Modernity and the Jews in Western Social Thought


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Modernity and the Jews in Western Social Thought is a study in the sociology of culture and knowledge; it investigates how Jews became an important reference point for defining modernity and national identity among French, German, and American social scientists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The book shows that the historical opposition between Jews and gentiles served as a basis and background condition for the production of the modern/tradition binary. Its conclusion proposes a novel explanation for why Jews were such an important reference point and came to signify such varied and inconsistent meanings; it suggests a rethinking of previous scholarship on Orientalism, Occidentalism, and European perceptions of America; and it argues that history extends into the present with Jews—and now the Jewish state—continuing to serve as an intermediary for self-reflection in the twenty-first century.

  • Read an excerpt at Public Seminar (June 19, 2017)
  • Listen to an interview for the New Books in Jewish Studies Podcast (March 27, 2018)
  • Read an interview for the Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota (Aug. 13, 2018)
  • Read Steven E. Aschheim’s review for the American Historical Review, the flagship journal of the American Historical Association (April 2019)
  • Read Eric Oberle’s review in AJS Review, the journal of the Association for Jewish Studies (November 2019)
  • Read Jonathan Karp’s review in the Jewish Review of Books (Winter 2019)

“Above all, a singularly lucid summation of the modern ‘Jewish question’ as a sociological question, Modernity and the Jews makes a compelling case for the value of historical sociology. Goldberg situates French, German, and American social thinkers in their historical contexts in order to show how and why they produced the Jew, as a category of analysis and a means of social criticism. By employing a comparative mode, he shows how social thought about the Jew reflected specific circumstances and, also, replicated habits of thought about political modes, economic systems, and cultural forms. A bold book, unafraid to step into the fray of debates about Orientalism, the role of the Muslim in today’s social thought, and the claims of anti-Zionism, Modernity and the Jews brings the history of western social thought directly into our own moment in time.”

Lila Corwin Berman, Temple University

“Goldberg’s original and provocative thesis—based on case studies of foundational figures in sociology from France, Germany, and the United States—is that Jews and Jews alone came to be treated as the signifiers of the pre-modern/modern binary. And as such, for scholars such as Durkheim, Marx, Weber, Sombart, Simmel, and Park, Jews were viewed as occupying a unique social space, being an Other unlike any other Other. Cogently argued and spelling out the implications for the discipline, this is a must-read book, deserving of serious scholarly reflection.”

Peter Kivisto, Augustana College