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Imaginary Jews

1.

In 1844, Karl Marx published his essay “On the Jewish Question.” This wasn’t an engagement with Judaism, or with Jewish history, or even with the sociology of German Jews. Its occasion was the contemporary debate about Jewish emancipation, but its real purpose was to call for the overthrow of the capitalist order. The call was expressed in a language that is probably not surprising to readers today and that was entirely familiar to readers in the nineteenth century. Still, it is a very strange language. Capitalism is identified by Marx with Judaism, and so the overthrow of capitalism will be, he writes, “the emancipation of mankind from Judaism.” The argument is worth quoting, at least briefly:

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Hermitage, St. Petersburg/Bridgeman Art Library
Rembrandt: Portrait of an Old Jew, 1654
The Jew has already emancipated himself in a Jewish way…not only insofar as he has acquired financial power, but also insofar as, through him and without him, money has risen to world power and the practical Jewish spirit has become the practical spirit of the Christian peoples. The Jews have emancipated themselves to the extent that the Christians have become Jews.

“Through [the Jew] and without [the Jew]”—mostly without him: as Marx certainly knew, Jews made up a very small part of the moneyed elite of England, the most advanced capitalist country, and an even smaller part of the “rising” German bourgeoisie. His own father had converted to Protestantism in order to facilitate his entry into bourgeois society, where Jews were not welcome in the early nineteenth century.

What Marx is doing here, David Nirenberg argues in his brilliant, fascinating, and deeply depressing book Anti-Judaism, is exactly what many other writers have done in the long history of Western civilization. His essay is a “strategic appropriation of the most powerful language of opprobrium available to any critic of the powers and institutions of this world.” That sentence comes from Nirenberg’s discussion of Martin Luther, but it applies equally well to Marx. Still, we should be more surprised by Marx’s use of this language than by Luther’s, not only because of Marx’s Jewish origins but also because of his claim to be a radical critic of the ideology of his own time. He might, Nirenberg says, have questioned the association of Judaism and capitalism and written a critical history aimed at making his readers more reflective about that association. Instead, he chose to exploit “old ideas and fears about Jewishness.”

Consider another famous use of this language of opprobrium, this time not in support of but in fierce opposition to revolutionary politics. In his Reflections on the Revolution in France, published in 1790, Edmund Burke compared what was going on in France to previous revolutions (like England’s in 1688) that were led by noblemen “of great civil, and great military talents.” By contrast, he wrote, the revolutionary government in Paris is led by “Jew brokers contending with each other who could best remedy with fraudulent circulation and depreciated paper the wretchedness and ruin brought on their country by their degenerate councils.”

In Burke’s case, the choice of this language was probably not “strategic.” The choice was structural—anti-Judaism was a feature of the worldview with which Burke was able to recognize what Marxists later described as a “bourgeois” revolution. “Given the complete absence of Jews from the actual leadership, whether political, pecuniary, or philosophical, of the French Revolution,” Nirenberg writes, the line about “Jew brokers” (and also Burke’s proposal to help the revolutionaries by sending English Jews to France “to please your new Hebrew brethren”) may, again, seem very strange. In fact, it is utterly common; only Burke’s ferocious eloquence is uncommon.

Friendly writers have worked hard to exonerate Burke of anti-Semitism. Nirenberg says only that they miss the point. Burke certainly knew that Danton, Robespierre, Saint-Just, and their friends and enemies among the revolutionaries were, all of them, Catholics and lapsed Catholics (plus a few Protestants). They were only figurative Jews, imaginary Jews, who came to Burke’s mind, and to many other minds,

because the revolution forced him…to confront basic questions about the ways in which humans relate to one another in society. These were questions that two millennia of pedagogy had taught Europe to ask in terms of “Judaism,” and Burke had learnt the lesson well.

2.

Nirenberg’s book is about those two millennia and their pedagogy. It isn’t a book about anti-Semitism; it isn’t a history of the Jewish experience of discrimination, persecution, and genocide; it isn’t an example of what the historian Salo Baron called the “lachrymose” account of Jewish life in exile; nor is it an indictment of contemporary anti-Zionism or a defense of the state of Israel. The book is not about Jews at all or, at least, not about real Jews; it deals extensively and almost exclusively with imaginary Jews.

