Stephen Stern
Dr. Stephen Stern PhD

Anti-Judaism & historian Heather Cox Richardson

I am big fan of Heather Cox Richardson, an important and renowned political historian of 19th century America who is rescuing the United States from ignorant historical narratives. If you’re not reading her daily “Letters From an American” you’re missing substantive commentary on domestic American politics. Nevertheless, like most western scholars of Western civilization and American history, Richardson inadvertently absents Judaism from the discussion. For example, during her Facebook lecture on the fifties’ red scare (she gives wonderful lectures at four on Facebook every Tuesday and Thursday), Richardson never mentioned that Jews were disproportionately targeted. I understand why she excluded Jews, it wasn’t part of the frame for her argument. There wasn’t room for us, but there was room for an explanation as to why she absented Jews in her talk from this American horror story. Richardson surely knows that at the time of the red scare the word “liberal” was often used by the right as a euphemism for Jew. Still is, e.g. George Soros.

Another example is when Professor Richardson explained her Enlightenment values (at Tuesday’s 12/29 lecture), values I share, teach and argue for as foundational for humanity. Richardson credited Enlightenment thinkers with the insight of equality before the law, a foundational insight for which our American democratic republic aspires. Here, she absents us from the discussion. It’s true the enlightenment thinkers argued for equality before the law and their arguments informed our founders. However, they didn’t come up with the ideal of equality before the law. Hebrews/Israelites/Judeans did in the book we identify as the Hebrew Bible. The first five books, especially 2 through 5, provide an existential world-view for farmers who are to adhere to equality before the law. There’s no room for nomadism, anarchy or exploitation of others in the Hebrew Bible, a text in which every biblical prophet speaks to the Israelites and Judeans of continued violations of the principle of equality before the law.

Why did Professor Richardson absent the Hebrew biblical origin of the Enlightenment ideal of equality before the law from her explanation(s)? I’m guessing it’s because she hasn’t been taught to consider it. I doubt her days at Andover and Harvard included the study of Jewish contributions to Western Civilization. Jews have been represented by Western historians as having contributed little to nothing to Western civilization. The great 20th century historian Arnold Toynbee wrote that Jews have contributed nothing to Western civilization since the writing of the Talmud.

Richardson has the power to include us.  I have no doubt that Richardson’s absenting of us from her Facebook talks isn’t intentional. I am guessing it is a product of her education.

When one isn’t known, that is, absented or erased, it’s as if one doesn’t exist for the Other. However, Richardson’s anti-Judaism isn’t Jew-hatred. I suspect she has many Jewish friends who have her over to seders, friends she’s visited when sitting shiva, etc. Having followed her brilliant work for some time (read her newest book, How the South Won the Civil War).

Two decades ago, Jewish American historian Leonard Dinnerstein wrote that Jew-hatred was declining in the United States. However, the past four years has seen sharp increases in Jew-hatred, e.g. the march in Charlottesville, the massacre at Tree of Life synagogue, lesbian Jews kicked out of two marches for showing up with Star of David banners, UK Labor Jew-hatred (please read Dr. David Hirsh’s important work Contemporary Anti-semitism and the Left, ) etc. and needs to be addressed.

What does Richardson have to do with this? When a rock star changes their music, they influence change in other musicians’ music.

Perhaps what most impressed me is that Heather Cox Richardson asked herself an Other-oriented question when the pandemic directed many of us into isolation, “what is my obligation to fellow citizens during the pandemic?” This is a familiar question to many Jews, for we are obligated to always ask it upon entering a situation. Levinas quote…..

Richardson’s care for the United States inspires me as an American Jew. This is why I am asking her to include us where we ought to be included. I fear that without historians like Heather Cox Richardson including us, we will not overcome Jew- hatred on the left, in the center, and on the right.

About the Author
Dr. Stephen Stern is the author of The Unbinding of Isaac: A Phenomenological Midrash of Genesis 22, Associate Professor of Jewish Studies & Interdisciplinary Studies, and Chair of Jewish Studies at Gettysburg College
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