[AUDIO LOGO] DAVID NIRENBERG: It's really such a pleasure to be here. And thank you, Jason. Thank you to Jewish Studies, to NES, and to Hillel for bringing me to this beautiful center of knowledge in the most bucolic spot on the planet. So my question today, how can history help us think about antisemitism, is one I've been thinking about for a long time. But it feels new every year. And that makes sense because new events are always unfolding our present towards the future.
So if you just think of 2022-- I'm a medievalist. So thinking about 2022 is difficult. But if you think about just 2022, last year's headlines started, for example, with a hostage crisis at the Colleyville, Texas synagogue. Later headlines in the year-- or the late headlines of the year, were dominated by an extraordinary presidential campaign, or presidential campaign tour of one of the most famous musicians on the planet, formerly known as Kanye West, Ye, advised by one of the most outspoken white supremacists of our society, Nick Fuentes.
The year was also marked by a sharp uprise of campus controversies over free speech and antisemitism, as some university student organizations banned pro-Israel speakers and some Jewish student organizations reported feeling unsafe. In November, the director of the FBI, no less, warned of a sharp rise in anti-Semitic hate crimes. And President Biden, as well as politicians from both sides of the aisle, condemned antisemitism.
Well, that's just one year. And it might feel like an extraordinary series of events, certainly, to hear the president and the speaker of the house and the senate-- was it then minority leader or was it majority at the time? I'm not sure-- Mitch McConnell, to have to condemn antisemitism feels unusual.
But they didn't create any consensus. None of these events of 2022 created any consensus around some really fiercely-debated questions. So here's some of them. What counts as antisemitism? Is it on the rise? And if so, who's to blame, the left or the right, Christians or Muslims? Or is it perhaps Israelis or even the Jews and their actions that are at fault for the rise of antisemitism, as some maintain?
OK, so those questions-- I'm just summing up 2022-- they may feel new. But they didn't begin in 2022. And they're not unique to the US. So how can history help us think about these questions? Or can history help us think about these questions? And I think that if I posed it that way, can history help us, you'd say, well, that's a stupid question. Of course history can help us. The past always influences the present and the future in some way.
But in fact, many people have imagined that attitudes towards Jews in their own time and place have nothing to do with antisemitism in previous times and places. So many people have denied that history can help us at all. Today for example, there are many who argue that anti-Jewish sentiment in the present is not due to any history of antisemitism, but entirely to the present-day actions of, in this case, the State of Israel, often. So for the most extreme of those critics, attention to past antisemitism is not only irrelevant to the present, it's a red herring, designed to excuse or distract from the crimes of the Israeli state in the here and now.
I've barely started this talk. And already, we've stumbled on a really difficult subset of our question. What is the relationship between anti-Zionism in the present and antisemitism in the past? And I'm going to tell you-- I'm not going to say anything about it today. It's an important question. It's a difficult question. And it's difficult in part because we don't, today, have the benefit of hindsight. And I'm a historian. I can only talk about things where it feels like we have the benefit of hindsight.
So I don't propose to begin with this question about Zionism and antisemitism at all, but to focus instead on a different time and place, or least to begin by focusing on a different time and place, where we do have some hindsight, a time and place in which many very intelligent people were convinced that there was no relationship between anti-Jewish ideas in their own time and those of the past.
So I'm going to focus first on the 1920s and the 1930s. And you can say really? Is there anyone who could have doubted that the antisemitism of the 1930s-- I'm talking about particularly Europe now. Think national socialism in Germany-- owed nothing to the past?
Well, from our point of view today, the rise of Nazism and the Holocaust show that those who had concerns, who did think that this was an anti-Semitic wave that owed something to the past, were probably right, maybe obviously right. But we tend to forget that there were lots of people, plenty of people, who claimed then that the problem wasn't antisemitism, but the actions of the Jews themselves. It was their wealth that was the problem or their poverty. It was too-successful assimilation or their lack of assimilation. It was one of many contradictory reasons.
Those were the real issues, many people argued in the 1920s and '30s, not antisemitism, which many argued was merely an accusation that Jews used to silence criticism and squash free speech. So during his rise to power, Hitler brought libel lawsuits against newspapers that accused him of antisemitism. And he won.
