Antony Lerman is the former director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research in London and former editor of Patterns of Prejudice, an international academic journal on racism and anti-Semitism. He has been writing and lecturing on contemporary anti-Semitism for more than twenty years.
A review essay on Anthony Julius, Trials of the Diaspora:
A History of Anti-Semitism in England
Asked why he had never addressed the problem of anti-Semitism, the eminent Jewish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, born in Poland in 1925, is reported to have replied, “You can’t be a bird and an ornithologist at the same time.” You needn’t agree completely with this sentiment to acknowledge that it captures something of the dilemma that a Jew may face when writing about anti-Semitism, especially in its contemporary form, and especially if he or she writes “as a Jew.” With the Holocaust still painfully fresh in people’s minds and anti-Semitism a continuing blight on society, maintaining dispassionate objectivity might be too difficult a challenge to meet. Nevertheless, the fact that many recent books about contemporary anti-Semitism have been written by Jews suggests that Bauman’s opinion is not widely shared. It’s certainly not shared by Anthony Julius, who readily admits that his being Jewish was a significant reason for writing Trials of the Diaspora, a study of English anti-Semitism from medieval times to the present. If you think Bauman’s aphorism would not apply to a study bearing the words “A History” in its subtitle, you would be wrong. Julius has his sights set firmly on anti-Semitism today.
The problem of objectivity is particularly acute because the subject of anti-Semitism is now highly politicized. Two or three decades ago there was, broadly speaking, a shared understanding of what counted as anti-Semitism: for example, the hatred of Jews per se; the accusation that Jews secretly conspire worldwide to control the media, the banks and government for their individual and collective advantage and profit; the belief that Jews were responsible for both communism and capitalism; the charge that the Holocaust never happened and was invented by Jews in order to extort money from the Germans. Certainly academic historians have always differed over the precise definition of the term. But today’s differences have very little to do with discussions about whether a word coined in the 1870s can be used to describe all varieties of Jew-hatred going back 2,000 years.
These days, when Jew-hatred is publicly identified, it mostly gets called the “new anti-Semitism”—essentially, extreme criticism of Israel said to contain anti-Semitic tropes or to be indistinguishable from anti-Semitism, and commonly called “anti-Zionism.” Bitter arguments rage over what constitutes anti-Semitism. Scholarship struggles to hold its own in a field—more accurately, a battleground—dominated by politically motivated columnists and fiercely partisan politicians and public figures. But many who study anti-Semitism fundamentally dispute the existence of a new type of anti-Semitism and reject the notion that anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are indistinguishable. Either way, a fundamental change in the discourse has undoubtedly occurred: rare is the discussion about anti-Semitism today that does not center on Israel and Zionism. No one writing about current Jew-hatred could fail to be aware of this. Julius himself acknowledges “the current confusion, as well as much deliberate obfuscation, about what counts as anti-Semitism,” and says that disagreements over this “are quite new to anti-Semitism’s history.” One measure, then, against which Julius’s book must be judged is if it mitigates or exacerbates the anti-Semitism wars.
Whether he reluctantly acquired or actively sought it, Anthony Julius has celebrity status. The deputy chairman of the London law firm Mishcon de Reya, Julius was thrust into the public eye in 1996 as the lawyer acting for Diana, Princess of Wales, in her divorce from Prince Charles. Soon enough Julius was back in the limelight when he represented the American Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt in the high-profile and spectacularly unsuccessful libel case brought against her and her British publisher, Penguin Books, by the writer David Irving. Irving claimed that Lipstadt had defamed him as an anti-Semite in her book Denying the Holocaust: she had described him as a Holocaust denier. The trial lasted ten weeks, at the end of which the judge ruled that Lipstadt’s description of Irving was accurate.
