Commentary Magazine

The Himmelfarb Declaration

The People of the Book:
Philosemitism in England,
from Cromwell to Churchill

By Gertrude Himmelfarb
Encounter, 183 pages

These are tough economic times, so everyone should appreciate that Gertrude Himmelfarb has frugally packed two important books into one compact volume entitled The People of the Book. The first is a history in the classic Himmelfarbian manner: learned, humane, and elegant. It tells the story of those Englishmen and Englishwomen who championed tolerance and equal rights for England’s Jews, starting with Oliver Cromwell and culminating with Winston Churchill. The second book, embedded in the first, is a shrewd and delicate essay—not about the English past, but about the English present and future.

The history concisely recounts the story of English philo-Semitism. The essay deftly seeks to rebut and counter the new English anti-Semitism.

Since the 17th century, England has been a haven for Jews, a country of physical security, religious liberty, and economic opportunity. One by one, the barriers to full participation dropped in national life. Jews successively gained the right to vote, to hold public office, to sit in Parliament, to attend Oxford and Cambridge. Decades after full emancipation, there lingered a social and cultural anti-Semitism—the kind that Colin Welland, the screenwriter of Chariots of Fire, detected lurking “on the edge of a remark.” Yet even that prejudice faded to nothing in the years after World War II.

Now, notoriously, that prejudice has roared back to life, and not only in the immigrant banlieues, as in France or Belgium, but in the very center of English culture: in the universities, on the BBC, on the covers of intellectual magazines. The new emotion has been rebranded as “anti-Zionism,” but under the new name lurk the same old hatreds and the same old accusations, with the Palestinian Muhammad al-Dura substituting for the 13th-century Hugh of Lincoln as the fictitious child victim of Jewish malevolence.

It is to this new anti-Semitism that Gertrude Himmelfarb’s essay-within-a-history is addressed. Many have written to challenge the new anti-Semitism. Himmelfarb, applying honey rather than vinegar, seeks to shame it away.

In The People of the Book, Himmelfarb adapts to new purposes an arresting observation by the Victorian historian John Richard Green. The foundational act of modern English culture, argued Green, was the translation of the Bible into English by William Tyndale and the editors of the King James Authorized Version:

England became the people of a book, and that book was the Bible. It was the one English book which was familiar to every Englishman; it was read in churches and read at home and everywhere its words, as they fell on ears which custom had not yet deadened, kindled a startling enthusiasm. What the revival of classical learning had done on the Continent was done in England in a far profounder fashion by the translation of the Scriptures.

With this quoted thought, Himmelfarb invites her readers—especially her non-Jewish readers—to contemplate an implied chain of reasoning: The translation of the Bible into English was England’s Renaissance, the basis of all subsequent English culture. That Bible is the work of the Jews, and the largest part of it is the holy text of Judaism. Without Jews and Judaism, there would be no England. And thus when modern-day English people vilify the Jews, they vilify themselves and their own society.

The heroes of Himmelfarb’s story go beyond the French Revolutionaries who accorded equal rights to Jews only as individuals dissolved within Christian-majority communities. These heroes and heroines—the historian Thomas Macaulay, the essayist and poet Matthew Arnold, the novelist George Eliot, the diplomat Arthur Balfour, and the polymathic Winston Churchill—all recognized Jews “as a people and, ultimately, as a nation.”

And here we come to the barb in Himmelfarb’s gentle polemic. Her reasoning against those English who would vilify Jews applies just as forcefully to those English who vilify the Jewish state.

From the Balfour Declaration in 1917 to the creation of Mandate Palestine in 1923 to the growth of the Jewish settlement in Palestine under British auspices (friendly from 1922 until 1936, less friendly after 1937), it was British leaders as much as Jews themselves who opened the way to the reestablishment of a Jewish state. The earlier logic (had it not been for the Jews, there would be no England) goes into reverse after 1917: Had it not been for England, there would be no Israel.

Small beginnings: a draft of the Balfour Declaration, dated July 17, 1917.

The Balfour Declaration was the work of Arthur Balfour, foreign secretary in the wartime coalition government led by David Lloyd George. Balfour was the grandest of English grandees. He had served as prime minister from 1902 through 1905. As a younger politician, Balfour had sought to put restrictions on Jewish immigration into the United Kingdom. But as the debate over Zionism warmed, Balfour was inspired by Jewish aspirations and acted within his power to help realize them. Himmelfarb writes:

Shortly before his death in 1930, Balfour told his niece, in his usual laconic manner, that “on the whole he felt that what he had been able to do for the Jews had been the thing he looked back upon as the most worth doing.” [The Jewish leader Chaim] Weizmann was the last person, apart from his family, privileged enough to visit him on his deathbed. Balfour was too ill to speak, Weizmann too moved to do anything but weep.

