The National Catholic Review
Peter Heinegg

It is easy to be a Jew in England,” said Chaim Weizmann (d. 1952), who was a professor of chemistry at the University of Manchester before becoming Israel’s first president. Well sure—compared with Europe during the Crusades, Tsarist Russia, Nazi Germany or post-1948 North Africa. And haven’t British Jews had all sorts of stunning achievements, from David Ricardo to Benjamin D’Israeli to Rosalind Franklin to Harold Pinter to Elizabeth Taylor? Do we really need this nearly 900-page tome, which combines history, philosophy, social psychology and literary analysis into a massive assault on the English versions of a prejudice that, Julius tells us, “has a place in the history of ideas only in the sense that a burglar has a place in a house”?

Yes, we do, and for a number of reasons. England was the first country to expel all its Jews, in 1290 when Edward I, in G. K. Chesterton’s words, that “tender father of his people” “flung the alien financiers out of the land.” England gave birth to the blood libel, the legend of murderous Jewish plots against gentiles, which was launched in Norwich in 1144 and has spread like blood-spatter all over the world. The nearly four centuries between the expulsion of the Jews and their readmission in 1656 saw a remarkable flourishing of Jew-hatred, proving that, just as in Japan or Poland today, one can have anti-Semitism even without the presence of actual Jews. More ominously, some of that hatred was given shape by geniuses, like Chaucer in “The Prioress’s Tale” (1400) and Shakespeare in “The Merchant of Venice” (1594-96), later abetted by Charles Dickens in Oliver Twist (1837-38).

And the list of eloquent English anti-Semites is a long one: Marlowe, Carlyle, Cobbett, Thackeray, Belloc, T. S. Eliot, Kingsley Amis, among others. Finally, given the Balfour Declaration and the links between England and the rise of the State of Israel, it is no surprise that Britain has been a major source of contemporary anti-Zionism.

The prosecutor of this enormous case, Anthony Julius, is in fact a lawyer: He is deputy chairman of the British firm Mishcon de Reya (he represented, among others, Diana, Princess of Wales) and a scholar-critic who received a Ph.D. from the University of London (where he occasionally teaches) with a thesis on T. S. Eliot’s anti-Semitism. After a long personal introduction, he opens with reflections on the lies and cruelties of the anti-Semites, who in their paranoia demonize a community that, so far from posing any real threat, is “multiply divided and docile.” Julius then surveys 1) medieval English anti-Semitism, from the Norman Conquest on, when Jews were literally the property of the crown, which fleeced and persecuted them at will; 2) literary anti-Semitism; 3) modern English anti-Semitism (roughly up to 1960); and 4) contemporary anti-Zionisms, both secular and religious.

For readers patient enough to stick with him, Julius is a lively guide. He writes briskly and unpedantically (“There is very little that may be said in praise of the 1930s”). He provides a prodigious trove of information, not least of all in his 200 pages of notes, which are not the usual tedious forest of ibid.’s, but an encyclopedic summary of the field with countless useful cues for further reading. On this most partisan and controversial of topics one needs, and we get here, as much data as possible—for instance on the celebrated St. Hugh of Lincoln, an 8- or 9-year-old boy whose body was found in 1255 and whose death led to the execution, on highly dubious evidence, of 19 Jews and to the death sentence (not carried out) for 73 others.

Julius takes us from there all the way up to the present with a huge array of dismal items such as cries of “Send the Jews to Auschwitz” from Arsenal yahoos at a game with Manchester United, or the recent opinion polls showing that only 22 percent of British Muslims believe the Holocaust happened “as history teaches,” and fully 45 percent think that the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, were perpetrated by the Israelis in cahoots with the Americans.

Still, most Westerners probably feel that in their part of the world anti-Semitism is, thank God, a more or less dead issue. Anti-Zionism, though, especially the secular variety, is something else again. Julius admits that there are plenty of nonbigoted arguments to be made against the policies and procedures of various Israeli governments. Just do an Internet search for the word Gaza. But, he maintains, the barrage of criticism one hears, especially in academe and in left-wing circles, is peculiarly one-sided and intemperate.

Thus the journalist John Pilger writes in The New Statesman, “No other country has such a record of lawlessness, not one of the world’s tyrannies comes close.” Huh? What about North Korea? Zimbabwe? Sudan? Some anti-Zionists absurdly put Jews “at the centre of world affairs” (perhaps echoing The Protocols of the Elders of Zion) and look past the crimes of Arab and Muslim regimes while blasting the sins of Israel as unforgivable. (Julius notes that in the first three years of Yassir Arafat’s kleptocracy, more prisoners died in Palestinian Authority jails than in Israeli prisons over 20 years.)

At what point, if any, does anti-Zionism veer into anti-Semitism? That is debatable, of course; but one marker, Julius would insist, is the increasingly frequent (and thoughtless) equation of Israel with Nazi Germany.

Martin Buber was right when he wrote in a letter, “Everything we Jews do takes place on a stage.” When it comes to the Jews, everybody is a critic, including—and sometimes most of all—Jews themselves. Julius describes and evaluates the brigade of vocal anti-Semitic (Otto Weininger) and anti-Zionist (Noam Chomsky) Jews with clarity and fairness. In the end, he wonders whether the problem will ever go away. Many British academics want to boycott Israeli (and only Israeli) universities, and roughly half the British population now think Jews are more loyal to Israel than to the United Kingdom. And, as Julius keeps reminding us, however important the special case of England may be, it has generally been much worse elsewhere.

So it is perfectly understandable that after taking us through a millennium of bias, stupidity and mayhem, after offering a dense and convincing prosecution of anti-Semitism, Julius not only rests his case; he swears he is not going to touch it again. Even the best lawyer can do only so much.

Peter Heinegg is professor of English at Union College, Schenectady, N.Y.