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Book Review: 'The People of the Book'
Posted by Susie Kopecky on Dec 24, 2011 - 9:35:56 AM

BEVERLY HILLS—Gertrude Himmelfarb's new work, The People of the Book: Philosemitism in England, from Cromwell to Churchill, is a marvelous new publication which dazzles, educates and challenges age-old assumptions about English-Jewish history. And the history of England and its Jews is a terribly fascinating one, often far more complex and richly nuanced than many may realize.

For some reason, some still find it hard to reconcile the idea of Jewishness and Englishness; however, Jews have a very long history with our cousins across the pond in England. Jews (in notably sized populations) were documented in England at least by 1066, with the Norman invasion and the ascension of William the Conqueror. The history of the Jews is a history of a wandering people and a history of unexpected allies and enemies. For about 200 years between the Norman Conquest in 1066 and the Edict of Expulsion in 1290 (the official decree from the king that officially banished Jews from England for roughly four centuries), England was a relatively stable ally.

Gertrude Himmelfarb's The People of the Book is an utterly fascinating new work. Photo courtesy of Encounter Books

Though it was a relatively stable place for Jews to reside, Jews were still heavily restricted in terms of owning land, holding certain positions and consistently reminded that they were allowed to live in England solely at the pleasure and patience of their non-Jewish rulers. Jews were often far limited in the types of jobs they could engage in, and as a result of restriction, sometimes lending money was the only logical way they could support families. When it came time to foot the bill, however, sometimes the English rulers  encouraged or turned a blind eye toward antisemitic attacks toward their lenders.

From time to time, religious fervor (assisted by Thomas of Monmouth's introduction of the false Blood Libel) and political expediency would help to incite riots against English Jews. Further political restrictions, injury and sometimes mob-led mass killings would be the bloody result of such antisemitic riots in England around the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. By 1290, King Edward issued the expulsion of Jews from England, and with that simple order, the rose of English Jewry was to wither for nearly four hundred years until the official re-entry and recognition of Jews on English soil under Cromwell in the mid-seventeenth century.

And this is where Himmelfarb's lovely book begins.

This book is not meant to outline the entire history of the negative or positive experiences of Jews in England. "Rather," Himmelfarb writes, the book is "a historical essay highlighting crucial ideas and events in that history, from the readmission of the Jews to England in the seventeenth century, through the discourses and disputes of the eighteenth, culminating in the admission to full citizenship in the nineteenth, and beyond that to the achievement of Jewish statehood in the twentieth."

Much has been documented about Europe's problematic history of antisemitism. What is fascinating and so refreshing about this book is its exploration of the relatively uncharted waters of the history of positive movement by non-Jews in early modern English society.

This book focuses on philosemitic moments in English history. (Philosemitism, the author notes, literally means "'love of Jews' (by non-Jews, presumably)" but is much more. In this book, the term encompasses ideas of respect, toleration and recognition, and "on some occasions and for some Christians - Evangelicals, most notably - philosemitism goes beyond recognition to reverence or adulation, something very like 'love.'" Himmelfarb also touches upon the oft forgotten (or simply unknown) truth that the English of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries often saw themselves as a 'new' chosen people, and identified as such with their cousins in religion.

This work takes a fascinating look at the quintessentially modern English character and how a country which saw itself as a modern beacon of liberality slowly embraced ideas of toleration of those who did not strictly conform (in their religious devotion) according to the prevailing winds. Interesting character sketches and ruminations on political machinations are delivered as well, fleshed out by fascinating details on the likely factors leading to philosemitic decisions and attitudes in the era discussed within this book (such as millenarianism and Hebraism).

This book is not long, coming in at 155 pages. And the text is easy to read: I was able to complete this delicious work within hours. The author weaves rich tapestries of images throughout the five major sections into which this book is broken ("In the Beginning: The Readmission of the Jews," "The Case for Toleration," "The Case for Political Equality," "Fictional Heroes and Heroines" and "From Evangelicalism to Zionism").

This book would make a highly enjoyable and educational Christmas or Hanukkah gift.

The People of the Book is published by Encounter Books.


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