General Antisemitism

A review of: Trials of the Diaspora (A History of Anti-Semitism in England), by Anthony Julius

The following is a review of Anthony Julius’s book, Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England, by Jonathan Freedland, writing for The New Republic.  While the book itself should be read by anyone concerned about ant-Semitism in the UK – and the Guardian in particular – this review (as effective literary criticism can often do) represents a great primer on the subject.  While this blog typically shies away from such lengthy essays, our mission – exposing anti-Semitism at the Guardian and their blog, Comment is Free – occasionally necessitates such in-depth and comprehensive analyses of the broader phenomenon of anti-Semitism in British society.  As such, Freedland’s review provides the reader with a good summary of Julius’s study on the British contribution to “the world’s longest hatred”.


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.”

Read rest of the essay, here.

24 replies »

  1. Yeah, but read the end of Freedland’s review, which gives his fellow Guardian writers a convenient get out clause.

  2. Agreed Zkyarya.

    The review was really interesting until you get to this personal observation from Freedland:

    “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.’

    I mean how blind can Freedland be to what is going on in England or does writing for the Guardian immunize you to feelings of antisemitism/anti-Zionism around you?

  3. I mean how blind can Freedland be to what is going on in England or does writing for the Guardian immunize you to feelings of antisemitism/anti-Zionism around you?

    We have to be careful, for this might be the start of that painful introspective analysis through which the honest but deceived start upon the road to redemption. There are few, very few, who will ever manage to deny the certainties of their past and wake slowly to the realisation that they have sided with the Devil, but Freedland might be one.

  4. Hawkeye.
    I suggest that the really interesting part of Freedland’s review is in the conclusion, where he deals with the manifestation of anti-Zionism masquerading as anti-semitism, according to Julius.
    This is too close for comfort for Freedland, who asserts that it is OK to “criticise” Israel, because 2,000 years of Jewish powerlessness have been erased with the establishment of the Jewish state.
    Except that were Israel to put into place the “criticisms” offered by Freedland and others, a state of Jewish powerlessness would quickly obtain, leading to the speedy demise of the Jewish state.
    He should remember Blair’s excellent recent Herzliya speech, in which the latter exhorts Israel’s critics not to expect of Israel that which one would never dream of demanding of one’s own country.

  5. “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.”

    Jonathan must try and get out more. Only two weeks ago Duvidl overheard talk of “Jew-boys” between two London-Irish gardeners. Moreover, last year he was subjected to a diatribe from a customer in a local Jewish charity shop in London who wished “Hitler had finished the job.”

  6. This is a great review, and I was engrossed reading it, having bought the book when it was first published, I am putting it at the top of my reading list.

    I agree that Freedland opens up the debate once again on the “what constitutes legitimate criticism of Israel?”, but what Freedland fails to recognise in his critique is the malicious motivation of many anti-Zionists in their attempt to return the Jews to their former state of powerlessness by undermining the legitimacy of Jewish sovereignty, viewing Israeli actions through an obsessive and distorted prism that is both a product of, and an excuse for, their own visceral prejudices.

  7. Antisemites always say Jews are too powerful, too strong. If Israel were not strong, Israel would not exist. There are 1 000 000s of Arab and other Muslims who would rather she did not.

  8. Israel exists precisely because of that 2000 years of powerlessness, the combination of need, desire and opportunity.

    PSC, BDS etc seek to dissolve the state of Jews, even as paleo antisemites sought to dissolve the state of Jews in a diaspora.

    The impulse is, in many instances, the same.

  9. Freedland is right that Israel’s relative strength should allow it to take criticism.

    But the nature of antisemitism is that it is often unjust criticism, or what Howard Jacobson calls ‘criticism’:

    ‘A laughably benign locution, “criticism”, for what is in fact – what has in recent years become – a desire to word a country not just out of the commonwealth of nations but out of physical existence altogether.’

    Substitute ‘state’ or ‘society’ for ‘country’ and you have a fairly normative position in PSC and BDS.

  10. OK. I am heavy painkillers now, so I am flowing, and maybe tripping. So Pretzel may well find much to criticise, but here goes:
    Freedland is rather naive about the recycling of anti-Jewish and antisemitic paradeigms.

    The chief one is that of Jews as persecutors of the innocent and virtuous, in Christianity and Islam.

    Even if such people profess Jews didn’t persecute Christ and the saints, that very profession implies a base knowledge that is revised. And all too often recapitulated in depictions of Israel with regard to Palestinians i.e. the persecutor/crucifier of the innocent, if not virtuous.

    Freedland is being a little obtuse, here.

    The notion that Jews rejected Jesus and the saints is a basic cultural datum of even post-Christian and Islamic culture and society, even if it is subsequently revised. And, all too often, the very revision makes the enactor feel entitled to portray Israel in such terms, even if unconsciously.

