Response to “Anti-Judaism as a Critical Theory”


This week The Chronicle of Higher Education published an article by David Nirenberg, Professor of History and Social Thought at the University of Chicago, on “Anti-Judaism as a Critical Theory” that raises some important issues. For example, he reminds us that the history of ideas matters. Indeed we cannot deny that our historical ideas about capitalism, class, colonialism, imperialism, Orientalism, nationalism, racism, and sexism are independent from our problematic understanding of equality today. Nirenberg also reminds us of the long history of discrimination against the Jewish peoples in particular, both in thought and practice, something that I agree we should never forget. The problem with his thesis, however, is his universalization of the “we” who ought to shoulder the burden of this history, not to mention his exclusion of many other past and present histories of human suffering. Because even though the historical discrimination against any peoples ought to be a universal concern for us all, we must also remember who it was that is historically responsible for this injustice, as well as recognize how this history is now being used to silence at best, and justify at worst, the present day suffering of another peoples.

Nirenberg introduces his article by lamenting how “intellectual historians” no longer connect our histories to the “movement and transformation of ideas across time and space.” But who are these intellectual historians he is referring to? And what is their relationship to these ideas, histories and geographies? This is never clear. While Nirenberg initially mentions the role of ancient Egyptians, Christians and early Muslims in debating Jewish identity, and writes that anti-Judaism “came to appear to many, Christian and Muslim (and also Jew), as continuous and eternal,” his discussion of what he calls anti-Judaism as a critical theory only focuses on very particular examples from European history and political thought. Of course Muslims have a rich history in Europe past and present, but they do not have a prominent historical role in the anti-Judaism movement of which Nirenberg is concerned. We can cite examples of Jews both prospering under Spanish Muslim rule or being critiqued and forced to flee. However it is well documented that throughout history Jewish communities had more rights and faced less discrimination in Muslim societies than in the Christian societies of Europe.

Why is this clarification so important to make? Because Zionism and the impulse to create a Jewish state were clearly a response to the European (and American) anti-Judaism movement, especially its horrific material realization during the Holocaust, and yet it is the Palestinians – Muslims and Christians alike – who have been brutally forced to assume the political consequences of this movement today. While I agree that human relations entangle our lives and histories in complex ways, and that the role of anti-Semitism in European thought and history ought to be universally recognized, I strongly object to any suggestion that all humans ought to equally share the burden of this history. And furthermore, there are other histories of suffering and oppression that also need to be recognized.

Today criticism of the State of Israel in both Europe and the Americas is often judged to be anti-Semitic. Even Nirenberg points out how the “histories of anti-Semitism or the Holocaust are invoked to silence critics of the State of Israel.” However he also warns us that “we make our own history, but we do not make it as we please, and an awareness of the gravity that the past exerts upon us can help us understand the ways in which we see the world.” However the makers of this history are very specifically European. Yes this history ultimately shapes how we all think today, but those non-Jews who have also been violently oppressed by the makers of this history – and indeed they are many – will also see things quite differently, and yet these views are excluded altogether from Nirenberg’s narrative. For him, our understanding of the world remains Jewish and European. There is no room for Palestinians. And this gets to the heart of our problem today: the dominant conception of anti-Semitism in Europe and the Americas excludes any narratives of Palestinian suffering.

Times CartoonTake, for example, the cartoon by Gerald Scarfe that was just published in the Sunday Times. This cartoon has widely been called anti-Semitic even though it clearly targets Prime Minister Netanyahu and his government, and not Jews more generally. Critics suggest that the cartoon conjures images of blood libel, and this argument appears to follow the scope of Nirenberg’s framework. But is this image really about the European history of anti-Judaism? Or is it about the recent actions of the State of Israel? Namely the construction of a separation wall mostly on land that is internationally recognized as Palestinian and which has resulted in the disruption of Palestinian families and communities, the demolition of Palestinian homes, the destruction of Palestinian crops and livelihoods, and the deaths of many Palestinians. Because if we are to listen to some of the perspectives that Nirenberg excludes, clearly the answer is the latter. The newspaper’s owner Rupert Murdoch responded to the controversy by publicly apologizing for the pain and insult caused by the cartoon and criticizing the timing as it was published on Holocaust Remembrance Day. The timing certainly was not ideal. Especially considering that the construction of this separation wall actually started more than a decade ago, and all the while Palestinians have been made to suffer.