Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England
By Anthony Julius
(Oxford University Press, 811 pp., $45)
Anthony Julius begins his magisterial and definitive history of a thousand years of anti-Semitism in England with an anecdote from his childhood. He is riding on a train to the English Midlands with his father, who is in conversation with “Arthur,” a non-Jewish business associate. Arthur, keen to ingratiate himself with his companion, remarks that his daughter recently had a little Jewish girl over to their house for tea. “I must say,” Arthur adds, beaming, “the child has got the most beautiful manners.”
Julius recalls that, even at the age of ten or eleven, he had a “sense of the temperature in the compartment rising.” His father says nothing, refusing to confront Arthur over his remark. It is clear that fear plays no part in this decision. Julius père does not lack courage. “It had instead something to do with an unwillingness to condescend to being offended, a refusal to acknowledge the hurt caused by the insult implicit in Arthur’s remarks—that it is always noteworthy when Jews behave well.”
It may seem an odd starting point for a book that is, for the bulk of its eight-hundred-odd pages (including two hundred pages of footnotes), rigorously scholarly rather than personal. But it is fitting. Everything about that early encounter is English: the cramped train compartment, the embarrassment, the stuffiness, what is unsaid signifying more than what is said. And the subject at hand—English anti-Semitism—often operates in the nebulous, subtle, implicit register typified by Arthur’s remark. Indeed, Julius devotes an entire chapter to the “mentality of modern English anti-Semitism,” to the slippery, subcutaneous prejudices and assumptions, the slights and the snubs, that have informed centuries of English social life.
But the memory of that train journey with “Arthur”—a name that centuries ago stood as the very acme of Englishness—lingers over the entire book for a less direct reason. The clue lies in the prose of Anthony Julius, a London-based polymath who made his name twice over—as the literary critic who deconstructed the anti-Semitism of T.S. Eliot, and then, to a much wider public, as the lawyer who represented Princess Diana in her divorce from the heir to the English throne. That prose is cool and precise, never anything but fully in control of the extraordinary breadth of material under review—from medieval church history to the rantings of the early twenty-first-century blogosphere, with Chaucer, Donne, both Eliots, and many other figures along the way. The episode on the train almost has one wondering if this is an author determined to prove that a Jew can write on English history as soberly and thoroughly as any Englishman—with, as it were, the most beautiful manners. But the coolness of Julius’s prose suggests something more, too: a man, like his father, unwilling “to condescend to being offended.”
Accordingly, Julius digs up and holds to the light a litany of murderous crimes committed against the Jews and then, in later centuries, one vicious quotation after another, discussing the evidence he has exhumed in a tone of bemused detachment rather than righteous fury. He serves up, for example, a choice passage from J.B. Priestley, one rich in the hoariest stereotypes, before merely and drily noting that “Priestley’s concessions to everyday anti-Semitic sentiment might surprise contemporary readers.” Perhaps that is the voice that a fine legal training inculcates. But one suspects it is also the voice of a man who learned long ago to be anything but the angry Jew.
The result is a meticulous taxonomy of prejudice, written as if with a pair of surgical gloves, the better to handle a particularly revolting set of specimens. “All versions of anti-Semitism libel Jews. These libels may be grouped under three headings: the blood libel ... the conspiracy libel ... the economic libel.” A series of distinctions between categories, so fine they might border on the legalistic, follows. The chapter on the mentality of modern anti-Semitism describes four types of English anti-Semitic intellectual: A, B, C, and D. Category B further subdivides into categories B1 and B2.
Not that Julius fails to supply many an arresting, plain-spoken sentence. Several passages of argument culminate in a line memorable and true—indeed, memorable because true. Thus he denies anti-Semitism the status of an ideology, maintaining that it merely allows lumpen-thinkers to barge into intellectual debates that are beyond them: “Anti-Semitism has a place in the history of ideas only in the sense that a burglar has a place in a house.” In a similar vein, Julius offers this on “the new anti-Zionism”: “It inhabits those grooves along which received thought—and non-thought—moves. It is, so to speak, the spontaneous philosophy of ... those who do not philosophize, and the spontaneous history of many of those who know no history.” He is particularly scathing about the more extreme Jewish critic of Zionism, upending one of the more clichéd insults often hurled in their direction: “The Jewish anti-Zionist scourge is not a self-hater; he is enfolded in self-admiration. He is in step with the best opinion.”
