Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities

Why the Jews?


Anthony Grafton calls David Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism “one of the saddest stories, and one of the most learned, I have ever read.” Grafton knows that Anti-Judaism “is certainly not the first effort to survey the long grim history of the charges that have been brought against the Jews by their long gray line of self-appointed prosecutors.” What makes this account of the long history of Jewish hatred so compelling is that Nirenberg asks the big question: Why the Jews?

[Nirenberg] wants to know why: why have so many cultures and so many intellectuals had so much to say about the Jews? More particularly, he wants to know why so many of them generated their descriptions and explanations of Jewishness not out of personal knowledge or scholarly research, but out of thin air—and from assumptions, some inherited and others newly minted, that the Jews could be wholly known even to those who knew no Jews.

The question recalls the famous joke told during the Holocaust, especially amongst Jews in concentration camps. Here is one formulation of the joke from Antisemitism, the first book in the trilogy that comprises Hannah Arendt’s magnum opus, The Origins of Totalitarianism:  “An antisemite claimed that the Jews had caused the war; the reply was: Yes, the Jews and the bicyclists. Why the bicyclists? Asks the one? Why the Jews? asks the other.”


The point of the joke is clear: Anti-Judaism is as senseless and irrational as anti-bicyclists would be. “The theory that the Jews are always the scapegoat,” Arendt writes, “implies that the scapegoat might have been anyone else as well”—even bicyclists. The question, then, is why the Jews? Grafton gives a clue to Nirenberg’s subtle answer:

 Nirenberg’s answer—and to summarize it, as to summarize so much of this impassioned book, is to flatten it—is that ideas about the Jews can do, and have done, many different and important jobs. True, they are anything but stable: this is not a paper chase after some original idea of the Jew that crops up everywhere from early Christianity to early Nazism. Visions of the Jews change emphasis and content as the larger societies that entertain them change shape and texture. Ideas have multiple contexts, and Nirenberg shows dazzling skill and a daunting command of the sources as he observes the changes and draws connections between them and his authors’ larger worlds.

Nirenberg’s point is that anti-Judaism has nothing to do with Jews themselves. The negative ideas about Jews are held throughout history by a motley group of Christians, philosophers, tyrants, and martyrs. Shakespeare’s account of Shylock is only one of many examples in which an intellectual employs anti-Jewish stereotypes—the Jew as greedy moneylender—to make a wider social critique, this time of the dangers of capitalism. London is becoming a city of commerce. There are no Jews in London. Yet Shakespeare turns to Jews in order to find a way to criticize the emergent commercial culture.

The use of negative sentiments about Jews to bash capitalism was common, Nirenberg writes, and carries through history from Jerome to Marx. Marx couches his critique of capitalism through the lens of a critique of Jews. Shakespeare does the same with commercial society. Jews stand in for the oppressed in the world, so that oppressing Christians could be seen as making them Jewish. Jews at the same time were seen as powerful bankers and powerful agents of world domination, so that any group of conspirators from Bolsheviks in Russia to media moguls in Hollywood were tarred with the pungent scent of Judaism.

Jews have been characterized by non-Jews for their obstinacy—their refusal, for example, to recognize the known truth that the Messiah had come, which enabled them to become the villains of both early Christian and early Muslim narratives. They have been characterized by non-Jews for their viciousness—their desire to desecrate the sacrament and murder Christian children, which allowed them to be used both by rebels against royal authority, and by kings, in the Middle Ages, as each side could claim, when the wind blew from the right quarter, that Jews were polluting society through their materialism and greed. . . . Nirenberg’s parade of imagined and imaginary Jews—the most hideous procession since that of the flagellants in The Seventh Seal—stretches from the Arabian peninsula to London, and from the seventh century BCE to the twentieth CE. Working always from the original sources in their original languages, he observes the multiple ways in which imaginary Jews served the purposes of real writers and thinkers—everyone from Muhammad, founding a new religion, to Shakespeare, observing a new commercial society. God, here, is partly in the details: in the careful, tenderly observant way in which Nirenberg dissects everything from fierce political rhetoric to resonant Shakespearean drama. In works of the imagination, profound treatises, and acts of political radicalism, as he analyses them, imaginary Jews are wielded to powerful effect. He shows us the philosophes of the Enlightenment, those friends of humanity and enemies of tyrannical “infamy,” as they develop a viciously negative vision of Jewish sterility and error to attack Christianity at its origins or to characterize the authorities whom they defied.

