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Albion’s Shame

In Trials of the Diaspora, Anthony Julius offers an encyclopedic history of English anti-Semitism

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Fagin, from George Cruikshank’s illustrations for Dickens’s Oliver Twist. (Wikimedia Commons)

Of all the qualities that Anthony Julius displays in Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England—intellectual force, extensive erudition, a lucid prose style—the most admirable is surely his moral fortitude. For to write this encyclopedic study, which covers almost a thousand years of English history, Julius had to expose himself to an endless series of hateful lies about his own people. By the end of the book’s 600 pages of text (another 200 pages of notes follow), the reader is more than ready to sympathize when Julius concludes, “to study [anti-Semitism] is to immerse oneself in muck. Anti-Semitism is a sewer. This is my second book on the subject and I intend it to be my last.”

It’s easy to believe that it was painful to write the book, since even reading it is—appropriately enough, given the title—a kind of trial. Julius’s survey of anti-Semitic acts and ideas and discourse, from the blood libel of the middle ages to the fanatical anti-Zionism of the 21st century, offers an object lesson in how demoralizing it is to be slandered, even when one knows that the slander is false. Indeed, the wilder and more palpably incredible the slur, the more destabilizing it can be for the victim, since it thrusts him into a world in which the truth simply does not matter.

For many hundreds of years, for example, most English people believed that Jews had a religious obligation to kill Christian children and drink their blood. Julius shows how this crime was charged against the Jews again and again in the middle ages: in Norwich in 1144, Gloucester in 1168, Bury St. Edmunds in 1181, Lincoln in 1255, and on and on, until the Jews were finally expelled from England by King Edward I in 1290. The fact that no Jew ever committed such a murder and that Jewish law is radically opposed to bloodshed, did not stop the blood libel from flourishing. But while no Jews ever ritually murdered an English Christian, Christians inflamed by such accusations did murder very many English Jews. In York in 1190, for instance, 150 Jews died—many by suicide—when a looting mob trapped them in a castle.

In this respect, medieval anti-Semitism followed the same logic as Nazi anti-Semitism—the logic of the big lie, which charged Jewish victims with committing the very crimes that were being committed against them. The victim’s rational instinct in this situation is to reply and rebut, to demonstrate the falsehood of this or that charge against the Jews; but this response is entirely beside the point. As Julius writes, “what characterizes anti-Semites is not so much their falsehoods and their misbeliefs as the malice with which they promote them. They hate Jews. The errors in logic, in history and theology, in politics and sociology, come later.”

Yet this raises a question about Trials of the Diaspora itself. Julius is a respected intellectual, the author of a groundbreaking book on the anti-Semitic tropes in T.S. Eliot’s poetry, and a prominent London lawyer, known for his work as Princess Diana’s divorce lawyer and as defense counsel for Deborah Lipstadt in the David Irving Holocaust-denial case. Why, one might naturally wonder, would he devote so much time and work to documenting English anti-Semitism, if the content of anti-Semitism is null—if his book is, as he puts it, “mostly … the explication of nonsense—pernicious nonsense, at that”? One possible motive is scholarly—the simple desire to make a truthful record of the Jewish and English past—and Julius has certainly done a masterly job of that. It’s hard to imagine anyone needing to write this sorry history a second time.

But the temper of this book is not simply scholarly. Its forensic drive and controlled irony are lawyerly, in the best sense of the word. A case is being made here—but not, as Julius would be the first to insist, a case for Jewish innocence. It is not only unnecessary to make that case, it is degrading: You don’t argue with a sewer. If, knowing this, Julius still felt compelled to write Trials, his purpose was, rather, demonstrative. By so thoroughly documenting and analyzing English anti-Semitism, Julius puts himself in a position of mastery over it. A Jew, he shows, does not have to fear anti-Semitism; just as important, perhaps, he no longer has to fear thinking about anti-Semitism.

This is an especially important distinction when it comes to English history, since English anti-Semitism has been far milder and subtler than that of most other European countries. In part, ironically, this is because the expulsion of the Jews was so effective. Between 1290 and the 1650s, when Oliver Cromwell agreed to allow some Dutch Sephardim to settle in London, there were no Jews in Britain. Even after Cromwell, the Anglo-Jewish community grew slowly, numbering just 30,000 or so by the late 19th century. England had a smaller and less significant Jewish presence than any major European country.

