Anthony Julius is probably best-known as Princess Diana's solicitor. Yet he also has a special role within the Jewish community as the main legal figure assisting Deborah Lipstadt in the celebrated 2000 lawsuit instituted by Holocaust denier David Irving, and as one of those at the forefront of efforts to halt academic and other boycotts of Israel. Trials of the Diaspora reveals him to be an historian of great ability who has produced a magisterial work about the history of anti-Semitism in Britain that will surely have a major impact and be widely discussed. As a subject, British anti-Semitism is both elusive and problematic: it is always there, but seldom strong; it has taken many guises but is always fairly similar; and most importantly, in modern Britain it has almost always been marginal and plainly less significant than on the Continent. While dozens of books have been written on aspects of British anti-Semitism, such as the career of Sir Oswald Mosley, it is notable that this is only the second general history of the subject, the first appearing more than 30 years ago. In nearly 900 pages, Julius provides a virtually exhaustive account of the subject.
The work is divided into four main sections. The first, on "Medieval English Anti-Semitism," surveys the period from 1066 until the expulsion of the Jews in 1290, when the then-significant community of royal tax collectors and money-lenders gave rise to the world's first "ritual murder" claim and to the infamous massacre at York's Clifford Tower in 1190. The sheer brutality of medieval anti-Semitism will come as a surprise to many, as will the virtual disappearance of equally virulent anti-Semitism during later periods of British history. Between 1290 and 1656, when there was no official Jewish community here, England embraced Protestantism, capitalism and parliamentary supremacy, all of which indirectly but fundamentally benefitted the Jews when they returned. Indeed, any linkage between medieval English anti-Semitism and the reception accorded the Jews centuries later seems as irrelevant as invoking King John at Runnymede in a serious discussion of the next general election.
Dangerous tide: Anti-Israel graffiti in Temple Fortune, north-west London
What is most striking about medieval anti-Semitism is how little later resonance it actually had.
The second part of the book, "English Literary Anti-Semitism", examines at length the various manifestations of anti-Jewish characters and imagery in English literature from Chaucer to recent works such as Tom Paulin's notorious 2001 poem "Killed in the Crossfire".
Apart from his other achievements, Julius wrote T. S. Eliot: Anti-Semitism and Literary Form (Cambridge University Press, 1995). In this chapter, Julius discusses the paradoxical fact that many — perhaps most — of the best-known allegedly anti-Semitic depictions of Jews in Western literature — from Chaucer's Prioress's Tale to The Merchant of Venice, to Oliver Twist and George Du Maurier's Trilby, with its Jewish hypnotist Svengali, are by British writers, despite the relative absence of deleterious anti-Semitism in modern English society. It is quite possible that there are more anti-Semitic depictions in English literature than in that of France, Germany or Russia, despite the fact that anti-Semitism was obviously far more central to their histories. Julius does not quite explain this irony, although he is careful to note the lack of a nexus between these anti-Semitic depictions and wider British society. The
anti-Semitism of these works is also possibly arguable. Literary critics have, for instance, debated for nearly 200 years whether The Merchant of Venice really is anti-Semitic. Rather, Shakespeare's message seems to be that Jews are bad, but Christians are just as bad, an interpretation far more in keeping with his universal humanism. There were genuine anti-Semites among well-known British writers, with Julius rightly highlighting William Cobbett and Hilaire Belloc (who may well have had Jewish antecedents), but they were few and highly marginal.