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An anthology on the concept of philo-Semitism shows that ‘Jew lovers’ have often been just a shade better than anti-Semites—and sometimes no better at all

Adam Kirsch
May 31, 2011
(Original photo Peter Asquith/Flickr)
(Original photo Peter Asquith/Flickr)

Books about anti-Semitism are depressingly numerous. New studies of the subject appear in a constant stream, focusing on anti-Semitism in this or that country, in literature or politics, in the past, the present, or the future. In 2010 alone, readers were presented with Robert Wistrich’s A Lethal Obsession: Anti-Semitism From Antiquity to the Global Jihad and Anthony Julius’ Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England, which between them offer 2,100 pages of evidence of how much people used to and still do hate Jews.

If only as a change of pace, then, a book called Philosemitism in History (Cambridge University Press) should be cause for celebration. Never mind that it is a mere 350 pages, and not a continuous history but a collection of academic papers on fairly narrow subjects, from the Christian Hebraists of the 17th century to documentaries on West German TV. At least it promises a chance to hear about Gentiles who admired and praised Jews, instead of hating and killing them. There must have been some, right?

Well, yes and no. As every contributor to Philosemitism in History acknowledges, Jews have never been entirely happy about the idea of philo-Semitism. The volume’s introduction, by editors Adam Sutcliffe and Jonathan Karp, begins with a Jewish joke: “Q: Which is preferable—the antisemite or the philosemite? A: The antisemite—at least he isn’t lying.” This may be too cynical; closer to the bone is the saying that “a philo-Semite is an anti-Semite who loves Jews.” That formulation helps to capture the sense that philo- and anti- share an unhealthy interest in Jews and an unreal notion of who and what Jews are. Both deal not with Jewishness but with “Semitism,” as if being a Jew were the same as embracing a political ideology such as communism or conservatism—rather than what it really is, a religious and historical identity that cuts across political and economic lines.

This Jewish mistrust of philo-Semitism finds ample support in the history of the word offered by Lars Fischer in his contribution to the book. Fischer’s essay focuses rather narrowly on debates within the socialist movement in Germany in the late 19th century. But since this was exactly the time and place that the words “anti-Semitism” and “philo-Semitism” were coined, Fischer’s discussion of the political valences of the terms is highly revealing. From the beginning, when the word was coined by Wilhelm Marr in 1879, “anti-Semitic” was a label proudly claimed by enemies of the Jews. In Austria and Germany, there were political parties, trade unions, and newspapers that called themselves “anti-Semitic,” even when their political programs went beyond hostility to Jews.

Philo-Semitism sounds like it would have been the rallying-cry of the opponents of anti-Semitism, a movement with its own political program. But Fischer explains that this was not the case. In fact, “philo-Semitism” was invented as a term of abuse, applied by anti-Semites to those who opposed them. Though Fischer does not draw the parallel, he makes clear that “philo-Semite” was the equivalent of a word like “nigger-lover” in the United States, meant to suggest that anyone who took the part of a despised minority was odious and perverse. “Its obvious implication was that anybody who could be bothered to oppose anti-Semitism actively must be in cahoots with ‘the Jews,’ ” in thrall to the very Jewish money and power that anti-Semitism attacked.

What this meant was that, in Wilhelmine Germany, those who fought anti-Semitism—above all, Germany’s Social Democratic Party, whose leadership included many Jews—had to be careful to deny that they were philo-Semites. In 1891, for instance, the New York Jewish socialist Abraham Cahan, later to be famous as a novelist and the editor of the Forward, attended the International Socialist Congress at Brussels, in order to propose a motion condemning anti-Semitism. Victor Adler and Paul Singer, the leaders of Socialist parties in Germany and Austria—and both Jews—fought against Cahan’s motion, afraid that condemning anti-Semitism would only heighten the public perception of socialism as a Jewish movement. Finally, the motion passed, after it was amended to attack anti-Semitism and philo-Semitism in equal measure.

No one, it seems, wanted to be a philo-Semite; and for a long time, on the evidence of Philosemitism in History, almost no one was. Certainly, it takes pathetically little good will toward Jews to qualify for a place in the book. Robert Chazan, looking for “Philosemitic Tendencies in Western Christendom,” finds one in Saint Bernard’s warning to the Second Crusade not to repeat the anti-Jewish violence of the First. “The Jews are for us the living words of Scripture, for they remind us always of what our Lord suffered. They are dispersed all over the world, so that by expiating their crime they may be everywhere the living witnesses of our redemption.”

In this context, philo-Semitism means persecuting Jews to the brink of killing them, but no further. (Paula Frederiksen wrestled with this ambiguous Christian legacy in her excellent book Augustine and the Jews.) Likewise, Chazan shows, the medieval princes who invited Jews to settle in their lands did so not out of any love for Jewish people, but in order to create a taxable commercial class—and they often ended up killing the goose that laid so many golden eggs.

