Jonathan Sumption

Not as bad as the French

This is a long book, but its argument can be shortly stated.

Not as bad as the French
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Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England

Anthony Julius

OUP, pp. 811, £

This is a long book, but its argument can be shortly stated. Anthony Julius believes that anti-Semitism is a persistent and influential theme in English history, which is all the more dangerous for being unacknowledged by most anti-Semites and concealed behind a facade of complex, subtle and hypocritical social convention.

He sustains the argument over nearly 600 pages of densely annotated text, in a book which is in equal measure wonderful and infuriating. It is immensely learned. It is thorough. Its patient accumulation of detail challenges conventional English images of their own society. Much of the analysis is observant and shrewd. But much of it is also laboured, sanctimonious and lacking in any real sense of proportion. Julius is too honest a writer and too good an advocate to ignore the counter-arguments. But having acknowledged them, he is far too ready to brush them aside.

Julius defines anti-Semitism as meaning hostility to Jews without any rational basis. It follows, as he accepts, that ‘while every anti-Semite is an enemy of the Jews, not every enemy of the Jews is an anti-Semite. Only the Jews’ irrational enemies can be described as anti-Semitic.’ By this definition, which I think most people would accept, our history has often been darkened by anti-Semitism. The worst period, which Julius calls the ‘murderous phase’, was the Middle Ages.

To medieval Englishmen, Christianity provided the framework for their whole existence, for their public institutions and their private lives. This inevitably meant that they often defined themselves in opposition to the only non-Christian community of which they had any direct experience, namely the Jews. It was an attitude which readily lent itself to persecution. Between the 11th and the 13th centuries the small Jewish community of England was subjected to abuse, oppression and occasional violence, until it was finally expelled from the country in 1290. Reason, in our empirical, post-enlightenment sense of the word, would not have seemed a relevant consideration to medieval men. But by any standard, the medieval hostility to the Jews was irrational.

There was, however, nothing peculiarly English about it. France, the only other European state with the bureaucratic resources to expel an entire religious group, followed suit 16 years later. In the German cities, pogroms were more frequent and severe than in any other part of Europe. Legal and commercial discrimination, fiscal oppression and anti-Semitic propaganda were almost universal. At least in England, the MiddleAges was the only period in which Jews were actively persecuted.

In the 1650s, they were invited to return, and were allowed freedom of worship at a time when this was denied to many Christian denominations, notably Catholics. Thereafter, there was no legal discrimination on ethnic grounds, and over the next two centuries legal discrimination on religious grounds was progressively dismantled. The beneficiaries included not just religious Jews, but Catholics and Protestant non-conformists, who had once been subject to the same legal disabilities. The point is fairly made that Jews were not admitted to the House of Commons until 1858. But this was the last barrier to go, and it went because the voters of the City of London elected Lionel Rothschild to represent them. By comparison, religious Jews suffered much more severe forms of discrimination in France until 1790, and were the victims of sporadic but organised violence throughout Europe until well into the 20th century.

Legal discrimination and organised violence are not of course the only tests. Covert prejudice and tacit exclusion continued for much longer. Julius is particularly good on this. But it was far less influential in England than elsewhere in Europe, and has virtually disappeared today. That is not to say that anti-Semitic abuse and occasional violence do not happen, even now. But apart from the particular problem of Muslim anti-Semitism, which is largely generated by the conflicts in the Middle East, it is the preserve of cranks and misfits. It is far less serious than the discrimination experienced daily by other minorities, notably black people, whose advancement has suffered very seriously in consequence. Jews, by comparison, have been strikingly successful in every major area of English life and are widely admired for it. This could not have happened if anti-Semitic prejudice were as widespread or as influential as Anthony Julius suggests.

Where I suspect most people will join issue with Julius is in his account of what he calls the ‘new anti-Semitism’. By this he means the growing hostility of the English public since the Six Day War of 1967 to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. This is a difficult and emotive issue, on which rational people can legitimately disagree. Many, perhaps most, English people believe that the Palestinians have suffered serious and enduring injustice at the hands of Israel. Julius himself acknowledges that Israel’s conduct on the West Bank and in Gaza can be criticised on grounds which are not anti-Semitic. But then he waves it away by suggesting that in fact the criticisms are generally expressed by people whose motives and language are anti-Semitic.

Julius’s main arguments are that the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is an issue of local significance only, whose global impact is exaggerated by the critics; and that they object only to the injustices perpetrated by Israel, not to the equal or greater injustices committed by others, such as the Chinese in Tibet. Therefore, he suggests, the criticisms, even if objectively justifiable, are not really rational responses to the problem and can properly be characterised as anti-Semitic.

The difficulty about this is that there is overwhelming evidence that Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians is a powerful stimulant of anti-American resentment and violence in the Islamic world, albeit that other factors are at work as well. Moreover, there are rational reasons, which have nothing to do with anti-Semitism, for English critics to concentrate their fire on Israel. The Middle East is at their back door. There is a large Islamic minority living in England. And for those who know something of the history of the Middle East, it is obvious that Britain’s reorganisation of the region after 1918 has been a major source of its current problems. The true test, surely, is not whether Israel’s critics get equally angry about other injustices, but whether they would be equally angry if the same injustices were perpetrated by Gentiles. The question is hypothetical, but it is not difficult to answer.