A Jew-Shaped Space

This is a guest post by Eve Garrard

Anyone who’s interested in the role played in Western culture by the idea of the Jew, and in what that idea is actually like, will be interested in a review by Michael Walzer of a book which focuses on precisely those issues: Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition by David Nirenberg.  I haven’t read Nirenberg’s book, but so characteristically clear and thorough is Walzer’s review that it’s possible to get a working understanding of what Nirenberg’s main thesis is.  Because I haven’t yet read the book, I won’t here try to consider whether it’s true or even plausible (though Walzer clearly thinks it is both). What I want to do is see what follows if the thesis does turn out to be correct – i.e. what its implications might be.

If Walzer has correctly understood Nirenberg (I’d bet the farm on that), and if I’ve correctly understood Walzer (not quite as certain!), then Nirenberg is arguing that a hostile picture of Jews – of Jewishness itself –  is deeply embedded in Western culture, and has been for two millennia.  So far that’s neither novel nor contentious; what’s interesting is his further claim that the embedding takes a very distinctive and powerful form, in which the (supposed) nature of Jewishness  provides an intellectual framework for understanding the various social ills and conflicts which are always in crying need of explanation.  The picture of the Jew which plays this role is itself fairly familiar: Jews are seen as obnoxiously hyper-intellectual; as both tyrannical and subversively radical; as preferring the letter of the law to the spirit of love; above all, as being associated with material goods and money, and hence eventually with capitalism.  Most significantly, in Nirenberg’s view, the elements of this picture are not derived from experience of Jews (the picture flourishes even where there are no Jews to be found); rather they are presuppositions brought to bear on the social problems of the day. These presuppositions form an explanatory framework which can be used to make sense of the dangers which threaten people, and hence to some extent it helps them to feel that they can in part control events, as explanations generally do. If social life can be understood in terms of the opposition between Jew and Christian, Jew and ethnically-rooted native, Jew and honest merchant, Jew and humanitarian socialist, then those in the grip of these oppositions have a way of identifying their (supposed) enemies, and locating what needs to be done to protect themselves, not only from Jews but also from the Judaising threat of those who have been seduced or suborned by Jews into becoming like them, and sharing their anti-life values.

This account of social relations in terms of the malign influence of Jewishness has nothing much to do with actual Jews – there are of course some Jews who fit the specification, but then any social group will have some members who fit that specification, and there are plenty of Jews who don’t. The picture is of an imaginary Jew, but it nonetheless has played a very powerful role in the way people in the Western world understand their social and political lives.  It’s been around for about two millennia, originating perhaps in early Christianity (though it may have pre-dated even that).  And it can be found, persisting steadily through the centuries: in Shakespeare; in Luther; in Burke; in Kant, Hegel and Schopenhauer; and of course in the horrors of the 20th century with which we’re all so painfully familiar.  The prevalence of the picture doesn’t require the local existence of any actual Jews: there were few (possibly no) Jews in Shakespeare’s England, and Burke accused the leaders of the French Revolution of being deplorably Jewish while knowing that none of them were actually Jews.  Indeed the main target  of this anti-Judaism isn’t so much the Jew at all (especially when Jews are so thin on the ground); it’s primarily aimed at non-Jewish enemies whose depravity  can be seen, and condemned,  as amounting to seduction or suborning by the influential Jew.

If Nirenberg’s view is right, then we can see why it’s so hard to fight against those who single out Jewishness for special disapprobation.  A hostile picture of Jews stemming from what they (supposedly) stand for isn’t learned from experience by people who use that picture to understand their world; rather it’s brought in advance to that experience as an explanatory framework through which their experience can be understood.  Those who use this framework feel that what’s needed is to identify the Judaisers in a situation, and then they’ll know who’s to blame for it. If they can see who’s behaving like a Jew, then they’ll understand what’s gone wrong and who the wrongdoers are, and thereby make it possible to change things for the better.  Because these assumptions about Jews aren’t learned from experience but are brought to it already fully-formed, experience won’t undermine them, since all experience will be re-interpreted to conform to the assumptions.  And there’s a long long tradition of doing this – it will come naturally to many people, and it will be satisfying to them to deploy these ancient tropes in order to yield explanations of new phenomena.

