What difference would it make?

Jo Glanville

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.


  • 6 December 2020 at 8:58am
    Michael Taylor says:
    Hear hear. It's pointless to take a stand against what happened in the 13th century. But it is also pernicious because 21st century people can pat themselves on the back and say Job done, ignoring bad stuff happening here and now that could be stopped. But the past is safe and won't bite back.
    I also concur about casual anti-semitism in early 20th century literature. I would add class and race prejudice too. I won't give examples, they are too many. The attitudes of the British middle class and above then were assumed to be self-evident and universal.

  • 6 December 2020 at 5:01pm
    Allan House says:
    It feels as if there’s an implicit formula underlying these decisions about modern recognition of historical figures with reprehensible characteristics. Something like a(time since the offence + b(severity of the offence) + c(degree to which the offender is defined by the offence) = current desirability of public acknowledgement of who they were.

    So Woolf is OK because although quite recent, she had only the the near-universal casual antisemitism unaccompanied by any actions, and was a serious writer. Colston is out because he was quite recent, slave-trading was as bad as it gets in any era, he had no redeeming reason to be remembered except his willingness to buy respectability by giving away some of his fortune.

    I won’t try and put figures to my formula, but simply suggest that there’s space between doing nothing and instituting purges, and we need to try and define a little where the middle ground is.

  • 6 December 2020 at 11:35pm
    Graucho says:
    More pathetic gesture politics. Carry on air brushing the past like this and the long history of anti-semitism will be completely erased along with that of slavery and racism.

    • 7 December 2020 at 10:31am
      Charles Evans says: @ Graucho
      How would this be "air brushing the past"? de Montfort doesn't cease to exist in the historical record simply because a University no longer bears his name. If anything, as the author points out, the symbolic act of removing divesting him of this honour may serve to remind people of his history.

      Your argument is a classic tactic of historical fantasists - to pretend that knowing more about our less-than-glorious history makes us erase it. The primary reason people use that tactic is because they want people to believe in a fake history, in which past wrongs and evils are forgotten, wished away or given dubious justification. Their interest lies in presenting an incomplete, partisan history which services the lie that "our history is great, we have always been great", and tries to pretend that all the bad things never happened (or weren't actually bad).

      Statues and namings serve to honour and glorify people. It's perfectly fine to say "turns out they weren't so honourable or glorious, and perhaps we shouldn't continue to venerate them". Plenty of people argue that the less-than-great living should be stripped of honours (e.g. stripping Philip Green of his Knighthood) - why does death suddenly earn one protection from consequence? Renaming things and places, removing statues, or adding context to part-known history doesn't erase the past. If a statue was the sole repository of a history, there wouldn't be nearly so many books!

    • 7 December 2020 at 2:16pm
      Graucho says: @ Charles Evans
      “The evil that men do lives after them;
      The good is oft interred with their bones.”
      Anti-semites you have been given fair warning. Mend your ways or you will never have a university named after you.
      So let's clean up all those memorials honouring less than perfect persons starting with that racist Churchill.
      This renaming is yet another meaningless gesture. A large plaque in the entrance hall of the university detailing the life of Simon De Montfort warts and all would be far more educational and relevant.
      Talking of which, does anyone honestly think that Mr. P. Green gives a monkeys about losing his knighthood ? Strip him of even a fraction of his ill gotten gains, that would make him sit up.
      All should have noted the enthusiastic cheering Trump received at his rallies when he railed against political correctness. If the left insists on dissipating its energies on the trivial and cosmetic instead of the things that really matter to voters, then it will have to endure losing more elections to Trump clones.

    • 8 December 2020 at 3:42pm
      Charles Evans says: @ Graucho
      Just because doing the right thing might not be popular, doesn't mean one shouldn't do it.

      You're right, symbolic acts aren't a substitute for doing something substantive. The decision isn't either-or, though - it's possible to do both symbolic AND substantive things. And symbols are powerful - why do you think fishing rights (an inconsequentially trivial part of the UK's economy) are such a sticking point in UK-EU trade negotiations?

