David Wolpe reviews Anthony Julius's "Trials of the Diaspora."
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.
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Trials of the Diaspora, by Anthony Julius
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A blow for sanity.
At some point earlier this year, America’s sources inside the Kremlin went dark. U.S. officials who spoke to the New York Times about their dangerous new blindness said they didn’t believe that their formerly reliable sources had been neutralized. Instead, their spies went into hiding amid a newly aggressive counter-espionage campaign from Moscow. The Times sources offered a variety of theories to explain what could have spooked their assets, but the most disturbing among them was the fact that the Republican-led House Intelligence Committee had exposed a Kremlin-connected FBI and CIA source as part of a campaign of unprecedented disclosures regarding America’s intelligence gathering process.
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Last week, President Trump publicly ordered his Justice Department to declassify the redacted portions of a FISA warrant targeting Trump campaign advisor Carter Page, related FBI interviews, and text message sent by former FBI Director James Comey. These documents were supposedly related to the special counsel’s investigation into his campaign, even though he confessed that he had “not reviewed them.” Of the investigation, the president said, “This is a witch hunt.” The move satisfied many in Congress who insist that the president’s own Justice Department is persecuting him, but Trump confessed that he had ordered the declassification at the behest of his ardent supporters in conservative media such as Lou Dobbs and Jeanine Pirro.
Trump’s order triggered a brief review of the most sensitive aspects of the intelligence he was prepared to declassify, and it seems that this information was sensitive enough that Trump’s advisers were able to convince him of the need to reverse course. And so, he did. On Friday, Trump announced that he would not allow the release of documents that “could have a negative impact on the Russia probe” and would jeopardize American relations with its key allies. And though he reserved the right to disclose these documents in the future, they would not be forthcoming anytime soon.
Trump’s allies in Congress were crestfallen. Three members told Fox News Channel’s Catherine Herridge that they were “blindsided” and “demoralized” by Trump’s about-face, but the president made a sober and rational decision. Not only has the withholding of these documents avoided the appearance of interference with Robert Mueller’s probe, but the president has also preserved America’s intelligence-sharing relationship with what he described as “two very good allies” that objected to the declassification.
Trump’s defenders in Congress who are inclined to flog the “deep-state” conspiracy theory should not be so disconsolate. According to ABC News’ sources, the documents Trump was prepared to disclose—just like documents before them—contained no smoking gun. Their sources insist that the documents and communications at issue would not have confirmed the suspicion among some observers that the FBI’s probe into the Trump campaign was based on the intelligence provided by former MI6 agent Christopher Steele. Instead, they would have confirmed that the investigation into Trump’s campaign began well before the FBI’s receipt of the “Steele dossier.” And when these disclosures failed to satisfy those who are most invested in nursing Trump’s persecution complex, there would be demands for more declassifications and more disclosures.
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RIP Paulina Płaksej.
It’s only Monday evening, which means Americans face another full week of political and cultural squalor. For an antidote, consider Paulina Płaksej, who died Sunday, aged 93. Our former COMMENTARY colleague Daniella Greenbaum broke news of Płaksej’s death on Twitter, which alerted me (and many others) to her inspiring life and that of her family, Polish Catholics who fed, hid, and rescued Jews during the Holocaust.
Zachariasz and Bronisława Płaksej, Paulina’s parents, moved from Lviv, Ukraine, to Kałusz before the outbreak of the war. There, Zachariasz worked as an accountant at a local mine and developed warm relations with the area’s Jews. Toward the end of 1941, when the Nazis forced the Jews of Kałusz into a newly created ghetto with an eye toward their extermination, Zachariasz and his family “acted as couriers, smuggling notes in and out of the ghetto,” according to the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous. Soon, assisting persecuted Jews became the family’s main business.
It helped that they resided on the outskirts of town. As Paulina later recounted, “we lived in seclusion and not in the center of the town, so it was very convenient for us. We were surrounded by gardens, orchards, the river was flowing nearby, and there was a slaughterhouse not far away. The Germans rarely visited this place, so our life was peaceful…” Even before the creation of the ghetto, Jewish children would stop by the Płaksej home for a bowl of hot soup and a brief respite from the cruelty of daily life under occupation.
Her father, Paulina recalled, “was a very religious person, and he believed that you should always help a man, your fellow creature, as our religion has it. The Jewish victim was not simply a Jew, but your fellow, a human being, wasn’t he?”
The Płaksejs took extraordinary risks to that end, creating an underground pipeline from the Kałusz ghetto to safety for Jews targeted for liquidation:
The first family to escape [the ghetto] was Sara, Solomon, and their son, Imek. They temporarily hid at Paulina’s house. When it became too dangerous for them to stay there, Zacharias found a safer place for them to hide. He brought Sara, Solomon, and Imek to a trusted friend who was already hiding Jews in a bunker beneath his barn. Later, another Jewish woman, Rozia, escaped from the ghetto and sought out the Plaksej family. They also brought her to the farmer’s bunker. Paulina regularly brought whatever food and supplies were needed. Sara, Solomon, Imek, and Rozia, along with thirteen other Jews, stayed in this bunker for over a year. To this day, the identity of the farmer is not known.
In 1944 Miriam, another inhabitant of the ghetto, learned that the Germans planned to liquidate the ghetto and deport or murder the inhabitants. Miriam asked Zacharias to save her two-year-old daughter, Maja. Zacharias contacted Miriam’s former maid and arranged for her to come rescue Maja. The maid brought a horse and cart, and the Jewish police helped smuggle the little girl out of the ghetto. The maid told her neighbors that this little girl was her daughter who had just returned from living with her grandparents.
