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Albion’s Shame

In Trials of the Diaspora, Anthony Julius offers an encyclopedic history of English anti-Semitism

Adam Kirsch
May 25, 2010
Fagin, from George Cruikshank's illustrations for Dickens's Oliver Twist.(Wikimedia Commons)
Fagin, from George Cruikshank's illustrations for Dickens's Oliver Twist.(Wikimedia Commons)

Of all the qualities that Anthony Julius displays in Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England—intellectual force, extensive erudition, a lucid prose style—the most admirable is surely his moral fortitude. For to write this encyclopedic study, which covers almost a thousand years of English history, Julius had to expose himself to an endless series of hateful lies about his own people. By the end of the book’s 600 pages of text (another 200 pages of notes follow), the reader is more than ready to sympathize when Julius concludes, “to study [anti-Semitism] is to immerse oneself in muck. Anti-Semitism is a sewer. This is my second book on the subject and I intend it to be my last.”

It’s easy to believe that it was painful to write the book, since even reading it is—appropriately enough, given the title—a kind of trial. Julius’s survey of anti-Semitic acts and ideas and discourse, from the blood libel of the middle ages to the fanatical anti-Zionism of the 21st century, offers an object lesson in how demoralizing it is to be slandered, even when one knows that the slander is false. Indeed, the wilder and more palpably incredible the slur, the more destabilizing it can be for the victim, since it thrusts him into a world in which the truth simply does not matter.

For many hundreds of years, for example, most English people believed that Jews had a religious obligation to kill Christian children and drink their blood. Julius shows how this crime was charged against the Jews again and again in the middle ages: in Norwich in 1144, Gloucester in 1168, Bury St. Edmunds in 1181, Lincoln in 1255, and on and on, until the Jews were finally expelled from England by King Edward I in 1290. The fact that no Jew ever committed such a murder and that Jewish law is radically opposed to bloodshed, did not stop the blood libel from flourishing. But while no Jews ever ritually murdered an English Christian, Christians inflamed by such accusations did murder very many English Jews. In York in 1190, for instance, 150 Jews died—many by suicide—when a looting mob trapped them in a castle.

In this respect, medieval anti-Semitism followed the same logic as Nazi anti-Semitism—the logic of the big lie, which charged Jewish victims with committing the very crimes that were being committed against them. The victim’s rational instinct in this situation is to reply and rebut, to demonstrate the falsehood of this or that charge against the Jews; but this response is entirely beside the point. As Julius writes, “what characterizes anti-Semites is not so much their falsehoods and their misbeliefs as the malice with which they promote them. They hate Jews. The errors in logic, in history and theology, in politics and sociology, come later.”

Yet this raises a question about Trials of the Diaspora itself. Julius is a respected intellectual, the author of a groundbreaking book on the anti-Semitic tropes in T.S. Eliot’s poetry, and a prominent London lawyer, known for his work as Princess Diana’s divorce lawyer and as defense counsel for Deborah Lipstadt in the David Irving Holocaust-denial case. Why, one might naturally wonder, would he devote so much time and work to documenting English anti-Semitism, if the content of anti-Semitism is null—if his book is, as he puts it, “mostly … the explication of nonsense—pernicious nonsense, at that”? One possible motive is scholarly—the simple desire to make a truthful record of the Jewish and English past—and Julius has certainly done a masterly job of that. It’s hard to imagine anyone needing to write this sorry history a second time.

But the temper of this book is not simply scholarly. Its forensic drive and controlled irony are lawyerly, in the best sense of the word. A case is being made here—but not, as Julius would be the first to insist, a case for Jewish innocence. It is not only unnecessary to make that case, it is degrading: You don’t argue with a sewer. If, knowing this, Julius still felt compelled to write Trials, his purpose was, rather, demonstrative. By so thoroughly documenting and analyzing English anti-Semitism, Julius puts himself in a position of mastery over it. A Jew, he shows, does not have to fear anti-Semitism; just as important, perhaps, he no longer has to fear thinking about anti-Semitism.

This is an especially important distinction when it comes to English history, since English anti-Semitism has been far milder and subtler than that of most other European countries. In part, ironically, this is because the expulsion of the Jews was so effective. Between 1290 and the 1650s, when Oliver Cromwell agreed to allow some Dutch Sephardim to settle in London, there were no Jews in Britain. Even after Cromwell, the Anglo-Jewish community grew slowly, numbering just 30,000 or so by the late 19th century. England had a smaller and less significant Jewish presence than any major European country.

