British Philo-Semitism, Once and Future

By Alex Joffe
Thursday, November 3, 2011

Anyone who has even a passing familiarity with public discourse about Jews in today's United Kingdom can be forgiven for viewing the term "British philo-Semitism" as an oxymoron.  But, as the eminent historian Gertrude Himmelfarb shows in her brief book The People of the Book: Philosemitism from Cromwell to Churchill, the phenomenon of philo-Semitism was part of the "Jewish Question" that played a significant role in defining England from the 12th through the 20th centuries—and remains crucial to what Britain will become in the 21st.

Jews are generally believed to have arrived in England with the Normans in 1066 (a few may have followed the Romans a millennium earlier).  Within a century of their arrival, they were objects of persecution.  In 1144 Jews were accused—the first blood libel—of the ritual murder of a 12-year-old Norwich boy; recently the bodies of 17 Jews, dating from the 12th or 13th century, were discovered in a Norwich well.  In 1290 Jews were expelled from England, the first of the many European expulsions.  These events mark the beginning of centuries of Jew-hatred at all levels of British society, documented in Anthony Julius's compendious Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England.

But in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Bible, Hebrew, Maimonides, and Jewish texts from Talmud to Kabbalah became cultural touchstones as English Protestants were steeped in "Hebraism."  For them, contemporary affairs—law, government, and the treatment of minorities—were refracted through this lens.  Some of them viewed the "Hebraic Republic" as a model of moral principle, although other thinkers, such as John Milton, regarded Biblical Israel as having been in "bondage" to the law and its citizens as "Judaizing beasts."

But such philo-Semitism was abstract.  Only a few English intellectuals were moved by it to tolerate, let alone embrace, Jews themselves.  In the first half of the 17th century, Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell was favorably inclined toward Jews; but the question of readmitting them to England remained controversial.  It was finally decided by indirection. In 1656 England was at war with Spain and had expropriated the property of Spaniards living in England.  One of these Spaniards petitioned the court to restore his property on grounds that he was in reality not a Spanish Catholic but a person "of the Hebrew nation."  The court restored his property and, in doing so, effectively settled the matter.  Jews were formally granted residence in 1664.

Subsequently, philo-Semitism became part of the evolution of Jewish rights in a changing Britain.  In the 18th century, as the logic of toleration marched through British society, new questions arose: Was England a Christian state?  Should non-Anglicans compete with believers politically and economically?  In 1753 Parliament enacted the "Jew Bill," which permitted Jews to vote, hold municipal office, and sit in Parliament; but it was repealed within months.  The following century saw a more gradual removal of the "disabilities" that impeded the Jews' exercise of political rights.

Himmelfarb is at her best when describing speeches about these rights by 19th century Members of Parliament like Macaulay, Gladstone, and Peel. She also provides a fascinating account of the ways in which changing attitudes towards Jews were reflected in the novels of Scott, Disraeli, and Eliot.  She describes a growing focus on Jews as a nation, reflected in the British Evangelical movement for "Restoration of Jews" and the more familiar millennialism of figures like Shaftesbury, who in 1840 urged British backing for a Jewish nation in its historic homeland.  It was Shaftesbury, pursuing religious salvation and a solution to the "Eastern Question," who coined the phrases "country without a nation" and "nation without a country."  In the following decades those terms became the platform of British—and American—Restorationists: "a land without a people for a people without a land."

This religious philo-Semitism burned out by the end of the 19th century, replaced by the Jewish Zionism of Herzl and Rothschild and the slender but consequential thread of philo-Zionism seen in Balfour, Lloyd George and, finally, Winston Churchill.  In the decades after World War I however, the British first lost their religion, then their empire, and ultimately any sense of themselves as the embodiment of the "New Jerusalem."  Belief in these things, and the philo-Semitism that accompanied them, came to be regarded with embarrassment and shame.

Today, though Britain's 250,000 Jews are fully integrated into its society, there are few traces of anything resembling philo-Semitism. Particularly among elites, Israel is a pariah and Zionism is a dirty word—for some, tantamount to Nazism.  An Israeli cosmetics firm was recently driven out of its shop in Covent Garden by repeated violent protests.  A cynic might predict that philo-Semitism will return to Britain only when it has still fewer Jews—or when it finds an energy source to replace Mideast oil.

Himmelfarb knows full well how the history of the abstract ideal of philo-Semitism intersected and clashed with the more complicated reality of living Jews, Judaism, and Zionism.  But she also demonstrates that at its best, philo-Semitism and Hebraism constrained the British monarchy by insisting on the rule of law, spurred English thinkers and politicians to address questions of human liberty, and led a narrow but decisive part of British society to favor the resettlement of Jews as a nation in their ancient land.

Of special current relevance, Himmelfarb's book teaches that philo-Semitism did exist—and that it existed in England under conditions of self-confidence in English culture and in the Bible as the source of this culture.  It may be argued that the story of Jews in America and the various forms of American philo-Semitism are a precise reflection of just such confidence.  It seems that belief in the goodness of one's own society, future, and moral foundations predisposes a country to treat the strangers in its midst with tolerance and generosity.

Finally, the emergence, history, and influence of the philo-Semitic ideal show that a debased public discourse need not dominate a society forever.  This lesson leads Himmelfarb to end her book on a hopeful note and gives us some reason to share her sentiment.

Alex Joffe is a research scholar with the Institute for Jewish and Community Research.


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