Julius writes in Trials of the Diaspora that to encounter “Jew-hatred without any disguise or pretence…one has either to be unlucky or else zealous in seeking it out.” As a schoolboy and a student of English literature at Cambridge in the 1970s, and then as a lawyer, he learned how English anti-Semitism operates: “by stealth, by indirection, by tacit understandings and limited exclusions.” In time, he chose to seek it out, as counsel for the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the official representative body of the British Jewish community, advising Israeli universities threatened with an academic boycott and engaging in public debate on the “version of anti-Zionism” that “has the potential of…sliding into anti-Semitism.” Julius acknowledges that these experiences have informed his attitude to the subject and his decision to write this book. He has undertaken a personal mission, albeit one he finds distasteful: “While I acknowledge that anti-Semitism needs to be examined, I do not do so with any relish. It is only because so much anti-Semitic rubbish has now accumulated on England’s lawns…that a clean-up of the kind represented by this book has become necessary. But I have derived no benefit, either in self-understanding or education, from the undertaking.” Yet however personal the undertaking, the author avers, “the relevant genre within which I have written it has had to be the impersonal work of scholarship.” By the last page, there is no doubt that Julius feels he has been through a lot on our behalf: to study anti-Semitic nonsense “is to immerse oneself in muck. Anti-Semitism is a sewer. This is my second book on the subject and I intend it to be my last.” (His first, T.S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism, and Literary Form, appeared in 1995.) These personal revelations might ruffle some readers, but given the fraught and very public nature of debate on the subject, it would have been a mistake to conceal them.
Autobiography completed, Julius embarks on a roller coaster of a journey. After discussing and rather excessively categorizing enmities and defamations in Chapters 1 and 2, he begins the historical narrative in Chapter 3 by examining the radical anti-Semitism of “defamation, expropriation, murder, and expulsion” present in medieval England up to the general expulsion in 1290. This first gave way to literary anti-Semitism, discussed in Chapter 4; then, as Julius shows in a return to historical narrative in Chapter 5, from the time of the readmission in 1655 to the late twentieth century it developed into a “quotidian anti-Semitism of insult and partial exclusion, pervasive but contained.” In a further shift of mode, Julius discusses the mentality of modern English anti-Semitism in Chapter 6, before reaching the final two chapters on “anti-Zionisms,” which focus mostly on the past ten years. Julius believes that “quotidian anti-Semitism has been waning” but that “in the last decades it has been supplemented by an anti-Semitic anti-Zionism that many English Jews find truly frightening.”
By any stretch of the imagination, Trials of the Diaspora is very thin history, and whether out of intellectual chutzpah or disdain for the reader, Julius makes no attempt to hide the fact. At the beginning of Chapter 6, just over halfway through the main text, he declares, “So much for the history.” Indeed, the history itself relies heavily on secondary sources, many of which Julius uses simply to support his arguments. He barely engages with scholars or researchers who put forward a different point of view. He plays fast and loose with context, using it when it suits him and ignoring it when it might weaken his arguments. In distinctly ahistorical fashion, he leaps back and forth between periods. This is not serious historical scholarship.
Equally problematic, but very revealing, is Julius’s definition of anti-Semitism. He confidently rejects as false the wider definition of hatred of Jews as “a continuously present, integral aspect of a single ‘mentality,’ summarily identified as ‘Western civilization.’ ” He continues: “While I have not myself departed from common usage, and therefore write of ‘anti-Semitism,’ I nonetheless reject most of the term’s implications—and all of its claims.” This startling statement is followed by an opaque one: “I regard anti-Semitism as a discontinuous, contingent aspect of a number of distinct mentalités and milieus, none of which has so dominated the West as to make dissenting perspectives impossible.” The fog lifts when Julius writes, “There is no essence of anti-Semitism. It is instead in the irreducible plurality of its forms of existence that ‘anti-Semitism’ is to be understood and studied.”
For three-quarters of the book this definition is hardly relevant, since by Julius’s own admission the patterns of English anti-Semitism from the medieval period to the 1960s show considerable continuity. But since Julius believes that the “new anti-Semitism” is the same as the “new anti-Zionism,” the usefulness of the definition for the remaining two chapters, which explore “anti-Semitic anti-Zionisms,” becomes clear. Essentially, Julius argues that anti-Semitism is so heterogeneous, it’s whatever he says it is, thereby justifying the equating of “anti-Zionisms” with anti-Semitism. With all this ground covered before the end of the introduction, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the unmasking of anti-Semitic anti-Zionism in the book’s last two chapters is Julius’s central, teleological aim, and that the principal purpose of the preceding chapters is to prepare the way. At this point Trials of the Diaspora begins to look even less like history and more like the case for the prosecution.
