Nirenberg, David. Anti-Judaism. Reflections from an Infrapolitical Perspective

David Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism is an outstanding piece of scholarship in the history of ideas. The book’s title announces itself as presenting the reader with a history of “anti-Judaism,” but it is perhaps better described as the tracing of a ghostly signature — that of the Judaic and the Judaizing — where the latter is understood to be the an insignia of a structurally constituted exclusion which can be traced throughout the intellectual history of the West, including early Islamic thought. Nirenberg’s history begins with the treatment of Jewish communities in the political imaginary of Ancient Egypt as it attempts to deal with the collapse of its social and political order, faced with the threat of Persian, Greek and Roman invasions, passing through the the early emergence of Christianity and the teachings of the Church and the rise of Islam and, eventually, analyzing attitudes towards Judaism through the Spanish Inquisition, William Shakespeare and Baruch Spinoza, before moving onto modern treatments of Jewishness in the French Enlightenment and German Idealism, as well as in the writings of Marx, Goebbels, and Jewish philosophers such as Arendt. All of it is excellently researched in the finest detail, with keen nuances to language, in a practice of philological and hermeneutic readings that do not cease to impress, drawing on primary sources in a number of modern and ancient languages which is vast enough to make even the most polyglot scholar feel inadequate.

One of the most striking features of this history as Nirenberg presents it, to my eyes, is the importance of linguistic interpretation, and perhaps even of a certain sovereign claim over language, for constructing senses of self and otherness in which anti-Judaic thought structurally functions as a means of constituting orthodoxy and community by figuring as a constitutive alterity. Though Nirenberg provides many examples of anti-Judaic thought throughout his study, what they appear to share in common is a concern for the proper reading and interpretation of language (the proper reading of scripture, for example, but also, in more recent history, a proper interpretation of the essence of man and of the national being) in which the figure of Judaism always somehow stands in for that which threatens and makes unstable this stability of language. Nirenberg shows that, throughout the writers that he explores, the figure of Judaism is constantly reinscribed as part of a constituted other in the respective political theologies that he studies (we should not assume — and Nirenberg hints at this, albeit only briefly — that the Jewish communities themselves were not always already engaged in these similar struggles over the ‘proper’ interpretation of scripture and of history, but of course this is not what is important for Nirenberg’s history, which is, in his own words, concerned with a ‘rear-view mirror’ perspective on history, only looking on history in terms of its eventual outcomes and not of its other ‘what ifs’). It would be impossible to summarize the many facets that Nirenberg shows this anti-Judaism to adopt in the long history that he expertly describes, but certain themes, at times contradictory among themselves, appear once and again: Judaism and Judaizing as a concern for the letter, an all-too-literal adherence to the law, as being concerned with the material, and, more and more as time goes on, with mercantilism, banking and capitalism, and also, in a seemingly reverse move, with an all-too-abstract spiritualism and with an intellectualism that is poisonous to man’s relationship with nature (there is an interesting passage later in the book with regards to this concerning the young Martin Heidegger, which would be interesting to put into communication with Peter Tawny’s insights into the Heidegger of the Black Notebooks). What Nirenberg shows, however, is that more often than not this concern is not a reflection of what ‘actually existing Jews’ are doing, but rather with debates that are at the core of deciding what it means to belong to the Christian community, for example, or to the German nation; ultimately, at the core of the hermeneutic struggles over which the shape of various political theologies are decided.

What I would like to focus on — because it would be an impossible task to try to resume this monumental work and because it is what appears to be most interesting for my own purposes in the context of reconsidering the marrano history from the perspective of infrapolitics — is this hermeneutic question, or this question of the correct interpretation of language, and of a certain sovereign claim to language that is therein implied. In his discussion of the early years of Islamic history, and the place of the Judaic within it — which, Nirenberg shows, is not only continuous with the early history of Christianity, but actually in a sense part of that history, despite its own eventual claim to be a separation and break from it (another example of the struggle for a sovereign claim over the meaning of language, then, where Islamic thought attempts to constitute both Judaism and Christianity as its other) — Nirenberg discusses the importance of language and the interpretation of scripture to early Islam’s political claims. In what follows I will cite one of the passages of this chapter at length. What is important to note, however, and what Nirenberg makes clear, is that the figure of the Judaic in these struggles over the meaning of scripture did not have to do with ‘real living Jews,’ and the accusation of Judaizing could be, as we know all too well from the marrano case, aimed at any of those whose own practices threatened the orthodoxy of the community. Indeed, the Judaic simply became the figure of all that could be misguided or erroneous in the interpretation of the prophetic texts. Here is the passage:

