Anthony Julius on antisemitism – reviews and comment
Anthony Julius’s 811-page Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England was reviewed twice in the Guardian and provided the framework for a thought-provoking commentary in the Independent on Sunday in February 2010.
Keith Kahn-Harris hoped that it “could provide an important resource in opening up conversation if there is the will to do so. Pro-Palestinian campaigners and anti-Zionists who do not see themselves as antisemites need to look seriously at the arguments Julius makes. Zionists and those concerned about antisemitism need to look critically at the book and take on board the more subtle elements of Julius’s book, rather than simply see it as further ammunition in an endless verbal war. Above all, Trials of the Diaspora should be read as a work of scholarship designed to stimulate serious thought, rather than fuel for a new round of polemics.” But he doubted that this would occur…
Anthony Lerman tries indeed to read the book as a work of scholarship, but doesn’t find this easy particularly when Julius comes to the post-1945 period where Lerman finds his treatment “perfunctory”: “The years after the second world war are dispensed with in 20 pages and stop, inexplicably, in 1967.” He finds Julius’s definition of antisemitism “in part incomprehensible. What Julius seems to say is: the word antisemitism is “a most improper term”, but I’ll still use it to apply to what is a “heterogeneous phenomenon”, “discontinuous”, with an “irreducible plurality of forms” – in effect, antisemitism is what I say it is.” And, “By accepting the “Jew among the nations” idea, Julius essentially sees Israel as powerless, ever the object of enmity, never the author of its own fate or a decisive influence on the fate of Jews worldwide. Thus he is predisposed to judge severe criticism of Israel as antisemitic… This is evident when, first, he defines as anti-Zionism a cluster of different positions from “seeking to fix the world’s attention on the injustices of the occupation”, through “‘Re-partition’ anti-Zionism (also known as the ‘two-state solution’)”, to ‘Liquidation’ anti-Zionism (also known as the “one-state solution’)… There is merit in the earlier sections of this book, but the deficient treatment of anti-Zionism casts a shadow over the whole work.”
Anne Karpf wonders about changing forms of antisemitism: “If anti-Semitism of this kind seems to have disappeared altogether, we live in postmodern times where some of what looks like anti-Semitism isn’t, but, conversely, some of what doesn’t look like anti-Semitism in fact is.” She concludes that:”Modern anti-Semitism is a complex phenomenon, but Anthony Julius, for all his often thoughtful analysis, ultimately falls back on the elision of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, and the notion that the Zionist is the Jew by another name. Perhaps the best way of countering such reductionism is to reverse it: the BNP’s Nick Griffin and the Polish MEP Michael Kaminski have shown that neo-Nazi anti-Semitic sentiments and support for Israel are quite compatible.”
Although Anthony Julius’s book ought to be read critically, many will simply zoom in on the parts dealing with Zionism
Keith Kahn-Harris, Comment is Free, 23 February 2010
Anthony Julius’s Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England is an extraordinary book. Erudite, well-researched, subtle, it is a landmark work on a topic that has, until now, never produced a book-length study. Julius (who produced this 800-page book in his free time from his high-profile work as a lawyer) argues convincingly that English antisemitism, while in recent centuries generally milder than its continental versions, is nonetheless highly distinctive.
The problem, though, is that the book is unlikely to be read as any scholarly book should be: critically but carefully. In fact, I have a horrible feeling that for many (most?) readers the reactions to this book are likely to be predetermined in two important ways:
First, the book will be read like an issue of Playboy: the equivalent of the articles on classic cars – the majority of the book that deals with pre-second world war antisemitism – will be skipped as readers rush to the “juicy bits” that deal with contemporary anti-Zionist antisemitism.
Second, reactions to the chapters on anti-Zionist antisemitism are likely to be heavily polarised. Anti-Zionists and many other critics of Israel will dismiss much of it with the familiar accusation that Julius is simply using the accusation of antisemitism to cover up Israel’s crimes. Defenders of Israel and Zionism, together with the “decent left”, will see in Julius’s work a damning dossier that confirms their worst opinions of anti-Zionists and critics of Israel.
I may be overly pessimistic, but in my experience debates about antisemitism are so angry that serious discussion of the subject is difficult. What I would argue though is that Trials of the Diaspora offers, for those who wish to take it, a valuable opportunity to begin just such a serious discussion. I’m not arguing that that discussion has to proceed either with the rejection or acceptance of Julius’s thesis. Rather that, by seeing the book in the context of the wider antisemitism debate, we can assess the failings as well as the justifications for the positions that protagonists on all sides of the debate take – including Julius himself.