It's not only Nazis who took such positions, but actually some of the most thoughtful, intelligent critical thinkers of the age. I'm going to talk about one of them, Hannah Arendt in the late 1930s and '40s. She asked herself the question-- and this is a question, I think, lots of people were asking themselves and are asking themselves-- how and why do ideas about Jews and Judaism become convincing explanations for the state of the world in a given time and place?
And she said antisemitism does not work as an explanation because it implies that there is no reason for the enmity towards Judaism, that it's irrational. She actually used a joke about Jews and bicycle riders to make the point. She said-- well, do you all know the joke about the Jews and the bicycle riders? It's a joke that started to circulate after World War I, two guys on a boat. One of them is going on and on about oh, the war was started by the Jews. Everything is the Jews, the Jews, the Jews.
And the other one says, you're right, you're right, the Jews and the bicycle riders. And the first one says, well, the Jews, of course. But why the bicycle riders? And the second one says, well, why the Jews? So her point was that antisemitism doesn't work as an explanation because it implies that the hatred of the Jews is irrational, whereas there must be reasons. People are not moved by unreason. They're moved by reasons that feel, to them, convincing, she argued.
So in her famous inquiry into the Origins Of Totalitarianism-- that's the title of her book-- she dubbed those who think about the history of antisemitism as pursuers of what she called eternal antisemitism. And she said that in her age, in the present that she was living through-- and remember these were some of the most turbulent moments of the 20th century-- in her age, the antithesis and the antisemitism of her world was the product of the reality, she argued, reality of economic and class struggle in the modern age.
So the Jews, she said, had been economically successful. They had identified themselves with capital, not with the working German. It's this economic reality, and not any long history of ideas, which explained why the German people had rejected the Jews. If I were going to draw a crude parallel with the present, I'd say today we might say it's colonialist reality, not any history of prejudice, that animates animus towards Zionists today, for example.
So I think Hannah Arendt is a good starting point for our question because she was an immensely intelligent and subtle observer, living through a crescendo of what today, no one would deny was murderous, even genocidal antisemitism. Yet during, and a little more surprisingly, even after the disaster, she insisted that the past has few answers to offer when it comes to antisemitism, and that we should look instead at the "realities" of the present.
I always say "realities" in quotation marks. So I'm not going to do the gesture professors are always doing. But that's what I mean, the realities of the present-- and particularly to the struggle between capital and labor that marked the great spasms of industrialization and urbanization of the late 19th and 20th centuries in Germany, and to the participation of the Jews in the economic inequalities of their day, participation that made them, in her words, co responsible for antisemitism.
So in this sense, she reminds me of the many intellectuals today who claim that antisemitism is not the issue, or that even if it is, the past has little to offer us by way of explanation, and that what we should better focus our energies on is present realities, such as the economically relatively privileged position of Jews in the United States today or the action of the Israelis and the Israeli state in Israel.
So enough about Hannah Arendt. But my goal, in bringing her up and making this parallel between her and the present, is not really to criticize her because she is-- if you haven't read her, you must read her-- it's to ask, what has made it so extraordinarily hard for so many people of good will and great intelligence to become critically aware of the workings of antisemitism during times when, in retrospect-- so World War II-- it clearly seems to have been very powerful? Could it be that some of the same impediments to critical awareness exist today? And how can history help us overcome those impediments to critical thought?
So my own view, I've already expressed it at very great length, something like 700 pages of length. And I'm going to try to cram them all into the next-- how many hours do you say I have-- is that history matters. History matters because humans make sense of the present-- they perceive reality, the real-- through concepts, prejudices, habits of thought that have themselves, been shaped by the past, habits that shape our perceptions of the world and what explanations of that world we find convincing.
So that's the broad argument. In other words, what we think the reality of our world is not independent of the history of how we've learned to think about the world. And for many Western societies, by which I mean both Christian and Islamic cultures and their secular descendants, an important-- so that's all of us pretty much, not all, but many-- an important part of thinking about the world and how to improve it has included imagining the overcoming of Judaism as an ideal, in short, what I call anti Judaism.
For example, to speak only of the anti-Jewish potentials of our critical approaches to economic reality, think of a thinker who influenced Hannah Arendt and indeed just about everyone else, namely Karl Marx. And I offer you here, a famous quote from one of his early works on the Jewish question. "Let us look for the secret of religion in real Jews. What is the worldly basis of Judaism? Practical need, individual utility. What is the worldly cult of the Jew? Haggling. Which is his worldly God? Money."
