Trials of the Diaspora: a History of Anti-Semitism in England

Anti-Semites used to make themselves easily identifiable. William Prynne, opposing the readmission of the Jews to Britain in 1655, denounced them as "given up to a blind, obdurate, impenitent, stupid heart". These days, however, the definition of anti-Semitism is a subject of heated dispute.

Anthony Julius has a long-standing personal and professional interest in Jew-haters. He wrote a controversial book about T S Eliot's anti-Semitism and took on David Irving in his libel action against Deborah Lipstadt. The best sections of Trials of the Diaspora anatomise what has been termed the "new anti-Semitism", in which the tropes of classical anti-Semitism are welded on to attacks on Israel. It is clear that the old lies of Jewish conspiracy and bloodthirstiness have not died - when one can find in the mainstream media claims that a shadowy and all-powerful Jewish lobby directs the foreign policy of western governments, or cartoons that depict slavering Israelis dripping with the blood of Palestinian children.

Julius scrupulously examines the positions often taken by avowed left-wing opponents of racism, in which anti-Zionism shades into anti-Semitism. Some are willing to explain away or ignore the explicit Jew-hatred espoused by Hamas, Hezbollah and the Republic of Iran. Others, with a glib rhetorical inversion, pronounce that the victims of the Nazis have themselves become genocidal killers. If you believe that the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories is a form of Nazism, then you must have a conception of the Holocaust far closer to Irving's than to that of any respectable historian. However, with a candour that supporters of Israel often lack, Julius is careful to show how some stances critical of Israel are
insulated from anti-Semitism.

One of the mainstays of classical anti-Semitism - the blood libel - originated in these isles. Jews arrived in England with the Norman conquest. In the 12th century, they began to face accusations of murdering Christian children. The most notorious case, commemorated in numerous ballads, was the murder of Hugh of Lincoln, who was supposedly crucified and mutilated by Jews "for their magic arts". Julius does not consider why the blood libel arose in this period, but the judiciary started to take it seriously - with death sentences being handed down - only after the arrival of the Dominicans and Franciscans in the 1220s. These mendicant orders were proselytisers, and it is possible that resentment towards the Jews for rejecting salvation through Christ's blood transmuted into a conviction that Jews secretly required Christian blood. Britain's Jews were punitively taxed throughout the Middle Ages, and when this became fiscally irrelevant with the prohibition on moneylending in 1275, the expulsion inevitably followed in 1290.

From this point, until the middle of the 17th century, Jews survived in England only in the literary imagination. Julius's attempt to establish a "Great Tradition" of blood-libel literature running from Chaucer's Prioress's Tale through The Merchant of Venice to Oliver Twist is unconvincing, in part because of his crudely mechanistic view of literary history (Shakespeare "responds" to The Jew of Malta; Daniel Deronda "subverts" Oliver Twist), but also because his paraphrases can completely miss the point. It is simply not true that, in The Merchant of Venice, Antonio's "offers of payment were refused, because while the Jew may thrive on Christian money, he needs Christian blood". When Shylock is asked by Salerio what he will do with his pound of flesh, he answers: "To bait fish withal, - if it will feed nothing else,/it will feed my revenge." Shylock does not have religiously motivated bloodlust - the play's denouement hangs on his failure to specify blood in his bond - and his response sails close to the language of the libel precisely to demonstrate his purely psychological motivation. He nurses a personal grievance against Antonio, the grounds for which Shakespeare carefully establishes throughout the play.

There is a broader problem with this book's scope. It is primarily an intellectual and political history. But, philosophically, anti-Semitism is banal and repetitive, so Trials of the Diaspora has its longueurs. And as a political history, it pays excessive attention to parliament. What
is lacking - with the exception of an excellent autobiographical essay in which Julius recalls the distasteful reaction to his appointment
as lawyer to Diana, Princess of Wales - is any sense of how English Jews have responded to anti-Semitism. Thus, when discussing antipathy towards Jewry since the readmission, Julius presents an anti-Semitism that is strangely abstracted from actual experience.

Modern English anti-Semitism has not had the impact of its European continental counterparts. It is snooty, distrustful, exclusionary, to be found, as Harold Abrahams says in Chariots of Fire, "on the edge of a remark". Julius can't have had much fun researching this world-view, but his researches ought to play a vital role in exposing an anti-Semitic language that is seeping back into acceptability.

Jonathan Beckman is assistant editor of the Literary Review

This article first appeared in the 15 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Falklands II