What Nirenberg has written is an intellectual history of Western civilization, seen from a peculiar but frighteningly revealing perspective. It is focused on the role of anti-Judaism as a constitutive idea and an explanatory force in Christian and post-Christian thought—though it starts with Egyptian arguments against the Jews and includes a discussion of early Islam, whose writers echo, and apparently learned from, Christian polemics. Nirenberg comments intermittently about the effects of anti-Judaism on the life chances of actual Jews, but dealing with those effects in any sufficient way would require another, and a very different, book.

Anti-Judaism is an extraordinary scholarly achievement. Nirenberg tells us that he has left a lot out (I will come at the end to a few things that are missing), but he seems to know everything. He deals only with literature that he can read in the original language, but this isn’t much of a limitation. Fortunately, the chapter on Egypt doesn’t require knowledge of hieroglyphics; Greek, Hebrew, and Latin are enough. Perhaps it makes things easier that the arguments in all the different languages are remarkably similar and endlessly reiterated.

A certain view of Judaism—mainly negative—gets established early on, chiefly in Christian polemics, and then becomes a common tool in many different intellectual efforts to understand the world and to denounce opposing understandings. Marx may have thought himself insightful and his announcement original: the “worldly God” of the Jews was “money”! But the identification of Judaism with materialism, with the things of this world, predates the appearance of capitalism in Europe by at least 1,500 years.

Since I want mostly to describe Nirenberg’s argument (and, though without the authority of his erudition, to endorse it), let me note quickly one bit of oddness in it. One could also write—it would be much shorter—a history of philo-Judaism. It might begin with those near-Jews, the “God-fearers” of ancient Rome, whom Nirenberg doesn’t mention. But the prime example would be the work of the Christian, mostly Protestant, Hebraists of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, who searched in biblical and rabbinic texts for God’s constitution and produced books with titles like The Hebrew Commonwealth. Many of these writers studied with Jewish scholars, chiefly from the Netherlands, but (with some notable exceptions) remained in most of their references to contemporary Jews conventionally anti-Semitic.

Nirenberg writes about these Christian Hebraists with his usual learning, but they don’t fit neatly into his book. They were looking for an ancient, biblical Judaism (with the rabbis of the talmudic age as helpful interpreters) that they could learn from, even imitate. Nirenberg’s proper subject is a hostile understanding of Judaism, early and late, reiterated by writers of very different sorts, with which the social-political-theological-philosophical world is constructed, enemies are identified, and positions fortified. Philo-Judaism is aspirational; anti-Judaism claims to be explanatory.

What is being explained is the social world; the explanatory tools are certain supposed features of Judaism; and the enemies are mostly not Jews but “Judaizing” non-Jews who take on these features and are denounced for doing so. I will deal with only a few of Judaism’s negative characteristics: its hyperintellectualism; its predilection for tyranny; its equal and opposite predilection for subversive radicalism; and its this-worldly materialism, invoked, as we’ve seen, by both Burke and Marx. None of this is actually descriptive; there certainly are examples of hyper-intellectual, tyrannical, subversive, and materialist Jews (and of dumb, powerless, conformist, and idealistic Jews), but Nirenberg insists, rightly, that real Jews have remarkably little to do with anti-Judaism.

3.

Speaking to German students in May 1933, a few months after the Nazis took power, Joseph Goebbels proclaimed that “the age of rampant Jewish intellectualism is now at an end.” Goebbels was a third-rate German intellectual (the word is unavoidable: he had a Ph.D.; he wrote articles; Nirenberg suggests that we think of him as an apostate intellectual). But he was making an argument that had been made by many less infamous, indeed, more worthy, figures. It begins in the Gospels, with the earliest attacks on the Judaism of the Pharisees. Christian supersessionist arguments—i.e., arguments about what aspects of Judaism had been superseded by Christianity—were based on a set of oppositions: law superseded by love, the letter by the spirit, the flesh (the material world, the commandments of the Torah, the literal text) by the soul. “I bless you father…,” writes Luke, “for hiding these things from the learned and the clever and revealing them to little children.”

