Academia is famous for employing a litany of words to say rather little. Emerging subfields, specific topics within a larger academic department, often announce their supposed relevance with extensive publishing. In theory, the density of publications, journals, and books, would indicate the depth of the new field, but this is no longer a dependable metric. Often, the kind of research getting funded, printed, and promoted has more to do with the agenda of those writing the checks, the institutions that support them, and the schools who are stacking their faculty rolls, than the provable consequence of the research. There are emerging disciplines that have seen a massive spike in associated work, such as “Antisemitism Studies,” a subset of the larger Jewish Studies world that focuses specifically on anti-Jewish bias, bigotry, and ideologies. While some of these newer micro-fields can be criticized for their increasingly narrow focus, that does not mean they do not have something to offer or that they cannot be an important scholarly region.
When it comes to the recent surge in “Antisemitism Studies” books out of places like Tel Aviv University, Hebrew University, or the Indiana University - Bloomington, we have been presented with a stilted portrait of the field that reflects many of the hegemonic political ideas about issues like Israel/Palestine, Jewish whiteness, and the failures of intersectionality. This has become something of a cliche, as volume after volume of antisemitism research gets published, often displaying identical conclusions and little in the way of challenging perspectives. The field may still be finding its footing, but it has not been moving forward, despite an issue with finding more and more relevance and demanding uncommon clarity.
That’s why it is refreshing when notable volumes are released, and there have been several the past two years that try their best to add something new to the conversation. While results have been mixed, this development shows that many scholars believe “Antisemitism Studies” to be a worthwhile scholarly endeavor and that they will find something unique to say amidst the noise.
One of the most interesting of these is 2022’s The Cambridge Companion on Antisemitism, edited by Steven Katz, primarily because it breaks apart the expectations for what an introductory reference volume can be. As part of the Cambridge Companion series, this book serves as a sort of encyclopedia with peer-reviewed chapters on different sub-topics in the world of Antisemitism Studies. This is not a new concept: there have been numerous books published with a similar format, but they often simply regurgitate each other’s commentary with slightly customized window dressing. Instead, the Cambridge Companion takes a distinctly historical view on the subject, breaking the book into three historic epochs (The Classical Period, Medieval Times, and The Modern Era) and focusing most of its time on pre-modern anti-Jewish attitudes. We get fascinating chapters on pre-Christian beliefs about Jews, numerous interventions into the historical development of Christian anti-Judaism, and detailed recounting of many periods of time up to, and including, the present.
What perhaps is most remarkable about the book is frequent re-assessment of what, exactly, counts as antisemitism. One of the most problematic aspects of much of Antisemitism Studies scholarship is the reductive and inconsistent way the term antisemitism is applied. Is antisemitism any xenophobia or discrimination Jews face because they are Jews, or is it a specific ideology involving conspiracy theories and perceptions about Jews? Often writers bypass this question entirely and instead conflate different periods of Jewish persecution under the broad banner of a supposedly transhistorically coherent antisemitism, despite these types of anti-Jewishness largely having no ideological, theological, or sociological connection to one another. Multiple chapters in the Cambridge Companion focus on whether or not specific instances can be said to be a part of a supposedly transhistorical phenomenon of Antisemitism, such as Erich S. Gruen’s opening chapter questioning whether pre-Christian Egyptian attitudes about Jews can be called antisemitism or Adele Reinhartz and Pierluigi Piovanelli's chapters, respectively, on the relationship between early Christian leaders and their Jewish counterparts. These are smart discussions that are anchored in the leading research of the period, and so the book can act both as a great source of quality citations and an engaging read for those interested in going deeper on important historical questions. Esther Webman’s chapter on Nazi antisemitism and the Holocaust felt like a gut punch, with the type of detail about antisemitic crimes that you rarely find in modern discussions of the period. Webman seems largely self-aware in her choice, acknowledging this fact in the text, so the chapter becomes a reminder of the gravity of the violence we are discussing. The inclusion of these brutal details helps Webman to frame why our conversations about the Holocaust have evolved over time.
