Saturday, May 24, 2014

Anti-Judaism The Western Tradition by David Nirenberg

Professor David Nirenberg of the University of Chicago has re-framed Antisemitism in the context of the Western tradition as a natural progression in the history of ideas.  He starts with pre-Christian and pre-Islamic eras to show that an animus toward not just Jews but also "Judaism" has existed from the beginning of the emergence of Western Thought.  He describes personages, Manetho and Apion (from ancient Greece and ancient Rome respectively) as harboring anti-Jewish opinions.  He shows his power of exegesis in explaining the disagreements of the emerging Christian church and how the Jewish rejection of Jesus translates into a progression of thought that counters a Jewish world outlook. Christianity defines itself in contradistinction to Judaism.  Its philosophy develops turning away from the Jewish path.  Similarly, the professor shows a similar pattern occurs with the rise of Mohammed and the advent of Islam.  Jewish rejection of Mohammed develops into deep animus toward the Jewish religion.  Professor Nirenberg guides the reader through the ages showing with virtuoso power of interpretation how during the Middle Ages, the Reformation, the Renascence and the Enlightenment Jewish constructs are created and perceptions of Judaism set up only to be torn down.  The author often notes that these constructs are often devoid of real Jews.  A simple example would be that Jewish Law represents material and Christian Love represents spiritual, the "Jewish" temporal pitted against the "Christian" eternal, one being of course superior to the other.  Throughout our Western tradition Jewish constructs or "Judaism" are set up only to be torn down or at least held as a example of what is least desired.

What I found annoying about the Professor's style was his determination to state almost constantly that his interest was not to evaluate the truth of these Jewish constructs nor to state whether these constructs had any relevance to real Jews, but rather to take seriously the existence of such perceptions.  Reality in many ways is determined by perception.  His style for me was so difficult, I had trouble understanding where the author stood on the issue of Antisemitism.  His determined effort to preface Church fathers with Saint or never allowing the name Jesus to dangle alone without the Christian assumption of his being gave me pause to wonder whether the author was taking sides in the discussion of Anti Judaism by being a Christian or merely a secular scholar who was just using common terminology.

I sensed some opinions and prejudices.  Why the author needed to inject that a Palestinian narrative was understandable based on his exegesis of the progression of Anti Judaism seemed unnecessary and the praise of Edward Said seemed gratuitous.  When referring to actual Jewish communities from Eastern Europe migrating to the USA, the author calls them "yammering in Yiddish" to emphasize their strangeness and only glossing over the reasons for the migrations by saying they left for "a variety of reasons"  Why the author restrained himself from commenting on the difficult animus coming from the Czar was baffling to me.{Or perhaps Czarist animus was omitted because old fashioned antisemitism stemming from "Deicide hatred" does not fit the author's thesis}

It was only in the epilogue that the author's intent became more clear to me.  He lamented the lack of critical reflection about the Jewish constructs and "Judaism".  That the university, a place for free expression of ideas could be so marred by antisemitism and anti Judaism.  He called for critical reflection.  Unfortunately for me, this read was frustrating.  No doubt one could discern great learning and understanding, even profound exegesis of the Western Tradition by the author.  I expected, however, to hear outrage or condemnation or at least where the thinkers of the past got Judaism wrong, so that one could not go away from reading the book being complacent about the existence of Antisemitism.

My own thoughts on the subject are somewhat basic without claiming the authority of a professional historian.  I am not surprised at the animus toward "Judaism"nor did I ever think that Professor Nirenberg's thesis could not be easily proven.   Jewish civilization poses a unique manifestation in the history of the world.  In ancient Greece, Hellenism swept the world with everyone assimilating to Greek ways until Hellenism comes to the land of Israel.  Upheaval ensues because of Jewish rejection of Hellenism (even though the Jewish world suffered a rupture of civil war about the adoption of Hellenistic ways)  Separateness out of rejection results in animus.  The same happened with ancient Rome.  Who had the audacity to reject the Roman juggernaut?  Even Josephus thought that his own people were on a suicide course. The Jews revolt and reject Rome and although defeated, the Jewish people do not go off into the sunset. The Roman reaction is cruel and violent destroying and negating the Jewish identity of Israel no longer calling it "Judea" but rather "Palestine".  In their exile they, the Jewish people continue to be separate rejecting the outside or at least adapting to the outside without divorcing there own value system.  Why such a small insignificant people command such attention in the world?  Because the Western tradition defines itself in contradistinction to that small civilization of the Jews.  The Jews refuse to be Christian or Muslim much like they reject Hellenic and Roman civilizations.  The key is not what the Jewish people do but the absence of doing the expected. For example, the Jewish community in Brooklyn NY is one that rejects the outside and instead of being left alone with a "live and let live" attitude. animus can be sensed against them by the surrounding non Jewish communities. Separateness out of rejection results in animus.  Such animus is irrational because the Jewish people do not do anything to deserve the animus.  Although simply stated, the sentence is quite complex psychologically.  One can see this theme in Luther's life (he expected them to do something - convert) and even in Voltaire's life (the Jews refuse to "be human" like everyone else).  The hatred is not rational because it is based on someone else's expectation.  It is not a legitimate reaction to an actual salvo of invective. The animus morphs, however, into thoughts and ideas of us/them, good/ bad, ideal/wanting  etc.  {The Biblical book of Esther expresses this idea.}

There is irony in the fact that Marx called the USA "Jewish", negatively addressing the nature of capitalism.   The USA is one of the least Antisemitic countries founded on the principle of "live and let live" in terms of religious freedom.  In the USA, there has been little animus by comparison of Europe against the Jews because "separateness" in America is a value.  The USA is a salad bowl of culture, of ethnic diversity: its ok to be different.

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