Commentary Magazine


Anthony Julius’s Trials of the Diaspora

In the New York Times Book Review, Harold Bloom reviews Anthony Julius’s monumental new book, Trials of the Diaspora. It is a cover review — an indication of the book’s importance — and a uniformly favorable one: a “strong, somber book” reflecting “extraordinary moral strength.” But even those complimentary terms, from one of America’s leading literary critics, do not begin to convey the scope and magnitude of Julius’s achievement.

The book’s subtitle is A History of Anti-Semitism in England, which itself understates the significance of the book, since the book covers aspects of the psychology and sociology of anti-Semitism that extend far beyond a single country’s experience. Julius has provided probably the most in-depth discussion of the “blood libel” in any volume meant for general readers; and without understanding the blood libel it is impossible to understand the literary power of Shakespeare’s Shylock or Dickens’s Fagin — and without understanding the power of those literary portrayals, one cannot understand modern English anti-Semitism. The literary analysis of Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Dickens in this book is masterful, but even more significant is the connections Julius makes from literature to culture to politics.

Julius is one of England’s most prominent lawyers, best known in America for his representation of Deborah Lipstadt in the libel action that Holocaust denier David Irving brought against her. He also represented Ariel Sharon in connection with the Independent’s anti-Semitic cartoon of Sharon eating a Palestinian child (itself an allusion to the blood libel); he represented the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) against London’s then mayor, Ken Livingstone; both Haifa University and Hebrew University against the Association of University Teachers (AUT); and Israeli universities and Jewish academics against the National Association of Teachers, among other actions — all of which has given him a perhaps unique understanding of contemporary anti-Semitism in England. He is also a literary critic with a gift for a telling phrase, such as his description of certain Jewish ideologists as “proud to be ashamed they are Jews.”

Julius is particularly eloquent on two matters: first, the sheer surreality and incoherence of anti-Semitism:

The Holocaust should have altogether put paid to anti-Semitism. It should have rebutted once and for all the principal anti-Semitic fantasy of malign Jewish power; it should have satiated the appetite of the most murderous anti-Semites for Jewish death. And yet instead it precipitated new anti-Semitic versions or tropes: (a) Holocaust denial, (b) the characterizing of Zionism as an avatar of Nazism, and (c) the cluster of allegations that the Jews are exploiting the Holocaust in support of false compensation claims, the defense of Israeli policies, the defense of Zionism, etc. Many Arab and Muslim anti-Semites somewhat promiscuously embrace all three tropes – denying the Holocaust, praising Hitler, and representing Israel as the successor to the Nazi state.

And second: the enduring power throughout history and into the present of even a surreal and incoherent view of a small people.

Julius acknowledges the need for nuance and judgment in evaluating anti-Semitic sentiment at any particular historical point in time, and the unemotional discussion that characterizes his book makes his conclusion about the present particularly chilling:

Trials of the Diaspora has been written across a period of rising violence and abuse directed at English Jews. Of the present conjuncture, then, my provisional judgment is that it is quite bad, and might get worse. Certainly, it would seem that the closed season on Jews is over.

This is a very important book.