    The modern Palestinian churches refrain from saying the Jews crucified Christ, now, in public at least (but they objected vociferously to Vatican II, remember, above even the Syrian churches). But they will happily say Zionists crucify Palestinians, or the persecute them in similar morally absolute terms.

    The modern black and white paradeigm of Nazis v. Jews, the modern crucifixion narrative, is applied to Israel-Palestine because some people are prepared (pre-prepared, actually) to believe absolute evil of Jews, and essential innocence, if not virtue, of Palestinian Christians and Muslims. Jewish rights and connections to the land are ignored, revised or erased in favour of Palestinian Muslims and Christians as a victim people, like Jews, or native Americans, groundlessly abused or exploited by a cipher European colonising/colonialising construct. Zionists exploit Third World Palestinian Muslims and Christians even as Jews allegedly exploited the working classes and peasants.

    That paradeigm is passed on in so many ways: Soviet, Arab, Muslim, Christian anti-Zionism, anti-Judaism, antisemitism. Freedland is being very naive or obtuse, here. The PSC movement identifies with passion of the Palestinian people, and sees their crucifixion at the hands of Zionists, even if it doesn’t actually use the term ‘crucifixion’. The paradeigm is there, of groundless persecution of the innocent or harmless. It is a powerful dogma, and Jews have been most strongly associated with it for over a thousand years. I do not believe it simply vanished or vanishes.

  11. Having said that, I think Lieberman is someone who is approaching to being a fascist. But there is no point ignoring the fascism that has characterised Palestinian nationalism for a long time, either. A fascism which is expressed in the total denial of Jewish national i.e. Zionist rights.

    But that does not refute that Lieberman is something like a fascist creep.

  12. Maybe the chief point is this: genteel, traditional, literary English antisemitism may appear very little in modern British anti-Zionism. But it is far from the only antisemitism at work here, and it has itself mutated and joined with other, continental and middle eastern varieties.

  13. zkharya

    I wish it were 1 ooo ooo instead of more than 1ooo ooo ooo

    To illustrate the difference John Lanchester in Whoops used this:

    A million seconds is less than twelve days; a billion is almost 32 years.

    The billion includes of course the “moderates” but I am very interested in an answer to the question how many “moderates” would actively stop the “extremists”?

    and I don’t agree on Lieberman …

  14. Zkharia.
    Use your brain, instead of mouthing fashionable platitudes.
    What has lieberman said that would or could possibly warrant the description of “fascist creep”?

  15. Tzipi Livni:

    ‘”The government of Israel has become subservient to Yisrael Beiteinu and its fascist doctrine,” said Tibi. “No other state in the world would force its citizens or those seeking citizenship to pledge allegiance to an ideology.”

    “Israel has proven that it is not equal and is a democracy for Jews and not for Arabs,” he added.’

    It’s not just me.

  16. “What we have seen today is politics at its worst. The sensitive issue of Israel’s existence as a Jewish and democratic state has become subject to political horse-trading.”

    “It is essential that we maintain Israel’s status as a Jewish state with equal rights for all its citizens. This proposal contributes nothing to this goal. On the contrary, it will cause internal conflict and damage [Israel’s image in the world].”

  17. I don’t support Tibi. I support Livni. I wrote ‘Lieberman is something like a fascist creep’.

    I think he is. He is being needlessly provocative, and threatening, to Israeli Arabs; attempting, publicly, to undermine the negotiating position of his PM; using the UN as a forum for his ego, like Ahmadinejad.

    I think he is contemptible, only interested in furthering his career by pandering to the extremists in his own party, serving his own narrow interests.

  18. ‘congrats galore one doesn’t slander one’s country in this way abroad’

    That’s exactly what Lieberman has done, by his egotistical antics at the UN.

  19. I didn’t even call Tibi a traitor – slandering one’s country is not the same as betraying her

    and if you compare Lieberman to Tibi then you don’t know what you are talking about

  20. ‘and if you compare Lieberman to Tibi then you don’t know what you are talking about’

    I didn’t. Although, in some ways, I have more sympathy for Tibi. I suspect he has the more integrity.

  21. Look, I shouldn’t use such violent and aggressive language. That is often what antisemites do. You can tell from their tone their psychopathy. Even my family have warned me I go nuts when I am ‘high’. I even contemplate performing surgery on myself.

    I know Lieberman’s bill is not as bad as some of the media purport. But it is still stupid and counter productive. I believe in a Jewish state. But Lieberman is a narrow political opportunist, whose demagogic antics bring shame on his government, and on Israel.

    ‘Fascist’ may be putting it a bit strong, except I have seen the small minded hatred in his eyes when he specifies. He is a petty, little man (perhaps a bit like Erdogan) rabble rousing. Pretty contemptible, as I said, I think.

  22. if as zkharya says Lieberman’s eyes tell him that he has a streak of Erdogan-style cunningness in him then I congratulate the Israelis to having him in government.

    it is said that the best policemen are the mirror images of gangsters i.e. capable to think how their evil brains think – in that sense lets hope Lieberman has that ability.