Review: Anthony Julius’ “Trials of the Diaspora” [Part3]: “English Literary Anti-Semitism”

ILlustration from The Prioress's Tale

ILlustration from The Prioress’s Tale

We continue with our analysis of Anthony Julius’ Trials of the Diaspora, by turning our attention to one of the more expansive sections of the book — a chapter dealing with what Julius believes to be England’s uniquely hateful contribution to world literature. In the first part of this analysis we explored the background of the author, his history as a Jewish ethnic activist and also, through some of his statements and biographical information, aspects of his psychology. This psychological, and in a sense also political, outlook has already been demonstrated as influencing both Julius’ perception of the history of Jews in England, and his writing of that history. This is most apparent in the thread of victimhood which Julius crudely weaves throughout much of the book.

More insidiously, however, in the second part of the analysis we saw instances where Julius wilfully ignored evidence because it didn’t conform to what he believes to be the case, and also because it did not conform to what he wants others to believe. Julius has thus shown his hand as a propagandist contributing to the drumbeat that the West is evil.

Julius on ‘The Songs of the Conquerors’

Julius opens his chapter with an account of the importance of the Book of Lamentations in Jewish tradition. The book, known to Jews as the Eicha, records the loss of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple by the Babylonians. According to Julius (144), its recital by Jews on the fast day of Tishah be’Av every year

renews Jewish memory of the Babylonian exile and of those other moments of national calamity by convention remembered on this day — among others, the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70[AD], and the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. In its slow accumulation of disasters, Tishah be’Av encourages the regarding of catastrophe as the defining quality of Diaspora existence…By tradition, the Jews were expelled from England on Tishah be’Av. On this day, Jews are meant to remember that catastrophe too.

Leaving aside the implications on group identity and group psychology of this annual festival of victimhood, Julius writes that a central aspect of the Eicha is a recollection of the Babylonians celebrating their victory over the Jews by incorporating them into their songs and gibes.

This celebration over the vanquished is important because, according to Julius, the allegedly anti-Jewish post-expulsion English literary canon is little more than the celebratory song of Englishmen who have vanquished their enemy and will forever remember this victory in art. It doesn’t occur to Julius that imagining the renowned literary output of one of the world’s great producers of the written word revolving around Jews is evidence of a truly pathological level of ethnocentrism.

Instead Julius (149) writes that after expulsion Jews found

that they had become material for song. This is among the bitterest of consequences for them. The threat they posed (or were perceived to pose) can now be invoked ceremonially…These songs or ballads, which are retold endlessly, and which deny to the defeated the pathos of their defeat, both follow acts of barbarism and are themselves barbaric. They are pitiless; they can be persecutory.

We can clearly see that the sense of victimhood, so apparent in earlier sections of the book, continues to drip habitually from every paragraph. Julius writes (149) that

England’s former Jews could have assembled to voice such a lament [as the Eicha], as they contemplated from their overseas refuges the emergent literature of their late homeland, a literature proliferating texts in which the crimes of predatory Jews are uncovered, and their perpetrators punished.

A careful count of the works, covering six hundred years, that Julius claims to have anti-Jewish content comes to a total of sixteen, including titles like Bram Stoker’s Dracula which don’t contain any references to Jews or Judaism. Hardly the “proliferation” that Julius posits, and hardly evidence of a prevailing anti-Semitic national “discourse.”

