The Quarrels of Others: On Anti-Semitism

The Quarrels of Others: On Anti-Semitism

The Quarrels of Others: On Anti-Semitism

With Anti-Judaism, David Nirenberg has recast the debate about the origins and nature of anti-Semitism in Western thought.


“In sooth, I know not why I am so sad,” Antonio wonders at the outset of The Merchant of Venice. What could seem more universal, more culturally neutral than melancholy? Yet if David Nirenberg’s argument in Anti-Judaism is correct, by Shakespeare’s time the negative associations of Judaism were so universal, and so close to the surface of Christian consciousness, that Antonio’s words immediately prompt the suspicion that he might be a Jew. Other characters soon echo the suggestion. His friend Salerio attributes Antonio’s mood to anxiety about the safety of the ships carrying his merchandise overseas, thus taxing him with excessive regard for his money; then, when Antonio repudiates the accusation, another friend, Gratiano, charges him with hypocrisy. Either way, Nirenberg writes, Antonio “appears to be, in the vocabulary of Christianity, a ‘Jew.’”

But he is not, which Salerio had promptly indicated to the groundlings by speculating that these anxieties might assail Antonio even in church. Antonio just as promptly denies the speculation. Nevertheless, Shylock, a Jewish moneylender, is struck by the resemblance when they meet: “How like a fawning publican he looks!” (In the Gospels, “publicans” are Jewish tax collectors.) Moreover, throughout the play, disconcerting similarities in outlook and demeanor between Antonio and Shylock float uneasily beneath their mutual loathing. “Which is the merchant here, and which the Jew?” Portia wonders as she arrives at the Duke of Venice’s court for Antonio’s trial. Nor does the confusion threaten the two protagonists alone. Whether Bassanio’s love for Portia is more urgent than his need for her fortune, and Jessica herself a richer reward for Lorenzo than the chest of jewels without which her elopement is unthinkable, both pairs of lovers constantly mingle the language of love and money. The same goes for the rest of the cast of what Nirenberg expounds as “a drama of chronic conversion whose every participant—including playwright and viewer—moves suspended like a compass needle between Judaism and Christianity.”

Nirenberg’s penetrating analysis of Shakespeare’s Jewish question transcends the hackneyed one of whether play or playwright is anti-Semitic. On the contrary, the crucial argument of this learned and disquieting book is that hostility to Judaism was far too deeply and pervasively woven into the fabric of Western Christianity for the presence of actual Jews to be necessary to arouse anti-Semitism. Long before that, Jews had been perceived (notably in Egypt) as hostile to all other peoples, their laws and their gods—the auxiliaries of successive invaders and the willing instruments of their tyranny—although those perceptions did not amount to a coherent or universal stereotype. But the Christians’ earliest records, the Epistles of Paul, show how much they identified themselves and defined their beliefs in opposition to Judaism. For the followers of Jesus, his death and resurrection meant jettisoning all previous certainty: “Hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?” asked Paul. “For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom: But we preach Christ crucified.”

Even so, for those early followers, the tension between the obligations of descent from Abraham and the desire to extend the message beyond his descendants was not easily resolved. The Scriptures, as they were still meant for all, could not simply be abandoned; they had to be accommodated to the new, transcendent reality, interpreted to show, according to Luke, how “all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets and in the psalms concerning me.” A new science of hermeneutics was devised to ensure, as Humpty Dumpty put it (but Nirenberg does not), that “when I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean.” Thus the followers of Jesus went about interpreting their beliefs and arguing out their relationship—and that of their gentile as well as Jewish converts—to the law and its demands. “To the extent that Jews refused to surrender their ancestors, their lineage, and their scripture,” Nirenberg explains, “they could become emblematic of the particular, of stubborn adherence to the conditions of the flesh, enemies of the spirit, and of God.”

* * *

The Jesus movement, searching in its early years among a far greater variety of writings and teachings than would eventually be canonized three centuries or so later, disputed its way through a host of issues, from whether its founder was man or god to whether women could be vested with spiritual authority. It also had to find ways to distinguish between true and false prophets. A real or alleged relationship to Jews and Judaism was one such test, easily invoked but hardly clear-cut. Those who thought Christ a human prophet, for instance, denying his incarnation and resurrection in the flesh, could readily be condemned as Judaizers. But so could those who, holding him divine, insisted that he had inhabited a fleshly body nonetheless.