Julius calls English anti-Semitism “a story of an anti-Semitism that shrinks from being named anti-Semitic…. It is not Jew-hatred that we must write of, but Jew-distrust…. It is a story of snub and insult, sly whisper and innuendo, deceit and self-deception.” But it was not like that before the expulsion. “In medieval England,” he writes, “Jews were defamed, their wealth was expropriated, they were killed and injured, they were subjected to discriminatory and humiliating regulation.” This “war against the Jews” was largely, but not solely, fueled by blood libel, the false and sensational accusation that “Jews periodically trapped, tortured and then killed Christian boys” and used their blood for ritual purposes. During the hundreds of years Jews were banished from Britain, Jew-hatred was kept alive by literary works that drew heavily on the blood libel theme, such as Chaucer’s “The Prioress’s Tale” and Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.
For Julius blood libel was the most significant defamation “Anglo-Jewry was tormented with” during the medieval period, and “it continues to overshadow many Jews’ lives today,” providing “the governing trope in characterizations of Israel and the Zionist project.” Julius argues that the deaths of Palestinian children in the Israel-Palestine conflict are frequently portrayed using blood libel motifs. As evidence that blood libel lives on in twenty-first-century England, he cites two controversial literary works: a nine-line poem by Tom Paulin, “Killed in Crossfire,” published in 2001 in the Observer, about a Palestinian boy “gunned down by the Zionist SS,” and an eight-minute play by Caryl Churchill, Seven Jewish Children, performed at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 2009, in which Jewish adults agonize over how to explain to Jewish children seven moments in modern Jewish and Israeli history, beginning with the Holocaust and culminating in Israel’s 2008–09 attack on Gaza.
It is one thing to allege that these works are anti-Semitic; it is another to say they are responsible for revivifying blood libel accusations in England in the twenty-first century. In fact, neither work contains a blood libel trope. Moreover, one could only impute blood libel references to Paulin’s and Churchill’s texts by believing that any reference in an artwork to Jews killing children is ipso facto anti-Semitic. This is precisely the implication of Julius’s argument: every allegation of wrongdoing against, or call to boycott, Jews or the Jewish state “can never be innocent,” because it “contains within it every previous such call.” While it’s absolutely right to condemn current accusations made against Jews based on prejudice and bigotry, Julius’s proposition is untenable. The child falsely accused of wrongdoing and viciously beaten by abusive parents is not thereby eternally absolved of similar wrongdoing he might later commit.
Having judged blood libel to be present in Paulin’s and Churchill’s work, Julius then traces a direct and continuous line from the medieval period to the present in order to bolster his argument that anti-Semitism is central to the “new anti-Zionism.” But it’s only in the final two chapters that he fully defines what he means by anti-Zionism. Julius dates the emergence of the “new anti-Semitism” to the late 1960s and early ’70s. Arising “in consequence of the Six Day War,” he writes, it “became hegemonic in the 1990s and 2000s.” But Julius finds the term unsatisfactory and prefers to speak of “contemporary anti-Zionism,” which he defines as an ideological challenge to the Jewish state developed principally by leftists who once supported Israel as a progressive, vulnerable nation populated by Jews seeking shelter after the horrors of the Holocaust. Julius argues that since 1967 the left has viewed Israel as having a powerful military and colonial ambitions in the Palestinian territories it occupies, which makes Israel uniquely responsible for the Middle East conflict.
Julius states that “contemporary anti-Zionism” takes two forms: secular, leftist or post-leftist “new anti-Zionism,” on the one hand, and Muslim, Jewish and Christian “confessional anti-Zionisms,” on the other. The “new anti-Zionism” and the three confessional anti-Zionisms “are all compromised, though not to the same extent, by their adoption of anti-Semitic language and by their readiness to make common cause with unembarrassed anti-Semites.” He then divides the new anti-Zionism into ” ‘Re-partition’ anti-Zionism” and ” ‘Liquidation’ anti-Zionism“: the first, “also known as the ‘two state solution’ “; the second, “also known as the ‘one state solution.’ ”
The claim that the two-state solution is anti-Zionist is jaw-dropping. It would apply to the majority of Israeli Jews and the majority of Jews worldwide. Would anyone, other than those who believe that relinquishing even one barren hilltop of the Land of Israel negates Zionism, agree with Julius?