The strength of the book’s treatment of anti-Zionist antisemitism lies in Julius’s drawing out of the implications of many arguments made by critics of Israel. For example, he makes a convincing case for the appearance of tropes of blood libels and Jewish conspiracies in much anti-Israel discourse. By defining antisemitism so narrowly as to only include outright Nazism in the category and by reflexively dismissing charges of prejudice as attempts to defend Israel, there is widespread blindness among pro-Palestinian campaigners. There is a damning lack of imagination at work here – a deliberate lack of empathy to Jewish sensitivities.
Yet the limitation of Julius’s argument is that he reproduces a similar lack of imagination and empathy. For one thing, he includes people and organisations in the anti-Zionist camp who have never explicitly articulated an anti-Zionist position. Independent Jewish Voices for example, which he treats as part of Jewish anti-Zionism, contains anti-Zionists but also left Zionists and non-Zionists in its coalition. As someone who has thought through the issues carefully, Julius assumes everyone else has too and ignores the swathes of ignorant pro-Palestinian activists who simply haven’t followed through the implications of their argument to their anti-Zionist telos.
More seriously, Julius also appears to assume that anti-Zionism is necessarily antisemitic. I would agree that it often is: when an end to the Jewish state is demanded in the name of Palestinian nationalism, the preference for one national movement over another is at the very least inequitable. But what about anti-Zionisms that look towards a binational state? Again, the one-state solution is often simply a figleaf for Palestinian triumphalism and such “solutions” are indefensible. However, a serious one-state solution that requires the end of both Palestinian and Jewish nationalism, while it may not be practicable, cannot be so easily dismissed. Nationalism is, after all, a recent phenomenon and eminently open to criticism. The mutual failure of imagination rears its head again here: pro-Palestinian campaigners often cannot and will not imagine a one-state solution that isn’t simply a coded form of oppression of Jews; pro-Israel campaigners cannot imagine something beyond Zionism that isn’t a form of genocide.
The most difficult argument that Julius’s book raises is that of Jewish and Israeli implication in antisemitism. The frequent pro-Palestinian blanket dismissal of accusations of antisemitism are hateful and hurtful and Trials of the Diaspora gives many examples of this. At the same time though, there is a wider problem of how Israel and antisemitism is talked about that simply cannot be ignored. The passions that the Israel-Palestine conflict raises are so intense that people on all sides have a tendency to use hyperbolic language. Further, Godwin’s law – that online discussions will always end up in Nazi comparisons – is observed throughout contemporary discourse generally and if, say, animal rights protestors will accuse vivisectionists of being Nazis then it is hardly surprising that those talking about Israel-Palestine will also make such accusations. Some Jews and Israelis do indeed misuse accusations of antisemitism – but not because they are impossibly mendacious and trying to suppress debate, but because they are human beings as flawed as anyone else.
A real debate needs to happen about antisemitism. At the moment positions are so immobile and passions so inflamed that productive dialogue is difficult. Trials of the Diaspora could provide an important resource in opening up conversation if there is the will to do so. Pro-Palestinian campaigners and anti-Zionists who do not see themselves as antisemites need to look seriously at the arguments Julius makes. Zionists and those concerned about antisemitism need to look critically at the book and take on board the more subtle elements of Julius’s book, rather than simply see it as further ammunition in an endless verbal war. Above all, Trials of the Diaspora should be read as a work of scholarship designed to stimulate serious thought, rather than fuel for a new round of polemics.
Antony Lerman examines England’s long history of antisemitism
Comment is Free, 27 February 2010
In this dense and heavily footnoted study, Anthony Julius tries to capture the distinct flavour of a prejudice that was never elevated into a doctrine, but could nonetheless be grotesque, murderous, vicious and pervasive. It is “a story of an antisemitism that shrinks from being named antisemitic”, he writes. “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.”
Yet the first version of antisemitism Julius describes, which took root when Jews arrived in England in the wake of the Norman conquest and continued to grow until they were expelled in 1290, did not look quite like that. “In medieval England,” Julius writes, “Jews were defamed, their wealth was expropriated, they were killed and injured, they were subjected to discriminatory and humiliating regulation, and they were, finally, expelled.” This “war against the Jews” was largely, but not solely, fuelled by the blood libel, the entirely false accusation that “Jews periodically trapped, tortured and then killed Christian boys” to use their blood for ritual purposes.
For 400 years, with Jews banished from the country, antisemitism lived on in its second form as literary antisemitism, which drew heavily on the blood libel theme and has been most famously captured in such classic works as Chaucer’s “The Prioress’s Tale”, The Merchant of Venice and Oliver Twist. The medieval “war” was not revived when Jews were readmitted to England under Cromwell in the 1650s. Instead, from then to the late 20th century, a “modern, quotidian anti-semitism of insult and partial exclusion” developed (its third incarnation), which was “pervasive but contained”.
The final quarter of the book is devoted to what Julius claims is the fourth and “most recent kind of English antisemitism . . . a composite of anti-Zionisms, principal among which is the ‘new anti-Zionism’ . . . this composite is so polluted by antisemitic tropes that it has been named the ‘new antisemitism’.” A highly controversial area, but undoubtedly the most important part of his project.
