same forces and ideas in an age of Jewish power.

Raphael Magarik is finishing a Dorot Fellowship in Israel and starting a doctorate in English at Berkeley.


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