Overstatements

Diarmaid MacCulloch

  • Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England by Anthony Julius
    Oxford, 811 pp, £25.00, February 2010, ISBN 978 0 19 929705 4

The leprous spawn of scattered Israel
Spreads its contagion in your English blood;
Teeming corruption rises like a flood
Whose fountain swelters in the womb of hell.
Your Jew-kept politicians buy and sell
In markets redolent of Jewish mud,
And while the ‘Learned Elders’ chew the cud
Of liquidation’s fruits, they weave their spell.

That is Lord Alfred Douglas on Judaism, further demonstrating what is apparent from other evidence, that he was a prize plonker. It is just one fragment among a torrent of primary-source material relentlessly amassed by Anthony Julius in his history of English anti-semitism, gathered both from England and from the wider background of Christian culture in Europe, to which he adds streams of secularism and Islam when his story approaches modern times. The maelstrom of original material is impressive, but it is housed in a very frustrating book – or rather two books within a single cover. One is long and rather good, the other short and bad. Both are clever. The first is analytical history, the second vehemently polemical rhetoric.

Obviously, there were appreciable numbers of Jews among the rich mix of people who followed Roman armies north, to create a damp, chilly and not altogether convincing version of Mediterranean culture in the provinces of Britannia. Yet these Jews of the Roman Empire have left virtually no trace of their presence here, and even the evidence for their nemesis, the Christian Church which allied with the emperors and clung on here as part of its steady conquest of the Latin West, is surprisingly meagre for the years before the legions left for ever. Continuous and visible Jewish presence returned only with the Norman Conquest. These communities of Jews then experienced two centuries characterised by a downward spiral of calumny, murderous violence, financial exploitation and, in 1290, complete expulsion.

England gained the anti-accolade of being the first kingdom in Europe to expel all its Jews. It also seems to have been the laboratory for the infamous ‘blood-libel’. The pioneering example of this falsehood is to be credited to the Benedictine monks of Norwich cathedral, who in the mid-12th century tried to foster in their church the cult of a Norwich boy called William, who had died under mysterious circumstances, allegedly at the hands of the Jews. The story was that in such murders, Jews got together to re-enact Christ’s crucifixion on a Christian young enough to be nearly as innocent as his saviour, and used his blood for their own dark ritual purposes, just as their ancestors had shed Christ’s blood on the cross. Cults of blood-relics of Christ himself were often associated with these fantasies, frequently involving stories of Jews attacking a consecrated eucharistic wafer just as they attacked Christian boys (girls seem to have been less attractive in this context, but then it had been a man who had died on the cross on Golgotha).

William of Norwich’s pilgrimage did not flourish nearly as abundantly as those of later murdered youths. Indeed, further suppositious boy-martyrs like the 13th-century Little St Hugh of Lincoln did not prove to be crowd-pullers in England. The most successful of these malign fictions was created in Toledo soon after 1490, the Holy Child of La Guardia, who was later given the significant name Cristóbal – Christ-bearer. His ‘martyrdom’ was the excuse for the expulsion or forced conversion of all Jews from Spain, one of the greatest catastrophes in Jewish history, dwarfing the precedent of 1290. What the English do today, the world does tomorrow: one of Julius’s main themes, and there is some justice in it.

That is the first act of his story of English anti-semitism, a sorry tale narrated effectively and chillingly. There is then a long medieval and Tudor entr’acte, in which the English talked with contemptuous authority about people whom they had never met, with the very occasional exception of exotic and not easily identifiable merchants or medical doctors who found their way to London from southern Europe. Among these English pundits was Shakespeare, about whose troubling and variously-illuminated picture of Shylock Julius writes with perceptiveness and nuance.

The next act begins in a different mood, opening with the story of the Readmission of 1656, as confused and benevolent a muddle as the greatest Anglophile could wish. The hero is Oliver Cromwell, torn between his achievement as a blunt pragmatist who organised the most efficient army of the English Civil Wars, and his ardent Protestant wish to usher in the Last Days, which scripture promised would bring the return of Christ. All well-informed Bible-readers knew that the Last Days would never happen until the Jews had been converted, but in Cromwell’s England there were no Jews to convert. Menasseh ben Israel, a celebrated rabbi in the Jewish community of Amsterdam, was well aware of these apocalyptic longings across the North Sea: he paid visits to England during which he spent time stirring up excitement among apocalyptic-minded Christians, and Cromwell showed his practical commitment to the Last Days by granting the Dutch rabbi an annual pension of £100. After the outbreak of an Anglo-Spanish war in 1654, a Jewish merchant resident in London had his property confiscated as a Spaniard: he complained to Cromwell that he was not Spanish but Jewish. The lawyers of the Admiralty Court duly handed the property back without fuss: their action implied without any big ideological fanfare that there was no problem with Jews either being resident in England or holding property. Charles II on his restoration four years later seemed anxious to conciliate the Amsterdam Jews, perhaps in return for cash, and England has been home to an openly Jewish community ever since.

