Reviewed by Lara Trubowitz (University of Iowa)
Published on H-Judaic (July, 2012)
Commissioned by Jason Kalman (Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion)
Rethinking Philosemitism: New Histories and Debates
With their new edited collection of essays, Philosemitism in History, Jonathan Karp and Adam Sutcliffe make a powerful case for bringing philosemitism to the forefront of Jewish studies. Until recently, research on Jewish history has tended to focus on philosemitism only sporadically and as a minor concern alongside antisemitism. Given the virulence of anti-Jewish discourse, and the range of its historical manifestations, this neglect is not fully surprising. However, as the essays in this collection make clear, philosemitism has its own significant history, and to underplay this history may be tantamount to ignoring some of the most complex and unexpected methods by which Jews have been, and continue to be, distinguished from others. The essays in Philosemitism in History show how crucial it is to approach philosemitism not simply as antisemitism’s counterpart--“love of” Jews instead of hatred--but as a rich and complicated rhetoric in its own right, one that has been foundational to interactions between Jewish and non-Jewish communities in America and throughout Europe.
Philosemitism in History engages with a range of periods and subjects, moving from the Middle Ages through the twenty-first century. It includes analyses of, for instance, early Enlightenment Christian Zionism, Victorian conversion narratives, African American liturgical and literary traditions, post-Holocaust German television, and contemporary evangelicalism. Let me trace briefly some of the arguments offered in the collection, beginning with Robert Chazan, who, in his opening essay on philosemitism in medieval Christianity, provides useful parameters for reconsidering precisely what we mean when we speak of “positive” attitudes toward Jews.
Chazan identifies within Christian exegesis two common manifestations of what he cautiously describes as favorable representations of Jews: approbations based on Jews’ status as a “formerly” chosen people and their eventual redemption in Christ; and validations of their importance as a barrier against Islam and Eastern Christendom. In the first case, Jews were tolerated because they had once been worthy of God’s love (and would “return” to him in the future); in the second, value was attached to Jews’ perceived political and economic usefulness. Both manifestations provided medieval Christians with rubrics for accommodating Jews’ right to exist as Jews, and for instituting ecclesiastical policies designed to ensure Jews’ survival. Crucially, these policies did not necessarily result in a reduction of anti-Jewish sentiments, and in some cases tended to exacerbate resentment against Jews. To contend with this complication, Chazan eschews the term “philosemitism,” which for him denotes a “cohesive ideology,” and offers instead the phrase “philosemitic tendencies,” the study of which will provide “fuller comprehension of the Jewish experience in medieval western Christendom ... and a more nuanced grasp of the complex history of Christian-Jewish relations” (pp. 33, 30). Chazan’s caveat is instructive and points to the difficulties of defining not only philosemitism per se, but also what constitutes tolerance toward Jews, anti-Jewish prejudice, and the gap between them. Thus he extends the work of such scholars as David Feldman, David Theo Goldberg, Didi Herman, and Tony Kushner, who have generated key terms and methods for analyzing configurations of both pro- and anti-Jewish discourses, delineating the precise uses, structures, effects, and staying power of both tendencies.
Moving toward the contemporary moment, and working within a further variety of historical contexts, Abraham Melamed, Adam Shear, Sutcliffe, and Nadia Valman all approach philosemitism as a complex form of appreciation for Jewish or Hebrew culture; in essays by Karp and Julian Levinson, philosemitism becomes the manifestation of a desire--sometimes psychologically motivated, sometimes politically--to identify with the historical plight of Jews; Yaakov Ariel considers it, in the context of Christian evangelicalism, as a form of support for Israel; while Wulf Kansteiner shows how, in post-World War II German television, it comes to mean the positive depiction of Jewish experiences and lives, a programming directive the effect of which is to affirm “German national identity while offering the TV audience temporary relief from the task of coming to terms with Nazism” (pp. 298-99). The various, even divergent, approaches represented by the collection comprise one of the strengths of Philosemitism in History. Instead of a single definition of philosemitism, we have, in essence, an evolving dialogue, with each contributor adding to a broader conversation about what defines non-Jewish treatments of Jews, both historically and today.
Perhaps the view most extensively scrutinized is that philosemitism is equivalent to admiration for Jews, a notion at the heart, for instance, of Melamed’s discussion of Christian Hebraist scholarship in the early modern period. Christian Hebraism, he explains, was characterized by scholarly research into ancient Jewish theology, philosophy, and culture; translation of sacred texts into Latin; and promotion of histories that cast Hebrew as the source of all European languages, and Mosaic law as the prototype of early modern political institutions and theory. Greek philosophy, he adds, was frequently presented as a debased form of Jewish teaching. Like Chazan, Melamed notes that often “interest in Jewish culture intensified antisemitic tendencies” and that Christian Hebraism did not translate necessarily into “plead[ing] the case of civil rights” for Jews (p. 64). It is with this latter contention that Melamed suggests a further definition of philosemitism: an allegiance with Jews based primarily on one’s active advocating for Jewish civil rights, rather than on admiration for, or scholarly dedication to, Jewish culture.