The Jewish inability to appreciate English literature beyond the narrow purview of ethnic interest is by no means limited to Julius. There is abundant evidence that this blight is endemic among the larger body of academic Jewry:

Derek Cohen and Deborah Heller’s Jewish Presences in English Literature[1]
Bryan Cheyette’s Constructions of ‘the Jew in English Literature and Society
[2] and his Between Race and Culture: Representations of ‘the Jew’ in English and American Literature[3]
Harry Levi’s Jewish Characters in Fiction: English Literature
James Shapiro’s Shakespeare and the Jews
Edgar Rosenberg’s From Shylock to Svengali: Jewish Stereotypes in English Fiction
Gary Levine’s The Merchant of Modernism: The Economic Jew in Anglo-American Literature[7]
Heidi Kaufman’s English Origins, Jewish Discourse, and the Nineteenth-Century British Novel
Esther Panitz’s The Alien in the Midst: images of Jews in English Literature
Edward Calisch’s The Jew in English Literature: As Author and as Subject
Matthew Biberman’s Masculinity, Anti-Semitism, and Early Modern English Literature
Eva Holmberg’s Jews in the Early Modern English Imagination
Phillip Aronstein’s The Jews in English Poetry and Fiction
Nadia Valman’s The Jewess in Nineteenth-Century British Literary Culture
Frank Felsenstein’s Anti-Semitic Stereotypes: A Paradigm of Otherness in English Popular Culture
Jonathan Freedman’s The Temple of Culture: Assimilation and Anti-Semitism in Literary Anglo-America
Sheila Spector’s British Romanticism and the Jews: History Culture and Literature
Anna Rubin’s Images in Transition: the English Jew in English Literature, 1660-1830

These represent only the tip of a very large and imposing iceberg. These are just some of the authors and their books – the articles can be counted in hundreds.

What is notable is not just the extent to which Jews have been able to fund and sustain this vast academic industry despite their small numbers and the narrowness of the subject matter (the same works of literature feature in every ‘study’), but also that most of the individuals named have been able to get their inept and repetitive texts published with elite university presses.

As we have demonstrated in the case of Julius, this should not be taken as an indicator of scholarly merit, integrity or quality. It does however raise interesting questions about the academic publishing industry, and its commissioning and reviewing processes. Noting the number of these books published by Stanford University Press, I was not exactly left speechless by the revelation that they have a single editor for ‘History and Jewish Studies.’[19] The two, it seems, have become inseparable. The same practice is in place at Cambridge University Press,[20] and probably many others. The review process also plays a role in what gets published by whom, and after detailing the ethnic backslapping of Julius’ book in part one, I see no reason to belabor the point here. Let us return to Julius.

Julius (150) claims that representations of Jews in English literature are unique because they represent part of a “persecutory discourse” which “puts Jews on trial” and fosters a “predisposition to think ill of Jews.” Julius briefly feigns objectivity by stating (150) that “it would be wrong to maintain that English literary anti-Semitism comprises works in which England showed its hand as an anti-Semitic nation.” But this runs against the thrust of the rest of his 827-page hymn to victimhood, and it is simply overwhelmed by his subsequent assertions (153) that “England was the principal promoter, and indeed some sense the inventor of English anti-Semitism” and that (151) English “literary anti-Semitism has its own mode of existence. It has its own internal history…its own inner laws, its own distinct properties.” In one narrow-minded, and logically tortured, paragraph, Julius (153) blames English works of literature, in particular Chaucer’s The Prioress’s Tale, Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, and Dickens’ Oliver Twist, for the very fact that “literary anti-Semitism came into existence.”

For this reason, I will deal most specifically with these three works, and demonstrate once more that Julius perception is skewed by his own psychology, and that in his efforts to sway the perception of his readers he has resorted to the crass and unscholarly methods of distortion and manipulation. 

Julius on ‘Anti-Semitism in English Literature’

One of the biggest challenges facing Julius in constructing this book was to posit some semblance of continuity in the English hatred of Jews. This was most precarious in his attempt to connect the experience of Jews before the 1290 expulsion to the attitudes supposedly held by the English towards Jews during the 366-year period of their absence. Simply saying that the English got on with their lives was unthinkable because it implies that when Jews leave problems are swiftly resolved — and therefore, among other things, that anti-Jewish actions or beliefs may have a basis in real issues such as resource competition. To Julius, as I explained in some detail in Part 2, the expulsion of the Jews from England was the result of irrational hatred; specifically: theologically-motivated hatred from the Church, malicious hatred from an abusive and extortionate monarch, and pathological hatred from a fanatical peasantry harboring blood libel fantasies. The fact that the opinion of many historians and the large body of hard evidence that we have totally contradicts this perception didn’t have any impact on Julius’ desire to promote his weak thesis as established fact.

