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The Curious Disposition

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

By Anthony Julius
Oxford University Press, 2010

Anti-Semitism is a many-headed beast; and its English form is markedly different from its continental European forms. Where the latter is often violent, the former tends to hide itself, as Harold Abrahams says in Chariots of Fire, “on the edge of a remark”. That, at least, is the central thesis of Anthony Julius’ Trials of the Diaspora, a dense survey of English anti-Semitism from its beginnings to its more genteel modern form. To take an example: the musician Arthur Benjamin, while studying at the Royal College of Music, was told by his tutor Charles Villiers Stanford, “you Jews can’t write long tunes!” That is the sort of remark which the speaker would be shocked to hear called anti-Semitic. It is the sort of remark which, as Julius points out, “is often absurd, unpredictable—and quite unanswerable.”

English anti-Semitism manifests itself largely in words, and for these words to have their effect, they rely on the assumption of a common understanding of what constitutes Jewishness. The same can be said of literary anti-Semitism, to which Julius devotes a chapter. Works by Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Dickens are given thorough explorations, and Julius makes a convincing case there’s anti-Semitism in all of them. Whatever conclusion one comes to on this question, it will be impossible to deny their origins in the tropes of the prejudice. The most important of these tropes is the blood libel—the claim that Jews sacrifice innocent Christians for dark, ritual purposes—which appears in various degrees of extremity in The Prioress’s Tale, The Merchant of Venice, and Oliver Twist. Although the libel has origins in antiquity, it began to take its modern shape (that is, attaching itself immovably to the Jews) in the green fields of medieval England. The deaths of William of Norwich and Little Hugh of Lincoln in 1144 and 1255 were followed by mass outrage against the Jews for their assumed involvement. The righteous fury of the mobs was translated swiftly, in both cases, into the creation of culti, not strictly endorsed by the Catholic church but not disavowed by it either. The miracles attributed to these “martyrs,” the convenience of an easy villain, and the conspiracy-theorist’s weird excitement (King Stephen helped the Jews, so they were accused of holding undue influence) were the perfect three-course meal for the medieval English mind.

After the death of St William, there appeared a hagiography in his honor, entitled The Life and Miracles of St William of Norwich, which chronicles Thomas of Monmouth’s investigation into the boy’s murder, and serves as a clear warning to his readers that Jews are not to be trusted around Christian children. The Jews were expelled from England in 1290, but continued their residence in literary form. A century or so later, Madame Eglentyne, the Prioress in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, told a story about a Christian boy who, innocently singing Alma Redemptoris on his way home from school, is savagely killed at the behest of the incensed Jewish locals. When his mother finds him, the Virgin Mary speaks through his corpse, and the town’s provost resolves to kill the Jewish community in revenge. Where Life and Miracles is a warning, The Prioress’s Tale cannot be—at least not in the same way. Where the former looks at the terrible cruelty of the Jews to their victim, the latter emphasizes the miraculous nature of the boy’s death. This shift is to be expected, since Monmouth’s aim was clearly to paint Jews in a particular light; Chaucer, on the other hand, did not require Jews as such for his story, only some recognizable but alien non-Christian people.

Although it is hard to know what Chaucer thought of the blood libel, there was clearly something in the basic story that appealed to him—whether solely as a writer or as a Christian. From our twenty first century view, a tale about a boy through whose slit throat the Virgin Mary speaks is alien. And yet, if we grant its basic assumptions—the miracles inherent in Christianity and the enmity of the Jews—it is not hard to see that Chaucer, in writing it, elevated the blood libel above its horrid origins, above its prosaic gruesomeness, and into a higher aesthetic sphere. By granting it a greater literary quality, Chaucer makes the reader less inclined to question its truth.