Such a view is then considered more explicitly by Alan Levenson in his discussion of imperial Germany, in which he revisits theories of German philosemitism by, for instance, Alan Edelstein and Paul Lawrence Rose, as well as his own work in Between Philosemitism and Antisemitism: Defenses of Jews and Judaism in Germany, 1871-1932 (2004). Extending his earlier claims, Levenson describes philosemitism variously as a “champion[ing of] the cause of Jews and Judaism” and a “fundamental ... [rejection of] the antisemitic stereotypes so widespread ... in imperial and Weimar Germany” (pp. 190-191). Philosemitism is not a “movement or tradition,” he notes, but rather “a minority outlook that deserves recognition” (p. 192). Unlike other contributors to the volume, in particular Chazan, Levenson “put[s] forward a defense of philosemitism as a coherent category” (p. 190).
In a number of intriguing ways, this idea of “coherency” is then taken up by Karp, who analyzes philosemitism as it emerges in African American literary, liturgical, and political traditions. Figures on whom Karp focuses include Booker T. Washington, who used Jewish reform movements as a model for the economic revitalization of blacks; Zora Neale Hurston, who resurrected Mosaic stories as a basis for liberation; and Paul Robeson, who “regarded blacks and Jews as sharing deep folk roots” (p. 229). Of Hurston, Karp writes: “she is sympathetically engaged with the drama of Jewish history.... Her interweaving of black and Jewish narratives through the medium of the Old Testament exhibits the sort of common ground through which blacks and Jews have continued, even now, to seek a sense of mutual heritage and purpose” (p. 228). Crucially, Karp then notes that “Robeson’s philosemitism, like Hurston’s, was the by-product of an early immersion in biblical sources combined with later exposure, through a host of intimate relations, with actual Jews” (p. 230). Thus, three additional definitions of philosemitism emerge, subtly different than either admiration or advocacy: the seeking of common ground with Jews, sympathy toward Jews, and personal or intimate engagement with Jews.
However, in each case we are cautioned against resting too comfortably with any specific definition, counsel also present in essays by Julian Levinson and Ruth Ellen Gruber. Examining representations of Jews and the Holocaust in postwar American poetry, specifically by such writers as John Berryman, Robert Lowell, and Sylvia Plath, Levinson shows how “for many American writers ... the Jew became a new symbol for a mode of existence in the interstices of the culture” (p. 243). He continues: “If the perspective of the true poet is analogous to the perspective of ‘the Jew,’ becoming a true poet requires installing oneself in the position of the Jew” (p. 253). Strikingly, he refers to this allegiance as “Jewface,” a kind of “passing” dependent on the “valorization of vulnerability and marginality” and “powerful reassertions of Jewish particularity” (pp. 255, 237, 241). Such privileging of particularity is of course complex, a point further underscored by Gruber in her discussion of the marketing in postwar Eastern Europe of what she calls “virtual Jewishness,” a Jewishness without Jews, or what elsewhere she pointedly describes as the “display, representation, and exploitation of Jewish heritage and heritage sites” (pp. 331, 321).
One of the most significant essays in the collection is by Lars Fischer, who, like Alan Levenson, focuses on imperial Germany, but concerns himself specifically with a belief, prevalent in the period, that “‘philosemitism’ [was] a socially harmful tendency on a par with antisemitism” (p. 177). In imperial Germany, the term philosemitism “very quickly established itself as a shorthand denoting various forms of opposition to antisemitism” (p. 174). However, “most (non-Jewish) anti-antisemites vigorously objected to being labeled philosemites,” in part because “anybody who could be bothered to oppose antisemitism” was typically considered to “be in cahoots with ‘the Jews’” (p. 174); such a position was articulated in 1893 by Eduard Bernstein, whose views of philosemitism Fischer treats as characteristic of the period. Bernstein would eventually coin the term “pansemitism” to describe what he saw as “illegitimate interest” in Jewry among organizations opposed to antisemitism: “obsequiousness toward capitalist money-Jewry, support of Jewish chauvinism, glossing over injustices perpetuated by Jews” (p. 181). For Bernstein and others aligned with his views, “legitimate” philosemitism, by contrast, was “reasoned anti-antisemitism ... that [did] not fall into the trap of ‘pansemitism’” (p. 183). Fischer concludes by proposing the phrase “non-‘philosemitic’ anti-antisemitism” as a rubric for understanding both imperial Germany’s engagement with antisemitism and its disdain for what we might call “pansemitic” philosemitism. He ends with the eye-opening claim that during this period, “the suggestion that the term ‘philosemitism’ could be used in a positive rather than a pejorative sense would have seemed as inconceivable as ever” (p. 189). Thus he departs radically from historical accounts of philosemitism that define the phenomenon too casually as either the opposite of antisemitism or as inevitably in collusion with antisemitism.
This kind of caution is exactly what is needed for appreciating the significance of “philosemitism in history,” and for guiding readers through this underanalyzed terrain. Along with his co-contributors, Fischer convincingly demonstrates how and why philosemitism is essential for the critical study of Jewish history and identity, and for a fuller understanding of Jewish/non-Jewish relations. What, the contributors compel us to ask, does “philosemitic” mean in any given historical moment? How does it operate as discourse or action? By whom is it used and for what ends? And what, finally, are its concrete social and political effects?
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-judaic.
Lara Trubowitz. Review of Karp, Jonathan; Sutcliffe, Adam, eds., Philosemitism in History.
H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews.
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