Jews & Judaism
In a review article in The New Republic on David Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition, Anthony Grafton looks at the long and distasteful, but real, history of what can be considered the world's longest hatred of a people—that directed against the Jews during their long, illustrious history. Hatred often springs from envy and jealously, the bringing forth of strong emotions that are unchecked and irrational. These outward expressions of the hateful mind are visceral and palpable, and often dangerous, having lead to many atrocities and crimes against humanity.
That there has been, and continues to be, many attempts of trying to understand the roots of such long-standing hatred is understandable, if not admirable. Yet, even as this is done, it persists and morphs into other forms—despite attempts by many to rid the world of this noxious hatred—even the invention of imaginary figures and features taking on mythical proportions. No doubt, the business of hatred is a multi-headed Hydra. Small wonder, then, that in Anti-Semite and Jew (1946), Jean-Paul Sartre writes, “If the Jew did not exist, the anti-Semite would invent him.”
Or at least an unattractive form of him. Countering this are a number of books, articles and essays, which shows a strong determination among the Jews to understand what, perhaps, cannot be easily understood. On one level it is easy to understand, since hate of another—he often portrayed as a flattened character or a caricature—is a convenient mode of creating fear and thus seizing control; on another level, it becomes a complicated business, where hatred of the Jews serves some other purpose, however base it might be.
Anti-Judaism is an astonishing enterprise. It is certainly not the first effort to survey the long grim history of the charges that have been brought against the Jews by their long gray line of self-appointed prosecutors. During World War II, a learned rabbi named Joshua Trachtenberg brought out The Devil and the Jews, an erudite and wide-ranging effort to explain why Christians found it rational to associate Jews with Satan and malevolent magic, and charge them with crimes that would have been as ludicrous as the indictment of the witch in Monty Python and the Holy Grail if the punishments meted out had not been so savage. In 1955, Léon Poliakov, a Russian émigré who settled in France, published the first of four volumes in which he traced the history of anti-Semitism from antiquity to 1933. As the memory of the Holocaust spread outside the Jewish world, historians began to excavate in the archives that preserved its documents. New social and cultural explanations of the Judeocide, by professional scholars and passionate amateurs alike, now appear every year.
But Nirenberg is after different quarry: he does not trace the millennial story of the Jews and their conflicts with non-Jews, though he does describe individual and communal fights. Nor does he compile a catalogue of the vile ideas about Jews that non-Jews have entertained and publicized. He wants to know why: why have so many cultures and so many intellectuals had so much to say about the Jews? More particularly, he wants to know why so many of them generated their descriptions and explanations of Jewishness not out of personal knowledge or scholarly research, but out of thin air—and from assumptions, some inherited and others newly minted, that the Jews could be wholly known even to those who knew no Jews. Nirenberg’s answer—and to summarize it, as to summarize so much of this impassioned book, is to flatten it—is that ideas about the Jews can do, and have done, many different and important jobs. True, they are anything but stable: this is not a paper chase after some original idea of the Jew that crops up everywhere from early Christianity to early Nazism. Visions of the Jews change emphasis and content as the larger societies that entertain them change shape and texture. Ideas have multiple contexts, and Nirenberg shows dazzling skill and a daunting command of the sources as he observes the changes and draws connections between them and his authors’ larger worlds.No doubt, such illiterate and often-fantastical descriptions of the Jews have served the dubious purposes of those in power. That Christianity and Islam, competing religions, have conspired over the ages to belittle the Jews—often as a way to increase their importance on the world stage—is itself not surprising. That Jews have, during the various stages of their history, been portrayed as both powerful and weak, shows how ludicrous are the thoughts and actions of its enemies.
What this also suggests, at least initially, is that it is hard for some non-Jews (and a few Jews) to accept that such a small sliver of the world’s peoples (never more than one percent) has done so much to bettering civilization in their many and various contributions to the arts, science, philosophy, politics, religion and economics. The rational approach would be that instead of hating the Jews, the world ought to applaud them for tikkun olam—helping to repair the world. Yes, making it a better place for humanity through both pursuing knowledge and applying it humanely for all.
Yet, no rational argument will convince the haters to stop hating; such people will continue to mine the world's oldest hatred. Even so, despite this or because of this, the Jews will not stop trying to understand (and to reduce the influences of) the sources and conduits of such hatred. Such pursuit of knowledge is relentless; that alone gives us reason to pause; that advances and progress in our civilization has long been connected to Jewish thinking cannot be denied. Therefore, an attack on the Jewish People is, in effect, an attack on modern human civilization. That today we are witnessing such a strong coordinated attack on the Jews (often by proxy through Israel) suggests that our civilization is now in a dark period. Nothing to be cheery about, is it?
You can read the rest of the article at [New Republic].