Julius says that his approach to antisemitism is systematic. A more accurate description would be idiosyncratic. For a so-called “first comprehensive history of antisemitism in England”, historical narrative and analysis are pretty thin on the ground. The medieval period is covered adequately, but treatment of the modern period is perfunctory. The years after the second world war are dispensed with in 20 pages and stop, inexplicably, in 1967.
More problematic is his definition of antisemitism, which is in part incomprehensible. What Julius seems to say is: the word antisemitism is “a most improper term”, but I’ll still use it to apply to what is a “heterogeneous phenomenon”, “discontinuous”, with an “irreducible plurality of forms” – in effect, antisemitism is what I say it is. For three-quarters of the book this bizarre definition is irrelevant, since there’s barely any disagreement as to what antisemitism is until we get to the 60s. But it comes into its own as justification for the contentious position he adopts in the last two chapters.
In one respect Julius now takes the consideration of English antisemitism in the right direction, because it’s almost impossible to discuss it today without reference to Israel. But nowhere does he acknowledge that the creation of the Jewish state fundamentally changed the dynamic of the relationship between Jews and antisemitism. For the first time, a collective Jewish project could exert power in the world in such a manner – for example, by repressive policies towards the Palestinians – as to provoke hostility to Jews. By accepting the “Jew among the nations” idea, Julius essentially sees Israel as powerless, ever the object of enmity, never the author of its own fate or a decisive influence on the fate of Jews worldwide. Thus he is predisposed to judge severe criticism of Israel as antisemitic. (This draws him into propagandistic passages defending Israel and predictable but unsubstantiated attacks on the Guardian and the BBC for “playing their part in the dissemination of the new anti-Zionism”: that is, spreading antisemitism.)
This is evident when, first, he defines as anti-Zionism a cluster of different positions from “seeking to fix the world’s attention on the injustices of the occupation”, through “‘Re-partition’ anti-Zionism (also known as the ‘two-state solution’)”, to ‘Liquidation’ anti-Zionism (also known as the “one-state solution’)”. And, second, he argues that all of them slide ineluctably into antisemitism. The first implies Israel alone is guilty; the second manifests antipathy towards the Zionist enterprise; the third wants to cancel the “last surviving Jewish political project of the 20th century”. But none of these positions is necessarily anti-Zionist; none of the glosses automatically follows; and there are no grounds to see them as inevitably containing antisemitic tropes. In mitigation, I guess he would refer back to his definition of antisemitism and the “irreducible plurality of [its] forms”.
Julius is not just creating anti-Zionist labels in the abstract. He pins them on individuals, giving pride of place to so-called “new Jewish anti-Zionists”. And it’s here that he reveals the bankruptcy, confusion and malign nature of his project. He calls Independent Jewish Voices “anti-Zionist”, yet among its signatories are Zionists, non-Zionists and anti-Zionists. He then unjustifiably singles out certain individual signatories as exemplifying the “new anti-Zionism”, misreading and misinterpreting their writings to prove his case. In Julius’s eyes the misdemeanours of these Jews are not minor. They are accused of being fellow travellers of antisemitism, whose “contributions to antisemitism are significant”. Isn’t this a gnat’s crotchet away from calling them “Jewish antisemites”?
The fact is that anti-Zionism – which I think is like insisting the Earth is flat – can be a cloak for, or synonymous with, antisemitism. He could have demonstrated this by continuing to write the history of antisemitism from 1967 on, instead of wasting 150 pages on political polemic. There is merit in the earlier sections of this book, but the deficient treatment of anti-Zionism casts a shadow over the whole work.
Antony Lerman is the former director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research.
7 February 2010
Racism against Jews is on the rise, but some of it masquerades as comedy, and that makes it complex to address
Is the closed season on Jews over? Are English Jews facing rising levels of violence and abuse? Anthony Julius certainly thinks so. The lawyer, best known for representing the late Diana, Princess of Wales in her divorce, but also the author of a book on T S Eliot and anti-Semitism, has written a capacious history of anti-Semitism in England, Trials of the Diaspora, out next week. In it he expresses his “provisional judgement” that the situation facing Anglo-Jewry “is quite bad, and might get worse”.
Coincidentally, the report on anti-semitic incidents in 2009 by the Community Security Trust (CST), was published last week. At first view, it makes alarming reading, and seems to confirm Julius’s worst fears. CST recorded 924 anti-Semitic incidents in 2009, the highest annual total since it began recording such incidents in 1984, and – after two years of falling numbers – an increase of 69 per cent from 2008.