While Julius doesn’t hesitate to speak of “anti-Semitic anti-Zionism,” he is reluctant to say that all alleged anti-Zionists are actually anti-Semites. To describe the relationship between such people and anti-Semitism, he borrows the notion of the “fellow traveler,” someone he defines as “the kind of person ready to overlook or excuse everything that is vicious in the cause he supports, the protagonists he admires.” To enforce the point, he draws a direct parallel between fellow travelers of the Soviet Union and what he calls “anti-Semitism’s fellow travellers (FTASs).”
There are two major problems with this parallel. First, Julius seems to have narrowed his definition of fellow traveler to suit his purpose. Such a person might indeed have overlooked communism’s brutality and repression. But the Soviet or communist fellow traveler was usually someone who openly identified with communism’s aims and objectives but was not a card-carrying member of the Communist Party. What, then, are the openly anti-Semitic organizations or movements with which FTASs have such a relationship? Julius doesn’t name any, because there aren’t any. Nevertheless, he has managed to plant the idea that only a paper-thin wall separates FTASs from outright anti-Semites.
Second, the parallel comes unstuck even more spectacularly when Julius names names. One argument made by FTASs is attributed to Jacqueline Rose, a professor of English literature at Queen Mary, University of London, and a British Jewish academic deeply concerned about Israel-Palestine. Rose writes critically about Zionism and Israeli policy toward the Palestinians, drawing on concepts from psychoanalysis and literary criticism, and is strongly opposed to Israel’s presence and policies in the occupied Palestinian territories. After stating that FTASs “encourage a terror-apologism,” Julius says FTASs “reject the proposition that setting out to destroy random members of a culture one finds unacceptable is an indefensible project.” In other words, people like Rose defend suicide bombings. Julius’s proof of this claim is a distorted paraphrase of a passage from The Last Resistance (2007), Rose’s study of the role of literature in the Zionist imagination. But there is no defense of suicide bombers in the chapter Julius paraphrases (the chapter is an assessment of attempts by several writers to understand the motives of suicide bombers). Elsewhere in the same book, Rose describes suicide bombings as “unacceptable crimes.” Moreover, at a public event in London on March 2, 2008, she reiterated her position, saying, “I condemn suicide bombings and do not condone them in any way.” Julius also attacks Rose as representative of Jewish anti-Zionism, claiming that she “has written three books with an anti-Zionist perspective” and “affirms the Israel/Nazi analogy.” But Rose’s books are critical of Zionism, not anti-Zionist, and Julius’s claim about her “affirmation” of the Israel/Nazi analogy is a misreading of her work.
Julius’s attack on Rose reveals the extent to which he is exercised by Jewish anti-Zionism, despite the fact that he describes the two principal Jewish oppositionist bodies in England, which he alleges are anti-Zionist (Jews for Justice for Palestinians and Independent Jewish Voices), as “marginal to their community” and given to speaking “in sectarian tones.” “Marginal” groups, perhaps, but Julius goes to extraordinary lengths to characterize what or who is a Jewish anti-Zionist in England today, but he’s well wide of the mark. Independent Jewish Voices, launched in 2007 to “promote the expression of alternative Jewish voices, particularly in respect of the grave situation in the Middle East,” which constitutes the proof text for Julius’s disquisition on Jewish anti-Zionism, is not an anti-Zionist organization. Among the signatories to the IJV statement of principles (and I am one) are Zionists, non-Zionists and anti-Zionists. The statement neither affirms nor implies an anti-Zionist position. Julius cobbles together quotes and references to describe IJV’s opposition to Zionism “in the name of justice,” but they do no such thing.
Among the writings of IJV signatories quoted by Julius is an essay by Oxford University philosopher Brian Klug published in this magazine [see “The Myth of the New Anti-Semitism,” February 2, 2004]. Julius says that Klug’s remark that “Israel is one thing, Jewry another” arises from the “refusal to ‘support’ Israel.” But the remark doesn’t imply that. Julius has completely wrenched it out of its context, which is an argument about distinguishing between hostility to Israel and hostility to Jews. Klug writes: “To argue that hostility to Israel and hostility to Jews are one and the same thing is to conflate the Jewish state with the Jewish people. In fact, Israel is one thing, Jewry another. Accordingly, anti-Zionism is one thing, anti-Semitism another. They are separate. To say they are separate is not to say that they are never connected. But they are independent variables that can be connected in different ways.” Julius’s damning judgments of so-called Jewish anti-Zionists do not arise from evidence.
