A Blood Libel Against the Christian West: Gil Anidjar’s “Blood”

Blood: A Critique of Christianity
Gil Anidjar
Columbia University Press, 2014

Trained in comparative literature, religious studies and Jewish thought, Gil Anidjar is a professor at the Department of Religion at Columbia University. His courses include Vampires, God and Freud and Derrida — a concatenation that immediately informs us that this will be a post-modern excursion, filled with startling juxtapositions. These juxtapositions also inform his meandering thoughts in Blood. A Critique of Christianity, published by Columbia University Press in 2014. The Table of Contents:

At the heart of the book lies “the Christian question.” Anidjar explicitly acknowledges Karl Marx as a source of inspiration, but it is worth mentioning that he would seem to be Jewish given his surname, and his work fits well into the common pattern of Jewish involvement in the culture of critique. Exploring the “theologico-political” foundations of Western modernity, Anidjar focuses on the (alleged) relevance of blood in Christianity, the “Eucharistic matrix”. From his point of view, blood is the element and the mark of Christianity which has been strangely overlooked by everyone else:

The reading I offer, the argument I ultimately propose, is that between presence and absence, blood is the element of Christianity, its voluminous mark (citation, context). It is the way in which and upon which Christianity made its mark. More broadly, a consideration of what blood reflects, produces, and sustains, what it engenders, must take — as one adopts — the form of a critique of Christianity. (Blood 11)

Like with much of Marxist, Derrida-infested, post-colonial academic prose, however, it is next to impossible to trace a clear line of argument, let alone learn anything valuable about the Eucharist or the meaning of wounds and blood in medieval Christian theology. Instead, we encounter a string of household names such as Carl Schmitt, Giorgio Agamben, Walter Benjamin, Sigmund Freud and Jacques Derrida, which are loosely woven into his admittedly creative interpretations of history. Adding generous doses of “Political Theology,” Anidjar cooks up a toxic, anti-Western broth to be fed to the children of Western Christian civilization who are paying for his chair. It feels a bit as if Anidjar had used his research grants for harvesting quotes from world literature and philosophy related to the semantic field of “blood” (including “veins”, “killing”, “murder”, and other expressions of violence), which he then reassembled in this artsy-academic bricolage published by an elite university press.

Despite his complicated, intellectual pirouettes to distract us from the fact that his discourse is sprinkled with half-truths and falsehoods, the argument does build up into a message that is easily accessible even to dimwits, not because it is well argued or historically accurate, but because we have heard it so many times before: We are the cancer of the earth. Our civilization is nothing but a trail of blood. Our allegedly blood-based exclusion of the “other” has led to genocides, oppression and imperialism, and hence the Christian West is the embodiment of evil. This is a familiar narrative that has been circulating at least since Edward Said’s propagandistic but highly influential book Orientalism (1979) — a book that has significantly contributed to the poisoning of relations between East and West. One of the founding texts of the fairly young discipline of post-colonial Studies, Orientalism infused an entire generation of educated elites from “the East” (including Japan) with hostility and desire for vengeance towards “the West” (including Germany).

Anidjar injects new blood into this narrative. What’s new is the idea that the evil nature of “the West” must have something to do with the centrality of blood metaphors in Christianity, which is why it appears somehow justified to associate Western civilization with bloodthirst and vampirism. Anidjar plays on this theme throughout. Although each paragraph is replete with vague allusions, wordplay and evasive sidesteps, we must admire the remarkable display of Jewish verbal intelligence. Perhaps, however, “verbal creativity” might be a more appropriate description here, as “intelligence” is derived from intellegere meaning to have insight, to understand, which would be a little too generous an assessment in this particular case. In the tradition of Derrida and his ilk, his is verbal pomposity designed to subvert and vilify, with no concern for truth or scholarship.