In moving to the post-expulsion period then, Julius had to connect this irrationality with English literature. He does so by positing weak arguments, by distortion and omission (see below), and by repeatedly resorting to psychoanalytic journals and the writings of his decidedly unscholarly idol, Sigmund Freud (179, 187, 191). Julius argues that the main connection between the pre-expulsion English mindset and the English literary output after the expulsion is a fanatical adherence to the blood libel narrative. He claims (153) to have discovered that “English literary anti-Semitism has unusual integrity and coherence. …  The Blood Libel is the largely unnoticed master theme of this discourse.” In one very infantile bout of reasoning, Julius argues (154), that English literary works can partake of this blood libel master theme merely by replicating “the libel’s essential structure or developing distinct aspects of it — say, Jewish criminality or Jewish legalism.”

Thus, according to this definition even a tale featuring a fastidious Jewish rule-keeper, or a Jewish car-thief could be seen as part of the blood libel discourse. Such a thesis is, by virtue of its capaciousness, unusable.

What Julius, and the horde of other Jewish literary ‘scholars,’ are really asserting here is their antagonism towards anything but positive reflections of Jews in literature, which is not only arrogant and unreasonable, but also further indication of a pathological level of ethnocentrism. Their efforts have the dual function of staining the legacy of the English literary past, and shackling authors in the present, who would feel constrained to avoid having a negatively portrayed Jewish character in their works. It is clear that it is not anti-Semitism which forms the background noise against which these Jews live their lives, but the rhythmic fulminations of the Eicha itself; the bankrupt inheritance of what English historian Arnold Toynbee described as “the fossil remnants of the Syriac Society.”[21]

Let us now turn to Julius’ discussion of Chaucer’s The Prioress’s Tale. To Julius, the intent and reception of the tale are clear. He argues (170) that the tale affirmed for the English “specific truths” about Jews, including “that it is both in the Jews’ nature and in accordance with their laws for them to hate Christians and seek to do them harm” and that “England is to count itself fortunate that it is no longer has any Jews.” Julius again preoccupies himself with imagining Christian responses.

In Part 2 I commented on his preoccupation with imagining brutal violence against Jews. Here he imagines (170) that “the tale thrills its English audience with the thought of dangers no longer real for them.” This is pure conjecture from Julius, and he offers no evidence for this, or any, of his suppositions. These asides, scattered throughout the book do, however, serve to goad the reader into his way of thinking. It is a crude and primitive form of manipulation. Julius neglects to mention that The Prioress’s Tale is the shortest and least consequential of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. It is, by reason of its brevity and lack of structural and thematic sophistication, often omitted from standard critical works on the Canterbury Tales.[22] Its recognition derives almost exclusively from the hysterical reception it has met from succeeding generations of disgruntled Jews. Where the piece has been carefully examined, interpretations differ radically between Jews and gentiles. In his The Art of the Canterbury Tales, Paul Ruggiers has noted tactfully that whereas “some scholars” have noted the text only for its “bigotry,” “what we tend to remember is a tale of transcendent innocence uttered in Chaucher’s sweetest verse. The theme that comes through even the dreadful details of drawn and quartered villains is that of the special relationship of innocence to wisdom.”[23] Elizabeth Robertson, Associate Professor of English at the University of Colorado, in her chapter on Aspects of Female Piety in the Prioress’s Tale, mentions the Jewish aspect only once and very briefly.[24] The tale, it seems, is important only to Jews.

