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The Cambridge Companion to Antisemitism, edited by Steven Katz

27 January 2023

Anti-Jewish attitudes are a complex matter, says Alexander Faludy

AT 526 pages, The Cambridge Companion to Antisemitism near doubles the typical length for a work in its series — a fact that reflects both the sad endurance and complexity of anti-Jewish sentiment.

That ancient Israelites experienced friction with neighbouring peoples, especially as regards competition for scarce resources, is attested by biblical and non-scriptural sources. According to S. Gruen’s “Antisemitism in the Pagan World” (Ch.1), however, such clashes were an expression of the general fractious ethnic “give and take” — the noisy theological polyphony of the ancient Near East.

The origins of what, from 1870, would be dubbed anti-Semitism: wholesale definition of another religious group, even whole societies, against a posited Jewish “other”, would have to await the rise of Christendom. This Christian paradigm underpins even the ostensibly “secular” Euro-Atlantic form and contemporary Muslim hostility to Jews.

The latter is (mostly) a late development. Islamic theology afforded a far more hospitable, if sub-optimal, social position to Jews in the Muslim Mediterranean/ Middle East than in Christian Europe for much of the period between Muhammad’s death in 632 and the mid-1800s. When the discourse turned in a more hostile direction, it did so by importing and adapting Christian tropes. Reuven Firestone’s “The Medieval Islamic World and the Jews” (Ch.8) and Esther Webman’s “New Islamic Antisemitism, Mid 19th to the 21st Century” (Ch. 23) unpack such paradoxes.

Germs of the Christian paradigm appear in the New Testament (especially Paul’s Letter to the Galatians) and some early Fathers. It was Augustine of Hippo who gave it classic form, however. His theological articulation grounded both the persistence and precariousness of Jewish life in Christian Europe for 1.5 millennia — as Andrew S. Jacobs explains in “Christianizing the Roman Empire” (Ch. 6).

Augustine’s (354-430) views developed in clarity, across works stretching between Contra Faustum (c.400) and Adversus Judaeos — composed in his last years. The heart of the idea, though, is to be found in The City of God (410), in his exegesis of Psalm 59:12 (“Slay them not lest at any time they forget your law; scatter them in your might”).

As custodians of scriptures “foretelling Christ”, Jews were to be preserved (“slay them not”) as external witnesses to the Messianic status of Jesus. Yet they were also to be regarded as under divine punishment through their dispersion and the Temple’s destruction — penalties for “blindness” to the revelation of God-in-Christ.

Paradoxically, Augustine’s writings both ensured Jews’ ongoing place in Christian society and grounded the stigmatisation that intermittently threatened their safety. As subsequent essays, especially Robert Chazan’s “Medieval Western Christendom” (Ch. 9), explain, Augustine’s paradigm both inspired medieval bishops to shelter Jews from mob violence and inflamed the social tensions that gave rise to such attacks.

The idea that, with Christ’s coming, Judaism ceased to be a living instrument of divine self-disclosure led ecclesiastics to conceptualise Judaism as “fossilised” and police “Jewish Orthodoxy” — proscribing adherence to any post-biblical development. This trajectory reached its zenith (if not conclusion) in papal sanction for mass burnings of the Talmud under Innocent III’s pontificate (1198-1216) — charted by Jeremy Cohen in “Christian Theology and Papal Policy in the Middle Ages” (Ch.10).

Medieval Catholic iconography resourced the visual rhetoric used to stigmatise Jews to devastating effect in Nazi propaganda. Cross-reference between Miri Rubin’s and Debra Higgs-Strickland’s contributions on Jews’ representation in medieval art (Ch.13) and literature (Ch.14), on the one hand, and Steven Katz’s contribution “Antisemitism in the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich” (Ch. 22), on the other, is instructive.

Protestants have cause for sorrow, too. The nature and impact of Luther’s views receive attention from Debra Kaplan (Ch.15). The lineal relationship between Luther’s writings and Nazi attitudes is disputed among historians. In practice, however, the former supported the latter. One selection of Luther’s anti-Jewish works produced by a Nazi publisher sold 300,000 copies. In 1938, the lead Protestant bishop of Thuringia distributed 100,000 copies of his own pamphlet linking Kristalnacht to Luther’s birthday and praising him as “the greatest anti-Semite of his age”.

The vexed question of the relationship of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism receives nuanced attention from Dina Porat (Ch.24). She both problematises their ready conceptual conflation and highlights how quickly they blur in practice.

This Cambridge Companion is impressive, but has curious gaps. While Augustine’s paradigm undergirded Western Christian views on Judaism, his influence in the Orthodox East was far more limited. Before the Shoah, Russia and later the USSR boasted Europe’s largest single concentration of Jews — and yet the post-Byzantine evolution of Orthodox views goes unexplored here.

Regrettably, Adele Reinhartz’s “New Testament Origins of Christian Anti-Judaism” treats as normative Rosemary Radford Ruether’s polemical claims about alleged pernicious characteristics in Synoptic (especially Mattean) tradition — despite the robust critique by eminent Jewish scholars such as Géza Vermes.

Overall, The Cambridge Companion to Antisemitism is an important resource — though frequently an unsettling read.


The Revd Alexander Faludy is a freelance journalist based in Budapest.


The Cambridge Companion to Antisemitism
Steven Katz, editor
Cambridge University Press £29.99
Church Times Bookshop £26.99

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