Friday, September 24, 2010

Meeting Anthony Julius

A London-based lawyer with the firm of Mishcon de Reya, Anthony Julius has the unusual distinction of being a solicitor-advocate—a barrister who can also appear in court. He was on the defense team in the suit filed against the historian Deborah Lipstadt by the Holocaut denier David Irving; he has participated in litigating many cases bearing on the interests of Israel; and he represented Princess Diana in the last years of her life. A first-rate scholar, he is also the author of T. S. Eliot: Anti-Semitism and Literary Form (1995), Idolizing Pictures: Idolatry, Iconoclasm, and Jewish Art (2001), and Transgressions: The Offenses of Art (2002).

Now comes Julius's magnum opus, Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England, just released in the United States. This large, sweeping book is more than a solidly researched and highly readable history of English anti-Semitism; it is an attempt to chart the evolution of anti-Semitism itself, to explain what it is (and what it is not), and to demonstrate how to recognize and name it. Its early chapters—on religious and literary anti-Semitism in pre-modern England—set the stage for Julius's coverage of the modern era and especially of the present day, when the boundaries between hatred of Jews and detestation of the Jewish state have become thoroughly blurred. Indeed, it is the prevalence of anti-Zionism in today's England that motivated Julius to undertake this lucid, erudite, and compelling study.

Julius insists on fair-mindedness but makes no pretense to dispassion. Writing this book, he says, has been like swimming long-distance through a sewer. Out of the mire of his subject, he has produced a work of gripping force.

At whom is this book directed?

At the general reader; it was not written for a specifically academic audience. It is intended to be informative—and it may be useful against anti-Semites.

How long did it take to write Trials of the Diaspora?

About five years. At a quite early stage, it became clear to me that a purely narrative account of English anti-Semitism would be intolerable to read—one awful thing after another. Instead, I saw that the subject was best organized by reference to specific categories or themes, and that is largely how the book is organized.

When do you make time for writing in your busy career?

I divide my time among family, law work, and writing. That's it.

If there is a word that's ubiquitous in Trials, it's "tropes"—which you employ to refer to the relentless litany of overused anti-Semitic clichés.

Yes, the discourse of anti-Semitism—malicious lies about Jews, as distinct from violence against Jews—is best analyzed through its clichés.

The word trials in the title: where did the idea for that come from?

There is an aspect of life in the Diaspora that is best understood as an ordeal. Also, the word is partly in homage to Philip Roth, who wrote in Operation Shylock that "In the modern world, the Jew has perpetually been on trial."

You delineate various strains of anti-Semitism, ranging from snobbery and prejudice to racism and genocide. Then you characterize anti-Semitism as involving beliefs about Jews that are both false and hostile. Yet in the final analysis you seem to say that the phenomenon is a tangled bundle of irrational sentiments and that it has no overarching definition.

Yes. "Anti-Semitism" is best understood as comprising a group of related hatreds, some lethal, some not.

To some British Jews, the idea that their country is being Islamized, as suggested by Melanie Phillips in her book Londonistan, is bogus. But you seem to feel that anti-Semitism is wearing down a Jewish community grappling with rising violence and abuse.

Contemporary anti-Semitism demoralizes Anglo-Jewry. But it is to be set against aspects of Anglo-Jewish life—Limmud-type study gatherings, Jewish Book Week, kosher restaurants, and so on—that are enlivening and elevating.

You argue that modern English anti-Semitism is unique, that it has a distinctive "mentality."

Among anti-Semitisms, the English brand was innovative. The first medieval blood libel occurred in England, and so, in 1290, did the first nation-wide expulsion of the Jews. There's a heritage.

Apart from Gentile anti-Semitism and, today, anti-Zionism, there's the specifically Jewish variety of criticism of Israel. Why are you so incensed when Israel's Jewish critics in the UK begin their attacks with "As a Jew, I..."?

Criticisms are true or false, independent of the confessional or ethnic identity of the critic.

British Jewish opposition to the idea of a Jewish state predates the Balfour Declaration, as you remind your readers. What do today's anti-Zionists have in common with their predecessors?

Not much! The pre-Balfour Declaration anti-Zionist Jews were either working-class Jews, who preferred revolution at home, or middle-class Jews, who preferred assimilation. Contemporary anti-Zionist Jews are mostly drawn to anti-Zionism as a means of asserting a Jewish identity.

The Guardian newspaper, with its popular website, plays a vanguard role in disseminating the new anti-Zionism, yet many American Jews and even some Anglo-Israelis enjoy the Guardian from afar.

It's not hard to see why. The new anti-Zionism overstates and misrepresents the significance of the 120-year old contest between Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians, over the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan; it also melodramatizes the contest, assigning to one side all the vice, and to the other all the virtue. The Guardian provides a forum for the dissemination of this skewed perspective.

Contrary to the protestations of the anti-Israel crowd, no one seriously suggests that every criticism of Israeli policies is anti-Semitic. So when is the line crossed from legitimate criticism to something more sinister?

When the criticism draws on anti-Semitic language—for example, "Israel lobby," or "Jewish lobby"—or connects with longstanding anti-Semitic practices like boycotts.

Shouldn't vociferous de-legitimization, by Jews, of Israel's right to exist be inherently understood in psycho-political terms? Isn't it bizarre that some people's singular connection to Jewish life takes the form of anti-Zionism?

Yes, and yes.

But you seem to abjure the term "self-hatred," preferring to cast such opponents of Jewish self-determination as contributors to anti-Semitism.

Many individuals of Jewish origin are proud of their status as opponents of the Jewish state. They are not self-haters; they are self-admirers.

-- May 2010

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