Politics & Policy

A Historian’s Jewel, Part I

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).

‐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.


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