“Like Jewish and Christian scripture, the Qu’ran contains the awareness that the problem is one of language. ‘He … revealed unto you the Scripture in which there are verses of clear meaning [muhkamat] …, and others which are ambiguous [mutashabihat]. But those in whose hearts is perversity pursue the ambiguous, looking for discord [fitna] and seeking to interpret it” (Q 3:7). Interpretation, the human desire to make sense of communication, is the wellspring of discord. Like so many Qu’ranic passages about the sowing of scriptural confusion, this one referred to the Jew’s inability to read correctly. The Jew’s ‘reading disability’ was paradigmatic, so strong that at times God gave up on their literacy altogether and turned them into apes. But the same risks applied to non-Jewish readers: ‘Lo, the worst of beasts with God are the deaf and the dumb who do not understand’ (Q 8:22). Tradition relates that Muhammad meant here ‘the hypocrites, whom I have forbidden you to imitate.’ But if hypocrisy means falling like an animal into the trap of language — recall Jesus’s warning to his disciples about the ‘yeast of the Pharisees”’ — then no human except perhaps the Prophet himself is exempt” (174).

It is clear that the fear of Jews and Judaizing that Nirenberg identifies does not correspond to an actual threat, or even the presence of actually existing Jews (many of the writers that he studies, it appears, were not themselves familiar with any such Jewish communities, though they certainly felt very legitimate in writing about them). Jewishness was itself an invention of the various discourses he studies, a kind of internal enemy to its own instability — explicitly a hermeneutic instability — that threatened to contaminate the purity of the community of the faithful. This had the surprising effect — as Nirenberg shows although does not go into great detail about, it is outside of the scope of what interests him but it of course fundamental for us in this working group — of producing a community of Judaizers (this would be compatible with B. Netanyahu’s earlier study of the Spanish marranos, where he shows that the Spanish fear of conversos did not correspond to a real Jewish threat and, in fact, the community of marranos ironically appeared and flourished in the immediate aftermath of the social terror that was the Inquisition). The marrano subject, therefore, which of course corresponds to a fact which interests us enormously, in historical terms, does not refer to a Jewish community which attempts to reinstate its own political theology in the face of the Catholic-Spanish threat but, rather, a community that flourishes as a subject position which refuses or, perhaps, cannot somehow, because of certain experiences or choices, be inscribed within this “correct” hermeneutic reading of the scripture which is demanded by theological orthodoxy. Marranismo may well be considered, in this context, as the experience of this outsideness or exile with respect to orthodoxy itself.

However, before the Spanish Inquisition, it is important I think to note, though Nirenberg himself does not explicitly make this point, that even if we are speaking of institutional practices, they have not yet reached the point of claiming to have a hold on all aspects of social life, nor do they seek to entirely exorcise all of these Judaizing elements from society. Nirenberg does seem to suggest, though he does not use these words, that the Jewish may have been given a textual position within this intellectual history analogous to what Giorgio Agamben would call “bare life” from a very early historical moment (think, for example, about the story concerning Muhammad’s allowance of the Jewish community to use the lands which then now belonged to the Islamic empire. where Muhhamad permits this use only insofar as he does not choose take that right away, which he ultimately retains the right to do: “[he] reserved for himself, in other words, the power of exile over the Jews” [163] — Muhhamad retains a legal right to do what he simply does not choose to execute). The power is there in potentia, in other words, though of course in reality such a right could always be contested by those same Jewish communities, and only a fight to the death or surrender on one of their parts could resolve it. Nevertheless, Nirenberg detects a shift in anti-Judaic practices with regards to the Edict of 1492, and, in the run up to it, to the Laws of Toledo, the ideology and practice of pureza de sangre, the expansion of the Inquisition and various other practices that were part of a general need to ‘cleanse’ the community of the faithful from the Judaizing influence. Nirenberg shows there to have definitely been a change in intensity and in the nature of anti-Judaizing practices at this historical juncture, though I am left only with curiosity regarding their significance, knowing that many scholars have identified, in the practices of the Inquisition in particular, early patterns of what would later typify modern totalitarian regimes. Nirenberg does not seem to entertain this kind of genealogical debate, though it may be important for those of us who want to consider the importance of the marrano legacy in the the age of the consummation of the onto-theological structuration of history and in the spirit of infrapolitical reflection.