Anidjar is perfectly aware of the fact that what he is doing has nothing to do with scholarship, and he admits that he has no intention of explaining anything at all. Just to give the reader a proper taste of his reasoning:

The time of explanation may not be completely over — what ever is? — but explanations, particularly scholarly explanations, have no doubt reached a limit (they have an end somewhere, as Wittgenstein had it). Having proliferated further than every Ockhamian edge, they are past repair and beyond hope. Call it digital nihilism or obstinate retardation, “the last gasp of a dying discipline”; call it speculative realism or negative pedagogy (“the teaching of language is not explaining,” Wittgenstein went on); or call it, as Sheldon Pollock did, “the death of Sanskrit.” But the recourse to name calling is here analogous to alleging that resoluteness in being toward death — with “the evening redness in the West” (or perhaps it is Twilight), is it not time? — can only be glossed as testifying to a suicidal inclination or to an apocalyptic imagination, as if these were what? This, in any case, is not to say that thought, learning, or reflection are at their end (although that is a distinct possibility), but that we are past sensing the futility of writing a scholarly book, doing it by the book (as if the book could do it, just do it; as if this was not the end of the book in the age of the world tweet-ure).

This may or may not be a reason to stop writing books (though I suspect it is). (xi)

I feel like quoting Goethe. His Mephisto is more succinct:

I am the spirit that negates.
And rightly so, for all that comes to be
Deserves to perish wretchedly;
“Twere better nothing would begin. (Goethe, Faust I)

Anidjar’s negating spirit even invites his critics and readers to tear down his own work: “delicate and obsolete monster, mon lecteur, ma soeur, copyleft and rearrange at will. Dispute and destroy” (xii). With this attitude, of course, humanities become something like a gamble, and a slap in the face of those who permitted Jews to emancipate themselves into the Western educational system. Instead of gratitude, we receive a declaration of war, articulated in a cowardly, indirect manner. Anidjar’s interpretation of Walter Benjamin’s Critique of Violence is revealing:

Now, I have already suggested that all this — with blood at the center — would unavoidably have to be called the Jewish–Christian dispute (some might call it a war, after all), and though it may be said to have mostly ended around the sixteenth century, one may wonder whether Benjamin was not in the process of rekindling it. (8)

Or perhaps, Anidjar is in the process of rekindling it?

In a roundtable discussion “On The Christian Question” at Belgrade’s Singidunum University in January 2013, Anidjar stated:

I suppose the founding date to ask the [Christian] question is 1492, which is both the final stage of ethnic cleansing in Western Europe — both with regard to Jews and, for the most part, Muslims. It’s also, of course, the conquest of America, which is where Christianity gives itself the absolute right, basically, to take over the world. And, ultimately, it almost succeeds. (10:59-11:35)

It is this question that informs Anidjar’s interest in Christianity’s relationship with blood: the sweeping allegation of Christians performing ethnic cleansings on Jews and Muslims and the rest of the world — while being untroubled by the Muslim conquest of Spain; for Anidjar, ethnic cleansing and conquest are uniquely Christian.  Anidjar also makes the outrageous claim that the idea of defining community through blood (kinship based on blood) was properly established only in the Middle Ages, by Christianity — oblivious to the fact that medieval Western Christianity was energetically breaking down kinship barriers within Europe, with the result that European society was far less based on kinship than. say, the Middle East or traditional Judaism.[1] Although it is not articulated explicitly, we get a feeling that he is trying to construct a new narrative to replace an older template (“From Luther to Hitler,” the title of William Montgomery McGovern’s 1941 history of authoritarian collectivism in Western political thought). The new storyline, I guess, would be “From the Eucharist to Hitler” (or “from Columbus to Hitler”).

Indeed and inevitably, at the background of this anti-Christian fantasy tale lurks the spectre of Germany and the Holocaust, as another reviewer has noticed: “Christianity is Western, well European, it is Medieval and German in the 1930s.”

