January 3, 2020

How antisemitism rises on the left and right

David Nirenberg
Hate crimes against Jews have been on the rise around the country for several years, but this past month saw a spike in violence in the New York area. On December 10th, three people were fatally shot at a kosher supermarket in Jersey City, along with a police officer who was killed nearby. Eighteen days later, five people were stabbed at a Hanukkah celebration in an Orthodox community in Rockland County. In December, police also filed hate-crime charges against several people who attacked Orthodox Jews on the streets of Manhattan and Brooklyn. According to the Times, of the hate crimes that were reported to the New York City Police Department in 2019, more than half were directed at Jews. 

There have also been increased attacks on other racial and religious groups; hate crimes against African-Americans remain the most common racially motivated hate crimes, and there has been a significant rise in violence against Latinos and the transgender community in recent years. To what extent can anti-Jewish violence be tied to other hate crimes, and to what extent should it be understood as having a distinct history and motivations? To discuss these questions, I recently spoke by phone with David Nirenberg, the dean of the Divinity School at the University of Chicago, who has written extensively on the history of antisemitism. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed why prejudice against Jews seems to arise in so many different eras and contexts, and the unhelpfulness of always thinking about antisemitism as a manifestation of politics. 

Some historical eras, including ones you have written about, have been characterized by their relationship to antisemitism. Does it feel like we are in an era worth defining as such, and, if so, how would you characterize it? 

Yeah, it does feel to me like we are in an era worth defining in terms of antisemitism or anti-Judaism, by which I mean we are in an era where many different societies are reviving ways of explaining the complexity of the world in terms of the dangers posed by Judaism or Jews. It is not always real Jews. There are many societies that spend a lot of time thinking about Jews and Judaism where there are no Jews actually living today. And I think we are definitely in a period in which more and more registers of multiple societies are thinking in those ways. We often think of antisemitic periods as periods in which thinking about Judaism is a convincing way of explaining what’s wrong with the world to people on many parts of the political spectrum, like in Europe in the first half of the twentieth century. And I think we are similarly in such a period today. 

Do you think it is worth thinking of antisemitism today as akin to the prejudices that afflict many different religious and ethnic minorities, such as Muslims or Hispanics in the United States? Or is it distinct in important ways? 

That’s a really tough question, and, in some ways, I hate to distinguish between different forms of prejudice or hate. When you think about some of the most enduring prejudices, for example, the asymmetries of power between men and women, these are structural aspects of our global society. But I do think antisemitism is distinctive in certain ways. One of those ways is that it really does transcend particular political contexts. There aren’t a great number of Jews in Hungary or Poland, but thinking about Jews is a crucial part of nationalism, or anti-globalization or whatever you want to call it, in Hungary and Poland today. And I think that’s different from the way most of the other groups you mentioned are used in the world’s imagination. 

This is a really difficult topic to think about, and I would like to think we are each entitled to study our own hate without having to study all the others. But we can see symptoms of a distinction in our own age. I don’t think, for example, that people in many parts of the world where there aren’t Muslim immigrants are thinking really centrally about their own society in terms of Islam, and I would say the same thing might be true of some racial prejudices that are central to the United States but don’t play a very large role in other societies. But what’s curious about antisemitism or anti-Judaism is how it can be put to work by many societies that really have nothing to do with living Jews or Judaism. 

When many of the people in these societies think about immigration, even though the problem they see isn’t Jews immigrating to these societies, they do think about Judaism in order to explain the immigration they see as threatening their society. So, in the United States, France, Hungary, and many other places, replacement-theory ideologies explain replacement in terms of the machinations of the Jews, or the Jewish global order. Anti-Judaism is actually a system of thought that people can use to explain many of the challenges they face, even when there are no Jews around. And that has a flexibility that, in the worst moments, allows many parts of society to agree that Jews are the problem in a way you don’t always see coalescing around other distinctions.

You mentioned Poland and Hungary, and what you say seems convincing. But it’s probably not coincidental that both of those countries are seeing a type of right-wing xenophobia that is not just focussed on Jews. Even though there is something unique about antisemitism, does it rise and fall with political trends? 

I think that is absolutely right about antisemitism, even though I am going to keep using “anti-Judaism.” I think it is more important to understand the system of thought that understands the challenges one confronts as posed by Judaism, that’s anti-Judaism, than it is to understand the focus of antisemitism on real Jews who need to be attacked or defeated. I don’t think we can understand the power of antisemitism if we don’t first understand that vast system of thought, which was transmitted and taught by Christianity and Islam and many different kinds of thoughts, and many different kinds of philosophy, from idealism to Marxism, which really understood capital or materialism or legalism or greed in terms of Judaism. So once you understand that system of thought, you can understand why it is possible for people to imagine that their world is threatened by Judaism, even when they have no real Jews around them to be antisemitic toward. 

