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.

Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'