Figures of Conversion: The Jewish Question and English National Identity

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"I knew a Man, who having nothing but a summary Notion of Religion himself, and being wicked and profligate to the last Degree in his Life, made a thorough Reformation in himself, by labouring to convert a Jew."
—Daniel Defoe, The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719)

When the hero of Defoe’s novel listens skeptically to this anecdote related by a French Roman Catholic priest, he little suspects that in less than a century the conversion of the Jews would become nothing short of a national project—not in France but in England. In this book, Michael Ragussis explores the phenomenon of Jewish conversion—the subject of popular enthusiasm, public scandal, national debate, and dubbed "the English madness" by its critics—in Protestant England from the 1790s through the 1870s.
Moving beyond the familiar catalog of anti-Semitic stereotypes, Ragussis analyzes the rhetoric of conversion as it was reinvented by the English in sermons, stories for the young, histories of the Jews, memoirs by Jewish converts, and popular novels. Alongside these texts and the countertexts produced by English Jews, he situates such writers as Edgeworth, Scott, Disraeli, Arnold, Trollope, and Eliot within the debate over conversion and related issues of race, gender, and nation-formation. His work reveals how a powerful group of emergent cultural projects—including a revisionist tradition of the novel, the new science of ethnology, and the rewriting of European history—redefined English national identity in response to the ideology of conversion, the history of the Jews, and "the Jewish question."
Figures of Conversion offers an entirely new way of regarding Jewish identity in nineteenth-century British culture and will be of importance not only to literary scholars but also to scholars of Judaic and religious studies, history, and cultural studies.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"I was astounded by the depth and brilliance of this book. Ragussis makes the case that the Jew for British culture has always been the defining figure of difference. His literary examples are striking, but he also shows how the changing atmosphere alters and restructures the very notion of the Jew in British cultural life. His audience, readers interested in Jewish questions and British culture, will find material and insights not to be found in any existing literature."—Sander L. Gilman, University of Chicago

"This is the most stimulating and original treatment of representations of the Jew in English literature that I have ever read. It moves the discussion of images of the Jew in literature on to a new, more nuanced and intellectually challenging plane. What is important about Ragussis’ work is that it links representations of the Jew in English culture to what is now a central issue for students of English history and literature: constructions of Englishness and the formation of English nationalism."—Todd M. Endelman, University of Michigan

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822315704
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 4/1/1995
  • Series: Post-Contemporary Interventions
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael Ragussis is Professor of English at Georgetown University. He is the author of Acts of Naming: The Family Plot in Fiction.

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Figures of Conversion

"The Jewish Question" & English National Identity

By Michael Ragussis

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1995 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-1570-4


The Culture of Conversion

In nineteenth-century England the clearest sign of the ideology of Jewish conversion was its institutionalization in such well-known societies as the London Society for Promoting Christianity amongst the Jews (founded in 1809) and the British Society for the Propagation of the Gospel among the Jews (founded in 1842). Numbering among their members some of England's best-known citizens, from powerful members of Parliament to influential clergymen (including William Wilberforce, Charles Simeon, and Lord Shaftesbury), and even enjoying the royal patronage of the duke of Kent, such societies became the subject of immense public attention and intense national debate. While the ideology of the conversion of the Jews was based on the scholarly exegesis of certain key texts of the Bible, the institutionalization of such an ideology—raising money, publishing journals and books, distributing tracts, setting up Christian schools for poor Jewish children, giving financial support to prospective converts—engaged the wider public in what became a debate over the religious, social, and political status of the Jews.

This chapter explores the public debate over the conversion of the Jews in general, and, more specifically, the controversial literature that grew out of the scandal surrounding the London Society. How did what otherwise might have been a local and self-contained controversy over the misadventures of one conversionist society at the beginning of the century reach such proportions, emerging into a debate that included the entire nation and lasted for decades? I will answer this question in part by showing how the controversy over the conversion of the Jews intersected with other important nineteenth-century debates, but my emphasis will be on the various literary forms (especially the conversionist novel) that disseminated, popularized, and reinvigorated the ideology of conversion even amid growing criticism of it.

