Two Nineteenth-Century Philosemites

By Baron, Jeremy Hugh | Contemporary Review, June 2012 | Go to article overview
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Two Nineteenth-Century Philosemites


Baron, Jeremy Hugh, Contemporary Review


NON-JEWISH philosemites have been mostly Protestant Zionists who believed the return of Jews to Palestine is predicted in the Bible. At the present time this is most frequently seen in the American evangelicals who often support Israel. However, there were precedents for such beliefs. This article examines two nineteenth-century authors, George Eliot and Leopold Sacher-Masoch, known for their secular outlook but who also opposed anti-Semitism, published in support of the Jewish people, and were strongly criticised for such advocacy to the extent that they were accused of being Jewish.

Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot) was born in 1819 to a prosperous Anglican Warwickshire family, but became unusually serious and pious. The family moved to Coventry to try and find her a husband, no easy task because of her plainness and solemn demeanour. Dissenters from the Established Church of England were strong in the Midlands, and in 1841 she was convinced by Charles Hennell and his Inquiry concerning the Origin of Christianity that 'Christianity was mingled truth and fiction'. She refused to go to church with her family, became unmarriagable and was effectively disowned.

She was exceptionally well educated, knowing French, Latin, Greek and German (and later Spanish and Hebrew). She met many like-minded non-theists and translated German texts of biblical higher criticism, and Spinoza's Tractatus and Ethics. As a humanist she regarded the Gospels as myths with wished-for fulfilment of the prophecies in the Hebrew Bible. To her God was inconceivable, Immortality was unbelievable, but Duty was absolute.

In 1851 she (now calling herself Marion) moved to London to a circle of radical free-thinking writers. Her strong love for her employer, the publisher John Chapman, and for Herbert Spencer were not reciprocated. She then became impassioned of George Lewes, playwright, novelist and journalist. They probably became intimate in 1852 and set up house together as Mr and Mrs Lewes in 1853. Lewes had married Agnes Jervis in 1841 and she had three children by him, and then four more by Thornton Hunt. Lewes could not divorce his wife, because he had condoned her adultery by registering two of her children by Hunt as his. From 1857 Marion Evans wrote under the pen-name 'George Eliot' Amos Barton, Scenes of Clerical Life, Adam Bede, The Mill on the Floss, Silas Marner, Romola, Felix Holt, The Spanish Gypsy and Middlemarch.

George Eliot knew no Jews in her early life, but had the conventional anti-Semitism of her social class at that time. In 1848 she wrote,

  Extermination up to a certain point seems to be the law for inferior
  races--for the rest, fusion both for physical and moral ends ...
  The negroes certainly puzzle me--all the other races seem plainly
  destined to extermination or fusion not excepting the
  Webrew-Caucasian'. The very exaltation of their idea of a national
  deity into a spiritual monotheism seems to have been borrowed from the
  other oriental tribes. Everything specifically Jewish is of low grade.

However in 1854 she was thrilled by the moral religious tolerance of Lessing's 1779 Nathan der Weise. In 1856 she compared Hebrew and Christian ideas of Revelation, and in 1858 visited the synagogue and burial ground in Prague. Her passion for Jewry grew in the 1860s. When she visited the Amsterdam synagogue in 1866 she 'fairly cried at witnessing the faint symbolism of a religion of sublime far off memories.' In that year she met, and was fascinated by, the writings and lectures of the polymath Emanuel Deutsch (1829-73). He had been recruited from Berlin by the British Museum Library in 1855 for his mastery of most European languages, Sanskrit, Rabbinics, Hebrew, Aramaic, Chaldaic, Amharic and Phoenician. He was then preparing for the October 1867 Quarterly Review his long article on the Talmud that effectively introduced post-biblical Jewish scholarship to the gentile world.

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