Commentary Magazine

Jewish Writing in England

Not very long ago I was invited to appear on a Brains Trust at a Jewish function in London. One of the questions put to the members of the panel was: “When do we know, as readers, that a work is ‘Jewish’?” I offered what seemed to me a very simple rule-of-thumb answer; I said that if we were reading a work about Jews by a Jewish writer, then we could pretty safely assume that the work was Jewish. If anything, I felt this answer was too narrow to be satisfactory; I was all the more surprised, therefore, when the other members of the panel rounded indignantly upon me for my lack of critical zeal. A work was not Jewish, they said, simply because it happened to be by a Jew and about Jews: a work could be called Jewish only when . . . and here each of them went into a description of the qualities he or she most desired in any work of literature which dealt in any way with Jews or Jewish themes. A work could be called Jewish only if it was suffused with reverence for the Jewish past; only if it was imbued with a real knowledge of Jewish traditions; only if it portrayed sympathetically the struggles of the Jewish people in the contemporary era; only if it had the effect of consolidating the fellow-feelings that Jews had toward one another—and so on. These sentiments were much applauded by the audience, and on that note the discussion ended.

Altogether, that little exchange that evening left me with the feeling that one of the main problems facing the Anglo-Jewish writer today is the Anglo-Jewish audience. It is an audience which wants, above all else, to be comforted; it wants to be continually assured that its ways are just, its habits good, its impulses generous, its traditions ennobling and fully alive, its institutions worthy of reverence. Now it is obvious that only people who are deeply insecure are as much in need of comfort and reassurance as parts of the Jewish audience repeatedly show themselves to be. And what they are insecure about—we need no psychoanalyst to tell us—is their relationship to their own Jewishness, and the relationship of that Jewishness to the outside world: the outside world which will, it is supposed, “use” against the Jews any indiscretion on the part of the Jewish writer.

That the Jewish audience, or parts of it, should be insecure in this way, may be something to regret, but it can hardly be a matter for surprise and indignation. In point of fact, I don't believe that the Anglo-Jewish community is in this respect much more hypersensitive than any other—witness the very interesting article, “Writing About Jews,” by Philip Roth, published n few months ago in COMMENTARY,1 in which he described some hostile Jewish reactions to his own work. Mr. Roth was surprised and indignant; perhaps for this reason he didn't altogether avoid the self-righteousness which he was condemning in others. Nevertheless, he did make plain just how timorous and comfort-seeking a large part of the American Jewish audience is in its attitude toward its writers. I mention his article particularly because, in view of the things I intend saying about the American-Jewish writers and the community from which they come, I don't want it to be supposed that I imagine all is well, everything is easy for the Jews over there, while only we here in England have it hard.

Still, in considering the present state of Anglo-Jewish writing, a good point of departure is the vigor and audacity of the work of the many American-Jewish writers—novelists, poets, critics, sociologists—who at least since the end of the Second World War have been finding a wide, attentive audience within the United States. In addition to those whose names are well established, any reader of the American periodicals will know that there is an appreciable number of other, younger men and women who are producing work of genuine literary merit and of great Jewish interest. We in England have nothing comparable. I know that there is some self-congratulation, and some unease, within the Anglo-Jewish community about the number of novelists and playwrights who have recently emerged here; and this development is interesting and encouraging. But critically speaking, it can hardly be denied that very little indeed of what has been done here begins to compare in quality with what the best of the Americans are doing.

Why should this be so? Why have we—if someone who has lived in England, on and off, for only ten years can speak of “us”—why have we not done better? What conditions are there in the Anglo-Jewish community, and in English society at large, which have inhibited a strong, distinctive literary exploration of Anglo-Jewish experience? Why is our contribution to English writing, and especially to modern English writing, so small?


The answer I would like to put forward might strike many English Jews as curious or perhaps even absurd. My belief is that the Jewish contribution to English writing has been as meager as it is because the Anglo-Jewish community has not vet found any role for itself, as a community, 10 play in the life of the country as a whole. Furthermore, I believe that the character of English society as such makes it peculiarly difficult for the Anglo-Jewish community to find a satisfactory and rewarding role for itself.

