Reviewing ‘How the West became antisemitic’ by Ivan G. Marcus – The Jerusalem Post

Posted By on July 6, 2024

Armed pilgrimages against distant Muslims were pointless, complained Peter the Venerable, abbot of Cluny, to Louis VII, King of France, in 1146, when Jews, who were right in our midst, blaspheme, abuse and trample on Christ and the Christian sacraments so freely and insolently and with impunity.

This view, according to Ivan Marcus a professor of Jewish history at Yale University, and author, among other books, of The Jewish Life Cycle: Rites of Passage from Biblical to Modern Times; and Rituals of Childhood: Jewish Acculturation in Medieval Europe provides evidence of assertiveness among Jews in medieval Europe: a story that has not been told before.

In How the West Became Antisemitic, Marcus claims that Jewish challenges, real and imagined, to the dominant Christian majority produced a society that was antisemitic in new ways between 800 and 1500 and has remained part of European cultural identity in the modern era. In this academic book, awash in footnotes and critiques of other scholars, Marcus also provides a provocative and timely analysis of whether the term anti-Judaism or antisemitism best describes European hatred of Jews.

A reform movement, in which popes tried to reassert supremacy over Christian society and its emperors and kings, Marcus indicates, resulted in a series of Crusades to rescue Jerusalem and Byzantine Christians from Muslim Seljuk Turks. Religious zeal became a rationale for attacking members of relatively new Jewish communities in Northern Europe, many of whom had forged close business relationships with Christians but were now increasingly seen as descendants of the killers of Christ.

ATTACKED BY Crusaders on their way to the Middle East, Jews sometimes mounted armed resistance. In Mainz, Germany, they donned their armor and weapons of war, adults and children alike, with Rabbi Qalonymos at their head. Some Jews reportedly killed themselves and their children rather than convert. As they called on God to avenge them, Jewish chroniclers unleashed insults aimed at Christian sancta, crying out Hear, O Israel, an affirmation of Jewish loyalty. Some Jews reportedly spat at, urinated on, or trampled crosses.

Jewish blasphemy and resistance, Marcus emphasizes, was partly responsible for the new efforts of Christians to contain and subordinate them.

In the late 13th and 14th centuries, Jews were expelled from many European countries. Issued by temporal, not ecclesiastical authorities, and amid intensifying opposition to usury, Marcus argues that the removal of Jewish communities from European states is best understood as efforts to protect an ideal Christian society from perceived harmful Jewish influences.

Most important, he writes, is that even after actual Jews were expelled, imagined Jews continued to help maintain Christian solidarity and identity as self-defining others in a set of traditions that have continued into the 21st century.

Shylock, the memorable Jewish character in William Shakespeares The Merchant of Venice, is one of them. Marcus reminds us that Shylock exacts his revenge on Christians, not on symbols of Christianity, as in the Middle Ages. In economic competition with the merchant Antonio, Shylock insists on a pound of flesh as the penalty for non-payment of his loan. He hates Christians, he says, because they compete unfairly by not charging interest to other Christians.

Medieval Jews, Marcus points out, hated Christianity as idolatry but did business with their co-religionists, often charging them exorbitant fees. In 1290, following the expulsion of Jews from England, for example, Queen Eleanor took over and collected outstanding Jewish loans.

SHYLOCK IS not at all like his alleged medieval ancestors, Marcus suggests, because Shakespeares audiences, many of whom had never seen a Jew, assumed they were neither rational nor fully human. The religious rivalry between Jews and Christians was no longer the main issue. Despite Shylocks insistence that a Jew bleeds if pricked, theatergoers may well have laughed at his choice of revenge over money, especially when he doesnt get either one, watches his daughter elope with a Christian, is forced to convert, and literally disappears in Act V. In sum, Shakespeare had created his own version of the medieval imagined Jew as an inner enemy who hates Christians.

Medieval antisemitism, Marcus asserts, helped create and legitimize modern antisemitism. Medieval Christians hated Jews because they insisted they were the chosen people and refused to be servile or religious subordinate. During the Crusades, Christians concluded that Jews were the inner enemy. And they came to believe that Jewish identity was unchangeable and immune to conversion.

Had Christian antisemitism been primarily about Judaism and not Jews, Marcus writes, modern secularism might have ended it. Instead, it got worse. In Europe and the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries, as Jews became successful and assimilated into the dominant Christian majority, white supremacists lashed out at them as the powerful enemy within, a permanent racial minority that needed to be contained, expelled, or eliminated.

How the West Became Antisemitic ends with a warning: Just as Europe has proven again and again that it is a resilient culture that can survive devastating world wars... its antisemitic culture has also proven resilient and transportable... And there is every reason to be concerned about the postmodern forms of nationalism and nativism that are recycling the medieval structure of antisemitism.

Glenn C. Altschuler is The Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Emeritus Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.

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Reviewing 'How the West became antisemitic' by Ivan G. Marcus - The Jerusalem Post

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