Trials of the Diaspora

Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England
by Anthony Julius
Published by Oxford University Press in 2010, 811+LVIII pages
If history books are indeed written by the victors, this one must be an exception. Its author is continuing a seemingly losing battle that has been waged for many generations before him. To begin with, the book deals with a subject that is both thought-provoking and grim, but whose very existence is denied by many. 

The book's subject is antisemitism, or more specifically, the history of antisemitism in England, although much of its material largely applies to other Western countries. The author of the book is not a full-time historian. His name is Anthony Julius, and people keen on the British monarchy know him as the lawyer who represented Princess Diana in her divorce from Prince Charles. However, do not expect to find much gossip about the royal family in his new book. Well, you may find some -- who can resist the temptation? -- but it is all confined to the book's Introduction. 

Julius is the author of several books, such as T. S. Eliot: antisemitism and literary form. As a lawyer, he successfully represented the U.S. historian Deborah Lipstadt in a suit against British Holocaust-denier David Irving. But it is his firsthand experience with antisemitism in England that gives him the most valuable credential for writing this book. As he puts it, "[I]t is a background noise against which we make our lives. Almost always barely audible ... though very occasionally it irrupts into a dissonant, heart-stopping din."

The book is thick and dense, yet highly readable. But be forewarned: reading the book is somewhat "like swimming long-distance through a sewer." Chronologically, the book identifies the following periods of antisemitism in England. The medieval period lasted for two centuries: from the Norman Conquest, when the first Jews arrived in England, until 1290, when they were expelled from the country. This period of the Dark Ages in Europe was pitch-dark for the English Jews, especially toward the end of that period. That's when the blood libel (the accusation that the Jews murder Gentile children as a religious ritual) and other libels first appeared.

After 1290, the Jews were banished from England until they were readmitted in the 17th century by Oliver Cromwell. But eerily, antisemitism managed to exist in the country for four centuries with no real-life Jews. It existed and thrived in literary form, which supports Jean-Paul Sartre's remark: "If the Jews did not exist, the antisemite would invent them." Julius devotes a large chapter of his book to the critical analysis of antisemitism in English literature, and, in fact, it could be a separate book within his book. He discusses the evolution of the genre from Chaucer to Shakespeare to Defoe to Scott to Dickens. The Jewish literary characters, who were originally depicted as repulsive caricatures, get gradually humanized -- they acquire real people's qualities, and they become somewhat sympathetic. This process reaches its apogee in George Eliot's works, which for the first time in English literature show attractive and dignified Jewish characters.

Modern English antisemitism has had its ups and downs. The author meticulously describes its evolution, its crises, and the gradual changes in British law leading to the full emancipation of the Jews by the end of the 19th century. That, of course, did not end antisemitism in the social, political, and ideological spheres. 

The transition from less enlightened to more civilized times has affected the forms and manifestations of antisemitism, but not its substance. Antisemitism has become more secular. Increasingly, its ostensible target is Israel, a "collective Jew," or "the Jew among the nations" (the latter phrase was coined by Irwin Cotler, the former Canadian Minister of Justice). In the period of globalization, this situation is not unique to England.  In line with political correctness, Israel's adversaries vehemently insist that anti-Zionism, or anti-Israelism, has nothing to do with antisemitism. It is true that criticism of Israel does not equal antisemitism. In fact, Israelis themselves are among its worst critics -- they criticize their own government every day on TV and in newspapers. Israel is the only country in the Middle East in which a sitting president and a sitting prime minister have been investigated for various wrongdoings and have been removed from office as a result of the investigations. So while some criticism of Israel may be legitimate and productive, selective indignation, gross exaggerations, double standards, taking things out of context, a morbid fixation with "crimes" committed by the Israelis, and demonizing Israelis are definitely forms of antisemitism.

Interestingly, the first accusation hurled at the Jews in England in the 12th century was the blood libel. As irrational as it was, it is still alive and well -- it has just morphed into a secular version. Its latest incarnation is the allegation that the Israeli Army targets Palestinian children, either to harvest their organs or simply because of its peculiar penchant for killing little children. 

The book analyzes the poster child of this libel, Mohammed al-Dura, who was a young boy allegedly shot by Israeli soldiers in 2000. All TV networks continuously showed the scene where his father tried to shield his terrified son from supposed Israeli bullets. The boy became a martyr, and several Arab countries issued postage stamps carrying his picture. The Observer, a liberal British newspaper, published a poem about "another little Palestinian boy ... gunned down by the Zionist SS." Julius' literary analysis amply proves that the poem continues the most vulgar tradition of the blood libel. (An extensive body of evidence collected by now shows that the al-Dura story, just like all other stories behind the blood libel, was fabricated, and the boy actually was not killed by the Israeli Army at all.)

At the end of the book, the author sadly remarks that he has been "engaged in the explication of nonsense -- pernicious nonsense, at that." But this exercise is worthwhile, as the history of the 20th century shows that pernicious nonsense may bring about war, suffering, and poverty. The author does not expect antisemites to change their views -- "it is not an exercise in advocacy." This book was written across a period of rising violence and abuse directed at Jews. The author's "provisional judgment is that it is quite bad, and might get worse. Certainly, it would seem that the closed season on Jews is over."