For all the Englishness of its style, Julius is adamant that his is not a parochial study, a book of interest only to the English. (It is not a history of British anti-Semitism: Scottish and Welsh Jew-haters will have to wait for their place in the annals.) He insists that England is key to the history of antiSemitism itself—that England was both a pioneer and an innovator in the business of anti-Jewish loathing. England’s ejection of the Jews in 1290 was “the first national, enduring expulsion of an entire Jewish population in history.” When the twelfth-century death of the boy who was later known as Saint William of Norwich was blamed on local Jews, it became the first recorded instance of the blood libel anywhere, the first documented occasion on which the Jews faced the defamatory accusation that they ritually murdered gentiles, usually for the sake of extracting and using their blood, usually for sacramental purposes.
Thanks to Chaucer’s “Prioress’s Tale”—itself a blood libel story—and The Merchant of Venice and Oliver Twist, England can also claim, in Julius’s account, to have bequeathed literary anti-Semitism to the world. In the seventeenth century, William Prynne, a “Puritan polemicist of unusual passion and thoroughness,” authored the first extended essay in anti-Semitic invective, the first largely secular anti-Jewish tract, as opposed to a Christian attack on Judaism. And the English innovatory habit has persisted into our own time, Julius adds: when it comes to anti-Zionism with an anti-Semitic hue, “England [again] arrived first.” (But Julius is no jingoistic Little Englander. He concedes that “race-conspiracy antiSemitism” originated on the Continent and came to England as a European import. He does not claim credit for his country where credit is not due.)
Perhaps the most striking aspect of this history is its longevity. The Cambridge-educated Robert S. Wistrich conferred on anti-Semitism the honor of being “the longest hatred,” and England makes good on that claim. This is an enmity that has brewed for ten centuries, sometimes manifesting in bloody pogroms—as at York in 1190—and sometimes in mere lip-curling disdain, as when Julius himself was described in a profile in the Telegraph, following the settlement of the Diana-Charles divorce in 1996, in this way: “He is a Jewish intellectual and Labour supporter, and less likely to feel restrained by 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.’” (The newspaper later ran an apology for the item.)
Constantly evolving, adapting to the times, anti-Semitism appears to be one of England’s most resilient cultural and social constants. Stick an arbitrary pin at any point in a timeline of English history and hatred of the Jews will be there. If the middle of the eighteenth century takes your fancy, you will find the “Jew Bill,” the Jewish Naturalization Act of 1753, designed to allow foreign-born Jews the same right accorded to non-Jewish aliens, namely the right to buy their own naturalization as British subjects. This sparked fierce resistance. Julius records that “at political dinners, anti-Jew-Bill hostesses served pork and ham and other ‘anti-Judaic food’; women took to wearing crosses or ribbons with inscriptions, advertising their opposition to the bill.” The clergy sided with the merchant class to oppose the legislation, which passed only to be repealed under the pressure of public opinion in the very same year.
Almost no one is exempt in this account. Julius has evidence to damn nearly every public figure or faction from every epoch. We shall return to Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Dickens; but Julius’s charge sheet applies also to Thomas Carlyle, William Cobbett, W.E. Gladstone, Bertrand Russell, Queen Victoria, Ernest Bevin, and George Orwell, to name just a few. Take any one of those names, as if at random: “In the work of William Cobbett,” still esteemed as a great radical in Britain, “Jew-hatred is everywhere,” Julius writes. Cobbett described Jews as a people “living in all the filthiness of usury and increase,” and as “extortioners by habit and almost instinct.” In Parliament, Cobbett challenged a fellow member to “produce a Jew who ever dug, or who ever made his own coat or his own shoes, or who did anything at all, except get all the money he could from the pockets of the people.” In Rural Rides, in 1830, the Jews, Julius reports, have “hook-noses and round eyes,” the Jewesses are characterized by their “long and sooty necks.” And yet Cobbett is taught in British schools—or was taught in mine—as an admirable figure, a pamphleteer and a reformer who championed the poor. His anti-Semitism, so vigorous and ubiquitous, was simply invisible.
