Civil Antisemitism, Modernism, and British Culture, 1902-1939

By Rosenberg, Beth C. | Woolf Studies Annual, Annual 2013 | Go to article overview

Civil Antisemitism, Modernism, and British Culture, 1902-1939


Rosenberg, Beth C., Woolf Studies Annual


Civil Antisemitism, Modernism, and British Culture, 1902-1939. Lara Trubowitz (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012) ix +269pp.

Lara Trubowitz's Civil Antisemitism, Modernism, and British Culture, 1902-1939 is an important and difficult book. It is important because it offers an alternative method for evaluating the role of antisemitism in twentieth-century modernism and Woolf studies; it is difficult because it entails detailed close readings of rhetorical strategies that reveal modernism's "civil" antisemitism.

Though at first glance an oxymoron, "civil antisemitism" refers to the social and political pressures of the public sphere in which overt bigotry is seen as objectionable. Trubowitz argues that "Antisemitism becomes a 'style' of speech or writing, best understood and criticized in rhetorical and narrative terms, an elaborate or even tortuous compromise between rival traditions of hatred and politesse" (1). Rather than focus on the use of stereotype or explicit antisemitic expressions, the rhetorical analysis in this study allows us to look below the surface of denotative language and to trace the history of antisemitic sentiment from the beginning of the century through WWII. Most studies of modernist antisemitism begin in the late thirties and forties when antisemitism is most obvious, without considering the history and evolution of the discourse itself. For Trubowitz, " 'the Jew' becomes a prime modernist figure in the mode of 'civil antisemitism' ... on the level of style or technique itself, a repertoire of methods of indirection, occultation, and dissimulation, all highly fruitful for the experimentation of modernist writing" (2).

Civil Antisemitism is loosely divided into two sections: the first half examines the political constructions of civil antisemitism, as argument, in parliamentary deliberations over immigration legislation, protofascist media, newspapers, and best-selling conspiracy novels. The second half of the book moves to literary modernism of the late 1930s, specifically the work of Djuna Barnes, Virginia Woolf, and Wyndham Lewis. Trubowitz chooses this triad because "it is in the nature of their modernist projects to engage acrobatically with everyday speech imagery," to "thrill in deliberate rhetorical hyperbole, heteroglossic play of voices, fragmentation of popular speech and polemic, and condensation of both popular and literary forms" (21).

The first chapter, "Acting Like an Alien: The Rhetoricized Jew in British Immigration Law, 1902-1914," is a fascinating analysis of the debates over alien (Jewish) immigration. Trubowitz establishes her method of reading through a rhetorical analysis of Major William Evans-Gordon's The Alien Immigrant. She illustrates the slippages of language that contribute to the "rhetoricized Jew." The language used by Evans-Gordon--as well as a range of other contemporaries involved in the immigration debate--turns on itself; it both makes the claim of tolerance toward Jewish immigrants, while at the same time using that tolerance to deny Jews entry into Britain. This embodies the very notion of "civil antisemitism" that Trubowitz argues for.

Chapter Two, "Philosemitic Fascists and the Conspiracy Novel," picks up in 1930. Though the narrative of the book could be reinforced with some kind of reference to the intervening years of 1915-1929, the chapter itself is an interesting discussion of the minor and less studied genre of the conspiracy novel. Trubowitz looks at two vehemently anti-Jewish interwar writers, Robert Hart and Nesta Weber, as well as the protofascist newspaper Jewry Ueber Alles, to illustrate the "production of 'publicly acceptable' antisemitism and ... the particular ways in which the self-regulation of antisemitism operates within protofascist discourse" (53). She gives a detailed analysis of the rhetorical strategies that define the paradox of "beneficent antisemitism" and quotes long sections from these texts, often at the risk of the clarity of her own prose. …

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