The Making of Modern English Anti-Semitism

This is a review of a talk given by Dr Anthony Julius, author of Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England, at Oriel College, Oxford University on Monday 1st March 2010. Apologies for the lateness – it’s been lying dormant in my notebook for almost a year now!

This talk was given as a warning. Dr Julius was keen to point out rising anti-Semitism in left-wing universities. This talk was given at the beginning of “Israel Apartheid Week,” in which many British universities, including Oxford, took part. Students and their professors are dangerous because, presumably, they are intelligent and their words and opinions carry great weight. This new rise in anti-Semitism, Dr Julius says, has developed with the recent rise in anti-Zionism, particularly after the invasion of Gaza in 2008.

The Four Types of English Anti-Semitism

Dr Julius referred to the “amnesia of Anglo-Jews,” they have forgotten the long history of anti-Semitism in this country. There are four types of anti-Semitism to be found in English history.

1. Medieval anti-Semitism

Medieval anti-Semitism reached its zenith (or nadir?) in England in 1290, when King Edward I ordered the total expulsion of the Jews from England. This expulsion was an utterly original English idea, lethal and exterminationist in conception. It was the first national expulsion of Jews and other European nations followed suit (France in 1394 and Spain in 1492, for example). However, Dr Julius does say, in “defence” of the English, that the idea had reached its moment and could have happened elsewhere.

2. English literary anti-Semitism

Dr Julius argues that only in England has literary anti-Semitism reached canonical status. He cites the examples of Chaucer (The Prioress’ Tale), Shakespeare (The Merchant of Venice) and Dickens (Oliver Twist). The plot of each of these dramas, Dr Julius says, is basically the same. There is an innocent (usually a child), who is tricked by a conspiring Jew, there is usually murder or blood involved, but then a “miracle” saves the innocent and the Jew is punished.

Dr Julius argues that this English literary anti-Semitism continues to the modern day, with writers like Tom Paulin, most notably his poem Killed in Crossfire published in The Observer newspaper in 2001. [http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2001/feb/18/poetry.features1]

3. Quotidian or social anti-Semitism

This type of anti-Semitism flared up in England in the 17th century and limps on today. It takes the form of condescension toward and disregard for Jews. It is something one can live with, Dr Julius says, but is demoralising.

4. Anti-Zionism polluted with anti-Semitism

This developed in England from 1967 onwards. It is when opposition to the Zionist project of the Jews, i.e. the state of Israel, becomes tainted with anti-Semitic, i.e. racist, views. It can be secular, Christian, Muslim or Jewish.

The purpose of all this anti-Semitism, Dr Julius says, is for its function. It is a useful tool, it gives an answer to any problem: just blame it on the Jews.

The Problem of the Holocaust

“The Holocaust has blinded us to modern anti-Semitism.”

The Deborah Lipstadt trial, in which the right-wing historian David Irving lost a libel case for denying the Holocaust, seemed to show that the threat to Jews still comes from neo-Nazi right. Dr Julius emphatically denies that this is so. The Holocaust, he says, has distracted us from the real threat – the left.

Dr Julius cites five reasons why the Holocaust has given us an entirely incorrect image of the average anti-Semite:

1. The Holocaust totalised anti-Semitism

The Holocaust defined antisemitism as wanting the elimination of all Jews. Today, however, anti-Semites recognise “good Jews” (those running Israel Apartheid Week, for example) and “bad Jews” (those who still who cling to the Zionist project).

2. The Holocaust was state-sponsored

This is not the case with anti-Semitism today – in the West, at least.

3. The Holocaust spoke German

Anti-Semitism became associated with a particular national source or paradigm. The Holocaust equated anti-Semitism with the Nazi genocidal type.

4. The threat came from the political right

This is not the case today; the threat is also from the left. Liberals find it hard to understand the national character of Judaism, which leads to anti-Semitism.

5. The Holocaust made us think anti-Semitism was genocidal

That is, thankfully, not the case with English anti-Semitism today.

Anti-Semitism in the UK today

Dr Julius sees 1967 as critical in the resurgence of anti-Semitism in the UK. The increase in Israeli settlement of the Occupied Palestinian Territories between 1967 and 1973 led to the famous / infamous 1975 UN Resolution 3379, which equated Zionism with racism. The 1982 Lebanon war did little to enhance international opinion of the Zionist project and concomitant with the rise in anti-Zionism, Dr Julius detects a rise in anti-Semitism.

This anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism gained strength after the Iranian revolution in 1979 and the growth of radical Islam in the UK, empowered by the fatwa declared against Salman Rushdie in 1989. The fall of the Berlin wall in the same year marked the final collapse of the socialist project and led to increased hatred of the US and Israel from the political left.

Dr Julius sees the response of the political left to Israeli actions in Gaza, particularly the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement of the trade unions, as “exorcising deep-rooted anti-Semitism.” He also warned that, if the Conservatives won the 2010 UK elections, then things could get worse, as Labour are pushed to the left, back to their traditional power base.

In the discourse of the political left, Dr Julius sees Jews portrayed as having a demonic quality. The boycott movement characterises Jews as Nazis, a characterisation that is familiar from medieval times, when Jews were called “pigs”.

But, believe it or not, Dr Julius is optimistic. He says that the dominant English norm is pro-difference, and against any divisive racism, such as anti-Semitism. He says that the empowerment of Muslims is very recent, only since 1989, whereas Jews have a history in the UK going back a millennium.

Conclusions

Dr Julius says that historiographical battles have to be fought. He cites the book Palestine Betrayed by Efraim Karsh as important for undoing the “Nakba narrative” of the Palestinians. This book essentially blames the Arab elites for betraying the Palestinian people by refusing all negotiations with the Zionists.

Dr Julius believes that the boycott movement should be fought, in general politically, but where necessary using the unions’ own rule book to block racist policies.

Dr Julius also argues that Jewish anti-Zionists have got it wrong. Jewish anti-Zionists are a feature of contemporary Jewish politics. From the 1800s to 1945, Jews fell into one of three political camps:

  1. Assimilation: Jews should be individuals in individual states.
  2. Revolution: through socialism, Jews will find equality.
  3. Zionism: the Jews need their own state.

Dr Julius says that after the Holocaust there was “no politics” until 1967. Then the question became: what is Israel’s future? That is when Jewish anti-Zionists really came to the forefront of Israeli politics. But Dr Julius argues that their diagnoses and prognoses are wrong and because of that they are unwittingly colluding with the anti-Jewish project.

One of the proposed solutions to the Israel-Palestine conflict is to reform Israel and the Palestinian Occupied Territories into one state, not as it is now, “a Jewish and democratic state”, but as simply “a democratic state”. Dr Julius describes this proposal as “rubbish”.


This was an interesting talk. I must confess that I don’t subscribe to his opinion that anti-Zionism goes hand-in-hand with anti-Semitism. Perhaps it is a generational thing. Anthony Julius was born in 1956, only 8 years after the birth of Israel. He was 12 in 1967, a very impressionable age.

I’m not saying that some anti-Zionists aren’t also anti-Semites. However, the state of Israel has been around long enough now for most people to be able to distinguish a Jew from an Israeli and, importantly, an Israeli from the state and government of Israel.

What do you think?