Julius goes on, claiming that “by eliminating the magical and ritual elements in the murder, and giving the Jews half a motive for their hostility (if not for their crime), Chaucer gives the tale a certain psychological plausibility.” This again reflects the tale’s curious position in the history of literary anti-Semitism. Before the expulsion of the Jews, their threat was not real, and so had to be made to seem terrifying, as it is in Life and Miracles. After the expulsion, the Jewish threat was not even possible, so Chaucer was at liberty to give his Jews a certain amount of plausibility. He is satisfied with the following shocking but quick passage:

Down a dark alley-way they found and hired
A murderer who owned that secret place;
And as the boy passed at his happy pace
This cursed Jew grabbed him and held him, slit
His little throat and cast him in a pit.
(trans. Neville Coghill)

Chaucer’s Jews cannot handle the piety of the pure St William walking by, singing Alma Redemptoris incessantly. Their antipathy is not a result of their inferiority in a Christian world order but merely comes from a deep dislike of anything holy. No theological detail is given to their hatred of the boy: it is merely irrational and vile.

Given that Chaucer’s aims were primarily literary—he was, after all, addressing Christians, and the cruelty of the Jews was assumed—the Prioress’s Tale has properties that Life and Miracles lacks. Most important of these is that it resonates, as Julius says, with a “truth-effect.” The reader is fully aware that the story is not literally true, and the Prioress does not claim it as such. But the fictional tone does not serve to undermine its “message”; the tale is, as Julius says, “a kind of solvent, burning through fiction’s boundaries in the urgency of its warning.” In the absence of Jews, anti-Semitic tropes appear to have acquired a separate, literary reality; if the tale can be read as an actual warning, it must in some sense be metaphysical rather than practical. Thus the Prioress’s Tale can be seen as the beginning of the afterlife of actual anti-Semitism, having abandoned its corporeal body and entered into a literary realm, where its dangers may be less direct and less obvious, but where its dangers are not its main source of interest. “The Jewish menace,” Julius writes, “has become fictional and historical, fictional because now historical.”

Two centuries later, Elizabethan London had its fair supply of morality and miracle plays, both of which held “the Jew” and the devil to be virtually interchangeable. In this environment Marlowe wrote The Jew of Malta, whose protagonist, Barabas, kills indiscriminately all those who block the path to his worldly success—even his own daughter after she converts to Christianity. The play alludes to the allegations that Jews poisoned wells, that they scorned and shunned converts to Christianity, that their primary concern was the accumulation of wealth, and so on. But Barabas is so delightfully over-the-top, treating his mass murdering as a form of entertainment to himself and his audience, that it is hard to take this mounting of stereotypes seriously. Indeed, it is hard to believe that Marlowe did not also scorn these stereotypes, or that on some level he did not identify with Barabas’ iconoclasm and individualism.

Julius argues that The Jew of Malta so effectively reduces anti-Semitic ideas to absurdities that it should rightly have put an end to literary anti-Semitism then and there: no serious writer could thenceforward re-use such ideas unselfconsciously. It would have succeeded, he says, but for the negative influence of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Perhaps it should have, but whether any one work of literature can have such an effect is doubtful. Marlowe’s subversion of anti-Semitism is done in such a way that the ordinary Jew-hater in the audience would hardly have thought twice about his prejudice. In any case, The Jew of Malta was only ever likely to help eradicate straightforwardly damning portrayals of Jews. Shylock, the Jew of The Merchant of Venice, is too subtly drawn a character to come under this umbrella.

In the Prioress’s Tale, what is important is not the villainy of the Jews per se, but the Christian miracle and the fact that it triumphs over the anti-Christian forces, which happen to be Jewish. In Shakespeare’s play, what is important, as Julius reads it, is the battle—ideological, cultural, theological—between love and the law. Shylock, in his obsession with the letter of the law (“I’ll have my bond; and therefore speak no more”), is the law’s representative in the play. Love is represented by the protagonists who seem to “win” in the end: Portia, Nerissa, Antonio, Gratiano, Bassanio, Jessica, Lorenzo. The play presents us with “the law” represented in human form as a Jew, and with love—rebellious, literary, human—played by Christians (into which category Jessica is accepted). Love defeats the law, and by extension Christianity defeats Judaism. Shylock becomes the epitome of “the Jew”, now shorn mostly of religious content, and ready for a new, non-religious form of the ancient prejudice.