As early as the 11th century, then, we can see the ambivalence that continues to mark Christian philo-Semitism down to the present. Jews are valued, but only as long as they play the role assigned them in a Christian project or worldview. If Jews step out of that role, they are bitterly criticized. During the Renaissance, for example, a desire to read the Bible in its original language drove many leading humanists to study Hebrew. These Christian Hebraists engaged with Jewish traditions more deeply than any Gentiles had done before, even studying the Mishnah and Gemara for clues about historic Jewish practices. As Eric Nelson showed in his recent book The Hebrew Republic, the Israelite commonwealth became a major inspiration to English political theorists in the 17th century.

Three essays in Philosemitism in History focus on the Christian Hebraist movement. Yet as Abraham Melamed writes in “The Revival of Christian Hebraism,” “the big question … is whether the emergence and influence of Christian Hebraism in early modern Europe led to a more tolerant attitude toward the Jews, and additionally to any kind of philosemitism.” Reading Hebrew and admiring the Israelites were all well and good, but did they lead scholars like Johann Reuchlin and William Whiston to have any sympathy with the actual, living Jews of their time? “This is not necessarily the case,” Melamed answers. The English scholar John Selden was referred to, jokingly, as England’s “Chief Rabbi,” for his mastery of Jewish texts, but he seems not to have known any Jews, and he publicly endorsed the blood libel, citing Jews’ “devilish malice to Christ and Christians.”

A more complicated case of Christian philo-Semitism is the subject of Yaakov Ariel’s essay “It’s All in the Bible,” which explores the strong support of Israel by contemporary American Evangelicals. For centuries, but especially after 1967, evangelical Christians have been staunch Zionists, and their friendship has been welcomed by the Israeli government. Yet the premise of that friendship is a millenarian theology, based on a reading of the Book of Revelation, which holds that the establishment of a Jewish state in the Holy Land is a precondition to the Second Coming of Christ. On the road to the redemption, Christian Zionists believe, the majority of Jews will be wiped out in apocalyptic wars, and the remainder will convert to Christianity.

This philo-Semitism is, at its heart, deeply anti-Jewish, and the attempts of Israeli politicians to court evangelical support have been awkward, to say the least. In 1996, during Benjamin Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister, he supported a bill, urged by Orthodox members of the Knesset, to ban Christian missionary activity in Israel. When he realized that this would profoundly offend the American Christian Right, Netanyahu changed his mind and thwarted the bill. Here we have the Jewish leader of a Jewish state permitting Christians to try to convert Jews, as the price for Christian political support.

Does this count as “philo-Semitism”? And what about the painfully earnest documentaries aired on West German TV in the 1970s, discussed by Wulf Kansteiner, in which “self-pity and appropriation of Jewish culture went hand in hand with awkward silences”? Or the Jewish kitsch on sale in many Eastern European cities, which Ruth Ellen Gruber writes about? Lodz, in Poland, was once a great Jewish metropolis, and then one of the most lethal Nazi ghettoes. Today it is home to a restaurant called Anatevka, after the shtetl in Fiddler on the Roof, where you can be served matzoh by a “waiter dressed up in Hasidic costume, including a black hat and ritual fringes.” Gruber is rather indulgent toward this kind of thing, seeing it as a byproduct or precursor of a genuine rebirth of Jewish life in Eastern Europe. Seen in a colder light, this Jewish kitsch, like many of the phenomena on display in Philosemitism in History, might seem to call for a paraphrase of Oscar Wilde: Not “each man kills the thing he loves,” but each man loves the thing he killed.

But this is too bitter. There may be little to love about philo-Semitism, and little to be grateful for in its history; but that is because genuine esteem between Christians and Jews, like real affection of all kinds, cannot be grasped as an “-ism.” Ideologies deal in abstractions, and to turn a group of people into an abstraction, even a “positive” one, is already to do violence to them. That kind of violence is what historians tend to record, but most of the time, it is not the way real people think and live.

For instance, one of the most heartening stories in Philosemitism in History comes from 14th-century Marseilles, where a Jewish moneylender named Bondavid was tried for fraud. The trial record still exists, Chazan writes, and it shows that Bondavid called a number of Christians as character witnesses. A priest, Guillelmus Gasqueti, testified that “actually [Bondavid is] more righteous than anybody he ever met in his life. … For, if one may say so, he never met or saw a Christian more righteous than he.” This kind of genuine, personal esteem between Christians and Jews was “unusual,” Chazan writes, “but surely not unique.” And it is the proliferation of such face-to-face friendships in modern America that has made this country, not the most “philo-Semitic” in history, but the one where individual Jews and Christians have actually liked each other most.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.