Partly for this reason, English anti-Semitism became a matter of discourse and attitude, rather than violence and persecution. After the middle ages, Julius’s book contains no pogroms or ghettoes, no Dreyfus Affairs or Nuremberg laws, no concentration camps—subjects that would have to appear in any history of French or German or Russian anti-Semitism. On the other hand, English anti-Semitism presents a uniquely troubling literary legacy, since the very greatest English writers have been responsible for embellishing slanders about the Jews. As Julius puts it, “if it is the case that among anti-Semitism’s many products there are only a few literary works that deserve general esteem and thus challenge the self-respect of Jewish readers and spectators, then English literature has most of them.” Chaucer, in The Prioress’s Tale, told the story of a child ritually murdered by evil Jews (minions of “the serpent Satanas,/That hath in Jewes’ heart his waspe’s nest”); Shakespeare, of course, gave us Shylock and the pound of flesh in The Merchant of Venice; and Dickens, in Oliver Twist, made Fagin a Jewish thief who preys on Christian children.

The key word in Julius’s description is “self-respect.” It hardly challenges a Jew’s self-respect to read the many obscure scribblers, conspiracy theorists, and crackpots whom Julius has occasion to quote; to be insulted by Shakespeare is another matter. Similarly, for most English Jews in the modern period, anti-Semitism did not inspire fear or dread but social unease, self-doubt, a sense of being unwanted. Julius quotes one writer from the 1930s explaining that Jews “by a thousand signs, and by ways not always conscious, [are] edged on one side, excluded.”

This sense of not belonging persisted even after individual Jews had risen to high positions in government and society. Thus we find paradoxical cases like that of Edwin Samuel Montagu, a Jewish politician who was Secretary of State for India at the time of the notorious Amritsar massacre in 1919. When Montagu sought to censure the British general who had fired on a crowd of Indians, he was attacked, in the words of another politician, as “a Jew, a foreigner, rounding on an Englishman and throwing him to the wolves.” Anti-Semitism did not stop Montagu from rising to the heights of power, but neither did his power and status stop him from being viewed, even by his colleagues, through an anti-Semitic lens.

The second motive behind Trials of the Diaspora has to do with Julius’s diagnosis of the present and future of English anti-Semitism. After the Holocaust, in England as throughout Europe and America, overt expressions of anti-Semitism became largely taboo. But this began to change with the Six Day War and Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which made the Palestinian cause popular on the political left. Julius’s claim is that criticism of Israeli policies has become, in some corners of English life, an irrational anti-Zionism, with both conscious and unconscious anti-Semitic overtones. This constitutes “the fourth of the English anti-Semitisms,” a successor to the medieval, literary, and social versions.

This argument is responsible for the controversy that Julius’s book has already provoked—see, for example, Harold Bloom’s review in the New York Times Book Review and the letters of complaint it drew in this Sunday’s issue. The obvious objection to calling this brand of new, Israel-centered hostility “the new anti-Semitism” is that, as Julius acknowledges, “it is adopted by people who profess deep hostility to anti-Semitism, [and] self-identified Jews are among its advocates.” Indeed, anti-Zionists often preemptively disclaim the charge of anti-Semitism as a way of discrediting their critics. Nothing is more common in anti-Zionist discourse than the notion that the anti-Zionist is bravely risking persecution by paranoid or malignant Jews.

But Julius is quite cognizant that a distinction must be drawn between criticism of Israeli policy toward the Palestinians—criticism that can be rational and ethical, and that he makes quite eloquently himself—and anti-Semitism, which is inherently irrational and unethical. And he convincingly shows that, in England, anti-Zionism frequently does pass over into anti-Semitism. Readers who follow British publications such as the London Review of Books and the Guardian will be familiar with many of Julius’s examples; those who don’t will find them eye-opening. Take, for instance, the poet Tom Paulin, who wrote “Killed in Crossfire” after the widely reported death in 2000 of Mohammed al-Dura, a young Palestinian boy allegedly shot by Israeli soldiers:

We’re fed this inert
this lying phrase
like comfort food
as another little Palestinian boy
in trainers jeans 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.

