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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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.