Edward Gibbon’s “Jewish Problem”: Can a Great Historian’s Anti-Semitism Be Exonerated?

Feb. 15 2017

In his recent Naïve Readings, Ralph Lerner offers essays on eight masters of rhetoric, ranging from Francis Bacon to Abraham Lincoln, and including the medieval Jewish philosophers Judah Halevi and Moses Maimonides. Among them is an analysis of the treatment of the Jews in the work of the 18th-century British historian Edward Gibbon. Steven Lenzner writes in his review:

[The essay] “Gibbon’s Jewish Problem” . . . presents Lerner with a problem: how to deal with a great author who denigrates (in a manner unworthy of himself) a noble people that has too often been the victim of thoughtless scorn. To be sure, Lerner would not tarry with an author who would engage in thoughtless scorn, but what of thoughtful and rhetorically allusive scorn? In a subtle and nuanced reading of the self-styled “philosophic historian,” Lerner reveals how Gibbon, in his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, employed the Jews as a useful foil indirectly to criticize Christianity, of which he was no admirer and which could not, at that time, be subjected to frontal attack. . . .

Lerner clearly admires Gibbon, but he struggles to reconcile that admiration with his entirely reasonable disapproval of Gibbon’s embrace of a rhetoric that could (and would) be employed to render “Jews less than fully human.”

Lerner reaches a reconciliation—insofar as he can—in two ways. First, he draws attention to other elements of Gibbon’s writings and actions that point to a more thoroughgoing humanity: “In calling [the Jews] an unfortunate and unhappy people, the ‘philosophic historian’ displays more than a symptom of compassion.” The second way is by pointing beyond Gibbon to a contemporary “who had the vision and fortitude to declare openly an enlarged and liberal policy [beyond toleration] that he commended to the rest of mankind as worthy of imitation.” That would be George Washington.

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More about: Ancient Rome, Anti-Semitism, Christianity, George Washington, History & Ideas

The Democrats’ Anti-Semitism Problem Involves More Than Appearances

Jan. 22 2019

Last week, the Democratic National Committee formally broke with the national Women’s March over its organizers’ anti-Semitism and close associations with the Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. Also last week, however, the Democratic leadership gave a coveted seat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee to the freshman congresswoman Ilhan Omar—a supporter of boycotts of Israel who recently defended her 2012 pronouncement that “Israel has hypnotized the world” to ignore its “evil doings.” Abe Greenwald comments:

The House Foreign Affairs Committee oversees House bills and investigations pertaining to U.S. foreign policy, and it has the power to cut American arms and technology shipments to allies. So, while the Democrats are distancing themselves from anti-Semitic activists who organize a march every now and then, they’re raising up anti-Semites to positions of power in the federal government. . . .

There is no cosmetic fix for the anti-Semitism that’s infusing the activist left and creeping into the Democratic party. It runs to the ideological core of intersectionality—the left’s latest religion. By the lights of intersectionality, Jews are too powerful and too white to be the targets of bigotry. So an anti-Semite is perfectly suitable as an ally against some other form of prejudice—against, say, blacks or women. And when anti-Semitism appears on the left, progressives are ready to explain it away with an assortment of convenient nuances and contextual considerations: it’s not anti-Semitism, it’s anti-Zionism; consider the good work the person has done fighting for other groups; we don’t have to embrace everything someone says to appreciate the good in him, etc.

These new congressional Democrats [including Omar and her fellow anti-Israel congresswoman Rashida Tlaib] were celebrated far and wide when they were elected. They’re young, outspoken, and many are female. But that just makes them extraordinarily effective ambassadors for a poisonous ideology.

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More about: Anti-Semitism, BDS, Congress, Democrats, Nation of Islam, Politics & Current Affairs