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Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition

Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition

by David Nirenberg

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“Exhilarating . . . a scholarly tour de force. The story Nirenberg has to tell is not over.”—Adam Kirsch, Tablet

This incisive history upends the complacency that confines anti-Judaism to the ideological extremes in the Western tradition. With deep learning and elegance, David Nirenberg shows how foundational anti-Judaism is to the


“Exhilarating . . . a scholarly tour de force. The story Nirenberg has to tell is not over.”—Adam Kirsch, Tablet

This incisive history upends the complacency that confines anti-Judaism to the ideological extremes in the Western tradition. With deep learning and elegance, David Nirenberg shows how foundational anti-Judaism is to the history of the West.

Questions of how we are Jewish and, more critically, how and why we are not have been churning within the Western imagination throughout its history. Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans; Christians and Muslims of every period; even the secularists of modernity have used Judaism in constructing their visions of the world. The thrust of this tradition construes Judaism as an opposition, a danger often from within, to be criticized, attacked, and eliminated. The intersections of these ideas with the world of power—the Roman destruction of the Second Temple, the Spanish Inquisition, the German Holocaust—are well known. The ways of thought underlying these tragedies can be found at the very foundation of Western history.

Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post - Michael S. Roth
David Nirenberg's Anti-Judaism is a thorough, scholarly account of why, in the history of the West, Jews have been so easy to hate…Nirenberg's command of disparate sources and historical contexts is impressive. His account of the development of Christianity and Islam is scholarly yet readable. And his portrayal of the role that Judaism has played as a foil for the consolidation of religious and political groups is, for this Jewish reader, chilling. Nirenberg is not interested, as he repeatedly insists, in arguing that Christianity and Islam are "anti-Semitic." Instead, he is concerned with tracing the work that the idea of Judaism does within Western culture.
Publishers Weekly
Based on a decade of exhaustive research, this book explores “anti-Judaism” as an intellectual current (as opposed to its overtly political and social analogue, anti-Semitism) from ancient Egypt through to the Frankfurt School and just after the Holocaust. Nirenberg (Communities of Violence), professor of medieval history and social thought at the University of Chicago, contends that anti-Judaism is “one of the basic tools with which was constructed,” yet he stresses that this device depended less on an acquaintance with real Jews, and more on “figural Jews,” ciphers for all that a particular thinker opposed. Martin Luther, for example, not only criticized Jews for clinging to the “killing letter” of the law, he also hurled accusations against the Roman Catholic Church for its “Jewish” tendencies; Luther’s adversaries, meanwhile, accused the Jews of using him to undermine the Church. Nirenberg, whose scholarship is concerned primarily with the historical and cultural intersections of the Abrahamic religions, is particularly strong in his treatment of the Enlightenment, illustrating how Christian anti-Jewish memes were adopted by secular, rationalist thinkers. Though Nirenberg gives short shrift to American intellectualism, and his examination terminates after the Holocaust, this is nevertheless a magisterial work of intellectual history. Agent: Georges Borchardt. (Feb.)
R. I. Moore - Nation
“Learned and disquieting. . . . Anti-Judaism identifies a persistent and pervasive thread in the fabric of Western thought that no future commentary . . . will be entitled to ignore.”
Michael S. Roth - Washington Post
“Chilling. . . . Nirenberg offers his painful and important history so that we might recognize these patterns [of intolerance and violence] in hopes of not falling into them yet again.”
Michael Walzer - New York Review of Books
“Brilliant, fascinating.”
Kirkus Reviews
A complicated, ultimately rewarding history tracing how the engagement with "Jewish questions" have shaped 3,000 years of Western thought. Nirenberg (Medieval History and Social Thought/Univ. of Chicago; Communities of Violence: Persecution of Minorities in the Middle Ages, 1996, etc.) fashions a fascinating, albeit densely academic study of how writers and thinkers from Jesus to Marx to Edward Said have recycled ideas about Jews and Jewishness in creating their own constructions of reality. From the earliest eras, people have been formulating ideas about, and mostly against, Jews, despite their relatively small numerical representation on the world stage--e.g., the Egyptians resented the Jews as "agents of a hated imperial power" (the Persians). Enlisting his formidable army of sources, Nirenberg demonstrates how, in the ancient world, Jews were viewed as noncitizens, a force to be repelled against and even exterminated. Characteristics of "misanthropy, impiety, lawlessness and universal enmity" attached to Moses and his people would be reaffirmed in writings from the Christian Gospels to Shakespeare. Church officials equated Jews with carnality and the flesh, while the Muslims deemed them "hypocrites" and "non-believers." In the medieval era, Jews worked for monarchs as moneylenders, and thus, resisting their influence became a preoccupation from the Spanish Inquisition to the Enlightenment philosophes. Even the revolutionaries of France were attempting a conversion from an ancient, loathed "Mosaic" system of "slavery to law and letter" to one of truth and freedom. Nirenberg doggedly probes how these inherited ideas of Jewishness created (especially to the modern reader) a "creeping calamity," coloring history itself. The author takes issue with lazy "habits of thought" that even the greatest thinkers dared not reflect on and challenge. A bold, impressive study that makes refreshing assertions about our ability to redirect history.

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Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
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Meet the Author

David Nirenberg is the Deborah R. and Edgar D. Jannotta Professor of Medieval History and Social Thought at the University of Chicago, where he is also director of the Neubauer Family Collegium for Culture and Society.

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