Philosemitism in History

Jonathan Karp and Adam Sut­cliffe, eds.
  • Review
By – December 26, 2011
Philosemitism, the ide­al­iza­tion of Jews and Judaism, has not gen­er­at­ed much schol­ar­ship and reflec­tion. Too often it has been treat­ed as either exist­ing on the mar­gins of non-Jew­ish atti­tudes or as a mask for anti-Semi­tism. The term, coined in Ger­many in 1880, is awk­ward and prob­lem­at­ic since it was invent­ed by avowed anti-Semi­tes (anti-Semi­tism as a term was invent­ed a few years ear­li­er) to deride their oppo­nents. Even though the word philosemitism” is taint­ed by its asso­ci­a­tion with its antonym and vague and ill-defined, the phe­nom­e­non it gen­er­al­ly cov­ers is wor­thy of care­ful con­sid­er­a­tion. Most of the exist­ing work on the sub­ject assumes one of two approach­es: either that philosemitism is the exact oppo­site of anti-Semi­tism, or that it is itself a form of anti-Semi­tism.
This book takes a dif­fer­ent approach, explor­ing the com­plex and nuanced inter­play of pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive atti­tudes toward Jews, rec­og­niz­ing the prob­lem­at­ic nature of many cur­rents of ide­al­iza­tion of Jews and Judaism while tak­ing seri­ous­ly the sig­nif­i­cance of non-Jew­ish efforts to sup­port, defend, and appre­ci­ate the con­tri­bu­tions of Jews to West­ern civ­i­liza­tion, reli­gious thought, lit­er­a­ture, eco­nom­ics, and pol­i­tics. The four­teen essays in this vol­ume rep­re­sent a broad range of dis­ci­plines and approach­es from his­to­ry, reli­gious stud­ies, lit­er­ary stud­ies, and anthro­pol­o­gy, rang­ing from antiq­ui­ty to the Mid­dle Ages, to such con­tem­po­rary top­ics as philosemitism in African Amer­i­can cul­ture, the rise of Chris­t­ian evan­gel­i­cal Zion­ism, philose­mit­ic tele­vi­sion in post-Shoah Ger­many and the cur­rent ide­al­iza­tion of East­ern Euro­pean Jew­ish cul­ture in Poland bor­der­ing on kitch and exploita­tion. The book also has an exten­sive intro­duc­to­ry chap­ter by the edi­tors that pro­vides a won­der­ful overview of the top­ics and a sur­vey of the schol­ar­ly lit­er­a­ture. In this time of increas­ing anti-Semi­tism, ris­ing ten­sions in the Mid­dle East and Europe, chal­lenges to the legit­i­ma­cy of the State of Israel and con­tin­u­ing threats of glob­al ter­ror­ism, this book pro­vides a time­ly and dis­pas­sion­ate treat­ment of philosemitism and a reminder that there is a rich his­to­ry of pos­i­tive respons­es to Jews and Judaism and that Jew­ish-non-Jew­ish rela­tions should not be viewed only through the prism of anti-Semitism.
Michael N. Dobkows­ki is a pro­fes­sor of reli­gious stud­ies at Hobart and William Smith Col­leges. He is co-edi­tor of Geno­cide and the Mod­ern Age and On the Edge of Scarci­ty (Syra­cuse Uni­ver­si­ty Press); author of The Tar­nished Dream: The Basis of Amer­i­can Anti-Semi­tism; and co-author of The Nuclear Predicament.

Discussion Questions