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.

Himmelfarb observes that despite the intrusion of (in Horace Walpole’s words) “the grossest and most vulgar prejudices,” there was no pogrom of the kind Roman Catholics suffered in the Gordon Riots a few decades later. Though the incident coined a fateful phrase, “the Jewish question,” what would later become known as anti-Semitism did not become a ubiquitous fact of political life in England, as it did in Germany and France. Jews, whether natives or immigrants, were no worse off than others who refused to conform to the established church, though it took rather longer for Jewish disabilities to be removed.

Emancipation, however, took another century and was not without further ironies. Himmelfarb focuses on the debate in 1847 over a bill to lift the last barrier to political equality: the ban on Jews sitting as members of Parliament. Lionel de Rothschild, elected for the City of London but barred from taking his seat by his refusal to take a Christian oath, became the occasion for a bill that was fiercely contested by the most eminent Victorian statesmen of all: Gladstone and Disraeli. Both supported the bill, but for contrasting reasons. Gladstone, still on the journey that would take him from High Tory to Grand Old Man of Liberalism, conceded Jews a place in the Mother of Parliaments only because their exclusion would be an anomaly after other non-Anglicans were included. Disraeli outraged many by asking how a Christian assembly could exclude those “who are of the religion in the bosom of which my Lord and Saviour was born,” and that consequently “every gentleman here does profess the Jewish religion.”

Though baptized, Disraeli was as proud to be a Jew as he was to be an Englishman. Many gentiles, such as the social reformers Wilberforce and Shaftes-
bury, revered the Jewish people, too, but found it hard to accept them as ordinary fellow citizens, or to grasp that subjective philosemitism was hypocritical if it tolerated objectively anti-Jewish laws. Only in 1858 did Parliament accept Rothschild as a member. But Himmelfarb points out that, in France, where emancipation came earlier, it was on the condition that Jews became French individuals, nothing more or less, by renouncing their Jewish identity. Roths-
child, by contrast, entered the Commons not only as a man but as a Jew.

Himmelfarb has an illuminating excursus on the philosemitic influence in the English novel, from Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe and Disraeli’s Tancred to Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now and John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps. The inclusion of the last two authors is at first glance surprising, for both were quite capable of exploiting anti-Semitic stereotypes in their fiction. Himmelfarb explains Trollope’s prejudice by his envy of Disraeli, whom he lampooned in Phineas Finn. Trollope, however, redeemed himself for his Jewish villains such as Melmotte and Sidonia by creating Jewish characters who are among the most likable in his entire oeuvre: from Ezekiel Breghert to Madame Max Goesler, whom the late Shirley Letwin eulogized as “the most perfect gentleman.”

Buchan has one of his characters advance a vicious conspiracy theory about the “little white-faced Jew in a bath-chair with an eye like a rattlesnake .  .  . who is ruling the world.” But the real conspirators, it transpires, are not Jews but Germans. Though his novels are peppered with passages that today sound racist even when they depict Jews favorably, Himmelfarb gives Buchan his due as a passionate Zionist who saw the Balfour Declaration as “reparation for the centuries of cruelty and wrong.”

The People of the Book, indeed, concludes with a consideration of the genesis and consequences for the Jewish people of that cryptic yet momentous gesture, and above all of the two men who rose to the occasion in the supreme tests of the world wars: David  Lloyd George and Winston Churchill. Both war leaders identified strongly with the Jews, whose history they knew better than their own, and whose destiny mattered no less. Churchill, whose “wilderness years” made sense in the light of Mosaic precedent, was especially prophetic in his insistence that the Jews were in Palestine “as of right and not in sufferance.” This was one of many things in the 1920s and 1930s on which Churchill was right when most other Englishmen were wrong.

Whether the tradition evoked in this luminous little volume is now defunct, Gertrude Himmelfarb does not say. I should like to think that English philo-
semitism is alive and kicking, for it is more needed today than ever. We may lack a figure of Churchill’s stature, but we do have Michael Gove, our proudly philosemitic and pro-Zionist education secretary; Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher are still with us. All would heartily affirm Churchill’s words to Eisenhower on the eve of the Suez crisis, vainly urging the president not to abandon Israel in its hour of need:

I am, of course, a Zionist, and have been ever since the Balfour Declaration. I think it is a wonderful thing that this tiny colony of Jews should have become a refuge to their compatriots in all the lands where they were persecuted so cruelly, and at the same time established themselves as the most effective fighting force in the area.

The irony is that such sentiments, which fell on deaf ears in 1956, are now uncontroversial in America, yet find few echoes in the land of Churchill’s birth.

Daniel Johnson, editor of Standpoint in London, is the author, most recently, of White King and Red Queen: How the Cold War Was Fought on the Chessboard.