Labeling the Problem

Anthony Julius has written the leading work of reference on English anti-Semitism. That is the strength – and the weakness – of his most recent study.

July 27, 2010 16:23
Caricature of English anti-Semitism

Engmen Carictre (do not publish again). (photo credit: Avi Katz)

“THIS IS MY SECOND book on the subject, and I intend it to be the last.”

This author’s sigh of relief at finishing his study of anti-Semitism in England, “Trials of the Diaspora”, was, unfortunately, only matched by this reader’s sigh of relief on reaching the last page of his text. A book of this sort, filled, as it must be, with mean-minded, vicious beliefs and with the mean-minded, vicious people who believe them, cannot be an easy read.
But I closed the book feeling that somewhere, somehow, an opportunity had been lost.

The ‘new’ anti-Semitism

The subject has been long overdue for thorough treatment. Now, with long dormant anti- Semitic tropes resurfacing under cover of anti- Israel sentiment, such a historical investigation has become a matter of urgency.

And London-based lawyer Anthony Julius is well placed to do the topic justice.

He was struck as an English Literature student at Cambridge University in the 1970s by the lack of scholarly interest in the anti- Semitism present in such canonical authors as Chaucer, Shakespeare and Dickens: He later authored a study of anti-Semitism in the work of the poet T.S. Eliot. In his legal capacity he represented the historian Deborah Lipstadt when she was sued for libel by the Holocaust denier David Irving.

His attack is two-pronged. His chronological approach to the history of anti- Semitism in English public and social life, including an account of the first Jewish communities in England and their expulsion in 1290, is supplemented by a close analysis of classic works of English literature written both during the period when there were no Jews, and after their return in the middle of the 17th century. And his treatment of the recent resurgence of sinister themes under the guise of pro-Palestinian and human rights rhetoric is both thorough and energetic.

All this is backed by unmistakably wideranging and painstaking research, and illuminated by a highly intelligent mind. His insights are frequently fascinating: He believes, rightly I think, that while English anti-Semitism takes for granted that Jews are far more intelligent than Gentiles, it also holds that character (which, almost by definition, an Englishman has while a Jew does not) trumps brains every time. Therefore the English anti-Semite has nothing to fear from Jews, and this lack of fear prevented the infiltration of more murderous ideologies.

The bad news, though, is that his approach is analytical to a fault. Typical of this is when he divides English anti-Semitic intellectuals into ‘types,’ from A through D, with type B further subdivided. Personally, I would be inclined to file the lot of them under B for bastard, but, even accepting that such an exercise is worthwhile, I found difficulties with the criteria Julius employs in categorizing this unpleasant group.

FOR EXAMPLE, THE ONLY difference between the author’s type A and type B is the cultural status or authority assigned to the anti-Semite involved: is he or she a major or minor figure? This is a difficult and subjective distinction to make (and Julius believes that there is no type A English figure anyway), which casts doubt on the validity of the exercise. He would have been better served by jettisoning this structure altogether, and letting the characters he is discussing shape his narrative and analysis.

Another problem is that Julius overwrites.

He is capable of writing pithy formulations that capture the reader’s attention: literary anti-Semitism is neatly summed up as “the inhumane inside the humanities.” He then buries these insights in copious verbiage which, while not badly written, adds little or nothing to the points he wishes to make.

Julius’s analysis of anti-Semitic and other literary texts are, generally, shrewd and interesting, but he deploys the terminology of academic literary criticism all too obtrusively. He never lets you forget that he studied English literature at Cambridge. His announcement that he tends towards “Russian Formalist” positions is guaranteed to discourage the casual reader. Even then, he occasionally goes wrong. He badly misreads Kipling’s later poem “The Waster” as anti-Semitic, suggesting that it relates “cleverness to unscrupulousness, and contrasts it with ‘character.’” On the contrary, the poem, readily accessible in full on the Internet (Julius merely reproduces the last stanza) is an attack on the “Primitive Cult” (in Kipling’s words), which inculcates the so-called virtues of “character” in the gentleman and disables its victims from competing in life.

There are other instances where undue significance is placed on various writings which admittedly openly vilify and ridicule Jews. Such writings belong to the vulgar “hook-nosed thick-lipped money-grubbing Semite” school of literature, yet the author persists in detecting blood libel themes in these works, usually unconvincingly.

The problem here lies, I think, in the way Julius sees anti-Semitism. At the heart of the phenomenon, for him, lies the blood libel: the two other anti-Semitic beliefs, the conspiratorial and the economic, are in some way subsidiary to it. Yet, even allowing for the author’s expansive definition of the blood libel as accusations that Jews entertain homicidal intentions towards non- Jews, I think that the underlying problem is the widespread disposition to believe the worst of Jews: this disposition is the tinder awaiting the spark of anti-Semitism. I have never seen a satisfactory explanation for why this disposition should exist in the first place, save that it seems to arise at the level of instinct rather than that of conscious thought.

In any case, anti-Semitism is a much more protean ideology than the author suggests, defying simplistic analysis. It also includes beliefs that the Jew destroys culture, is the vector of disease, and is forever restless and discontented with the order of things, to mention a few. And it has survived unremitting attempts down the centuries to debunk them: It will certainly survive this book, as Julius grimly accepts towards the end.

George Orwell, in his 1944 essay on anti-Semitism (cited in this book), took a livelier and more productive line. In his day, of course, the prevailing left-wing pieties were that the moral and intellectual cases for Zionism were unassailable and unquestionable: Orwell took issue with this. But he shrewdly noted that the English Left even then harbored anti-Semitic beliefs which, while muted by the then-prevailing political climate, had not lost their grip.

Orwell thought, with some justification, that anti-Semitism was bound up with wider phenomena, particularly the tendency of “believing that whole races or nations are mysteriously good or mysteriously evil,” which he maintained resulted from some kind of psychological deficiency. This type of explanation at least offers some hope, and by linking anti-Semitism to something outside itself, it makes it a wider human problem. However, it depends on the persons subject to it making a conscious decision to remove the hatred of Jews and others from their moral universe. This is not likely to happen any time soon.

I have been a little harsh on Julius: The book is so sprawling that it is hard to do justice to even a small part of what he writes. Certainly nobody could argue in the face of the evidence he has amassed that the English are somehow immune to anti-Jewish prejudice: Even if Hitler’s armies could not cross the English Channel, some of his beliefs were able to swim to the other shore. Yet the obverse side of the coin, that the English have hitherto escaped enslavement by the versions of anti-Semitism that ravaged the Continent, must also be accounted for. Julius does not ignore this, but I would have liked to have seen more on the topic.

But the book’s main value will be as the leading work of reference on English anti- Semitism. Like most reference books, it should not be read cover to cover.

Related Content