Synopses & Reviews
The history of Judaism has for too long been dominated by the theme of antisemitism, reducing Judaism to the recurrent saga of persecution and the struggle for survival. The history of philosemitism provides a corrective to that abysmal view, a reminder of the venerable religion and people that have been an inspiration for non-Jews as well as Jews.
There is a poetic justice or historic justice in the fact that England, the first country to expel the Jews in medieval times, has produced the richest literature of philosemitism in modern times.
From Cromwell supporting the readmission of the Jews in the 17th century, to Macaulay arguing for the admission of Jews as Members of Parliament in the 19th century, to Churchill urging the recognition of the state of Israel in the 20th, some of England's most eminent writers and statesmen have paid tribute to Jews and Judaism. Their speeches and writing are powerfully resonant today. As are novels by Walter Scott, Disraeli, and George Eliot, which anticipate Zionism well before the emergence of that movement and look forward to the state of Israel, not as a refuge for the persecuted, but as a "homeland" rooted in Jewish history.
A recent history of antisemitism in England regretfully observes that English philosemitism is "a past glory." This book may recall England and not only England to that past glory and inspire other countries to emulate it. It may also reaffirm Jews in their own faith and aspirations.
"Historian and professor emeritus Himmelfarb (The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot) presents a compelling counter-story to the popular topic of anti-Semitism by focusing on philosemitism, an ambiguous term that is used here to describe England's historical high regard for Jews and Judaism. This brief yet ambitious social-historical essay highlights the central ideas and events in the history of English philosemitism, from the readmission of the Jews to England in the 17th century (after their expulsion in 1290), to Macaulay arguing for the admission of Jews as members of parliament in the 19th century, through the establishment of the state of Israel in the 20th. Himmelfarb explains that, long before the Holocaust, Zionism and the return of Jews to Israel (then known as Palestine) inspired Christians as well as Jews. In the case of Lord Balfour, Himmelfarb writes, his commitment to Zionism grew out of his immersion in the Old Testament and Jewish philosophy. She concludes her analysis with a discussion of Winston Churchill's admiration for Jews and Judaism and explains how his advocacy helped foster the creation of the Jewish state. An erudite appraisal of novels by Walter Scott, Benjamin Disraeli, and George Eliot adds a literary context to this fascinating and often overlooked history." Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
About the Author
Gertrude Himmelfarb, professor emeritus at the Graduate School of the City University, has written extensively on intellectual and cultural history with a focus on Victorian England. Her most recent books are The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot, The Moral Imagination: From Edmund Burke to Lionel Trilling,
and The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments.
She is a Fellow of the British Academy and of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2004 she received the National Humanities Medal awarded by the President.