The Clare Spark Blog

November 16, 2010

Good Jews, Bad Jews, and Wandering Jews

Wandering Jew, 1901

I have written a great deal on antisemitism, often in a more comprehensive and experimental fashion than others, including academics. For an index of blogs on the website see

One Facebook friend has asked me to explain the Wandering Jew trope, so I am excerpting a few lines from my book, Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival. The paragraphs are from chapter one. It is important to know that Melville was not a Jew, but his radical puritan characters evoked the image of the Bad Jew in some of his academic readers. When I refer to Christian Europe or conservative Christians, I mean those Catholics and Protestants who were asserting hierarchy as natural in the face of upsurges from below in the modern period. (When I use the term Bad Jew, I do not mean non-observant Jews as judged by Orthodox Jews. Similarly, “Good Jews” refers to those Jews who are seen favorably by philo-semites.)

[Book excerpt:] Since I use the terms Good Jews, Bad Jews, and Wandering Jews throughout this study, some explanation is in order. Traditional Christian images of the Jews have varied since their gradual emancipation after the French Revolution, but there is still no mythic representation of the Good Jew, nor can there be, for the “Jewish” hammer smashes myths and all other illusions.


For conservative Europeans throughout the Christian era, all Jews were bad; good Jews annihilated this badness by converting to Christianity. The patristic Church fathers had railed against Judaism; it was not the parent religion, but their demonic antithesis, their negative identity. The Jews were materialistic, sensual, incestuous, hypocritical, legalistic yet antinomian, hypercritical of religious leaders, cannibals of their own children, money-mad, spiritually blind, and liars.[i]

The Renaissance, Reformation, and Enlightenment exalted singularity, materialism, and natural rights, heretofore qualities or claims condemned in the Jews. Corporatist Christians deployed the late medieval myth of the Wandering Jew to attack the “Hebraic” radical puritan adversary. Ahasver or Cartaphilus, a cobbler, having refused and mocked Christ on the way to the crucifixion, was cursed by Him to “tarry till I come.” The sleepless, footsore, indestructible Wandering Jew, longing for death, was a fixture in European folktale; he was sighted all over Europe and understood as witness to the Incarnation, a corrective to excessive skepticism in the lower orders.

However the left Romantics (e.g. Byron and Shelley) and the French rural poor of the early 19th century appropriated and transformed the counter-revolutionary myth, constructing the figure of the Romantic Wandering Jew, the Napoleonic hammer-swinging little man who represented anticlericalism and hatred of abusive, illegitimate authority.[ii]

For writers of the Terror-Gothic genre, he was both Promethean and demonic, able to pass through closed doors and the thickest walls: like the repressed facts of the material world, he could not be excluded, contained, or incarcerated. To Byron and Shelley (and later, Yeats), the Wandering Jew represented their idealistic selves, the fully feeling and thinking adolescent who would never sell out, whose probing gaze punctured all myths to construct accurate pictures of social reality as the first step in ameliorating needless human suffering.

There was no European myth of the Good Jew, then; for rebels, the Romantic Wandering Jew was Good because he was Bad, and in moments of remorse, could be disavowed by his champions. For ex-left Romantics returning to classical order, genteel religious antisemitism, with its distinctions between convertible Good Jews and unconvertible Bad Jews, shaded into nineteenth-century scientific racism, rendering all Jews evil by nature. The ideology of scientific racism (still extant today), was a reaction to eighteenth-century liberalism and republican democracy.

Correlating “the rise of the Jews” (really market society) with modernity, scientific racists rendered all Jews incorrigibly evil, conspiratorial, and money-mad, religious Jew or apostate, capitalist or communist alike. It would have been easier to spot them if ethnologists knew what the all-too-protean Jews looked like. Could Herman Melville, religion, genes, and physiognomy to the contrary, have been a crypto-Jew? [End, book excerpt. For more on Melville and his revivers, see]

Samuel Hirszenberg, 1899

                [i] 38. See Rosemary Radford Ruether, Faith and Fratricide: the Theological Roots of Antisemitism (New York: Seabury Press, 1974), Chapter Three, 219, 258.

                [ii] Champfleury, “French Images of the Wandering Jew,”The Wandering Jew: Essays in the Interpretation of a Christian Legend, ed. Galit Hasan-Rokem and Alan Dundes (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1986), 68-75. “Since the beginning of the century, [Ahasverus] has decorated every poor hovel, balanced by a picture of Napoleon. It seems that the common man gave an equal place in his imagination to these two great marcheurs.”(my emph.,  i.e., the Wandering Jew cannot be a conqueror or despot if Champfleury has to call attention to the pairing with Napoleon.) For the Wandering Jew as alienated modern artist see Edgar Rosenberg, From Shylock to Svengali; Jewish Stereotypes in English Fiction (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1960). Rosemary Ruether sees the patristic fathers’ use of the Cain legend to represent the reprobate Jewish people as the typological ancestor of the medieval myth of the Wandering Jew, Faith and Fratricide, 133-134. See Uriel Tal, Christians and Jews in Germany (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1975), 16, 232, for descriptions of Christian strategies for dealing with the corroding skepticism fostered by persistence of the obdurate Jewish people: they must be either converted or humiliated so that their “abject state would then bear witness, testes veritatis nostrae, to the indefeasible claims of the triumphant religion of Christianity” (16). Christians might abjure rabble-rousing massacres, while excluding Jews from positions of authority.

