The Quarrels of Others: On Anti-Semitism
All this Nirenberg formulates with great subtlety and thoroughness, scrupulous to avoid the generality to which his argument is reduced in summary. Anti-Judaism identifies and anatomizes a persistent and pervasive thread in the fabric of Western thought that no future commentary on almost any aspect of it will be entitled to ignore. How it should change our view of the Jews in European history, and their relations with people, institutions and ideas shaped by Christian traditions, is harder to judge. My own interest in the problem was first aroused by Léon Poliakov’s classic four-volume History of Anti-Semitism, which appeared in English in the 1960s. What I found odd about the work was the extent to which it focused on the ways Jews irritated Christians, thus presenting as a problem about Jews one that seemed to me to be obviously about Christians. In this it was representative of its time, and what was known as “the lachrymose tradition” of Jewish historiography, the tale of a wretched journey to an inevitably catastrophic conclusion. Conversely, the place and indeed the presence of Jews in European history were largely ignored in mainstream history writing and teaching, as the late Gavin Langmuir demonstrated in a classic article whose point was proven when The American Historical Review rejected it. Today, no serious account at any level fails to at least try to integrate the greatly improved knowledge of Jews and their history into its story, or to ask what qualities and changes in European society undergirded their mistreatment and persecution.
By shifting the focus from anti-Semitism to the place of Judaism in the deep structure of Western thought, Nirenberg has recast the debate about the nature and origins of anti-Semitism itself. Yet he also, in some measure, has returned to Poliakov’s agenda: his concern is not with what the Jews did or how they fared, but on their place in Christian, and indeed post-Christian, thought. Poliakov described how Jews annoyed Christians; Nirenberg has shown how Christians made being annoyed by what they perceived as the negative qualities of Jews (real or imagined) essential to how they saw the world and how they argued about it. Nirenberg is careful to insist that there was nothing inevitable about either the development of the cognitive techniques that he describes or the uses to which they would be put. Even so, it is hard to assess the significance of these modes of thought, to weigh how they affected the Jewish predicament, without comparison to other victim groups in Europe and to Jews elsewhere. The very fact that, as Nirenberg decisively demonstrates, they were so deeply entrenched and widely applied from so early a date calls into question their power to explain change. By four hundred years or so after the death of Christ, the tool kit was to all intents and purposes complete, the thinking of everybody raised in the Christian tradition thoroughly suffused with its assumptions and techniques. The language and working assumptions of anti-Judaism were everywhere instinctively adopted in religious discourse and embodied in thought and worship. But as far as we can tell, they were not turned purposefully or consistently against real, flesh-and-blood Jews in most parts of Europe until around the middle of the twelfth century. At that time, Jews were widely dispersed throughout Western Europe, and though they labored under growing difficulties and had suffered some dreadful atrocities—most notoriously in connection with the preaching of the Crusades—many of their communities were prosperous, cultivated and able to live more or less harmoniously with their Christian neighbors.
The descent into persecution, impoverishment and expulsion over the next hundred years or so was not only rapid and brutal, but from the perspective of the preceding centuries, sudden and not obviously predictable. It was not, however, in every respect unique. Around the same time, various groups of Christians—some more, some less clearly defined by their responses to the changing expectations and demands of the Church—began to be demonized in much the same ways as Jews, and subjected to much the same forms of persecution. So, less clearly, did others, defined as deviant by real or alleged irregularities in respect of character, condition or sexual orientation—among them the indigent, lepers, prostitutes and gay men. Heresy also became a trope for thinking about doctrinal conflicts, regardless of the presence of real heretics. The perceived proliferation of the “dualist” heresy in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries—the specter of Manichaeism raising its head again—owed far more to the need of the classroom for ways of articulating the problem of evil and responses to it than to any contemporary heretics or heretical organizations. From the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries, witches and demons were made to serve the same purpose. In both cases, as in that of Judaism, the endorsement of the resulting stereotypes by high culture, though not a direct cause of the subsequent persecution, contributed immeasurably to the climate that made it possible. We cannot look to the particular circumstances or disadvantages of any of these categories of victims, grave as some were, to account for the chill wind that blew on them all.
Beyond Western Europe, the question becomes still more insistent. Anti-Judaism, after all, was formed not there but around the Mediterranean, and especially in the Middle East. In a brilliant chapter, Nirenberg shows how Muhammad’s earliest followers faced exactly the same paradox as Jesus’ in embracing a revelation from which everything must begin afresh while continuing to respect the authority of the Hebrew Scriptures. They resolved it in very similar ways: Jews were depicted as resisting the revelation of Muhammad and even plotting against his life; it quickly became habitual in controversy to represent texts and interpretations under attack, or rulers showing favor to the wrong people, as Judaizing. The Jews themselves, generally tolerated as “people of the book,” were not purged or massacred nearly so often in the medieval Islamic world as in the West, but for Nirenberg the seeds had been planted, to germinate in the spring of modernity. He may be right, but it is a pity that he did not develop his discussion of anti-Judaism in Islam beyond this early period. Whether modern anti-Semitism has grown continuously from medieval roots or is in some way directly associated with “modernity” (whatever that might be) is a controversial question on which Nirenberg’s comments would be of great value.
The case of Eastern Christendom is harder still. The early Church, like the Roman Empire in which anti-Judaism was molded, was undivided, the writers who shaped it the fathers of the Eastern as fully as the Western Church, but their works were studied, debated and deployed with much greater vigor and sophistication in the East than in the West for many centuries to come. As a result, the future of Jews was quite different here. Without some account of the separation of the Church between the sixth and thirteenth centuries, and some assessment of whether anti-Judaism was developed or used differently in consequence, we have no real basis for weighing its influence in the East. “I am by profession a historian,” Nirenberg explains. “I have based my arguments only on primary sources that I could consult in the original languages.” Who could resist this most traditional, most impeccable and most disarming of scholarly evasions? Yet if Nirenberg will not formulate a hypothesis or frame a question arising from his work that he thinks his own remarkable abilities inadequate to resolve, who could?
It would be churlish to end on such a note. A good book—and Anti-Judaism is a very good one indeed—raises more questions than it answers. Nirenberg makes perfectly clear, with good reason, the questions that concern him most. Martin Luther’s onslaughts on the Jews were even more violent and destructive than those of his Catholic predecessors. Nirenberg shows that they arose in the first place from biblical interpretations hammered out in controversy with Luther’s theological antagonists. This, not actual conversions for which little real evidence exists, was the basis of his anxiety that the world was converting to Judaism. Nirenberg concludes, “I am not interested in contributing to arguments, so often dominated by apologetics and anachronism, about whether Martin Luther was an anti-Semite or an architect of the Holocaust. My point is that Luther’s reconceptualization of the ways in which language mediates between God and creation was achieved by thinking with, about, and against Jews and Judaism.” Generalized to embrace the whole of Western intellectual history, this becomes a point of great importance. It will take some time to absorb its implications.
John Connelly examined Poland's resistance to and complicity in the holocaust during World War II in the November 14, 2012, issue of The Nation.