The Magazine

Friends Indeed

How and why the Jews have thrived in England.

Dec 12, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 13 • By DANIEL JOHNSON
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In the last words of this book, the author quotes her brother Milton Himmelfarb in one of his last essays: “Hope is a Jewish virtue.” Nobody embodies that virtue more felicitously than Gertrude Himmelfarb, who over a long and fruitful life of scholarship has given hope to all who have encountered her, whether in person or in print.

Painting of Oliver Cromwell

Some 60 years have elapsed since her first book appeared: Lord Acton: A Study in Conscience and Politics. There she praised her noble subject for having taken “the idea of conscience out of the reign of metaphysics and placed it within the province of politics,” thereby giving his readers grounds for hope in the face of the pessimistic dictum for which he is chiefly remembered: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” 

Like Acton and the other great Victorians to whose study Himmelfarb has devoted so much of her life, she is a “liberal with a difference”—a liberal, that is, who takes seriously humanity’s capacity to inspire despair. Such liberals are nowadays invariably seen as conservatives by the socialists who have usurped the term “liberal.” But like her late husband Irving Kristol, she is also a “conservative with a difference”—a conservative, that is, who takes seriously humanity’s capacity to inspire hope.

This brings us to philosemitism, Gertrude Himmelfarb’s new subject. In a sense a sequel to her last work, a study of George Eliot’s seminal proto-Zionist novel Daniel Deronda, The People of the Book is an attempt to explain the background to the love affair between the English and the Jewish peoples.

At first sight, such a subject looks like nothing so much as a triumph of the Jewish virtue of hope over the bitter experience of English anti-Semitism. In the dismal chronicles of medieval persecution, the English distinguished themselves by their infamy: The first recorded instance of the blood libel occurred in Norwich in 1144, and in 1290 Edward I became the first king to expel the Jews. It is equally true, as Anthony Julius has recently documented in his history of anti-Semitism in England, that three of the most important figures in the canon of English literature—Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Dickens—created archetypal Jewish villains whose influence has resonated ever since. John Gross wrote an entire book about the figure of Shylock, for example, whose very eloquence has perpetuated the anti-Semitic myth he embodies.

Yet Himmelfarb is right to remind us that there is another aspect of this story that has hitherto received much less attention. Between the 17th and the 19th centuries, a whole series of what Lionel Trilling called “counter-myths” emerged in English culture. From the heroic Hebraism that identified with ancient Israel to the idealization of modern Jews in mundane fact and monumental fiction, philosemitism became a formidable force in the public and intellectual life of England—a force that ultimately contributed to the Balfour Declaration and the creation of the state of Israel.

Gertrude Himmelfarb tells this story without exaggerating the virtues of her dramatis personae, though with all her customary economy and elegance. She knows exactly how to capture their nuances, inconsistencies, and ambivalences. An abstract affection for Jews did not invariably translate into a predilection for them in practice. The epic poetry of John Milton, for example, did much to foster English Hebraism; but the poet himself could not abide the living Jews readmitted by Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell (whose Latin secretary he was). Himmelfarb notes a delicious irony: Milton insisted that the Jewish diaspora was God’s punishment for the sin of usury, yet he owed his own prosperity to his father, who had been a moneylender.

Cromwell’s toleration of the Jews, which was adopted by the restored monarchy of Stuart, Orange, and Hanover too, had been implicit rather than explicit. By 1753, the case for religious toleration had been so well established, largely thanks to John Locke, that the Whig government introduced a bill to permit the naturalization of foreign-born Jews. This “Jew Bill” was passed without opposition by both houses of Parliament. Almost immediately, however, Tory clergy began agitating against it, a general election polarized the country on the issue, and the act was repealed.