From out of anti-Semitism’s muck, scholarly gold

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The Article

In their choice of divorce lawyers as in all else, royals Charles and Diana went their separate ways: Charles to experienced establishment divorce-law solicitor Fiona Shackleton, Diana to Anthony Julius, a trusted advisor, but a libel-law specialist.

A Telegraph article praised Charles’s sensible choice. But as for Diana’s: “[Julius] is a Jewish intellectual and … less likely to feel constrained by the 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 Telegraph was forced to apologize for promoting this stereotype of the Jew as pushy outsider. The impulse behind it reflects enduring national prejudices: that Jews are unusually clever, especially about money, but won’t “play the game” as gentlemen do. (The words “Jewish gentleman” are never irony-free in England.)

Yet the Telegraph’s slur was in fact the only time in his life that Anthony Julius personally had experienced overt anti-Semitism, he informs us in the introduction to his sumptuously informative new book, Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England.

An unfamiliar name here, Julius is a public figure in England, as well-known for literary criticism as for his legal activism against anti-Semitism. He wrote this exhaustively researched tome (600 pages of text, 200 pages of footnotes) to better understand both anti-Semitism and himself: “The English Jew is what he is in part because of English anti-Semitism.”

Julius posits several versions of English anti-Semitism. The first type, medieval Jew-hatred, was “vast, abysmal and intense,” descending from defamation to expropriation and murder, culminating, in 1290, in a 400-year exile.

Upon the Jews’ return, for mixed cultural, political and religious reasons amplified in the book, England shifted to a second type, the milder “quotidian” genre of modern, old-boy anti-Semitism exhibited by The Telegraph, an anti-Semitism “of insult and rebuff, not of expulsion and murder.”

It is a commonplace that violence against Jews always begins with words. But Julius shows us that anti-Semitic discourse—plentiful, ubiquitous, often vicious—never led to organized violence or official betrayal of Jews in modern England as it did in Germany, Russia and France. (As George Orwell put it, English anti-Semitism existed, but “no one wants actually to do anything to the Jews.”)

Julius ascribes the absence of organized hostility to a lack of preoccupation with Jews amongst English intellectuals (unlike France’s, who were obsessed by them), but also to national character, to the Englishman’s sense of gentlemanly behaviour, and his (then) cultural confidence. (A late-19th century Spectator article said: “[The Jews] are clever and vigorous no doubt, but only a decadent race need be afraid of them … The nation that cannot tolerate the Jews, and becomes deeply inspired by the anti-Semitic terror, is not the nation that will win.”)

A third type, which we live with today in all Western nations (especially on our campuses), attends the alliance between Islamism and Leftist anti-Zionism—which is based, in part, on the ancient blood libel that depicts Jews as predators who seek to kill innocent gentiles.

As it turns out, the best-known works of the three most revered writers in the English literary canon are predicated on this blood libel: Chaucer’s The Prioress’s Tale, in which a harmless child unknowingly offends Jews, who cut his throat, after which he becomes a martyr; Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (written during the Jewish exile), which introduced “pound-of-flesh” Shylock to the world; and Dickens’s Oliver Twist, featuring Fagin, a repellent child predator of boundless wi c k e d n e s s . In each case, the blood of a Christian child or a childlike innocent is ritually shed or lusted after by rapacious, self-serving Jews.

Contemporary anti-Zionism has re-invigorated this libel in its most virulent form. The evil Jews are now Israelis, the Christian innocent is the Palestinian child, ruthlessly shot (the Muhammad al-Durrah myth) or his organs harvested (a particularly obscene variation of the blood/ matzo myth). Its latest cultural incarnation is Caryl Churchill’s 2009 blood-libel play, Seven Jewish Children—a Play for Gaza.

Writing Trials of the Diaspora was for this most erudite and highly civilized of English gentlemen the intellectual equivalent of trawling through muck ( “Anti-Semitism is a sewer”). Worse, he knows it won’t change a single anti-Semite’s mind.

For those free of such bigotry, however, Trials of the Diaspora, the study of muck, is scholarly gold.

Anthony Julius is speaking at York University in Toronto on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon. For information, contact Bridget Newson at [email protected]

Barbara Kay
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