Many of Julius’s examples emanate from what we would now regard as the political right. The attacks on Benjamin Disraeli are jaw-dropping. Though baptized as an Anglican in what should have been his bar mitzvah year, the man who became a Conservative prime minister in 1868 was never seen as anything but a Jew:
In the manner of anti-Semitic discourse, the abuse was both inventive and stale. Disraeli was a “lump of dirt,” a “Fagin.” He was “Judas,” “Jewish Dizzy,” the “Jewish Chief,” “Sir Benjamin de Judah,” and “Chief Rabbi Benjamin.” He was “a very Hebrew of Hebrews,” the “Jew Earl, Philo-Turkish Jew and Jew Premier” and the “traitorous Jew,” the “haughty Jew,” and the “abominable Jew.” He was a leader of the “Turkophile party,” its “most rabid element” consisting of “the race of Shylock.” He was the premier of a “Jew government.” He was a wizard, a conjurer, a magician, an alchemist. He was a “man of the East,” an “Asiatic.” “For the past six years we have had an Asiatic ruler.” He was a “wandering Jew,” “sprung from a race of migratory Jews.” He was “born in a foreign country [i.e. England],” and raised “amid a people for whose ideas and habits he has no sympathy and little respect.” He was a “sham Christian and a sham Englishman.”... Most cartoons gave him an immense nose and curly black hair; he was represented as Shylock (“our modern Shylock”); many related him to the Devil (“the most authentic incarnation of the Evil One”); two represented him in the act of ritually murdering the infant Britannia, and in one of these Gladstone is the distressed mother, arriving perhaps too late to save her child. And there was a note sounded for the first time, but to be repeated many times thereafter: the Jews want war, against the national interest.
There are several things to note here. First, the historic irony that among the accusations leveled at Disraeli was that, as a Jew, he would naturally sympathize with the Muslim Turks against the Christian minority in the crumbling Ottoman Empire: few critics of the Jews today assume a natural affinity between them and the world’s Muslims. Second, the litany of abuse that came Disraeli’s way liberally picked from the storehouse of hostile imagery and associations that had accrued over the centuries about Jews. “It was as if all the anti-Semitic discourse in general circulation in the culture was drawn in that time towards this one man,” Julius writes. This is one of his book’s strongest themes: antiSemitic iconography never dies, it just fades away—only to be picked up again, sometimes many years later.
And third, while much of the anti-Disraeli hostility came from his own side—High Tories who regarded their leader as an arriviste usurper—it was reinforced from the left. The socialist William Morris, like Cobbett still revered, condemned Disraeli as the “clever trickster.” In the 1930s, the Labour politician Hugh Dalton could call his party colleague Harold Laski “an undersized Semite” (while British officials referred to him as a “snivelling Hebrew”). As Julius’s later chapters on radical anti-Zionism demonstrate, “the Jews want war” is a trope that has made its home on the left.
Julius wades through all this muck doggedly. He says that writing the book was “like swimming long-distance through a sewer.” The historical chapters can feel relentless, a plod through centuries of ugliness and stupidity. Relief comes from the unexpected nugget. Not many general readers will have known that, in the middle of the war, the Nazis took the time to enact a law that banned Jews from using their professional titles when dealing with German officials. Or that Pope Pius X engaged with Theodor Herzl directly to reject Zionism on theological grounds: “The Jews have not recognized our Lord, therefore we cannot recognize the Jewish people, and its aspiration to a national existence.”
Further leavening of what might otherwise be an indigestible digest of England’s anti-Semitic past and present comes from regular flashes of keen insight. The man who is convinced of Jewish omnipotence and culpability for everything wrong in the world cannot be deterred, Julius rightly notes, by mere empirical evidence. “The repeated Jewish failure to protect Jewish life in modern times (say, from the collapse of efforts on behalf of Romanian Jewry in the late 1870s, to the feebleness of efforts on behalf of European Jewry in World War II), let alone any less fundamental interests, does not faze such a person. He is convinced that ‘Jewish power’ is ruthless, self-seeking, and indomitable.” The logic here is simple but potent, analogous to the atheist’s case against God: if the Jews are all-powerful, how come they suffer so much?
