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The Healing Power of Jew-Love

Gertrude Himmelfarb argues that the philosemitism of writers like George Eliot can be a cure for anti-Semitism

James Winchell
July 09, 2012
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Shutterstock)
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Shutterstock)

Is “philosemitism”—love of Jews—the opposite of “anti-Semitism” or is it a similarly charged apprehension of difference, expressed in a less toxic form? Two new publications—a fresh biography of George Eliot by Nancy Henry, and the paperback release of Gertrude Himmelfarb’s The People of the Book—give new life to the debate over the world’s love-hate relationship with the Jewish people.

“Philosemitism” is a word that does not appear in Nancy Henry’s new, full-dress biography, The Life of George Eliot. It would be hard to claim that its omission constitutes a shortcoming, however. Previous lives of Eliot—most notably Gordon Haight’s heretofore-definitive volume, first published in 1968—have for the most part maintained a formal stricture, promoted by the New Critics of the mid-20th century, that the literary critic must observe the supposedly clear boundary between the art and the life of the biographical subject.

This is more than made up for by The People of the Book: Philosemitism in England From Cromwell to Churchill, in which historian Gertrude Himmelfarb shows how the seemingly innocuous notion of “philosemitism”—a positive feeling toward Judaism and Jews—originated in Germany as, in fact, a derogatory term in the mouths of anti-Semites (think “Jew-lover”). Himmelfarb’s thesis is that the glaring omission of “philosemitism” from contemporary discourse lends a kind of unjustifiable lexical monopoly to anti-Semitism and thereby “reduces Judaism to the eternal recurrence of persecution and the struggle for survival. It also has the effect of debasing Jews, ‘objectifying’ them, making them not subjects in their own right but the objects, if not of hatred and contempt, then of pity and pathos.” She even goes so far as to attribute a kind of curative or restorative power to the word “philosemitism” itself, which “may help counteract this ‘lachrymose’ view of Jewish history” and “put in perspective the recent resurgence of anti-Semitism throughout the world.”

This claim for the power (however virtual) of the word “philosemitism” is precisely where a larger problem emerges in Himmelfarb’s writing. Does she truly hope that a single resuscitated word can intervene constructively today in political discourse? Is her hope actual, substantial, or simply naïve? As if in search of more explanatory depth, Himmelfarb turns to literature as a source of examples and contending views. First she discusses works by Shakespeare, Dickens, Walter Scott, and Benjamin Disraeli, in which Jews appear as characters, to greater or lesser approval. Finally, she turns to George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda as a defense and illustration of “philosemitism”—though it is exceedingly unlikely that George Eliot ever used or heard the term.


In Daniel Deronda (1876), her last and most ambitious novel, Eliot tells two parallel stories: For roughly the first half of a 900-page text, strong-willed Gwendolyn Harweth struggles against the traps in which Victorian respectability stultified women; in the second half, a Jewish family, the Cohens, similarly ensnared in a British tradition of anti-Jewish prejudice and repression, attempts to live and fulfill the highest ideals of Judaism. Daniel Deronda links the two stories together. We learn that he has been raised as a ward of Sir Hugo Mallinger, who groomed him to become a Victorian gentleman despite the uncertainty of his bloodlines.

Tellingly, when Daniel Deronda at long last locates the Cohen family and meets the son Mordecai, the significance of the moment hinges on the chance discovery, in the shop where Mordecai works, of an old book that Daniel had been seeking for some time: Salomon Maimon’s Autobiography. This “wonderful bit of autobiography, the life of the Polish Jew Salomon Maimon,” as George Eliot’s narrator states it, leads directly to Daniel’s first encounter with Mordecai, “a figure that was somewhat startling in its unusualness.” When Mordecai looked up from behind the counter to meet Daniel’s eyes, “the thought glanced through Deronda that precisely such a physiognomy as that might possibly have been seen in a prophet of the Exile, or in some New Hebrew poet of the medieval time.”

Mordecai, too, “recognizes” Deronda, saying: “You are a man of learning—you are interested in Jewish history?” Daniel allows that yes, he is “certainly interested in Jewish history,” and the “strange Jew” then asks him: “Are you of our race?”

Daniel, blushing, can only stammer, “No.”

Himmelfarb shows that the term “race,” as used in this context, is historically over-determined: a sign of multiple notions and origins, not reducible to “blood.” So, does George Eliot’s “love for Jews” and Judaism, as revealed in the 900-odd pages of Daniel Deronda, reflect a progressive idea in the history of the diaspora? Or is her portrayal of Daniel, Mordecai, Mirah, and the Cohen family simply a nostalgic projection upon the thoroughly “Orientalized” faces of the contemporary English Jews around her?

Himmelfarb deftly answers this question in the negative by citing Hegel: Daniel Deronda (the supposed goy, a “perfect British gentleman” and social master) recognizes the dialectical, yet ample mastery that shines within Mordecai’s physiognomy. It’s not the troubling notion of “race” that drives the episode, she says, so much as it is a dialectical, spiritual-historical force whose emergence Eliot was among the earliest of moderns to perceive. By the end of the novel, Daniel Deronda’s “conversion” to—or recognition of—his own birthright culminates in a vision of a homeland for Jews in the Middle East, 20 years before the publication of Theodor Herzl’s Zionist manifesto, Der Judenstaat.

Yet I would propose that the genius of Daniel Deronda rests in its simultaneous evocation and suspension of one-dimensional views on politics, nationhood, and Jewish identity. In her insistence on writing the difficult, existential particularity of the Jewish faith, Eliot represents a kind of “Inconvenient Ruth”: a successor to the biblical proselyte. In the Book of Ruth, we learn that the Moabitess Ruth, having become the childless widow of Mahlon, chooses to accompany her mother-in-law Naomi on her return to Judah from Moab and to remain with her. When Naomi exhorts her to go home, she refuses, stating simply: “Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” Paradoxically, the inconvenience of Ruth’s conversion derives not from a word, but from the living substance of hope and the ethical practice of Jewish faith. Ruth’s ingenuity and uprightness in the rest of her story—her marriage to Boaz and the reconciliation of the inheritance of Naomi’s deceased husband Elimilech—both prefigure the astonishing denouement of Daniel Deronda: a return to a metaphysical place where one has physically never been.

The tradition of “the exclusion of biography from literary criticism,” deftly invoked by Henry, prompts her to open this new volume with an informative overview of the methodological issues the biographer faces today.

She writes: “While the ‘death of the author’ hypothesis has been counter-productive to thinking about the importance of the author’s life to his or her writing, the concept of the ‘intertext’ is useful in ‘deconstructing’ the boundaries between the literary artifacts canonized as art and other forms of writing.” She then proposes a kind of “constructivist” approach (my term, not hers) as a method of offering “a new way to think about … the narrative of Eliot’s life.”

George Eliot herself, Henry shows, “was particularly mindful of the moral judgments on personal actions that might cloud the appreciation of the literary texts” and therefore protested vehemently against the Victorian tendency to blame an author for her or his moral flaws.

Himmelfarb, for her part, presents a wealth of historical context and detail, yet she prefers to avoid or gloss over the kinds of spiritual difficulty confronted directly and even embraced by Deronda, Mordecai, and by George Eliot herself. Instead, she holds out a version of Judaism subsumed in what remains, for her, a nostalgic notion—British philosemitism as some kind of verbal antidote to Jew-hating, then and now. Would that the real-world problems of anti-Semitism and Jewish identity might be solved so easily, by invoking one magic word.


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James Winchell recently retired from teaching at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash.

James Winchell recently retired from teaching at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash.

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