The origins, development, and ultimate impact of the nineteenth-century conversionist novel is a largely unnoticed cultural phenomenon. Especially under the influence of the Evangelical Revival, novels became for the English public a major source of information about the Jews. Robert Southey, for example, recommended to a member of Parliament that he read, in preparation for debating Jewish Emancipation, the novel Sophia de Lissau, the subtitle of which defined the function of such novels: A Portraiture of the Jews of the Nineteenth Century; Being an Outline of their Religious and Domestic Habits With Explanatory Notes. The novel's preface made clear why the English public needed this information about the Jews: "how important is an intimate acquaintance with their most minute prejudices to those who would speak to them of Jesus!" Novels became a tool in the work of conversion, laying the groundwork for the English public to participate in this mission and preparing (in the case of Southey's correspondent) a member of Parliament to take part in the debates over Jewish emancipation—for the ideology of conversion played an important role in the parliamentary debates on Jewish civil and political disabilities. Novels about the Jews became so popular and wielded such influence that the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge decided to enter the field with Sadoc and Miriam: A Jewish Tale. This novel makes especially visible what can be found in subtler forms in the conversionist novel in general, namely, the vestigial traces of the oldest form of conversionist literature. In Sadoc and Miriam, narrative form is almost entirely erased in the debates between characters over the comparative values of Judaism versus Christianity, recalling those literary dialogues written by the Church fathers in which a Christian tries to convert a Jew through scriptural argument. Moreover, the London Society used the popularity of novels to advertise and support its own cause, regularly quoting Ivanhoe, for example, and even altering a passage in a famous novel like Daniel Deronda to make it serve the ideology of conversion.

In turning to the controversy over the Jewish conversionist societies and the way in which this controversy began to raise questions about English national identity, I explain in the first part of this chapter how the critics of such societies saw in them the sign of a kind of national insanity, "the English madness," which threatened to stain once again England's national character by being the latest development in a long history of England's abuses of the Jews. I go on to show how the literature of conversion represented England's missionary project as the sign that England was the chosen nation, the spiritual guide to all nations, initiating the salvation of the world by beckoning "the poor love of a Jew" to find refuge in "the Israel of modern times."

"The English Madness," or "This Mania of Conversion"

Writing in 1833, Isaac D'Israeli, the father of the future prime minister, offers a picture of the kind of activity that surrounded the missions to the Jews in nineteenth-century England: "The most learned Christians have composed excellent treatises; Jewish lectures have been delivered, even by converted Jews; conferences, both public and private, have been held; and societies, industrious like the 'the London,' assisted by every human means. We have arguments the most demonstrative on one side, and refutations the most complete on the other; exhortations which have drawn tears from both parties, and satires the most witty and malicious." D'Israeli, who eventually broke with the synagogue and had his children baptized—though he himself was never a convert to Christianity, as the London Society incorrectly claimed—goes on to explain those practices that turned Christian proselytism into "this trade of conversion," such as "hunting after miserable proselytes in the dark purlieus of filthy quarters, parentless children, or torn from their disconsolate parents; ... or importing young Polanders, who lose their Jewish complexion by fattening at the tables of their generous hosts."

D'Israeli here is reiterating the charges that had been brought before the public on many occasions, but perhaps most directly by a series of texts, published between 1816 and 1825, that were devoted exclusively to exposing the abuses of the London Society. When Robert Southey attacked the Society in 1830, he based his remarks on one of these popular critiques: "The Society for converting Jews has wasted more money than any other society in this country, which is a great deal. Norris published a most complete exposure of it." H. H. Norris's book, heavily indebted to two shocking exposes written by M. Sailman and B. R. Goakman, discusses the Society's notorious mismanagement of funds, its extraordinary expenditures, and its failure to win legitimate converts—as in the case of the learned rabbi from Jerusalem, the society's famous first convert, meant to convince both Christians and Jews of the success of Jewish conversion, who "went back again to the Jews" when it was discovered "that he frequently resorted to a house of ill-fame." Similar charges were leveled at no less a figure than the founder of the London Society, the Rev. Joseph Samuel Christian Frederic Frey: "his crime [was] adultery, not committed once only, but voraciously pursued and persisted in in the face of detection." Such incidents were already so well known, having been articulated in serious critiques and bitter satires, that the intention of Norris's book, it may surprise us, was not to undercut the ideology of conversion but to recuperate it. Norris was attempting to preserve the goal of conversion in the face of the miserable business the London Society had made of it, arguing "that it is alone responsible for its own total failure; and that the conversion of the Jews remains, what the Society found it, an object of the most intense interest, left in charge to the Christian Church, as one of its most imperative obligations." Norris worried that the London Society's notorious reputation, extended across Europe with the recent establishment of foreign missions to the Jews, was giving a bad name not only to the missionary enterprise, but to England itself: "the very work itself of fetching home these out-casts to the flock of Christ, is become a bye-word and an object of scorn and ridicule amongst them, being scoffed at as 'the English madness.'"