Julius dismisses with similar dispatch the regular cry of the anti-Semite that he only wishes to exclude or otherwise to discriminate against the Jews to save them from the inevitable surge in anti-Semitism that would result were they to be admitted or allowed to live on an equal footing. He cites the postwar British immigration policy that recruited Eastern Europeans from displaced persons camps, including many who had fought alongside the Nazis and committed war crimes—but actively excluded Jews. “The reason given was fear of stimulating anti-Semitism,” Julius acidly remarks. “The assumption that the very presence of Jews causes Jew-hatred is itself anti-Semitic—it amounts to nothing other than the proposition, ‘to know the Jews is to hate them.’”
Such wisdom makes the wade through the sewer bearable. But it is when Julius is able to break free from the chronological that his book really takes flight. The chapter on English literary anti-Semitism is a tour de force that stands up well as an essay in its own right. Here Julius makes several powerful arguments. He contends that the Jew-hatred of letters flourishes even when—or perhaps particularly when—the Jew-hatred of action is on the wane. Pogroms and anti-Semitic political parties are thin on the ground in England precisely when anti-Semitic poems, plays, and novels are in abundance. “It is an error,” he writes, “to suppose that a culture that energetically persecutes fictional Jews will always be ready to persecute real Jews too.” In England’s case, this process is helped along by the literal—as opposed to the literary—absence of Jews, in the period between the expulsion of 1290 and their readmission under Cromwell in 1656. Chaucer tells his “Prioress’s Tale,” and Shakespeare creates his Shylock, when there are no Jews around to challenge fiction with reality. In those centuries England served as an object lesson in the possibility, proved again in our own time in Japan or Malaysia, of anti-Semitism without Jews.
It is in the literary sphere, Julius maintains, that England has played an exceptional role in the development of anti-Semitism. He argues that most anti-Semitic writing is execrable, but the few works of quality which exist—and which therefore “challenge the self-respect of Jewish readers and spectators”—are to be found in the English canon. And canon is exactly the right word, since the key offenders here are Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Dickens.
The “Prioress’s Tale,” The Merchant of Venice, and Oliver Twist are all re-tellings of the core blood libel myth, with its central motif of a Christian innocent falling victim to a bloodthirsty Jew. In the Chaucer story, just two hundred lines long, there is next to nothing but the kidnapping and the murder of a Christian child. The later narratives are richer and more complex, but the heart of the story is the same: Shylock demands his pound of Christian flesh; Fagin preys upon the young, blameless Oliver. Julius makes a convincing case that, partly because of the enduring power of these three works, the blood libel is the master trope of anti-Semitism, especially but not only in its English form.
The evidence comes by following the blood libel’s trail through centuries of English literature, all the way into the present. Du Maurier’s Svengali is a Jewish sorcerer preying on a pure Christian girl. Trollope’s apparently Jewish Melmotte in The Way We Live Now is said to be “fed with the blood of widows and children.” In The Prime Minister, the Jew Lopez is a “swarthy son of Judah,” “Jew-boy,” “greasy Jew adventurer out of the gutter” with a “bright eye, a hook nose and a glib tongue,” whose own (gentile) wife comes to see him as “thirsting for blood.” Graham Greene based Brighton Rock on an actual razor attack on a Jewish bookmaker at a race course, re-writing it to become a razor attack by a Jewish gang on the Roman Catholic Pinkie.
“The blood libel,” Julius concludes, “is the largely unnoticed, master theme of this discourse, its ‘ur-story.’” And the arrival of this bloody trail in the present culminates in one of the book’s most devastating passages, in which Julius marshals his skills as both a lawyer and a critic—mastering both the forensic and the aesthetic, as he might put it—to arraign Tom Paulin, the author of a poem called “Killed in Crossfire” that was published in the Observer in London at the height of the second intifada. The occasion of the poem was the death of the young Muhammad Al Dura, allegedly at the hands of Israeli soldiers at the Netzarim Junction in Gaza:
We’re fed this inert
this lying phrase
like comfort food
as another little Palestinian boy
in trainers and a white teeshirt
is gunned down by the Zionist SS
whose initials we should
—but we don’t—dumb goys—
clock in the weasel word crossfire.
