Some of Their Best Friends

Book review of The People of the Book: Philosemitism in England from Cromwell to Churchill by Gertrude Himmelfarb

Books Judaism
Readmit all: Menasseh Ben Israel's successful 1655 petition to Oliver Cromwell (insert) imploring him to allow Jews to live in England

In the course of reviewing Jonathan Sacks’s most recent book, Theo Hobson referred to the “philo-Semitic mood within the UK’s main religious culture”. He meant to indicate by this contemporary Christianity, and his remark was offered as a commonplace — that is to say, as unexceptionable, and certain to receive ready acknowledgment from his TLS readers. And yet to many, myself included, the statement came as a surprise. 

So far from rehearsing a piece of received wisdom, banally true and beyond challenge, Hobson’s statement seemed utterly out of touch with the experience not just of the generality of British Jews but also of many non-Jews of good will sensitive to the relatively high levels of anti-Semitism in the culture generally. Were Hobson to be correct, the distinguished intellectual historian Gertrude Himmelfarb would be among those who would welcome his judgment; but it is much more likely that she would regard it with some scepticism. In the preface to The People of the Book, she writes of the ominous resurgence of anti-Semitism in England. 

Himmelfarb generously cites my opinion, expressed in my own recent work, Trials of the Diaspora (2010), that English philo-Semitism is a “past glory”. By this I mean that philo-Semitism, as an aspect of English public discourse, did not survive the passing of the 20th century. It continues to exist in private spaces, of course; it continues to be expounded, in more or less eccentric versions, in marginal public spaces. But as a living tradition, informed by an appreciation of Jewish history and culture, and a sentiment of regard for Jews and their interests and concerns, it is no more. 

I do not take Himmelfarb to dissent from this analysis. She seeks instead to elaborate upon it, writing up the principal moments of English philo-Semitism’s history. These she traces from Oliver Cromwell through to Winston Churchill-that is, from 17th-century readmission advocates to 20th-century Anglo-Zionists or “philo-Zionists”. Such an undertaking does not require, she believes, an examination of “all the species of philo-Semitism, in all their manifestations and complexities.” What is needed instead, she implies, is essentially a series of portraits of worthy men and women, whose example may be followed, making due allowance for present circumstances. Himmelfarb thus has an expressly political object. She wishes to revive something that once flourished, and it is hard to do this while at the same time conceding too many “anomalies and ambivalences”, as she terms the often somewhat less than straightforwardly positive accounts of Jews given by her philo-Semites. She is too scrupulous a writer, however, to overlook them altogether. 

Himmelfarb passes from the question of the readmission of the Jews to England to the question of the admission of Jews to Parliament, and then moves forward to an account of that great swelling of public sentiment in favour of a Jewish homeland. No ready apologist for anything that might merely pass as philo-Semitic, Himmelfarb is alive to the criticism made of Anglo-Zionists that they sought a place for Jews anywhere other than in England itself. She finds the earliest intimation of this sentiment in the utopianism of the mid-17th political theorist, Richard Harrington. His Oceania excludes Jews, settling them instead in the inferior or “degenerate” island of Panopea. 

There is much of interest in The People of the Book, though I for one would have been happy to be spared the plot summaries of Maria Edgeworth’s Harrington, Scott’s Ivanhoe, Disraeli’s Tancred, and George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, all instances, writes Himmelfarb, of the genre of the philo-Semitic novel. I would have preferred her instead to have considered more fully the character of philo-Semitism as a general stance or orientation. Identifying all its iterations, across the generations of philoSemites from Keti’ah bar Shalom of Talmudic times to Julie Burchill of our own times, would no doubt be the scholarly labour of a lifetime. But a summary definition, with some glossing, would not be anything like so burdensome and would have assisted this reader, at any rate, in reaching a judgment on the contributions made by the various individuals celebrated in Himmelfarb’s book. 

The ideal philo-Semite may be defined as a person who is both learned in Jewish culture and resolute in the Jews’ defence. This “learning” will have an aspirational element — how could it not, since it does for Jews too? It may consist in knowing the truth about an aspect of Jewish history or culture, and then being ready to state that truth in hostile contexts. It will be more, however, than a banal regard for the Jewish commitment to education; it will certainly not be a sinister regard for Jewish power. (In my experience people well-disposed towards Jews tend to overrate our commitment to education almost to the same degree that those people ill-disposed towards us overrate our power.) 

I suspect that what Jews most need now are not more philo-Semites, though they are always welcome, but more anti-antiSemites, that is, people ready to name and face down those contemporary forms of Jew-hatred that exploit or otherwise misappropriate liberal and leftist values. Denis McShane MP is one such exemplary anti-anti-Semite and it is a pity that Himmelfarb’s survey did not extend to his work, and the work of the Parliamentary Committee against Anti-Semitism, so intelligently and resourcefully led by John Mann MP. She might have found there further reason to be hopeful, as well as a reason to dissent, if only in part, from my own judgment on the present state of English opinion on the subject of that Jewish project of collective political self-rule, the Jewish State.