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.

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.

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.”

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.