Partly for this reason, English anti-Semitism became a matter of discourse and attitude, rather than violence and persecution. After the middle ages, Julius’s book contains no pogroms or ghettoes, no Dreyfus Affairs or Nuremberg laws, no concentration camps—subjects that would have to appear in any history of French or German or Russian anti-Semitism. On the other hand, English anti-Semitism presents a uniquely troubling literary legacy, since the very greatest English writers have been responsible for embellishing slanders about the Jews. As Julius puts it, “if it is the case that among anti-Semitism’s many products there are only a few literary works that deserve general esteem and thus challenge the self-respect of Jewish readers and spectators, then English literature has most of them.” Chaucer, in The Prioress’s Tale, told the story of a child ritually murdered by evil Jews (minions of “the serpent Satanas,/That hath in Jewes’ heart his waspe’s nest”); Shakespeare, of course, gave us Shylock and the pound of flesh in The Merchant of Venice; and Dickens, in Oliver Twist, made Fagin a Jewish thief who preys on Christian children.

The key word in Julius’s description is “self-respect.” It hardly challenges a Jew’s self-respect to read the many obscure scribblers, conspiracy theorists, and crackpots whom Julius has occasion to quote; to be insulted by Shakespeare is another matter. Similarly, for most English Jews in the modern period, anti-Semitism did not inspire fear or dread but social unease, self-doubt, a sense of being unwanted. Julius quotes one writer from the 1930s explaining that Jews “by a thousand signs, and by ways not always conscious, [are] edged on one side, excluded.”

This sense of not belonging persisted even after individual Jews had risen to high positions in government and society. Thus we find paradoxical cases like that of Edwin Samuel Montagu, a Jewish politician who was Secretary of State for India at the time of the notorious Amritsar massacre in 1919. When Montagu sought to censure the British general who had fired on a crowd of Indians, he was attacked, in the words of another politician, as “a Jew, a foreigner, rounding on an Englishman and throwing him to the wolves.” Anti-Semitism did not stop Montagu from rising to the heights of power, but neither did his power and status stop him from being viewed, even by his colleagues, through an anti-Semitic lens.

The second motive behind Trials of the Diaspora has to do with Julius’s diagnosis of the present and future of English anti-Semitism. After the Holocaust, in England as throughout Europe and America, overt expressions of anti-Semitism became largely taboo. But this began to change with the Six Day War and Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which made the Palestinian cause popular on the political left. Julius’s claim is that criticism of Israeli policies has become, in some corners of English life, an irrational anti-Zionism, with both conscious and unconscious anti-Semitic overtones. This constitutes “the fourth of the English anti-Semitisms,” a successor to the medieval, literary, and social versions.

This argument is responsible for the controversy that Julius’s book has already provoked—see, for example, Harold Bloom’s review in the New York Times Book Reviewand the letters of complaint it drew in this Sunday’s issue. The obvious objection to calling this brand of new, Israel-centered hostility “the new anti-Semitism” is that, as Julius acknowledges, “it is adopted by people who profess deep hostility to anti-Semitism, [and] self-identified Jews are among its advocates.” Indeed, anti-Zionists often preemptively disclaim the charge of anti-Semitism as a way of discrediting their critics. Nothing is more common in anti-Zionist discourse than the notion that the anti-Zionist is bravely risking persecution by paranoid or malignant Jews.

But Julius is quite cognizant that a distinction must be drawn between criticism of Israeli policy toward the Palestinians—criticism that can be rational and ethical, and that he makes quite eloquently himself—and anti-Semitism, which is inherently irrational and unethical. And he convincingly shows that, in England, anti-Zionism frequently does pass over into anti-Semitism. Readers who follow British publications such as the London Review of Books and the Guardian will be familiar with many of Julius’s examples; those who don’t will find them eye-opening. Take, for instance, the poet Tom Paulin, who wrote “Killed in Crossfire” after the widely reported death in 2000 of Mohammed al-Dura, a young Palestinian boy allegedly shot by Israeli soldiers:

We’re fed this inert
this lying phrase
like comfort food
as another little Palestinian boy
in trainers jeans and a white teeshirt
is gunned down by the Zionist SS
whose initials we should
—but we don’t—dumb goys—
clock in the weasel word crossfire.

In these few lines, all the classic tropes of anti-Semitism are brought together. Jews deliberately murder non-Jewish children; they “feed” lies to unwitting Gentiles, presumably through their control of the media; they mock their dupes as “dumb goys”; they are as bad as Nazis. Yet when the obvious anti-Semitism of this poem was pointed out, Paulin—a highly respected figure in the British literary world—responded with another indignant poem called “On Being Dealt the Anti-Semite Card,” in which he protested his innocence while once again comparing Jews to Nazis (“the usual cynical Goebbels stuff”).

Such rhetoric, which Julius believes is moving from the fringes to the mainstream of English life, helps to explain his feeling that “the closed season on Jews is over.” We have not yet seen this degree of anti-Semitic anti-Zionism become mainstream in American life, but there are signs of its growing legitimation, especially under the guise of criticism of the “Israel lobby”—the contemporary name for the old fantasy of secret, limitless, malignant Jewish power. At such a moment, the judiciousness and confidence that Julius displays are more necessary than ever.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.