In these few lines, all the classic tropes of anti-Semitism are brought together. Jews deliberately murder non-Jewish children; they “feed” lies to unwitting Gentiles, presumably through their control of the media; they mock their dupes as “dumb goys”; they are as bad as Nazis. Yet when the obvious anti-Semitism of this poem was pointed out, Paulin—a highly respected figure in the British literary world—responded with another indignant poem called “On Being Dealt the Anti-Semite Card,” in which he protested his innocence while once again comparing Jews to Nazis (“the usual cynical Goebbels stuff”).

Such rhetoric, which Julius believes is moving from the fringes to the mainstream of English life, helps to explain his feeling that “the closed season on Jews is over.” We have not yet seen this degree of anti-Semitic anti-Zionism become mainstream in American life, but there are signs of its growing legitimation, especially under the guise of criticism of the “Israel lobby”—the contemporary name for the old fantasy of secret, limitless, malignant Jewish power. At such a moment, the judiciousness and confidence that Julius displays are more necessary than ever.

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susan says:

Jews have contributed so much to England, past and present. So many of the country’s top playwrights, industrialists, academics, actors, etc. are Jewish and yet anti-semitism is pervasive and perhaps growing. Maybe England doesn’t deserve Jews.

Reading the horrific letters the NY TImes printed was certainly an eye opener. One writer that the Times chose to publish said Shylock was not an anti semitic charecter since there were many Jewish money lenders in England during Shakespears time but of course there were not Jews in England at all since they all had been expelled and not let back til 1650. Yet, the Times printed the letter….very horrible to see indeed.
Lets hope this is a wake up call to the Upper West Side and lets hope the paper is called to account for bigotry!

Callie, it’s beyond my modest expertise, but if that is true, you ought to speak to someone at The New York Times. They selected those letters for publication.

@Susan – Maybe England does not want Jews!

cant [ kant ]


1. clichéd talk: boring talk filled with clichés and platitudes

2. hypocritical talk: insincere talk, especially regarding morals or religion

3. jargon: the special language or vocabulary of a particular group, especially a group whom some people look down on

that much of the academic world of the country that brought us so much brilliance has been subsumed with the above, in the guise of fashionable anti-semitism, is, as mr. bloom intimated, and as mr. kirsch seems to imply that the author of this book corroborates, a scar on the english language — and our civilization.

Richard says:

Anthony Julius’s book proves conclusively that anti-semitism is embedded in the English psyche.

Earl Ganz says:

Everybody seems to have missed the point, including the reviewer.
If you end the occupation of the West Bank, remove the settlers and
roadblocks, and stop destroying Palestinian houses, you have taken
away the reasons for anger at Israel and recovered the high ground
from which you can make your judgments. What seems to be going
on now is that Israel while screaming it is being robbed is actually

Steve from Raleigh says:

So if I take the general tenor of Tablet’s review as well as most of the comments to it it’s this. “Maybe there’s antisemitism maybe not but if there is it’s the Jews’ own fault.” Which, more or less what ‘post-Zionism’ is, no?

Mythical Beast says:

It was difficult indeed to detect anti-semitism in England before theintifada. In the days of exclusive clubs, many golf and social clubs excluded Jews or, like some medical schools, admitted only a quota – but the poor, and people with the wrong accents or education, people of other races and women were also gnerally kept out. In five years at a major English public (private, exclusive, expensive) school I experienced onlytwo anti-semitic episodes, both trivial and thoughtless; when Jewish terrorists hung English sergeants in Palestine all around kept a gentlemanly silence. Modern scholarship suggests that there were a few Jews in London in Shakespeares time,and that he knew at least one of the named and identified families; Shylock’s speech “has not a Jew….” is a compassionate plea for the humanity of Jews to be recognised and Merchant is no more anti-Jewish than is MacBeth anti-Scottish. Jews who are too pusillanimous to oppose the government of Israel must admit and share some of the guilt for their misdeeds if they ever take pride in their accomplishments. Today’s Zionsm would not be recognised by the early Zionist pioneers.