But why, it may be asked, am I going off on a search for complicated explanations of the paucity of good Anglo-Jewish writing when there is a very simple one at hand: the paucity of Jews in England? How can I compare the five million Jews in the United States, concentrated in great cities like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, with the 450,000 Jews in this country? The community here is one-tenth of the size of that of the United States. Have we not, in our minuscule way, done well enough? Isn't that the answer to the problem—or pseudo-problem—I have raised? And can't we leave it at that, with no hurt feelings on any side?

I don't believe that we can. I don't believe that numbers alone provide an answer to the problem. I could mention here the example of the German-Jewish community, which was only very slightly larger than the Anglo-Jewish community, and which yet produced writers and thinkers who can be said without exaggeration to have transformed the world's consciousness. But I would also like to mention a much more modest example, with which I am much more familiar: the South African-Jewish community. That community is only about a quarter of the size of the one in England, but it has played a part in the intellectual life of South Africa out of all proportion to its numbers. Admittedly, South African intellectual life is not—never has been—very imposing, strenuous, or dense; the South African Jews did not have to compete, as it were, in the writing of books, in the universities, the law courts, or the theaters, with any established, formidable intellectual institutions and traditions such as England can boast of. But once that consideration has been brought into the discussion, we are no longer talking of numbers as the simple, decisive factor in the argument, and have begun instead to talk of roles, of opportunities, of the character of the general society in which the particular Jewish community has found itself.

As to all these, my pessimistic thesis is that there has been no place in England for the Jews; that this is something of which the English Jews have been aware; and that it has constricted them culturally and imaginatively in many significant ways. To say this is not to suggest that the English are peculiarly anti-Semitic, or especially hostile to the establishment and maintenance of the Jewish community here. That would clearly be untrue. The community is well-established and, as countries in Europe go, anti-Semitism has never been much of a problem in England, least of all a political problem. Nor am I suggesting that it is impossible for individual Jews to achieve distinction in any sphere of English intellectual life: how untrue that would be is shown to us by the number of eminent Jews who have managed to do so.

But I am suggesting that English society, as we have it today and as we have had it in the past, is inimical to the development within the Jewish community of a sense of that community's being in any way whatsoever central to the society. It is inimical to the community's feeling itself entitled to test within its own experience the major assumptions and ambitions, the ideals and realities, of the society as a whole. The irony is that English society is inimical to this development for reasons which contribute greatly to the attraction of living in England, and to the strength and resourcefulness of the English character.

The first thing which strikes an outsider about English society is its cohesiveness and continuity—its “organic” quality, to use a word which is much in fashion today. (True, the people who use the word habitually do so in a context of deploring the disappearance of that quality from English life. It may be that from within they are entitled to speak as mournfully as they do; but from without these things strike the onlooker rather differently.) To the outsider, in spite of all the changes which have overtaken English society during the last decades, England remains a country inhabited by what still appears to be in some curious way a single family. (I am leaving out of account the Scots, Irish, and Welsh, who have their own wars with England to conduct; let us fight on one front at a time.) A single family, moreover, which has been in possession of its estate for so long that it has forgotten—or has never felt the need—to specify to itself just how it came into its estate, what the rights of each member of the family should be, or how he came by those rights which he does evidently possess. Like any house that has been lived in for a long time by one family, England is, in fact, a muddle, even a mess. But the muddle—look at the position of the Church of England “as by law established”; or the monarchy; or the ancient universities; or the way the law is administered; or the class system, which has always seemed to me, in its very deviousness, self-absorption, and malice, one of the things that make the English, on every level of society, most like a single family—the muddle is symptomatic of the unity of the country, and of the unspoken, inexplicit, taken-for-granted quality that this unity has.

The English preen themselves so much on their “empiricism” that one is reluctant to say anything in praise of it; yet it is true that England is a country which is committed to a remarkable degree to precedent, custom, and usage, and very little to abstract theory. It is through muddles like those I have mentioned—and one could easily think of others—that the English character has expressed itself, around them that the English have built up their institutions, and from within them that English litereture looked at over a long period, has emerged. The muddles work as well as they do because the members of the family know each other as well as they do: they know more or less what to expect from each other. The question facing the Jewish community in England is: how does one become a member of this family? Can one become a member of it? And if one is not a member of it, what is one doing here?