The most troubling aspect of the play is Shylock’s insistence on the pound of flesh. This is taken directly from Shakespeare’s most important source, a story from the Italian collection Il Pecorone. Elsewhere in the play, Shakespeare takes considerable liberties with his source material (such as the addition of the casket plot in place of a much more raunchy one), but here he remains fixed. Perhaps this should be unsurprising, since the Jewish moneylender’s insistence on the pound of flesh was in the original tale one of the most important elements. But it was not out of the reach of Shakespeare’s abilities to remove it entirely and replace it with something more universal, more true, than the age-old blood libel. If the pound of flesh is the centerpiece of the play, then it is hard to avoid the conclusion that anti-Semitism is at its heart.

Elements of race and religion remain, but Shakespeare finds them less interesting than other motivations. In Shylock, the Jewish desire for blood is no longer anything to do with religiously sanctioned ritual—if it still has anything to do with religion at all—but is driven almost entirely by personal animosity. It would be flat wrong to say that there is no ambiguity in the play, or that it constitutes anti-Semitic propaganda. The most it can reasonably be accused of is too lazily reclining into anti-Semitic tropes and stereotypes. Its anti-Semitism, you might say, is merely passive. Although it would be nice to imagine Shakespeare as a 21st-century liberal trapped in Elizabethan London, to do so would be to impose our ideals too heavily on the reality. We are inclined to doubt that, if Shakespeare was what we would call anti-Semitic, he would have been a very simple-minded one. But anti-Jewish prejudice was not a controversial issue in his time, and so there is no reason to suspect that he would have made it his business to transcend the prejudice. The most that Shakespeare could be reasonably expected to do was to ask himself: “If the tale from Il Pecorone were to occur in the Shakespearean version of real life, how would it play out?” This means navigating the waters of human nature; it means expelling the crudest forms of racial prejudice (since they at least repulse the aesthetic sense); it does not mean considering the effects of the play on all audiences. As a result, the figure of Shylock looms over our culture for all the wrong reasons—not because of any positive anti-Semitism on Shakespeare’s part, but merely because the drama was to the poet the highest priority of all.

Al Pacino as Shylock in 2004

Jews were officially readmitted to England on Oliver Cromwell’s watch, in 1656. The anti-Semitism that followed was not of the pogrom-starting kind, but Shylock’s shadow was everywhere. Literary works appeared that intended to reverse the moneylender’s effect on culture. Maria Edgeworth’s Harrington (1817), for instance, tells of a young man who unlearns the anti-Semitism that was a part of his upbringing. It was accompanied, to parallel effect, by Richard Cumberland’s The Jew (1794) and Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819). In this revisionary climate, it might be surprising that Dickens wrote Oliver Twist, featuring Fagin, one of the most infamous Jews in literature. But then, as Julius says, Dickens “was not a novelist of fashion; he did not merely rehearse received views. He was able to mine deeper, longer-lasting cultural notions.”

He didn’t just mine these notions, he embraced them. Fagin’s Jewishness is the root of his evil, as Dickens reminds us by referring to him as “the Jew” more often than by his own name. There is little that is theological here, but the rehashing of the blood libel is obvious. Dickens “plays on the association ‘children/Jews/danger,’” and, like Chaucer, emphasizes the miraculous nature of the Christian victim, who survives despite all the evils strewn in his path. Julius notes a similarity between the presentation of justice here and that in The Prioress’s Tale and The Merchant of Venice. In each case, he says, the Jews are hardly given a trial at all, because the works themselves comprise a trial of the Jews. Justice is not necessary because there are certain emotions that trump the desire for justice, including those of “a mob at the prospect of a lynching—a kind of ecstasy of licensed cruelty.”

Dickens later fervently denied any anti-Semitism on his part, and said that “it unfortunately was true of the time to which that story refers, that class of criminal almost invariably was a Jew.” To a Jewish acquaintance, he called himself, “the best of friends with the Jewish people,” and made some reparations by removing references to “the Jew” in his novel, as well as writing Our Mutual Friend, which features a Jewish character who is possibly too nice. Whether Dickens died anti-Semitic is open to question. But what a writer thinks after much self-interrogation is a little less interesting than those themes to which he is attracted unconsciously: our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own. It seems clear that the wheels of Oliver Twist were in part oiled by prejudice.