Julius’ analysis descends further into ignorance with his treatment (178-191) of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Julius, still peddling his infantile asides, states (178) that the play has been used through the centuries “to promote ignoble elation at the spectacle of a Jew’s humiliation.” The play is said (183-4) to “show a bad Jew; it encourages us to think badly of him; it encourages us to regard him as broadly representative of all Jews, it encourages us therefore to think badly of all Jews; further, it encourages us to think badly of Judaism.” Julius doesn’t see fit to elaborate upon or justify this logically tendentious syllogism. Instead, in a section intended to enlighten us on the English reception of the play, he quotes the decidedly non-English August Wilhelm von Schlegel as saying that he could detect “a light touch of Judaism” in everything Shylock says and does.

The problems with this citation are not limited to the referencing of a German who never set foot in England, and the strong impression we get that Julius doesn’t have a clue who von Schlegel was. In fact, that is the least of the problems here, because Julius is once more wilfully misleading his readers. The quote is derived and cited as being from Jonathan Bate’s The Romantics on Shakespeare. I happen to own the book, so a brief check of the quote was easy. Our good friend Mr. Julius has once again been doctoring and omitting according to his own taste. The reference to “a light touch of Judaism” is only the latter part of a full sentence, the former being altogether at odds with Julius’ thesis (183-4) that the character is meant to be broadly representative of all Jews ; for it reads: “Shylock, however, is everything but a common Jew: he possesses a strongly-marked and original individuality.”[25] Why doesn’t Julius quote the English Romantics whose comments on The Merchant of Venice are freely available in the same chapter? Because his thesis stands condemned by their analysis. William Hazlitt pronounces (Bate: 450) that Shakespeare’s “Jew is more than half Christian. Certainly our sympathies are much oftener with him than with his enemies.”

What of the reception of the play by its audience? Is there evidence that confirms Julius’ imaginings of English men and women gloating at a Jew’s humiliation? Julius himself read the chapter in which Heinrich Heine, who watched a performance in London, has this (Bate: 456) to say: “When I saw the play acted at Drury Lane, a beautiful pale Englishwoman standing beside me burst into tears at the end of the forth act, crying out several times, ‘the poor man is wronged.’ She had a classical face and large dark eyes which I could not forget, for they had wept for Shylock.” 

Of course, we can be certain that Mr. Julius and his fellow ethnic activists are aware of this material and much else like it. In this instance, tears for Shylock are simply ignored, and the narrative of anti-Semitic audiences gloating over the punishment of a Jew is advanced despite the balance of facts testifying to the opposite.

What of Julius’ perception of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist? Why, the tale is nothing more than a blood libel story in which (199) “a guileless Christian boy lost his mother, who life is put in peril when he falls into the hands of a sinister Jew, but who by a miracle is rescued, while the Jew is apprehended and executed.” The novel is (200) “a Christian fable,” which comprises (201) a “trial of the Jews.” Fagin’s execution is carried out (202) in “a kind of ecstasy of licensed cruelty.” The story does nothing more than play (203) “on the association ‘children/Jews/danger’.” Combined, Shylock and Fagin represent (204) a “character prison from which actual Jews still struggle to escape.”

It is apt that Julius should mention ‘actual Jews,’ because although he would like us to believe that Fagin emerged from a depraved and hateful mind, scholars agree that Dickens was notable for his journalistic accuracy. From his collection of letters we know that he often walked among the Jews in their own districts in London, to observe their behavior at close quarters.[26] Philip Collins, one of the world’s foremost experts on Dickens, and author of Dickens and Crime writes of the “accuracy of Oliver Twist as a guide to the Metropolitan criminal life of this period. Fagin was, as everyone saw, based on the famous Jewish fence, Ikey Solomon, and his methods of employing and training boy pick-pockets were the standard practice, and remained so for several decades.”[27]

Julius doesn’t care that in the case of Isaac (Ikey) Solomon, the association ‘children/Jews/danger’ was rooted in the very real case of a predatory Jew who used Christian children to support his thirst for ill-gotten wealth. He gives no indication to his readers that Dickens’ Fagin was anything other than a caricature.