Julius deconstructs each line painstakingly, demonstrating it to be a text dripping in anti-Jewish language and imagery. Consider the phrase “dumb goys.” It is already clear from “Zionist SS” that Paulin’s target is not the IDF alone, for all Zionists are implicated. But “goys” widens the target still further, declaring that it is Jews in general that Paulin has in his sights. “Goys”—not the proper Hebrew plural goyim—is a word used “by diaspora Jews, as reported by anti-Semites.” Moreover, “it reprises the anti-Semitic trope that Jews privately view gentiles with contempt. The disparagement of ‘goyim’ is a central trope in the Protocols [of the Elders of Zion]: The goyim are a flock of sheep and we are their wolves.”
Above all, Julius shows, “Killed in Crossfire” pays copious allusory homage to the blood libel. Chaucer’s Prioress also referred to the Jews’ victim as “little,” as did the tale of “Little Sir Hugh” of Lincoln. Once again perfidious Jews are bent on killing gentile children: note the “another” in the fourth line. Not to mention the clumsy equation of Jews and Nazis, itself now a routine trope. By the time Julius is done, Paulin’s squib of a poem reeks of the author’s verdict on it: “The most vulgar anti-Semitism speaks in ‘Crossfire.’”
But if Julius can drill deep, he can also range wide. The shocking feature of the chapter on literary anti-Semitism is that it echoes those on English history: everyone who is anyone is in it. We knew about T.S. Eliot and Pound—the latter, ahead of Paulin, wrote in The Pisan Cantos that “the goyim are cattle”—along with, say, Evelyn Waugh. But Julius reveals that the writer, major or minor, untainted by Jew-hatred was the exception, the one infected by anti-Semitism the norm.
So H.G. Wells, though ready to exonerate and to defend the Jews in some places, elsewhere blames them and their separatist habit for their history of persecution: Judaism is an “aggressive and vindictive conspiracy.” During a Bloomsbury gathering, a question is asked of everyone present, and Virginia Woolf points to her husband, Leonard, and says loudly: “Let the Jew answer.” In The Thirty-Nine Steps, a book still considered suitable for a school reading list during my own boyhood in England in the late 1970s, John Buchan’s hero is warned against the “Jew-anarchists” and “capitalists who rake in the shekels.” In charge of this global conspiracy is “a little white-faced Jew in a bath-chair with an eye like a rattlesnake.” This is “the man who is ruling the world just now.” Even the record of that secular saint, George Orwell, is not clean. Sure, he denounced conspiracy talk as Nazi-like, but he was not above describing Zionists as “a bunch of Wardour Street Jews who have a controlling influence over the British press.”
After World War II, and as the facts of the Holocaust became known, such casual anti-Semitism became embarrassing to those who had been guilty of it. When Graham Greene was asked why the word “Jew” had been removed from later editions of Brighton Rock and Stamboul Train, he explained that “after the Holocaust one couldn’t use the word Jew in the loose way one used it before the war ... the casual references to Jews [are] a sign of those times when one regarded the word Jew as almost a synonym for capitalist.” But a question remains: had Greene and those like him ceased to regard Jew as a synonym for a variety of real and imagined evils—or had they simply ceased to say so out loud? Did those attitudes persist, even if they were no longer the sort of thing one could say in public? And if they did persist, where exactly did they go?
An answer of sorts is to be found in the final section of Trials of the Diaspora, its most valiant and controversial part, when Julius addresses contemporary anti-Zionism. It is the arguments made in these chapters of Julius’s book that dominated the British reviews of it, and certainly the handful that were hostile.
Even to include anti-Zionism in a study of anti-Semitism will look like a provocation to those who believe that the two are utterly distinct. There are discontinuities between modern antiZionism and ancient Jew-hatred, of course. Julius is quite aware that antiZionism “is adopted by people who profess deep hostility to anti-Semitism ... self-identified Jews are among its advocates, and ... it comes from the Left—indeed, has become part of the common sense among people of a broadly progressive temper.” But the points of connection outnumber the points of departure. Julius is clear that what he calls the “new anti-Zionism” deploys against the Jews collectively—in the form of the Jewish state—many of the “principal stratagems and tropes” that traditional anti-Semitism directed at the Jews as individuals.
