ReligionWise

Antisemitism - Hartley Lachter

November 15, 2021 Institute for Religious and Cultural Understanding Season 1 Episode 3
Antisemitism - Hartley Lachter
ReligionWise
More Info
ReligionWise
Antisemitism - Hartley Lachter
Nov 15, 2021 Season 1 Episode 3
Institute for Religious and Cultural Understanding

This episode of ReligionWise features a conversation with Hartley Lachter, Associate Professor of Religion Studies at Lehigh University, where he holds the Philip and Muriel Berman Chair in Jewish Studies, and serves as the director of the Berman Center for Jewish Studies.

In this conversation, the origins of antisemitism are discussed as well as the contemporary social functions of the phenomenon.

Show Notes

Show Notes Transcript

This episode of ReligionWise features a conversation with Hartley Lachter, Associate Professor of Religion Studies at Lehigh University, where he holds the Philip and Muriel Berman Chair in Jewish Studies, and serves as the director of the Berman Center for Jewish Studies.

In this conversation, the origins of antisemitism are discussed as well as the contemporary social functions of the phenomenon.

Show Notes

Chip Gruen:

Welcome to ReligionWise, the podcast where we feature educators, researchers and other professionals discussing topics on religion and their relevance to the public conversation. My name is Chip Gruen. I'm the Director of the Institute for Religious and Cultural Understanding at Muhlenberg College, and I will be the host for this podcast. Today's episode features my conversation with Hartley Lachter on history of anti-semitism. Hartley is Associate Professor of Religion Studies at Lehigh University, and also the Director of the Berman Center. Hartley and I go way back. He was a professor at Muhlenberg College when I first started here, and I very much valued his collegiality and the work that we did together. Our conversation today is about the history of anti-semitism and what it looks like in antiquity, in the Middle Ages, and today. And I think that this is actually a really nuanced conversation, because I specialize in the ancient world and late antiquity, and you have anti-Judaism, you know, even if you look in the New Testament, you have sentiments that are anti-Jewish that, of course, are used in very horrific ways in the Middle Ages and in the modern world. But some scholars don't want to refer to those as anti-semitism. Their claim is that anti-semitism is itself a modern phenomenon that has to do with modern national identity, rather than something that is simply the same as anti-Judaism as it exists in the past. So we talked a little bit about that. So there's a little bit of that nuance that goes on about how we use our vocabulary. And what do scholars mean when they use these different phrases? I think another thing that's really interesting to keep an eye on in this conversation is about when anti-semitism or anti-Judaism happens in the presence of Jews, were there real Jews in the community, and how often Jews are held up as a foil or as something that is the, the scapegoat, if you will, in a community that doesn't have its own Jewish population. So I think that there's some really interesting comparisons there. So you'll hear us talk a little bit about fourth and fifth century North Africa as compared to 20th century Arizona in that regard. So without further ado, here's my conversation with Hartley Lachter. Welcome Hartley, I'm so glad you can join me today for this conversation. So what I really wanted to talk to you about is, I know that you have a couple of different things that you're working on, one you did a class at Lehigh called Anti-Semitism Past and Present, where you think about not only material from from your work, medieval Kabbalah, and that his response to anti-semitism, but also thinking about how those tropes and how ideas that are, that are spawned in that period and some of the polemic that comes from that period, reaches into the contemporary world. And then as I mentioned, this also connects to your research interest on on Kabbalah and thinking about social and cultural functions of anti-semitism. So I'm really interested in the intersection of those things. So we'll start off with your work and we'll see how, how it goes. And we'll ask that question of "so what" as we move forward.