  • 8 December 2020 at 5:55am
    James Mccall says:
    It's debatable whether the works of Dahl, Eliot and Woolf are significantly tainted by antisemitism. But, for example, for Heidegger his antisemitism was integral to his concept of authenticity only being possible for those Germans connected to the land and heritage of Germany, which, by definition, excluded Jews. And what about Louis-Ferdinand Céline and even Edgar Degas?

    • 8 December 2020 at 10:11am
      Donald Raeson says: @ James Mccall
      While there's no doubt that Degas was an anti-semite I'm not aware that it ever found its way into his art. Did it?

  • 8 December 2020 at 5:21pm
    manchegauche says:
    These examples of anti-semtisim can't be serious since Jeremy Corbyn wasn't behind them.

  • 11 December 2020 at 3:34pm
    SandyTB says:
    Clearly another example of pointless self-righteousness. We should listen to Garrison Keillor, who writes:
    "There is still a good deal of stupidity around, of course. This year, the MacDowell Colony decided to drop the word “colony” from its name because it carries “a sense of exclusion and hierarchy” and has racist overtones, thinking back to European powers who cruelly and murderously oppressed their indigenous populations. The word, as used by MacDowell, simply means “a community of like-minded persons,” a gang of harmless poets and composers sitting under the trees of New Hampshire, but the virus of pointless self-righteousness is everywhere and so I suppose we should no longer refer to the bowels as our “colon,” perhaps we should call it the macdowell, and give the decolonizers a macdowelloscopy to see where their heads are."

  • 13 December 2020 at 8:34pm
    Abigail Watson says:
    There were, of course, other aspects to Simon de Montfort which were less than palatable to modern sensibilities. Notably his appropriation of lands for members of his family after he had managed to imprison the reigning King and his heir.
    Then there was his father, whom he emulated. De Montfort senior ordered the eyes of the defenders of a town he was attacking in France should be put out, and their noses cut off.

  • 16 December 2020 at 11:10am
    ladan10 says:
    Bravo, but it doesn't go far enough. What about his Da? As an American of Puerto Rican extraction, I didn't know this particular Montfort had a university named after him. The Montfort' Family's anti-semitic British history is tame compared the slaughter of tens of thousands of women and children in Europe's first true genocide, the Cathar ethnic cleansing Albigensian Crusade (1206-1225) headed up by the 5th Earl. He was killed during his siege of Toulouse (1218) by a stone hurled by a catapult manned by Toulosian women and girls. If Hitler had lived and won the War, what Barony would his sons and grandsons have received in the Bavarian Alps?

    And speaking of prejudice, what about the Inquisition that came after, the burning alive of "heretics" of the Cathar faith by a little known Bishop in Pamiers named Jacques Fournier, later Pope Benedict XII and now a Roman Catholic saint? When do we start to hold the Church accountable?

    Woolf and Elliott are easy targets, writers whose gifts obscured a social conscience as threadbare as their culture. While we grieve (or fulminate) for our ancestor's sins, let's not forget the contemporary Israeli genocide of Arab Palestinians. Which of us dares throw the first stone?

    P. G. Twm
    Muret, France

  • 16 December 2020 at 5:44pm
    R Bunting says:
    Slavery is organised, legally sanctioned action to control and misuse others for commercial gain. In the Caribbean its African victims were of different ethnicity from the British owners - but ethnic 'othering' is not an essential prerequisite of slavery.
    British anti-semitism since Cromwell's time has not been a matter of organised commercial misuse with legal sanction. It has been a very different set of ideas, springing from a belief that those whose families (like ours) have long belonged to the land of Britain are all of one 'race', and that one can only be authentic and a full human being by identifying with our specific land and race. Jews may be gifted,honourable, hard-working, good neighbours, but can never be authentic because they have no land to belong to.
    Pernicious self-serving nonsense. But so all-pervading in British culture, for centuries, that intelligent, sensitive, decent people like Woolf and Buchan could not wholly escape it. It was a dark thread in the bright tapestry of their thought.
    Without condoning it, we do need to examine the complexity of this mindset calmly and generously; and perhaps as well to consider what are the dark unexamined threads in our own so lofty morality.

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