It Could Be Worse

Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England by Anthony Julius

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.

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.

Julius devotes two large sections to “Modern English Anti-Semitism” and “The Mentality of Modern English Anti-Semitism”, comprehensive and amazingly well researched accounts of anti-Jewish activities, remarks and personalities. Despite the profusion of sources — these sections are supplemented by nearly 60 pages of footnote references — Julius, wisely, does not erect this array into an indictment of British society as anti-Semitic. With detailed research, it would be easy enough to draw up long lists of damning quotations about virtually any imaginable group-aristocrats, trades unions, Catholics, the Irish, the Scots, doctors, solicitors — which perhaps show little beyond the common propensity of humans to categorise and criticise, unless also accompanied by hostile actions. Jews experienced little of these in modern Britain, and a comparison of attitudes towards Jews with, say, those about Catholics or the Irish is unlikely to show Jews at a disadvantage. Nor does a catalogue of hostile remarks mean much without the wider context provided by also considering flattering remarks. Quite fairly, Julius often attempts to provide these, but possibly does not go far enough. For instance, he discusses in an intelligent way the bullying of Jews at public schools, without noting that at least three major ones, Harrow, Cheltenham and Clifton, established Jewish houses to attract Jewish students. Some of his analysis seems confused: discussing the period of the Second World War, he makes the common mistake of suggesting that Europe’s Jews were refugees, when they were actually prisoners who could not leave Nazi-occupied Europe. Nor did anyone, anywhere, propose bombing Auschwitz until April or May 1944, and not earlier.

The last sections of the book concern contemporary anti-Zionism, with Julius demonstrating persuasively that in its extreme form, it differs little, if at all, from traditional anti-Semitism. Personally, I agree with every word that Julius says in this section. (It is also interesting to note that, despite his role in the David Irving trial, Julius has virtually nothing to say about contemporary far-Right anti-Semitism or Holocaust denial.) In the entire history of bizarre political alliances, has there ever been a stranger one than that between the Western extreme Left and what is seemingly its polar opposite, Islamic fundamentalism? Perhaps not. We thus have the grotesque spectacle of radical feminists supporting regimes where women are regarded as ninth-class citizens; of political “dissenters” backing governments where political dissenters are shot; of atheists and secularists praising nations where religious fundamentalism from the Dark Ages is embedded in that country’s laws and institutions; and of pacifists apologising for suicide bombers. What unites these two extremes is their common hatred for Western democracy in general and the state of Israel and its supporters in particular. Julius presents a lengthy and detailed Chamber of Horrors of today’s leading anti-Zionists. Although I know a good deal about this milieu, Julius has managed to identify a great many of whom I was happily in ignorance. Nor does he neglect such organs of institutionalised anti-Israel bias as the BBC and the Guardian newspaper. 

There are a number of areas in which my own interpretation of anti-Semitism differs from Julius’s. It seems clear that there was a “background level” of anti-Semitism in British society, at least until the lessons of the Holocaust were absorbed, in such areas as jokes, negative remarks and petty prejudices. However, serious instances of anti-Semitism, insofar as there were any, were limited to a few periods of disturbance and crisis. In Britain, these most obviously occurred in the period 1917-22, during the closing phase of the First World War and the post-war period, and in 1946-48, in the wake of anti-British terrorism in Palestine. There is no real evidence that these left a lasting, permanent mark. The current presence of serious left-wing/Muslim anti-Zionism is a new phenomenon, and a very dangerous one. I agree with Julius that most hostility to the Jews in Britain derives from this source, and not from traditional right-wing or “Establishment” anti-Semitism, which if not dead, is greatly diminished.

By any reasonable test Jews have been massively overrepresented in many of Britain’s elites during the past 150 years — though not all. Michael Clark’s recent Albion & Jerusalem (Oxford University Press, 2009), a study of Anglo-Jewry in the period 1858-87, found that 18 Jews were elected to Parliament in this brief period, many of them obscure men, often elected for seats with tiny Jewish communities. While no comprehensive research appears to have been done, probably more Jews were elected to Parliament than were adherents of any other religious denomination apart from members of the two established Churches and Catholics from southern Ireland: probably more than any Protestant non-conformist sect. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography every year produces an online supplement of new entries for distinguished persons deceased five years earlier. Consistently in recent years, between six and ten per cent of all such entries were Jewish. Jews comprise one-half of one per cent of the total British population, meaning that they are overrepresented in this source by 12 to 20 times. At present, six of the 24 current members of the Order of Merit are Jewish, as have been three of the five most recent Lord Chief Justices. If Britain is an anti-Semitic society, it manifests its anti-Semitism in remarkably unusual ways. 

Trials of the Diaspora is a work of commanding research and intelligence, which will spark a debate on an area of great controversy that ought to be considered dispassionately.

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