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Where the Troubles Began

An astounding 1000-year history of English anti-Semitism--but who cares?

Book Cover I must confess I hardly know where to begin in talking about what is destined to be seen as Anthony Julius’s magnum opus: Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England (Oxford U Press).

Julius, who was the defense attorney in the infamous Irving vs. Lipstadt Holocaust denial case, characterizes the task of writing this 1000-year history as being “like swimming long distance through a sewer.” He offers this chilling assessment:
The question of the weight of anti-Semitic sentiment at any particular historical juncture, however, must remain a matter for judgment. It requires some capacity for nuance, given in almost every instance the diversity of both public and private attitudes, the plurality of factors motivating policy decisions, the complex burden of inherited circumstances, and so on. Trials of the Diaspora has been written across a period of rising violence and abuse directed at 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.
And after some 600 pages he concludes, “to study [anti-Semitism] is to immerse oneself in muck. Anti-Semitism is a sewer. This is my second book [T. S. Eliot: Anti-Semitism and Literary Form was the first] on the subject and I intend it to be my last.”

Julius distinguishes four distinct versions of English anti-Semitism (medieval, social, anti-Zionist), of which it seems the literary iteration has been particularly poisonous and pernicious—think of Shylock of The Merchant of Venice, Fagin of Oliver Twist, and T.S .Eliot.

Harold Bloom’s concise critique naturally gravitates to the literary:
The best chapter in “Trials of the Diaspora” concerns the cavalcade of anti-Semitism in English literature… My only criticism of Julius is that he somewhat underplays the ultimate viciousness both of Shylock and of Shakespeare’s gratuitous invention of the enforced conversion, which was no part of the pound-of-flesh tradition… No representation of a Jew in literature ever will surpass Shylock in power, negative eloquence, and persuasiveness.
Phillip Roth, whose novel Operation Shylock provides the book’s title (contained in one of Julius’s epigraphs), observes:
This is essential history, and so it is fortunate it has been written by a man with the extraordinary fluency, staggering erudition, scholarly integrity, intellectual acumen, and moral discernment of Anthony Julius.
Adam Kirsch darkly comments on the latest form of anti-Semitism (alluded to by Julius’s warning, “the closed season on Jews is over”):
We have not yet seen this degree of anti-Semitic anti-Zionism become mainstream in American life, but there are signs of its growing legitimization, especially under the guise of criticism of the “Israel lobby”—the contemporary name for the old fantasy of secret, limitless, malignant Jewish power. At such a moment, the judiciousness and confidence that Julius displays are more necessary than ever.
Apropos of nothing I am left wondering if only Jews will review this majestic monograph—as I am (wondering) if anyone other than (us) Jews cares about its findings.
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