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by Edward Alexander


Anthony Julius
Trials of the Diaspora:
A History of Antisemitism in England.

Oxford University Press
March 2010
Hardback. 889 pp.
ISBN-10: 0199297053
ISBN-13: 9780199297054
Video here.

In a famous letter of 1838 to his friend John Forster, Charles Dickens wrote that "the Jew" (Fagin), who dominates a novel named after a far less interesting character than himself, is "such an out and outer that I don't know what to make of him." At first the remark sounds odd: if the writer who made Fagin doesn't know "what to make of him," who should? But Dickens, in a very real sense, did not make Fagin, a character who emanates from historical myth and was dredged up by Dickens out of the English folk imagination, an archetypal figure — with hammering insistence he is called "the Jew" in the original (1837-39) edition of the novel — coming out of centuries of myth, hatred, and fear. Fagin, "a loathsome reptile" with red hair, is the descendant of Satan and Judas but also, especially for Dickens' English audience, of Shakespeare's Shylock, just as Shylock is the descendant of the "cursed Jew" in Chaucer's "Prioress' Tale." Oliver also descends directly from the seven-year old boy who in the Norwich blood libel makes the fatal error of singing a hymn in praise of the Virgin while walking through the Jewish ghetto, where his throat is cut and his body dumped in an open pit.

English antisemites, the subject of Anthony Julius' luminous and comprehensive history, have been fortunate in having the three pre-eminent authors of their country's literary canon also shine forth as the preeminent authors of England's literary antisemitic canon. It is an open secret that Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Dickens are the greatest writers in a great literary tradition and also its most potent promoters of antisemitism. This literary insight — and Julius, hitherto best-known not as the author of a book about T. S. Eliot but as the lawyer of Princess Diana in her divorce proceedings and of Deborah Lipstadt in her legal contest with David Irving, a typically English "liar-historian," is a literary critic of great insight and perfect pitch — is at the core of his book. Literature has the power not only to elevate and transform but to degrade and damage.

The dominant anti-Jewish libel in England has been the blood libel, permeating all literary genres and making England's literary antisemitism more abundant and flagrant than that of any other country. "The master-trope supposes a well-intentioned Christian placed in peril by a sinister Jew or Jews. The Christian is often a boy:...caught, the victim does not protest, and submits to the malevolent attentions of the Jew; if the victim escapes death, it is by a miracle; if he dies, the facts of the crime, and the location of his body, are revealed by a miracle; the Jew or Jews are often apprehended and punished.

Of the blood libel, one may say Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose. Still today drawing on the essential details of the ancient libel are England's "anti-Zionist" versions of the ancient hatred, such as the versified eruption of Oxford poetaster Tom Paulin about alleged child murder by Israeli soldiers and the ten-minute play by Caryl Churchill entitled Seven Jewish Children — A Play for Gaza (2009). In his critique of Paulin's 2001 poem, "Killed in Crossfire," about the (phony) story of the little Arab boy (Mohammed al-Dura) reported killed in Gaza by Israeli gunfire, Julius observes: "The most vulgar anti-Semitism speaks in 'Crossfire.' The poem has several specifically literary antisemitic resonances. In the theme of the killing of Gentile children by perfidious Jews, and the miraculous disclosure of these crimes, the poem alludes to 'Little Sir Hugh' and The Prioress' Tale." But whereas Dickens had no intent to harm Jews and so might plausibly have expressed puzzlement about "what to make of [Fagin]," Paulin vociferously urged that Jewish residents of Judea and Samaria "should be shot dead." (This policy recommendation quickly acquired the status of "legitimate criticism of Israeli policies" when controversy erupted over his appointment to visiting posts at Columbia and Harvard.)

Julius' insistence on the tenacity of the blood and also conspiracy and money libels from the middle ages into contemporary England and his stress upon the fact that England has never, during all these centuries, suffered culture-guilt for its persecution of Jews do not mean that he scants the difference between the England of the middle ages and the England of the nineteenth or twentieth centuries. He tells the story of how England became the last European country to receive and the first to expel the Jews (in 1290), analyzes the differences between the savagery of its medieval antisemitism and the relatively nonviolent nature of its later forms. If 20c antisemitism is "a tale of two protocols," the Elders of Zion forgery and the Germans' Wannsee plan to murder European Jewry, England's antisemites have usually opted for the former.

Julius likens the task of writing this 811-page book to "swimming long-distance through a sewer." The denizens of this sewer include many unpleasant people, but the most unpleasant among them are themselves Jews — that is to say, Jews who are antisemites. Antisemitism not being a genetic disease, Jews can succumb to it as readily as anybody else. "There have always," Julius observes, "been Jews ready to side with antisemites." In the middle ages Jewish converts to Christianity were prominent among those eager to give public testimony against their still benighted former co-religionists, even if this meant admitting that, yes, Jewish males do menstruate, just as many Christian theologians alleged.

Where then do Jews fit into today's "new" antisemitism, otherwise known as Anti-Zionism? (One of Philip Roth's characters shrewdly observes that "In the modern world, the Jew has perpetually been on trial; still today the Jew is on trial, in the person of the Israeli — and this modern trial of the Jew, this trial which never ends, begins with the trial of Shylock.") The old slogan of assimilationist Jews was "Be a Jew at home and a man in the street." But the Jewish divisions of the anti-Israel struggle are led in England (as in America) by a new kind of assimilated Jew, an anti-Zionist who is very much a Jew in the street and a man (or woman) at home; and who expresses loathing of Israel less in leftist terms that in what purport to be Jewish ones; and — the ultimate paradox — whose Jewish "identity" is entirely dependent on the existence of the State of Israel which he wishes to annihilate. "The new Jewish anti-Zionism," Julius observes, "inaugurates a return for many Jews to some kind of Jewish identity. They no longer seek, as with previous generations, to relieve themselves of the burden of their Jewish origins; rather, they reassume the burden, in order further to burden their fellow-Jews." To put the matter another way — the Hebrew writer Haim Hazaz, in a short story of 1942 called "The Sermon," has a character say that "When a man can no longer be a Jew, he becomes a Zionist." But the contemporary Jewish anti-Zionist embodies a new reality: "When a man can no longer be a Jew, he becomes an anti-Zionist."

An old saying holds that "Nonsense is nonsense; but the study of nonsense is scholarship." Julius has written a scholarly and judicious history of Britannia's version of that most lethal form of nonsense called antisemitism.

Edward Alexander is the co-author, with Paul Bogdanor, of The Jewish Divide Over Israel: Accusers and Defenders (Transaction Publishers).


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