Thursday, May 14, 2009

Toward a Narrative of Anti Semitism

Recently I have been engaging in a private e-mail conversation with a person, who wishes to remain anonymous, as to the history of anti Semitism. This conversation came out of a comment I made a few months ago when posted on Yaacov Deutsch and his presentation at the AJS. I take a fairly traditional position in terms of anti Semitism, dividing anti Semitism between the medieval model and the modern model. My friend wishes to view early modern anti Semitism as part of its own category, noting in particular the increase in Christian literature on Jews and an awareness of Jews as an ethnic group. While my friend does not wish to be named, he has agreed to allow me to post the relevant parts of our conversation.

Nicholas Donin and the medieval examples that are parallel to him are marginal in comparison to the number of early modern works that reveal anti Christian hostility.
Anonymous

As to the issue of Christian attitudes toward Jews in the early modern period. I acknowledge that there is a lot more literature at this time. Also that there is a lot more about Jewish life. That being said I still see the major downturn in Jewish-Christian relations as happening during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. For example we have Nicholas Donin pointing out that present day Jews are not simply some museum piece preserved from Biblical times. Our converted Jews in the sixteenth century are pushing a more sophisticated version of this thesis. If I understood you correctly you want to argue that the big shift happens in the early modern period. I am open to being convinced of the matter, but for the moment I am still sticking to the standard view. Why this shift happens and what it consists of is of course a hotly debated matter between R. I. Moore, Jeremy Cohen and Robert Chazan.
Benzion

As for the change in the early modern period, I am not arguing that there was no change in the twelfth or thirteenth century, but that the early modern period marks another change. I would see it as a shift from writing about Judaism to writing about Jews and from writing about theology to writing about ethnicity. Prior to the sixteenth century there is almost no interest in the way Jews actually live. There are almost no descriptions of their rituals, almost nothing about their anti-Christian rituals and relatively little about their anti-Christian texts. This is the shift I am pointing to.
Anonymous

In terms of our understanding of anti-Semitism I suspect that this is more a matter of what we would emphasis as opposed to a genuine disagreement. If I were to craft a narrative of anti Semitism, for a course or for a book, I would hang it around the two poles of medieval anti-Judaism, with its origins in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and modern anti-Semitism, with its origins in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and culminating in the Holocaust. So you have medieval anti-Judaism with its belief that Jews were usurious Christ killers who murdered Christian children for their blood and tortured hosts and you have modern anti-Semitism where Jews are a race of degenerates plotting to take over the world through the simultaneous uses of both Capitalism and Communism. For this I would emphasis Gavin Langmuir notion of chimerical anti Semitism. We are not interested in other groups simply not liking Jews and saying nasty things. How do Jews go from being heretics and blasphemers to sorcerers plotting with Satan to take over the world? Our opening would cover anti Judaism in the ancient world and the early Church with our big question being how do we get to medieval anti Judaism. The first big part of the book would deal with medieval anti Judaism. Once we have explored medieval anti Judaism our next big issue would be modern anti Semitism. The sixteenth century is useful in that it serves as a transition were, out of the issues generated by medieval anti Judaism we begin to get issues of ethnicity. For example the blood laws in fifteenth century Spain, which Benzion Netanyahu makes such a big deal out of, or the works on Jewish practices written by converted Jews in Germany. From here we move to modern anti Semitism, where race issues supplant religion, culminating in the Holocaust. Then we would finish with a word about anti Semitism in the world today, particularly opposition to the state of Israel in the Arab world and on the hard left. You would make the early modern period equal or even more important than the twelfth and nineteenth centuries. I agree that there are interesting things going on in the period and that anti Judaism is not something static as Trachtenberg portrayed it. I agree that a lot of what we associate with modern anti Semitism comes into play in the early modern period. That being said I would still see the early modern period as a mutated version of medieval anti Judaism that eventually turns into modern anti Semitism. I freely admit that this may have to do more with my taste in narrative than hard fact. My challenge to you would be what does my narrative fail to take into account that your narrative does.
Benzion

Regarding you outline for a narrative of anti Semitism and the two poles you suggest. I don’t disagree that if you have to chose only two, or even to focus on the two major poles, the 12-13 century attitudes toward Jews and the modern anti Semitism would be the two poles that should be chosen. However I feel that without underlying the changes in the early modern period our understanding of modern anti Semitism is not complete. I think that the early modern period should not be seen only as a transitional period, but also as a time when important changes in Christian attitude toward Jews occurred, and without them it is hard to understand modern anti Semitism. As I said I agree with you that if we to choose only two poles they would be 12-13 century attitudes toward Jews and the modern anti Semitism, but since I don’t think we need to choose only two I think that the early modern period should get more attention when studying anti Semitism. It seems to me that the main difference between the book you suggest and the one I would suggest would be the room given to the early modern period which in my opinion should be greater than what I believe you would suggest. Another difference is the emphasis on changes that appear in the early modern period in my account as oppose to your view, that as I understand it, will focus on the early modern period as a transition period while underlying the continuation of the medieval approaches. I don’t think that the two narratives are in real disagreement rather they reflect different ideas about the importance of the early modern period and differences regarding the emphasis the early modern period should get.
Anonymous

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