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Modern Judaism 22.2 (2002) 115-141

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Philosophers and Anti-semitism

Harry Redner

The issue of anti-Semitism in philosophy is of enormous historical scope for it concerns the various efforts made at different times to exclude Jewish thinkers and thought from the traditions and lineages of Western philosophy. It is itself part of the larger issue of the place and role of the Jewish people in European culture in general and the attempts that anti-Semites have made to deny Jews any standing inEurope. This led in due course to the Nazis, who adopted the most extreme physical measures to be rid of the Jews and so attain a Final Solution to this so-called "problem." Anti-Semitic philosophers and their philosophies contributed in no small way to this horrendous outcome. It is all the more horrifying to learn that the philosophers concerned were not merely the political ideologues, but also some of the most prominent names of European thought, especially so of nineteenth and twentieth century German philosophy.

Anti-Semitism has always played a part in German philosophy, be it an inconspicuous one, as in the case of Kant and Frege, or a much more prominent one, as in Schopenhauer, or even one curiously mixed with contrary strains of philo-Semitism, as in Nietzsche. German philosophers have found it difficult to be indifferent to Jews, by contrast to most philosophers in other national traditions. At its worst, the Jew�always treated as an abstraction and rarely particularized—tended to be contraposed to the German, also symbolically abstracted, so that whatever was regarded as unworthy of the latter was projected onto the former. The expression "Jewish Spirit" (Jüdischer Geist) was coined by German thinkers to enable them to dissociate whatever it is they wished to denounce from real Jews, and so spare themselves thetrouble of having to ascertain whether Jews in fact, historically or contemporaneously, manifested the things they wished to reject and exclude. The Jew thus served as a scapegoat, a generalized symbol of exclusion that could as easily be directed against non-Jews as against real Jews. Thus, for example, if Christianity was held to be a "Jewish" religion then either it was regarded as unfit for true Germans, or it was made suitable for Germans, such as so-called German Christianity, by excluding all supposedly Jewish elements from it. This could be taken to the ludicrous lengths of denying that Jesus was a Jew. [End Page 115]

The Jew was not only opposed to the German but, even more so, to the Greek, with whom the German was held to have a special kinship. The concept of the Aryan was formulated to express and account for this affinity on both linguistic and supposedly racial grounds, and this, too, served to exclude Jews who were presumed to exemplify the opposite racial type. Much of Western history was presented as an ongoing struggle between the Aryan and the Semite; and in this symbolic way many current issues were couched and supposedly explained. The neo-classical revival of Greek antiquity in Germany from Winckelmann onwards also frequently led in the same anti-Jewish and, at the same time, anti-Christian direction. Jewish Spirit was held to be infinitely inferior to Attic Spirit and unless it was rigidly excluded it would only taint and corrupt the rebirth of the classically noble and sublime in Germany. Nineteenth-century German culture and scholarship was pervaded by these ideas as Martin Bernal has shown in his book Black Athena. In the twentieth century all this came to full fruition in the various kinds of anti-Semitic ideologies.

It should be clear, therefore, that in discussing anti-Semitism in philosophy I do not mean to refer to any simple prejudice or personal dislike of Jews as such or, what is more common, of certain types of Jews, ghetto Jews, or Eastern Jews, or whatever. Solely at issue here is anti-Semitism in an ideological sense; it is rarely a complete ideology by itself, not even in the case of Nazism, for mostly it functions as a relatively detachable component...


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