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As can clearly be seen in Augustine’s doctrine, Christian attitudes towards the Jews were not only used to define the place of the Jews in society but also to define Christianity itself. Prof. David Nirenberg shows how, during this early period in Christian history, anti-Judaism began to serve a wider role that would become deeply ingrained in Western tradition. I think that people often wonder what the difference is between anti-Judaism and antisemitism. I guess the easiest way to describe some of the differences is just to point out that if antisemitism were all we had, it wouldn’t be a very potent ideology, or a very potent way of thinking about the world.
Many parts of the world have never had Jews in them and those parts of the world that have had Jews in them have usually had very few Jews in them. So, how did thinking about Judaism become something that so many billions of people, who’ve never met a Jew, never lived near a Jew, came to think about. Antisemitism doesn’t really help us explain that in part because it’s so much about the Jewish people, people recognized as Jewish. So what is anti-Judaism?
Anti-Judaism is a way of thinking about the world that understands Judaism as a category in the world that is important and sometimes dangerous, and sometimes the very thing that has to be overcome in order to perfect the world, or in order to perfect yourself. Let me give you just one tiny example to give you a sense of how thinking about Judaism became important very early, say, for the Christian religion, in ways that had not much to do with real Jews and how it could then become useful for thinking about basically any Christian, anything in the world.
I don’t know how well-versed you are in the New Testament but the letters of Paul are really the earliest scriptures we have from the followers of Jesus. And in Galatians, one of the earliest letters, there’s a debate between Paul and Peter, between these two apostles, about how followers of Jesus who are not Jews, Gentile followers of Jesus, should relate to Jesus’ own Jewish customs - circumcision, kashrut, these kinds of things.
And in that letter, Galatians chapter 2 verse 14, Paul says to Peter: “You are a hypocrite because even though you don’t live like a Jew - in that you don’t practice kashrut etc. - you want the Gentiles to Judaize.” You see this word “Judaize.” So what does the word… He didn’t use “semitize” or anything like this. “Semitic” isn’t even a word that comes up until the 19th century. The word “Judaize,” what does he mean by this word “Judaize”? He doesn’t mean that the Gentile followers of Jesus are converting to Judaism. He doesn’t mean that at all. He means that Gentiles, Christians, followers of Jesus, are acting like you might think Jews act.
And what does he mean by acting like Jews? He means putting too much emphasis on the flesh by wanting for example to circumcise themselves because Jesus had circumcised himself; putting too much emphasis on the letter of Scripture, wanting to observe kashrut or circumcise themselves or observe the Law or not eat pork because Scripture says you shouldn’t do those things and Jesus didn’t do those things. He means placing too much emphasis on law or on the world, the material world, as opposed to the spirit. So all of these things come to be thought of as “Judaizing.” And notice, every human being lives in the flesh. All societies require law.
Whenever we read Scripture or anything else we have to pay attention to the literal meaning. We can’t live without it. Even when we communicate with each other, the literal meanings of words is crucial to understanding each other. So what Paul really said was that every Christian is always at risk of Judaizing, of becoming “Jewish” and he put in the middle of every Christian this little conscience and I call it “little jiminy Jew” that the Christian has to overcome.
So anti-Judaism is the idea that every Christian and later every Muslim - for reasons that we can talk about - has to, in order to perfect themselves as Christians, be on guard against the Jew within them, the Jewishness within them, the Jewiness within them. And that doesn’t mean that they’re at risk of becoming observant believing Jews. It means that they’re at risk of relating to the world like Jews, again placing too much emphasis on money, on matter, on law, on letter, on the flesh, not loving and reading correctly.
That’s what becoming Jewish came to mean to all these people and that’s why anti-Judaism became a way of thinking about how you should as a Christian or a Muslim act in the world, how you could criticize other Christians other Muslims for acting in the world, how you could criticize basically anything in the world as too Jewish, as Judaizing. Anti-Judaism in that sense became an ideal. It became a way of thinking about the good and that’s so much more powerful an ideology than what we come to think of as antisemitism in modernity.

Prof. David Nirenberg

In this step, Prof. David Nirenberg presents his analysis of the phenomenon of “anti-Judaism,” showing how in this early period of Christian history, Jews and Judaism began to serve a defining role that would become deeply ingrained in Western tradition.

What is “anti-Judaism” and what separates it from “antisemitism”?


  • Nirenberg, David, Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2013).
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Antisemitism: From Its Origins to the Present

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