Trials of the Diaspora

At 811 pages, which includes 194 pages of notes, the sheer heft of Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England ­ might easily provoke some prospective readers into secretly waiting for a less monumental history, perhaps British Jew-Baiting for Dummies.


I say this not to diminish the commitment, clarity, or scholarship of Anthony Julius’s most worthwhile book, but to point out that a work of this kind relies upon a dual but asynchronous investment on the part of author and reader. In this case, the profound nature of the former’s contribution is without a doubt; Julius’s deep emotional commitment to the subject is a link between his career as a lawyer and writer. As for the matter of the reader’s dedication, I don’t believe Julius wrote this book with a specific audience in mind, but a specific obligation to discharge.

Trials of the Diaspora is actually a weave of three unequally balanced books. The first is a compressed memoir in the form of a 58-page introduction, and it explains a lot. As Julius diligently notes, “A reader beginning a long book on anti-Semitism is entitled to wonder about the author’s own experience of his subject.” Given the covalent bonds between author and subject, Julius attempts to establish his objectivity by recognizing his subjectivity.

Thus he begins with a reminiscence of a long-ago train trip in which his father was reluctant to confront a business associate who had displayed a genteel anti-Semitism—the kind Julius describes as acting “by stealth, by indirection, by tacit understandings and limited exclusions.” On the same trip, however, his father showed great courage in confronting some rowdy football fans. It was a paradox that never left him.

Julius goes on to describe his years in Cambridge, the factionalism in the English Department there, and the fact that anti-Semitism “was not on any syllabus.” (Did he actually expect such a course?) He describes the backstory of the well-known case in which he defended the writer Deborah Lipstadt against a libel charge brought by holocaust denier David Irving for her book Denying the Holocaust. (Penguin, the publisher, wasn’t too happy about the whole mishigas.)

Julius also describes the flurry of anti-Semitism that resulted when he was hired by Princess Diana to represent her in the Divorce of Divorces. Upon his engagement the Telegraph noted that the Prince, “as expected, had chosen the bridge-playing Fiona Shackleton, 39 of Farrer and Co. … One of the country’s most respected family law specialists … [she] adopts a conciliatory approach.”

            Unfortunately, her softly-softly approach is at odds with the more bullish attitude of the Princess’s solicitor.
            Anthony ‘Genius’ Julius, 39, is not a divorce lawyer but a specialist in media law….
            His background could not be further from the upper-class world inhabited by his opposite number. He is a Jewish intellectual and Labour supporter, and less likely to feel restrained by the considerations of fair play.

The second and by far the longest of the nested books is a remarkably detailed history of English anti-Semitism reaching back to the Middle Ages and continuing till the present—with some excursions outside British borders. And what a well-organized history it is. Julius’s legal mind is unhidden; his chapters are structured like briefs, with crisply stated facts backed up by chains of supporting evidence. There are taxonomies upon taxonomies; rubrics, sub-rubrics, and sub-sub-rubrics are stacked upon each other in a bravura display of historiographic Lego construction.

So in a chapter titled Enmities, Julius lists four kinds of antagonists of the Jews, including “rational” enemies, divided between “involuntary” and “voluntary” ones. In the Defamations chapter, a single kind of defamation, the “blood libel,” is broken into six periods. During the medieval epoch, Julius identifies three periods of the Crown’s financial dealings with the Jews, beginning in 1070 and ending in 1290. There are five “Moments” of literary anti-Semitism. The characteristics of English fictional Jews “can be grouped under the readings ‘fixity,’ ‘incoherence,’ ‘elusiveness,’ ‘alternation,’ and ‘deliquescence.’ And there are several kinds of English anti-Semite intellectuals, ranging from Type A through Type D, with Type B being rangy enough to include a B1 and B2.

Julius never met an organizing principle he doesn’t like. He dissects and categorizes anti-Semitism with a pathologist’s precision; for him it is a cancer whose virulence is best laid bare through classification. This Container Shop approach to history can be frustratingly formulaic, but Julius’s obsessive detail serves two purposes. (There, I’ve caught it.) The detail bludgeons the reader into submission; English anti-Semitism isn’t episodic or expressed with a delicate hand; it’s deep, consistent, and isn’t just a matter of Jews being “touchy”—a theme of Julius’s.

What’s more, the relentlessness serves as a corrective for what has become our current reference system for anti-Semitism, namely the holocaust and the pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries. In America we have a Fiddler-on-the-Roof-meets-Anne-Frank optic.

As for England, World War II has largely defined our historical view. But Julius wants us to throw off our illusions about the just and sceptered isle of Churchill and Mrs. Minniver. How many people, even well-educated ones, know that “England, last among the countries of Western Europe to receive Jews, was the first to expel them” in 1290? (The Massacre of York in 1190? I won’t even go there.)

There are some curious omissions—there are only eight pages devoted to life in England for the Jews during World War II—and a bit too much of the book is the top-down view of history; I would have welcomed a bit more of the textured French Annales school, life for English Jews through the everyday lens. But Trials of the Diaspora is a remarkable work of history and it’s fair to say that Julius was born to write it.

The third embedded book within Trials of the Diapsora—constituting the last two chapters—is by far the most controversial. Titled “Contemporary Secular Anti-Zionists” and “Contemporary Confessional Anti-Zionism,” they take the position that over the last forty-or-so years there has emerged what Julius calls “the fourth of the English anti-Semitisms.” He writes that, unlike the “old anti-Semitism,” this new manifestation “takes Israel and the Zionist project as its collective terms for the Jews”; he believes that the ancient litany of “Jewish usurers, Jewish capitalists, and Jewish communists” has been replaced by the demonization of “Jewish nationalists.”

It was in response to these chapters that Harold Bloom described Julius, in a front page New York Times Book Review essay, as “a truth-teller, and authentic enough to stand against the English literary and academic establishment, which essentially opposes the right of the state of Israel to exist, while indulging in the humbuggery that its anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism.” The critic James Woods lambasted Bloom in a letter to the Times for “slander and imprecise imputation”; the philosopher Galen Strawson wrote that Bloom displays the same “hysterical generalizations” among other characteristics that make a “virulent anti-Semite”; Leon Wieseltier rose to Bloom’s defense in The New Republic, and a certain quadrant of the blogosphere has erupted in ferocious commentary.

It’s unfortunate that Julius chose to add these two chapters as a coda to his work of historical analysis. They inject a contemporary and disputatious note that traffic attention from his less tendentious scholarship, and would have been better as a follow-up effort. To be clear, this isn’t to say that I am not sympathetic to his point-of-view; there is something undoubtedly unsettling about the glee and unanimity—and the highly particularized venom—that characterizes global Israel-bashing.

Cultural histories can be fascinating because their subjects are moving targets, changing as society does; a longitudinal look at the lobster will show its crawl from a signifier of poverty to affluence. The history of anti-Semitism, however, is one of drumming repetition. You don’t crack open the laboriously, unrelievedly grim Trials of the Diaspora expecting any change in the narrative.