At first sight this is a very depressing conclusion.  There’s an ugly Jew-shaped space in Western civilisation; the shape is filled with the hostilities of the day, whose explanation can allegedly be traced back to the faults of Judaism; worst of all, these beliefs about Jews are a priori, and hence insulated from any empirical refutation.  Actually even at second or third or fourth sight it’s still pretty depressing, especially in the light of the adoption of these presuppositions by significant parts of the Islamic world as well. It’s a notable feature of the conflict in Egypt between the Moslem Brotherhood and the current military regime that each side has accused the other of being Jews (with, of course, zero probability in both cases).  Nor has the anti-Judaism which Nirenberg diagnoses vanished from Europe: the conflict in the Ukraine is providing some very unpleasant examples of it.  The Western and Middle Eastern versions of this use of the imaginary Jew can be seen holding hands, in ways which would be maximally dispiriting if they weren’t also funny, here:

Nirenberg’s thesis is about anti-Judaism, not anti-Semitism, but it’s hard to believe (and neither Nirenberg nor Walzer do believe) that such profound hostility to what Judaism is supposed to be like isn’t powerfully influential in generating hostility towards Jews themselves.  There’s no doubt that the Nirenberg thesis, if correct, isn’t good news.  Nonetheless, it has some implications that are worth considering, and not all of them are entirely negative.

First, if the thesis is right, it helps us to understand why hostility to Jews, and to the Jewish state, is so peculiarly resistant to rational argument. We can see why questions about why Israel is singled out for special hostility when there are plenty of far worse malefactors in the international arena get no purchase on many anti-Zionists. If they come to their views about Israel’s special malign influence on international events by way of a prior assumption that Jewishness is what explains the world’s troubles, then it’s no surprise that they have a special focus on the world’s only Jewish state.

Second, Nirenberg’s thesis identifies this view of Judaism as prevalent for the last two millennia.  If this is right, then such a long-standing tradition is bound to be very difficult to erase or even reduce.  In the two or three decades following the Holocaust, many people in the West were embarrassed to express hostility to Judaism or Jews, but this response seems to be steadily dissipating, perhaps by way of the claim that the Jews bring hostility on themselves by their actions in, or support for, Israel. Again we can see the development of an imaginary Jewish nationalism, as evidenced  in the remarks of Clare Short or Jenny Tonge, or those anti-Zionists who declare, in the teeth of the evidence , that Israel is committing genocide against the Palestinians.

Third, we should however bear in mind that Western culture (like most cultures) isn’t homogeneous.  Alongside the anti-Judaism tradition is another one of philo-Judaism, less deeply embedded and powerful, perhaps, but present and active.  And also there is a tradition in at least parts of Western culture of universalism, of treating Jews as possessing the same rights of self-defence and self-determination as other people do.

Fourth, we should remember that cultures can and do change.  Attitudes towards women and homosexuals in Western culture have improved very considerably over the last few decades.  It’s not impossible that the hostile picture of the imaginary Jew could eventually lose its grip, cease to be a lens through which social conflicts are viewed and explained, and be ultimately replaced by something much less melodramatic and a lot closer to reality.

Fifth, we might feel, facing and perhaps accepting a view such as Nirenberg’s, that the argumentative struggle is pointless, that it can make no headway against those whose presuppositions, conscious or not, are so relentlessly hostile to the imaginary Jew, in ways that spill over towards very real Jews indeed.  But this is unnecessarily pessimistic, or so I hope.  It’s true that there are some people whose throttle-hold on the imaginary Jew is too strong to be broken.  But there are always others who haven’t fully absorbed this deplorable aspect of Western culture, whose ideas are still fluid enough to be affected by rational argument.  And alongside them, there are the real and non-imaginary Jews themselves, who can be strengthened by hearing reasonable views and arguments about their situation, or alternatively weakened by the absence of such intellectual and emotional support.  And lastly, there’s one good reason why it’s worth continuing the intellectual struggle:  as the late and greatly-missed Norman Geras said when asked about this, ‘Of course we must continue.  What else is there to do?’