Anti-Judaism: A History of a Way of Thinking by David Nirenberg

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Anti-Judaism: A History of a Way of Thinking by David Nirenberg

Category: History
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Stacey Barkley
Reviewed by Stacey Barkley
Summary: A fascinating, scholarly tour de force of the role Judaism has played in the history of ideas of the Western world.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 610 Date: July 2013
Publisher: Head of Zeus
ISBN: 9781781851135

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Initially the choice of title seemed an odd one on account of the more widely used term, anti-Semitism. The distinction is quickly made though, that unlike the latter, anti-Judaism does not need real Jews to flourish, but is fuelled by an idea alone. In fact this is a core tenet of Nirenberg’s thesis. Throughout history the idea of ‘Judaism’ is raised as an existential spectre in societies where there may be no Jewish members at all. This is a chilling reality, and Nirenberg charts the course of how this came to be.

Revisiting Ancient Egypt Nirenberg highlights an Egyptian tradition dating from around 320 BCE that retold the Exodus story in terms not of the Hebrews escape, but of their expulsion from Egypt as a punishment. Nirenberg makes clear from the outset that this mode of thought (anti-Judaism) is certainly not of modern invention. Continuing to examine the history of Hellenistic Egypt we discover how, through a series of power struggles and invasions, the Jews were often positioned in the middle of factions and so came to be subject to hostility from multiple fronts. Thus what we see is an Egyptian model of scapegoating Judaism that would come to be employed throughout history for all manner of purposes.

On moving on to explore the rise of Christianity Nirenberg charts how this way of thinking about Judaism came to be cemented. As a young faith engaged in a struggle to set itself apart from and to overcome Judaism, and seeking legitimation and credence, Christianity moved to denounce Judaism. In doing so a representation was established which set Judaism as an erroneous perception and cognition concerned with all that was carnal and bodily, as opposed to the higher spiritual elements that Christianity sought to place at its centre.

This representation would prove a powerful and long lasting one throughout Western thought. Nirenberg takes us on a journey through history ranging from seventeenth century Spain, to Shakespeare’s stage and right up to modern fascism, showing how this representation was employed as the ideas of the Jew and Judaism were reworked and reshaped each time in order to meet the aim of particular groups. To rouse support for a cause, to quieten dissent, to point to everything one’s group was not, Judaism was the tool of choice.

Nirenberg upturns a great irony of this tool when considering Enlightenment Europe. Anti-Judaism as a mode of thought is shown to be so deeply ingrained in Western thought, that those philosophers seeking to triumph toleration used the isolation of Judaism in order to make their argument as well as to garner support for it. Toleration seemingly had its limits.

Working through the trajectory of a vast history armed with an impressive array of original sources, Nirenberg weaves together the many forms of anti-Judaism he has identified to create one larger picture that has much to say. Highlighting the continuities between past and present ideas of Judaism, it is clear that the past continues to impact the ways in which we think and there is no doubt that an element of anti-Judaism has pervaded Western thought for centuries. While this on the surface may seem a bleak conclusion, Nirenberg has charted these patterns so that light may be shed upon historical constraints on our thought, to encourage critical thinking, and ultimately, to avoid our falling into these same patterns indefinitely so.

Certainly not a pleasant read, but nevertheless an important one that seeks to open up and challenge how we think.

If this book appeals then we can also recommend On the Eve: The Jews of Europe before the Second World War by Bernard Wasserstein.

Buy Anti-Judaism: A History of a Way of Thinking by David Nirenberg at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Anti-Judaism: A History of a Way of Thinking by David Nirenberg at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Anti-Judaism: A History of a Way of Thinking by David Nirenberg at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Anti-Judaism: A History of a Way of Thinking by David Nirenberg at Amazon.com.


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