Oxford £25 (811pp) £22.50 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Trials of the Diaspora, By Anthony Julius

Half way through Woody Allen's film Manhattan, the Allen character attends a lavish New York party. The talk is of American neo-Nazis marching in New Jersey and a prominent "satirical piece in the Times" poking fun at these tin-pot fascists. Allen argues for a direct confrontation: "bricks and baseball bats really get to the point". The joke is, of course, that it is hard to imagine anyone wielding a baseball bat with less effect than Woody Allen.

Anthony Julius, on the other hand, is a different matter. In his long introduction to Trials of the Diaspora, he acknowledges that he has placed himself across the "path" of anti-Semitism: "I was there". His personal brushes with it are recounted at some length to indicate his "motivation" in writing this history. He focuses on the time when he took on the Royal establishment as the Princess of Wales's divorce lawyer with resulting sneers in the media.

Such combativeness is to be welcomed when it has Nick Griffin, the leader of the British National Party, as its target. He reminds the reader that Griffin, given the oxygen of publicity by the BBC, is a "Holocaust denier and an admirer of David Irving". Julius has already had one "major set-piece fight with a Holocaust denier" and is clearly itching for another. He successfully defended the US historian Deborah Lipstadt after Irving brought a libel case against both her and Penguin Books. Irving rightly suffered an ignominious defeat and was bankrupted.

Such are Julius's credentials for writing this history of English anti-Semitism. As the author of a controversial book on TS Eliot and anti-Semitism, he has already engaged with one major literary figure. But Trials of the Diaspora is of a different order. It is a veritable baseball bat of a book, and written with a strong sense of "common plight" or "solidarity" with Anglo-Jews.

The book is, therefore, more than a mere history. It divides up the topic into Medieval (up to the General Expulsion of Jews in 1290), Modern (from the 1660s to the 1960s) and Contemporary (post-1967), with the literature chapter covering all three periods. But the book also has two chapters on "Enmities" and "Defamations", a chapter on English "mentalités", and two final chapters on "Anti-Zionisms [sic]" which are more polemic than history.

So what purports to be a "history of anti-Semitism in England" actually has only two bona fide historical chapters (on the Medieval and Modern eras). This may be a sensible way to proceed, as Julius tends to cherry-pick the work of professional historians. As an accomplished lawyer, he is more concerned with making cases (which can verge on axe-grinding) than giving a rounded account of the record.

He also tends to read history backwards as if the extremities of medieval anti-Semitism inform contemporary inequities. Does the medieval boycott of Anglo-Jewry speak to those anti-Zionists who wish to boycott Israel, for example? Trials of the Diaspora identifies four different kinds of anti-Semitism with a specific "English provenance". The first is a "radical anti-Semitism of defamation, expropriation, murder and expulsion" in medieval England. After the expulsion of Jewry, literary anti-Semitism from Chaucer to Shakespeare and Dickens enabled "the Jew" to be "continuously present" in English culture. The Prioress's Tale, The Merchant of Venice and Oliver Twist particularly serve this function.

With the Readmission of Jews in 1655, under Oliver Cromwell, a modern, everyday anti-Semitism of "insult and partial exclusion" was prevalent until the 1960s. In the contemporary period, a "new anti-Zionism" treats Zionism and the state of Israel as "illegitimate Jewish enterprises"; this has "renewed anti-Semitism, and given it a future". This last claim is the most contentious in the book.

Julius argues that anti-Semitism is unlike other racisms, as it has to be "explained". The first part of the book, therefore, spends an inordinate amount of time categorising different kinds of anti-Semites and anti-Semitisms (I counted 22 sub-categories in Chapter One). He rightly notes that there is "no essence of anti-Semitism" and, instead, characterises his subject as a "repertoire of attitudes, myths and defamations" at any one time.

It is this "discursive swamp" that Julius the lawyer attempts to order and compartmentalise. By the end of such labyrinthine classifications, however, he seems to throw up his hands and defines anti-Semitism merely as beliefs about "Jews or Jewish projects" that are "false, hostile and injurious". This form of "evil" can be grouped under three headings: "blood libel, the conspiracy libel, and the economic libel".

The book recounts in graphic detail the radical nature of medieval anti-Semitism, which included vicious attacks on Jews throughout England and the self-immolation of the Jews of York in Clifford's Tower in 1190. The local rabbi killed "60 of the 150 Jewish men and women" in the tower. Such acts culminated in the unprecedented expulsion of medieval Jewry. The "blood libel", with Jews cast as vile and grotesque child-killers, certainly played its part in inciting violence. But Julius's belief that the "blood libel" is the "master trope" of English anti-Semitism -from Chaucer to Tom Paulin and Caryl Churchill - is more than a little hyperbolic.

The definition of anti-Semitism as the vilification of "Jewish projects" also skews the book. The only "project" that I can see is the formation of the state of Israel, which is why the history of Zionism and the British Mandate in Palestine is an unusually prominent aspect of the chapter on modern anti-Semitism. These preoccupations have a distorting effect as more conventional anti-Semitic events - such as so-called "Jewish financial scandals" or horrendous but influential potboilers - are downplayed.

In many ways this is three books bundled into one, which results in many internal contradictions. The chapter on "The Mentality of Modern English Anti-Semitism", by far the most original, stresses the "minor", "non-lethal" "modest", "invisible" aspect of the subject. But we are also told that when it comes to anti-Semitism "no other country" has the "density of history", nor is as "innovative", as England.

Such contradictions are resolved by stressing the "radical" character of both medieval and contemporary periods (with English literature crudely corralled to illustrate the argument). England's "gifts to Jew-hatred" are the Jewish expulsion and the "new anti-Zionism". This is why Julius is unselfconscious about evoking medieval English anti-Semitism in the 21st century.

But the abiding problem with Trials of the Diaspora is that the reader remains unsure whether anti-Semitism is being evoked in this "major" or "minor" key. With the potential for anti-Semitism to go from "bad" to "worse", even "independent-minded Jews" (who are welcomed at the beginning of the book) are part of the problem.

It is hard for any argument, even one as maximalist as this, to invoke both Nick Griffin and "independent" Anglo-Jews (a rather dubious generalisation) in the same breath. What a pity that Julius did not let the copious historical evidence of genuine anti-Semitism, which is completely overwhelming, speak for itself.

Bryan Cheyette is Chair in Modern Literature at the University of Reading

Dark ages: Jews in medieval England

Jews came to England in the wake of the Norman Conquest and by the late 12th century lived in more than 20 communities, the biggest in London. Not confined to ghettos, they did endure periodic pogroms and persecutions, usually as scapegoats in times of crisis. One of the worst massacres took place in 1190 in York, and led to mass suicide in Clifford's Tower (left). After another wave of violence, Jews were expelled from England in 1290; Oliver Cromwell re-admitted the community in 1655.

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