Book review

Friends in high places

A new book claims philosemitism in the British Isles is the basis of the Jewish state

Lionel Nathan de Rothschild (1808–1879) introduced in the House of Commons on 26 July 1858 by Lord John Russell and Mr. Abel Smith. (photo credit: painter Henry Barraud (1811–1874), public domain, wikipedia)
Lionel Nathan de Rothschild (1808–1879) introduced in the House of Commons on 26 July 1858 by Lord John Russell and Mr. Abel Smith. (photo credit: painter Henry Barraud (1811–1874), public domain, wikipedia)

The People of the Book: Philosemitism in England, From Cromwell to Churchill
by Gertrude Himmelfarb
Encounter Books, 177 pages, $23.95

In “The People of the Book,” Gertrude Himmelfarb insightfully plumbs the depths of the philosemitic tendencies that washed over the British Isles centuries ago, including the deeply British roots of Zionism.

In her prologue, Himmelfarb, one of America’s foremost intellectuals, surmises that unlike the vast scholarship on anti-Semitism, “the literature on philosemitism… is meager,” an unfortunate tendency that “has the effect of debasing Jews… making them not subjects in their own right but the objects, if not of hatred and contempt, then of pity and pathos.”

The intertwining of philo- and anti-Semitism traces to the very origins of the terms themselves in late 19th century Germany, where Wilhelm Marr first coined the term “antisemitismus” in his 1879 book, while the very next year, a German historian lambasted the “blind philosemitic zeal of the party of progress.”

Similarly, the appreciation of 17th century English legal philosophers like John Selden for the Jewish origins of modern jurisprudence was matched in its intensity by the anti-Jewish animus of George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, who cursed the Jews as “Christ killers.” Milton himself embodied both strains, deeply admiring the Old Testament’s Hebrews while musing in The Christian Doctrine that, “on account of their sins,” the Jews “have been reserved in their scattered state, among the nations.”

This tension permeates Himmelfarb’s historical, social, and cultural analysis of the Jewish question in England.

Amidst the Glorious Revolution, Cromwell himself championed the Jews’ readmission into the United Kingdom centuries after their bloody expulsion. The Lord Protector admonished Englishmen “not to exclude them from the light,” urging that “this mean and despised people” should be “permitted to reside where the Gospel was preached.”

Later, Edmund Burke would write that the Jews “abandoned state and their defenceless situation call most forcibly for the protection of civilized nations.”

Equality in the political sphere arrived in the 19th century with unimaginable swiftness. Within the span of twelve mid-century years, England saw the admission of the first Jews to the bar, the certification of synagogues for performing marriages, the opening of the University of London to Jews, and the appointment of the first Jewish sheriff of London and the first Jewish baron.

Soon after, Lionel de Rothschild became the first Jew elected to Parliament, but could not be seated because he refused to swear the obligatory oath to crown and Christ. The debate that ensued nicely illustrates two competing strains of philosemitism.
Liberal Prime Minister John Russell appealed during the oath controversy to “the principles of Christianity… of love and charity, to do unto others as you would that others should do unto you.” Christianity’s role in politics, Russell contended, was to tolerate and make space in the public square for other faiths.

Meanwhile, the Jewish-born Tory Benjamin Disraeli painted the Jews as “the authors of your religion… those to whom you are indebted… for the whole of your divine knowledge.” Disraeli urged his fellow Christians to embrace Jews for expressly religious reasons.

In surveying 19th century literature, “People of the Book” also unearths a profound respect for the Jewish people. “As the political aspect of the Jewish question was amicably resolved,” Himmelfarb elegantly puts it, “so, too, the cultural and social aspects were, not resolved, to be sure, but much alleviated.”

Eliot in particular grew fond of the Jews, at one point anticipating Herzl by several decades in predicting the establishment of a ‘Jewish polity’ in their ‘homeland’

From Walter Scott’s “Ivanhoe” (“that unbending resolution with which Israelites have been frequently known to submit to the uttermost evils”); to Disraeli’s “Tancred” (“that Christianity was founded by the Jews; that its Divine Author, in his human capacity, was a descendant of King David… some attempt should be made to do justice to the race which had founded Christianity”); to George Eliot’s proto-Zionist “Daniel Deronda” (“restoring a political existence to my people, making them a nation again…though they too are scattered over the face of the globe”), esteemed English novelists expressed sentiments deeply sympathetic to the children of Abraham.

Eliot in particular grew fond of the Jews, at one point anticipating Herzl by several decades in predicting the establishment of a “Jewish polity” in their “homeland.”

Others, like the Earl of Shaftesbury, an Evangelical philosemite, also waxed enthusiastic about the ingathering of Jewish exiles, lamenting in the 1860s that “the nationality of the Jews exists; the spirit is there and has been for three thousand years, but the external form, the crowning bond of union, is still wanting.” Shaftesbury employed the famous phrase “a country without a nation [for]… a nation without a country” as early as 1854, long before it entered the Zionist lexicon.

Jewish-led Zionism likewise found fertile ground in the United Kingdom. Even before Herzl’s “Der Judenstaat” was published in Vienna, excerpts appeared in London’s Jewish Chronicle. Dr. Chaim Weizmann relocated from Russia to Manchester, a much more congenial perch for his Zionist activism.

Additionally, Lord Balfour, whose eponymous 1917 declaration gave rise to the modern Jewish legal claim to Palestine, proved a key strategic and philosophical ally. Even Lloyd George, prime minister during World War I, favorably likened the Jewish people to his fellow Welshmen as “small” but “very great” races.

Most prominently, Churchill became a true friend of the Jewish enterprise in Palestine, forcefully assailing as “another Munich” Chamberlain’s devastating 1939 White Paper, which, in strictly limiting Jewish immigration, ran counter to the Balfour Declaration and imperiled desperate European Jews.

Churchill would later urge Parliament to recognize the emerging state of Israel in 1949, declaring it “wonderful” that “this tiny colony of Jews should have become a refuge to their compatriots in all the lands where they were persecuted so cruelly.”

In her epilogue, Himmelfarb reflects briefly on the relative merits of full-blown philosemitism and more modest toleration, the latter being “sure less lofty than philosemitism, but it is more ‘clear and sure.’” Both notions were critical: “it was the combination of these principles that inspired the idea of a Jewish state.”

Himmelfarb touches on Jewish self-criticism as the dark cousin of gentile praise for Judaism, noting that a Jewish cabinet member, Edwin Montagu, opposed the Balfour Declaration, prompting the emergence of the anti-Zionist League of British Jews. Such are the origins of contemporary sensibilities among the “enlightened” set of Jewish leftist intellectuals in today’s Britain.

“People of the Book” is an outstanding study of philosemitism that leaves the reader wanting even more. And while we can no longer be surprised at Jewish achievements on the British Isles, Himmelfarb shines a bright light on how they came about.

Michael M. Rosen is an attorney and writer in San Diego.

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