Asked why he had never addressed the problem of anti-Semitism, the eminent Jewish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, born in Poland in 1925, is reported to have replied, "You can't be a bird and an ornithologist at the same time." You needn't agree completely with this sentiment to acknowledge that it captures something of the dilemma that a Jew may face when writing about anti-Semitism, especially in its contemporary form, and especially if he or she writes "as a Jew." With the Holocaust still painfully fresh in people's minds and anti-Semitism a continuing blight on society, maintaining dispassionate objectivity might be too difficult a challenge to meet. Nevertheless, the fact that many recent books about contemporary anti-Semitism have been written by Jews suggests that Bauman's opinion is not widely shared. It's certainly not shared by Anthony Julius, who readily admits that his being Jewish was a significant reason for writing Trials of the Diaspora, a study of English anti-Semitism from medieval times to the present. If you think Bauman's aphorism would not apply to a study bearing the words "A History" in its subtitle, you would be wrong. Julius has his sights set firmly on anti-Semitism today.
The problem of objectivity is particularly acute because the subject of anti-Semitism is now highly politicized. Two or three decades ago there was, broadly speaking, a shared understanding of what counted as anti-Semitism: for example, the hatred of Jews per se; the accusation that Jews secretly conspire worldwide to control the media, the banks and government for their individual and collective advantage and profit; the belief that Jews were responsible for both communism and capitalism; the charge that the Holocaust never happened and was invented by Jews in order to extort money from the Germans. Certainly academic historians have always differed over the precise definition of the term. But today's differences have very little to do with discussions about whether a word coined in the 1870s can be used to describe all varieties of Jew-hatred going back 2,000 years.
These days, when Jew-hatred is publicly identified, it mostly gets called the "new anti-Semitism"—essentially, extreme criticism of Israel said to contain anti-Semitic tropes or to be indistinguishable from anti-Semitism, and commonly called "anti-Zionism." Bitter arguments rage over what constitutes anti-Semitism. Scholarship struggles to hold its own in a field—more accurately, a battleground—dominated by politically motivated columnists and fiercely partisan politicians and public figures. But many who study anti-Semitism fundamentally dispute the existence of a new type of anti-Semitism and reject the notion that anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are indistinguishable. Either way, a fundamental change in the discourse has undoubtedly occurred: rare is the discussion about anti-Semitism today that does not center on Israel and Zionism. No one writing about current Jew-hatred could fail to be aware of this. Julius himself acknowledges "the current confusion, as well as much deliberate obfuscation, about what counts as anti-Semitism," and says that disagreements over this "are quite new to anti-Semitism's history." One measure, then, against which Julius's book must be judged is if it mitigates or exacerbates the anti-Semitism wars.
Whether he reluctantly acquired or actively sought it, Anthony Julius has celebrity status. The deputy chairman of the London law firm Mishcon de Reya, Julius was thrust into the public eye in 1996 as the lawyer acting for Diana, Princess of Wales, in her divorce from Prince Charles. Soon enough Julius was back in the limelight when he represented the American Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt in the high-profile and spectacularly unsuccessful libel case brought against her and her British publisher, Penguin Books, by the writer David Irving. Irving claimed that Lipstadt had defamed him as an anti-Semite in her book Denying the Holocaust: she had described him as a Holocaust denier. The trial lasted ten weeks, at the end of which the judge ruled that Lipstadt's description of Irving was accurate.
Julius writes in Trials of the Diaspora that to encounter "Jew-hatred without any disguise or pretence...one has either to be unlucky or else zealous in seeking it out." As a schoolboy and a student of English literature at Cambridge in the 1970s, and then as a lawyer, he learned how English anti-Semitism operates: "by stealth, by indirection, by tacit understandings and limited exclusions." In time, he chose to seek it out, as counsel for the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the official representative body of the British Jewish community, advising Israeli universities threatened with an academic boycott and engaging in public debate on the "version of anti-Zionism" that "has the potential of...sliding into anti-Semitism." Julius acknowledges that these experiences have informed his attitude to the subject and his decision to write this book. He has undertaken a personal mission, albeit one he finds distasteful: "While I acknowledge that anti-Semitism needs to be examined, I do not do so with any relish. It is only because so much anti-Semitic rubbish has now accumulated on England's lawns...that a clean-up of the kind represented by this book has become necessary. But I have derived no benefit, either in self-understanding or education, from the undertaking." Yet however personal the undertaking, the author avers, "the relevant genre within which I have written it has had to be the impersonal work of scholarship." By the last page, there is no doubt that Julius feels he has been through a lot on our behalf: to study anti-Semitic nonsense "is to immerse oneself in muck. Anti-Semitism is a sewer. This is my second book on the subject and I intend it to be my last." (His first, T.S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism, and Literary Form, appeared in 1995.) These personal revelations might ruffle some readers, but given the fraught and very public nature of debate on the subject, it would have been a mistake to conceal them.
Autobiography completed, Julius embarks on a roller coaster of a journey. After discussing and rather excessively categorizing enmities and defamations in Chapters 1 and 2, he begins the historical narrative in Chapter 3 by examining the radical anti-Semitism of "defamation, expropriation, murder, and expulsion" present in medieval England up to the general expulsion in 1290. This first gave way to literary anti-Semitism, discussed in Chapter 4; then, as Julius shows in a return to historical narrative in Chapter 5, from the time of the readmission in 1655 to the late twentieth century it developed into a "quotidian anti-Semitism of insult and partial exclusion, pervasive but contained." In a further shift of mode, Julius discusses the mentality of modern English anti-Semitism in Chapter 6, before reaching the final two chapters on "anti-Zionisms," which focus mostly on the past ten years. Julius believes that "quotidian anti-Semitism has been waning" but that "in the last decades it has been supplemented by an anti-Semitic anti-Zionism that many English Jews find truly frightening."