A Historian’s Jewel, Part I

The People of the Book: Philosemitism in England, from Cromwell to Churchill, by Gertrude Himmelfarb


You may think you’ve heard anti-Jewish invective. But have you heard William Prynne (1600–69, no relation to Hester)?

“A most rebellious, disobedient, gainsaying, stiff-necked, impenitent, incorrigible, adulterous, whorish, impudent, froward, shameless, perverse, treacherous, revolting, backsliding, idolatrous, wicked, sinful, stubborn, untoward, hard-hearted, hypocritical people . . . given up to a blind, obdurate, obstinate, impenitent, stupid heart and spirit, a reprobate sense, a cauterized conscience.”

That’s anti-Jewish invective, baby. Imams could only blink in wonderment.

I love something Cromwell said. He was taunting the representatives of commercial London, who so feared the readmission of Jews to England: “Can you really be afraid that this mean and despised people should be able to prevail in trade over the merchants of England, the noblest and most esteemed merchants of the whole world?”

Here’s a passage from James Harrington’s philosophical work of 1656, The Commonwealth of Oceana (i.e., England): The Jews “never incorporate, but taking up the room of a limb, are no use to the body, while they suck the nourishment which would sustain a natural and useful member.”

Yes, a charge that rings, or clangs, through the ages . . .

Himmelfarb’s second chapter is called “The Case for Toleration.” At about the time I was reading her book, I was reading Bernard Lewis’s memoirs (fantastic). (Here, by the way.) He tells of being invited to a conference on the subject of toleration. When it was his turn at the rostrum, he said — I’m paraphrasing — “Toleration is one thing, but we should be speaking of what men and women are due by rights.” The conference organizer quickly and humbly agreed.

I would quote you these passages, but frankly — I can’t find them. I recommend the book!

Himmelfarb quotes Joseph Addison (1672–1719), who co-founded The Spectator: “As I am one, who, by my Profession, am obliged to look into all kinds of Men, there are none whom I consider with so much pleasure as those who have any thing new or extraordinary in their characters or ways of living.”

He reminds me of a major reason I so like being a journalist — the kind of journalist I am (am lucky enough to be).

More Addison: Jews are “so disseminated through all the trading parts of the world, that they are become the instruments by which the most distant nations converse with one another, and by which mankind are knit together in a general correspondence: They are like the pegs and nails in a great building, which, though they are but little valued in themselves, are absolutely necessary to keep the whole frame together.”

Himmelfarb’s book is simply stuffed with interesting observations and quotations like this.

Let me say that she is a very good quoter. What I mean is, she knows whom to quote, what to quote, how to quote it — how much to quote, how much to paraphrase. This is an art not given to everyone, believe me.

She, like me (if I may), errs on the side of complete and lengthy quotation. As a rule, this is fairest to the person quoted and to the reader (I believe).

Himmelfarb tells us that John Toland “looked forward to a time when the Jews might be resettled . . . in their own ‘Mosaic Republic.’” Toland was a philosopher, Irish-born, who lived from 1670 to 1722.

Of the Jews, he wrote, “. . . if they ever happen to be resettled in Palestine upon their original foundation, which is not at all impossible, they will then, by reason of their excellent constitution, be much more populous, rich, and powerful than any other nation now in the world.”

Hmmm. (Much of this book provokes that reaction in me.)

Himmelfarb speaks of the Jewish Naturalization Bill of 1753, known as “the Jew Bill.” She feels obliged to tell us in a footnote — and one can understand why — that “[t]he term ‘Jew Bill’ was not meant invidiously. It was used by supporters and opponents of this bill . . .”

“Jew” is one of those funny words. Modern Americans avoid it. They’ll say “the Jewish community,” or “members of the Jewish community,” so as not to say “Jews.”

I might should do an essay on this subject (though surely they’ve been done). (N.B.: “Might should do” is an honorable countryism, thank you very much.)

Adam Smith lamented the “vulgar prejudice” against the Jews, a prejudice associated with a more general prejudice against “traders.” Himmelfarb notes that Jews were “outlawed from other occupations,” thus becoming “disproportionately merchants.”

Interesting. I don’t think I’d ever heard that. (Again, I may have forgotten.) I do remember, when a kid, being offended at Jewish country clubs. How could there be such clubs? So separatist, so tribal, so illiberal, so un-American.

In due course, I learned that Jews had to build their own clubs because they were prevented from joining others.

Ah. I had a lot to learn . . .

See you tomorrow, for Part II of these notes.

To order Jay Nordlinger’s new book, Peace, They Say: A History of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Most Famous and Controversial Prize in the World, go here. To order his collection Here, There & Everywhere, go here.