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.