The accusation was directed by Paul at critics who insisted on circumcision, which he saw as an obstacle to his conversion of the gentiles. In the following centuries, the charge was deployed with ever-growing agility and flexibility, until it became almost mandatory in any debate to represent one’s opponent as sharing in or defending the errors of the Jews. Jerome, who had “a notable hatred for the circumcised,” denounced as Judaizers those Christians who defended the decoration of churches with holy images by citing the model of the Temple in Jerusalem— and was himself accused of Judaizing by Rufinus of Aquileia for having impugned the sanctity of the Greek Scriptures by learning Hebrew to get better texts for his translation, which became the Latin Vulgate. Augustine of Hippo, whom the Manichaeans had called a Judaizer for accepting Christ’s incarnation when he converted to Christianity, also worried that Jerome’s use of Hebrew texts risked granting the Jews interpretive authority over the Christian Scriptures. That anxiety surfaced again in the twelfth century, when some sought to resolve textual discrepancies among their copies of the Old Testament with the help of the very same Jews whom others represented as emissaries of Satan.

The malleability of this rhetoric readily made Jews the victims in the quarrels of others. When pagans attacked Christians as being worse than Jews from the perspective of Roman civic values, Christians retaliated by claiming that in refusing to acknowledge Christ, Jews had failed to follow their own prophets—for which, said the Christian apologist Justin Martyr (165 CE), they had been justly punished by the Roman conquest of Jerusalem and permanent exile. The greatest and most durable division among Christians after the Council of Nicaea in 325 was between Catholics and the Arians, whose account of the Trinity, the Catholics argued, denied the divinity of Christ. Called on to preach against the Arians in Antioch, where they were particularly strong, St. John Chrysostom began by announcing that their error was essentially the same as that of the Jews. The eight sermons that followed, known as his Discourses Against the Jews, set new standards in the violence and comprehensiveness of its denunciation. The Jews were not only obstinate, literal-minded enemies of the spirit—willfully blind to divine revelation, devoted to the world and the lusts of the flesh—but also animals, “not fit for work” but “fit for killing,” their souls and their synagogues the dwelling places of demons. They had nothing to do with the disputes that brought Antioch to Chrysostom’s attention, but he made them surrogates for all who denied the divinity of Christ—pagans, Arians and heretics of every kind, who, in Tertullian’s phrase, “borrowed poison from the Jew.”

So, Chrysostom claimed (we do not know whether correctly or not), the greatest perfidy of the late emperor Julian the Apostate, who had tried to return the empire to paganism, had been to sanction the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, which was frustrated only by a divinely delivered earthquake in whose fires the laborers perished. A year or two later, in 388 CE, the synagogue at Callinicum, in Mesopotamia, was burned down by a mob of Christian monks. The local governor ordered the monks to be punished and the bishop to pay for the rebuilding of the synagogue. The decision was attacked by the leading Christian spokesman of the day, Ambrose of Milan. The bishop and monks, he wrote to Emperor Theodosius, were not mere provincial law-breakers, but instruments of divine justice. The Jews, in refusing to be bound by Roman law, were not entitled to its protection. On the contrary, by insisting on enforcing the law in their favor, against the will of God, the governor had shown himself to be a Judaizer, as would the emperor if he upheld the judgment. And as a Judaizer, Ambrose implied, he would forfeit his legitimacy and invite deposition.

Among the fathers of the church, the most relentless scourge of heresy, and the one whose writings did the most to shape the Christian future, was Augustine of Hippo. For Augustine, the greatest danger to Christianity by far was the Manichaeism that had become widely diffused in the Middle East, North Africa and Persia, to which he had succumbed in his youth. The dualist Manichaeans condemned the material world as the work of the evil principle, the human body as a prison for the souls of angels stolen by the evil principle from heaven, sustained and perpetuated by sex and its fruits. From the perspective of the Christian convert, therefore, the Manichaeans represented an error diametrically opposed to that of the flesh-bound Jews. To go too far in denouncing Judaism—including the teachings of the Hebrew Scriptures, literally interpreted—was to incur the even greater danger of falling into Manichaeism. So the error of the Jews was not to have accepted the authority of their Scriptures in the first place, but to have refused the revelation that, without falsifying those Scriptures, had added the new level of spiritual enlightenment that was thenceforth necessary for salvation. Hence Augustine’s conclusion, which became the foundation for the place of the Jews in Christian society for the next thousand years: God had punished their recalcitrance by condemning them to wander the earth, like Cain, in perpetual exile, a constant reminder to Christians of the perils of infidelity—and as such, to be accorded the minimum degree of protection necessary for their survival.

By around 400 CE, the language of anti-Judaism constituted for Christian writers an intellectual tool kit of infinite versatility and adaptability. “Which of the prophets have your fathers not persecuted?” Paul had asked. There was little justification for this question even in his time, but to have been sufficiently attacked by the Jews quickly became a standard test of probity in the faith. “Is there anyone among the Montanists,” demanded Eusebius of Caesarea, inventor of Christian historiography, “who has been persecuted by the Jews or killed by the lawless?” He certainly had not asked himself whether actual Jews had had the opportunity of persecuting Montanists, followers of a sect that spread widely from Phrygia (in central Turkey) from around 200 CE; indeed, to do so would have betrayed a Judaizing subservience to the letter on his own part. Because Jews had become the prototype of every enemy—especially of the archenemy, the devil whose servant the Gospels had proclaimed them to be—every enemy could be described in terms of his Jew-like characteristics. The technique and the stereotype it generated was transmitted by the Venerable Bede in Northumbria nine centuries before it informed The Merchant of Venice, and four centuries before real Jews made their first known appearance in England on the heels of William of Normandy.

