Commentary Magazine

Trials of the Diaspora, by Anthony Julius

Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England
By Anthony Julius
Oxford, 861 pages

The novels of the avant-garde writer David Markson include artful compilations of information arranged with his own gnomic comments. His Reader’s Block, for example, is punctuated by the names of notables who were anti-Semitic. In the middle of a page, he drops in “Karl Barth was an anti-Semite” or “Kant was an anti-Semite.” One reads “Jonathan Edwards was an anti-Semite. While acknowledging that he had never met one.” Roald Dahl, Degas, Dostoevsky, Chesterton, Dreiser, Voltaire, Justinian, Chekhov, Saint Ambrose, Robert Lowell, Andre Gide, Chaucer, Toynbee, Juvenal—the list goes on and on. Artists of the English language are no less susceptible to the disease than beer-swilling boors. Thackeray was a mild anti-Semite, Trollope and Kipling somewhat worse, Hilaire Belloc and Dorothy Sayers still worse. Markson’s point is that education, talent, even genius do not render anti-Semitism less likely; they just offer it more potent expression.

Anti-Semitic tropes did not disappear with the conclusion of World War II. Instead, what was once overt has become slightly more muted. Now we have to labor a bit to hear the more artfully disguised accents, whether of the street or the page, for what they really are. The question always arises: what is acceptable criticism when it comes to Jews, their conduct, and their belief system, and what is anti-Semitism, which is commonly understood to be everywhere and always beyond the pale?

Is it an anti-Semitism moment, for example, when in the British philosopher Bryan Magee’s autobiography, Confessions of a Philosopher, the reader is suddenly upended by this: “Of the religions I studied, the one I found least worthy of intellectual respect was Judaism. I have no desire to offend any of my readers, but the truth is that while reading the foundational Jewish texts I often found myself thinking, ‘how can anyone possibly believe this?’” Was it anti-Semitism when Bertrand Russell spoke of the kindness of his New York Jewish hosts but lamented in a letter that “I began to long for the uncircumcised”?

Through most of Trials of the Diaspora, Anthony Julius’s comprehensive history of anti-Semitism in England, the hatred under discussion is undisguised—and reading about it is a dispiriting business. It was the same for Julius, who is one of Britain’s most famous lawyers. The process of writing the book did not enlighten him, he tells us: “I have derived no benefit, either in self-understanding or education, from the undertaking.” The act of producing this necessary book was like “swimming long distance through a sewer.”


Trials of the Diaspora begins by outlining the experience of English Jews. The medieval period is summarized succinctly: “The history of medieval English Jewry is thus in large measure the history of the persecution of medieval English Jewry.” The parade of brutality is crisply rendered: during a brief period in the 13th century, as many as half of all English Jewish males were murdered, most of which taking place in a celebratory atmosphere. They were massacres not of grim duty but of revelry.

Accustomed to thinking of England as among the more tolerant of nations, the lay reader may be surprised to learn that it was on the sceptered isle that the blood libel originated in the 12th century. The allegation that Jews killed Gentile children to bake their blood in Passover matzot was part of an escalating series of persecutions that led to the expulsion of Jews in 1290. This was preceded by smaller, preliminary expulsions, since, as Julius describes the prevailing view of the day, “As much suppose that cash has the right to be deposited in one particular bank, as suppose that the Jews had the right to choose their place of residence.”

The historically naïve might assume that a nation purged of the people it reviles would be freed of its prejudices against them. But the British example demonstrated, as has proved true in postwar Poland and in the former Soviet-bloc countries, that Jews need not be present for the hatred of Jews to flourish. “With the Jews gone, anti-Semitism might have been expected to disappear, too,” Julius writes. “That it did not is attributable to the poets and playwrights.” In other words, literature kept hate alive.

Julius is, among his other distinctions, a literary critic known for his careful and controversial dissection of the anti-Semitism in the work of T.?S. Eliot. The tour d’horizon of English literature in Trials of the Diaspora reminds us that no aesthetic attribute—not poetic sensitivity, artistic insight, expressive capacity—provides the least inoculation against prejudice.

Along with a careful analysis of various less-important works, Julius highlights the three peaks of English anti-Semitic literature: Chaucer’s “Prioress’s Tale,” the depiction of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, and Fagin in Oliver Twist. “The pre-eminent authors of the English literary canon are Chaucer, Shakespeare and Dickens,” Julius writes. “Anti-Semites take pleasure in the fact that they are also the pre-eminent authors of the English literary anti-Semitic canon.”

He does not reduce their complex tales to mere anti-Jewish bile, but he does clarify how effectively the three stoked the nation’s anti-Semitic flames. It is precisely the artistic power of Shakespeare and Dickens that enlarges their characters and makes them indelible and dangerous, elevating them beyond narrative to myth. Shylock was created before Oliver Cromwell readmitted the Jews to England in 1656; Fagin, two centuries after. But each reinforced the stereotypes of supposed Jewish rapacity, dishonesty, and deep hostility to the Christian world that were among the protean bases of anti-Semitism. Although Dickens later repented of the consistent ethnic identification of “Fagin the Jew,” removing “the Jew” in later editions, the damage had been done. The portrait of Jews as “legalistic lawbreakers” was well established.

Julius has not only read deeply; he also displays the forensic skill that made him such an effective advocate in historian Deborah Lipstadt’s defense against the libel suit brought against her in 1996 by the grotesque Holocaust denier David Irving. He concentrates on the categories and typologies of English anti-Semitism. There are major figures, minor figures, subsets of the minor figures; casually dismissive anti-Semites and those who are deeply engaged, to the point of developing their own theories. He separates and codifies the uses of anti-Semitism, the stages of the blood libel, and various other lists that help reduce the chaotic cruelty to something approaching order.

