A Long History of Blaming the Jews

“Antisemitism” is a problematic term. Of course we know what it means—prejudice against or hatred of Jews. But it was first utilized, ironically, by nineteenth century polemicists looking to recast their Jew-hatred in pseudo-scientific terms. Jews, they believed, belonged to the hypercompetitive, money-grubbing “Semitic race,” as opposed to the upstanding Anglo-Saxons and Aryans. Somewhere along the way “antisemitism” shed its association with eugenics, and we should be grateful for that. But that doesn’t make the term any less problematic: I am reminded of the cretinous French pedant who told me that he couldn’t possibly be an antisemite because he had nothing against Arabs. 

Aside from these issues, “antisemitism” doesn’t quite describe the Western obsession with Jews and Judaism. Every culture, to some extent, defines itself by what it is not. But Western culture has frequently defined itself by projecting distasteful qualities, like greed or excessive carnality, onto “Judaism.” A long line of Western thinkers, from Augustine to Marx, have taken this further, judging the value of an idea or concept by its “Jewishness” or lack thereof. Thus “anti-Judaism,” historian David Nirenberg’s term for when Judaism is seen as “a category, a set of ideas and attributes with which non-Jews can make sense of and criticize their world.”

Nirenberg’s recent book, Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition, is a history of anti-Judaism from its earliest plausible iteration to modernity. It’s an ambitious work, not only for its breadth. It would be easy enough to link anti-Judaism to antisemitism, to demonstrate the connection between thought and violence. But Nirenberg is after a subtler, and perhaps grander, point: to demonstrate how anti-Judaism is one of the “basic tools” with which Western culture was constructed. 

He begins, surprisingly, in ancient Egypt. In the fourth century BCE, Egyptian counter-narratives to Exodus began to appear, in which the Jews were not freed through divine agency but were expelled due to their “nastiness,” as Nirenberg puts it. Many such narratives feature a Moses figure, a rigid leader of a rebellious people; Josephus himself recounts a third-century story about an isolationist group that conquered Egypt, “attacking the temples and mutilating the divine images.” Greek and Roman scholars would treat these stories as historical facts. But for Nirenberg, their dubious historicity is less important than how they demonstrate a culture associating Jews with “misanthropy, impiety, lawlessness, and universal enmity” in order to define its own righteousness.

Of course we can’t blame some disgruntled ancient Egyptians for embedding anti-Judaism into Western culture. That distinction belongs to the early Christians, starting with Paul. Nirenberg explains that Paul was in a “complex” position, caught between his view of Jesus’s teachings as “the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham” and “the desire to extend that promise” to gentiles. Paul resolved the quandary by distinguishing between flesh and spirit, between the Jewish focus on the things of this world—“texts, bodies, objects”—and salvation through faith in Jesus.

Although aspects of Paul’s teachings are debatable (such as the extent of his dualism), when he defined Christianity in opposition to Judaism, he created a remarkably useful framework for those who came after him. According to Nirenberg, the first centuries of Christianity were marked by thinkers resorting “ever more systematically to a logic that treated the relative ‘Jewishness’ of a teaching as the best test of its truth or falsity.” Marcion, Tertullian, Justin, Origen and Jerome differed on crucial Christological and scriptural questions; still most identified any hint of carnality as “Jewish” and accused their opponents of “Judaizing.” Augustine took the trope even further, arguing in Against Faustus that the Jews were the living exemplar of falsity, “proof to believing Christians of the subjection merited by those who, in the pride of their kingdom, put the Lord to death.”

By consigning Jews to the theological status of servus, or slave, Augustine laid the intellectual groundwork for the political status of Jews a millennium later. In the Middle Ages, European monarchs “insisted that the Jews belonged to them in a peculiar way, different from that of their other subjects” (emphasis Nirenberg’s). Thus the king could use the Jews as tax collectors and moneylenders, and in both cases get his hands on most of the cash.

In thirteenth century England, for example, King Henry III taxed Jewish moneylenders so heavily that they had to sell their debts at steep discounts—to members of the royal court, who pocketed the profits. Such situations were damaging to Jewish moneylenders and Christian debtors; nevertheless the Jews would be labeled as “bloodsuckers” and the king as a “Jew-lover.” In this manner, “Jewishness” became a way for Christians to both solidify and criticize worldly power.

