Alex Joffe: British Philo-Semitism, Once and Future

Roundup: Talking About History

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

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."...

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