Britannia Waives the Rules Antisemitism in England
Alexander, Edward, Midstream
Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Antisemitism in England, by Anthony Julius, Oxford University Press, 2010, 811pp., $45.00
In a famous letter of 1838 to his friend John Forster, Charles Dickens wrote that "the Jew" (Fagin), who dominates a novel named after a far less interesting character than himself, is "such an out-and-outer that I don't know what to make of him." At first, the remark sounds odd: if the writer who made Fagin doesn't know "what to make of him," who should? But Dickens, in a very real sense, did not make Fagin, a character who emanates from historical myth and was dredged up by Dickens out of the English folk imagination, an archetypal figure. Fagin insistently called "the Jew" in the original edition (1837-39) of the novel--coming out of centuries of myth, hatred, and fear. Fagin, "a loathsome reptile" with red hair, is the descendant of Satan and Judas but also, especially for Dickens' English audience, of Shakespeare's Shylock, just as Shylock is the descendant of the "cursed Jew" in Chaucer's "Prioress' Tale." Oliver Twist also descends directly from the seven-year old boy who in the Norwich blood libel makes the fatal error of singing a hymn in praise of the Virgin while walking through the Jewish ghetto, where his throat is cut and his body dumped in an open pit.
English antisemites, the subject of Anthony Julius' luminous and comprehensive history, have been reinforced in their bitter contempt for Jews by having the three pre-eminent authors of their country's literary canon also shine forth as the pre-eminent authors of England's literary antisemitic canon. It is an open secret that Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Dickens are the greatest writers in a great literary tradition and also its most potent promoters of antisemitism. This literary insight is at the core of Julius's book. The author also wrote a significant book about T. S. Eliot. Nevertheless, Julius seems to be best known as the lawyer of Princess Diana in her divorce proceedings and of Deborah Lipstadt in her legal contest with David Irving, a typically English "liar-historian" and also a Holocaust-denier. In sum, Anthony Julius is not only a lawyer, but also a literary critic of great insight, and perfect pitch.
Literature has the power not only to elevate and transform but alas to degrade and damage. The dominant anti-Jewish libel in England has been the blood libel, permeating all literary genres and making England's literary antisemitism more abundant and flagrant than that of any other country.
The master-trope supposes a well-intentioned Christian placed in peril by a sinister Jew or Jews. The Christian is often a boy: When caught, the victim does not protest, and submits to the malevolent attentions of the Jew; if the victim escapes death, it is by a miracle; if he dies, the facts of the crime, and the location of his body, are revealed by a miracle; the Jew or Jews are often apprehended and punished.
Of the blood libel, one may say Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose. Still today drawing on the essential details of the ancient libel are England's "anti-Zionist" versions of the ancient hailed, such as the versified eruption of Oxford poetaster Tom Paulin about alleged child murder by Israeli soldiers and the ten-minute play by Caryl Churchill entitled Seven Jewish Children--A Play for Gaza (2009). In his critique of Paulin's 2001 poem, "Killed in Crossfire," about the (phony) story of the little Arab boy (Mohammed al-Dura) reported killed in Gaza by Israeli gunfire, Julius observes: "The most vulgar anti-Semitism speaks in 'Crossfire.' The poem has several specifically literary antisemitic resonances. In the theme of the killing of Gentile children by perfidious Jews, and the miraculous disclosure of these crimes, the poem alludes to 'Little Sir Hugh' and The Prioress' Tale." But whereas Dickens had no intent to harm Jews and so might plausibly have expressed puzzlement about "what to make of [Fagin]," Paulin vociferously urged that Jewish residents of Judea and Samaria "should be shot dead. …