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Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England, by Anthony Julius.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.  811 pp.  $45.00.


Anthony Julius’s Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England is full of convictions. This is evident in its passionate sense of purpose, its assessment of the literal and literary trials endured by Anglo-Jews over several centuries, and its attempts to convict those currently espousing a “new configuration of anti-Zionisms” (p. xxxvii). Of course, Julius is comfortable with trials. Although he has published on T.S. Eliot and antisemitism, he is best known as the lawyer in two major cases: the divorce proceedings of Princess Diana and the libel case against historian Deborah Lipstadt, who triumphed over Holocaust-denier David Irving. But Julius traces his interest in anti-Jewish prejudice even earlier, to childhood memories, his first investigations of antisemitism in literature while at Oxford, and his “solidarity . . . with other Jews” (p. xxi). These experiences—as well as a wide range of sources—inform this significant, tendentious book.  

              In an 1878 essay on Jews and Englishness, George Eliot described “something specifically English which we feel to be supremely worth striving for, worth dying for.” But is there “something specifically English” about antisemitism, an English antisemitism? Julius answers yes, viewing England as “innovative” in formulating anti-Jewish tropes and accusations, even if other nations subsequently took these to greater extremes (p. 128). He correctly recognizes that antisemitism is “among the most versatile of hatreds” (p. 26), overburdened with contradictory stereotypes. Efforts to organize these stereotypes can take on an almost Victorian fondness for taxonomies (differentiating between “scoffs,” “scorns,” “remarks,” “insults,” etc.). More helpful are the four overarching kinds of antisemitism Julius charts. He begins with medieval England, where a violent antisemitism both cultural and institutional culminated in the 1290 expulsion of Jews. Analyzing the expulsion’s consequences, Julius finds its radicalism paradoxically enabled the second stage of antisemitism: the more moderate, “minor” version seen from the 1660s, when Jews began to return under Oliver Cromwell, to the 1960s, when his third and most controversial stage (the “anti-Zionisms” mentioned above and examined below) begins.

              Concurrent with these historical stages is Julius’s fourth kind of antisemitism: that articulated in literature. As he notes, antisemitism is uniquely located at the heart of the English canon, especially in the nearly holy trinity of Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Dickens. Julius offers thought-provoking but questionable interpretations of each. The discussion of Dickens’ Oliver Twist highlights Trial’s virtues and vices. On the one hand, Julius makes a compelling connection between Fagin, the villainous Jew who preys upon little Oliver, and the “blood libel.” Seeing this as a “largely unnoticed, master theme” of English literary representations of Jews (p. 153), Julius defines the blood libel as the belief that Jews seek the blood of Christians (especially children) for ritual or pleasure. He argues for the blood libel’s persistence from the medieval ballad “Sir Hugh, or the Jew’s Daughter” to Caryl Churchill’s 2009 play Seven Jewish Children. Julius also shows Oliver’s influence, with Fagin joining Shylock as a signifier of Jewish malignancy in the English imagination. (Though I hesitate to recommend adding to a book already 811 pages, I would have appreciated consideration of Oliver’s musical/film versions, as well as recent popular culture more generally. A paragraph on antisemitism in football chants—the popular medieval ballad’s modern equivalent?—was tantalizing but tiny.)

              On the other hand, at times the discussion of Oliver suffers from tunnel vision. For instance, Julius reads the novel as a melodrama, a genre that “stages an expulsion of evil . . . [and] denies the ambiguous” (p. 202) in ways analogous to antisemitism itself. But this diminishes the novel’s own ambiguities. For Oliver Twist, or the Parish Boy’s Progress is, as its title implies, compiled from various genres (bildungsroman, Newgate novel, parable, social critique), a novel that, like its protagonist, is trying to find its way in a new literary world. In fact, it echoes the genre-blending of Merchant of Venice, which Julius nicely deems a “revenge comedy” (p. 189).

              Similarly, when Julius includes Dickens’ explanation for labeling Fagin “the Jew”—it’s “not because of [Fagin’s] religion, but because of his race”—an opportunity is missed to fully investigate this slippery notion of Jewishness: is it racial, religious, cultural, or national? Was Dickens’ view typical? What does it suggest about Victorian antisemitism that this could be considered a good defense as opposed to just offensive? Although it deals briefly with race, Trials downplays its relevance. (The assertion that antisemitism is distinctive largely because racism is “rarely ambiguous” is belied by much literature, including Oliver, not to mention recent political debates (p. xliv).) Yet the question of how to define Jewishness has been—and still is—of perennial concern both without and within Anglo-Jewry. Indeed, Jewishness’s real and perceived malleability is part of what has, perversely, allowed antisemitism to endure, adapting itself to new habits, desires, and anxieties.

              Tracking this endurance, the last three chapters explore the “modern English mentalité.” Julius skillfully captures the “quotidian” antisemitism that operates “by stealth,” by what is not said as much as what is (pp. xxxix, xx). But the book’s real target is “contemporary anti-Zionisms,” both secular and religious. While this is a trend across Europe, Julius notes the distinctive English engagement with Israel and Palestine from the Balfour Declaration, to the British Mandate, to recent proposed boycotts of Israeli universities. Citing examples from politics, academia, and journalism, he makes the case that the rhetoric deployed in some critiques of Israel slides into critiques of Jews as such, as opposed to of specific policies (some of which Julius himself condemns). He also raises valid questions about the willingness of certain critics of Zionism to look the other way when antisemitism seeps into the discourse, though it is hard to believe that “many former leftists have abandoned the internationalism of the proletariat for the transnationalism of the Islamic umma” (p. 454). 

              Moreover, in challenging these critics, Julius blurs causality and correlation. Consider the following passage:             

Every new poisoning allegation against Jews or the Jewish State is historically freighted, containing within it every previous such allegation—just as every call to boycott Jews or the Jewish State contains within it every previous such call. Anti-Semitism’s discursive history makes this unavoidable. A poisoning allegation, a boycott call, can never be innocent. (pp. 97–98)

That last sentence elides two unequal things and exposes a larger concern: inevitably some antisemite once employed every form of protest, from Parliamentary speeches to letter writing campaigns to marches—indeed, Trials itself provides numerous examples. If such tactics are “never . . . innocent,” then how can one criticize Israel without being presumed guilty?

              Still, these moments show the book’s struggle with pivotal questions: how much does the past haunt the present? How to reconcile today’s comparative freedoms with the nagging sense of disquiet experienced by some Anglo-Jews? Trials does not convict on all counts, but its relevant examination of English antisemitism deserves its day in court.

Sarah Gracombe

Stonehill College