Hartley Lachter:

Well, thanks so much. It's a pleasure to have this conversation, especially with a friend and colleague who, we had offices next door to each other for many years at Muhlenberg. So thanks for having me. So yeah, I taught this course it was actually the first time I've taught this particular course as an introductory overview of the history of anti-semitism or anti-Judaism in Western culture going, as you noted, past to present. And it does stem from the work that I've done on how medieval Jewish mysticism or medieval Kabbalah engages some of these ideas that were just part of Western Christian culture, regarding the nature of Jews and Judaism and their role in history. And I'm working on a book now that's very interested in how Kabbalists understood the meaning of Jewish history, sort of post Second Temple, and even post Rabbinic Judaism how Kabbalists understood the fate of medieval Jews, and what the theological implications of that were. And the reason why this was a conversation they couldn't avoid was twofold. One, of course, was that the sort of the tragic events that, that would occasionally happen to Jewish communities throughout the Middle Ages, especially during the 14th and 15th centuries in Western Europe, demanded an explanation in terms of how that fits into the theology of covenantal theology, what were the signs of divine abandonment? Why were these things happening? What does this have to say about the relationship of Jews to God and the sort of biblical promises the covenant between God and the people of Israel. So there's the events themselves demanded explanation, but there was also a long standing polemic between Jews and Christians about the meaning of Jewish history, and that Christian theology also spent, and medieval Christian thinkers spent, a lot of time thinking about the meaning of Jewish history and that the fact of Jews living in exile, and the fact of Jews being in servitude to non-Jewish, and often Christian majority power was a confirmation of the doctrine of supersession, or the notion that the mantle of biblical Israel had passed to the followers of Christ, and that the Jewish people, who were regarded as guilty for the death of Christ, had been rejected by God. And their role was to serve as these, as a cautionary tale, a kind of living reminder of what happens to those who reject the message of Christianity, and that this is the the function that Jews serve, building on Augustine's doctrine of the Jewish witness, that Jews bear witness to the truth of Christianity by living in servitude, as a subjugated minority to other nations. So there was this theological meaning attached to the lack of Jewish autonomy, and Jews needed some kind of way of responding to this challenge. And in many respects, this becomes part of how, out of the Middle Ages, out of the crucible of this conflict, Jewish identity and Christian identity are actually formulated in conversation with each other, about the the nature of the meaning of Jewish history. But over the course of that, lots of new tropes were developed regarding anxieties about Jews within the broader majority culture, fears that Jews might in fact be very powerful, that they function as a secret group or a secret cabal. Even the word cabal actually comes from Kabbalah and the notion of a secretive group of powerful Jewish men with a powerful doctrine or mechanism for undermining the majority cultures in which they live, which led to all sorts of really unfortunate notions such as the idea of the blood libel, or the notion that Jews would murder Christian children and take their blood, that they would utilize this blood for ritual purposes, in particular, for the making of unleavened bread, or matzah on Passover. Other notions about Jewish manipulation of power that developed in the Middle Ages, fears of Jews poisoning wells or having been the cause of the bubonic plague in the 14th century, thinking about plagues this semester was very relevant, which would lead to these outbreaks of violence sometimes at the hands of the Christian power, but often sometimes at the, against what Christian rulers would have wanted in terms of social unrest and mass acts of violence. And it led me to think about violence against Jews in the 20th century or in the contemporary period, and that the Holocaust was not the only event of mass violence against Jews, of course, it was the most catastrophic in terms of its scale. But in 1391, in Spain, 100,000 Jews were killed over the course of one summer through what was essentially a public uprising against the will of the Royal authorities or the church. But 100,000 people being killed, essentially by hand, in a sort of mass public, what might be called a pogrom, or act of violence, these things demand a kind of explanation in terms of what is the social work that is performed in Western Christian culture, by attributing society's problems to Jews, Jewishness, and Jewish people. So I would just pay homage to David Nirenberg, who has, I think, a really interesting observation about an important feature of anti-semitism, or anti-Judaism, which is the notion that it's a form of discourse that attributes pressing societal problems to Jews or Jewishness and that suggests that that problem can be resolved through the removal of Jews or Jewishness or Judaism from that society or from culture. And that continues to be, I think, a really relevant feature of anti-semitism today.

