For the love of the Jews

Gertrude Himmelfarb’s new volume about ‘another aspect of Jewish experience’ in England counters the endless tomes documenting the philosophy of the country’s anti-Semites.

Winston Churchill statue 521 (photo credit: iStockphoto)
Winston Churchill statue 521
(photo credit: iStockphoto)
Jews who find a steady diet of books about the anti-Semitism of England’s learned classes more unpleasant than exploratory surgery will find a welcome antidote in Gertrude Himmelfarb’s scintillating and (mostly) optimistic historical essay, The People of the Book, about the counter-tradition she calls English “philosemitism.”
But that term, like “People of the Book” and “anti-Semitism,” is steeped in ambiguity, tainted in its origin and generally applied anachronistically.
The term “People of the Book” originated with Muhammad, and in the Koran, refers to Jews and Christians. It has pejorative overtones, as in “People of the Book! Why reject ye the Signs of Allah.”
Similarly “philosemitism” was originally pejorative; it was invented, like its opposite, anti-Semitism, by German Jewhaters.
They used it to disparage people they deemed “soft on the Jews.”
The term “anti-Semitism” itself was a pseudo-scientific euphemism for old-fashioned Jew-hatred, and is still invoked by devotees of the Arab cause: “How can I be called an anti-semite [spelled thus] when I support the Semites called Arabs?” The answer is that anti-Semites don’t hate “Semites”; they hate Jews.
Himmelfarb, without denying either the pioneering role of England’s anti- Semites (the inventors of the blood libel, the first to expel their country’s Jewish population) or their recent resurgence, tries to balance it with “another aspect of Jewish experience – the respect, even reverence, for Jews and Judaism displayed by non-Jews before and after the Holocaust.”
Most of the English writers and politicians she discusses converted both “People of the Book” and “philosemitism” into positive terms. As she uses the word, English philosemitism may take the form of love of Jews as “God’s ancient people,” or political toleration of them, or admiration and worship of the Hebrew Bible.
Some formidable enemies of the Jews have had far better Hebrew than their Jewish victims. John Milton – whose fluency in Hebrew, poetry infused with the Hebrew Bible, and commentaries on Tanach and Maimonides would seem to contradict Anthony Julius’s claim that England’s greatest writers have been her most flagrant anti-Semites – hated both Judaism and Jews. Only his employment by Oliver Cromwell kept him from publicly opposing his master’s decision to readmit Jews to England. He disparaged them as “Judaizing beasts,” arguing that “the existence of God is proved... by their dispersion... throughout the whole world… on account of their sins.”
Himmelfarb celebrates philosemites like philosopher John Locke, an advocate of toleration, and his friend Isaac Newton, who searched the Bible for evidence of “the restoration of the Jewish nation.”
Many appropriated the historical Jewish experience and brought it home, as poet William Blake would later write, to “England’s green and pleasant land.”
“Perhaps the highest compliment the English could pay the Jews,” she observes, “was to refer to their own country as ‘Israel’ and to their own people as ‘Israelites.’” (In 1968, former prime minister Harold Macmillan actually said that “the future I hope for Britain is... like that of Israel,” which had displayed in the Six Day War “what any great people need – resolution, courage, determination.”) The book’s outstanding examples of philosemitism’s mixture of blessing and curse are Victorians. Lord Shaftesbury (1801-1885) combined genuine love for Jews and Judaism with unswerving loyalty to a Christian England. He was “an Evangelical of the Evangelicals,” and felt deep, almost idolatrous reverence for Jews, to whom he bowed when passing on the streets of Germany. He aspired to be a modern Cyrus, restoring God’s people not merely to “Palestine” but to “Eretz Israel.” He coined the Zionist slogan: “There is a country without a nation; and God now, in His wisdom and mercy, directs us to a nation without a
However, he was a missionary not only for but to Jews, whom he aspired to convert to Christianity; and he opposed admitting them to Parliament or suspending, for their sake, the requirement that MPs pledge to serve “on the true faith of a Christian.”
England did eventually allow Jews into Parliament without that oath. Yet even today, as British Israel-haters fulminate against a Jewish state, England remains a Christian one, with an official Protestant church, a Protestant monarch, a Protestant educational system.
Should English Jews have spurned or welcomed Shaftesbury’s support? Would they have been better off under atheist regimes? More to the point: Should Israeli and American Jews welcome the support of Shaftesbury’s spiritual descendants, or be frightened by it? Former prime minister Menachem Begin, asked this question, had no hesitation about answering: “Look, when the Messiah comes, we will simply ask him: ‘Have you been here before?’” THE BOOK’S only Jewish philosemite is former British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli. Unwillingly converted at his father’s command to the Church of England before his bar mitzva, his ideas of Jewishness were rarely hindered by actual knowledge of the subject. Yet these ideas permeated both his novels and his parliamentary speeches.
His chief idea was a bizarre mixture of sense and (mostly) nonsense called “racial Judaism.” Still, there was something genuine and honorable in his Jewish imaginings.
He often alluded to “the days of political justice when Jerusalem belonged to the Jews,” predicting those days would return because the Jews in exile diligently pretended they were still living in their ancient homeland. Watching Jews in Whitechapel or another “icy clime” preparing each year to live for a week in their succot, he concluded: “The vineyards of Israel have ceased to exist, but the eternal law enjoins the children of Israel still to celebrate the vintage. A race that persists in celebrating their vintage, although they have no fruits to gather, will regain their vineyards.”
Himmelfarb calls Disraeli “the quintessential philosemite” because he embodied Haim Hazaz’s witticism that when a man can no longer be a Jew, he becomes a Zionist. He deserves the street named after him in Jerusalem.
In modern times, the most important British philosemites were prime minister David Lloyd George, his foreign secretary Arthur Balfour, and Winston Churchill.
Lloyd George, as a child, was immersed “in the history of the Hebrews.” Balfour, author of the 1917 endorsement of “a national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine, was a product of “the Old Testament training” that once permeated Scottish culture. Churchill was sui generis, a philosemite and a philo-Zionist without much religion but convinced of Disraeli’s dictum that “the Lord deals with the nations as the nations deal with the Jews.”
His great parliamentary speech of January 1949 urging laggard Britain to recognize Israel was the culminating moment of English philosemitism. The Jews’ creation of Israel just a few years after the Holocaust, said Churchill, was an event of biblical magnitude, worthy of the People of the Book: “The coming into being of a Jewish state in Palestine is an event in world history to be viewed in the perspective, not of a generation or a century, but in the perspective of a thousand, two thousand or even three thousand years...
an event in world history.”
Today’s England, unfortunately, has neither Churchills nor Macmillans.