Politics & Policy

A Historian’s Jewel, Part III



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 cooking 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.)

Well, the question of who is a Jew is an old, old contentious one. So is the question of what the Jews are. Can you be a Jewish atheist? Well, of course you can! (Otherwise, Israel might empty out.) (At least that used to be true. Maybe I’m behind the times, what with the burgeoning Orthodox and all.)

Anyway — too big a subject for a breezy lil’ column like this one.

‐Winston S. Churchill, King of the Philo-Semites (and much else): “Some people like Jews and some do not; but no thoughtful man can doubt the fact that they are beyond all question the most formidable and the most remarkable race which has ever appeared in the world.”

‐Himmelfarb quotes Churchill quoting Disraeli: “The Lord deals with the nations as the nations deal with the Jews.”

I was reminded of something Charles Krauthammer told me. Let me give you the relevant slice of my 2009 piece on him:


Asked the bald question of whether Israel will survive, he says, “If it doesn’t, I think it will mark the beginning of the terminal decay of Western civilization.” He notes that he is not a believer. But he quotes from the Bible, where God tells Abraham — actually, Abram, at that point — “I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee.” It is interesting, if only as a historical matter, that those nations that have been kind to the Jews have flourished, and those that have not, have not. Krauthammer points to Spain, after 1492. “And we don’t even have to look at Germany, though that’s an obvious example.”


‐Let me go to Churchill again (though it’s sometimes hard to tell where Churchill leaves off and Charles begins). In the Holy Land, he said, the Jews had brought to the Arabs “nothing but good gifts, more wealth, more trade, more civilisation, new sources of revenue, more employment, a higher rate of wages, large cultivated areas and better water supply — in a word, the fruits of reason and modern science.”

This relates to one of the main points of George Gilder’s brilliant 2009 book, The Israel Test. (I reviewed it here.) If only the Arabs would take advantage of the dynamism of Israel, rather than trying to destroy it . . .

‐Above, I referred to Churchill as the “King of the Philo-Semites” — but let me not slight Paul Johnson, in our present day. He should at least share the crown. His History of the Jews is not only a great work of history. It is a noble act. And there’s a lot more, in Johnson’s voluminous and golden writings . . .

‐Give Gilder a piece of that crown too.

‐Himmelfarb writes, “[Churchill’s] Zionist zeal was reinforced by news about the persecution of Jews in Germany, which roused his fervor against Nazism and made a Jewish home in Palestine seem all the more imperative. Clement Attlee later recalled ‘the tears pouring down his cheeks one day before the war in the House of Commons, when he was telling me what was being done to the Jews in Germany — not to individual Jewish friends of his, but to the Jews as a group.’”

‐Our author has her “issues” with philo-Semitism — her complaints about it. So do a lot of people. Do you know this old quip? “Philo-Semitism is the higher anti-Semitism.”

But, obviously, philo-Semitism is better than anti-Semitism. It may have been weird for an English earl to bow to Jews in Germany (although I think it’s wonderful that Shaftesbury did so, and I can understand completely his impulsion to do so). But when you compare that with what other people in Germany had done to the Jews, and would do . . . You know?

Philo-Semitism is, in part, a response to anti-Semitism. This should go without saying. If the Jews had been left alone by the world, Shaftesbury wouldn’t have given a thought to them, much less bowed to them.


‐Himmelfarb ends her book touchingly — by quoting one of the last essays of her late brother, Milton Himmelfarb. “Hope is a Jewish virtue,” he said.

A lot of us know Milton Himmelfarb for a famous quip — to the effect that Jews earn like Episcopalians but vote like Puerto Ricans.

I can’t remember when he said or wrote this, but it was decades ago — and it’s still true, pretty much.

‐What does Gertrude Himmelfarb have in common with Ike? For one thing, a brother named Milton — and a prominent brother at that.

‐Not long ago, I was listening to a lieder recital of Marlis Petersen, the German soprano. As usual, I was thinking of what I would say in my review. I thought of a line I’ve used about Anne Sofie von Otter, the Swedish mezzo, more than once: “A recital by her is an evening in the company of a civilized woman.”

To read a book by Gertrude Himmelfarb is to be in the company of a civilized woman: erudite, understanding, eloquent — civilized. How gratifying.

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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