Nirenberg shows how consistently the struggle for religious and political supremacy has been described as a struggle against the “Jews.” The quotation marks are especially important as his account moves beyond the medieval period, because between 1400 and 1600 Western Europe was more or less “a world free of Jews.” Banished from most countries, and existing only in the tiniest numbers through special exemptions, actual Jews were hardly ever seen. But it was in this period that “Christian Europe awoke haunted by the conviction that it was becoming Jewish.” In this period of cultural change and doctrinal and political disputes, patterns as old as the age of the pharoahs were reactivated: My adversaries must be extinguished for the polity to be purified; my adversaries must be Jews. And in early modern European eyes, the adversaries were especially dangerous if they were secret Jews who appeared to be Christian. Were Jews hiding everywhere?
Martin Luther brought this rhetoric to a fever pitch. In 1523 he accused the Roman Church of becoming “more ‘Jewish’ than the Jews,” and as he grew older he tried to convince his contemporaries that “so thoroughly hopeless, mean, poisonous, and bedeviled a thing are the Jews that for 1400 years they have been, and continue to be, our plague, pestilence, and all that is our misfortune.” Don’t believe in conversions, the aged Luther urged; the only way to baptize Jews was by tying millstones around their necks.
(W. W. Norton) - ’Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition’ by David Nirenberg
Nirenberg’s command of disparate sources and historical contexts is impressive. His account of the development of Christianity and Islam is scholarly yet readable. And his portrayal of the role that Judaism has played as a foil for the consolidation of religious and political groups is, for this Jewish reader, chilling. Nirenberg is not interested, as he repeatedly insists, in arguing that Christianity and Islam are “anti-Semitic.” Instead, he is concerned with tracing the work that the idea of Judaism does within Western culture. He shows that many of the important conceptual and aesthetic developments in that culture — from Saint John to Saint Augustine to Muhammad, from Shakespeare to Luther to Hegel — depend on denigrating Jews.That’s what’s so chilling: great cultural achievements built on patterns of scapegoating and hatred.
In the modern period, revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries continued to employ “the Jewish problem” as something to be overcome. “How could that tiny minority convincingly come to represent for so many the evolving evils of the capitalist world order?” Nirenberg asks. He shows that for thousands of years the patterns of anti-Judaism have evolved to provide great thinkers and ordinary citizens with habits of thought to “make sense of their world.” He doesn’t say that these patterns caused the mechanized, genocidal Nazi war against the Jews in the 20th century, but he argues convincingly “that the Holocaust was inconceivable and is unexplainable without that deep history of thought.”
Presaging Tom Lehrer, Sigmund Freud in 1929 wrote ironically that Jews, by being objects of aggression, “have rendered most useful services to the civilizations of the countries that have been their hosts; but unfortunately all the massacres of the Jews in the Middle Ages did not suffice to make that period more peaceful and secure for their Christian fellows.” Even when “everybody hates the Jews,” patterns of intolerance and violence remain intact. Nirenberg offers his painful and important history so that we might recognize these patterns in hopes of not falling into them yet again.
Michael S. Roth is the president of Wesleyan University and the author of “Memory, Trauma, and History: Essays on Living With the Past.”