And so for Marx, capitalism, even Christian capitalism, when Christian society participated in capitalism, had money, had private property, it produced what he called Judaism out of its own guts. So my point is just that as industrial economies developed in 19th-century Europe, it became common for critics of capitalism and of industrialization, like Karl Marx, to characterize money and private property as Jewish, and to understand Jews as the architects of economic inequality, a tendency reflected in a saying from the period, quote, "antisemitism is the socialism of fools."
Now we could go on. And we don't know. Marx is just one. I picked Marx because well, we've all heard of him. And he did influence Hannah Arendt. But we could go and look at the thinkers who influenced Marx. We could look, for example, at the philosopher Hegel, who greatly-- Marx was one of the "Young Hegelians" when he wrote this essay. Or we could look at the philosophers who influenced Hegel, such as Kant. We could go on through great thinkers of the Western tradition, all the way to-- well, to the beginnings.
Why is it that thinking about Jews and Judaism has been so deeply influential for how a large part of humanity thinks about reality, for example, about its economic systems or about its legal systems, et cetera? The short answer has to do with the importance of two religions, two great religions, first Christianity and then Islam, as sources for how much of the world has come to think about the pursuit of the good, and about obstacles that arise in that pursuit.
So I'm treating both Christianity and Islam as reservoirs of many of the world's highest aspirations, highest ideals. The problem is that both of those religions imagine their ideals in terms of the overcoming of Judaism. Why? Well, before these became world religions, both of these faiths-- and I'm going to focus today on Christianity.
But we could do the same for early Islam-- both of these faiths had to explain how they were related to, but different from, and better than, the other interpreters of the Israelite prophetic tradition, namely the Jewish traditions that were arising around them, other sects of Judaism, with whom early Christians were competing as they made their claim to be the true followers and the true interpreters of Gods words.
And there were many such rivals. These included the temple authorities, the synagogal Judaism, the Qumran community that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls. Think of The Life of Brian, if any of you have seen The Life of Brian, and you get a sense of the sectarian competition that early Christianity was involved in.
And in order to do this, in order to assert both their difference and their superiority as interpreters of the prophetic tradition, the early adherents of these faiths had to think constantly about their relationship to the earlier prophetic texts we call the Hebrew scriptures or the Old Testament, and to the Jews who claim to be as guardians. And we can see that thinking going on, even in the very earliest stories in the Gospels.
So for example, the first thing the risen Jesus has to do on the road to Emmaus, which is modern Abu Ghosh, which is famous in Israel today for having the best hummus, is-- so the risen Jesus, he rises.
The second thing he does is, he sees two sad people walking on the road. And they're his disciples. And he says to them, why are you so sad? And they don't recognize him. And they say, well, don't you know that the person we thought was the Savior, the person we thought that was the Messiah, was crucified and died.
And then Jesus explained to them-- they still don't know it's Jesus-- all of the prophetic texts leading up to this moment that predicted that the Messiah had to die and be crucified. In other words, the first thing the risen Jesus has to do, in the Gospels, is re explain the Hebrew prophetic tradition so that it justifies him as the risen Jesus. And the same thing happens in the stories in the Quran, for example.
Now early Christianity is defining itself vis-a-vis Judaism. Often it required projecting negative attributes onto figures of Judaism. I'll give you one here. I'm not going to-- can you see what's on the screen? So I won't read it to you. But this is one of the woes of the Pharisees.
And you can see how hypocrisy, false appearance, beauty on the outside but death on the inside, all of these are here, characterizes pharisaic as being part of a sect of Judaism, vain desire for glory as opposed to true faith.
Now needless to say, the Gospels portrayal of the Pharisees doesn't actually tell us much real about the Pharisees. We don't need to take this as-- I was going to say we don't need to take this as gospel truth about what the Pharisees really were, any more than we would take any description, from a rival of someone else, as gospel truth about what that other person was.
But in this case, what matters is that they're being characterized a certain way. And every choice about how to characterize them in the Gospels has a very long future. So today I'll give you just a quote, a definition of the word "Pharisee" from The Oxford English Dictionary.