What of the reception of Fagin’s execution? Was there, as Julius claims, “ecstasy”? Collins consistently affirms (Collins: 128, 224, 305) that Dickens was ambivalent about capital punishment and that once Oliver is safe, Sykes and Fagin “replace him as victims.” On Dickens’ treatment of Fagin’s last night, Collins notes (205) that “most of his readers were duly moved by this passage.” John Bowen and Robert Patten write in Charles Dickens Studies that Dickens was “fascinated by the moral and psychological effects of incarceration, and he explores them with great sensitivity in figures such as Fagin.”[28]

However, as we have seen, truth and scholarship don’t appear to mean much to Julius and his ilk. They will continue to mass produce their crude manipulations. The Eicha drones ever on.


[1] D. Cohen & D. Heller, Jewish Presences in English Literature, (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1990).

[2] B. Cheyette, Constructions of ‘the Jew’ in English Literature and Society, (Cambridge University Press, 1995).

[3] B. Cheyette, Between Race and Culture: Representations of ‘the Jew’ in English and American Literature, (Stanford University Press, 1996).

[4] H. Levi, Jewish Characters in Fiction: English Literature (BiblioBazaar, 2010).

[5] J. Shapiro, Shakespeare and the Jews, (Columbia University Press, 1997).

[6] E. Rosenberg, From Shylock to Svengali: Jewish Stereotypes in English Fiction, (Stanford University Press, 1960).

[7] G. Levine, The Merchant of Modernism: The Economic Jew in Anglo-American Literature, (Routledge, 2003).

[8] H. Kaufman, English Origins, Jewish Discourse, and the Nineteenth-Century British Novel, (Cambridge University Press, 2009).

[9] E. Penitz, The Alien in the Midst: images of Jews in English Literature, (Fairleigh Dickinson University,1981).

[10] E. Calisch, The Jew in English Literature: As Author and As Subject (Kessinger, 2006).

[11] M. Biberman, Masculinity, Anti-Semitism and Early Modern English Literature, (Ashgate, 2004).

[12] E. Holmberg, Jews in the Early Modern English Imagination, (Ashgate, 2012).

[13] P. Aronstein, The Jews in English Poetry and Fiction, (Schocken, 1938).

[14] N. Valman, The Jewess in Nineteenth-Century British Literary Culture, (Cambridge University Press, 2007).

[15] F. Felsenstein, Anti-Semitic Stereotypes: A Paradigm of Otherness in English Popular Culture, (John Hopkins University Press, 1999).

[16] J. Freedman, The Temple of Culture: Assimilation and Anti-Semitism in Literary Anglo-America, (Oxford University Press, 2002).

[17] S. Spector, British Romanticism and the Jews: History, Culture and Literature, (Palgrave, 2002).

[18] A. Rubin, Images in Transition: the English Jew in English Literature, 1660-1830, (Greenwood Press, 1984).



[21] A. Toynbee, A Study of History, Volume 1, Section VIII, 135-139 (Oxford University Press, 1988).

[22] For an example see D. Traversi, The Canterbury Tales: A Reading (Toronto: The Bodley Head, 1983).

[23] P. Ruggiers, The Art of the Canterbury Tales, (Madison, Milwaukee: University of Wisconsin Press, 1967), p.183.

[24] E. Robertson, “Aspects of Female Piety in the Prioress’s Tale,” in S. Ellis, Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales, (Longman, 1998), pp.189-206.

[25] J. Bate, The Romantics on Shakespeare, (Penguin, 1997), p.456.

[26] M. House and G. Storey, The Letters of Charles Dickens: Volume II: 1840-1841,'(Oxford University Press, 1969), p.118. He writes to a friend that in August 1840 he roamed among “the Jews of Houndsditch.”

[27] P. Collins, Dickens and Crime: Third Edition, (Palgrave, 1995), p.262.

[28] J. Bowen & R. Patten, Charles Dickens Studies, (Macmillan, 2006), p.160.