The Pharisees were indeed learned and clever, as were their rabbinic successors; the discussions and disputations of the Talmud are a particularly revealing display of learning and cleverness. By comparison (it’s a self-description), the early Christians were naive and innocent children to whom God spoke directly, evoking the faith that brought salvation (which law and learning couldn’t do).

The difficulty here is that the Christians very quickly produced immensely learned, clever, and disputatious theologians of their own, who were then accused, and who accused each other, of Judaizing—thinking or acting like Jews. The earliest Christian writers, Paul most importantly, were engaged with actual Jews, in some mix of coexistence and competition that scholars are still trying to figure out. Nirenberg writes about Paul with subtlety and some sympathy, though he is the writer who sets the terms for much that comes later.

By the time of writers like Eusebius, Ambrose, and Augustine, the Jews had been, as Nirenberg says, “a twice-defeated people”—first militarily by the Romans and then religiously by the imperial establishment of Christianity. And yet the threat of Judaism grew greater and greater as the actual Jews grew weaker and weaker. According to their triumphant opponents, the Jews never gave up their hostility to Jesus and his followers (indeed, they didn’t convert). They were endlessly clever, ever-active hypocrites and tricksters, who mixed truth with falsehood to entice innocent Christians—in the same way that those who prepare lethal drugs “smear the lip of the cup with honey to make the harmful potion easy to drink.”

That last charge is from Saint John Chrysostom, who was such a violent opponent of “the Jews” that earnest scholars have assumed that Judaism must have posed a clear and present danger to Christianity in his time. In fact, Nirenberg tells us, there was no such danger; the people mixing the poison were Christian heretics. If Saint John feared the Jews, “it was because his theology had taught him to view other dangers in Jewish terms.”

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Bridgeman Art Library
The cover of a French edition of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, circa 1940

The critique of Jewish cleverness is fairly continuous over time, but it appears with special force among German idealist philosophers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, who repeat many of the supersessionist arguments of the early Christians. Kant understood the heteronomy he sought to overcome—action according to moral law externally imposed rather than freely accepted by the agent—in Jewish terms, but he was himself considered too Jewish by the philosophers who came next, most importantly by Hegel. Kantianism, Hegel claimed, was simply a new version of “the Jewish principle of opposing thought to reality, reason to sense; this principle involves the rending of life and a lifeless connection between God and the world.” According to Hegel, Abraham had made a fateful choice: his rejection of the world in favor of a sublime God had alienated the Jews forever from the beauty of nature and made them the prisoners of law, incapable of love. (Needless to say, Schopenhauer, in the next generation, thought that the academic Hegelians of his time were “Jews” and followers of “the Jewish God,” but I shall stop with Hegel himself.)

It isn’t Nirenberg’s claim that any of these philosophers were anti-Semites. Indeed, Hegel defended the rights of Jews in German universities and thought that anti-Semitic German nationalism was not “German-ness” but “German-stupid-ness.” Nor is Nirenberg arguing for any kind of intellectual determinism. He doesn’t believe that Goebbels’s attack on Jewish intellectualism was the necessary outcome of the German philosophical identification of Judaism with lifeless reason—any more than German idealism was the necessary outcome of Christian claims to supersede Pharasaic Judaism or of Lutheran claims to supersede the Judaizing Catholics. In all these cases, there were other possible outcomes. But philosophers like Hegel used the language of anti-Judaism to resolve “the ancient tension between the ideal and the real,” and their resolutions were enormously influential. The idea of Judaism as the enemy of “life” had a future.

4.

Judaism’s associations with worldly power and subversive rebellion are closely linked, for what is rebellion but an effort to seize power? So Jewish bankers can rule the world and Jewish Bolsheviks can aspire to overthrow and replace the bankers. In some alcoves of the Western imagination, the two groups can almost appear as co-conspirators. The populist anti-Semitism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (what August Bebel called “the socialism of fools”) has a long history. One very early example is Saint Ambrose’s response to the emperor Maximus, who punished the leaders of a Christian mob that burned a synagogue in the Mesopotamian city of Callinicum: “That king,” Ambrose said, “has become a Jew.” What made Maximus a “Jew” was not that he defended the Callinicum Jews but that he ranked enforcement of the law over the demands of the spirit (and the religious enthusiasm of the mob).

