What difference would it make?
De Montfort University students’ union is calling for a name change, to rid the institution of its association with Simon de Montfort (c.1205-65), the sixth earl of Leicester, leader of the barons’ revolt against Henry III and a key figure in the prehistory of parliamentary democracy. He also happened to be a hater of Jews (antisemitism wouldn’t exist as a term for another six hundred years) who expelled the Jewish community from Leicester. His supporters assaulted and murdered Jews across the country.
De Montfort was not alone in targeting Jews. Twenty-five years after his death, they were expelled from England – the first country to take such extreme action. Europe’s leaders had an exploitative relationship with the Jewish community, turning to them for revenue (a form of indirect taxation, since the richest Jews were money lenders to the population) but turning them out when it was politically and financially expedient.
So wouldn’t it be a good thing if de Montfort were no longer honoured and commemorated in the title of an educational institution? (Until 1992 it was Leicester Polytechnic; the new name was controversial even then.) The first question is: what difference would it make? It would be a symbolic act, but unlikely to have any impact on modern antisemitism. The publicity around the campaign might perhaps be useful educationally, raising awareness of the origins of antisemitism in English culture and the enduring association of Jews with money, which has its roots in Christian anti-Jewish propaganda as much as medieval morality. But purging an institution of its associations with a Jew hater will not shift modern forms of discrimination. Antisemitism is steeped with prejudice that dates back to the Middle Ages – the QAnon conspiracy, for instance, echoes accusations against Jews of ritual murder – but de Montfort has little relevance to the contemporary expression of antisemitic racism.
Just as it’s becoming clear quite how many of the former great and good were implicated in the slave trade, it may be easier to count the leading figures from British history who were not antisemites than those who were. As a bookish teenager from a Jewish family (my Irish-Jewish grandfather changed his name from Goldberg to Glanville in the 1920s) I was startled to come across so many instances of antisemitism in the classic literature I was reading, and realise with a shock each time that I was not the intended audience for this novel or poem.
If De Montfort University students’ union think it’s worth stripping long-deceased antisemites and Jew-haters of their honours, it’s a job without end. The Roald Dahl Museum will have to find a new name or perhaps close down. (‘There is a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity,’ Dahl said. ‘Even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason.’) T.S. Eliot’s blue plaque in Kensington will have to be removed (‘The rats are underneath the piles/The jew is underneath the lot/Money in furs’). The campaign to put up a statue in honour of Virginia Woolf will have to come to a stop. (‘I do not like the Jewish voice,’ she wrote in her diary in 1915 about her sister-in-law Flora. ‘I do not like the Jewish laugh.’ She referred to her husband, Leonard, as ‘my Jew’.) And those are just three 20th-century writers.
A proper purge of the antisemites who are currently honoured in British culture would empty the bookshelves, the galleries and the concert halls. Resisting such a purge, even if it goes no further than Simon de Montfort, does not indicate a tolerance of racism. It is recognising that antisemitism was acceptable until very recently and that Woolf, Eliot and many others were creatures of their time, however disturbing that might be. It would be more fruitful to trace the reasons for the survival of those views to the present day. Purges, in any case, have historically been a favoured tactic of antisemites. Not the kind of thing that makes Jews comfortable.