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.
Getty Images
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.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 2)

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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.