Modernity and the Jews


“Jews were good to think.”

Borrowing a phrase from Claude Levi-Strauss, that’s how Chad Alan Goldberg sums up the crucial role played by ideas and ideologies about Jews in the conceptualization of the major themes of modernity by thinkers like Emile Durkheim, Karl Marx, and Max Weber.

In his book Modernity and the Jews in Western Social Thought, which was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award, Goldberg shows how social thinkers from France, Germany, and the United States, as they tried to understand the modern world taking shape around them, repeatedly invoked Jews as a touchstone for defining modernity and national identity in a context of rapid social change. In all three countries, intellectuals invoked real or purported differences between Jews and gentiles to elucidate key dualisms of modern social thought. The Jews, he shows, thus became an intermediary through which social thinkers discerned in a roundabout fashion the nature, problems, and trajectory of their own wider societies.

The Center for Holocaust and Genocide recently interviewed Goldberg about his book, with particular attention to how it helps us better understand antisemitism:

You claim that post-colonial theory has shown a very limited understanding of antisemitism, basically seeing only the reactionary aspect of it, as another form of racism and ignoring that Jews were also identified as ultra-modern and cosmopolitan. How do you explain this conceptual blind spot?

Perhaps part of the reason for this blind spot is the ambition of post-colonialist theory to illuminate all forms of cultural domination through the experience of colonial subjects. Post-colonial theory illuminates a lot, but it doesn’t illuminate everything fully or equally well. Zygmunt Bauman suggested that attitudes toward Jews are not so much heterophobic (resentful of the different) as proteophobic, which is to say, apprehensive about whatever “does not fit the structure of the orderly world, does not fall easily into any of the established categories.” If he’s right—and I think he is—then antisemitism is not merely another kind of racism or colonialism; it has specific and distinctive features that need to be grasped.

You can also hear Goldberg discuss the book and his arguments on the New Books Network podcast, where he and interviewer Daveeda Goldberg talk about “how the Jew or rather, the figure of the Jew continues to serve “’as an intermediary for self-reflection in our own time.’” For more information about the book, or to order a copy, visit its page on our site.