- - Friday, March 2, 2012

By Gertrude Himmelfarb
Encounter Books, $23.95 183 pages

With characteristic clarity and precision, Gertrude Himmelfarb tells us at the outset of her slim but substantial book why she has chosen to write about the strain of philo-Semitism running through British history:

“The scholarly literature on anti-Semitism is voluminous, reflecting the painstaking attempts by historians to recover and recount the long and horrendous history of anti-Semitism. The literature on philo-Semitism, on the other hand, reflecting a favorable view of Jews, is meager, not only because the evidence is slighter and less dramatic than anti-Semitism, but also because it does not challenge the imagination or the indignation of scholars. The discrepancy between the two is understandable but unfortunate, for it reduces Judaism to the eternal recurrence of persecution and the struggle for survival. It also has the effect of debasing Jews, ‘objectifying’ them, making them not subjects in their own right, but the objects, if not of hatred and contempt, then of pity and pathos.”

Widely acknowledged both as an expert on historiography and an excellent contributor to the genre herself, Miss Himmelfarb shows here - and throughout this work, which she has packed with pickings from her superb store of knowledge - her capacity for going to the heart of the matter, while always scrupulously making fine distinctions.

Miss Himmelfarb reaches back nearly a century and a half to find that the terms anti-Semitism and philo-Semitism appeared almost simultaneously, the latter actually coined by the German historian Heinrich von Treitschke - who, she correctly notes, was himself “avowedly anti-Semitic,” going on to note crisply that “both words, anti-Semitism and philo-Semitism, were invented in Germany by anti-Semites - anti-Semitism used approvingly, philo-Semitism disparagingly.”

Indeed, one of the more intriguing sub-themes in “The People of the Book” is how terms of all sorts - not to mention the attitudes underlying them - take on different connotations, mean different things to different people, undergo shifts. Miss Himmelfarb is an expert guide through these shoals and the social, political and literary currents running round them.

But of course the heart of the book is the story of Jewish emancipation in Britain, starting with the formal readmission of Jews to England by Oliver Cromwell, more than 350 years after their expulsion by King Edward I in 1290. Miss Himmelfarb’s discussion of Cromwell’s motives is interesting, showing that his own religious principles dictated his actions, pragmatism mixing with a genuine desire to expose them to what he saw as the “light” of his Protestant faith. “It was as a Calvinist dictator, if a reluctant one, in a thoroughly religious spirit as well as a practical one, that Cromwell favored the readmission of the Jews.”

Although Miss Himmelfarb is skeptical of the what she calls “the familiar ‘Whig history’ mode, seeing history as the ineluctable progress toward a more liberal, enlightened, tolerant - and secular - age,” her narrative is one of evolution from toleration to increasing levels of emancipation and political equality.

As Miss Himmelfarb tells her story, there are victories and setbacks, surprising heroes and the not-so-admirable. Since 19th-century British history is her particular field, it is not surprising that her accounts of Gladstone’s and Disraeli’s gyrations are particularly pointed and piquant. She is marvelous at using the latter’s novels, well-known ones such as “Tancred” and more obscure ones such as “Endymion,” to illustrate his thinking.

And she can even use close examination of literary texts to rescue someone, such as the notoriously - but perhaps unfairly dubbed - anti-Semitic John Buchan, whose poisonous description of the Jew in “The Thirty-Nine Steps” is often cited. She shows us how Buchan’s narrative thrust in fact undercuts the person who utters this piece of nastiness. And, dedicated historian that she is, provides proof that Buchan was not only a strong supporter of Zionism who spoke out in public, but actually “had his name inscribed, in solemn ceremony, in the Golden Book of the Jewish National Fund.” Who knew?

Miss Himmelfarb is always, on some level, passionate in what she writes; her conviction is evident in every sentence here. But this is one of her gentler works, befitting her subject. So not only is it highly authoritative and informative, but also a genuine pleasure to read.

• Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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