* * *

England prospered in the years after the brutal but swift completion of the Norman Conquest, and Jews flourished with it, though in small numbers. Their culture, contacts and expertise had much to offer as trade increased, capital projects multiplied, and society became generally more sophisticated. But prosperity was dangerous. After a hundred years, the king, claiming the Jews as his property, set up a special department of the Exchequer to regulate the loans made by Jewish lenders to the lords. After another hundred, having been sucked dry, the Jews were thrown out in 1290. The story was much the same everywhere else in Europe. By Shakespeare’s day, England was once more in the throes of transformation as another mercantile revolution challenged the established values and social relations. The dilemmas explored in The Merchant of Venice were now writ large: lending money at interest became lawful in 1571, but usury (lending at excessive interest) did not. A fortune might ride on the distinction, as Shakespeare’s father, at least twice charged with usury, knew well. A greater fortune might vanish overnight if a venture succumbed to an ill wind, as Shakespeare himself knew even better, for no investment was riskier than a theater, ever vulnerable to the intrigues of the great or the whims of the mob, to devastation by fire or closure by a plague. How were Christians to prosper in such a world and remain Christians? There was no better way to pose that question than by counterposing Christian merchant and conniving Jew.

The enduring legacy of the early Church, Nirenberg makes clear, was far more than the familiar stereotype of anti-Semitism: it was a language and a set of oppositions and associations in which any conflict could be framed, or any community, party or position attacked or defended by contrasting it with Judaism—irrespective of the presence, still less the participation, of flesh-and-blood Jews. Thus a series of massacres and forced conversions in the summer of 1391, followed by another in 1411–16, emptied Spain’s cities of Jews and reduced its Jewish population by as much as one-half. By 1500, the rest had been rooted out by the Inquisition, ostensibly in pursuit of insincerity, duplicity and backsliding among the converted. As the number of Jews fell, anxiety among Christians about how to distinguish themselves from Jews nonetheless rose. Jews were made to wear conspicuous badges and hats, and barred from selling food or medical services to Christians; converts were forbidden not only to marry their former co-religionists, but also to dine and socialize with them. Yet the search for lingering Jewish loyalties and hidden Jewish blood became ever more desperate and all-embracing, the language of poetry and painting ever more soaked in anti-Judaism, as the conviction took root that, as Erasmus said, Spain was full of Jews.

Neither the end of Catholic dominance in Northern Europe nor the rise of secularism reduced the potency of this language or the universality of its application. In the seventeenth century, the bloody disputes among Englishmen on the basis of political legitimacy and the nature of the godly republic were debated with imagery and examples from the Old Testament. In the eighteenth century, most of the leading figures of the Enlightenment found in Jews an archetypal subservience to avarice and deviousness, and in Judaism a compelling representation of primitive superstition as the progenitor of tyranny and persecution. Their nineteenth-century successors contrasted these “Jewish” habits of thought and feeling with the wholesome “Greek” values of reason and idealism, and agreed that their elimination was essential to the progress of society and the advance of reason. That way of thinking helped to shape the modern social sciences from their beginning. Marx called for “the emancipation of mankind from Judaism,” and Weber rehabilitated capitalism as a benevolent and progressive force by identifying it with Protestantism (as the outcome of Christian, not Jewish, attitudes to property and an expression of Christian spirituality, not Jewish materialism).

* * *

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.

Thank you for reading The Nation!

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read. It’s just one of many examples of incisive, deeply-reported journalism we publish—journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media. For nearly 160 years, The Nation has spoken truth to power and shone a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug.

In a critical election year as well as a time of media austerity, independent journalism needs your continued support. The best way to do this is with a recurring donation. This month, we are asking readers like you who value truth and democracy to step up and support The Nation with a monthly contribution. We call these monthly donors Sustainers, a small but mighty group of supporters who ensure our team of writers, editors, and fact-checkers have the resources they need to report on breaking news, investigative feature stories that often take weeks or months to report, and much more.

There’s a lot to talk about in the coming months, from the presidential election and Supreme Court battles to the fight for bodily autonomy. We’ll cover all these issues and more, but this is only made possible with support from sustaining donors. Donate today—any amount you can spare each month is appreciated, even just the price of a cup of coffee.

The Nation does not bow to the interests of a corporate owner or advertisers—we answer only to readers like you who make our work possible. Set up a recurring donation today and ensure we can continue to hold the powerful accountable.

Thank you for your generosity.

Ad Policy