There may not be any logical, actual historical connections between these phenomena, and the categories invoked here may be far too general, but that is not important, because Anidjar’s writing is based on word-play and thinking by association, which is the characteristic style of post-structuralist, Derridean and post-colonial scholarship. Not coincidentally, it is also a characteristic of the rabbinic mind, which has been criticized for its “lack of straightforwardness in the presentation of topics, and by the apparent want of consistent clear-cut reasoning, in both the Talmud and the Midrashim — in fact, in the whole post-Biblical literature of Judaism.”

A Blood Libel against Christianity

Anidjar is a master of the trope of omission. Why, in a book on blood in relation to Christianity, are we looking in vain for an in-depth discussion of the differences between Jewish and Christian attitudes towards blood? Why, for example, is there no mention at all of kosher slaughter, its spiritual purpose, symbolical meaning and strange resemblance to early modern medical practices of blood-letting? Often lethal, these practices were performed by wandering male quacks, who competed with and ultimately replaced traditional female natural healers (many of whom ended up at the stake). It would have been an interesting episode to look for someone who specializes in “hematology” in the context of religion and genocide. Thanks to Anidjar’s coreligionist Ariel Toaff, we know that dried human blood was used as powder in Jewish circumcision rituals, “as an haemostatic [coagulant] of extraordinary effectiveness when applied to the wound caused by circumcision” (Blood Passover 93). Apparently, the dried blood of Christian children was also a sought-after ingredient for use in “obscure religious and magic rites” by certain Ashkenazi Jews in the Middle Ages (Blood Passover 45). It could have been a fascinating starting point for an in-depth study of Judeo-Christian blood relations in that period. With the Israeli monopoly on organ-harvesting in present times, it would have been interesting to compare materialistic attitudes towards the blood and the human body of the religious “other” in Judaism and Christianity by analysing the respective sacred texts.

The omission of crucial topics has been noted even by more generous reviewers:

Why would a book that stresses the theological origins of modernity actually spend so little time discussing theology proper in the medieval era? Is it not strange that Thomas Aquinas’s views on transubstantiation are nowhere mentioned in a text that roots modernity in medieval understandings of the Eucharist? Perhaps Anidjar would suggest this line of inquiry misses the point. Such an omission, however, is undoubtedly a curious one.

Glossing over the relevance of blood, purity of blood, blood-sacrifice and blood-letting in Judaism — the starting point for Christianity after all — is even more curious. In passing only, Anidjar does mention that the Talmud invented “the rabbinic science of blood” (Blood 47), referencing a book by Charlotte Fronrobert on menstrual purity in Judaism, which is a major concern in the orthodox Jewish community, and one of the main reasons for the alleged “impure” status of women. It is not elaborated any further. Where is the correspondence in Christianity to any of this, one wonders?

Anidjar mentions “blood libel” and ritual murder only a couple of times, but, of course, the charges are always seen as unjustified, a mere projection on the part of the actual perpetrators: Christians who are stuck in their “Eucharistic matrix” (the term is brought up seven times and serves as a chapter heading).

With the focus on the Eucharist as a ritual symbolically establishing a “blood covenant,” as a basis for Christians to exclude religious “others,” the whole book begins to look like a reversal of the blood libel, now turned against Christians. (And what about the “blood of the pact which united God to our patriarch Abraham” and its re-enactment in rituals of circumcision in Judaism? Blood Passover 98/99.) The strategy would not be totally new. In his book Blood Passover: The Jews of Europe and Ritual Murder, banned by the ADL, Ariel Toaff (the son of the former chief rabbi of Rome) had argued that ritual murder probably did exist and might still exist as a secret practice among certain branches of Judaism. Revisiting medieval ritual murder trials, he points out that

Ashkenazi responses to ritual murder accusations were surprisingly weak. These responses, whenever they were recorded, contained not the slightest rejection of the probative evidence; rather, they consisted of a mere tu quoque of the accusation against Christians: ‘nor are you, yourselves, exempt from guilt of ritual cannibalism.” (Toaff quoted in Israel J. Yuval, ““They Tell Lies. You Ate the Man”. Jewish Reactions to Ritual Murder Accusations“, in A. Sapir Abulafia, Religious Violence Between Christians and Jews. Medieval Roots, Modern Perspectives, Basingstoke, 2002, pp. 86-106. cit. in Blood Passover 4).