As Julius makes clear, the anti-semitism of the following 350-year phase in his history did not display the malignity of its medieval predecessor. There were plenty of nasty-minded fanatics capable of making Lord Alfred look like a bleeding-heart liberal, but they found themselves on the margins of a story which is one of ignorance, stupidity, banter and snobbery rather than the vicious racism of the anti-Dreyfusards in France, the pogroms of tsarist Russia or the pornographic ravings of the German radical right, from Wagner to Streicher. The tone in England has been that of its governing class, and was therefore set by block-headed Anglican public schoolboys with a disdain for anyone not as hearty and insensitive as themselves (Julius analyses the type effectively, drawing on an essay by that perceptive Jewish socialist Harold Laski).

In this world, it was still possible for the Victorian Conservative Party to be led to electoral victory by a politician who flaunted his Jewish ancestry, and who adroitly and flamboyantly played with all the Jewish stereotypes; one can’t imagine Benjamin Disraeli leading the Wilhelmine Second Reich. Equally, one could write a similar book to Julius’s about anti-Catholic prejudice in England over the last three centuries, or indeed about anti-homosexual prejudice. All these three irrationalities began to dissolve after the Second World War, though at a different pace and for different reasons, but in general because the old Establishment began to fragment. Anti-semitism was given an especial blow by the revelations of Nazi crimes. In the generation of my parents, both reaching adulthood before the outbreak of the war, superficial comments on Jews and their uncomfortable relationship to mainstream society were commonplace, and among those who had fought Hitler, it often stood, illogically, side by side with principled horror at what the Nazis had done. Such incongruity of opinions was not nearly so great in generations reaching maturity after 1945.

So far, so admirable in Julius’s long account; yet already one is struck by the difference between medieval murderousness, Tudor literary stereotypes of a people far away, and the later uncomfortable relationship between a majority Anglican culture and the minorities which it found itself forced to tolerate – Jews alongside Protestant Nonconformists and Roman Catholics, who made matters even more annoying for Anglicans at various periods with the swelling crowds of alien immigrants who were still more obviously not One of Us. Indeed, Roman Catholics have been much more consistently feared and abused in post-Reformation England than Jews. If everything that Julius chronicles over the centuries is anti-semitism, then anti-semitism starts to resemble that definition of a camel as a horse designed by a committee.

Then at p. 441 the reader encounters a turn in Julius’s book: ‘And so we come to the fourth of the English anti-semitisms.’ The rest of his work is devoted to directing the feelings of revulsion aroused in any right-thinking reader by what has gone before towards an equal revulsion from any criticism of the modern state of Israel. Some of that criticism might indeed be seen as anti-semitic: it comes from Islamist groups who echo the malice of President Ahmadinejad in denying the truth of the Holocaust or advocating the annihilation of Israel. But Julius seems to regard any criticism of the policies of Israeli governments as impermissible. It is difficult to see how one could make any pained remark about the ‘Security Wall’ or Israeli settlements in the West Bank or the behaviour of the IDF in Gaza without incurring his censure; in fact, even Jews who criticise such episodes are classed as anti-semitic in Julius’s taxonomy. Plaintively, in his long and commendably confessional introduction, he remarks that the anti-semitism of which he seeks to construct a portrait ‘overstates, on every occasion, and beyond reason, any case that could be made against Israel’s actions or policies’.

Yet Julius’s own assumptions seem the mirror-image of this bogeyman: on his extended argument, there can be no reasonable case for criticising Israel constructively. Surely, given our species’ record of folly, selfishness and stupidity stretching over millennia, no polity in the long history of humanity has been in the enviable position of standing beyond criticism. Julius, who is nothing if not a superb rhetorician, is fond of the rhetorical device of concessio: that is, stating his opponents’ case in order to give an appearance of balance, and then ignoring it. He is, additionally, not above using the subset of that same rhetorical device which dismisses a strong counter-opinion as a ‘tedious riposte’ – what may be termed the ‘that old chestnut’ gambit.

There seems no place for a candid friend of Israel in this account of a long history when a territorial state of Israel did not exist, followed by a very different period when it has existed. Recently, as I dealt with a large volume of mail reacting to my presentation of A History of Christianity on television, it became apparent that one of the greatest sources of offence that I had given was to stand in Auschwitz-Birkenau and remind Christians of the centuries-old heritage of anti-semitism festering in the memories of countless ordinary 20th-century Christians. This poison led not just Germans but Lithuanians, Poles and many others gleefully to perpetrate bestial cruelties on helpless Jews who had done them no harm. Without the Christian centuries of characterising the Jews as Christ-killers, the Nazis would not have been so easily able to manipulate otherwise decent people. Many viewers, otherwise sympathetic to some of my criticisms of the Christian past, found this too much to take, and said so, often forcefully; equally forceful was my response in providing them with chapter and verse on the subject. Might I have saved myself the bother, and simply referred them to Anthony Julius’s account of anti-semitism? Regrettably, I couldn’t, at least not without a health-warning that in this long book a good deal of sound historical analysis is spoiled by a non-sequitur.