Curiously, what Nirenberg does identify as being a particularly important feature of the changes that take place in Spain in the late 14th and 15th centuries is a certain difficulty to distinguish between the friend and the enemy, that is, the gentile and the Jew, as it is established by the anti-Jewish discourse that he shows once and again to be structural to Christian theology. Citing one of the ideologues of the rebels of Toledo, “bachelor Marcos,” Nirenberg writes the following: “What was new about the bachelor’s arguments, what was new more generally about the Judaizing creativity of mid-fifteenth-century Spanish politics, was its context. As we will see, mass conversion had shrunk the distance between Judaism and Christianity, and the mass assimilation of those converts had created, probably for the first (but not the last) time in the history of Catholic Europe, the possibility for extensive doubts about who really was or was not a Jew” (214). It seems that Nirenberg would suggest that this “possibility for extensive doubts” provided the key historical difference that saw a new phase of anti-Jewish practices. If there had indeed been before generalized beliefs about the figure of the Jew as a constitutive outsider to orthodoxy (a belief that, if it often resulted in violence against Jewish communities, was not part of a centralized and institutionalized effort by a sovereign power to rid themselves of these communities), then under the Catholic Monarchy of imperial Spain this would soon turn into into a phantasmatic and hidden presence that threatened the very core and stability of the community and that had to be rooted out from the body politic through institutionalized practices.

{It is worth opening a parenthesis at this point in the discussion of what I see as some of Nirenberg’s most pertinent points (again, only from the perspective of my own future work on marranismo), to ask a question about his methodology and the possible connection between this ambiguity between who really is and is not Jewish and the institutionalized practices of anti-Judaism, about which he is about to embark upon in the following chapter. Nirenberg himself, and to his great merit, I think, quite often discusses his own methodology, in what appears to be at times a metacritical standpoint which questions what the objective for writing such a history might be, why one should treat the writing of history in such a critical way, and why the history of ideas specifically should be the focus of scholarly attention (in some way anticipating, no doubt, the accusation that he remains at an all too abstract and intellectual level of analysis). In the epilogue to the book, this problem comes to the fore when he discusses, very briefly, Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of the Enlightenment. According to Nirenberg, Adorno and Horkheimer seek to explain anti-Semitism by arguing that it provides the people who participate in its ideology with a comforting fantasy, the “fantasy that the gap between our understanding of the cosmos and its fearful complexity does not exist” (466). He then goes on: “Clearly we do not want our decisions about the world to be made in the grips of fantasy or pathology. But how can we tell whether we are being adequately reflective in our “projective behavior,” that is, in our deployment of our concepts into and onto the world, in order to make sense of it? The decision is all the more difficult the more such claims are made in terms consonant with our own understandings of reality. In such cases we need a point from which we can reflect on our own habits of thought. The difficulty lies, of course, in finding such a platform for perspective” (ibid.). Yet these methodological questions, when read in conjunction with the analysis that Nirenberg provides above, begs the question: is this what Nirenberg sees as the root of a transmutation in the form of dealing with Judaic and Judaizing elements in Spain? Was the problem, in other words, that the myth that allowed medieval Europeans to sustain “the fantasy that the gap between our understanding of the cosmos and its fear of complexity does not exist” suddenly became that much less available, as each and every one of one’s neighbours — and even oneself — became potentially the enemy, the spirit of that “evil” that orthodoxy had thought it had exorcised from the community? It is worth at least putting the question forward, and its particular relevance for the contemporary moment, one which we have elsewhere identified or associated with ‘terror,’ would need exploring in more detail. With these remarks I close this parenthesis and continue with this very partial review of Nirenberg’s book.}

