In the past twelve months, a major party’s presidential candidate has tacitly accepted the endorsement of David Duke, distributed (without apology) a blatantly anti-Jewish image, invoked an international cabal of bankers and media executives, hired a media executive with a history of publishing anti-Semitic material, and retained a senior advisor who is under federal investigation for discriminating against Jewish employees. Wikileaks has taken to dropping anti-Jewish tweets. And as a report about anti-Semitism on Twitter recently charted, there has been a dramatic uptick in the harassment of Jewish journalists online.
For young American Jews, this kind of public, sanctioned anti-Semitism is a new experience. Feeling unmoored, I called up David Nirenberg. Historians may not be in the business of comforting people, but, during troubling times, they can offer a little anchoring perspective.
Nirenberg is the author of Anti-Judaism, a survey of 2,400 years of anti-Jewish thought. Histories of anti-Semitism often focus on Jews: what about Jewish history has brought them into contact with so much hate? Was it the money-lending? The refusal to convert to Christianity? Published in 2013, Anti-Judaism takes a different tack. The book is concerned less with Jews than with the idea of the Jew—a concept that has been deployed as a foil to Christian love, a symbol of global commerce, and much else. Nirenberg aims to provide an “account of the labor done by Judaism in the workshops of Western thought.”
Nirenberg is a dean and a professor of history at the University of Chicago. Over the phone, he spoke with RD about Twitter, Trump, and the parallels between anti-Judaism and misogyny.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
When you see American Jews acting surprised about the recent surge in anti-Jewish rhetoric, do you think “Oh, how hopelessly short-sighted of them”?
Quite the contrary. I am myself surprised. I’ve had discussions with people who are much more plugged into the world of politics than I am. They’ve been very insistent about invoking my anti-Judaism book in the context of the present. I’ve always been hesitant.
Then a friend sent me this article from the Washington Post about the anti-Semitic tweets. I realized that we are seeing the normalization of anti-Semitic tropes, as the article put it, on a massive scale. That has effects and consequences and legitimizes certain uses of language.
It maybe does connect much more deeply than I had thought to structures that have a long history.
Why did you expect that those anti-Jewish structures would be less potent here? They’ve been pervasive in so many Western societies.
People have often asked me, do I think that there’s something in the Anglo-Saxon political tradition that to some degree…is inoculated against that kind of thing? For example, is there more of a positive attitude towards capitalism and markets that inoculates us against the use of fears of Judaism [when we] talk about economic inequality?
I didn’t give much space to the U.S. [in the book] because it was just one frontier too far for me, or maybe because it’s hard to look at your own society.
As I think on it now, I see the way in which a lot of these tropes are regaining potency within our polarized political landscape, and gaining a potency that has some similarities to the anti-Semitic populism you saw in the U.S. in the 1930s.
Your book is called Anti-Judaism. Why is it useful to distinguish between anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism?
Think, for example about the work these anti-Jewish ideas are doing in Europe. It would be very hard to say that that work is a product of interaction with Jews, because there are, in many European countries, virtually no Jews.
If we get too fixated on thinking that this discourse is always about about Jews, then we don’t understand why it’s so powerful in society. It has horrible effects on Jews. But it’s not in any way built out of a real Jew.
A while ago, Chris Rock did a long interview with New York magazine. Rock started talking about how he would cover racism in the U.S. if he were a journalist. He said—I’m paraphrasing here—that when journalists want to cover racism, they usually go and talk to black people. But black people are not the source of the problem! White people are. Rock said that he’d do a piece about racism where he only interviewed white people.
That’s what you seem to do for Jews and anti-Judaism. You don’t ask why Jews elicit hatred. You ask why people do this stuff to Jews.
For some reason, that’s a difficult mental shift for a lot of people to make.
This is really hard for people to accept. Every time I give a talk about this, or people write me about the book, they always say, “Well, I’m left with one question. What it is it that we do that…?”
That’s the wrong question.
It’s such a tempting question to ask, though. It makes you feel like you have some control over the situation. Well, if only we did something differently, they would stop hating us!
It’s strangely disempowering to realize that this hatred has nothing to do with you at all.
It’s just not the case that if every Jew in the world abandoned all their property and became ascetics working for the poor, that it would change the way in which Judaism is used.
For months, there have been accusations of anti-Semitism in and around the Trump campaign. Why did that Twitter study catch your attention?
I had a conversation with a leader of a national Jewish organization. He asked me what I thought about the campaign and this Twitter material. I gave him a light answer, which was that I didn’t think it was a big deal. I didn’t think that [anti-Judaism] was being consciously deployed by the Trump campaign.
He made the point—which I think is absolutely right—that it didn’t matter what Trump’s intentions were. It’s what the effects are. This study put in rather vivid terms for someone like me, who doesn’t really use social media, that, okay, those tweets amount to the equivalent of however many billion sightings.
I think that number was inflated. But it doesn’t matter much. What’s the difference between ten billion views and, say, one billion views? It’s all bad.
It’s just this question of magnitude. It’s a little bit like you’ve seen the tip of the iceberg, and someone tells “You know, 90% of it is underneath.”