Often in the Middle Ages, Christian rulers were accused of Judaizing by populist rebels; the accusations had a curious doubleness. Tyranny was, first of all, imagined as a feature of Judaism, both when there were Jews at court (as physicians, advisers, tax collectors, and money-lenders) and when there were no Jews at court. The Jewish “seduction” of princes was one common way of understanding tyranny. Of course, Jewish seduction was often princely exploitation: the Jews were allowed to collect interest on loans to the king’s Christian subjects so that he could then “expropriate a considerable share of the proceeds.” It was a kind of indirect taxation, at a time when the royal power to tax was radically constrained. The indirectly taxed subjects resented the Jewish money-lenders, but, Nirenberg stresses, the resentment was politically acted out, again and again, in many times and places, though Jews rarely predominated in royal financial affairs “and then only for short periods of time.”

Anti-Judaism also had a second and rather different political usefulness. Jews were imagined not only as tyrants or the allies of tyrants but at the same time, and more realistically, as oppressed and powerless. Given their rejection of Jesus Christ and their complicity in his death, the oppression of the Jews was justified; but when a tyrannical ruler oppressed his Christian subjects, he could be accused of trying “to make a Jewry” out of them, which obviously wasn’t justified. “We would rather die than be made similar to Jews.” That last line is from a petition of the city council of Valencia to King Peter in 1378. So tyranny was twice understood in Jewish terms: a Judaizing prince treated his subjects like Jews.

Populist rebels obviously did not think of themselves as Jews; the construction of subversion and rebellion as “Jewish” was, and is, the work of conservative and reactionary writers. Among modern revolutionaries, the Puritans actually were Judaizers (focused far more on the Old than the New Testament), though with their own supersessionist theology. The use of the tropes of philo- and anti-Judaism during the English civil war made some sense, even though there were no Jews in England in the 1640s. The French revolutionaries were neither Jews nor Judaizers, though Burke and others understood them by invoking the “old ideas and fears.” But it was the Bolsheviks who, more than any other group of rebels, were widely understood as “Jewish.” It is true that many of them were Jews, though of the sort that Isaac Deutscher called “non-Jewish Jews.” Judaism had nothing at all to do with Bolshevism and yet, if Nirenberg is right, the Bolsheviks would have been explained in the language of anti-Judaism even if there had never been a Trotsky, a Kamenev, or a Radek among them.

5.

The identification of Jews with merchants, money-lenders, royal financiers, and predatory capitalists is constant in Nirenberg’s history. I will focus on one moment in that history, Shakespeare’s England and The Merchant of Venice, which will give me a chance to illustrate the difference between his anti-Judaism and the anti-Semitism that is the subject of more conventional, but equally depressing, histories. Anthony Julius’s Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England includes a long and very intelligent discussion of Shakespeare’s play.1 Julius calls The Merchant of Venice an anti-Semitic drama that is also a dramatization of anti-Semitism and the beginning of its literary investigation. Shakespeare, as always, writes from opposing perspectives, but he clearly leans toward Shylock’s enemies.

Shylock himself is the classic Jew: he hates Christians and desires to tyrannize over them; he loves money, more than his own daughter; he is a creature of law rather than of love. He isn’t, indeed, a clever Jew; in his attempt to use the law against his Christian enemy, he is unintelligent and inept. (A modern commentator, Kenneth Gross, asks: “What could [he] have been thinking?”) But in every other way, he is stereotypical, and so he merits the defeat and humiliation he receives—which are meant to delight the Elizabethan audience.