Julius goes on to say that Jewish anti-Zionists “struggle, mostly incompetently, against [anti-Semitism]; many are themselves susceptible to its tropes and turns of phrase. Their perspectives on anti-Semitism are defective; their contributions to anti-Semitism are significant.” For a brief moment, Julius seems to want to see Jewish anti-Zionists as more distanced from the “plainly anti-Semitic” anti-Zionists. But he is instinctively drawn in the other direction. They are all in cahoots: “Such is the overlap, such are the affiliations, such is the extent of the replication,” he writes, that the secular and confessional anti-Zionisms occasionally “have the appearance of a single project.”
This very big book has a Jekyll-and-Hyde personality. At times Julius is insightful and wise, such as when he stresses that while every anti-Semite is an enemy of the Jews, not every enemy of the Jews is an anti-Semite, or when he writes that “what is being said about Jews will not always reflect what is being done to Jews.” But for the most part, Trials of the Diaspora is marred by the relentless pursuit and prosecution of alleged “anti-Semitic anti-Zionists.” By misreading Jewish critics of Israel, Julius acts as a propagandist for Israel. He is dismissive of Islamophobia because he seems to believe that it is used to malevolently downplay anti-Semitism. His criticisms of leftist critics of Israel are beyond reason. He indulges in facile accusations of anti-Semitism against the Guardian and the BBC. And fatal to his aims, he casts his anti-Zionist net so wide that it even snares some Zionists. If IJV is anti-Zionist, then so is prominent IJV member Lady Ellen Dahrendorf, former chair of the avowedly Zionist New Israel Fund, a British charity with which she is still closely associated. Then there’s Oxford University musicologist Jeremy Montagu, the former president of London’s West Central Liberal Synagogue, who writes repeatedly of his love and support for Israel in A Time to Speak Out: Independent Jewish Voices on Israel, Zionism and Jewish Identity, a collection of essays written almost entirely by IJV signatories, Montagu included.
Julius acknowledges that anti-Semitism and Israel have become inextricably linked, but he does not subject this connection to rigorous, objective analysis. Instead, he accepts without question the central notion of the “new anti-Semitism”: that Israel is the “Jew among the nations.” This phrase posits an unsustainable equivalence between the powerless, vulnerable diaspora Jew and the state of Israel. Moreover, it dilutes the allegation of anti-Semitism. To warrant the charge, it is sufficient for someone to hold any view ranging from criticism of the policies of the current Israeli government to denial that Israel has the right to exist, without having to subscribe to any of the beliefs historians have traditionally regarded as constituting an anti-Semitic worldview. This is a fundamental redefinition of the term “anti-Semitism” for political purposes, one consequence of which is that if almost everything is anti-Semitic, then nothing is. The word is rendered useless. Trials of the Diaspora significantly exacerbates the anti-Semitism wars. It does nothing to mitigate them.
If Julius begins with a confident presentation of his Jewish credentials for writing the book, in the final pages he returns, in a more defensive mood, to the question of Jews writing about anti-Semitism. He believes that “listening to Jews on the subject of anti-Semitism is not popular…. Jews are too quick, it is often suggested, to cry anti-Semitism…they cannot be ‘objective’; they overestimate the threat to Israel.” Naturally, he rejects these arguments. Jews, he believes, “have a strong claim to be arbiters on questions of anti-Semitism. But it is not the best claim. That claim can only be made by those Jews and non-Jews whose conclusions are informed by fair-mindedness, an ability to give proper weight to the relevant evidence, and a thorough understanding of the character and history of anti-Semitism.” Regrettably, Trials of the Diaspora fails to pass this very reasonable test. Far from cleaning up the lawns of England’s green and pleasant land, Julius has littered them with more rubbish.
Of course, many delighted readers will see in this book a robust defense of Israel, a rebuke to its critics and an unsparing exposé of Muslim and Christian anti-Semitic anti-Zionism. One booster is Harold Bloom, who reinforced the equation of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism in a fawning and incoherent review of Julius’s book in The New York Times Book Review. But for anyone who cares about the serious study of contemporary anti-Semitism, Trials of the Diaspora is a disaster, since on the basis of its length, vaulting ambition, celebrity author and prestigious press it might gain the undeserved reputation of being a standard work. Julius has tried to be both bird and ornithologist and has failed. A touch of Zygmunt Bauman’s humility and circumspection would have stood him in good stead.