CST Blog

Anthony Julius on Antisemitism

4 August 2010

The website of Israeli newspaper Ha'Aretz features the below interview with Anthony Julius, author of the indispensable "Trials of the Diaspora. A History of Anti-Semitism in England".

In the interview, Julius makes a strikingly cogent and coherent analysis of modern and historical British antisemitism, as well as associated attitudes to Israel. It is well worth reading in full.

What do you think of President Shimon Peres' comments about anti-Semitism in Britain?

Well, it is perfectly and patently true that there has been a significant and complicated element of anti-Semitism in English attitudes towards Jews and relations with Israel. I would absolutely not want to deny that there is anti-Semitism. There is a tendency among the Anglo-Jewish establishment to deny it out of desire to fit in with the larger political establishment and to them I would say, you are wrong - it does exist.

But, like every judgment that is a two-sentence sound bite, Peres gets it wrong. Or, rather, partly wrong. To him I would say, yes, there is anti-Semitism, but British attitudes and actions cannot be understood only in that prism. That is only a part of the larger picture. Characterizing someone or something as anti-Semitic should be a last resort. The focus on anti-Semitism is a little one-eyed, meaning he is not seeing the whole picture.

There is also a strong philo-Semitic component here, and even more significantly, there is a strong component of real politics and pursuit of national self interest in Britain's words and actions.

While there are some in the Anglo Jewish community that deny anti-Semitism, as you mention, there are many others who claim it is getting worse. What do you think? Why do so many Jews here feel insecure?

There is a lot that is overstated. I heard one person describe living here like living in the last months of the Weimar Republic. No.

But it is a little worse than before and it is worrying. It's troubling that it is necessary for schools and shuls to be protected by security guards. And it's also troubling that people don't think its troubling.

It's hard to see where the threats are coming from with utter precision. There is no doubt that there are high levels of anti-Israel discourse in some of the Muslim communities here which become anti-Semitic ... It's also plain that there is a sort of perceived opinion now about the history of Israel that is utterly and ignorantly hostile to Israel. The whole complicated history of the region has been cast into a melodrama with a villain and a victim. And Israel is the villain.

Is any of this particular to Britain? What differentiates anti-Semitism here from anywhere else?

There is a sense that anti-Semitism is the same everywhere. Like it says in the Haggadah - in every generation one rises up to destroy us. But I feel what is under-explored and should be better explored is actually the heterogeneity of anti-Semitism, the fact that there are different anti-Semitisms and they constitute the enemy in different ways. There are distinctions.

In Britain, the historical differences are greater than the contemporary ones. Among historical peculiarities of English anti-Semitism, I would say it has been exceptionally innovative. The blood libel first appeared here, and the expulsion of 1290 was the first national expulsion.

Second is that in more recent times, anti-Semitism has been of an export kind. England has exported its anti-Semitism to the continent. What we started, other nations in Europe adopted and in some cases continued. And another distinctive feature is with literary figures like Shylock and Fagin. There are not many other literatures that have produced such characters.

I suppose another peculiarity of the English is the non-lethal character of modern anti-Semitism. It has not been an affair of pogroms or legislative exclusion, it's also not really been an affair of major anti-Semitic set pieces. There was no Dreyfus trial here.

Is there something anti-Semitic about the often virulent criticism of Israel and its government and policies by many in Britain?

What I tried to do in the book is to make what is to me a banal and obvious point - which is that its an empirical question. Anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are not to be collapsed into one predetermined entity, nor are the two to be utterly sundered. There are times when anti-Israeli, or anti-Likud discourse is polluted by anti-Semitic tropes, but other occasions when its not.

How do we know which is which?

It's not that easy to define, but easy to identify. Broadly speaking, the relating of Israel to Nazi Germany and Zionism to Nazism, that seems to me to be strongly anti-Semitic in its impulse. It is a kind of malicious attempt to identify persecuted with the persecuted.

What about those who argue that the disproportionate attention paid to Israel and its actions is in some way itself tainted with anti-Semitism?

This is what is called "what about-ery." What about this other country, or that one. I think it's the least attractive form of defense. To say "Well, yes, maybe I did do this and this, but over there, they did worse." Well, this creates a playground defense when you are resisting a punishment from the teacher, but I don't think it has any real moral weight to it. Criticisms have to be addressed in their own terms, and if they are felt to be disproportionate it's unfortunate, but I don't think it necessarily is anti-Semitism.

There are many reasons that this particular Middle East dispute [between Israel and the Palestinians], among all the disputes in the world, attracts so much attention. One reason is that it's accessible to Europe, and journalists tend not to get shot. They can stay in Jerusalem, meet all sorts of sophisticated and interesting Israelis and Palestinians in the evenings and go on photo tours of occupied territories in the day. Another reason is that it is the Holy Land, it has this huge part to play in the culture of imagination of the rest of the world.

Another reason is that Europe, and Britain in particular, has such a huge stake in this area. Britain ran the mandate for 25 years, and this is still fresh in people's memory, especially among the political classes in this country.

None of this has anything to do with anti-Semitism.

That said, there are of course sometimes when there is anti-Semitism in some of the disproportionate attention. The belief that Israel is the center of some network of evil is frighteningly close to early versions of anti-Semitism, in which the Jews themselves were constituted as being the center of world evil - a conspiratorial, maligned force. That sort of conception cuts very close to some formulation. [sic.]

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