Philosemitism in History

Alex E. Proimos

There's an old Yiddish saying, "S'iz shver tsu zayn a Yid" -- "it's tough to be a Jew." Surely any religious discipline is going to make some uncomfortable demands on its adherents to live a moral and respectful life, but in the case of Jews there may also be the need to be true to your values and needs while those around you are prejudiced, unfriendly or worse. The spectre of antisemitism has hounded the Jewish people since long before it had a name.  The word itself was coined around 1880, and shortly thereafter the notion of "philosemitism" entered the vocabulary and the discussion, still somewhat pejorative.  The new book "Philosemitism in History" reviews those times from the Middle Ages to the present when members of the majority -- usually Christian -- population sought to find an advantage in Jewish beliefs and practices.  On rare occasions there might even have been warm feelings toward Jews themselves.

"Philosemitism in History" is a collection of fourteen essays written by an international group of historians, journalists, philosophers and scholars of Jewish and European history and culture.  It describes "the complex interplay of positive and negative attitudes toward Jews".  The anthology was edited by Dr. Jonathan Karp, professor of history and Judaic studies at Binghamton University, currently on leave as  Executive Director of the American Jewish Historical Society, and Dr. Adam Sutcliffe, senior lecturer in European History at King's College, London.  Karp and Sutcliffe also wrote the introductory overview and contributed their own essays.

A theme that runs through the book is that philosemitism was just another form of prejudice.  There is the recurring sense that Jews, in holding so tenaciously to the faith that gave birth to Christianity, were guardians of Christian values.  As one of the leaders of the Crusades stated in an appeal to stem anti-Jewish violence, "The Jews are for us the living words of Scripture, for they remind us always of what our Lord suffered."  In his essay entitled "The Philosemitic Moment?", Dr. Sutcliffe tells of the 16th century utopian concepts of a "Republic of the Hebrews" and of a "second Israel" that would reflect both high moral principles and incipent democratic ideals.  But the Jews were not depicted as having any place in such a state.  The 16th century Dutch law professor Petrus Cunaeus held that "the Hebrew republic, utterly unique because underwritten by God, appeared necessarily exceptional in every respect and thus invited exemption from the usual norms of commercial exchange."

The most common teaching about Jewish acceptance in Christian-dominated Europe is that landless Jews were welcome because they brought business opportunity.  But the Jewish role as financiers goes far beyond acting as money lenders.

While some Jews did own land well into the medieval period, most were invited to settle precisely because they were understood ro be commercial or financial specialists.  The very shift from commerce to finance and moneylending, occurring in western Europe between the eleventh and late twelfth centuries, was not necessarily the result of the Jews' exclusion from more mainstream occupations, but rather of the fact that the medieval commercial revolution made financial occupations especially attractive to those with the capital and skills to undertake them: that is, among others, to Jews.
          -- from the introduction to "Philosemitism in History"

The book differentiates between philosemitism -- described in one study as a form of sympathy -- and anti-antisemitism.  It looks into Christians' conversionist attitudes from the 17th century to today, including contemporary evangelical interpretation of the Zionist movement and the founding of the State of Israel as preparing the way for the Second Coming.  A similar expression of the impermanence of the Jews as a distinct group could be felt five hundred years ago.

The final sections tell of the relationship between Jews and African-Americans.  An essay by Jonathan Karp tells of the attitudes of African-Americans with profiles of educator Booker T. Washington, writer Zora Neale Hurston and singer and actor Paul Robeson.  By the 20th century in America it was possible to have both a personal relationship with Jews and an intellectual interest in Judaism that would "reconcile the Biblical heritage with the disjunctive reality of of modern Jewishness."  The final essays bring philosemitism to time present with a survey of the audience response in post-Holocaust Germany to several television series about Jewish history and culture, and a look at the recent European fad for things Jewish, even if the kitsch is produced by non-Jews.

Jonathan Karp and Adam Sutcliffe join Bill Jaker on OFF THE PAGE to tell about the durability and evolution of philosemitism and the preparation of a scholarly anthology.  The program coincides with the eve of Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year 5772.  You can also post a comment here to OffThePage@WSKG.ORG.

Guests: 
Jonathan Karp
Adam Sutcliffe