Julius knows the fury that such a claim will provoke in his anti-Zionist opponents, whose self-perceived distance from anti-Semitism is essential to their own self-image as anti-racists. He knows, too, how quick they will be to deploy the counter-charge, that Zionists always cry anti-Semitism when Israel is under attack. But he presses on regardless. He hints at, but does not dwell on, the case that opposition to a Jewish state may be necessarily anti-Semitic, in that it makes an exception of the Jews, denying to them alone the right it would grant to almost all other peoples, including the Palestinians, namely a self-governed home of their own. Julius argues that much anti-Israel rhetoric fails this test of exceptionalism. If the scandal is not in the amount of attention paid to Israel and Palestine—much more than to almost any of the “approximately forty armed conflicts being fought in approximately thirty countries at present”—then it is in the vehemence, the partisanship, the “one-eyed refusal to find fault with any party other than Israel.”
Again, Julius does no more than hint at a necessary connection between antiZionism and anti-Semitism. He is a careful thinker. He states that “it would be a mistake in analysis to regard confrontations with Zionism and Israel as taking place between Jews and anti-Semites alone.” He allows that the Jews sometimes have “rational” enemies, those who “find themselves in conflict with a genuine Jewish project or stance”—and that the Palestinians might fall into precisely this category. “It is thus at least possible for anti-Zionists, and in particular Palestinian anti-Zionists, to be rational enemies of those Jews who constitute themselves as Israelis.” The key word here is “possible.” For while antiZionism might not logically entail anti-Semitism, Julius sets out to show that all too often the one shades into the other, even if only as a factual matter, a matter of contingency.
His method here is English—that is, empirical rather than theoretical. He shows in one case after another how the constant refrains of anti-Zionist discourse echo those of anti-Semitism’s earlier incarnations. This exercise relies for its power on the previous 450 pages of evidence that Julius has laid before us. By the time he comes to his discussion of anti-Zionism, we may hear for ourselves the resonances between then and now.
The blood libel is the most obvious example, an anti-Semitic constant that makes its reappearance in a piece of anti-Zionist agitprop such as Paulin’s ‘Crossfire’ poem or Caryl Churchill’s mini-play Seven Jewish Children, which, in Julius’s view, depicts Jews as liars who are ready to murder gentile children thanks to a genocidal ambition rooted in Judaism itself: “Tell her I look at one of their children covered in blood and what do I feel?... Tell her I wouldn’t care if we wiped them out.... Tell her I don’t care if the world hates us, tell us we’re better haters, tell her we’re chosen people.” When one reads that passage having read Julius’s centuries-old examples of anti-Semites lighting upon the Jews’ chosenness, one shudders.
He does similar work with the proposed academic boycott of Israeli scholars, a topic of repeated debate among Britain’s various academic trade unions, exposing the ugly lineage of the boycott idea. Most people know—or so one hopes—that one of the Nazis’ first moves was the boycott of Jewish shops and businesses. Julius goes back much further, recalling the role of the English Church in the thirteenth century, which also sought a boycott of Jews lest they contaminate good Christian souls. He even demonstrates a left-wing ancestry for the boycott tactic, noting that the French socialist Proudhon wanted to see Jews barred from all kinds of employment, their synagogues closed. “In the end it will be necessary,” Proudhon wrote, to “send this race back to Asia or exterminate it.” Julius wants today’s boycott advocates to know the historical company that they are keeping. “Every call to boycott Jews or the Jewish state,” he writes, “contains within it every previous such call. Anti-Semitism’s discursive history makes this unavoidable.... A boycott call can never be innocent.”
Few echoes are louder than the one emanated by the conspiracy trope. The set text remains The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a czarist forgery that was meant to read like a Jewish how-to manual for world domination. But the notion of a global conspiracy appears frequently in anti-Zionist discourse, too. Julius offers up examples both coarse and sophisticated. In the former category are sermons delivered by radical Islamist preachers, some of whom made their homes in London. “The people who are ruling the world unfortunately happen to be the Jews, who are the henchmen of the dajal [anti-Christ],” declared one Abdullah Al Faisal, who was jailed in 2003 for soliciting murder. In the latter category belong statements from Jenny Tonge, a member of the House of Lords for the Liberal Democrats (the junior partner in Britain’s current coalition government): “The pro-Israel lobby has got its grips on the Western world, its financial grips,” she declared in 2006. Anti-Zionists who lapse into conspiracy talk need to be aware of that theme’s provenance. A smiling Julius suggests that John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt were just so aware when they included in their essay on the “Israel Lobby”—which argued that a shadowy, malign force was in control of the world’s sole superpower—“the anxious disclaimer” that their thesis should not be read as an endorsement of the Protocols.