The only real outlier in this anthology is Dina Porat’s commentary on anti-Zionism, which is intellectually fraudulent in such a way that calls into question its entire theoretical grounding. Porat is known for formerly leading the Antisemitism Institute at Tel Aviv University, which allegedly received funding from Mossad to combat what they see as antisemitism. Porat reproduces much of the reductive and overzealous arguments conflating criticism of Israel with antisemitism, showing little consistency, understanding of the subject, or willingness to actually engage with Zionism’s challengers. Her work will feel familiar to those who have studied antisemitism in the wake of scholars like Robert S. Wistrich, who trafficked in political agitprop presented as an academic endeavor and who seemed to use claims of antisemitism as a political opportunity. There are very real questions that can be asked about anti-Zionism and antisemitism, but Porat seems unable, or unwilling to ask these responsibly or effectively. So we are again left with yet another academic article that undermines its own critical perspective by relying on hyperbole, straw man arguments, and ad hominem attacks that undermine dissent against Israeli state policy.
Similar to the Cambridge Companion, the 2021 book Key Concepts in the Study of Antisemitism, edited by Sol Goldberg, Scott Ury, and Kalman Weiser is, despite its anodyne title, a fascinating anthology that, like the Cambridge Companion, poses itself as a “go to” resource on the subject. Instead of focusing on particular time periods, Key Concepts catalogs chapters based on specific keywords such as “Philosemitism,” “The Holocaust,” “Sinat Yisrael (Hatred of Jews),” “Zionism,” and “Anti-Judaism.” The book’s offerings feel more like a discussion of antisemitism inside of disciplines other than Antisemitism Studies, with chapters like “Orientalism” adding a much needed decolonial perspective that is often derided from those institutions more tied to Zionist historiography. It includes some notable chapters on their own, such as “The Catholic Church” written by Magda Teter, a Medieval Studies and Jewish Studies scholar who may be the most dynamic academic studying antisemitism (more on her in a moment).
Like parts of the Cambridge Companion, the authors in Key Concepts are not scared of challenging underlying assumptions that have plagued our collective understanding of antisemitism, such as a rather interesting chapter on anti-Zionism and another on the idea of Jewish self-hate, a popular subject for those looking to discredit Jewish critics of Israel. Because the format of the book is to survey current debates, you can expect a roving, though brief, unpacking of the important topics. The result is occasionally superficial due to the brevity, but in most cases readers will be impressed at the depth provided. This is most notable when the book highlights not just historic disagreements between scholars, but those that are right now defining the future of this research. This book should certainly sit on the shelf of any researcher or journalist who wants to build novel ideas about antisemitism rather than simply reproducing the blunt overstatement and historical error that marks some areas of the field.
Besides anthologies, there has also been a litany of books released in the past ten years promising to act as a “one stop shop” for the topic of antisemitism. Often presented as a rather neutral survey of antisemitism’s long history, the quality of these titles often suffer due to the lack of depth and the ideological assumptions that undercut the chosen framework for antisemitism’s past. Rabbi and scholar Dan Cohn-Sherbok, who is the author of over 80 books, released Antisemitism: A World History of Prejudice through The History Press in 2022 as another example of these broad historical studies. What stands out about Cohn-Sherbok’s title is largely the length: at over 500 pages, the book allows the reader to delve into the stories, memories, and fractured debates that are often lost in a wide-ranging look at a complicated narrative. Like most scholars in the field, Cohn-Sherbok presents anti-Jewish oppression as a relatively monolithic, transhistorical phenomenon, but he also makes a compelling case for how these ideas developed across the generations. Starting in the pre-Christian pagan communities of the Levant, he describes how certain xenophobic ideas were then picked up by early Christians, who employed them in their claim of supersessionism (the belief Christians are the “new Israel”) and the suspicion subsequently leveled against Jews. These ideas hop between successive communities as their needs develop, with each one using Jews as a necessary scapegoat based on their own communal particularities and the theological grounding that Christianity carved out for itself.