George Eliot was one of the few to see clearly through the prejudices of her age. Julius argues that within the canon of English literary anti-Semitism, “Daniel Deronda is the first genuinely counter-canonic work.” It does not succeed, he argues, by merely replacing denigratory anti-Semitic clichés with complimentary ideas, nor “by mobilizing the truth against received falsehoods”, but “by exposing to critical scrutiny the national culture that breeds and sustains those falsehoods.” It succeeds also by telling a Jewish story from within. Deronda, an English gentleman, is drawn to Judaism and Jewish people, and eventually discovers his own Jewish origins. In preparing for the novel, Eliot’s research was “not merely conscientious”: she learned Hebrew, became intimately familiar with the Talmud, the Kaballah, medieval Jewish philosophy, Jewish liturgy, and the controversies within Judaism; she wrote lists of Talmudic sayings and Yiddish proverbs, and of Hebrew names and places. Her effort was so impressive that a Jewish admirer considered the novel a “Jewish book”. Of course, it was not enough to entirely obliterate the faults that it exposed.

England is not the only place to have anti-Semitic literature; but Julius emphasizes that it is the only place to have such a well-written selection. Whatever we make of The Merchant of Venice, we would be hard pressed to deny that it is great literature. And whatever the precise causes of this state of affairs, we cannot ignore the glaring historical absence of Jews in England itself from the end of the 13th century to the middle of the 17th. Julius presents a fascinating possibility: that this tradition formed a kind of victory literature. He quotes Lamentations, or Eicha in the Jewish tradition, which chronicles the defeat of Israel and teaches “that victors remember it [the defeat] too, with memories that themselves comprise further defeats of the Jewish people.”

English literary anti-Semitism, then, comes from “the lips of those that rose up against me.” This theory takes a carp of truth but it certainly cannot be wholly true. The social memory of the Jews may have been fresh to Chaucer, but to Dickens it was no memory—indeed, if anything, it must then have constituted defeat literature. After 1290, whatever threat the Jews were perceived to pose passed into practical irrelevance; it became idealized, it seeped into the unconscious, it became literary. Julius doesn’t consider the possibility that this new literary afterlife became a way to recall with wonder an ancient England, and that the attraction of the Prioress’s Tale is distantly related to that of Arthurian legend. It may also be a manifestation of the desire for archetypal moral simplicities, or of the desire to define oneself negatively, in opposition to another ethnicity.

These explanations might also go some way to elucidating anti-Semitism as a whole, and the difference between its English and continental varieties. “It would be a stretch,” Julius says, “to claim that anti-Semitism was an ideological constant in English political life.” This might be because English anti-Semites “did not have the brainpower to make the latent manifest”, or because it was not considered the thing to do, like explaining the punch line of a joke. For the most part, the English would rather keep their anti-Semitism as a comfortable prejudice and little more. Even the Nazi sympathizer Admiral Sir Barry Domvile appeared to draw the line at the Nazis’ worst atrocities, complaining that they behaved “with great harshness and tactlessness.”

The inevitable last stop on Julius’ journey is the question of Israel. Here, perhaps, we are confronted most directly with the difficulties of culture and language that attend English anti-Semitism. Clearly, there exist those anti-Semites who hide behind the word “anti-Zionism” to justify their prejudice. Yet there are numerous voices opposed to Israel’s policies who think nothing of race. The Palestinian cause, Julius argues, has become merged with a de facto anti-Zionism, which “has become part of the common sense of present times, an aspect of the zeitgeist,” and this in turn has been fused with something like anti-Semitism. His final conclusions are open to argument, but by the time the reader reaches them, they will have gained a far greater appreciation of the complexities of a particularly English sort of anti-Semitism. For all those who want to grasp this phenomenon, the book as a whole is indispensable.

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David Michael lives in London and blogs at Perplexicon. This is his first published review, a fact that he is very happy about.