Is this a specifically Jewish tactic to avoid having to face the crimes committed by members of their own community? In a manner that cannot be described as anything but irresponsible but which seems to have become fashionable at universities all over the world, Anidjar’s book promotes a kind of anti-European, anti-Christian propaganda that would have upset even Mathilde Ludendorff (not exactly a fan of Christianity either). Is Anidjar merely perpetuating traditional Jewish tropes against Christians? It is not a secret that Jews cultivate a pronounced hatred of Christianity. Toaff confirms: “Yes, Jews are obsessed with hatred for Christians and the Christian religion” (Blood Passover 1; cf. also the recent case of Shneur Odze, or mocking Christ on Israeli TV). One of the themes of Anidjar’s Blood, Christian blood-lust and vampirism, mirrors recent allegations of an orthodox rabbi, who referred to Christians as “blood-sucking vampires” when he demanded the expulsion of Christians from Israel. With discussions of the Christian vampire nation, blood and race, Christianity and money, all adding up to the “Christian question,” Blood actually inverts all of the key themes that have traditionally been brought up against Jewry: the ritual use of human blood, economic vampirism, the totalitarian spirit of Mosaic monotheism, parasitism, tribal thinking and hierarchical racism.

Blood and Race

While a search for “kosher slaughter” produces 0 results in the entire book, a search for ‘nazi” gets us 15 hits. Inverting and reframing reality to suit his own script is indeed one of the underlying features of Anidjar’s scholarly method. This assessment is harsh but confirms the impression we got from critically evaluating his work: for example, Anidjar claims that blood is constitutional to the Christian sense of community, as exemplified by the Eucharist, whereas it is irrelevant to Judaism:

For the Old Testament, then, there are neither communities nor hierarchies of blood. To be sure, the text does make some difference between Hebrew and Gentile, a difference that has much to do with gods and worship and with occasional marriage restrictions (although these do not seem to have stopped anybody, nor was the matter of children and their status or belonging a primary concern). (Blood 65)

On the contrary, the ban on intermarriage was strictly enforced in traditional Jewish communities, and the Old Testament is virtually obsessed with it. And with Jewishness being defined via the blood of the mother, for which there is no equivalent in Christianity, it surely looks more like it is the other way around? While anyone can convert to Christianity, regardless of their race and skin-colour, conversion is a lengthy, difficult process for Orthodox and Conservative Judaism, and converts have often been unwelcome and treated poorly in Jewish communities. How is it even possible for a Jewish author to ignore the fundamental distinction in Jewish Scriptures between Jews and non-Jews, which even non-observant Jews including hedonistic, drug-consuming Israelis hold on to?

It is obvious that Anidjar is not giving us the whole picture: “There are neither communities nor hierarchies of blood” except for ‘some difference” between Hebrew and Gentile in the Old Testament. This must be the joke of the century. And what about the other sacred scriptures of the Jews? The Babylonian Talmud’s dehumanization of non-Jews and different moral codes for Jews and non-Jews are well known (e.g. Erubin, Fol. 61a; Baba bathra Fol. 114b; Tosephot, Fol. 94b – for more examples, see Horst Mahler, Das Ende der Wanderschaft. Gedanken über Gilad Atzmon und die Judenheit, 2013, pp. 32–39, currently only available in German).