And you can see that definition one is a member of an ancient Jewish sect and that definition two is a self-righteous or hypocritical person. The pharis-- today we've pushed this word out of-- at least in the US-- out of our English vocabulary. But until the mid-20th century, "Pharisee" meant "hypocrite." And people knew where it came from.
I could go on. Every single biblical New Testament use of figures of Judaism has a multiple futures all the way into the present. So for example, in 2020, the American rapper Jay Electronica riffed on Revelations 2:9, which warns against those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.
And before murdering 11 people at the Tree of Life Synagogue in 2018, Robert Bowers chose for his last social media post, the words Jesus addressed to the Jews who had believed in him, not the ones who didn't believe in him, that Jesus said these words to the Jews who did believe in him. Well, this is what Robert Bowers put on Gab. This is the full quote from the Gospel of John. "You belong to your father, the devil. And you want to carry out your father's desires. He was a murderer from the beginning," et cetera.
So let me focus on this last example from John 8:44 just to make an obvious point. It's not only the durability of these ideas that makes them dangerous-- so they still work in Pittsburgh in the present-- but also the way in which they're historically rooted in sacred texts that express much of humanity's highest aspirations like the Bible and the Quran.
How deep are those roots? Well, I'll stick with this example. The first known commentary on the Gospel of John is from roughly 160 years after the birth of Jesus. And it's written by an obscure author named [? Heracleion ?] [? Villalobos, ?] who wrote a commentary on the Gospel of John in which he argued against the early Christians who were apparently claiming, based on this verse, that Jews were descended from Satan, literally descended from Satan.
So [? Heracleion ?] said no, no, this cannot be because the devil is a purely negative force. And pure negativity can't engender anything. It can't be literal. Jews can't be the children of Satan. But his limitation on the demonic was dismissed as heresy by an even-greater theologian, his rival, who became much more famous as the founder of much of early Catholic-- the theology we today call Catholic-- Tertullian, who preferred to stress the creative power of Satan's seed and passed on the potential interpretation to posterity.
So this Satan's seed is a nice example of how very old ideas about Jews-- this one is 2,000 years old-- continue to affect attitudes towards Jews in the present. But now I want to try and make a much harder point. If I haven't already covered a lot of confusing ground, I want to become, actually, much more confusing.
And I want to claim that for early Christians, Judaism and Judeaizing became concepts that could be applied not only to real Jews-- that is, Jews who were descended from Jews or thought of themselves as Jews-- but it could be applied to anyone. It became a basic concept with which to criticize and make sense of the world.
And actually, this point is really important because if anti Judaism could only be used to attack Jews, it wouldn't be very useful. There aren't very many Jews in the world and there never have been. Anti Judaism became a very powerful way of thinking about the world and seeped into the structures of our critical thought, because it can be applied to criticizing all aspects of our world. And that's what I want to show you now if I can. That's what I want to claim now, I want to try to argue now.
So here's an example. It's from one of the earliest writings by a follower of Jesus, Paul's epistle to the Galatians. And the Galatians were apparently being taught that they should-- they wanted to follow. Jesus they were not Jews. They were Gentiles. But they were apparently being taught that in order to really follow Jesus, they needed to be circumcised and they needed, maybe, to observe kashrut. They need to observe dietary laws.
And Paul said to them, no, no, no, no, no. That's just not the case. And in the case-- in the course of making his argument to them that this was not true, that Gentiles who want to follow Jesus do not need to follow the literal prescriptions of the prophets, he got in an argument or he recounted an argument with the apostle Peter. This is pretty extraordinary, to have one apostle arguing with another apostle.
And in fact, Paul called Peter a hypocrite. And he said, you hypocrite, how can you-- and this is the quote, here. "How can you, though you are a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew? How can you then compel the Gentiles to Judaize?" Judaize. So that's one word. But it's a word that became incredibly important. And I just-- that's why I want to really stress it. And I'm going to show you I'm going to try to show you how important it became when we get to the modern period.
It became incredibly important because it was being used here to characterize a Christian Gentile convert's inappropriate relationship to law and custom and tradition as Jewish. So now any Christian who's not a Jew can be characterized as Judaizing.
It means that any error in terms of relationship to scripture, in terms of relationship to law, in terms of relationship to money, will become characterizable as Jewish. Let me give you an example of how powerful that-- since we have only-- we don't have the three hours I was promised-- I'm going to try sum it all up in one short poem so you can see how Christianity came to think of Judaism as a language with which to criticize itself.