Chip Gruen:

So something that we had talked about leading up to this conversation that I just want to sort of drive home and think about a little bit, and that you mentioned just now, you mentioned these, these, these tropes, or these sort of common places that Christian ideology would sort of come back to, or that these, these polemics woul register the idea of thes powerful men with the secre knowledge and so forth being i control. And obviously, tha resonates very strongly in th contemporary world with th kinds of tropes that are presen in the 21st centur anti-semitism as well. And so know that, you know, as we'v talked about this, you said tha a lot of modern historian imagine or construct an idea o anti-semitism as a moder phenomenon, something tha develops with the development o the nation-state, in the 19t and the 20th century. But wha you're saying is that a lot o these elements can reach much much, much further back, whic sort of calls into question, th idea of anti-semitism bein something different from mayb what modern Jewish historian would refer to as a anti-Judaism from an earlie stage

Hartley Lachter:

Yeah, it's a re lly interesting and very rele ant question right now, in term of the study of this phen menon, and there are good reas ns for seeing the modern peri d as being very different from the premodern, seeing anti-semit sm as a category of polit cal discourse that drew upon different structure of pow r that develops in the mod rn period with the dev lopment of the nation-state, tha it draws upon race science and other kinds of things that are features of modernity. And so nti-semitism, they would su gest is well, you know, it's n t to suggest that there was no antipathy towards Jews in the pr modern world, that it just, i functions differently because the context is differe t. And those differences are cer ainly worthy of our attenti n. On the other hand, what is the more illuminating way of nderstanding or categor zing this phenomenon, when a ember of the United States Cong ess attributes a forest fi e to a "Jewish space laser," hich also happened as I was te ching this class, so that was i teresting food for thought. Is this because of a very mo ern way of thinking about Jews nd attributing this to he Rothschild family, t at there's the notion that pow rful economically, you k ow, that wealthy Jews, who h ve a kind of secret power, are a le to manipulate the majo ity society for their own econo ic benefit, and that this is pa t of a kind of international co spiracy? Is that way of thinkin about Jews really distinctly m dern, and that there was noth ng contiguous with the premodern, that we should get b tter, we are better able to u derstand that as part of some hing that's a kind of clean brea from the premodern. Or is the e something more useful that we gain from seeing how his is connected to a broade trend, because it was certai ly the case that blood libel claims, for instance, in the iddle Ages, often attribute the murder of Christian c ildren by Jews, to an internati nal conspiracy among Jewish leaders to select the place and the time when a Jewish child -a hristian child- would be sacr ficed ritually by Jews. A d so these ritual murder claim were part of a claim about so t of secretive internati nal Jewish conspiracy that was being done to the detriment of the majority cultures in which t ey lived for some sort of intern tional secret Jewish benef t. And that Jews were conspirin in this fashion. This is an older, this is an older trope. A d if we think of it as an olde thing, I think the one possi ly beneficial outcome from that is the ability to see this as p rt of a broader structure of th construction of identities i the West, and the way that s cietal problems are identi ied, and that Jews do they are one of the location for the scapegoating of soci l problems, even for the s apegoating of something like ildfires in California, but of all kinds of problems, economic problems, political problems th t can be, come to be attribu ed to Jews. And that i we understand this is not a so t of fairly recent phenomenon, t is is not a sort of contempo ary blip, but that it s part of a broader trend, we're better able to identify the wa that this has performed social work for a longer period of ti e in Western culture, and just e more aware of that as a po ential problem within Western s ciety.

Chip Gruen:

So this might be a little tangential, but given that your work really stems from, you know, these texts that emerge in medieval Spain, these Kabbalistic texts, so obviously, you're dealing with real Jews and real Jewish communities who are responding to real problems and real historical situations. I know in my field, and thinking about the Roman Empire, whenever we read a text in which there is this anti-Judaism, you know, not New Testament, because that's sort of a different, we're talking about Jewish communities who were writing those texts. But, when you talk about later, I mean, you mentioned Augustine and contemporaries, that one of the questions we really ask very often is, are they responding to the idea of Judaism or are they responding to Jews? And depending on who you talk to, you'll have very different answers on whether, you know, Judaism becomes sort of this boogeyman that people can point to, and so it becomes this scapegoat in the absence of evidence, or whether there are real communities that are, you know, that they're interacting with, and that they're struggling with. And I'll tell you, a lot of the times in the texts, you'll see when there's a real Jewish community, they'll talk about how, isn't it great that we share the Psalms, or something like that, that there will be sort of an idea of sort of a shared culture. And the reason I asked this is that in the contemporary world, the places where there is any kind of phobia around, whether it be Jews or minority communities or other, other communities, as you put it earlier, or immigrant or whatever, that very often those end up being the most homogeneous communities that don't have access to the, you know, other identities that are the target of their hatred. I mean, how do you think about that, the imagined Jew versus the real Jew both in in your time period and and in the modern world?