Eugene Veklerov is a scientist working in the Bay Area..
Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England
by Anthony Julius
Published by Oxford University Press in 2010, 811+LVIII pages
If history books are indeed written by the victors, this one must be an exception. Its author is continuing a seemingly losing battle that has been waged for many generations before him. To begin with, the book deals with a subject that is both thought-provoking and grim, but whose very existence is denied by many. 

The book's subject is antisemitism, or more specifically, the history of antisemitism in England, although much of its material largely applies to other Western countries. The author of the book is not a full-time historian. His name is Anthony Julius, and people keen on the British monarchy know him as the lawyer who represented Princess Diana in her divorce from Prince Charles. However, do not expect to find much gossip about the royal family in his new book. Well, you may find some -- who can resist the temptation? -- but it is all confined to the book's Introduction. 

Julius is the author of several books, such as T. S. Eliot: antisemitism and literary form. As a lawyer, he successfully represented the U.S. historian Deborah Lipstadt in a suit against British Holocaust-denier David Irving. But it is his firsthand experience with antisemitism in England that gives him the most valuable credential for writing this book. As he puts it, "[I]t is a background noise against which we make our lives. Almost always barely audible ... though very occasionally it irrupts into a dissonant, heart-stopping din."

The book is thick and dense, yet highly readable. But be forewarned: reading the book is somewhat "like swimming long-distance through a sewer." Chronologically, the book identifies the following periods of antisemitism in England. The medieval period lasted for two centuries: from the Norman Conquest, when the first Jews arrived in England, until 1290, when they were expelled from the country. This period of the Dark Ages in Europe was pitch-dark for the English Jews, especially toward the end of that period. That's when the blood libel (the accusation that the Jews murder Gentile children as a religious ritual) and other libels first appeared.

After 1290, the Jews were banished from England until they were readmitted in the 17th century by Oliver Cromwell. But eerily, antisemitism managed to exist in the country for four centuries with no real-life Jews. It existed and thrived in literary form, which supports Jean-Paul Sartre's remark: "If the Jews did not exist, the antisemite would invent them." Julius devotes a large chapter of his book to the critical analysis of antisemitism in English literature, and, in fact, it could be a separate book within his book. He discusses the evolution of the genre from Chaucer to Shakespeare to Defoe to Scott to Dickens. The Jewish literary characters, who were originally depicted as repulsive caricatures, get gradually humanized -- they acquire real people's qualities, and they become somewhat sympathetic. This process reaches its apogee in George Eliot's works, which for the first time in English literature show attractive and dignified Jewish characters.

Modern English antisemitism has had its ups and downs. The author meticulously describes its evolution, its crises, and the gradual changes in British law leading to the full emancipation of the Jews by the end of the 19th century. That, of course, did not end antisemitism in the social, political, and ideological spheres. 

The transition from less enlightened to more civilized times has affected the forms and manifestations of antisemitism, but not its substance. Antisemitism has become more secular. Increasingly, its ostensible target is Israel, a "collective Jew," or "the Jew among the nations" (the latter phrase was coined by Irwin Cotler, the former Canadian Minister of Justice). In the period of globalization, this situation is not unique to England.  In line with political correctness, Israel's adversaries vehemently insist that anti-Zionism, or anti-Israelism, has nothing to do with antisemitism. It is true that criticism of Israel does not equal antisemitism. In fact, Israelis themselves are among its worst critics -- they criticize their own government every day on TV and in newspapers. Israel is the only country in the Middle East in which a sitting president and a sitting prime minister have been investigated for various wrongdoings and have been removed from office as a result of the investigations. So while some criticism of Israel may be legitimate and productive, selective indignation, gross exaggerations, double standards, taking things out of context, a morbid fixation with "crimes" committed by the Israelis, and demonizing Israelis are definitely forms of antisemitism.

Interestingly, the first accusation hurled at the Jews in England in the 12th century was the blood libel. As irrational as it was, it is still alive and well -- it has just morphed into a secular version. Its latest incarnation is the allegation that the Israeli Army targets Palestinian children, either to harvest their organs or simply because of its peculiar penchant for killing little children. 

The book analyzes the poster child of this libel, Mohammed al-Dura, who was a young boy allegedly shot by Israeli soldiers in 2000. All TV networks continuously showed the scene where his father tried to shield his terrified son from supposed Israeli bullets. The boy became a martyr, and several Arab countries issued postage stamps carrying his picture. The Observer, a liberal British newspaper, published a poem about "another little Palestinian boy ... gunned down by the Zionist SS." Julius' literary analysis amply proves that the poem continues the most vulgar tradition of the blood libel. (An extensive body of evidence collected by now shows that the al-Dura story, just like all other stories behind the blood libel, was fabricated, and the boy actually was not killed by the Israeli Army at all.)

At the end of the book, the author sadly remarks that he has been "engaged in the explication of nonsense -- pernicious nonsense, at that." But this exercise is worthwhile, as the history of the 20th century shows that pernicious nonsense may bring about war, suffering, and poverty. The author does not expect antisemites to change their views -- "it is not an exercise in advocacy." This book was written across a period of rising violence and abuse directed at Jews. The author's "provisional judgment is that it is quite bad, and might get worse. Certainly, it would seem that the closed season on Jews is over."

Eugene Veklerov is a scientist working in the Bay Area..

RECENT VIDEOS