I had a similar experience when I was working on my first book, Communities of Violence. I was working on a massacre of Jews that happened in 1321. All the documents talked about this massacre, but none of them gave any numbers. I came to the conclusion that this probably was not a big massacre. It happened in a tiny town in the middle of the mountains. They probably were talking about it as a massacre in order to justify the fines on the populace. You might say it’s like people talking about anti-Semitism in order to justify fundraising.
On my last day of research in this archive, I came across one scrap of 14th century paper which said that dozens of people—300 or so, I think—were killed in the village. It even described how some were dragged from under their beds, and how their throats were slit. I suddenly realized that I had constructed this explanation which minimized this event, even though the full extent of the terror was only visible on that one little piece of 14th century paper.
I felt this way when I was forwarded this Twitter study, that I had pooh-poohed the effects of a technology I don’t really understand, when in fact it may very well conceal something much larger. It’s too early to tell, right? It’s always too early to tell. But I think there is plenty of reason to worry, especially in conjunction with what we know is happening worldwide.
There’s a tendency to utilize arguments about Judaism to explain many of the problems the world confronts, whether they be in the Muslim world or in European countries, where there is a way in which thinking about Israel is a way of thinking about what is most in need of perfection in the world.
We should probably worry more about something like these tweets because we’re in a space in which the use of anti-Judaism as a way of fantasizing the perfection of the world is already becoming very powerful.
What’s the connection between anti-Jewish politics and utopian politics?
It depends on what you mean by utopian, but I think it’s very strong. Already in early Christianity, there’s a sense in which the overcoming of Judaism…is one way of representing what it means to become a true follower of Jesus. The same happens in early Islam, in which both one of the first things Mohammed really has to do in order to prove that he’s a prophet is overcome the Jews.
Those early religious bases of a lot of modern culture place the overcoming of Judaism at the center of what it means to create a more perfect society. Starting to read like a Christian and not like a Jew, learning to relate to the world like a Christian and not like a Jew, learning to relate to your body like a Christian, not like a Jew. Marxism too, thinks about improving the world in terms of overcoming Judaism.
Does anti-Judaism provide a template for other kinds of bigotry?
Absolutely it does. Do you have an example you wanted to…?
There are Islamophobic statements in the United States today where, if you replace the word “Muslim” with “Jew,” it sounds very familiar.
I don’t know about contemporary Islamophobia.
There are plenty of moments in which anti-Judaism serves as a template for attacking other group. With contemporary Islamophobia, I hesitate just because in some ways, it’s already such a polemical argument. It’s very often used to say, “Don’t talk about anti-Semitism. There’s no problem with anti-Semitism. Anti-Islamism is the real problem.” It’s not clear to me to what degree Islamophobia taps into our most basic critical vocabularies in the way in which anti-Judaism does.
Islamophobia seems to me to be more explainable through more basic xenophobic, anti-immigrant, and nationalist—and sometimes racist—moves. It doesn’t seem to require the entire cultural apparatus that I think anti-Judaism is all about.
Maybe to that degree, a lot of misogynist or anti-feminist ideas—the enduring power of gender categories is much more structural to our categories of thought. In that sense misogyny might be like anti-Judaism. But I could be entirely wrong.
That’s fascinating. These concepts are so deeply written into our culture that we almost can’t see them.
When you think about what Paul said in Galatians: there is neither free nor slave, male nor female, Jew nor Greek. Those were very basic polarities. They’re very enduring.
What are you worried about right now?
Well, that’s a tough question. We live in a society in which the power of certain words or ideas or hateful representations to spread is very high. We live in a highly sectarian world, in which affinity groups can form quickly and can bond around these kinds of ideas.
I don’t think anyone really knows what the consequences of the social media and social communication revolution are in terms of how political groups form, and what kinds of affinities—what kinds of cohesiveness—are created through these ideas.
We also live in a society that’s highly weaponized in a literal sense, in which a lot of people have access and, increasingly, moral license to violence.
I don’t think anyone really knows what the consequences of that are. The degree to which anti-Islamic discourse is now a central part of national political discourse is astonishingly worrisome. I think it’s actually to the vast credit of this country, that despite having now endured almost two decades of continuous armed conflict with Islamist states and groups, there’s been so little violence against Muslims in this country.
But when you weaponize words in this way, and you legitimate that in the national sphere, and you legitimate a discourse against the state, and you legitimate a defense of violence and of guns, at the same time that there are actual actors outside the U.S. trying to destabilize our discourse, the possibilities of civil conflict, structured along religious or pseudo-religious lines, become greater than they have been in a long time.
There’s a certain hopelessness potentially baked into the thesis of Anti-Judaism—a sense that as long as there are Western cultures, there will be anti-Judaism. Or, perhaps, that as long as there’s Christendom, there will be anti-Judaism.
I hope you’re not describing my position.
No, I’m not.
That’s the Sartrean position, or something. Sartre would say until the Marxist revolution is complete, there’s going to be anti-Judaism. That’s not my position. I think Cynthia Ozick in the New York Times said it left her irredeemably despairing. But that wasn’t my intention.
I think that the hope lies in understanding that the role that anti-Judaism plays in the way we think. It’s only if we actually talk about those things, study those things, become aware of them, that we can interrupt this power.