A Historian’s Jewel, Part I

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


Every now and then, I devote an Impromptus to a book — noting some things that interested me about it, and some thoughts the book occasioned in me. The last time I did this, I got an e-mail from a longtime and much-appreciated reader: “But Jay, you didn’t actually review the book!”

True. A proper review is not my purpose in columns of this type. I have another purpose — an idiosyncratic one, I guess.

In any case, I would now like to discuss, or jot notes on, Gertrude Himmelfarb’s latest book: The People of the Book: Philosemitism in England, from Cromwell to Churchill. This is a slim book, which the author says is “an essay rather than a history proper.” I don’t know. Maybe. But, at 150-plus pages, it’s book enough for me.

It’s also a superb book, a “jewel,” as we say. It’s like a piece of choice meat: narrow, maybe, but perfectly substantial and filling. The People of the Book is worth more than many impressive-looking tomes.

The dedication reads, “In memory of my husband, Irving Kristol.”

By the title — The People of the Book — Himmelfarb means Jews, I gather. I suppose I’ve always thought of “the people of the book” as Jews and Christians. The book being the Bible. Alternatively, I’ve thought of “the people of the book” as Jews, Christians, and Muslims — people of a book, a sacred text, I guess.

I don’t know . . .

In her opening pages, Himmelfarb tells us why she undertook this book, or essay — this study of philo-Semitism. There have been plenty of books on anti-Semitism, she says. And anti-Semitism is not the whole story of the world’s relations with the Jews. There has been philo-Semitism too.

This latter phenomenon, I might note, requires a (much) shorter book . . .

Also in these opening pages, Himmelfarb points out that there has been a “resurgence” of anti-Semitism in Britain — Britain, one of the least anti-Semitic nations of all time.

In 2005 or so, I read an article in The Spectator saying that anti-Semitism had become so bad in Britain, some Jewish grandparents were urging their children and grandchildren to leave.

I encountered a well-known British journalist at a conference. (Jewish, I should say.) (The journalist, not the conference.) I said, “Is it as bad as all that?” He said, “I would never say this in public, but, to borrow familiar language, they’ll come for them before they come for us.”

What he meant was, British society in general will “come for” anti-Semitic Muslims and other anti-Semites before they ever come for the Jews.

Britain, which would become possibly the leading philo-Semitic nation, was no friend of the Jews in the Middle Ages. The Jews were expelled in 1290. Himmelfarb quotes Churchill, who wrote, “Edward [meaning King Edward I] saw himself able to conciliate powerful elements and escape from awkward debts, by the simple and well-trodden path of anti-Semitism.”

“The simple and well-trodden path of anti-Semitism” — was Churchill perfect with language or what?

More Churchill: “The Jews, held up to universal hatred, were pillaged, maltreated, and finally expelled [from] the realm. Exception was made for certain physicians without whose skill persons of consequence might have lacked due attention. Once again the sorrowful, wandering race, stripped to the skin, must seek asylum and begin afresh. To Spain or North Africa the melancholy caravan, now so familiar, must move on.”

Some say Churchill should have won the Nobel Peace Prize. Almost everyone can agree that he deserved the literature prize, which he won in 1953.

That was a great day in Scandinavia: December 10, 1953. George C. Marshall received the peace prize in Oslo, and Churchill received the literature prize in Stockholm. At the outset of his Nobel lecture, Marshall issued a little apology: for not having “the magic and artistry of that great orator” receiving the literature prize.

Over in Stockholm, the “presentation speaker” from the Swedish Academy said something graceful. (His name was Sigfrid Siwertz.) He said, “A literary prize is intended to cast luster over the author, but here it is the author who gives luster to the prize.”

Himmelfarb on Churchill: an “unerring instinct for the drama of history.” Yes, and to think that such a man would play so dramatic a role in history. Lots of people have an instinct for the drama of history — Bernard Lewis, to name a professional historian; Barbara Tuchman, to name a writer about history.

But Churchill was both historian and history-maker — remarkable.

This, I never knew: Himmelfarb quotes Roger Williams, speaking in England: “I humbly conceive it to be the duty of the civil magistrate to break down that superstitious wall of separation . . . between us Gentiles and the Jews . . .” Says Himmelfarb, “This was the first usage of the expression ‘wall of separation’ that was to figure so momentously in the history of the United States.”

I may have known it — but if I did, I forgot (as happens).