Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-semitism in England

A massive — and massively impressive — history of antisemitism uncovers its English roots and examines its traces and its traducings

By Vernon Bogdanor, February 18, 2010
Jews bracketed with Nazis — London protest against the visit last May of Israel’s Foreign Minister Lieberman

Jews bracketed with Nazis — London protest against the visit last May of Israel’s Foreign Minister Lieberman

By Anthony Julius
Oxford University Press, £25

'Anthony Julius is the best solicitor in London", a prominent barrister told me some years ago. Since then, Julius has become a public figure. He acted for Deborah Lipstadt when David Irving brought - and lost - a libel case against her for labelling him a Holocaust denier. Julius also acted for Princess Diana in her divorce. "He is a Jewish intellectual and Labour supporter," the Daily Telegraph declared, "and less likely to feel restrained by considerations of fair play." "I'd be very worried if I were the Royal Family," says a Cambridge don who taught him. "He'll get lots of money out of them."

Modern English antisemitism, Julius argues, is a matter of the "lazy reflex", and the "casual remark", not deep-seated hostility. The civil liberties of English Jews have not been seriously threatened in modern times, while the open expression of antisemitic views would disqualify their holder from public life. In England today, antisemitism is definitely not respectable.

Admittedly, the British National Party, whose attitude to Jews is at best equivocal, gains far more electoral support today than Mosley's fascists did in the 1930s, even though economic conditions were far worse then. Unlike the BNP, the British Union of Fascists never fought a general election nor did it ever win a seat on a local council. But electoral support for the BNP is based more on dislike of immigration, particularly non-white immigration, than antisemitism.

Most people in this country probably neither know nor care whether someone is Jewish or not. How many know or care that three of the last six Lord Chief Justices were Jewish? How many knew or cared that Michael Howard, Leader of the Opposition from 2003 to 2005, was Jewish? Did the choice of a Jewish party leader swing a single vote to or from the Conservatives? I doubt it.

Nevertheless, in 2009, attacks on Jews in Britain, including violence and the bullying of schoolchildren, reached a record high. Gordon Brown called them "deeply troubling". The reason, apparently, is a "protest" against Israel's actions in Gaza. "In the modern world," Philip Roth declares in Operation Shylock, "the Jew has perpetually been on trial; still today the Jew is on trial in the person of the Israeli."

Julius is right to regard the dark underside of anti-Zionism, the singling out and delegitimising of Israel, as an ideological, "postmodern" and dangerous version of Jew-hatred. It has, he believes, "become part of the common sense of present times". Israel remains "the only state in the world whose legitimacy is widely denied and whose destruction is publicly advocated and threatened". Anti-Zionism has served to legitimise genocidal aims and Holocaust denial, which would otherwise be anathema to liberal-minded people. "Mr Ahmedinejad may not know much about the Holocaust," a Guardian journalist quipped in 2006, "but he certainly knows how to work a crowd."

As Conor Cruise O'Brien pointed out over 20 years ago in his book, The Siege, still to my mind the best history of Zionism in English, the question, "Does Israel have a right to exist?" is, historically, associated with another question, "Do the Jews have a right to exist?"

It would be difficult to deny a relationship between the two questions. In the 19th century, antisemites argued that Jews alone should be deprived of civil rights. Today they argue that Jews alone should be deprived of national rights.

This form of anti-Zionism, unlike traditional antisemitism, is championed by elements on the left, and is predominantly secular, though powerfully reinforced by a minority segment of Muslim opinion. In a survey in 2006, 30 per cent of British Muslims believed that Israel had no right to exist, but only four per cent believed that the Holocaust did not happen.

Sadly, second-generation Muslims were more likely than their parents to believe that 9/11 was perpetrated by an American/Israeli conspiracy. There is clearly much to do for those working in the field of Jewish/Muslim community relations.

Anthony Julius avoids the two main pitfalls in books on antisemitism - exaggeration and self-righteousness. Indeed, Julius is more critical of Israel than I would be. Israel's options seem to me far more limited than Julius implies. Perhaps Israel, as Conor Cruise O'Brien believed, can hardly be other than it is.

Trials of the Diaspora, the first comprehensive history of English anti-semitism, is both thorough and scholarly. But it should be read alongside another book - Philosemitism, by William and Hilary Rubinstein. Otherwise we shall all become paranoid.

Anthony Julius will discuss ‘Trials of the Diaspora’ with Denis MacShane MP at Jewish Book Week on February 28 at 12.30pm. Vernon Bogdanor is Professor of Government at Oxford University. He is the editor of ‘From the New Jerusalem to New Labour: British Prime Ministers from Attlee to Blair’, to be published later this month by Palgrave Macmillan

Last updated: 3:16pm, February 18 2011