All this may seem to some readers pretty remote from what we usually think of as literature or literary problems, Jewish or otherwise: very remote indeed from the individual writer sitting in his room with a blank page in front of him and wondering how he is going to fill it. But every writer who is at all deeply engaged in his work must be aware, with a greater or lesser degree of consciousness, of the nature of the society in which his work will take its place, and in which he hopes it will have its effect; and the nature of his work must be affected by that awareness. And if there is any truth in what I have been suggesting, the Anglo-Jewish writer is confronted—not in any abstract way, but at every turn—by a society which has its very being in ways which exclude him from a feeling of true intimacy with it. It is a society by descent, so to speak; an inheritance; a family which, like all families, resists any attempt on the part of anyone outside it to re-order its affairs, or even simply to share quietly in them. One may perhaps regard the fact that the English literary tradition is riddled with anti-Semitism of every conceivable variety as an example of that resistance. Yet this is the tradition from which the Anglo-Jewish writer has to learn his craft.

If we turn by way of comparison to conditions in the United States, the first thing that has to be said is that there is enough of Europe, enough of England even, in that country to make some of what I have said applicable there, too. Yet the differences, ultimately, are more striking than the similarities. When one looks at the United States, one cannot help feeling that the American-Jewish community occupies a critical place, a place of particular sensitivity, in the life of the country as a whole, and that the writers who have emerged from that community have an authority. given them by their society, to ask what questions they like of it, and to test the answers on their own pulses. To put it very crudely, their authority, their place, is given to them, in the first instance, by the Declaration of Independence, with its programmatic declaration that all men are created equal; and, even more momentously, by that formal written Constitution which England lacks, and which, among other things, specifically guaranteed freedom of conscience in religious matters. I referred a moment ago to English society as having “its very being” in ways which exclude the Jewish writer from a feeling of true intimacy with it. In precisely the same sense, I would now say that the American society has “its very being” as an existing entity, as a state among other states, by a promise of full admission to the Jews, along with many others.

Being the traditional outcasts and victims of the orders of the Old World, the Jews are in the strongest of positions to compare the realities of life in the United States with the ideals the country has declared for itself, the living assumptions of the society with its stated ones, its achievements with its ambitions. The Negroes have perhaps an even greater right than the Jews to be regarded as the test cases of American civilization, and they are now asserting that right with great vigor. But the Jews, in their own way, have always been concerned to assert it, too. And one of the ways they are doing it, now that the community is no longer mainly made up of immigrants, now that it has won for itself some wealth, status, and leisure, is through its writers. The American-Jewish writers are asking large questions of their country; they are asking America to justify itself to them as Jews, as Americans—as both equally. That they feel themselves fully entitled to do this remains true no matter how unequal men in the United States really are, no matter how much exclusion the Jew, as a Jew—or the Negro as a Negro—may suffer. In fact, as the Negroes are now showing, the more a group is excluded, the more challenging it must become to any American's idea of himself and his country.


Is there any role comparable to that of the American-Jewish community which the Anglo-Jewish community can play in the life of England, and which its writers can make articulate in imaginative works? Quite frankly, it is difficult for me to imagine one. Yet the Anglo-Jewish writer is committed, willy-nilly, to looking for some such role, to trying to create one for himself, if only because he uses the English language and so cannot help mediating between the group he comes from and the larger group he must find himself addressing. The strains of the search are shown clearly enough in the work that the best Jewish writers have done in this country. There are three writers I am thinking of in particular, none of them contemporary, whose examples are of special interest: each tried to make use of Jewish themes in his work, and to relate these themes to his preoccupations as a writer in English, of England; otherwise they have nothing in common. The three I am thinking of are Disraeli, Zangwill, and—the least known, but the most gifted in purely literary terms—Isaac Rosenberg, the poet, who died in the trenches of the First World War.

Disraeli, as we know, was a chameleon—a fantasist and a consummate politician, a Tory and a radical, a believer in an alliance of the aristocracy and the poor, an upholder of the Established Church and a self-conscious, indeed a racist, Jew. When he came to deal with the Jews in his fiction he was anxious to assert that he, a Sephardic Jew, was for just that reason an aristocrat, a member of the most ancient, the most enduring, the most blue-blooded aristocracy of all. This fantasy blended curiously well with others that he nourished, especially the fantasy of his passionate, romantic imperialism. What, I suppose, his imperialism had in common with his Semitism (I can't think of any other name for his thoughts on the Jews) was internationalism—an internationalism which reflected his own profound alienation from the established, traditional “Little England” of his political opponents; an internationalism which showed the extremes to which he was pushed by his search for self-justification as a Jew, as a writer, and as a political aspirant.