While Antisemitism: A World History of Prejudice is certainly one of the better titles available that attempt to trace through the entire history of anti-Jewish prejudice, it also has some clear drawbacks. First, the book has no citations despite being full of block quotes and other historical tidbits. It does not even have a general bibliography, which seems unhelpful in a book published in an academic press. The choices of what is covered and what is not are also interesting, highlighting the fact that any book claiming to give the comprehensive history is likely to fail at that mission. There are only three chapters on antisemitism since the Second World War, one of which is about antisemitism in Arab communities that unduly focuses on supposed Muslim antisemitism, and the final chapter just elongates debates over antisemitism’s definition (before siding with the controversial “IHRA Definition”). While it does not say this outright, Cohn-Sherbock seems to agree that modern antisemitism is couched in anti-Zionism, a view that not only slanders the movement for Palestinian rights but also invisibilizes the very real threat to Jews coming from the global nationalist right. Considering its limitations, the book is still a fluid read and will contain enough detail that it will likely surprise even seasoned experts on the subject.
Perhaps the most interesting book of the bunch is one that many would assume belongs in a different category entirely. Jacob’s Younger Brother: Christian-Jewish Relations after Vatican II by Karma Ben-Johanan looks not just at the history of antisemitism, but the history of Christian-Jewish relationships themselves. The book centers on the landmark 1962-65 Second Vatican Council, which, among many other modernizations, changed official Catholic church doctrine regarding Jews. For centuries, the church has been one of the centerpieces of Christian anti-Judaism, participating in the most egregious crimes and pogroms, and officially indicting Jews for deicide and rejecting the one true God. Vatican II started a process of reconciliation, whereby subsequent popes and priests updated the theology, rethinking the Jewish role in salvation. As Jacobs Younger Brother describes, this was a rather profound set of shifts, particularly with Pope Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger), whereby Jews were offered something that the church would not dare have proposed previously: salvation without Christ.
The first half of the book begins with the long antagonistic history of Christians towards Jews before zooming in on the past sixty years with incredible detail, using the theological writings of church leaders as primary texts. What this reveals is that Catholic re-assessment was a significant part of the post-1950s shift in public opinion regarding Jews, part of what has led to a current period whereby open antisemitism, particularly in the church, is rather verboten. But what is even more fascinating is the second half of the book, which is about Jewish reactions to Catholics and Christians as a whole after the Second Vatican Council. By looking at the theological and halakhic writings of most Orthodox (and mostly Chaeredi) rabbis, we see how the Jewish reaction to Christians changed as well. While the Catholic reaction was to try and create a more ecumenical relationship with Jews in relation to their perceptions of God, for many rabbis, the opposite became true. Particularly in the stricter areas of Orthodoxy, prohibitions on idolatry were extended to Catholic . For Religious Zionists, this meant that Christian Zionism should also be considered suspect, and in many of the texts analyzed the language comes across rather harshly. The context is important here because this is largely the result of centuries of historical trauma as well as right-ward shifts amongst Orthodox theorists, making some of these reactions understandable if uncomfortable. For years, Jews were compelled to treat Christians with an uncommon form of respect and validation, and once that threat of violence receded, some communities had simply had enough.
Part of the question that Jacob’s Younger Brother looks at is what the limits of ecumenicism are. For the Catholics discussed, there is an effort to genuinely establish the rights of Jews to remain Jews in their theological schema, something not truly offered by most Protestants. And for many of the Orthodox rabbis discussed, theological compromise simply is untenable, but that should not get in the way of community collaboration. As Rabbi Joseph B. Solovetchik rights, there are other ways to build relationships than theological ecumenism. Instead, the framework of human rights and other forms of mutual respect are possible, and since Jews do not demand the religious conformity of non-Jews for their vision of salvation or ethical living, that respect remains implicit.
