[Abstract: Norton has published a wandering, lengthy, unreadable book whose unintended consequence may be the weakening of the current coalition between Jews and their (conservative) Christian allies in defense of Israel and of Western values.]
Nirenberg summarizes his argument here. http://chronicle.com/article/Anti-Judaism-as-a-Critical/136793/. It is reviewed by poet and critic Adam Kirsch in a publication aimed at assimilated Jews who are either social democratic or “moderate.” http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-arts-and-culture/books/123971/a-world-without-jews.
I recently heard that the hot new book for students of relations between Jews and Christians was David Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism (Norton, 2012). Though I wondered why this superstar cultural historian did not deploy the usual phrase “antisemitism”, I looked forward to learning how Jews were viewed in periods where I had neither languages nor deep reading knowledge: Egypt, ancient Greece, and medieval Europe. (Nirenberg is an endowed professor in the University of Chicago’s History of Social Thought department, educated at Yale and Princeton: see publications http://home.uchicago.edu/~nirenberg/publications.shtml.) Not content to remain within his specialty, DN takes us up through the present, for this is a cross-over book, intended for the eyes of the lay reader.
I tried valiantly to make my way through this long tome, but finally gave up on it, for I find it unreadable and one step above gossip, skipping back and forth in time. I did note along the way that Nirenberg had done no archival research himself, but had mined the labors of the trendiest historians working today. The project of the book seems to be an assault not only on the bigoted West (and Islam too), but a rough ride through thousands of years of history, quoting the famous and the less famous, but ever noting continuities in “civilization’s” negative references to Jews and Judaism. (We never learn what Judaism is or was, for his topic is images disseminated by pagans, Christians, deists, atheists), nor does he adequately explain why he discards the customary phrase antisemitism.) It is my view that in a book addressed to the lay reader, an author has a responsibility to be organized, chronological, and to clearly state arguments, with constant guideposts to the uninitiated reader. For instance, you first lay out the project of the book and why non-scholars should care about it, acknowledge prior scholarly and popular literature on the subject, state an allover argument that breaks new ground, then recapitulate the journey in the conclusions. Conclusions should synthesize a new narrative, something for the reader to take away, something new in the world of thought and feeling that corrects and refines the work of colleagues.
What to make of this failure to commit to either method or objectives, especially since in his last chapter he quotes Hannah Arendt, Adorno and Horkheimer, though distancing himself from their particular rationales for antisemitism or counter-Enlightenment (e.g., Jews were really “overrepresented” in commerce and finance, so who can entirely blame Hitler’s base, an accusation I have heard from other bigots.). He does, however, cite Edward Said, famously anti-Zionist and anti-imperialist. (See long footnote on the anti-Western Said in http://clarespark.com/2009/09/06/the-hebraic-american-landscape-sublime-or-despotic/.)
It was not until I googled “Judeo-Christian heritage” that I could guess at the project of the book (that may be invisible to Nirenberg): besides throwing yet more red meat for the nourishment of living, active antisemites (not noted in the Tablet review), Nirenberg may intend to break up the alliance of many Christian Zionists, other non-bigoted Protestants and Catholics, with their Jewish partners in defense of Israel and of “the West” in general. It is all suggested here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judeo-Christian. (The Judeo-Christian coalition began in the 1950s, and is strong today on the conservative New Right.) Call me Paranoid.
Finally, consider the jacket to the hardback edition ($35, no pictures). It refers to anti-Judaism being built into the “genome” of the West. This is a misappropriation of genetics for a tendentious argument that “the West” has transmitted its deplorable characterizations of “Jews” through its very DNA. I have already written about such binary opposites as Nirenberg describes, but for the purpose of understanding Nazi ideology, not in undermining (consciously or not) a political coalition that is aimed to protect Jewish life and those humanistic values that are shared by Christians and Jews, notwithstanding a problematic history of persecution and religious/political/economic antagonism. See http://clarespark.com/2010/08/15/nazis-exhibit-der-ewige-jude-1937/ or for a more refined distinction between two strands of “Western” thought, see http://clarespark.com/2013/03/18/babel-vs-sinai/.