‘Perfidious Albion’

How Britain treats its Jews

By Keith Kahn-Harris

Published March 03, 2010, issue of March 12, 2010.
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Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England
By Anthony Julius
Oxford University Press, 864 pages, $45

A monumental study of English antisemitism proves an astonishing and controversial achievement.

If nothing else, “Trials of the Diaspora” is an extraordinary testament to the brilliance of its author. That Anthony Julius, a top London lawyer renowned for serving both Princess Diana during her divorce proceedings and Deborah Lipstadt in her libel trial with David Irving, managed to complete a book as extensive and well researched as this alongside his “day job” is nothing short of astounding. Julius’s legal work has always gone alongside a career as a serious scholar of literature and art, and his 1995 book on T S Eliot’s antisemitism caused quite a stir on publication.

I offer this admiration of Julius’s manifest intellect and energy not just as an aside, but also because it is part of the background to the book. In the introduction, he recalls an article in the Daily Telegraph at the time of the princess’s divorce that contrasted him with the highborn and discrete lawyers acting for Prince Charles. The article characterised Julius as “… a Jewish intellectual and Labour supporter, and less likely to feel restrained by considerations of fair play.” There can be no better example of a certain kind of genteel English antisemitism: Julius’s energy, his intellect and his commitment to his clients are posed as the antithesis of an Englishness defined by restraint, discretion and the need to never try too hard.

Yet even if Julius would seem to encapsulate everything the English antisemite despises, he is too good a scholar to turn “Trials of the Diaspora” into a hatchet job. The book does not treat England as a country fundamentally “bad for the Jews,” with a virulent antisemitism at its core. He does argue, though, that English antisemitism is distinctive and even pioneering in terms of the global history of Jew hatred.

Part of this distinctiveness lies in the contrast between its early severity and its modern restraint. The history of medieval Jewry is an unhappy one, even by the lamentable standards of the time. British Jews were treated as little more than a resource to be milked by the crown and the nobility, subject to repeated blood libels and massacres. Indeed, England offered the first recorded allegation of Jewish ritual murder of a Christian child, that of the later-to-be-canonized Saint William of Norwich in 1144.

Edward I’s expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290 resulted not in English antisemitism’s end, but in its transformation into a new and innovative kind, what Julius calls “literary antisemitism.” Despite the lack of official Jewish presence in England until the mid-17th century, “the Jew” was an ubiquitous part of the English literary imagination. More than simply the repetition of old myths of blood libel and greed, literary antisemitism was capable of producing extraordinary creations, such as “The Merchant of Venice” and Marlowe’s “The Jew of Malta.” Julius shows how such works are simultaneously penetrating in their understanding of antisemitism and also how they are antisemitic themselves, even if other works of literary antisemitism are little more than abusive doggerel.

Literary antisemitism survived the growth of the English Jewish population from the 17th century, informing such works as “Oliver Twist,” but the presence of “real” Jews also generated a distinctively modern English antisemitism. Again avoiding hyperbole, Julius shows the ubiquity of recent English antisemitism while appreciating its “mildness” when compared with continental variants. Jews may have pervasively been seen as “un-English,” pushy, greedy and mendacious,” but English antisemitism was “disorganised” and “non-programmatic.” Compared with its European cousins, English antisemtism rarely produced systematic intellectual formulations, English antisemitic violence was rare and English antisemitic political parties have always been marginal. If Julius had concluded his history in the immediate postwar period, I have no doubt that his book would be nearly universally acclaimed. The last quarter of the book, however, deals with anti-Zionist antisemitism, a topic so controversial that it guarantees “Trials of the Diaspora” will be fiercely and bitterly debated.

Although Julius rejects the term “new antisemitism,” he is a vociferous proponent of the argument that post-1967, opposition to Israel has all too frequently crossed the line into antisemitism. The substantial evidence that he gathers is often damning: blood libel tropes, Jews smeared as Nazis, accusations of excessive conspiratorial Jewish power, Islamic fundamentalist assaults on English Jews and, through it all, the treatment of Israel, the Jewish state, as a kind of unique evil in the world. Julius points out vehemently, but rarely in a vitriolic or polemical fashion, that left-wing groups and the intelligentsia are at best far too tolerant and at worst directly implicated in this most recent form of English antisemitism.

Julius’s argument is a strong one in the sense that venerable antisemitic tropes

have infected discourse on Israel. To my mind, though, he overreaches considerably in his treatment of anti-Zionism. Although he never comes out and says it directly, for Julius, anti-Zionism is always a form of antisemitism. There is no doubt that anti-Zionism often provides a very convenient cover for antisemitism (Julius notes how even neo-Nazi groups now usually claim to be against Zionism rather than Jews).

Further, I would agree that opposition to Zionism in the name of Palestinian nationalism by those who are otherwise defenders of “national liberation” movements is at the very least one-sided. But is the belief that the Israel-Palestine conflict requires a non-nationalist solution necessarily antisemitic? It may be naive or unworkable, but does it have to involve a fundamental antipathy to Jews? After all, Zionism is a political ideology, and as such it should be open to question in the way all political ideologies should be.

It is highly likely that Julius will be accused by some of using accusations of antisemitism to silence critics of Israel. This is unfair in that Julius is highly critical of many Israeli actions, and argues that Palestinian resistance to Israel can constitute a “rational enmity.” His point is that the discourse of Palestinians and the critics of Israel and Zionism all too frequently utilize antisemitic tropes. Still, Julius’s argument would have been more robust had he conceded that pro-Israel discourses can be equally venomous and that accusations of antisemitism are not always made in a thoughtful way.

“Trials of the Diaspora” would also have been a stronger book if Julius had paid more attention to other forms of English racism. Although he does not argue that antisemitism is any worse than other forms of racism, the absence of any serious consideration of the wider context of prejudice against minorities in England suggests that he sees antisemitism as entirely distinct. In some ways, this is reasonable — there is no obvious analogue to contemporary anti-Zionist antisemitism — but a comparison with, for example, historical anti-Catholic, or contemporary Islamophobic prejudice would have been valuable.

There is a tendency on the part of Israelis and Americans concerned about antisemitism to see English Jews as a beleaguered group needing Israel and American Jewry to “save” them. Anthony Julius has demonstrated both that English Jews can fight their own battles and that bleak portrayals of English antisemitism can and should be rejected in favor of a more nuanced and sophisticated understanding. “Trials of the Diaspora” has its weaknesses, but it is an important work of considerable scholarship that deserves to be read carefully and widely.

Keith Kahn-Harris is a London-based sociologist and co-author of the forthcoming “Turbulent Times: The British Jewish Community Today” (Continuum). He is the convenor and editor of the project New Jewish Thought (www.newjewishthought.org).


Read an excerpt from ‘Trials of the Diaspora’


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