Such critiques, while agreeing on the abuses of the London Society, were frequently based on very different ideologies. While a conversionist like Norris who saw himself as a protector of the Jews decries "all the cruel wrongs it [the London Society] has itself inflicted on that grievously oppressed people," other critics worked to another end, not to protect the Jewish community from such abuses, but to maintain the basest stereotypes of Jewish identity. This kind of critique was based on the idea that the Jews were not worth the money or the effort spent on them by the missionary societies. In The British Critic in 1819 a reviewer of several works dealing with the London Society used the critiques of Sailman and Goakman to reiterate the abuses of the Society—"how the half-naked and hungry Jew boy has become tempted by food and clothes"—in what was finally a conventional Christian attack on the Jews themselves: "the guilt of that blood [of Jesus Christ] still rests upon them with all its original weight." Yielding to the idea, so prevalent at the time, that "the situation of the Jews, that once highly favoured, now outcast and despised people, will ever be a subject of intense interest and awful contemplation," the reviewer claims that, even with recent advances in education, science, and morals, "their blindness has not been removed, their prejudices have not been softened, their condition not improved: they are yet a wandering, unsocial, and despised people." In short, "the Jews remain the same, in features, in habits, in customs, and in character," and their unchangeable nature becomes the basis for claiming their unconvertibility: "the real conversion of a Jew has been at all times as rare, as their whole history is wonderful."

The Anglo-Jewish community suddenly found itself the object of frequent publicity and heated controversy. Quick to respond to the establishment of the London Society, the Jewish community was eager to get a hearing from the English public, for the Society attempted to forestall all debate, as Joseph Crool, an instructor of Hebrew at Cambridge, complained: "it is said that they have answered almost everything, and that a Jew has no more to say for himself." Crool's widely read work, studied by missionaries and cited by conversionist novelists, took aim not at the abuses of the London Society, but at the scriptural arguments that the missionaries employed in their attempt to convince Jews that Jesus Christ was their Messiah. Crool was careful to insist that he was not "an enemy of Christianity," and to use a strategy that was a standard feature of the works written by English Jews against conversionism—the acknowledgment of a special relationship between the Jewish community and the English nation: "how much more is it our duty to pray for the nations at the present time, in particular for this country, for here we are used well, and treated better than in any other country: here we enjoy ease and security."

The Anglo-Jewish community consistently appealed to the English public's generosity, its reputation for tolerance, even when attacking the London Society with a biting irony and the voice of outrage, as in a pamphlet written immediately after the Society's establishment, entitled Letter to Mr. Frey, of the Soi-Disant Jews'-Chapel, Spitalfields; Occasioned by the Question Now in Debate at the London Forum (1810). The author, who signed herself "A Daughter of Israel," attacked the character and actions of Frey—whom she called a "Purchaser of Babes! Corrupter of thoughtless Youth!"—condemning his "bribery system" of conversion, "the trade you are now employed in." Such attacks were carefully aimed at a foreign Jew, not an English Christian: "you are not a Christian, you are an Apostate Jew, alike the disgrace of the community you have entered, and that you have quitted." The author ended, first, by counseling Frey to "imitate the benign tolerant principles of the Anglican Church," and second, by proving the Jews' loyalty to the English nation on the basis of their loyalty to their religion: "the Jews are not to be led aside from their duty to the Almighty, nor their loyal attachment to the Government which protects them; for they are equally as firm to their God, as they are to their King." In such strategic remarks we see how carefully the Anglo-Jewish community had to aim its attacks at the conversionist societies while not offending the English Protestant public in general.