The only reservation Grafton voices concerns the univocality of Nirenberg’s account. As exceptional as the account of anti-Jewish opinion is, Nirenberg largely ignores other perspectives and examples where real and imaginary Jews were accepted, embraced, and even praised.

As a social historian of conflict and an intellectual historian of the uncanny imagination, Nirenberg is unbeatable. But Jews and non-Jews lived other histories together as well. As Josephus recalled, when the thousands of diaspora Jews settled in the cities of the Roman world, across Asia Minor and Italy as well as Egypt, many of their pagan neighbors found their ways attractive. Pagans admired the Jews’ pursuit of a coherent code for living and their worship of a single, unseen god. Some became “god-fearers,” who accepted the Jewish god but did not hold full membership in the Jewish community. Some converted. Jews, meanwhile, pursued their own visions of high culture—whether these involved learning to write Greek tragedies about the Jewish past or rebuilding one’s foreskin to make possible appearances at the gymnasium.

Grafton largely stops there and minimizes his “very small complaints….Anti-Judaism is that rare thing, a great book, as much in its ability to provoke disagreement as in its power to shape future writing on the vast territory that its author has so brilliantly mapped.” But Grafton’s small complaints deserve a wider hearing, especially as concerns the leading question he and Nirenberg pose, “Why the Jews?”

The overarching argument of Anti-Judaism is one of eternal antisemitism: Anti-Judaism had nothing to do with the Jews themselves. It is an attitude that sees the Jews to be to blame and is concerned with imaginary Jews as opposed to real Jews. Anti-Judaism is powerful and impactful, but it has no rational connection to reality. Here is how Michael Walzer aptly sums up Nirenberg’s argument:

His argument is that a certain view of Judaism lies deep in the structure of Western civilization and has helped its intellectuals and polemicists explain Christian heresies, political tyrannies, medieval plagues, capitalist crises, and revolutionary movements. Anti-Judaism is and has long been one of the most powerful theoretical systems “for making sense of the world.” No doubt, Jews sometimes act out the roles that anti-Judaism assigns them—but so do the members of all the other national and religious groups, and in much greater numbers. The theory does not depend on the behavior of “real” Jews.

As Walzer notes in his own review of Anti-Judaism in the most recent issue of the New York Review of Books, Nirenberg includes an epilogue that takes on the most famous opponent of his view of eternal antisemitism, Hannah Arendt. As Arendt understands Nirenberg’s view, “Jew-hatred is a normal and natural reaction to which history gives only more or less opportunity. Outbursts need no special explanation because they are natural consequences of an eternal problem.” Since anti-Judaism is eternal and unending, it has been normalized. If thousand years, then Jew-killing is a normal, and even human, occupation and Jew-hatred is justified beyond the need of argument.”


The point is that Grafton’s minor complaint—that Nirenberg offers a magisterial account of Jew-hatred and ignores philo-semitism—is not so minor after all. By claiming that anti-Judaism is omnipresent and omnipotent—by focusing only on anti-Judaism and leaving aside those who embrace or praise Jews—Nirenberg risks normalizing antisemitism. Everyone traffics in Jew-hatred, even Jews. Such a move means, however, that we lose the ability to distinguish those who are antisemites from those who are not. Which is why Arendt argues that the eternal antisemitism thesis is one way to “escape the seriousness of antisemitism and the significance of the fact that the Jews were driven into the storm center of events.”

Walzer and Nirenberg condemn Arendt for seriously asking the question “Why the Jews?” She insists that there are reasons for antisemitism, reasons that the Nazis sought to exterminate the Jews and not the bicyclists. There are such reasons, and anti-Judaism is not simply mysterious and irrational accident. She does not think those are good reasons. She of course never says that the Jews are to blame or that the Jews were responsible for the holocaust as Nirenberg and Walzer wrongly argue. But she does insist we confront the fact that Jews have proven such convenient targets for anti-Judaism, that we seek to understand why it is that over and over it is the Jews who are targeted. There is not one simple answer to that question, Why the Jews? But Arendt asks it seriously and courageously and seeks to come up with a series of potential answers, none of which have to do with her claiming that the Jews are to blame.

If you have The Origins of Totalitarianism on your shelf, take it out and read Chapter One on “Antisemitism as an Outrage to Common Sense.” Then read Grafton and Walzer on Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism. It will be a sad but thrilling weekend.



Communism and Commerce


Communism and Commerce.
From the recent art show at the New York Armory.



John Adams on Education

One of the great documents of American history is the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, written in 1779 by John Adams.