But surely it is different now, the anti-Zionist will cry. For one thing, there are plenty of Jews in their camp: surely such fellowship exonerates them from the charge of anti-Semitism. Not so fast, says Julius, detailing the long and melancholy history of Jews who have stood with anti-Semites against their own people, a line that stretches all the way back to medieval times when Jewish apostates could be produced to testify to the falsity of the Talmud or the barbarity of Jewish practices. The secret-spilling renegade is still venerated today. Julius quotes the leftist polemicist Tariq Ali’s lavish praise for an Israeli-born anti-Zionist who “had long abandoned Israeli patriotism, but he had been an insider and knew a great deal.”
What of the related distinction that some anti-Zionists make between “good” Jews—those who oppose Israel—and “bad” Jews, those who stand with it? Nothing new here, either. More than a century ago, as anti-alien agitation in Britain was at its peak, anti-immigration advocates were keen to separate themselves from the anti-Dreyfus hotheads in France. An unqualified anti-Semitism became something to be ashamed of; so anti-Semites began to insist they were not against Jews as such, they were just against this particular kind. “In due course, this became a reflex,” says Julius.
Wherever they turn, anti-Zionists will find history got there first. Some, like Caryl Churchill, might think that they have found something fresh in the observation that in Israel the onetime Jewish victim has become the Jewish perpetrator. Unfortunately for them, here is Julius with the text of a sermon preached by Herbert of Losinga, the bishop of Norwich, nearly a thousand years ago, and he, too ploughed the “persecuted Jews have become persecutors” furrow. Nor should those who claim they are exhibiting great courage—or risking “the wrath of Moses,” in the words of one British newspaper columnist—by criticizing the Jewish state believe they are displaying any great originality. Joseph Banister, an anti-Semitic fanatic who described Jews as “scrofula-laden blood” at the turn of the twentieth century, also complained that unless one praised the Jews, one risked “the grave charge of anti-Semitism, which brings down on [one’s] head the wrath of almost every daily journal in London.”
The cumulative effect of all this should be to give today’s anti-Zionists pause. They have a moral and intellectual obligation to check every conceptual and rhetorical path they are about to take and ask themselves who might have been here before. For the very scrupulous, it may mean a re-thinking of their entire approach, a decision to make their case only in a language uninfected by centuries of Jew-hatred and its tropes. That will not be easy. Julius suggests anti-Zionism has become as entangled with anti-Semitism as anti-communism once was: “It is as difficult for today’s anti-Zionist to evade anti-Semitism as it was for the anti-Bolshevist of ninety years ago.” But the work is surely necessary. Otherwise today’s opponents of Israel risk hurling at contemporary Jews the accusations that anti-Semites once threw at earlier Jewish generations, that they are “bloodthirsty child-killers, global conspirators and the enemies of humanity.” That’s a description that no act of Israeli policy, no matter how misguided or brutal some have been, can justify.
Yet the burden is not all on one side. There is a gap in Julius’s argument, one that reveals the work that has to be done by defenders of Israel. Just as many anti-Zionists need to reformulate the objections they make about Israel, shedding all and any anti-Semitic resonances, so many Jews need to find a way to hear rational and normal political objections to Israeli conduct without drowning them out in loud echoes of the Jewish past. Such a process would start with the acknowledgment that there is an essential difference between the current era and the two millennia that preceded it: namely, the shift from Jewish powerlessness to Jewish power, in the form of the state of Israel. That is a massive and qualitative change, rendering some echoes and analogies deceptive. Claims that were made about medieval Jews, living as a despised and tiny minority in England, cannot straightforwardly be weighed alongside claims about Jews living as a sovereign majority in their own state. They are not the same.
