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  • The Paradox of Anti-Semitism
  • William Nathan Alexander
The Paradox of Anti-Semitism, by Dan Cohn-Sherbok. London: Continuum, 2006. 242 pp. $26.95.

Is antisemitism good for Jewishness? Dan Cohn-Sherbok thinks it is. The paradox of antisemitism, he writes, is that "hatred can be a positive force in Jewish history." "Rather than being our most ferocious enemy, anti-Semitism has . . . often fostered Jewish survival." In fact, the decline in antisemitism in modern times has led to the "disintegration" of traditional Judaism. The idea of tolerance, a product of the Enlightenment, has insidiously undermined Judaism by disarming its most overt, yet stimulating opponent. The result is that Jews today are "deeply divided over the central tenets of the faith," many separating themselves altogether from the Jewish heritage. This leads Cohn-Sherbok to conclude, provocatively, that "anti-Semitism and Jewish survival must be intrinsically [End Page 179] interconnected." It is antisemitism which has the paradoxical power "to renew and enrich Jewish life."

The decline of antisemitism began when the Enlightenment ideal of tolerance was transformed by the French Revolution into the universal political rights of man. The Code Napoléon established in law what the revolutionaries had aspired to through politics: Jews were no longer to be a special "estate" within France, but were to be fully citizens, indistinguishable from former aristocrats and Africans. Jewish leaders quickly assured Napoleon that Judaism was indeed compatible with citizenship, and when not all Jews went along with this the fragmentation of Judaism began.

Reform Judaism was created in the 19th century as a response to the emancipation brought about by the French Revolution. 18th-century intellectuals such as Moses Mendelssohn and Baruch Spinoza had found points of compatibility between Judaism and the often secular ideals of the Enlightenment. Reform Judaism provided a theological framework for this by denying the divine authorship of the Torah and limiting the binding laws of the Torah to those which were easily understood.

Between the middle of the 19th and the 20th centuries, new schools of Jewish thought found further common ground between Judaism and the increasingly secular European world. Neo-orthodoxy attempted to harmonize Judaism with the claims of science and modernist biblical scholarship. Conservative and Reform Judaism would emphasize the role human reflection played in the Jewish faith—generally at the expense of orthodoxy's insistence on the Divine Revelation at Sinai. In 1971, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) would make belief in God not essential to the Jewish faith: "There is room in Reform Judaism . . . for a variety of understandings of God's reality, including individuals who are not sure whether they believe in God or think that they do not believe in God."

Mordecai Kaplan's Reconstructionist Judaism and the "Radical Judaism" of Sherwin Wine further assimilated the meaning of Jewishness to the Diaspora. Both conceive of Judaism as a human construction, rejecting even the rabbinic tradition. Perhaps this is the reason Cohn-Sherbok concludes the first half of his book on Jews with chapters on assimilated Jews or Jews who have altogether rejected Judaism. Etre Juif, c'est tout!

The second half of The Paradox of Anti-Semitism surveys Jewish history from the Exodus to Auschwitz. While Cohn-Sherbok's narrative is one of persecution, it is also, he argues, the history of the unity and loyalty of the Jews to their faith. It is the history of a flourishing culture. Despite exile in Babylon or demonization under medieval Christianity, Jewish culture has thrived on antisemitism. [End Page 180]

While The Paradox of Anti-Semitism is clearly written and covers an immense range of Jewish history and erudition, it is not argumentative, and one has to look closely to find Cohn-Sherbok's opinion beyond the book's title. That antisemitism is somehow constitutive of Judaism is hardly a new idea, but Cohn-Sherbok makes no mention of others, such as Sartre, who have looked at this question in greater detail. In fact the book is scarcely argumentative at all, and the book's thesis becomes a platitude. What does it mean for antisemitism to somehow regenerate Judaism? Cohn-Sherbok's survey of Jewish history...


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