The Anti-Jewish Problem

Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition

by David Nirenberg

W.W. Norton & Company, 624 pp., $35


David Nirenberg has set out to investigate the way in which “‘Jewish questions’ have shaped the history of thought.” His book is not, then, a study of historical anti-Semitism, though, of course, that dark topic is its necessary backdrop. “Judaism” is, in Nirenberg’s terms, “not only the religion of specific people with specific beliefs, but also a category, a set of ideas and attitudes with which non-Jews can make sense of and criticize their world.” Thus, the anti-Judaism of his book’s title is not only, or even primarily, about actual Jews and Judaism; it is about the conceptual building blocks of the Western tradition (taken broadly to include Islam). Nirenberg frames his sweeping study as “an argument for the vital role that the history of ideas can play in making us aware of how the past uses of the concepts we think with can constrain our own thought.”

The example of Karl Marx and his famous discussion of the “Jewish Question” (Judenfrage) is, for Nirenberg, illustrative. As he argues, Marx described Judaism not as a religion, but as the pursuit of money and property, which, in turn, produced “an attitude of spiritual slavery and alienation from the world.” To the degree that Christians pursue property, they too are “Jews,” and, therefore, to truly emancipate Jews and others from their political and existential bondage, capitalism—that is to say, Judaism—must be overcome. Until then, Marx says, Christian society “will continue to produce Judaism out of its own entrails.”

But Marx was far from the first for whom “Judaism” marked a negative conceptual/religious position that could be employed for social, economic, political, and religious goals. For two thousand years or more, thinkers had continually refashioned such conceptualizations creating an enormously powerful mythic representation of Judaism—one to which Marx was both consciously and unconsciously indebted, and one that had enormous consequences for real Jews (including Marx). Nirenberg writes:

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About the Author

Steven T. Katz holds the Alvin J. and Shirley Slater Chair in Jewish and Holocaust Studies at Boston University. He is most recently the co-editor, with Alan Rosen, of Elie Wiesel: Jewish, Literary, and Moral Perspectives (Indiana University Press).


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