Hartley Lachter:

So that is such a terrific question, because one of the things we talked about all the time was the gap that occasionally exists. One of the things we talked about in my class is this way in which there was a sometimes a significant gap between the imagined Jew, in some forms of Christian anti-Jewish discourse in the premodern world, and real Jews. I'll give you a what I think is a helpful, giant overgeneralization, which is that for the most part, the texts that are composed by medieval Jews living in Christian territories in the medieval West, the Christians or Christianity imagined in those texts are based on interactions with real Christians. In the case of the Christian majority, it is sometimes the case that the Jews imagined in the Christian texts are imaginary Jews, and not real ones. Now, there are other times when there is a real Jewish community with whom that author interacts frequently, such was the case, for instance, for Martin Luther, but there are other cases, Augustine might be one of them, where the interaction with Jews was very limited. And certainly, in some cases, the interaction with Jews was not at all. We find anti-semitism featuring really prominently in the cases of some Christian authors who had no interaction with Jews. And this is one of the features of anti-semitism or anti-Jewish discourse in the West that's really worthy of paying attention to, which is that because of the place of Jews, Pharisees, the rabbis, starting in the New Testament, and then the role of that in post New Testament, Christian discourse, one need not have real Jews in order for anti-semitic discourse to perform important social work in the Christian West. Whereas for Jews, the Christians they were imagining were the the real majority among whom they lived. I remember being a kid growing up in Arizona, going to a public elementary school in Mesa, Arizona, and having kids tell me that I was the first Jew they'd ever met. I once had a kid say that he was, he asked if I had horns. Weren't you supposed to, could I really be a Jew without horns? Totally innocently, they thought this was a fact. I definitely had sometimes people who are older than me say, if it came up somehow that I was Jewish, that they would start talking about Jews and money in ways that I didn't understand. Like, I actually didn't know many of these anti-semitic tropes, because that wasn't something we talked about. But it was something that was discussed in these Christian communities where the Jewish presence was minimal, or in some cases totally absent. And I believe in some of these cases, what people were saying to me, I was the first Jew to whom they had ever said it. I remember when I was a kid and my father was the president of our synagogue in Mesa, Arizona, a woman came in and stood in the back and demanded very loudly that we, she was there to investigate our practice of human sacrifice. And I remember saying to my parents, like, what is a human sacrifice? I didn't even know what she was talking about. But I, you know, I doubt that this woman frequently walked into synagogues to do that. I can guarantee that she did not have this suspicion about Jews because of her experience with observing human sacrifice by Jews. This was a trope in her own environment in which talking about Jews conspiring to commit sacrifice against Christians did something important or useful for that community in terms of the ways they talked about their pressing social problems, and where they identified the source of that problem, what was the location of the cause of that problem, and that Jews were identified as that location.

Chip Gruen:

So I want to follow up on this and maybe be a little more general, but something that maybe some of our listeners are not familiar with, but a frame of reference you've been using is the idea of a particular social work. Not social work, but Social Work, of cultural work, right. And the idea that belief and practice may not just be sort of benign belief and practice, but that it does something for the people who believe or who practice. That there is a function, you know, we might say that there is a function to the things that they believe, you know, that does something for them or for their, for their community. And I bring this up, and I want to sort of probe it a little bit, because one of the things I've been thinking about, and I've actually been thinking about this, as I've been reading some Supreme Court cases on how, how the court rules on religion, is that they're very fond of using this word "sincere," you know, and talking about "sincere religious belief." And I think one of the problems we're sort of confronting right now is that people very much like the woman in the back of the synagogue in Mesa, Arizona, is totally sincere in that belief, because she has been the consumer of really, really bad information. And, you know, I wonder, again, across time, and in the materials you're familiar with, do you see distinctions between people who are sort of, again, consumers of that information who might sincerely believe it, and people who are using these sorts of tropes for their own social and cultural gain in a way that is, you know, that is manipulative? Or is that a distinction without a

