Review: Anti-Judaism - this isn't easy, bedtime reading

Anti-Judaism is not about Jews, or Judaism. Nor is it a history of anti-Jewish prejudice.


In the fourth century CE, two Christian theological giants, Saints Jerome and Augustine, engaged in an ill-tempered discussion about Jews and Judaism. Jerome accused Augustine of harbouring "Judaising" tendencies because he defended Jewish law; Augustine retaliated by revealing that Jerome was known to read texts in their original Hebrew, rather than in Greek translations. Both, in other words, grounded their attacks in an instinctive fear of Judaism. As far as is known, neither had ever had any contact with Jews but their dialogue fashioned, and in some respects still fashion, the contours of Christian debate about Judaism.

This is what concerns Professor David Nirenberg. Anti-Judaism is not about Jews, or Judaism. Nor is it a history of anti-Jewish prejudice. Its subject matter is the use that Christians (or, more accurately, non-Jews) have made of certain conceptions - or fantasies - of Judaism in order to shape their own world-view. Martin Luther accused his Roman Catholic opponents of "Pharasaism." Voltaire claimed that the vices of French aristocratic society in the 18th century were grounded in precepts set out in the Hebrew Bible. Critics of capitalism, from the Chartists of early 19th-century England to the Bolsheviks of 20th-century Russia, claimed that the excesses of industrialisation were the handiwork of money-grabbing Jews. And did not Hitler's propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels, infamously declare in 1933 that "the age of rampant Jewish intellectualism is now at an end?"

This book is not recommended for easy, bedtime reading. Nirenberg - as befits a leading historian of ideas – writes in a style more suited to a university dissertation than a mass-market readership. His use of sources, particularly those related to the paganisms of the pre-Christian era and the early centuries of Christendom, is exhaustive. But his focus is unapologetically narrow.

When early Christian thinkers called someone a "Judaiser," what they meant was that the accused indulged in literal interpretations of the "Old Testament" (eg, in relation to circumcision) rather than interpretations according to the "spirit," meaning the spirit of Jesus, which was of course anti-Pharisaic. But Nirenberg is right to point out that the decline of religion had little impact on the rhetoric of "anti-Judaism," which metamorphosed effortlessly. When Karl Marx demanded "the emancipation of mankind from Judaism" he meant from commerce and capitalism. When Goebbels denounced "Jewish intellectualism" (in a speech inaugurating the Nazi book-burning madness, May 1933) he was referring to any literary work that challenged the Nazi state and/or was deemed "un-German," even if it was not authored by a Jew and had nothing to do with Judaism per se.

Unfortunately, the story Nirenberg tells is far from over. "We live [he writes, with a nod to the Muslim world] in an age in which millions… 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'." In other words, contemporary anti-Zionism is but ancient anti-Judaism writ large.

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