But peer closely and the picture is more complicated. The main reason for the surge, CST noted, was the unprecedented number of anti-Semitic incidents recorded in January and February 2009, during and after the Israeli invasion of Gaza. Of course, this is no reason to rejoice: if someone is trying to thump you, the fact that they’re screaming that it’s revenge for what Israel is doing in Gaza isn’t going to make you feel a whole lot better. It didn’t help that during Israel’s 2006 war with Lebanon, the Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said: “I believe that this is a war that is fought by all the Jews.” If the Israeli government (wrongly) elides Israel with all Jews, it’s hardly surprising if anti-Semites do too.
These days you rarely hear the kind of unthinking middle-class anti-Semitism current in, say, 1961, the year in which An Education, the film based on Lynn Barber’s memoir, was set. Philip French, in The Observer, wondered if the real-life counterpart of the headteacher (Emma Thompson), given to sneering rants about the Jews killing Jesus, would have been really so strident. Yet only a few years earlier, a teacher in my primary school declared one week that all Jews were rich, and the next that the Jews killed Jesus. (My Holocaust survivor parents, angry but also anxious, wrote anonymously to the headteacher. By the following week, the teacher was gone.)
If anti-Semitism of this kind seems to have disappeared altogether, we live in postmodern times where some of what looks like anti-Semitism isn’t, but, conversely, some of what doesn’t look like anti-Semitism in fact is. Consider the “philo-Semitism”, for instance, of Michael Gove and Julie Burchill (“the Jews are my favourites”; “Jews do things so well”). Burchill’s philo-Semitism is a form of anti-Semitism, I’d suggest, because it bunches all Jews together, as though we were a single, uniform entity. The idea that all Jews are wonderful is little different from all Jews being hateful: in both cases Jews are stripped of individual characteristics, and are nothing except Jewish – a view to which most racists happily subscribe. If Burchill, as is rumoured, converts to Judaism, she’ll discover that some Jews are nice and others not – rather like the rest of the human race.
Today racism, it seems, can be ironic. I’ve heard of campuses where non-Jewish students josh their Jewish friends with comments like: “Stop hoarding the milk, you Jew.” Is this too close to the bone, or is it fatally unsatirical to take offence? Some young Jews find it amusing, yet recognise that such playing with stereotypes can only be done between consenting adults – close friends with licence to shock one another.
It is also, they recognise, a dangerous game which, under the guise of playfulness, might also allow the venting of real prejudice. How far is it from Tottenham supporters calling themselves the Yid Army, to Chelsea fans chanting “Spurs are on their way to Auschwitz”, as they do when the teams meet? Some non-Jewish Tottenham fans argue that, on the contrary, their happy embrace of the “Yiddo” label is a way of neutralising anti-Semitism.
But there are limits to irony. Last Monday, a new page opened on Facebook, called “Hi, I’m a Jew. I don’t care about COD [Call of Duty, a video game mostly played by boys] or Periods, I just want your gold”. By Thursday it had 3,040 fans, peddling the hoariest stereotypes of money-grabbing, wealth and noses. Another Facebook page is called “Racist Jokes”. This includes such gems – hold on to your hats – as “What’s the difference between a pizza and a Jew? A pizza doesn’t scream when you put it in the oven”, and “What’s the difference between a Jew and a boy scout? The boy scout came back from the camp.’
That some of these postings are poorly spelt and written is no reassurance. There’s bravado here, of course: teenagers thinking it’s cool to be outlandish, following in a long tradition of crudely anti-Semitic jokes charted by Julius. These latest, though, are amplified by the internet’s reach and anonymity, which not only allows you to reinvent your own identity but see other people’s as equally fictitious.
Those young Jews who have protested have, of course, been accused of lacking a sense of humour (though one young Jew expressed disgust about “Racist Jokes” by commenting: “The person who made it is probs a fucking Paki who needs to go back to their own country”). Yet when a Jewish teenager directly confronted friends who’d signed up to the pages, they apologised and professed themselves ashamed. They’d made no connection between cyber anti-Semitism and the feelings of real, embodied Jews.
Modern anti-Semitism is a complex phenomenon, but Anthony Julius, for all his often thoughtful analysis, ultimately falls back on the elision of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, and the notion that the Zionist is the Jew by another name. Perhaps the best way of countering such reductionism is to reverse it: the BNP’s Nick Griffin and the Polish MEP Michael Kaminski have shown that neo-Nazi anti-Semitic sentiments and support for Israel are quite compatible.
We should never be complacent about anti-Semitism, but neither should we allow some Jews to exaggerate it, regard it as inevitable, use it to try and delegitimise criticism of Israel or see it as an altogether different kind of animal from other more socially accepted kinds of racism such as Islamophobia. Those who hate are rarely so discriminating.
Anne Karpf is the author of a family memoir, The War After: Living with the Holocaust (Faber Finds) and co-editor of A Time to Speak Out: Israel, Zionism and Jewish Identity (Verso)