- Philosemitism in History edited by Jonathan Karp and Adam Sutcliffe
Many readers will wonder whether there is need for a book on this topic. After all, antisemites originally coined the term “philosemitism” as a slur in 1880; what possible analytical use could the term have? The book presents a compelling case for both the concept and for its utility when analyzing historical questions and cultural artifacts. The volume includes a fine introduction to the concept, its history, and its potential uses, and fourteen essays that serve as case studies. The editors assert that the purpose of the book is to be “stimulating and suggestive rather than encyclopedic,” but they leave one important question unanswered: can philosemitism serve as an analytical term when discussing the relations of Jews and others in cultures that are not historically Christian in the way that antisemitism is routinely used? All of the essays in this volume focus on either Europe or the United States.
Since an analysis of fourteen essays is not possible here, I will discuss the introduction, the early modern framework of philosemitism, and several [End Page 132] important themes that pervade the entire volume. The introduction is an important contribution to the problem of philosemitism in that it provides a twenty-page discussion of the term. It stresses the double inheritance of both classical and early Christian characterizations of Jews and Judaism in shaping medieval, early modern, and even some modern attitudes. Karp and Sutcliffe stress the fundamental ambivalence of philosemitic attitudes because they can coexist with antisemitic ones, and they often are based upon idealized or even utopian notions of what Jews are like or ought to be. The continuing importance of Jews and Judaism for Christianity, particularly some forms of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Protestantism, which supported both Jewish missions and a Jewish return to Palestine, exemplifies the conflicting attitudes of some Christians toward both.
Five of the essays are devoted to the medieval and early modern periods, when the formative framework for modern philosemitism was worked out. Robert Chazan’s essay on medieval Christendom discusses how the attitudes of some Christian secular and church leaders, as well as ordinary persons toward Jews, could be supportive. Abraham Melamed’s treatment of Christian Hebraism is misleading in that he focuses mainly on amateurs such as Newton who could not read Hebrew well or on political Hebraism. Adam Sutcliffe’s fine work “The Philosemitic Moment?” focuses on the relationship of philosemitism to political Hebraism. Two other essays, Adam Shear’s “William Whiston’s Judeo-Christianity” and Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall’s “A Friend of the Jews? The Abbé Grégoire and Philosemitism in Revolutionary France” consider important figures whose understanding of Jews and Judaism grew out of early modern thought.
The remaining essays focus on nineteenth- and twentieth-century topics related to philosemitism; I will mention them in connection with several of the book’s overarching themes. First, some of the philosemites discussed came to their positive views of Jews and Judaism through an idealized understanding of them that had little to do with their Jewish contemporaries. All of the essays on American philosemitism discuss how American philosemites held idealized and even utopian views of Jews. For example, Jonathan Karp points out that Booker T. Washington and Louis Armstrong both emphasized Jewish virtues that they felt needed to be more a part of African American culture. The most extreme case of Jews being idealized by others is presented in Yaakov Ariel’s essay on philosemitism among Evangelical Christians. The role that Jews and the land of Israel play in dispensational theology is an example of how Jews and Judaism play in some forms of Christian thought. [End Page 133]
The four essays focusing on nineteenth- and early twentieth-century themes by Howard Lupvitch, Nadia Valman, Lars Fischer, and Alan Levin-son discuss the motives of would-be philosemites that made them willing to take the side of Jews in political or cultural conflict, or at very least to engage in a kind of “anti-antisemitic” defense of Jews and Judaism. For...