In addition to attacking the scriptural arguments of the missionaries (Crool), and the character of Frey and his methods (A Daughter of Israel), Jewish critics of the London Society began to represent themselves as the protectors of England, praising the English for their generosity while warning them that they were being duped, especially as the Society's immense expenditures and the hypocrisy of its converts became better known. In Conversion of the Jews: An Address from an Israelite to the Missionary Preachers Assembled at Liverpool to Promote Christianity amongst the Jews (1827), M. Samuel lists the better uses to which such money could be put:

To plead the case of distress for the poor Irish, or for the Spanish emigrants, to preach charity sermons for any particular asylum, is not sufficient for your exalted views; you aspire to a more lofty and extensive scope, to paint in a pathetic manner the blind obduracy of a chosen race, and to convince your audience, that charity cannot be better bestowed than in reclaiming the sons and daughters of Abraham from darkness to light.... Was there ever a more specious pretext invented to rouse the charitable spirit of the British nation!!!

Samuel leaves the English public with a startling image of the converted Jew, "his purse ... filled with the reward of his labour," departing from England to return to his native land, "there to revel in luxurious delight over British wealth—British credulity!" Samuel addresses the members of the Society—"For twenty years you have been infected with this mania of conversion"—and he leaves the impression that the entire English public is in danger of becoming infected: "Now the conversion of a solitary Polish Jew in London is hailed with such triumph as to require a public announcement in all the newspapers of so glorious an accession to the strength of Christianity; and ... thousands of credulous enthusiasts flock to the sanctuary to witness this holy Patriarch undergo the first degree of apostasy."

The London Society so angered and alarmed the Jewish community that even in pamphlets and books whose major focus pointed elsewhere, we find critiques of the missions to the Jews. In this way attacks on the London Society found their way into a variety of different discourses and motivated a range of different projects. For instance, in The Inquisition and Judaism (1845), an attempt to record a portion of the history of the Inquisition in Portugal, the strikingly contemporary and local remarks of Moses Mocatta's preface may at first seem out of place. "In many parts of the Old and New World, but more especially in Great Britain, the conversion of the Jews has become an organized system.—Here, societies and branch societies are formed, schools are established for infants and adults, and enormous sums are annually placed at the disposal of mercenary agents to further what the maudlin fanaticism of the day calls 'the good cause.'" The body of Mocatta's book presented a translation of a sermon by a Catholic archbishop and its refutation by a Jew, from another time and place, under conditions that must have seemed vastly different from those of Victorian England, but in "the history of the controversy between the 'Converters' and the disciples of the faith of Moses ... the weapons employed have been invariably taken from the same armory." Mocatta published these translations in the hope that they would "protect them [Jewish youth] against the insidious efforts of the missionaries" in Victorian England.

So, a study of the discursive practices produced by this controversy cannot be limited to those texts that took the London Society as their sole, or even their primary, subject. Moreover, a study of these practices introduces us to the various cultural issues with which the conversion of the Jews was entwined—as, in the case of Mocatta's book, the history of the Inquisition in Spain, and the nationalist contrast between intolerant Spain and tolerant England (that Mocatta's book threatens to deconstruct in its pointed if brief reference to the conversionist societies of nineteenth-century England). I now wish to turn to certain anticonver-sionist texts that, whether or not based primarily on a critique of the conversionist societies, show how the conversion of the Jews was linked to such pressing nineteenth-century issues as nationalism, colonialism, and race.


Excerpted from Figures of Conversion by Michael Ragussis. Copyright © 1995 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


1: The Culture of Conversion,
2: Writing English Comedy: "Patronizing Shylock",
3: Writing English History: Nationalism and "National Guilt",
4: Writing Spanish History: The Inquisition and "the Secret Race",
5: Israel in England: English Culture and the "Hebrew Premier",
6: Moses in Egypt: The Secret Jew in England,

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