Undefined | The Nation



  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

By any stretch of the imagination, Trials of the Diaspora is very thin history, and whether out of intellectual chutzpah or disdain for the reader, Julius makes no attempt to hide the fact. At the beginning of Chapter 6, just over halfway through the main text, he declares, "So much for the history." Indeed, the history itself relies heavily on secondary sources, many of which Julius uses simply to support his arguments. He barely engages with scholars or researchers who put forward a different point of view. He plays fast and loose with context, using it when it suits him and ignoring it when it might weaken his arguments. In distinctly ahistorical fashion, he leaps back and forth between periods. This is not serious historical scholarship.

Trials of the Diaspora
A History of Anti-Semitism in England.

By Anthony Julius
Buy this book

About the Author

Antony Lerman
Antony Lerman is the former director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research in London and former editor of...

Equally problematic, but very revealing, is Julius's definition of anti-Semitism. He confidently rejects as false the wider definition of hatred of Jews as "a continuously present, integral aspect of a single 'mentality,' summarily identified as 'Western civilization.' " He continues: "While I have not myself departed from common usage, and therefore write of 'anti-Semitism,' I nonetheless reject most of the term's implications—and all of its claims." This startling statement is followed by an opaque one: "I regard anti-Semitism as a discontinuous, contingent aspect of a number of distinct mentalités and milieus, none of which has so dominated the West as to make dissenting perspectives impossible." The fog lifts when Julius writes, "There is no essence of anti-Semitism. It is instead in the irreducible plurality of its forms of existence that 'anti-Semitism' is to be understood and studied."

For three-quarters of the book this definition is hardly relevant, since by Julius's own admission the patterns of English anti-Semitism from the medieval period to the 1960s show considerable continuity. But since Julius believes that the "new anti-Semitism" is the same as the "new anti-Zionism," the usefulness of the definition for the remaining two chapters, which explore "anti-Semitic anti-Zionisms," becomes clear. Essentially, Julius argues that anti-Semitism is so heterogeneous, it's whatever he says it is, thereby justifying the equating of "anti-Zionisms" with anti-Semitism. With all this ground covered before the end of the introduction, it's hard to escape the conclusion that the unmasking of anti-Semitic anti-Zionism in the book's last two chapters is Julius's central, teleological aim, and that the principal purpose of the preceding chapters is to prepare the way. At this point Trials of the Diaspora begins to look even less like history and more like the case for the prosecution.


Julius calls English anti-Semitism "a story of an anti-Semitism that shrinks from being named anti-Semitic.... It is not Jew-hatred that we must write of, but Jew-distrust.... It is a story of snub and insult, sly whisper and innuendo, deceit and self-deception." But it was not like that before the expulsion. "In medieval England," he writes, "Jews were defamed, their wealth was expropriated, they were killed and injured, they were subjected to discriminatory and humiliating regulation." This "war against the Jews" was largely, but not solely, fueled by blood libel, the false and sensational accusation that "Jews periodically trapped, tortured and then killed Christian boys" and used their blood for ritual purposes. During the hundreds of years Jews were banished from Britain, Jew-hatred was kept alive by literary works that drew heavily on the blood libel theme, such as Chaucer's "The Prioress's Tale" and Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice.

For Julius blood libel was the most significant defamation "Anglo-Jewry was tormented with" during the medieval period, and "it continues to overshadow many Jews' lives today," providing "the governing trope in characterizations of Israel and the Zionist project." Julius argues that the deaths of Palestinian children in the Israel-Palestine conflict are frequently portrayed using blood libel motifs. As evidence that blood libel lives on in twenty-first-century England, he cites two controversial literary works: a nine-line poem by Tom Paulin, "Killed in Crossfire," published in 2001 in the Observer, about a Palestinian boy "gunned down by the Zionist SS," and an eight-minute play by Caryl Churchill, Seven Jewish Children, performed at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 2009, in which Jewish adults agonize over how to explain to Jewish children seven moments in modern Jewish and Israeli history, beginning with the Holocaust and culminating in Israel's 2008–09 attack on Gaza.

It is one thing to allege that these works are anti-Semitic; it is another to say they are responsible for revivifying blood libel accusations in England in the twenty-first century. In fact, neither work contains a blood libel trope. Moreover, one could only impute blood libel references to Paulin's and Churchill's texts by believing that any reference in an artwork to Jews killing children is ipso facto anti-Semitic. This is precisely the implication of Julius's argument: every allegation of wrongdoing against, or call to boycott, Jews or the Jewish state "can never be innocent," because it "contains within it every previous such call." While it's absolutely right to condemn current accusations made against Jews based on prejudice and bigotry, Julius's proposition is untenable. The child falsely accused of wrongdoing and viciously beaten by abusive parents is not thereby eternally absolved of similar wrongdoing he might later commit.

Having judged blood libel to be present in Paulin's and Churchill's work, Julius then traces a direct and continuous line from the medieval period to the present in order to bolster his argument that anti-Semitism is central to the "new anti-Zionism." But it's only in the final two chapters that he fully defines what he means by anti-Zionism. Julius dates the emergence of the "new anti-Semitism" to the late 1960s and early '70s. Arising "in consequence of the Six Day War," he writes, it "became hegemonic in the 1990s and 2000s." But Julius finds the term unsatisfactory and prefers to speak of "contemporary anti-Zionism," which he defines as an ideological challenge to the Jewish state developed principally by leftists who once supported Israel as a progressive, vulnerable nation populated by Jews seeking shelter after the horrors of the Holocaust. Julius argues that since 1967 the left has viewed Israel as having a powerful military and colonial ambitions in the Palestinian territories it occupies, which makes Israel uniquely responsible for the Middle East conflict.

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Before commenting, please read our Community Guidelines.