And this is from a poem by-- an English poet called George Herbert, from 1633. And the poem is called Self Condemnation. So what you're listening to here is a Protestant criticizing himself in a poem and characterizing the act of criticism in the following terms. "He that doth love and love amidst this world's delights before true Christian joy have made a Jewish choice and is a Judas Jew."
If I can be really crude, when someone says to someone else, who has short changed them, you jewed me, what they're saying is something like this. Preferred material gain. You cheated me. You preferred money to friendship, to honesty, to whatever, that's a Jewish choice. But this is stronger. This is basically saying, you've become a Judas Jew. You become a Christ killer every time you make a wrong choice as a Christian.
So it's this power. And again, I've condensed it into one poem. And I want to just add, George Herbert didn't know any Jews. There were no Jews in George Herbert's England. It's this power of criticizing any and every Christian's behavior in the world that made anti Judaism a key concept in Western thought, a concept in the constantly evolving interpretive systems with which diverse societies, ancient, medieval, modern, confronted their changing world. It also made Christian thinking about Judaism capable of generating its own object, creating the Judaism of what it targeted.
That's really complicated, abstract expression. So let me give you an example that we've all heard of. This is many different actors doing The Merchant of Venice. And The Merchant of Venice is a very interesting play because first, it's by a great playwright, William Shakespeare. And second, it's by a playwright who lived in a world without any Jews. There had never-- there hadn't been Jews in England for centuries before Shakespeare wrote his play. And they wouldn't be Jews in England for quite a while afterwards.
And yet when Shakespeare wanted to make sense of all of the changes in his world, he chose to do so by writing a play about Jews. So what were some of those changes? One of those changes was that money lending became legal in Shakespeare's England. Before Shakespeare's-- before roughly the years of this play, it was illegal to lend money at interest in England as in most of Christian Europe. Shakespeare's father had gone to jail twice for lending money, illegally, at interest. Suddenly it became legal to lend money at interest.
All right, so then what's the difference between a Christian and a Jew? In England, people had learned to think of lending money at interest as becoming Jewish, as Judaizing. All of a sudden it's legal. When Christians lend money at interest, when Christians become merchants, do they become Jews? How do they insulate themselves from the self criticism that George Herbert was talking about?
So in this play, Shakespeare puts out all of the issues of the new economy, contracts, mercantilism, money at interest, et cetera. He pours all of the issues into the figure of a Jew, famously known as Shylock, even though again, no Jews exist in England. And he uses that figure of the Jew to think through all of the new tensions that the new economy is creating in England.
I don't mean to imply-- I guess what I'm trying to say is that perhaps the most famous figure of Judaism in English, Shylock, is not the product of any real Jews in a society. He's the product of a society with no Jews, trying to think through economic changes. And I'm trying to push the distinction between the real and the figural Jew. At the same time, it doesn't mean that figures like Shylock don't have an impact on real Jews. Shylock has had an impact on every Jew who came into the world after him.
So for example, when England was debating, in the 18th century, whether or not Jews should be given citizenship in England, like the right to vote and other things, exhibit A in the argument of the opposition and arguments of the people who were saying no, Jews should not be given rights in England, was Shylock. How can you give rights to someone like that who wants to kill you, who wants to kill Christian Englishmen?
So a figure of Judaism, an imagined Jew imagined by a Christian to make sense of his changing world, as in the 18th century when there are real Jews in England, become a real Jew who represents the enmity of Jews toward Christians. So it's that interplay that's so powerful. If thinking about Judaism were only useful in places where there are real Jews, it wouldn't be very useful or very widespread.
Even today, there are many societies that have had virtually no real Jews in them. I think that's probably part of what Jean-Paul Sartre was getting at when he said that if Jews didn't exist, antisemites would have to invent them. But in fact, antisemites had invented Jews over and over again, even in societies without Jews.
On the other hand, the existence of real Jews gives plausibility to the systems of thought that are built up by thinking about Judaism. And I want to claim that it's only by taking seriously this long history of ideas that we can begin to understand how and why so much of the world, Christian, Muslim, secular, Marxist, has spent and continues to spend a great deal of time thinking with Judaism. And that's true even of the groups that you might think were most obviously concerned with real Jews, such as the Nazis.
