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Antisemitism has a long history in Britain

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Antisemitism in the British isles has a long and inglorious history, preceding the expulsion of Jews from Britain in 1290.

Anthony Julius, a London-based lawyer, has immersed himself in this age-old topic and written a weighty tome on it. In Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Antisemitism in England (Oxford University Press), he explores this phenomenon by examining four varieties of Jew hatred.

The first variety, the antisemitism of defamation, expropriation, murder and expulsion, climaxed in the medieval era.

The second kind, literary antisemitism, reeks in the pages of literature down through the ages.

The modern antisemitism of insult and partial exclusion has been experienced by Jews since their readmission to Britain in the mid-17th century.

The latest configuration of antisemitsm treats Zionism and Israel as illegitimate.

Jews settled in Britain after the Norman conquest in 1066, but conditions for the Jewish community did not deteriorate until the mid-12th century.

As Julius writes: “In medieval England, Jews were defamed, their wealth was expropriated, they were killed and injured, they were subjected to discriminatory and humiliating regulation, and they were, finally expelled.”

The expulsion of Jews from Britain was preceded by their removal from towns such as Bury St. Edmunds in 1190 and Newcastle and Warwick in 1234.

“England, last among the nations of western Europe to receive Jews, was the first to expel them,” Julius observes. “The expulsion was welcomed as a precedent by later generations of antisemites in other countries.”

Curiously enough, literary antisemitism emerged after Jews were expelled and no longer were permitted to live in Britain. By the time Jews returned 400 years later, British literature had stereotyped them.

Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales was rife with derogatory references to Jews. William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice perpetuated vile antisemitic myths. Thomas Nash’s The Unfortunate Traveller underscored Jewish depravity. Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist drew attention to an unsavoury Jewish character, Fagin.

Anthony Trollope’s novel The Prime Minister introduced the quintessential Jewish villain, Ferdinand Lopez, who “knows how to look and talk like a gentleman and claims to be one, but is soon revealed to be nothing but a Jew adventurer – a stranger … a schemer, a cajoling bully, a speculator, a swindler, a liar and a cheat.”

Jews were readmitted to Britain by Oliver Cromwell, even though merchants and clerics voiced strong objections, fearing competition.

During the post-Cromwell period, Jews were subjected to ridicule in pamphlets, petitions, newspaper articles and satirical prints and cartoons.

But as Julius points out, philosemitism was also an element in public discourse about Jews.

The burning issue in the mid-19th century was whether a politician elected to the House of Commons could take his seat without swearing an oath on the true faith as a Christian.

The issue was finally resolved in 1858 when Lionel Rothschild, a newly elected member of parliament and a member of a famous banking dynasty, was not compelled to utter fidelity to Christianity upon taking his seat.

Rothschild’s supporters hailed his admission to the House of Commons as a victory over religious persecution and bigotry. Detractors warned that the campaign for emancipation was a talmudic plot.

Benjamin Disraeli, a convert to Christianity and the first person of Jewish descent to become prime minister, faced taunts throughout his distinguished career. In attacking him, some antisemites referred to his “crypto-Judaism” and “Judaic feeling.” One opponent wrote, “Mr. Disraeli is a Jew by birth and a Christian by accident.”

The Aliens Act of 1905, supported by no less a person than Arthur Balfour, whose name is affixed to the 1917 Balfour Declaration, was designed to exclude “undesirable aliens” from Britain. Although the word “Jew” appeared nowhere in the legislation, Julius notes, it was widely understood that Jews would be disproportionately affected by the xenophobic measure.

The 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia had unintended consequences in Britain, he says. Antisemites perceived it as a Judaeo-Bolshevik conspiracy, and in Palestine, British officials tended to equate communism with Zionism.

As the eminent British historian A.J.P. Taylor has acknowledged, postwar antisemitism was endemic, excluding Jews from social clubs and corporate boards and limiting their access to private schools.

The antisemitism that pervaded the era from the 1920s to the ’40s was “deep and broad,” bearing the weight of the preceding half-century of antisemitic practice, observes Julius.

Singling out the most vociferous antisemites of that period, he mentions unreconstructed racists such as Oswald Mosley of the British Union of Fascists, the Conservative party parliamentarian Maule Ramsay and the agitator Arnold Leese. The latter, a veterinary surgeon who founded an outfit known as the Imperial Fascist League, promoted the concept of blood libel and even called for genocide.

The troubles in Palestine following World War II – the bombing of the King David Hotel and the hanging of two British soldiers, to name but two salient incidents – generated a wave of antisemitism in Britain.

Synagogues were damaged, Jewish-owned shops were smashed and Jewish cemeteries were desecrated. Britain’s foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, admitted that “anti-Jewish feeling” was “greater” than it had been in a century.

The commander of British military forces in Palestine, Gen. Evelyn Barker, was more explicit. In a reference to “these bloody Jews,” he wrote, “Yes, I hate the lot – whether they be Zionists or not.”

Julius also documents the activities of the notorious neo-Nazi John Tyndall, who described Jews as “cancerous microbes.”

His chapter on antisemitism and anti-Zionism is instructive. Criticism of Israeli policy is perfectly acceptable and legitimate, he suggests. But when Israel’s very existence is denied, a red line has been crossed.

In summation, Julius says that while British Jews are secure today, contemporary antisemitism should be regarded as “an elusive, low-key affair, perhaps best understood as an antisemitism of minor, uneven inhibition on Jewish ambition and self-esteem.”

It is, he claims, “a story of snub and insult, sly whisper and innuendo, deceit and self-deception.”

Not a pretty picture.

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