Nirenberg shows that, throughout this historical period, the transmutation in the type and intensity of anti-Jewish practices actually worked to intensify the categorical collapse of the distinction between ‘Jewish’ and ‘non-Jewish’, whereby these new practical truth-procedures that were designed to exorcise the Judaizing specter from the community were such that they constantly made sure to create what they were looking to find (Idelver Avelar’s chapter on truth and interrogation from Letters of Violence and Erin Graff Zivin’s treatment of the Inquisitive logic in Figurative Inquisitions immediately come to mind here as compatible with this historical view). Nirenberg states that:

“In their inquiry into how modernity could produce mass murder, two German-Jewish philosophers we will meet in the epilogue, Horkheimer and Adorno, proposed a metaphor for how accusations of Judaism work: “[To] call someone a Jew amounts to an instigation to work him over until he resembles the image.” In Spain, at least, the extent of this “working over” had been tightly circumscribed before the mid-fifteenth century. Theologians and poets might call each other “Jews,” but the label was not meant to extend much beyond a specific interpretation or practice of reading. These limits collapsed under the tactics advocated by the rebels of Toledo, and in the context of a society in which mass conversion and widespread intermarriage had blurred many of the differences, including those of lineage, between gentile and Jew. Accusations of Judaism now became instigations to prove through genealogy and interrogation that their objects really were Jews in flesh and faith” (240).

This shift from a hermeneutic practice confined to religious and poetic debates to a new intensity of violence against the Jewish communities in the Toledo rebellions of 1449 and its ideology, which were then to be institutionalized as practices of the Inquisition — practices which Nirenberg analyzes briefly but shows to include the accumulation of family trees and genealogy in the obsession for pureza de sangre — all of this would need further exploration, but it suggests a mutation in the connection between textual interpretation and institutionalized practices that would be highly relevant to the study of the marrano from an infrapolitical perspective, it seems to me. Alas, this is where Nirenberg leaves the historical context of Catholic Spain to explore the figure of the Jew in Martin Luther’s theology, before moving steadily onwards through the work of Shakespeare, Hobbes, Spinoza, Voltaire, Montesquieu, Burke, Kant, Fichte, Hegel, Heine, Marx, Weber, Heidegger and Goebbels. For all their differences, Nirenberg shows that these thinkers continued to employ a trope of Judaism that played on the expectations of their reading public, where this Judaism held a specific place and specific connotations in the social imaginary. He makes it clear that his genealogy does not assume any kind of historical inevitability or destiny, as if the Ancient Egyptians had laid the seed for the Holocaust, but rather that a study of the history of anti-Jewish thought shows there to have been, throughout history, common ideas about what it meant to be Jewish (with, we can say at the very least, an extremely complex relationship to ‘actually existing Jews’) that could be employed in the service of struggles over the correct reading of scripture or of history, the correct basis for a political community, or for the future direction of society. Here is a passage from one of the final paragraphs of the last chapter:

“In pointing to this common history, I do not mean to intervene in what German historians call the “Sonderweg” debate — that is, the question of whether the structural “Peculiarities of German history” condemned it to a unique attitude toward fascism and anti-Semitism. My point is only that the long history of thought I have described was broadly shared. It shaped the worldview of many people, both among those who came with more or less willingness under Hitler’s rule and among those who successfully opposed and defeated him. Perhaps the commonality can help to explain why the Germans found so many willing collaborators for their projects of extermination in many of the lands they occupied. Perhaps it explains as well why even some of the nations that most firmly resisted the German armies (the United Kingdom, the United States, and immediately after the war, the Soviet Union) nevertheless adopted important anti-Semitic measures of their own, such as closing their borders to Jews seeking to escape their executioners” (458).

Reflections which may serve, in some sense, as an opening to Timothy Snyder’s book Black Earth, which is next on my list.

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