So they were perhaps the most relentless and successful impresarios of anti-Judaism, presenting their attack on the Jews-- on the Jewish race-- as the emancipation of the world from Jewish thought. Remember Goebbels saying, at the burning of unGerman books, in saying the age of rampant Jewish intellectualism is now at an end? So all of intellectualism, for Goebbels, was Jewish.
And we tend to forget that there were only about 500,000 Jews living in Germany in 1933, 500,000 and of 67 million, so roughly 0.75%. Attacking real Jews was useful to the Nazis because Europeans had so long ago learned to criticize so many aspects of themselves and their culture in terms of Judaism, not because Jews really were such a large and potent force in German society. It's true of economic systems. Germans criticized liberal capitalism as Jewish.
And it was true of Marxist or Leninist communism. People criticize Marxism and Leninism as Jewish. But it was true of just about every aspect of culture. In fact, even of-- I won't talk about-- I won't give you examples. But maybe the most famous example from my point of view is Einstein, whose physics was constantly-- I say Einstein because he was the founding Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study-- but whose physics was constantly condemned "Jewish physics" because it was so mathematical-- also because he was Jewish. But you didn't have to be Jewish.
Of many, many mathematicians, like Ernst Zermelo or David Hilbert, very famous mathematicians, were condemned as Jewish even though they weren't Jewish. They were just too abstract. The Nazis succeeded in making much of Europe think that the Jews were a real and present danger to the world and the way-- and the European way of life.
But the Nazis success in mobilizing much of Europe to attempt to murderously purge itself from the Judaism that it believed afflicted it can only be understood within a history that encoded the threat of Judaism into some of the most basic concepts of Christian and post-Christian thought, regenerating that threat in new forms for new times, and helping some of Europe's most modern citizens, even it's most educated and critical, make sense of their world. They succeeded by making millions of Europeans think that in attacking Judaism, they were confronting the real ills of their society, rather than acting in the grips of a prejudice with a long history.
So OK, what about today? We also live in an age with Jewish questions, an age in which millions of people, maybe billions, are exposed daily to some variant of the argument that the world they live in is best-- or the dangers of the world they live in-- are best explained in terms of Israel or dangers posed by Jews. Many of these people live in regions without any real Jews, including large parts of the Muslim world.
I'll give you one example from Europe, where many-- there are many regions of Europe with relatively few Jews that nevertheless spend a great deal of time imagining that what's happening to them now-- the forces they're trying to resist are created by Judaism. And I give you here, Viktor Orbán and his discourse of about George Soros as a figure of Jewish capital, international global capital, seeking to destroy Hungary by flooding it with Muslim refugees.
That's an example of what's called replacement theory. Replacement theory is quite powerful in France, in Germany, in Hungary, also in the US. And it's this argument that there's a great replacement going on with the ethnic white majorities of these countries, privileged majorities of these countries, being replaced by non-whites, and that the masterminds of that replacement are the Jews.
Of course, similar thinking with Jews is going on here in the US, on both the left and the right. I'll focus on the right for now. But there are many good works on the work done by thinking about Jews in left and progressive circles as well.
What I wanted to show-- I want to show you the slide, which just shows you how much Jewish population has been lost from Europe. The first big drop is, of course, the Holocaust. But from 1945 to 2010, the Jewish population of Europe dropped by half. And I think one could hypothesize that ongoing antisemitism, anti Judaism in Europe, is due-- has driven a good part of that emigration from Europe, even after-- even in our own modern time.
So let's talk a little bit about the thinking the Jews going on in the US. And I won't talk too much about replacement theory. But I'll talk a little bit about it. I threw this in because it's a little-- it's too good to pass up just because it calls up so many of the memes of the present. This is from the Christian Identity Forum of March 2016. So it is a replacement theory group. And it quotes Goebbels, "the age of the Jew is over"-- or alludes to the line from Goebbels I just told you about. "The age of the Jew is over. We now enter the age of kings." This is from our own politics today.
But I'll talk a little bit more about a theorist of this kind of issue, Kevin MacDonald, whose culture of critique is, I think, one of the more important attempts to take all of that long history of ideas I've been describing to you, and mobilize it for antisemitism in the present. He's often called the philosopher of the alt right. And for him, the Jews seek to destroy the world by introducing psychoanalysis, civil rights, Marxism, immigration, homosexuality, even deconstruction-- [INAUDIBLE] literary criticism.
