A Historian’s Jewel, Part III

Arthur Balfour


Welcome to the final part of this series — these notes on The People of the Book: Philosemitism in England, from Cromwell to Churchill, by Gertrude Himmelfarb (the historian and multipurpose intellectual). For the previous two parts of the series, go here and here.

Just wade back in, without fanfare? Okay.

The character of Fagin can be hard to take. And not just in Dickens’s book. Several years ago, I attended Lionel Bart’s musical in London. Fagin was played by Rowan Atkinson, a.k.a. Mr. Bean. His Fagin was such a Jewish stereotype, it was hard to take — a blinking, doddering, crafty old Jew.

Of course, Mime, in The Ring, can be like that.

I remember saying to my companion in London, after Oliver, “How can they do that, after the Holocaust? You know?” “I know,” she said.

Himmelfarb writes about a woman named Eliza Davis. She was Jewish, the wife of the solicitor who had bought Dickens’s house. She admonished him about Fagin. In the next edition of Oliver Twist, he referred to this character by his name — Fagin — rather than as “the Jew.”

A concession.

The Palestine Exploration Fund was set up in 1865, Himmelfarb tells us. One of the people behind it was the Earl of Shaftesbury. The Fund sent agents to the Holy Land, to explore and survey every inch of it. Shaftesbury explained that they were preparing the land for “the return of its ancient possessors, for I must believe that the time cannot be far off before that great event will come to pass.”

It’s well to remember, once in a while, that Israel — that Zionism — was not a response to the Holocaust. At least not merely so. It had been gestating for a long time.

Late in her book, Himmelfarb writes, “The horrendous facts of the Holocaust induce a foreshortening of memory, suggesting that Zionism was a response to the Holocaust and Israel a haven for refugees and potential refugees. But long before the Holocaust, Zionism (although not under that label) and Israel (otherwise known as Palestine) inspired Christians as well as Jews, and for different reasons.”

You are familiar with the slogan “A land without a people for a people without a land.” (Be careful where you repeat this.) Shaftesbury observed, all those years ago, that this land was “almost without an inhabitant — a country without a people, and look! Scattered over the world, a people without a country.”

Well, why couldn’t they go to Uganda, where there would be no Arabs to pester and kill them? I give you Arthur Balfour — or rather, Gertrude Himmelfarb does:

“The position of the Jews is unique. For them race, religion and country are inter-related, as they are inter-related in the case of no other race, no other religion, and no other country on earth.”

Here’s more Balfour (and this is really interesting): “. . . in the case of no other religion is its past development so intimately bound up with the long political history of a petty territory wedged in between States more powerful far than it could ever be . . .”

A bit of uplift, also from Balfour: “The Jews have never been crushed. Neither cruelty nor contempt, neither unequal laws nor illegal oppression, have ever broken their spirit, or shattered their unconquerable hopes.”

Balfour lived to the age of 81, from 1848 to 1930. He was prime minister and foreign secretary. According to his niece, he said in his last days that “what he had been able to do for the Jews had been the thing he looked back upon as the most worth his doing.”

Balfour was foreign secretary in the government headed by David Lloyd George. The latter had a strong identification with the Jews, Zionism, and Israel, Himmelfarb writes. Why was this? Two reasons, apparently: He was versed in the Old Testament (or Hebrew Bible). And he had a patent affinity for small nations. He was a Welshman, after all.

Which reminds me: When our David Pryce-Jones was among the Palestinian Arabs, getting to know them, writing about them, he was sometimes challenged with, “What would you know about being occupied?” He’d answer, “My Wales has been occupied for 700 years!”

In reading Himmelfarb’s book, you see the word “race” a lot: “the Jewish race,” “the race of Englishmen,” and so on. In her epilogue, the author writes, “That word is anathema today.” Yet in former times, “it was meant as a tribute, denoting a people with an ancient lineage, a spiritual blood-line, as it were.”

Let me give you a memory: Justice Rehnquist is nominated for chief justice, by President Reagan. He has confirmation hearings. Democrats are giving him hell for the deed on a property he owns: a deed containing a “restrictive covenant.” It bars the sale of the property to Jews — to “any member of the Hebrew race.”

I can just hear Howard Metzenbaum, lecturing Rehnquist (a hundred times more learned than he): “Jews are not a race! Judaism is a religion!” I have paraphrased, but closely, I think. (Tape must exist.)


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