In our March/April issue, we examine the roots and legacy of that ancient hatred, anti-Semitism. Here we highlight one response, from David Nirenberg, a historian at the University of Chicago who studies how different religions have interacted from Medieval to modern times. He is the author most recently of Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition:
“Many religions have a dream of transcendence, of an ideal world in which there is no corruption, no suffering and no evil, and where the soul is eternal. And yet we live in a world of suffering, where bad things happen to good people, no matter how pious. How to explain the tension between ideal and reality? One way to do so is to imagine a source of corruption, an agent of confusion seeking to orient us toward the deadly material world, rather than toward our transcendent ideal. Judaism has been used to imagine the part of the world that is materialistic, fleshy, the enemy of our immortal soul.
Christianity and Islam both teach us to love God more than money, family, the world, and even your own life. The opposite is also true—if you love the world, then you’re turning away from God. The Jews are often used to represent this error, an error which is, of course, common to much of humanity. When Jesus says, “store not your treasures on earth,” he’s teaching all humanity, but using the Pharisees as his negative example. The Qur’an uses a similar strategy when it says that the Jews are the greediest for life, that they will abandon God for worldly gain.
In both traditions, the Jews stand for loving the world too much, a temptation that affects everyone who lives in the world. Hence “Jew” comes a way of criticizing anyone. When Christians see a Christian loving the world too much, they call him a Jew or a Judaizer. The same is true in Islam. Sunnis call Shiites “the Jews of our community,” and Shiites characterize Sunnis as Jews. This is what makes anti-Judaism so useful: it has the power to criticize any “incorrect” attachment to God and the world, even when the people involved aren’t Jewish.
In Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, for example, Shylock could represent all sorts of “incorrect” attachment to money, contract, law and love, even though there hadn’t been Jews in England for 300 years. Martin Luther attacked the Pope as a Jew, and was repaid by Catholics in the same coin. And in the Syrian civil war today, the opposition forces call Bashar al-Assad a Jew, and he in turn calls the al-Qaeda troops fighting against him Judaizers and Zionists. It is this flexible power to criticize so many aspects of this world, even when they have nothing to do with real Jews or Judaism, that has made anti-Judaism such a useful tool for so many people in so many different times and places.
To read the rest of the responses, download our free ebook here.