[an error occurred while processing this directive]

Midwest Jewish Studies Association - Shofar Book Reviews

Provided as a service by Case Western Reserve University


Shofar - Book Review Index

Philosemitism in History, edited by Jonathan Karp and Adam Sutcliffe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.  348 pp.  $26.99.


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 asserted that the purpose of the book was to be “stimulating and suggestive rather than encyclopedic,” but they left 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 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-long 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 the 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 come 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 the role that Jews and Judaism play in some forms of Christian thought.

The four essays focusing on nineteenth- and early twentieth-century themes by Howard Lupvitch, Nadia Valman, Lars Fischer, and Alan Levinson 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 example, Valman’s “Bad Jew/Good Jewess” is a gender study of the characterization of Jews in nineteenth-century English novels such as the works of Anthony Trollope and George Elliot. The portrayals of Jewish males, she argues involve projections of otherness, but Jewish women are presented as idealized figures of who have the ability to surmount spiritual and social narrowness (p. 167). The essays of Fischer and Levinson both focus on late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Germany and the extent to which non-Jewish Germans were willing to recognize and defend Jews for a variety of reasons.           

The two final essays in the book by Wulf Kansteiner and Ruth Ellen Gruber address the theme Philosemitism in Post-Holocaust Europe, frequently finding comic and disturbing instances where the memory of Jews and Judaism have been used for purposes that have nothing to do with contemporary Jews. Kansteiner’s essay provides shrewd appraisals of the attempts of West German journalists to address Jewish themes before 1995 and will leave readers both amused and squirming in their chairs. To their credit, however, these German media figures tried to construct a new public attitude toward Jews and Judaism among their often-small viewing audiences (p. 312). Gruber’s essay “Non-Jewish, Non-Kosher, Yet also Recommended” discusses the ways that former sites of Jewish culture such as Cracow, Prague, and Budapest have been turned into tourist destinations, each one commodifying its Jewish past. While it was a fascinating essay, I wonder what it has to do with philosemitism as a theme.

              Within societies shaped to some extent by the Christian tradition Jews continue to be viewed to this day not only through the lens of contemporary reality, but also from notions derived from biblical and theological traditions, stereotypes, folk traditions, etc. While the notion of philosemitism requires fuller definition and exploration, the authors of this book offer readers a substantial start on this problem.

Stephen G. Burnett

University of Nebraska-Lincoln