Disraeli failed to make art of his Jewish and imperialist fantasies; the truly astonishing thing is that he did manage for a time to make successful politics out of them. However, even his political legacy isn't one to which any of us would now like to make much claim. Imperialism is over and done with; and so too, I hope, is the talk of “race” that he so much delighted in. So it wouldn't seem that there is much we can now hope to learn, directly, from his strange example; there is no path he took which we can imagine ourselves following. Can we learn more from Zangwill? I think not. Zangwill was a serious man, and so he was serious about his Jewishness, as his misguided but fervent sponsorship of the Territorialist Movement at the turn of the century showed. But as a writer of fiction (and I admit that it is a long time since I last read him, and I may be doing him an injustice), he was a purveyor of exotica. This is a task which many Jewish writers have been tempted to perform; some are still tempted by it today. But even when the Jews were really a strange and unfamiliar people in England, the task was a self-limiting one; today it is vacuous.

Lastly, there is Isaac Rosenberg, who was just finding himself as a poet when he was killed. In the Collected Poems we can watch him struggling, on his own, with wonderful originality and courage, to set aside the prevailing notions of what poetry should be, and to create the kind of poetry in which the telling of truth would be possible. He succeeded in a handful of poems which, I believe, will give him a permanent place in the history of English poetry. But there is only that handful; we cannot say how his talent would have developed, we cannot know how he would have dealt further with the Jewish and Biblical themes which recur throughout his work, and which express both his sense of estrangement from the world he was writing for—even his estrangement from the language he was learning to use with such power—and his radical dissatisfaction with that estrangement, his determination to find a way out of it. This last aspect of his work is one of the most inspiriting things about it; there was nothing passive in his attitude to the isolation of his own position; he was determined to understand and to overcome it, to express fully and with authority everything he was and had experienced. But he died before he had the opportunity to do so.


Not surprisingly, the examples I have mentioned have been, with the equivocal exception of Rosenberg, as discouraging as the argument I intended them to illustrate. Yet what does surprise me, looking back, is the cheerfulness of the two major assumptions which have been implicit within that argument. The first assumption is that English society is going to maintain its past and present cohesiveness, to keep in good repair its continuity with its own past, to retain its distinctiveness and individuality. The second assumption is that the Jewish community in England is also going to remain a recognizable, distinctive community, with a future ahead of it as long as its past. These are optimistic assumptions. Even if we try to set aside the dangers which threaten our sheer existence, it could be argued by a more thoroughgoing pessimist than myself that distinctions of the kind I've been dealing with are doomed anyway: that technological developments and their cultural consequences are making it inevitable that England, like the rest of the world, should be sundered from its past, shorn of true, living traditions, and deprived of any distinctive future; that we are all becoming parts of one shapeless, neutered mass. A pessimist would say that I have been talking about so many archaic trivialities, nothing more.

But if my optimistic assumptions are correct, if English society is to endure in all its individuality, it is also certain that it will have to change radically. Some of these changes are already taking place, with more or less pain. No longer a great imperial power, England has yet become the metropolitan country for a host of new states and societies whose language is a kind of English and whose ambitions for themselves are modeled, in however distorted a fashion, upon English patterns. The influx of colored immigrants is doing more than reinforce among the English old prejudices (though that is happening all too often); it is forcing them to deal consciously with problems they have hitherto managed to ignore, or whose mishandling by others they have been able simply to deplore from a distance. England's relationship to Europe has become a subject of continual debate; and the notion that this country has nothing to learn, intellectually or culturally, from the United States has by now been pretty thoroughly discredited. And, though it may seem a very minor matter to mention among such big issues, I think it worth recording that there is a surprisingly large number of writers from the Commonwealth countries whose books are being read here, and whose work is being absorbed into the English idea of what their literature is about. The country—the family—is being prized open. One can hope that, having its own special experience of English life to bring, the Anglo-Jewish community will be able to take advantage of, and contribute positively to, the flexibility and openness that English society must now develop.

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