Julius doesn’t ask Nirenberg’s question: What put so many Jews (like Shylock or Marlowe’s Jew of Malta) on the new London stage, in “a city that had sheltered fewer ‘real Jews’ than perhaps any other major one in Europe”? His answer—I can’t reproduce his long and nuanced discussion—is that London was becoming a city of merchants, hence a “Jewish” city, and Shakespeare’s play is a creative response to that development, an effort to address the allegedly Judaizing features of all commercial relationships, and then to save the Christian merchants by distinguishing them from an extreme version of the Jew. But the distinction is open to question, and so the point of the play is best summed up when Portia asks, “Which is the merchant here, and which the Jew?” The play is about law and property, contracts, oaths, pledges, and promises. Shylock is the Jew of the gospels: “I stand here for law.” But he is defeated by a better lawyer and a more literal reading of the law: Portia out-Jews the Jew—which is surely an ironical version of Christian supersession.

So Shakespeare understands the arrival of modern commerce with the help of Judaism, though he knew no Jews and had never read a page of the Talmud. He knew the Bible, though, as Shylock’s speech about Jacob multiplying Laban’s sheep (Act 1, scene 3; Genesis 30) makes clear. And Paul and the gospels were a central part of his intellectual inheritance. Shylock emerges from those latter texts, much like, though the lineage is more complicated, Burke’s “Jew brokers” and Marx’s “emancipated Jews.” The line is continuous.

6.

Nirenberg’s epilogue addresses one major theorist’s denial of that continuity. In the preface to The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt mocks what she calls the doctrine of “eternal antisemitism” (this could serve, Nirenberg writes, “as an ironic title for my own book”) and insists that the “specifically Jewish functions” (banking and finance) in the capitalist economy made the Jews partly “responsible” (her word) for the hatred they evoked.2 This is much like Marx’s claim that “the Jews have eagerly contributed” to the triumph of their “worldly cult,” “Haggling,” and their “worldly God,” “Money.”

Arendt actually draws on the statistical work of Walter Frank, a Nazi economist, who headed an Institute for the History of the New Germany, to support her account of the role of the Jews in the German bourgeoisie. It can’t be the case, she argues, that the Nazis, who had “to persuade and mobilize people,” could have chosen their victims arbitrarily. There has to be a concrete answer, a local socioeconomic answer, to the question: Why the Jews?

Nirenberg agrees that the choice of the Jews was not arbitrary; nor does he find Arendt’s argument surprising—though he rejects all the usual hostile explanations: her assimilationist childhood, her long relationship with Heidegger, and so on. He does think it remarkable that Arendt “clung” to her argument about Jewish responsibility “even after the full extent and fantastic projective power of Nazi anti-Semitism (including its vast exaggeration of the Jews’ economic importance) became clear.” But his whole book is a kind of explanation for why she found it so easy to connect Jews and finance: the connection was one of “the a priori ideological commitments that structured her selection and interpretation of ‘facts’ about the Jews.”

The disagreement with Arendt nicely sums up Nirenberg’s book. His argument is that a certain view of Judaism lies deep in the structure of Western civilization and has helped its intellectuals and polemicists explain Christian heresies, political tyrannies, medieval plagues, capitalist crises, and revolutionary movements. Anti-Judaism is and has long been one of the most powerful theoretical systems “for making sense of the world.” No doubt, Jews sometimes act out the roles that anti-Judaism assigns them—but so do the members of all the other national and religious groups, and in much greater numbers. The theory does not depend on the behavior of “real” Jews.

Nirenberg’s history of anti-Judaism is powerful and persuasive, but it is also unfinished. It never gets to the United States, for example, where anti-Judaism seems to have been less prevalent and less useful (less used in making sense of society and economy) than it was and is in the Old World—and where philo-Judaism seems to have a much larger presence. The modern state of Israel also makes no appearance in Nirenberg’s book, except for one sentence on the next-to-last page:

We live in an age in which millions of people 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.”

So we have a partial discontinuity (the US) and an unexplored continuity (contemporary Israel) with Nirenberg’s history. There is still work to be done. But here, in this book, anti-Judaism has at last found its radical critic.

  1. 1

    Oxford University Press, 2010, pp. 178–192. 

  2. 2

    Harcourt, 1968, pp. 5–7, 9. 

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