Chosen

The toxin of anti-Semitism isn’t a threat only to Jews.
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And, by Jove, so he does deploy all these arcane “proof texts.” Indeed, his long section on British literary anti-Semitism is a small masterpiece of research, improving on his earlier study of T. S. Eliot’s Judeophobia. It was “free-thinking Jews,” remember, whom Eliot deplored in After Strange Gods. Medieval English authors like Chaucer dealt in the Christian stereotypes of their day, and Shylock and Fagin have troubled Jews for many years, but Shakespeare included all the reasons why a Jewish moneylender in Christian Venice might feel resentful. Dickens went to considerable trouble to amend the text of Oliver Twist (and to create a sympathetic Jewish character in Our Mutual Friend). George Eliot, who would be the heroine of this story if it had a heroine, exerted herself to learn the Hebrew language and Jewish history before embarking on Daniel Deronda. She also formulated a ban that still stands. As she wrote to Harriet Beecher Stowe:

Can anything be more disgusting than to hear people called “educated” making small jokes about eating ham, and showing themselves empty of any real knowledge as to the relation of their own social and religious life to the history of the people they think themselves witty in insulting? … The best thing that can be said of it is, that it is a sign of the intellectual narrowness—in plain English, the stupidity which is still the average mark of our culture.

Equating Jew-hatred with being ill-bred and vulgar is still a fairly useful form of damnation in English society. In 1938 the extremely right-wing Evelyn Waugh was writing that British Fascism amounted to little more than “a form of anti-Semitism in the slums.” A few aristocrats did try Fascism as a fashion, or as a political tactic, but they ended up as objects of ridicule or hatred, or both. (By the time Nancy Mitford and P. G. Wodehouse had finished with Sir Oswald Mosley, he was wise to remove himself to France for the pathetic remainder of his career.)

On two other vital questions, also, the English used to be unusually proof against the more paranoid versions of anti-Semitism. For one thing, they had their own biblical concept of themselves as “a chosen people.” Oliver Cromwell—who first allowed the Jews back to England after earlier monarchical expulsions—expressed a view of his countrymen as “God’s elect” that is echoed in literature from Blake to Burke, which often makes explicit comparisons to the children of Israel. Second, when the English of the 19th and early 20th centuries heard tales of a worldwide financial empire that gave a single people the anointed right to rule, they were fairly sure that there was indeed such a thing, and no bad thing either, since it was they who were running it. Few other countries or cultures had such a stolid sense of security.

However, if we examine the single grandest exception to this, which is the self-evident anti-Semitism of that lofty patrician Arthur James Balfour, then we find both of our authors becoming somewhat vague and defensive. There cannot be any doubt that the British debate over the so-called Aliens Act in 1905 was heavily infected with the racial prejudice of a Conservative Party once led by Benjamin Disraeli, yet Wistrich guardedly reports this by saying that “even” Balfour (the actual leader of that party) supported the anti-Jewish agitation. He compounds this by saying that, “ironically enough,” the main opponent of the Balfour Declaration 12 years later was the British Cabinet’s only Jew, Sir Edwin Montagu. It is as if one was forbidden “even” to think that an anti-Semite could favor a separate state for Jews (a phenomenon manifested again by the Christian right in America) or that a British Jew could have a non-“ironic” reason for resenting being told that he belonged in Palestine. Julius gives a fairer and larger account of this wrenching historical episode, but rather shrinks from exploring its implications. A single anecdote that he tells, about the weird press coverage he himself received for being the sharp divorce lawyer for Princess Diana, is enough to persuade one that anti-Jewish caricatures among the English are now both widespread and weak.

I began by saying that anti-Semitism is protean and contradictory, but then, so are Judaism and Zionism. Is there such a thing as “chosenness”? Is there a special “covenant”? Does the state of Israel have the right to speak for all diaspora Jews? Is Israel not in fact a part of the diaspora? Will the Messiah come? Does he take an interest in certain territories and not others? Who is a Jew, anyway? Rabbinical authorities and Israeli spokesmen have proved themselves unable and unqualified to decide these matters, and meanwhile vast numbers of Jews have secularized themselves and become big friends of a smaller Israel. This implied self-criticism of the faith and the project is not self-hatred, nor does it owe anything traceable to the disgusting slanders anatomized by Wistrich and Julius. The chief impetus of anti-Semitism remains theocratic, and in our epoch anti-Semitism has shifted from Christian to Muslim: a more searching inquiry into its origins and nature might begin by asking if faith is not the problem to begin with. This would also entail the related and essential question of whether the toxin of anti-Semitism is a threat only to Jews.

Christopher Hitchens is an Atlantic contributing editor and a Vanity Fair columnist.
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Christopher HitchensFor nearly a dozen years, Christopher Hitchens contributed an essay on books each month to The Atlantic. He was the author of more than ten books, including A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq (2003), Why Orwell Matters (2002), God Is Not Great (2007), and Hitch-22 (2009). He was a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and wrote prolifically for American and English periodicals, including The Nation, The London Review of Books, Granta, Harper's, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, New Left Review, Slate, The New York Review of Books, Newsweek International, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Washington Post. He was also a regular television and radio commentator.

Hitchens began his career in England, in the 1970s, as a writer for the New Statesman and the Evening Standard. From 1977 to 1979 he worked for London's Daily Express as a foreign correspondent and then returned to the New Statesman as foreign editor, where he worked from 1979 to 1981. Hitchens has also served as the Washington editor for Harper's and as the U.S. correspondent for The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement. From 1986 to 1992 he was the book critic at New York Newsday. He also taught as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Pittsburgh; and the New School of Social Research.

Born in 1949 in Portsmouth, England, Hitchens received a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1970.

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