Miriam was in one of the last groups of Jews to be deported to Auschwitz. As her group was marched to the train, Miriam quickly took off her armband and joined the crowds in the street. She went straight to the Plaksej house asking for help. They hid her in their wardrobe for a number of months. Zacharias obtained forged papers for her and took her to another village where she would not be recognized as a Jew. There she was picked up as a Pole and sent to a German farm as a forced laborer. After the war, she returned to the maid’s house, picked up her daughter, and reunited with her husband. Due to the efforts of Paulina and her family, all of the Jews they helped survived the war.
The State of Israel in 1987 recognized Paulina and her parents as Righteous Among the Nations. May we never forget these stories, and may we all strive to follow in their footsteps, even and especially amid our contemporary squalor.
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Podcast: Kavanaugh and Rosenstein.
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A Trump of their own.
There were many arguments for opposing Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency, but the retort usually boiled down to a single glib sentence: “But he fights.”
Donald Trump could accuse John McCain of bringing dishonor upon the country and George W. Bush of being complicit in the September 11th attacks. He could make racist or misogynistic comments and even call Republican primary voters “stupid”; none of it mattered. “We right-thinking people have tried dignity,” read one typical example of this period’s pro-Trump apologia. “And the results were always the same.”
If you can get over the moral bankruptcy and selective memory inherent in this posture, it has its own compelling logic. Driving an eighteen-wheel truck through the standards of decorum that govern political discourse is certainly liberating. If there is no threshold at which the means discredit the ends, then everything is permitted. That kind of freedom has bipartisan appeal.
Democrats who once lamented the death of decency at Trump’s hands were apparently only troubled by their party’s disparity in this new rhetorical arms race. The opposition party seems perfectly happy to see standards torn down so long as their side is doing the demolition.
This week, with passions surrounding Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court reaching a crescendo, Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono demonstrated that Democrats, too, are easily seduced by emotionally gratifying partisan outbursts. “They’ve extended a finger,” Hirono said of how Judiciary Committee Republicans have behaved toward Dr. Christine Blasey Ford since she was revealed as the woman accusing Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct as a minor. “That’s how I look at it.”
That’s an odd way to characterize the committee chairman’s offers to allow Dr. Blasey Ford the opportunity to have her story told before Congress in whatever setting she felt most comfortable. Those offers ranged from a public hearing to a private hearing to a staff interview, either publicly or behind closed doors, to even arranging for staffers to interview her at her home in California. Hirono was not similarly enraged by the fact that it was her fellow Democrats who violated Blasey Ford’s confidentiality and leaked her name to the press, forcing her to go public. But the appeal of pugnacity for its own sake isn’t rooted in consistency.
Hirono went on to demonstrate her churlish bona fides in the manner that most satisfies voters who find unthinking animus compelling: rank bigotry.
“Guess who’s perpetuating all these kinds of actions? It’s the men in this country,” Hirono continued. “Just shut up and step up. Do the right thing.” The antagonistic generalization of an entire demographic group designed to exacerbate a sense of grievance among members of another demographic group is condemnable when it’s Trump doing the generalizing and exacerbating. In Hirono’s case, it occasioned a glamorous profile piece in the Washington Post.
Hirono was feted for achieving “hero” status on the left and for channeling “the anger of the party’s base.” Her style was described as “blunt” amid an exploration of her political maturation and background as the U.S. Senate’s only immigrant. “I’ve been fighting these fights for a—I was going to say f-ing long time,” Hirono told the Post. The senator added that, despite a lack of evidence or testimony from the accuser, she believes Blasey Ford’s account of the assault over Kavanaugh’s denials and previewed her intention to “make more attention-grabbing comments” soon. Presumably, those remarks will be more “attention-grabbing” than even rank misandry.
This is a perfect encapsulation of the appeal of the fighter. It isn’t what the fight achieves but the reaction it inspires that has the most allure. But those who confuse being provocative with being effective risk falling into a trap. Trump’s defenders did not mourn the standards of decency through which Trump punched a massive hole, but the alt-right and their noxious fellow travelers also came out of that breach. The left, too, has its share of violent, aggressively mendacious, and anti-intellectual elements. They’ve already taken advantage of reduced barriers to entry into legitimate national politics. Lowering them further only benefits charlatans, hucksters, and the maladjusted.
What’s more, the “fire in the belly,” as Hillary Clinton’s former press secretary Brian Fallon euphemistically describes Hirono’s chauvinistic agitation, is frequently counterproductive. Her comments channel the liberal id, but they don’t make Republicans more willing to compromise. What Donald Trump’s supporters call “telling it like it is” is often just being a jerk. No other Republican but Trump would have callously called into question Blasey Ford’s accounting of events, for example. Indeed, even the most reckless of Republicans have avoided questioning Blasey Ford’s recollection, but not Trump. He just says what’s in his gut, but his gut has made the Republican mission of confirming Kavanaugh to the Court before the start of its new term on October 1 that much more difficult. The number of times that Trump’s loose talk prevented Republicans from advancing the ball should give pause to those who believe power is the only factor that matters.
It’s unlikely that these appeals will reach those for whom provocation for provocation’s sake is a virtue. “But he fights” is not an argument. It’s a sentiment. Hirono’s bluster might not advance Democratic prospects, but it makes Brian Fallon feel like Democrats share his anxieties. And, for some, that’s all that matters. That tells you a lot about where the Democratic Party is today, and where the country will be in 2020.