Julius has done all this work because he wants to establish the nature of English anti-Semitism in order to understand the state of English anti-Semitism today. To that end he points to two kinds that have predominated in England. First and most obvious is the brutal or eliminationist strand that characterizes so much of the medieval period and had a brief resurgence in the fascism of the 30s and 40s.

Then there is the anti-Semitism of exclusion, the wounding remark, the contemptuous rebuff. This is anti-Semitism in genteel mode, the anti-Semitism I experienced when, during the year I lived in Edinburgh, I was told by the scion of a country squire that Hitler’s one mistake was “excessive hostility to the gentlemen of the star.” This category is, Julius writes, characterized by “indirection,” by “contempt,” by condescension. In this instance, “It is not Jew-hatred that we must write of, but Jew-distrust.” Or perhaps, he writes, Jew-wariness.

Yet England is also the land of Disraeli, the Jew who became one of the great political leaders of the 19th century, and of Lord Balfour, the early-20th-century prime minister who legally bound the British Empire to the creation of a Jewish homeland. And so the question of England’s treatment of and attitudes toward the Jewish people is a complicated one. From the time of the Jewish readmission to England in the 18th century until the present, he writes, there has been “no state-sponsored persecution, and only a few hostile legislative assaults.” Quoting Geoffrey Field, Julius calls this sort of toffish disdain “anti-Semitism with the boots off.” It speaks in the accents of the litterateur politician Harold Nicolson: “Although I loathe anti–Semitism, I do dislike Jews.”

The essential issue, and the one that prompted the writing of Trials of the Diaspora, is the extent to which anti-Semitism is resurgent, particularly in the guise of anti–Zionism. This is the real burden of Julius’s book, for we who live in the 21st century have learned that, despite the horrors of the Holocaust, “Hitler did not make anti-Semitism impossible.” Indeed Julius announces his motivation when he writes toward the end that “Trials of the Diaspora has been written across a period of rising violence and abuse directed against 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.”

With Communism’s precipitous collapse, the disorientation of the progressive project, Julius theorizes, has left little to tie the disparate strands of the left together. One of them is a sort of vague but fervent anti-imperialism that targets Israel. “It is impossible,” wrote the British nobleman and politician Christopher Mayhew and the BBC journalist Michael Adams in the mid-70s, “to justify the continuance of Israel on legal, historical or moral grounds.” That view has gained ground, as Julius documents. The egregious former member of Parliament George Galloway—with his accusations about the “right wing Zionist press” and his musing on suicide bombing that “the wonder is that there are not more such acts of self-immolation”—is in an ideological league with Ken Livingston, former mayor of London. Livingston has said that Israel is “fueling anger and violence around the world. … For a Mayor of London not to speak out against such an injustice would not only be wrong—but would ignore the threat it poses to the security of all Londoners.” That Israel is the source of a threat to the security of Londoners is consistent with Livingston’s fears of growing “Islamophobia.” Julius quotes an unnamed Times of London columnist who succinctly put it this way: “Muslims are the new Jews.”

This is not exactly a looking-glass world, because Lewis Carroll’s characters in Wonderland understand that they are seeing things upside down. In the present-day Britain described by Julius, a senior member of the House of Commons, Tam Dalyell, feels free to allege that Tony Blair “is unduly influenced by a cabal of Jewish advisers.” Alongside the venomous tropes in the poetry of the celebrated poet Tom Paulin (“Zionist SS”) and the dramaturgy of the eminent playwright Caryl Churchill (whose play Seven Jewish Children has an Israeli character saying of Arabs in Gaza, “Tell her we killed the babies by mistake”), there is a picture here that is more than disquieting. It is alternately frightening and enraging.


The theme that emerges most powerfully from Trials of the Diaspora is the degree to which anti-Semitic ideas have traveled unhindered through the centuries. The blood libel that afflicted Jews in the Middle Ages should be secure in the category of ancient and wicked myths, and yet it is being resurrected in such modern images as a cartoon published in 2003 in the Independent in which Ariel Sharon was shown devouring a Palestinian child.

So too with the endlessly puzzling dichotomy according to which Jews can “rise to superhuman heights in one dimension only to shrivel to sub-human level in another.” Jews, in this imagining, are vermin who rule the world. This is a much commented upon aspect of anti-Semitism that Hyam Maccoby speculated may have had to do with the charge of deicide. After all, who can kill a god but a superhuman devil?

Zionism plays into the motif of Jews as world-destroyers. While the picture of all-powerful Jews would seem inconsistent with the powerlessness of the Jewish community in World War II, such contradictions do not bother the anti-Semite, who can hold both notions simultaneously in his poisoned mind. In the end, one can hate Jews for almost anything, as anti-Semitism has no consistent content other than hate itself.

Thus, people wish Israel to disappear because it is an imposition on a land in which Jews have no history and because Jews have too much history. Because they are an alien culture in the Arab Middle East and because they should really be part of a one-state solution in the Arab Middle East. Because they are aggressive and militarily competent and because they look to the United States to save them. Because they are innovators, technological wizards, and concerned with money, and because they contribute nothing of value to the world and leech off others.

But never, of course, because Israel is Jewish.

Anthony Julius has written a long and profoundly gripping volume about a nation that has been by turns brutal and tolerant. These days, Britain’s benevolence toward Jews is waning. The Trials of the Diaspora are not over.

About the Author

David Wolpe is the rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and the author, most recently, of Why Faith Matters

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