Hartley Lachter:

I mean, I think it's an interesting distinction, difference? that I'm, certainly the woman in the back my synagogue, from my memory of being a little kid, this was a long time ago, she was 100% sincere. She, I think was surprised that this wasn't just a given fact that this was a feature of Jewish religious practice. I imagine, certainly, we can see historically that there were people who used claims of, for instance, ritual murder, to stay on that theme, to advance their own position of power. That's certainly the case. However, it would not be useful, it would bring them nothing, if it weren't something that some portion of the community would sincerely embrace or would regard as being simply the truth. And that this becomes, when developed over a long period of time, an easy way to take broader social problems that maybe often, you know, problems facing societies don't have simple problems, they don't have a single location, they are not resolvable through any kind of simple action. And therefore, it's very hard to say, "Hey, vote for me or empower me, and I can solve your problem" when one is forced to acknowledge that the problem is somewhat intractable and has complex, hard to identify sources, causes. By attributing these problems to Jews, it does solve that problem. So I think that there certainly are examples of, you know, the strategic deployment of anti-semitic discourse for people to acquire power, but I think it would serve no strategic purpose for such individuals if it weren't something that some significant enough portion of the population were willing to believe. We even see, I think, in the Middle Ages something kind of opposite to this, which is that ritual murder and blood libel claims were often categorically rejected by church authorities and by authorities of the crown, and the church and the state would not embrace these things, yet they still had a fair amount of staying power into the modern period. Magda Teter from Fordham University has written just a really fantastic book on the history of blood libel, and its ability to stay really relevant into the, you know, into the early modern period and the modern period. It's remarkable. So I while I wouldn't say that what you point out is a distinction without a difference, I think that it's all still part of this same phenomenon of anti-semitic ideas, notions about Jews, performing a social function, often that in a way that helps locate and simplify social problems that are not easily, s easily nailed down

Chip Gruen:

And those social problems, you know, would be things like, what economic downturn, or unemployment or, you know, general unrest, those sorts of things are what you're talking about, right?

Hartley Lachter:

Yeah, in fact that the malleable nature of anti-semitism in western discourse is such that almost any social problem can be attributed to Jews if you have the right audience to be receptive to that. So if you have someone who has deep racist commitments, and is very concerned about the notion of sort of replacement of white people in the United States, for instance, if you want to identify like, what is the connection between that threat as they perceive it, the threat of liberalism, the, the threat of the spread of, I don't know, the gay agenda, for instance, as they might identify it, and all sorts of other problems, the way to create a coherent narrative is to say, all of these things are actually being secretly advanced by Jews in order to destroy white Christian Western civilization, because Jews are the perennial, perceived as the perennial, enemy of that civilization. And for such people who embrace such views, the view of Jews as being the secret force, this small group that conspires in an international way to disempower the white Christian majority in the West, is already a well worn idea, that's a well established trope. And it has this explanatory power of saying that all of these things are part of the same phenomenon, which is that white replacement and the advancement of all of these other problems in society, the economic problems in society, all of them are being advanced by Jews to destroy white Western culture. And then you end up with people marching in Charlottesville, saying, you know, "you will not replace us" and "Jews will not replace us." The Tree of Life massacre that happened in Pittsburgh, in the synagogue in Pittsburgh, the Tree of Life Synagogue, that was also by someone who believed that Jews were, and Jews specifically there were, advancing an agenda of white replacement through the welcoming of immigrants, and that he had to do this to stop this phenomenon as a matter of addressing his own, and what he perceived to be, believed earnestly, to believe to be his existential dread that was caused, first and foremost, actually, by Jews as the threat to whiteness and the white Christian majority that he believes is entitled to power in the United States. That ability to tie together all these different strands, and to say that all of these things are being secretly caused behind the scenes by Jewish power, manipulating these other forces, is part of, I think, the explanatory model for some of these forms of hatred that Jews serve. And I think that Jews are kind of, because of the legacy, the premodern legacy, uniquely placed to serve, unfortunately, in this, this sort of discourse of tying together multiple, multiple strands of hatred.