It was this aristocrat servant of the British state who delivered the most crushing response to those English men and women, Jewish and non-Jewish, who then or now imagined that the end of Zionism and the overthrow of the Jewish state might somehow dispel Jew-hatred. Himmelfarb paraphrases an essay Balfour wrote in 1919: “[Anti-Jewish] prejudice, where it existed, did not originate with Zionism; nor did Zionism aggravate it.”

As for the claim that Jews should be content to function as a religion without a nationality—or the newer claim by so-called post-Zionists that the state of Israel should divest itself of its Jewishness—Balfour has a reply to that as well, dug up by Himmelfarb:

The position of the Jews is unique. For them race, religion and country are inter-related, as they are inter-related in the case of no other race, no other religion, and no other country on earth. In no other case are the believers in one of the greatest religions of the world to be found (speaking broadly) only among the members of a single small people; in the case of no other religion is its past development so intimately bound up with the long political history of a petty territory wedged in between States more powerful by far than it could ever be; in the case of no other religion are its aspirations and hopes expressed in language and imagery so utterly dependent for their meaning on the conviction that only from this one land, only through this one history, only by this one people, is full religious knowledge to spread through all the world.

They should post that message in the cafeteria at the BBC.

Anthony Julius, in his own powerful 2009 history of English anti-Semitism, Trials of the Diaspora, describes English philo-Semitism as a “past glory.” Himmelfarb repeatedly quotes this phrase, with intensifying rhetorical force. The glory of English tolerance need not be banished to the past. It can live again in the present—as much for the benefit of England’s non-Jews as for England’s Jews.

Philo-Semitism, Himmelfarb argues, “has been so much a part of modern England that it is not always recognized or labeled as such.” It can be perceived in “the respectful attitude that most Englishmen, in most circumstances, have extended to Jews.” Philo-Semitism is embedded in the things that most famously make England English: the spirit of fair play (a concept so distinctively English that the French translate it as le fair play), of “live and let live” and “knock along,” and a dozen other familiar English phrases.

George Orwell quipped that the truest English response to European Fascism was the chorus of a music-hall song:

Oh, you can’t do that here,
No, you can’t do that here.
Maybe you can do that over there,
But you can’t do that here.

Himmelfarb would agree with Orwell. And if the day should come when you “can do that here,” then it’s not only England’s Jews who will have lost. The milestones of Jewish equality in England join a timeline that also includes equality for non-Anglican Protestants, for Catholics, and for women. Now there is pressure to reverse that progress—to exclude Jews who wish to live and act and speak as Jews from English universities, from the English media, from the English political system. One (notoriously intemperate) British journalist, Richard Ingrams, harrumphed in 2003: “I have developed a habit when confronted by letters to the editor in support of the Israeli government to look at the signature to see if the writer has a Jewish name. If so, I tend not to read it.”

Himmelfarb would warn that such a practice of selective delegitimation will not end with the Jews. Just as Jewish inclusion signified inclusion for all, so will Jewish exclusion prefigure the progressive exclusion of many more: gays, or women, or minority expressions of Islam, even possibly the few remaining Christian believers in a de-Christianizing United Kingdom.

Yet at a time when so much of the assessment of the situation of Jews in modern Europe is despairing, Gertrude Himmelfarb has written both a history and a manifesto of hope. The real clue to this ingenious book is contained in its very last words: “My brother Milton Himmelfarb, in one of his last essays, reflected on the question, ‘What do I believe?’ He concluded by quoting the Israeli anthem Hatikvah, ‘Our hope is not lost.’ Those words, he reminds me, were an answer to the contemporaries of Ezekiel, who, more than two-and-a-half millennia ago, had despaired, ‘Our hope is lost.’” “Hope,” Himmelfarb observes, “is a Jewish virtue.”

Gertrude Himmelfarb offers us a promise that hope is not lost for England either, and for much more than England. England is the fountainhead of American culture, too, the source of the liberal philosophical tradition championed by Gertrude Himmelfarb herself, through nearly three-quarters of a century of untiring scholarship and unfailing creativity.

The People of the Book is the 15th work written by a historian who recently turned 89. It’s hard to avoid noticing a certain valedictory tone in the volume. For this reviewer, that is the one element of the essay that is unacceptable. Instead, I return to that Bible that Himmelfarb identifies as the point of fusion of the two great cultural streams she has explained so brilliantly to so many generations of students:

The righteous flourish like the palm tree and grow like a cedar in Lebanon. They are planted in the house of the LORD; they flourish in the courts of our God. They still bear fruit in old age; they are ever full of sap and green.

About the Author

David Frum is the editor and publisher of

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.