But insofar as he presents history as a war between all that is good and noble in the world on the one hand, and the Jews and their followers on the other, he's not very different from similar thinkers on the left, for whom the Jews represent colonialism, unfettered capitalism, neoliberalism, privilege, inequality, and injustice.
I'll stick with the right. Thinkers of this type, replacement theorists, Christian nationalists, often present Jews or those they identify as supporting Jews as the enemies of the white race. And I can't help taking it personally. And they often present the struggle against these enemies as an ongoing war.
So here is a quote from Andrew Anglin, author of A Normie's Guide to the Alt-Right from The Daily Stormer. And I don't have to read it. But I think you can see that it fits quite squarely into a long tradition of thinking about Jews as the origin of all of the dangers to contemporary society that we already saw in the early 20th century and also earlier.
So here's the question that worries me. Could the many people of goodwill in the world today-- all of us trying to improve the world. I'm not trying to argue that anyone is-- of these people doesn't think, doesn't believe that they're trying to make their world better, or at least for themselves-- could we all be caught in a similar moment as Hannah Arendt was?
Are we living through a moment in which anti Judaism is increasingly widespread, becoming acceptable as a language of critique across many parts of the political spectrum, yet we're collectively unable or unwilling to detect and name the danger, precisely because the antisemitism of today presents itself, as it so often has in the past, as a critique of realities of unjust power in the present?
And I'll offer you here a poster I found on one of the campuses I've worked on about white privilege, Jewish privilege. I might just conclude by touching on the furious controversy currently raging over the working definition of antisemitism, also called the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism. That is a mouthful.
Now I don't mean to imply that debates about definitions of antisemitism aren't important, especially when they might have legal implications. But important as it is, the debate seems to me, from the point of view I've been trying to describe, as depressingly familiar.
I'm not going to talk about the controversy except to say that once again, we all seem to find ourselves, as critical thinkers of goodwill, whether left, right, or center, trying to distinguish between reality and anti-Jewish prejudice, between legitimate criticism of Jews or of Israel, between seeing the Jews as privileged agents of power in a world of inequality on the one hand, and unacceptable antisemitism on the other.
And in the process, none of us seem to be able to recognize or to really address, directly, the growing power of anti Judaism. Or if we do recognize it, we see it only in the discourse of the other group. So the left sees it in the right. The right sees it in the left. But we never see it in our own attempts to explain the world.
So one way of putting the danger-- in the first half of the 20th century, the reality of economic inequality and stark differentials of power between capital and labor made it impossible to perceive the grotesque power of antisemitism at work in European society. Are the realities of inequality and stark differentials of power in our own day having a similar effect, making it impossible to see the growing power that anti Judaism may be acquiring in our own place and time?
I don't mean to-- well, I do mean to depress you. So let me leave you with a positive side of my message. One thing that the history of antisemitism's past can offer is an awareness that reality and anti-Jewish prejudice are not independent of each other, that it's easy to slip from one to the other without noticing, even when we're focused on our highest ideals, precisely because those ideals have often been built through a long history of thinking about the dangers of Judaism.
The slippage between reality and anti-Semitic ideas has proven very hard to detect for even the subtlest lovers of knowledge. Developing an awareness of the terrifying work that slippage has achieved at various points in the past is one of the best ways to cultivate a sensitivity to the danger today. And it's one of the gifts, if you can call it a gift, that the history of antisemitism can offer to the present.
Now I know historians hope that prejudices will become less compelling if people only understood how well-worn they are, how many times they failed to bring about the better future that they promised their adherence, those hopes are often well, disappointed.
History is not a magic amulet that we can rub to protect us from danger as we make our way through a changing world. But it is a powerful reminder of how previous generations struggled with problems similar to ours and the precious gift of humility to our own age, which is so full of passionate conviction. So when it comes to confronting prejudices, I think we need all the help that good history can offer. I welcome your questions. And thank you for your attention.
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History can help make us aware of patterns in our thinking about the world, of prejudices and habits of thought. In a lecture on April 20, 2023, sponsored by the Jewish Studies Program, David Nirenberg, the director and Leon Levy Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton, NJ, drew upon the long history of anti-semitism in order to ask how that history can help us understand debates about anti-semitism today.