Some of the strongest chapters of the book are Nirenberg’s discussion of the Renaissance—in his definition, the period between 1400 and 1600. But this discussion has little to do with the supposed rebirth of Western culture. Nirenberg highlights the ironic contradictions between the scarcity of Jews in Western Europe and the frequent allegations of Judaizing. Martin Luther accused his Papist opponents of “legalism,” “Pharisaism,” and of course, “Judaism”; the Papists, in turn, accused Luther of getting his ideas from the Jews. 

Such accusations were especially prominent in Spain, where, in the fifteenth century, terrible oppression led to massive Jewish conversion. But tens of thousands of converts did not ease the minds of the Christian authorities. Instead they grew increasingly fearful of being unable to tell who was a Jew or secretly Judaizing. The 1492 expulsion—Nirenberg calls it “extinction”—of Spanish Jewry did nothing to mitigate these fears, which the Inquisition would exploit for centuries.

Even the Age of Reason was not immune from evaluating societal shifts in “Jewish” terms. The eighteenth-century French philosophes averred strong associations between Jews and the growth of the credit economy. In a sympathetic article, Diderot’s Encyclopedia claims that the Jews are crucial to commerce, “like the pegs and nails that one uses in a great building, and which are necessary to join all the parts.” But Voltaire’s Candide was swindled by Jews, and Montesquieu asserted that “wherever there is money, there are Jews.” 

The philosophes, however, were certainly less preoccupied with the “Jewishness” of a concept than were the great German philosophers. Nirenberg reminds us that for Kant, Judaism represented “a state of pure submission to the demands of the material world, and measured humanity’s progress toward truth in terms of its distance from that state” (an idea that strongly echoes the “flesh versus spirit” dichotomy of Paul). But Hegel believed that Kant had fallen prey to “the Jewish principle of opposing thought to reality, reason to sense”—in effect, Judaizing. Schopenhauer was the most blatant in his conflation of Judaism and bad ideas, describing them as emanating a foetor Judaicus, “a Jewish stench.”

Nirenberg emphasizes that he is not looking to evaluate these philosophers on the basis of their antisemitism. He wants to explain how their “habits of thought about Judaism” shaped their views of how the world worked. This reader, however, found it difficult to remain disinterested about these “habits of thought” when reading the passages about Marx. In an (admittedly obscure) essay on Jewish emancipation, Marx argued that the “worldly God” of the Jew was money. And since “money has risen to a world power,” Christians had in essence become Jews. The issue, then, was not the emancipation of the Jews, but “the emancipation of mankind from Judaism.” 

When Nirenberg discusses the late nineteenth and early twentieth century—when “it is difficult to think of a financial innovation, practice, or crisis that was not discussed in terms of Judaism”—it becomes equally difficult to see much difference between anti-Judaism and antisemitism. There is, of course, no direct line from Paul to Nazi Germany. Nirenberg is not making a “deterministic” argument, “that the long history of thinking with and about ‘Jewish questions’ inevitably led to or caused the ‘Final Solution.’” 

But what then is the relationship between anti-Judaism and genocide? According to Nirenberg, “the Holocaust was inconceivable and is unexplainable without that deep history of thought.” But is that not a way of explaining inevitability? On the question of determinism, Nirenberg is right: it is better for the historian to be “reflective” rather than “dogmatic.” But is it dogmatic to point out the frequent connections between murderous rhetoric and genocide? Describing the world in anti-Jewish (or anti-Tutsi or anti-Armenian) terms does not always lead to violence, but such rhetoric is a pretty reliable warning sign.

Nirenberg himself seems to agree when he points out that in our age, “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.’” 

If there is one weakness in this book, it is that there is a slight vagueness or mushiness on this point. But only this point. “Anti-Judaism” is a fascinating and challenging book. And troubling: it is frankly amazing to consider this millennia-long preoccupation with “the Jews” and “Judaizing” and how frequently it appeared when there was nary a Jew in sight. (The chapter on The Merchant of Venice is particularly illuminating in this regard.)

Perhaps there is no good term to succinctly describe the protean nature of Jew-hatred. Nevertheless, with Anti-Judaism, Nirenberg provides us with our own “basic tool” for understanding the development of Western identity and thought.