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May 2011: Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England

Review by: Hannah Farmer, University of Southampton

Anthony Julius. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. 811 pp. £25 (hardcover).

Anthony Julius’s book, Trials of the Diaspora, is advertised as the first ever comprehensive history of anti-Semitism in England, from medieval times to the present. Such an extensive topic demands extensive discussion, and Julius achieves this, with his book weighing in at almost 800 pages, 200 of which are comprised of notes. However, while this degree of research has provided many examples with which Julius makes his case; what is lacking is a sense of connectedness, which might elevate the examples he provides from isolated incidents to what he describes as a ‘national disposition towards a certain kind of Anti-Semitism’, illustrating a particularly English form of Jew hatred.

Beginning with an extensive introduction in which he sets out his reasons and qualifications for this work, Julius then divides the book into eight chapters, grouped into two sections. The first section, ‘Contexts’, (comprising the first two chapters) sets out to provide the theoretical background by which the rest of the book should be understood. In the first chapter, ‘Enmities’, Julius addresses anti-Semitism as a concept. Dividing what he calls the ‘enemies’ of the Jews into the categories of the rational and irrational, he claims that it is from irrational enmity that anti-Semitism flows, after which he goes on to explore the transition of this hatred into an ideology. However, despite careful consideration he fails to reach a workable conclusion as to the constitution of anti-Semitism, which proves detrimental to the latter portions of the book.

The second chapter, ‘Defamations’, deals with those charges levelled at the Jews by anti-Semites, which Julius terms, the ‘conspiracy libel’, the ‘economic libel’ and, at the root of these, the ‘blood libel’. The large part of this chapter consists of an account of the different forms that the blood libel has taken since the twelfth century, when Julius claims it first entered popular consciousness. While this history illustrates some of the worst atrocities committed against Jews, it proves in some measure counter-productive to the argument of English exceptionalism Julius is making, as he has trouble extracting the English case from its more global context.

The second section, titled ‘Versions’, attempts to provide a comprehensive history of English anti-Semitism since the Middle Ages, dealing with the issue in roughly chronological order. Chapter three, ‘Medieval English Anti-Semitism,’ deals with the period from the Jews’ arrival with the Norman Conquest to their expulsion a little over 200 years later. While a detailed portrait of the ways in which England’s Jews were oppressed by the state, the church and the general populous is built up, the chapter fails to illustrate how the Jewish experience fits within the wider inequalities of medieval life.

The fourth chapter, ‘English Literary Anti-Semitism’, is perhaps the most confident of the book. Julius rightly points out that for a large swathe of English history, Jews were only present in the country’s imagination. Not only dealing with anti-Semitism in some of the most famous of English literature, he also examines lesser-known works. However, while his own analysis is competent, he does not engage with important scholarship on the Jew in English literature from Valman, Shapiro and particularly Bryan Cheyette.[1] Though Julius might disagree with their analysis, to simply ignore them seems antithetical to scholarly practice. Also, it is in this chapter that Julius makes his only substantial engagement with the idea of philo-Semitism, which highlights the subject’s omission from the rest of the book. Julius’s discussion of Daniel Deronda provides much needed balance to the chapter, and a glimpse at the more ambivalent, and more interesting attitude that the contrast of English philo- and anti-Semitism hints at.

Chapters five and six bring the history of English anti-Semitism to present and explore what Julius calls the ‘mentalités’ that allows its continued existence. However, these chapters display many of the weaknesses of earlier chapters. Julius provides extensive examples, but again, fails to weave them into a cohesive picture.

The final two chapters deal with contemporary anti-Zionism, both secular and confessional, and it is the discussion of this subject that seems in many ways to have been the driving force behind the inception of the book. Julius links the criticisms leveled at Israel to many of the anti-Semitic tropes explored earlier in the book. Here, his tone becomes almost polemic, and though Julius holds that there are ways in which Israel can be criticized without anti-Semitism, the definitions of the two that he uses are not always clear. Particularly in his section on Jewish anti-Zionists, his very personal distaste for the group is clear. Though he mostly skates around describing the group as anti-Semitic he claims: ‘Their perspectives on anti-Semitism are defective; their contributions to anti-Semitism are strong’ (p. 554). Though many of his points are persuasively argued, his lack of balance and scholarly analysis proves detrimental to his argument.

As a whole, this is a subject that merits significant scholarly attention; Julius correctly points out that anti-Semitism is treated by many in England as a relic of the past that is ‘understood to compromise state-sponsored violence,…that starts at street level and ends in death camps’ (p. 517). What this book illustrates clearly and competently is that English anti-Semitism has taken a multitude of forms throughout its history, and continues to merit consideration. However, this book is not the comprehensive history that it attempts to be. Julius is a lawyer by training, and the book is best appreciated as an attempt to put the English on trial for their anti-Semitism. This provides a neat inversion of the book’s epigraph from Roth’s Operation Shylock, which claims:

In the modern world, the Jew has perpetually been on trial; still today the Jew is on trial, in the person of the Israeli — and this modern trial of the Jew, this trial which never ends, begins with the trial of Shylock.[2]

 This book seems to invite controversy, and will hopefully provoke discussion of this issue; but leaves the door open for a more academic history of the subject.


[1] Brian Cheyette, Constructions of ‘the Jew’ in English Literature and Society: Racial Representations 1875-1945 (Cambridge, 1995); Nadia Valman, The Jewess in Nineteenth-Century British Literary Culture (Cambridge, 2007); James Shapiro, Shakespeare and the Jews (New York, 1996).

[2] P. Roth, Operation Shylock (New York, 1994).

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