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Profiles in Courage

A history of English philosemitism, by the distinguished Gertrude Himmelfarb.

By From the March 2012 issue

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The People of the Book: Philosemitism in England, from Cromwell to Churchill
By Gertrude Himmelfarb
(Encounter Books, 183 pages, $23.95)

At a time when physical attacks on synagogues, cemeteries, and individual Jews have been increasing exponentially year-on-year across the United Kingdom, it is heartening to hear from one of America's foremost intellectuals that it was not always thus. When Jewish history is almost constantly—and understandably—written in the context of anti-Semitism, that foul bacillus that finds its origins in all that is most repulsive in the fetid recesses of human nature, it is rather wonderful occasionally to read an extended essay on its antithesis: philosemitism. I fear that the reason that this book is only 155 pages long, however, is that Professor Himmelfarb had simply too few significant Britons to praise for their philosemitism, despite casting her historical net as wide as the three centuries that separated Oliver Cromwell from Winston Churchill. A Briton's sole consolation might be that the histories of philosemitism in France, Germany, Russia, and elsewhere would be even shorter.

Certainly, no one could be better qualified to write this book that Gertrude Himmelfarb, the most distinguished living historian of Victorian English culture and society, which allows her to write with utter authority of the philosemitism of such key literary figures as George Eliot, Sir Walter Scott, and Benjamin Disraeli. In her seminal works The Victorian Mind (1968) and The Idea of Poverty (1984), she demonstrated her mastery of mid-19th century British intellectual life, and her recent The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot (2009) allowed her fascinating insights into philosemitic novels such as Daniel Deronda that this book explores further. Professor Himmelfarb is one of the few public intellectuals to be elected both a Fellow of the British Academy and of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and in 2004 she received the National Endowment for the Humanities Medal. We are therefore in the best possible hands when it comes to understanding how the best of Britons' minds worked when they embraced the Jews at a time when so many of their countrymen were rejecting them. (An admiring word is also due to Encounter Books, a young and small imprint that is nonetheless publishing very many of our culture's most thought-provoking tracts for troubled times.)

When one looks for the worst anti-Semitic stereotypes in literature, it is of course not to Joseph Goebbels' foul representations that one goes, because none were memorable and the political bias was so obvious. Instead it is to Geoffrey Chaucer's "Prioress's Tale," William Shakespeare's Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, and Charles Dickens' Fagin in Oliver Twist. Even the 20th century saw another great English poet, T.S. Eliot, employing anti-Semitic imagery. How can it be that generally liberal, humanist writers of acknowledged talent—even genius—could create Jewish figures of such repulsiveness? When Al Pacino played Shylock in Central Park two summers ago, American theater-goers were reminded of how flimsy the stock answers—that Shakespeare was only trying to make us confront our own prejudices, that Shylock wasn't meant to be representative of his race, etc.—truly are in the face of the merchant's constant, vicious, but eloquent demands for a pound of Christian flesh. How can it be that Englishmen created worse and longer-lasting stereotypes of grasping, amoral Jews even than the Nazis?

Himmelfarb explains that in Chaucer and Shakespeare's time there were no practicing Jews living in England, and that Dickens tried to atone in later years both by softening Fagin's image in Oliver Twist's later editions by making him less conspicuously, or at least specifically, Jewish, and by introducing the "old Jewish man" Riah into Our Mutual Friend, who was "a gentle Jew" and contrasted totally with "his Christian master" Fledgeby, who was "the meanest cur existing."

Twenty-six years separate Oliver Twist (1838) from Our Mutual Friend (1864), and in the meantime Parliament had repealed the requirement by which MPs had to take an oath of allegiance to the sovereign "on the true faith of a Christian." By the 1830s, Jews were the only religion still discriminated against, as the Nonconformists and Roman Catholics had been allowed to enter Parliament in 1828 and 1829 respectively. When the great Whig historian Thomas Babington (later Lord) Macaulay was elected in 1830, it was on the repeal of Jewish civil disabilities that he decided to dedicate his maiden speech, traditionally a signal of what freshmen MPs consider most important to them. At that time there were only between 30,000 and 40,000 Jews in Britain, as opposed to about a quarter of a million today.

