A Kind and Noble Bigot: Analyzing 850 Years of English Anti-Semitism

In divorce, as in marriage, Prince Charles and Princess Diana acted according to their wildly opposite natures.

For his divorce lawyer, Charles chose Fiona Shackleton, a prototypically establishment “old boy,” so to speak, with a long history of successful royal divorces to her credit. But Diana chose Anthony Julius, a prominent libel lawyer by vocation (by avocation a respected literary critic), his expertise most famously exercised in his successful defense of American writer Deborah Lipstadt, author of Denying the Holocaust, from defamation charges pressed by notorious Holocaust denier David Irving. Lipstadt had named him as such in her book.

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Julius had successfully acted for Diana in her standoffs with the paparazzi and had become a trusted advisor. (Julius warned her that this would be his first divorce case, but she brushed aside his concern, noting this would be her first divorce.)

Prince Charles’ sensible choice of Shackleton was praised in the press. But of Diana’s choice, on July 13, 1996, the Telegraph commented:

[Julius] is a Jewish intellectual and Labour supporter, and less likely to feel constrained by the considerations of fair play. “I’d be very worried if I were the Royal family,” says a Cambridge don who taught him. “He’ll get lots of money out of them.”

For this obvious expression of “genteel” anti-Semitism — Jews are pushy, Jews have no sense of fair play — the Telegraph was forced, or rather found it politic in view of the heavy wave of indignant feedback, to apologize. The newspaper had clearly gone a bit too far beyond a distinctly English Pale in targeted condescension — a line routinely skirted in the English media, but one no American journalist would have dreamed of even approaching in the first place.

This telling illustration of the kind of casual, reflexive anti-Semitism that flourishes in England is recounted in the introduction to Anthony Julius’ exhaustively researched (600 pages of text, 200 pages of footnotes) and sumptuously written new book, Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England.

Julius caps the anecdote with the admission that this was his first personal encounter with outright anti-Semitism. The addendum highlights the paradoxical nature of English anti-Semitism Trials expands upon and explains: anti-Semitism is everywhere in England, which makes it discomfiting to Jews, and yet such has been its non-ideological, non-vicious, and disorganized character, few Jews have been actually inconvenienced or substantively discriminated against on that account.

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The aim of his book is to “make distinctions between opponents of specific Jewish projects and enemies of Jews; between old and new kinds of anti-Semitism; between ignorance of anti-Semitism and anti-Semitism itself; and within instances of anti-Semitism, between the lesser and the greater. … Indeed, it attempts, in its grave ambition, to make sense of one aspect of 850 years of English history.”

And it succeeds in its ambition.

English anti-Semitism emerges as a kind of bad news, good news narrative in Julius’s telling. It has always existed, and was of a murderous kind in its medieval incarnation, but in the last few hundred years, as compared with modern historical anti-Semitism at its worst on the continent, Russia, and other parts of the globe, the English variety is an anti-Semitism of a fairly benign character:

[The] typical English anti-Semite does not see Jews in every hiding-place and under every disguise; he is not an obsessive; he is not at risk of being driven mad by his consciousness of Jews. Anti-Semitism is rarely burdensome to him.

Julius distinguishes two cultural factors working against a malevolent strain of anti-Semitism in England. The first is the lack of engagement with the subject of anti-Semitism by English intellectuals qua intellectuals. Active, purposeful hatred of Jews was just not on their radar screen: “Whom did England have to set against a Kant, a Hegel, and a Marx?”

There was no English equivalent, for example, of the influential French intellectual P. J. Prouhon, who said: “What the peoples of the middle ages hated by instinct, I hate upon reflection, and irrevocably.”

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The second cultural prophylactic was a national confidence robust enough to tolerate diversity in its polity long before it became fashionable elsewhere, as illustrated in a late 19th century Spectator article:

There is no need to be afraid of the Jews. They are clever and vigorous no doubt, but only a decadent race need be afraid of them. … The nation that cannot tolerate the Jews, and becomes deeply inspired by the anti-Semitic terror, is not the nation that will win. If we cannot resist the Jew without a resort to persecution, depend upon it we shall not long be fit to rank as an Imperial Power.

Up until recently, then, and still amongst Anglo-Saxon Englishmen, anti-Semitism could be described more as distrust of Jews than hatred: “Jew-wariness, accompanied by a certain disdain … is a story of snub and insult, sly whisper and innuendo.” In a nutshell, the words “Jewish gentleman” are never irony-free in England.