October 29, 2009

The Enigmatic Face of Philosemitism

Image (78)[Update, 10-1-13: I have come around to rejecting the word “totalitarianism”, but possibly for different reasons than Heni’s. I also agree that the Holocaust, like fascism, was historically unique. I.e., I am comfortable with historicism. But the distinctiveness of the Holocaust does not preclude a new attempt to murder “the Jews.” ]

A new journal on the history of antisemitism has just appeared, featuring a stellar advisory board of scholars, and purporting to be philosemitic and pro-Israel. It is part of their intellectual mission to distinguish antisemitism from “prejudice” or “racism, ” but also to attack the theory of “totalitarianism” that would equate Nazi and Soviet forms of terror. Clemens Heni, one of their authors and a founding member of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East,  in his blog “The Prague Declaration, Trivialization of the Holocaust, and Antisemitism,” argues that the moral equivalence of Stalinist and Hitlerian murder denies the uniqueness of the Holocaust; indeed that habit is taken to be a mini-form of Holocaust denial! As if Stalin had not had his own plans for the Jews, embodied in the Doctor’s Plot and cut short only by his death in 1953. (For details on Soviet treatment of Jews during the second world war, see Niall Ferguson’s War of the World.)

You can find the first issue at I have read Dr. Heni’s article,  “Antisemitism as a Specific Phenomenon,” who writes of the irrationality of antisemitism:  “No group of people but the Jews has ever been singled out and blamed even for opposite developments, such as both capitalism and communism, and being weak-willed but powerful enough to take over the planet.” (Heni took his degree in political science, and was for a year a post-doctoral researcher at YIISA (The Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism. One of his two books is Salonfähig der Neuen Rechten–a sarcastic title indicating that the author is writing from somewhere on the Left.)

It is my view that we are in the murky territory of the moderate men again. [Added 3-22-10: When I wrote this blog, I had not studied the Burke revival in the twentieth century. It was particular organic conservatives (following Burke) who twinned Nazism and Stalinism, constantly using the term “totalitarianism.” Both Nazism and Communism were seen as the effluent of puffed-up Jacobins and other mechanical materialists, displacing religion by worshipping the Goddess of Reason, re-inventing the State and hence usurping God. Cf. Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism.] It depends on what we mean by rationalism and irrationalism. “Irrational” suggests to me that the theory of projection, advocated by social psychologists allied to moderate conservatism, is in play. (See my prior blog on Adorno’s harmonizing of Freud’s theory of incessant conflict, substituting in its place of constant struggle to achieve civilized behavior, a “balance” between id, ego, and superego; the happy outcome would be “genuine liberalism;” see that chapter in The Authoritarian Personality and In other words, what is presented as a bold new approach to the history of antisemitism is probably yet another defense of “moderate” statism, hence the outrage at equating Nazism and Stalinism. Nazism is usually hung on “the Right” or “fascist Republicans” by  Stalinists. But see R. Palme Dutte blaming social democrats in 1934, prior to the Popular Front.)

Take the quote from Heni’s article, above, describing the “irrationality” of antisemitism for confusing capitalists and communists–a claim I have seen countless times elsewhere. Convinced antisemites had no trouble with this supposed cognitive dissonance: Gentlemanly organic conservatives understood that atheistic science-plagued modernity had bred lucre-loving capitalists, and then in reaction to their [typically “Jewish” capitalist greed and exploitation] communism raised its ugly head. The solution to the onset of a disenchanted modern world would be a Christianized capitalism. Look no further than Christian Socialism, Bismarck’s welfare state, the Fabians in Britain, Rerum Novarum ( the encyclical issued by Leo XIII in 1891)  or the social gospel movement in America, followed here by populism and progressivism. Hitler himself advocated a “third way” between capitalism and communism,* meanwhile opposing “Jewish Bolshevism” in the Soviet Union as a mere front for “finance capital” and not socialism at all. My point is that these mostly European movements were reacting against the displacement of an aristocratic elite by the new men—the moderns, whose elevation of hard science, hard work, novel financial instruments, and free markets threatened the property and lifestyles of the landowning class and  their employees, dependents, and allies. In Britain, Young England represented a coalition between aristocrats and the working class against the rising industrial bourgeoisie (see Disraeli’s Sybil, or The Two Nations for their outlook; detail here:

So far I have mentioned as examples of rationality (as opposed to ostensible antisemitic irrationality) the Third Way of the moderate men. But think now of the benefits to Nazis and other antisemites if the Jews were either removed from their regions (as in Israel) or from their nations (as in the Third Reich): the expropriation of Jewish property and the elimination of Jewish rivals in business and the professions, or relief from the unpredictable chaos brought about by political and technical innovations in general, let alone the restless and “skeptical” Jewish mind that so frazzled Hitler and probably Stalin. Think especially of antisemitism as backlash against the emancipation of the Jews after the French Revolution, with all the reasons just mentioned.

*[From Hitler’s Table Talk:] The English have to settle certain social problems which are ripe to be settled.  At present these problems can still be solved from above, in a reasonable manner.  I tremble for them if they don’t do it now.  For if it’s left to the people to take the initiative, the road is open to madness and destruction.  Men like Mosley would have had no difficulty in solving the problem, by finding a compromise between Conservatism and Socialism, by opening the road to the masses but without depriving the élite of their rights.  Class prejudices can’t be maintained in a socially advanced State like ours, in which the proletariat produces men of such superiority.  Every reasonably conducted organization is bound to favour the development of beings of worth.  It has been my wish that the educative organisations of the Party should enable the poorest child to lay claim to the highest functions, if he has enough talent.  The Party must see to it, on the other hand, that society is not compartmentalized so that everyone can quickly assert his gifts.  Otherwise discontent raises its head, and the Jew finds himself in just the right situation to exploit it.  It’s essential that a balance should be struck, in such a way that dyed-in-the-wool Conservatives may be abolished as well as Jewish and Bolshevik anarchists….(Jan. 27, 1942, p. 253).

[Illustrated: Picasso’s La Dama de Azul, with the Pierrot mask as I read it]

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