Why Literally Everyone in the World Hates the Jews, and What To Do About It
Two new scholarly books show how even the most neutral academic can feel bound to answer anti-Semites’ demonic vigor in kind
Most of Nirenberg’s instances of anti-Judaism are depressingly familiar. We are told for centuries on end that Jews care only for the letter of the law, that they cling to ritual observance but ignore the spirit and are therefore against life. (The irony is that the Hebrew prophets themselves battled against mere empty ritual and for true service to God.) When Romantic philosophers look down on mere reason, it too becomes Jewish, the opposite of living, breathing thought. Nirenberg refers to “the work done by figures of Judaism” in the Christian and Muslim traditions and in post-Enlightenment philosophy as well—but the “work” he describes is almost always a caricature of thought rather than real thinking.
The instances Nirenberg selects have little or nothing to do with any real Jewish tradition, as he himself concedes. But if Christians and Muslims exclude actual Jews so completely, if anti-Judaism is as monolithic as Nirenberg says it is, then Jewishness really is utterly isolated—and it becomes hard to explain how the Talmud influenced European law and political theory so profoundly, or how the Exodus story became a beacon for so many revolutionary movements in Europe and the Americas. If all the non-Jewish world knows is a faded, inaccurate cartoon version of the Jew, then Judaism’s claims to be an (or the) origin of Western religion and ethics is untrue. Unless this is a case of anxiety of influence: The more indebted Christianity and Islam are to Judaism, the more they turn against their Jewish sources. Nirenberg’s chosen angle means that he fails to reveal any significant interplay between Jewish and non-Jewish thinkers, letting us believe that real-life Judaism (which, he implies, lies beyond the boundary of his subject) must inhabit its own dark planet, lightyears away from the galaxies of the Gentiles.
Unlike Goldhagen, Nirenberg ultimately has little interest in seeing behind every anti-Jewish snub a reminder of genocide. Yet he too knows only too well that anti-Jewish violence is always a possibility. Nirenberg chillingly remarks that “we live in an age in which millions of people are exposed daily to some variant of the argument that the challenges of the world they live in are best explained in terms of ‘Israel.’ ” Although there are bright spots in Islamic-Jewish relations, there is also a pervading darkness that cannot be ignored: Anti-Semitism is something like a majority view in more than a few Muslim countries. An overwhelming consensus about the evil influence of Jews, if combined with sufficient military power, would be just as dangerous today as it was in the 1930s.
The choice between Goldhagen-style polemics and Nirenberg’s scholarly coolness has a turbulent recent past in the academic study of anti-Semitism. The Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Anti-Semitism was abruptly ended by the Yale administration in 2011. The director of the institute, Charles Small, had little connection to the Yale community, and he saw himself as a political advocate as well as a scholar, frequently issuing topical policy statements on the Iranian threat to Israel. In their comments on the fracas at Yale, renowned scholars of anti-Semitism like Deborah Lipstadt and Robert Wistrich lined up against Small. “What happened in the past [at Yale] was a mess,” Alvin Rosenfeld, director of Indiana University’s Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism and editor of a new anthology, Resurgent Antisemitism: Global Perspectives, remarked to me in a recent interview.
Within a few weeks of the controversy, Yale replaced the defunct YIISA with the Yale Program for the Study of Antisemitism, which is headed by a professor of French, Maurice Samuels. In an interview, Samuels said, “About half of our program is dedicated to historical forms of anti-Semitism, including Nazism, and about half is dedicated to contemporary forms.” By contrast, Small’s institute was almost completely devoted to current anti-Semitism, especially in the Muslim world. This November, the Yale program will host a panel on Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism.
There are now at least a half-dozen academic programs devoted to the study of anti-Semitism: In addition to the ones at Indiana, Yale, and Tel Aviv, Hebrew University has the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism, headed by Wistrich. There is also a program at Berlin’s Technische Universität, and London’s Birkbeck College, part of the University of London, houses the Pears Institute for the Study of Anti-Semitism. The programs in Berlin and London combine their focus on anti-Semitism with an interest in other kinds of racism, including current anti-immigrant violence in Europe. The Pears Institute’s homepage announces that “we set anti-Semitism within a wider context,” seeing it “as part of the broader phenomenon of religious and racial intolerance.” Scott Ury, director of Tel Aviv University’s Roth Institute for the Study of Anti-Semitism and Racism, noted in an email that “the most difficult challenge facing the scholar of anti-Semitism is overcoming the inescapable present,” given the fact that anti-Semitism is such a constant topic of conversation among Jews around the world, and a political football for Israeli (and other) politicians. Ury wrote that “We end up asking ourselves: are we allowing our personal opinions and experiences to color our research on anti-Semitism?”
At both TU and Birkbeck, Alvin Rosenfeld told me, “anti-Semitism is subsumed under a larger category of prejudice, bias, and racism. That’s partly right, but if you stop there you’ll never really understand it.” This is another large divide among scholars of anti-Semitism: Should this hatred be seen alongside others, or is there a danger of missing what’s distinctive about anti-Semitism when it’s treated as one bias among many? “People who dislike Jews rarely dislike only Jews,” David Feldman, director of the Pears Institute, wrote. This June, the Pears Institute hosted an aggressively comparative conference, “Boycotts: Past and Present.” The conference ranged widely, from anti-Jewish boycotts in 19th- and 20th-century Europe to the boycott of apartheid South Africa and—finally, inevitably—the BDS movement. “It was very polite, no shouting,” remarked Samuels. “Both sides of the debate had a voice” at the conference, Feldman noted, pro- and anti-BDS: “Both positions were up for examination.” It’s hard to imagine a civilized argument over BDS occurring in New York City, but it’s important to know that it can happen: That’s what an academic setting, at its best, can do.
Protesting against the resurgent plague of anti-Semitism, as Goldhagen so adamantly does, is not the same thing as trying seriously to understand how it works. As Samuels told me, “There’s a difference between advocacy and scholarship, though sometimes advocacy can be good for scholarship.” Declaring yourself for Jews and against their enemies does not mean that you’ve explained why these enemies do what they do.
There’s another problem, too. Being aware of anti-Semitism seems a fundamentally distinct mission from appreciating Jewish traditions, and it’s often hard to know what the two things have to do with each other. Yet, as Samuels noted in our interview, it’s necessary to study anti-Semitism because “You can’t really understand the positive aspects of Jewish culture without understanding this too.” Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism as well as Isaiah Berlin, in his virtuosic essay “Jewish Slavery and Emancipation,” showed that half-assimilated Jews can draw on, and turn inside out, anti-Semitic prejudices. It’s hard to imagine Disraeli or Proust, not to mention the history of American comedy, outside of this messy but fertile dynamic.
But both Nirenberg and Goldhagen, for all their differences, reject this approach; they insist that there must be no commerce between Jews’ ideas about themselves and anti-Semites’ ideas about Jews. Both men have understandable qualms about seeing anti-Semitism as a root of any Jewish creativity, given how anti-Semitic bigotry led to mass extermination. Yet their reticence means that they miss out on a central, if sometimes troubling, aspect of Jewish history—the way Jews react to what the world thinks about them. Perhaps the most basic lesson from the grim continuing history of anti-Semitism is that anti-Semites don’t get to say what the Jew is. Jews do, and each Jew does, and those answers are bound to be rich, confusing, and deeply personal—responses that the anti-Semite will fail utterly to recognize.
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