One missed opportunity for the book is the undue focus on Orthodoxy while neglecting progressive forms of Judaism, who largely take the opposite approach to the Christian question. Because Orthodox Jews often engage more closely with halakha (Jewish law) and because those dictates are what outlines what kinds of relationships with non-Jews are possible, the assumption of the book seems to be that they are the only theologians whose work has any consequence for this discussion. But this is simply not the case: theology and halacha are significant parts of Conservative, Reconstructionist, and even Reform communities. A full chapter on these other perspectives would have been useful, particularly around the neo-Hasidic movement and Jewish Renewal, of which the concept of “Deep Ecumenicism,” the importation of outside religious ideas into Judaism, was a central concept. The underlying message is that only the Orthodox truly engage in binding and obligation centered theologies, a belief that underskirts many modern discussions on the future of Judaism. We cannot truly know what the consequences are for Jewish-Christian relations if the religious pieties of millions of Jews are left out of the conversation.
Regardless, Jacob’s Younger Brother provides a riveting analysis of how these relationships have changed and its effect on the prevalence and types of antisemitism. While this fits more comfortably in the Jewish Studies corner than Antisemitism Studies, this is the type of book that those studying antisemitism need to add to their repertoire if they are going to create three-dimensional portraits of the developing process of communal tension and repair.
Finally, what promised to be one of the most important academic books on the subject this year was Maga Teter’s Christian Supremacy: The Roots of Racism and Antisemitism. Teter made a massive splash in 2020 with her book Blood Libel, the first complete history of the lethal belief that Jews sacrificed virginal Christian children in occultic blood rituals. Utilizing her skills as a Medieval historian, she plumbed the depths of the Vatican archives and primary sources tracing back nearly a thousand years and in eight languages (which she, herself, translated). What ended up on the page was a complex picture of the socio-political agendas of the Catholic church of Medieval and Early Modern Europe, and how Jews became a perfect pawn in that drama.
With Christian Supremacy, Teter attempts to make a broader point about the interlocking nature of bigotries and their roots in the spiritual hierarchies introduced by early Christian theologians. She suggests that antisemitism and racism, particularly anti-Blackness in the Americas, have a common root, if not being reducible to effect or circumstance. She chronicles a mostly legal history, particularly United State Supreme Court rulings, to look at how concepts like personhood, social hierarchies, race, religion, and identity were employed to create the complex, and ongoing, systems of stratification we still live with.
The book is deeply researched, as one would expect, and Teter acknowledges that she is pulling from fields where she is not the premiere scholar, such as Critical Race Theory. She does so beautifully, displaying an impressive range of historiographic capacity, yet there are moments when the detail allowed surpasses the need. While the primary thesis was about the motivating role of Christian religious hierarchies in the creation of racial and ethnic ones, this claim actually only appears briefly in the book, which is instead more of a history of how these hierarchies played out for Jews and people of African descent. The church is indicted regularly as a co-conspirator, recalling vast historical crimes emanating from the church itself, but it rarely reverts to the primary observation that racial hierarchies are essentially secularized versions of the earlier Christian religious ones.
This may sound like a deep criticism of Christian Supremacy, but the book’s unbelievable breadth, well-crafted prose, and sweeping history does establish its points well, even if we could have seen the central motif of Christian supremacy more thoroughly established. It would have also been nice to see more contemporary examples towards the end, perhaps at the cost of some of the detail from the middle, which affected the pacing. Overall, Christian Supremacy still needs to be seen as a landmark title in the world of Antisemitism Studies, not the least because of Teter’s brilliant approach to historical research and discovery.
Books on antisemitism will only be released at an even higher frequency over the next few years, with competing volumes aimed at blowing the topic open on the publication calendar almost monthly (including my own in June next year). This makes sense — it is a perplexing issue whose relevance is growing at the same pace as the rampant confusion it inspires, so well-researched, thoroughly parsed out books on the subject are more than necessary. But we should not see quantity as the sign of quality, and instead demand something more than simply reproducing the consensus generated in academic think tanks far from where the rubber meets the road. These titles all genuinely add something new to the field and try to explore the under appreciated and unexamined, which means that they are welcome additions that do little to clog the scholarly pipeline. The books discussed have some important content to them, and yet the fact that they remain standouts in the field says something about the output we have been saddled with. More can be better, as long as there is something more to say.