In Section Two of Chapter Six, Adams offers one of the most eloquent testaments to the political virtues of education. He writes:

Wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people, being necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties; and as these depend on spreading the opportunities and advantages of education in the various parts of the country, and among the different orders of the people, it shall be the duty of legislatures and magistrates, in all future periods of this commonwealth, to cherish the interests of literature and the sciences, and all seminaries of them; especially the university at Cambridge, public schools, and grammar-schools in the towns; to encourage private societies and public institutions, rewards and immunities, for the promotion of agriculture, arts, sciences, commerce, trades, manufactures, and a natural history of the country; to countenance and inculcate the principles of humanity and general benevolence, public and private charity, industry and frugality, honesty and punctuality in their dealings; sincerity, and good humor, and all social affections and generous sentiments, among the people.

Adams felt deeply the connection between virtue and republican government. Like Montesquieu, whose writings are the foundation on which Adams’ constitutionalism is built, Adams knew that a democratic republic could only survive amidst people of virtue. That is why his Constitution also held that the “happiness of a people and the good order and preservation of civil government essentially depend upon piety, religion, and morality.”

For Adams, piety and morality depend upon religion. The Constitution he wrote thus holds that a democratic government must promote the “public worship of God and the public instructions in piety, religion, and morality.” One of the great questions of our time is whether a democratic community can promote and nourish the virtue necessary for civil government in an irreligious age? Is it possible, in other words, to maintain a citizenry oriented to the common sense and common good of the nation absent the religious bonds and beliefs that have traditionally taught awe and respect for those higher goods beyond the interests of individuals?

Hannah Arendt saw the ferocity of this question with clear eyes. Totalitarianism was, for here, the proof of the political victory of nihilism, the devaluation of the highest values, the proof that we now live in a world in which anything is possible and where human beings no longer could claim to be meaningfully different from ants or bees. Absent the religious grounding for human dignity, and in the wake of the loss of the Kantian faith of the dignity of human reason, what was left, Arendt asked, upon which to build the world of common meaning that would elevate human groups from their bestial impulses to the human pursuit of good and glory?

The question of civic education is paramount today, and especially for those of us charged with educating our youth. We need to ask, as Lee Schulman recently has: “What are the essential elements of moral and civic character for Americans? How can higher education contribute to developing these qualities in sustained and effective ways?” In short, we need to insist that our institutions aim to live up to the task Adams claimed for them: “to countenance and inculcate the principles of humanity and general benevolence, public and private charity, industry and frugality, honesty and punctuality in their dealings; sincerity, and good humor, and all social affections and generous sentiments, among the people.”

Everywhere we look, higher education is being dismissed as overly costly and irrelevant. In many, many cases, this is wrong and irresponsible. There is a reason that applications continue to increase at the best colleges around the country, and it is not simply because these colleges guarantee economic success. What distinguishes the elite educational institutions in the U.S. is not their ability to prepare students for technical careers. On the contrary, a liberal arts tradition offers useless education. But parents and students understand—explicitly or implicitly—that such useless education is powerfully useful. The great discoveries in physics come from useless basic research that then power satellites and computers. New brands emerge from late night reveries over the human psyche. And those who learn to conduct an orchestra or direct a play will years on have little difficulty managing a company. What students learn may be presently useless; but it builds the character and forms the intellect in ways that will have unintended and unimaginable consequences over lives and generations.

The theoretical justifications for the liberal arts are easy to mouth but difficult to put into practice. Especially today, defenses of higher education ignore the fact that colleges are not doing a great job of preparing students for democratic citizenship. Large lectures produce the mechanical digestion of information. Hyper-specialized seminars forget that our charge is to teach a liberal tradition. The fetishizing of research that no one reads exemplifies the rewarding of personal advancement at the expense of a common project. And, above all, the loss of any meaningful sense of a core curriculum reflects the abandonment of our responsibility to instruct students about making judgments about what is important. At faculties around the country, the desire to teach what one wants is seen as “liberal” and progressive, but it means in practice that students are advised that any knowledge is equally is good as any other knowledge.

To call for collective judgment about what students should learn is not to insist on a return to a Western canon. It is to say that if we as faculties cannot agree on what is important than we abdicate our responsibility as educators, to lead students into a common world as independent and engaged citizens who can, and will, then act to remake and re-imagine that world.

John Adams was one of Hannah Arendt’s favorite thinkers, and he was because he understood the deep connection between virtue and republicanism. Few documents are more worth revisiting today than the 1780 Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. It is your weekend read.


The HAC blog covers the humanities, politics, and education extensively. For more, click here to read "The Humanities and Common Sense,"  and click here to read "The Progeny of Teachers."