Mati says:

The best section:

As Julius puts it, “if it is the case that among anti-Semitism’s many products there are only a few literary works that deserve general esteem and thus challenge the self-respect of Jewish readers and spectators, then English literature has most of them.” Chaucer, in The Prioress’s Tale, told the story of a child ritually murdered by evil Jews (minions of “the serpent Satanas,/That hath in Jewes’ heart his waspe’s nest”); Shakespeare, of course, gave us Shylock and the pound of flesh in The Merchant of Venice; and Dickens, in Oliver Twist, made Fagin a Jewish thief who preys on Christian children…It hardly challenges a Jew’s self-respect to read the many obscure scribblers, conspiracy theorists, and crackpots whom Julius has occasion to quote; to be insulted by Shakespeare is another matter. Similarly, for most English Jews in the modern period, anti-Semitism did not inspire fear or dread but social unease, self-doubt, a sense of being unwanted.

JohnChen says:

Earl Ganz, Arab rejection of Israel’s right to exist began in 1948, and Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon and Gaza only precipitated further violence and extremism among its enemies. For better or worse, Israel’s policies today are based on lessons learned from those observations. You may very well be right that Israel simply needs to dismantle the settlements and withdraw from the West Bank. Even so, I think you and I can both agree that your argument says nothing to assuage the security concerns of Israelis, who would have to live with the disastrous consequences of the policies you advocate should they, in fact, be proven wrong.

R.E. Prindle says:

@Susan. Aw, c’mon Susan, we know that those clever Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain took up disguises and lived in England or wherever they wanted. Then all of a sudden there they were. See how very clever.

Larry says:

The sum and substance:
I was browsing through old volumes of law cases in the basement of the law library.
I came across a collection of common law cases in England of the 13th century.
The first entry was a civil suit; plaintiff, Leo the converted Jew.

susan says:

Here’s an interesting quote from Harold Bloom’s review of this book in the NYTimes, “Of the nearly 200 recognized nation-states in the world today, something like at least half are more reprehensible than even the worst aspects of Israel’s policy toward the Palestinians. A curious blindness informs the shifting standards of current English anti-Zionism.”

This says it all. Where’s the outrage against the treatment of the Australian aboriginals? Why are there apartment buildings full of unemployed muslim immigrants in Denmark? Why are there no boatloads of protesters sailing to Sudan?

Slade says:

Sudan is a backwater. Israel perpetrates its atrocities in the epicenter of the world’s hot zone. Bloom, and Julious for that matter can’t face up to the fact that “The Jewish Homeland” is a murderously racist “Settler State”. In cowardly fashion, they cling to the image of the poor little angelic Jew. Julious’ “New anti-Semitism” is merely Old Jewish Neurosis. His “scholarly study” is fetid gefilte fish in fancy wrapping.

Steve Brizel says:

“Trials of the Diaspora” is a must read for anyone interested in the roots, content and different forms of anti-Semitism that have been part of the political, social and intellectual psyche in England for centuries, albeit in different contexts and now have emerged with a perversely anti Israel and anti Zionist streak.

mark cohen says:

some balance is needed here–as a fourth-generation British Jew whose parents were young adults in 1940 the most fundamental, visceral feeling is that of the absolute difference between Jewish life in the UK and the genocide a paltry few hundred of kilometers away. One was very similar to that of everyone else in all the basic ways the other a process of pitiless, unprecedented obliteration. I think the right note to strike is the respective histories of the Jews in the UK and the US are as different as the histories of those two countries. Jews have played a proportionately larger role in a younger country than those in Britain, the US is a beating heart of Jewish existence in a way that the smaller, relatively later mass-emigration of Jews in the UK meant the community there was not but the texture of Jewish life, the legal, educational and civic eqaulity of Jews in a liberal commercial republic with everyone else is more or less the same. One would be hard put to find systematic exclusion of Jews from any area of public life in either country and the US has been remarkably similar over the last hundredas faroccurring is the universefirst feeling is

I’ve said that least 3371253 times. The problem this like that is they are just too compilcated for the average bird, if you know what I mean


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Albion’s Shame

In Trials of the Diaspora, Anthony Julius offers an encyclopedic history of English anti-Semitism

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