Chip Gruen:

So where I want to end up today is, and we've hinted about this a little bit or dealt with it tangentially in a number of different places, but I want to ask it directly. Knowing this history, knowing the contiguousness of these antipathies, as you put it, knowing this history, how does this help us be civically engaged? Like how does this help us when we read the news or when we see these social movements happening? When we see disinformation around Jews and Judaism, or more generally, how does this knowledge of the past and of these trends help us to be better informed? And also, how does this help us sort of talk about these issues in a more sophisticated way?

Hartley Lachter:

Well, I think that the the two things that this might help us think through, one is that anti-semitism is still unfortunately, a very real force in Western societies. But it's not present everywhere, right. So there's many, many non-Jewish North Americans who just, there, or people in Western society more broadly, who don't experience anti-semitic discourse in the environment in which they function. They don't have relatives who say these things or friends who say these things they don't consume media, that attributes all of society's problems to Jews. And it might very reasonably appear that anti-semitism is more a feature of the sort of history than of present society. But by recognizing not only the ways in which in certain sectors, anti-semitism still functions, but that that function that it's serving is not being created anew in the current moment, but that this is actually deeply encoded in Western culture. If we embrace the notion that older ideas that have had a long standing legacy are more easily deployed to do that kind of social work, then once they're being created new, then suddenly you have to create a new narrative and create a new audience for that narrative and have it feel believable, then anti-semitism, I think, is something that has a particularly well established pedigree, unfortunately, in the West, and is always ready to be deployed in these ways. And that is, requires a certain vigilance, I think, in order to counter these claims, and eliminate the eliminate the ways in which they are serving that kind of function. Even if there are people for whom that's not something that they're, you know, hearing every day, but it is something that's, you know, is happening every day. And it's happening, because it's a tool that has long since been established in Western society, for, at least for some people in certain circumstances, understanding and making sense of what they understand is the problems facing them, their identity, and and their culture, their society more broadly. So at least being aware of that, I think helps us to pay attention to, what is the nature of the phenomenon of anti-semitism, even contemporary anti-semitism, and what is the the kind of attention that that one needs to pay to it? I don't have any categorical solutions for, how does one put an end to anti-semitism once and for all? It strikes me as something that kind of just needs constantly to be combated.

Chip Gruen:

Well, and I think the best solution that you and I can offer for now is I mean, education, right, that the education and people be knowledgeable about not only the history, but how to consume information in a more sophisticated way is, is always helpful.

Hartley Lachter:

Yeah. No, when someone talks about the Rothschilds having a space laser, it could strike one as something between absurd and random. But if one realizes that the idea of a conspiring international, sort of financial network of Jews to manipulate the broader majority culture to their disadvantage in order to advantage some sort of international Jewish conspiracy that's driven by money and power, and in this case, secret weapons, that, that is not something new or random. That that's something that suggests, is an attempt to tap into this feature of how social problems are understood in Western culture. And that that makes it I think, more significant and more worthy of attention than if it you know, if we really do encounter these kinds of random and what might strike one is sort of strange claims that are not connected to a broader history of discourse, then they seem maybe less, less important or less, less, less significant.

Chip Gruen:

Alright, Hartley, thank you very much for sitting down and talking with us today. I really appreciate it and I've learned a tremendous amount and you know, we'll we'll see you around at other Institute events.

Hartley Lachter:

Thanks so much. It was a pleasure to be here.

Chip Gruen:

This has been ReligionWise, a podcast produced by the Institute for Religious and Cultural Understanding of Muhlenberg College. For more information and additional programming, please visit our website at religionandculture.com. There, you'll find our contact information, links to other programming, and have the opportunity to support the work of the Institute. ReligionWise is produced by the staff of the Institute for Religious and Cultural Understanding of Muhlenberg College, including Christine Flicker, and Carrie Duncan. Please subscribe to ReligionWise wherever you get your podcasts. We look forward to seeing you next time.