Rabbinical authorities, Kabbalists included, sharply differentiate even between Jewish and non-Jewish souls. The latter are considered impure. There are different aspects of the soul: the life force (nefesh), for example, is thought to reside in the blood, and that is the ‘soul” all creatures have in common — animals, non-Jews, and Jews. To Anidjar, this is proof of the generous, non-discriminatory worldview of the Hebrew Bible. The Arabic-speaking reader is drawn into this all-embracing oriental cloud of love, because the Arabic word for soul, nafs, is so closely related to the Hebrew nefesh. The idea, of course, is to establish a bond between Jews and Arabs against a common enemy: Europe and Christians. What Anidjar doesn’t mention is the fact that this is only the lowest common denominator of souls according to the rabbis, and that there are other, more important qualities of the soul. The most important ones are exclusive to Jews only, who, we repeat, inherit their Jewishness through the mother’s blood, and that is what predestines them for the spiritual aristocracy they believe they inhabit. It follows from this that there is nothing good in gentile nations, whose inhabitants simply lack the purity and nobility of Jewish souls, because a) they are not born Jewish, and b) they do not follow Jewish religious laws (mitzvot), which were given only to the “chosen people”:

The souls of the nations of the world, however, emanate from the other, unclean kelipot which contain no good whatever, as is written in Etz Chayim, Portal 49, ch. 3, that all the good that the nations do, is done from selfish motives. So the Gemara comments on the verse, “The kindness of the nations is sin,” —  that all the charity and kindness done by the nations of the world is only for their own self-glorification, and so on. (here)

So much for Judaism in relation to the ‘nations of the world” and Anidjar’s tale about non-existent hierarchies of blood in Judaism.

It is not as though Anidjar is unaware of what he is doing. In his article in a collection of essays on Jewish blood, he recapitulates many of the ideas expressed in Blood, stating: “If it seems as if I have been eluding the subject of Jewish blood …, it may be because I have” (Gil Anidjar, “We have never been Jewish” in: Jewish Blood: Reality and Metaphor in History, Religion and Culture, ed. Mitchell Hart, 45). Anidjar is fond of this turn of phrase: “If all this is beginning to look like an exegetical and theological dispute, which only yesterday elicited “the most violent reactions,” it is because it is, of course” (Blood 8).

Anidjar’s stomach-turning, truth-inverting writings are a shining example of what intellectuals can get away with nowadays. Interestingly, some of Anidjar’s harshest critics are Jews who are upset because he considers Israel to be a colonial enterprise. For example, neoconservative David Horowitz has listed Anidjar among America’s 101 most dangerous professors. And these students, presumably Jewish, are happy to vilify Arabs while still believing in the “real victimhood of Jews”:

In short, Anidjar is selling an outrageous set of historical whoppers — in Fitzgerald’s words, “a fiction, an ideological hippogriff, created only so that “the Arab” may claim for himself, at the hands of Europe, a false victimhood, based on the real victimhood of Jews.” It is this set of lies that Anidjar has made a career of spreading throughout his tenure at Columbia University. That his propagandizing should be allowed to go by the name of teaching is nothing less than a disgrace; and that any of this should be happening at what is widely considered a great American university all but beggars belief.

While Anidjar continues to be part of the international academic jet-set and gets invited to conferences to discuss the Christian question, the German lawyer turned philosopher Horst Mahler is seeking political asylum outside of his homeland because he dared to publicly address Jewish issues His philosophical book The End of Wandering — Reflections on Gilad Atzmon and Jewry explores the Scriptural basis of the Jewish religion and provides reasons for his view that Judaism has had a harmful impact on the world; it is carefully thought out and presented in a responsible manner, unlike the argument of Anidjar, who doesn’t even bother to adhere to basic academic standards.

Alas, Mahler’s work was conceived not at an elegant desk at Berlin’s Wissenschaftskolleg but in a prison cell. In more ways than one, Horst Mahler’s critique of Judaism is the exact obverse of Gil Anidjar’s critique of Christianity. Their fates could not be any different, and if there’s a more telling example of the world turned upside down, I’d like to hear about it.

[1] The Church in European History: Review of Larry Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Westerrn Liberalism, The Occidental Quarterly 16, no. 4 (Winter, 2016-2017), 92–114.

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