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

Geoffrey Alderman finds much to commend in this vast account of anti-Jewish prejudice in England

April 29, 2010

Anti-Semitism as a concept evolved in 19th-century Germany; it was used, specifically, to describe opposition to the salience of Jews in German society. In 1880, the failed revolutionary Wilhelm Marr founded the League of Anti-Semites to combat the threat alleged to be posed by Jewish emancipation to German culture. Marr urged that Jews be expelled from Germany. There is clearly a malign thread that connects his league to the poisonous spread of anti-Jewish prejudice that resulted, ultimately, in Auschwitz. But as a proxy for all manner of irrational prejudices against Jews, anti-Semitism has a much longer history, which in the case of England can be traced virtually without a break from the blood libel accusations of the 12th century to the demands for an end to Jewish statehood that are a pivotal feature of 21st-century anti-Zionism.

This is the story that Anthony Julius has set out to tell. The book that he has written is vast - the text alone is almost 600 pages in length, with the endnotes occupying another 96. His treatment is both chronological and thematic, a balance that some may not find altogether satisfactory but which reflects the fact that Julius is a literary critic as well as a lawyer. The historical sections sometimes resemble narrative catalogues, in which example is heaped upon example with only modest contextualisation. The style is too often conversational rather than analytical. Within the narrative there are some surprising omissions. Granted, the author claims only to offer a history of anti-Jewish prejudice in England. Yet his treatment of the blood libel ranges widely, as it should, over its incidence throughout Europe and the Middle East. He ought to have found space to refer, at least in outline, to anti-Semitism in Wales, from, say, the "pogrom" (Winston Churchill's phrase) of August 1911 through the Nazism of Saunders Lewis to the shocking outburst of Plaid Cymru's first MP, the late Richard Gwynfor Evans, who in 1976 publicly accused the Jews of Wales of lacking sympathy for "the national aspirations of the Welsh people" - an accusation that was as untrue as it was mischievous.

But it would be unfair, and wrong, to allow these grumbles to cloud my respect for the volume as a whole. Julius has set down several markers against which all future discussion of anti-Jewish prejudice - not just in England or the UK - will need to be measured.

The first is that such prejudice has its origins in Christianity. Over the course of centuries, the English view of the Jew has largely been the Christian view of the Jew. It is a view that, although friendly and patronising at times, has been fundamentally hostile. The blood libel practically originated in England, where it was popularised by mad monks for malicious ends, and repopularised by Chaucer, Shakespeare and Dickens. The arguments Julius advances in support of the contention that The Merchant of Venice and Oliver Twist are reworkings of the blood libel are sombre and compelling.

The second is that contemporary anti-Zionism is nothing more than a fig leaf. You can legitimately criticise individual acts of individual governments of the Jewish state. But to call for its dismantling and destruction is inherently racist. And to see in the legal and legitimate activities of its UK supporters the undermining and corruption of British democracy is to dabble in precisely the kind of racism in which Marr and his disciples indulged.

The third is that the banner of the racism that is anti-Semitism has for some considerable time been carried highest by the Left in English politics. The disdain shown by Beatrice Webb for Jewish suffering ("I can't understand why the Jews make such a fuss over a few dozen of their people killed in Palestine," she lectured Chaim Weizmann after the 1929 Hebron massacre) found its echo in the contempt of Ernest Bevin for Holocaust survivors, and resonates today in the cynical mesalliance between the Left and Islamic fundamentalists.

And the fourth lies in the ingredients now being added by these fundamentalists and their apologists to this toxic brew. One result of this is that history is being rewritten as fiction. In my teaching of international politics, I am now having to disabuse my students of "facts" they have received, for example that UN Resolution 194 (1948) calls for a "right of return" for all Palestinians to Israel (it doesn't) and that UN Resolution 242 (1967) demands that Israel evacuate the West Bank (it doesn't).

Marketed as truths, such falsehoods serve only to delegitimise the Jewish state and thus to denigrate and defame the Jewish people. And that is what anti-Semitism is all about.

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

By Anthony Julius

Oxford University Press

880pp, £25.00

ISBN 9780199297054

Published 25 February 2010

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