Trials of the Diaspora. A History Of Anti-Semitism In England

David Cesarani examines a history of anti-Semitism in England

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Reviewed by: David Cesarani
Author: Anthony Julius
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Price (RRP): £25

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Anthony Julius fears that English anti-Semitism is “not quite understood”. He regards England as the fount of the most tenacious form of Jew hatred. The blood libel (allegations of human sacrifice) was invented here in the 12th century and since then he believes the English have been “continuously innovative”. England was the “principal promoter” and “in some senses the inventor of literary anti-Semitism”.

Today, he argues, Britain hosts a vicious anti-Zionism that has detached from legitimate criticism of Israel. It “has renewed anti-Semitism and given it a future”. However, Julius is convinced that much intemperate and racist comment about Jews stems from ignorance of Jewish history. He aims to show that anti-Semitism in England past and present cannot be dismissed just because it did and does not come in Nazi costume. By analysing its various forms he hopes to expose the persistence of received ideas with murky origins and the pitfalls of lazy thinking about Jews. No thoughtful person who wants to have an opinion about anything Jewish, and to be taken seriously, can avoid reading this book.

Unlike previous studies, Julius does not begin with a definition of anti-Semitism or a search for causes in the mind or society. Instead he identifies a “repertoire of attitudes, myths and defamations”, a “discursive swamp”. What distinguishes this “protean unstable combination of received ideas, compounded by malice” is the lack of substance in reality. Anti-Semitism is falsehood, although with a spectrum of real functions.

The blood libel is the “master trope”. It encapsulates the notions that Jews are malevolent, constantly conspiring against Christians (and others), powerful and merciless. It leads to further lies about Jews poisoning wells and minds, trafficking in souls and bodies. In three densely researched and footnoted chapters, he shows how the anti-Jewish attitudes and actions that evolved in England during the Middle Ages – culminating in expulsion in 1290 – were elaborated in literary form in the absence of real Jews. They were then given new life by the renewed Jewish presence from the 1660s. Julius traces the transmission of the blood libel from The Prioress’s Tale by Chaucer, through Shakespeare’s merchant, to Dickens’s Fagin. His technique of relentless quotation acquires crushing rhetorical force as he brings the story up to the present day.

He is weaker writing about policy and too easily dismisses research indicating how anti-Semitism shaped the treatment of Jewish immigrants and refugees. Paradoxically, in view of the portentousness he accords his project, he regards English anti-Semitism as marginal and a failure.

The English, he thinks, felt too confident and superior to Jews to feel threatened by them. Hence modern anti-Semitism was typically limited to insulting remarks, nasty jokes, snubs, and exclusion from certain clubs or occupations. Still, this was the exercise of power, in a context of assumed concurrence, and the effect was humiliating and demoralising.

He closes with anti-Zionism, though he is no apologist for Israeli wrong-doing. Over several pages he highlights the corrupting effect on Israel of ruling the Palestinians and recites a grim litany of repression. But he faults any criticism, including that emanating from the BBC, which is not scrupulously balanced and aware of a complex history. It is only when he leaps from proof of one-sidedness, sloppiness, or irrationality, to the ascription of prejudice rooted in medieval hatreds that his argument fails to convince. 

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David Cesarani is research professor at Royal Holloway, University of London. Major Farran’s Hat: Murder, Scandal and Britain’s War against Jewish Terrorism, 1945–1948 is now out in paperback