Jews in England, Julius says, “live with a continuous experience of constraint, one that makes them reluctant, for example, to test the limits of what they perceive as English tolerance.” An unspoken pact assures Jews they will be nominally welcome, as long as they know their place. For their part, “[each] Jew strives to earn the reputation enjoyed by all Jews: clever, resourceful, and commercially and forensically astute.”

Julius is both fascinated and repelled by the phenomenon of anti-Semitism (“[Anti-Semitism] is a kind of discursive swamp”). He makes the interesting point that until recently anti-Semitism did not attract any serious consideration by scholars because until the Holocaust nobody was ashamed of it. He himself was moved to write about it because: “The English Jew is what he is in part because of English anti-Semitism.”

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Julius’s children will be formed by quite another kind of anti-Semitism than the fairly lackadaisical sort that molded their father. Julius dissects the new anti-Semitism in its gossamer-thin veil of anti-Zionism that has been escalating in intensity in England since the 1970s. While Jewish organizations tend to react clumsily or with inappropriate self-effacement, the rising tide of overtly anti-Jewish rage by English Islamists and their leftist facilitators is clearly having a great impact on English Jews’ morale.

“All versions of anti-Semitism libel Jews,” says Julius, through three basic tropes: the blood libel, in which powerful Jews deliberately victimize non-Jews; the conspiracy libel, in which Jews control the media/banks/America/world; and the economic libel, in which brainy Jews make money at others’ expense. (All three are deployed in the most perverse — and perversely successful — of anti-Semitic libels, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.)

But the ancient blood libel is especially troublesome, because it arouses the kind of atavistic, hysterical fear amongst the ignorant that can, and does, lead to guilt-free incitement to collective hatred.

The best-known works of the three most revered writers in the English literary canon are predicated on the blood libel. In Chaucer’s The Prioress’s Tale, a young boy unknowingly offends Jews. They slit his throat and hide his body. The body is discovered and he becomes a martyr. In Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, Shylock demands his celebrated “pound of flesh.” Dickens’s Oliver Twist features Fagin, a repellent child predator of boundless wickedness.

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In each case, a Christian’s blood — of a child or a childlike innocent — is ritually shed or lusted after by rapacious, self-serving Jews. The trope of “children/Jews/danger” recurred continually but with diminished malignancy over the centuries. Fagin is repulsive, to be sure, but it is money, not blood, that he lusts after.

Ominously, the ancient blood libel has been taken up with scarifying malevolence by the new anti-Semites. Its latest cultural incarnation is Caryl Churchill’s 2009 blood-libel play Seven Jewish Children — a play for Gaza. Ironically, although purposeful anti-Semitism was not a preoccupation of English intellectuals, the anti-Israel boycott movement was conceived by and has become the driving obsession of mediocre English academics, a disproportionate number of whom are Jewish.

In an insightful analysis of old and new forms of Jewish traitors, Julius notes that in the past Bolshevik Jews like Trotsky were loyal to their ideological cause, but at least knew anti-Semitism when they saw it, and didn’t trade on their Jewishness to lend legitimacy to it.

But today’s anti-Zionist Jews exploit their Jewishness to savage Israel and provide cover to Islamists savaging Jews. It would be wrong to call them self-hating Jews, though. Anti-Zionist Jews see themselves through a righteous lens, as the moral conscience of the Jewish people, scourges like the prophets of old who are the only ones who can distinguish good from evil: “The anti-Zionist is not just a Jew; he is a better Jew … he restores Judaism’s good name; to be a good Jew one has to be an anti-Zionist.” As English boycott activist Jacqueline Rose put it, “I am with the Zeitgeist.”

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And what is the Zeitgeist in fact? According to Julius, it is “the received wisdom of those who do not think or know any history.”

The book ends on a profoundly pessimistic note. Anti-Semitism is not susceptible to reason today, Julius concludes, any more than it was for the anti-Bolsheviks 90 years ago. Leftists then claimed that Zionist Jews in alliance with Washington were the cause of global instability. Just as leftists and Islamists today insist it isn’t Jews they hate, it is Zionism, the Bolsheviks affirmed they only hated capitalists. Strangely enough, the capitalists just happened to be Jews.

Trials of the Diaspora is a richly informative and deeply pondered exploration of anti-Semitism, whose vast literary and historical grasp far exceeds its considerable reach. It was written by a true scholar and an equally true English gentleman. In America, happily, there is no irony attached.

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