In that debate, the Tory MP for Oxford, Robert Inglis, used the ancient argument—which often resurfaces in anti-Semitic literature today—that Jews were mere aliens who felt no true allegiance to the country of their residence, but only to their race. "The Jews of London had more sympathy with the Jews resident in Berlin or Vienna than with the Christians among whom they resided," Inglis claimed, "to this day they called themselves a people, and they might avail themselves of their political influence for objects connected with their own aggrandizement." (Compare Inglis' remark to that of the Labour MP Paul Flynn, who on December 1, 2011, said of Britain's first Jewish ambassador to Israel, the fourth-generation Briton Matthew Gould, "What Britain needs in Israel is someone with roots in the U.K," who "can't be accused of having Jewish loyalty.")

Of course the same despicable argument that Inglis and Flynn made had been used unsuccessfully to try to prevent Catholics being permitted to sit in Parliament—that "the papists" owed their ultimate allegiance to the Pope rather than the Crown—and it gave the 30-year-old Macaulay his opportunity to draw comparisons between the Catholic Emancipation bill and the measure known as "the Jew Bill." Despite Macaulay's eloquence—and Himmelfarb quotes some of his scintillating speech—the Bill failed by 228 to 165, and it was not until 1858 that Lionel de Rothschild finally took the seat in the House of Commons for which he had been twice elected but from which he had hitherto been barred. Gladstone, Disraeli, William Hazlitt, and some others come out well from the story, but several others one might have expected to be enlightened, such as Lord Shaftesbury and John Stuart Mill, either vacillated or were hardly to be seen in the struggle. Himmelfarb argues that "Philosemitism has a rich history in English society, politics, diplomacy and literature," yet it was not rich enough to allow Jews into Parliament before 1858, although of course that was five years earlier than the United States abolished slavery.

Himmelfarb also reminds us that England was the first country to instigate a blood libel legal case—that Christian children's blood was used in Jewish religious rituals—in 1144, and the first to expel the Jews, in 1290, two centuries before even the Spanish Inquisition. (As Winston Churchill pointed out, "Exception was made for certain physicians without whose skill persons of consequence might have lacked due attention.") Thenceforth it was not until Oliver Cromwell's rule in the mid-17th century that Jews were allowed to return. (Or as Churchill put it equally succinctly: "It was left to a Calvinist dictator to remove the ban which a Catholic king had imposed.")

It is worth notice that the title of Himmelfarb's book is specific to England, rather than the whole of the British Isles. Despite there only being 4,000 Jews, the spring of 1904 saw a pogrom in the Irish town of Limerick against the few who had managed to emigrate there from eastern Europe. Whipped up by the vilely anti-Semitic preachings of the Catholic priest Fr. John Creagh, Limerick Catholics started a boycott of Jewish businesses and soon Jews were being hissed at by crowds in the street, and mud thrown at them. They were then physically attacked, with cries of "Down with the Jews!" "Death to the Jews!" and "We must hunt them out!" When Rabbi Levin of Limerick begged the local Catholic bishop to denounce what was happening, no public statement was made. Soon Jews in Limerick were being refused service in shops and by April twenty of the city's 35 Jewish families had been put out of business. Assaults on them continued, and the boycott went on into the autumn. By 1905, not surprisingly, virtually the entire Jewish community of the city had left. Small wonder that Ireland has won only one Nobel Prize for Physics, and none at all for Chemistry, Economics, or Medicine.

"We owe to the Jews in the Christian revelation," wrote the noted philosemite Winston Churchill in an article entitled "Zionism versus Bolshevism," "a system of ethics which, even if it were entirely separated from the supernatural, would be incomparably the most precious possession of Mankind, worth in fact the fruits of all other wisdom and learning put together." A Victorian duke's grandson born in a palace might easily have adopted the thoughtless "social" or "club" anti-Semitism of so many of his class, age, and background, but the fact that Winston Churchill—whom many see as the greatest Englishman since Cromwell—did not is just yet another testament to his greatness. If only there had been more like him.

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About the Author

Andrew Roberts is the author of A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900 and, most recently, The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War