Polite society has its own codes of conveying its unacknowledged likes and dislikes. Yet once opened up to scrutiny, subtly formed patterns emerge, skeins of meaning that can be traced in the bewildering labyrinth of polite obfuscation. In her meticulously researched and wide-ranging study of “civil antisemitism” in British culture and literature from the early twentieth century to the beginning of the Second World War, Lara Trubowitz takes firm hold of that Ariadne’s thread in order to explore the treacherous conduits of seemingly unprejudiced civility. Civil Antisemitism offers a fascinating investigation into the pervasive and pernicious persistence of antisemitism in a society that overtly valorized civility and in which prejudice therefore necessitated circuitous and elusive articulation.
Trubowitz convincingly posits the submergence rather than the disappearance of antisemitism in the public and political spheres in Britain in the first four decades of the twentieth century in what she describes as its “narrative reconstitution” (11). Indeed, her claim is that antisemitism became a “style” of speech or writing, “best understood and criticized in rhetorical and narrative terms” (1). The emphasis on narrative is innovative and productive. It eschews established models of explication that, complex as they may be, are potentially also misleading simplifications. Psychologically informed readings in particular may conceal with their implicit focus on narratives of social transgression the wide-ranging deliberate and strategic use of expressions of antisemitism; more specifically, they obscure the function of antisemitsm as “a form and even methodology of highly productive argumentation” (18) that remains a constant in relation to changing perceptions of what is openly socially acceptable. Configurations of antisemitism in the early twentieth century must therefore be imagined as shaped by social and civic pressures to couch malicious prejudice in the guise of legitimate discourse; they are rhetorical responses to demographic shifts in Britain as well as to changing definitions of civility in the waning empire rather than psychologically, or theologically, motivated.
Accordingly, Trubowitz approaches antisemitism not as a “sentiment” but as an “argument” (18), situated in its specific historical and discursive moment. She identifies methods of transmission and legitimization of antisemitic rhetoric in both the public and the political debates on the Aliens Act of 1905 and anti-immigration legislation of the early years of the twentieth century and traces them to (proto-) fascist demagoguery and the Jewish refugee crisis of the 1930s. Indeed, the rhetorical proliferation of “the Jew” in immigration discourse [End Page 565] provides her with much of the material from which she develops her argument in the first chapter of her study. In subsequent chapters and “interludes” (on courtesy, etiquette, and antisemitism and on civil antisemitism and the Jewish refugee crisis of the 1930s), Trubowitz complements this with a broad range of different and seemingly even disparate sources such as Victorian guides of etiquette, ethnographic studies of Jewish life in London, proto-fascist and fascist propaganda and literature, as well as modernist literary experimentation, in all of which she identifies the same tendency of simultaneously concealing and expressing antisemitism.
Her examination of fascist British fiction, such as Robert Hart’s The Sacrifice (1925) and Nesta Webster’s The Secret of the Zodiac (1933), shows these texts to exhibit the strategic use of “elaborate, conspiratorial ellipsis or metalepsis” (69). Rather than indulging in overt antisemitic harangue, as might be expected, Webster’s narrative overtly excises Jews only to invoke their sinister hidden presence. Perhaps too little attention is given in this context to more blatant articulations of antisemitism, such as the infamous Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. While variously mentioned by Trubowitz, its openly antisemitic bias and the reliance of texts such as Webster’s on its virulent antisemitism in relation to which their own image of the hidden Jew then emerges might have been explored in more detail.
More intriguing and, from a literary perspective, more satisfying is Trubowitz’s perceptive analysis of Djuna Barnes’s narrative techniques in Nightwood (1936), which she demonstrates to reflect prevalent rhetorical modes of describing Jews. Indeed, she suggests that the writer “equates Jewishness with narrative method...