But back to your original question. I think that, in every moment in which antisemitism really becomes an organizing principle in society, and anti-Judaism starts to do a lot of work in society, it is because of political polarizations, economic stresses, et cetera, which make that language of anti-Judaism so useful as a system of thought. Every context is different, every period is different, but the reason that antisemitism can be put to work in so many contexts and periods is because anti-Judaism is such an integral part of the ways we have learned to imagine the challenges we face in the material world. 

What would be an example of people in the twenty-first century using anti-Judaism to describe how they see the world? 

Let me give you an example, which spurred me to write the book “Anti-Judaism.” It happened in 2001, in mid-September. I was heading to New York City to give a talk at N.Y.U. It was the day George W. Bush was speaking at Ground Zero. There were only two other people on the subway car, and they were trying to explain to each other why this new kind of terror had struck New York. They had two answers for each other. One said that it was the Jews’ greed, and that the Jews had turned New York into a symbol of capitalism, and that’s why everybody hates us, and the other said, yes, and because they killed Christ. 

O.K., you might say this is ridiculous. I remember feeling a bit of shock at hearing two explanations for 9/11 that were perfectly familiar to people in the Middle Ages. When the plague struck Barcelona, both explanations were used, about usury and the killing of Christ. Now, of course, I am not saying it is the same. The context isn’t the same. But here you have an example of two twenty-first century people who are explaining this new threat to their world in terms that are very familiar and anti-Jewish. Do they also make sense in twenty-first-century terms? Sure, New York still represents lots of things in twenty-first-century globalization, and Christianity and its offshoots remain powerful ways of explaining the moral order of the world for many people. There is nothing archaic about this. But it is stunning to see what I call “moral memes” that have such persistent power across time, and so I set out to explain how it can be that history matters, that the past of how people have learned to think about Judaism matters to how we enact our politics in the present. 

That story reminded me of the joke about the Jews being the only people blamed for both communism and capitalism. It’s a funny line, but it makes me think anew that the details are less important, and it’s the explanatory power that makes it fit for all occasions. 

Yeah. I think details are important to understand how these things came to make sense in so many different places and systems of thought. And it is important to understand how things are being put to work right now. I think you need both: you need the details of the past, and you need the details of the present. 

I think we have a tendency to think that antisemitism is just a political problem, and it is always a problem of the politics of the other. If we do that, we don’t understand why it is possible for antisemitism to work across so many different parts of our society in ways that makes it truly dangerous. And the reason it is possible is that it is the product of some pretty deep habits we have about the world. 

Wouldn’t the counter be that it is able to operate across all these different parts of society because it appeals to people all across the political spectrum? 

That’s not really an explanation. That’s just a description. You need to explain why it appeals. And that’s where you need to take seriously the way in which our own values or ideals have come to be expressed in terms that grew out of ways of thinking about the overcoming of Judaism. And I think that’s pretty easy to see if you think about Christianity or Islam, two religions that had to do a lot of work to distance themselves from the Hebrew Bible and Judaism and the claims of primacy of the Jews and their text. I think it is pretty easy to understand if you take seriously the impact of Christianity and Islam on much of what came later. 

Do you just mean that religions have lots of followers? What specifically do you mean about “what came later”? 

I mean it’s really interesting to see how many of the founders of the great philosophical movements of modernity are thinking with Judaism and using Judaism to represent a wrong way of thinking about the world, usually an excess literalism, or think of Marx and his famous essay “On the Jewish Question” and how he represents capital as Jewish. The reason he is doing so is that he is influenced by Hegel, who is influenced by a Protestant putting-to-work of the overcoming of Judaism. That’s what I mean when I say that some of our most modern, philosophical ways of trying to imagine how to improve the world have incorporated within themselves plenty of thinking about Judaism. 

Isaac Chotiner is a staff writer at The New Yorker, where he is the principal contributor to Q. & A., a series of timely interviews with major public figures in politics, media, books, business, technology, and more. Before joining The New Yorker, Chotiner was a staff writer at Slate and the host of the podcast “I Have to Ask.” He has written for The New Yorker, the Times, The Atlantic, the Times Literary Supplement, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal. After graduating from the University of California, Davis, Chotiner worked at The Washington Monthly before joining The New Republic, in 2006, as a reporter-researcher. He went on to run the magazine’s online books section and later became a senior editor.

Source: The New Yorker