Julius cites a speech by Karl Lueger, the anti-Semitic mayor of Vienna at the close of the nineteenth century, to show how the substitution of a few key words moves it close to the typical discourse of the new anti-Zionism. “We object to Christians being oppressed,” in Lueger’s text, becomes “we object to Palestinians being oppressed” in Julius’s hypothetical modern-day version. But there is a huge difference here. Lueger’s claim was absurd. Austria’s Jewish minority were not oppressing the Christians; if anything it was, and would prove to be, the other way around, not least owing to Lueger’s own efforts. But that is not the situation in Israel today. For forty-three years Israel has been the military ruler of the Palestinians in the West Bank; and as Julius himself concedes in a damning passage on the occupation, Israeli rule has often been oppressive. The similarity of language between an anti-Semitic statement in 1900 and an anti-Zionist one today is important, but does not always settle the matter: what was illegitimate then might, in some very specific cases, have a different meaning now.
In other words, the terrible history of defamation against the Jews must not be a block to criticism of Israel acting as a normal state judged by normal standards. Otherwise one is telling journalists that they cannot report on the deaths of children caused by the Israel Defense Forces because they risk an echo of the blood libel, or that commentators cannot accuse AIPAC of flexing its muscle in a bullying fashion because of the resonance with conspiracy talk. (Which is not to say that resonance with conspiracy talk never crosses the line to become actual conspiracy talk. After all, there are plenty of lobbies in Washington, many of whom engage in bullying both light and heavy, a fact often overlooked by those who single out AIPAC as if it were sui generis.) The solution is for critics of Israel to remember their history and to frame their criticisms without recourse to those hoary, ugly tropes; and for the Jewish state’s defenders to appreciate the shift that Jews have made from impotence to potency and to appreciate the change that this, the Zionist revolution, entails.
Julius’s exploration of this vexed area is insufficient. The role that Israel’s own conduct might in some cases play in creating hostility to Israel is addressed in a mere parenthesis, and then waved aside. Nor does he probe deeply enough into the question of how this long history actually influences those speaking and writing today, how centuries of English anti-Semitism inform those who may not consciously be aware of it. Does it simply sit deep in the soil of English culture, subliminally affecting those who may not have read the “Prioress’s Tale” or Trilby but have somehow absorbed its message?
This question matters not least because those who are accused of deploying anti-Semitic language or imagery often offer a defense of ignorance. This was certainly the case when the New Statesman published a story on Britain’s proIsrael lobby, headlined: “A Kosher Conspiracy?” The magazine’s editor insisted its cover image—a brassy star of David, its lowest point piercing a small and supine Union Jack—had “unwittingly” used iconography with anti-Semitic overtones. Such laziness is of course unforgivable; but it would be interesting to know what Julius thinks went through the mind of the New Statesman’s graphic designer as his cursor hovered over the color palette on his Apple Mac before choosing a shiny gold for the Star of David. Was this centuries of prejudice at work, transmitted almost unconsciously? Julius writes of the “buried force” of certain words and images, and of course he is right. But how exactly does this force rise from its grave?
My own experience of anti-Semitism in England has been infrequent, vague, and incidental. The most recent episode I recall occurred nearly seven years ago, when a realtor showing my wife and me around a house remarked that “the owner’s Jewish, so he’ll squeal a bit—but I think we could get the price down.” And yet I see Britain reflected abroad as Londonistan, a hotbed of Islamist extremism, a “hub,” according to Israel’s Reut Institute, of the increasing “delegitimization” of the Jewish state. Shimon Peres recently suggested that “there is in England a saying that an anti-Semite is someone who hates the Jews more than is necessary.” I must say it rarely feels like that. But this is not a matter that can be settled anecdotally, not in the face of all the evidence marshaled in Trials of the Diaspora, which confirms that this darkness remains an element of the culture.
There is, moreover, a sense that the ground is shifting, that what Anthony Julius calls the “quotidian anti-Semitism of insult and partial exclusion” that characterized the period from the re-admission in the 1650s until the late twentieth century is giving way to something new. He has put his finger on much of it, and also shown a way forward: those who want to defend the Palestinians and stand against Israel need to acquaint themselves with a long and bitter history of anti-Jewish loathing, in word and in deed, that has scarred English history and culture—and then work to free themselves of it or be morally tainted by it. Reading this learned and admirable and powerful book is the place to start.
Jonathan Freedland is an editorial-page columnist for The Guardian and a monthly contributor to the Jewish Chronicle. He is the author of Jacob’s Gift (Hamish Hamilton).