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James Joyce and the Jews


A recent biography of James Joyce (by Gordon Bowker) reminds me why I have such a soft spot for him.

Much has been written about Jews in Western literature. But what is it that determines whether writers are pro-Jewish or anti? Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta were both written at a time when Jews were perceived as dangerous, evil aliens. If either ever had met a Jew, it would have been a refugee from Iberia who was trying very hard to disguise his Jewishness because Jews were still officially banned from England.

Why, one asks, did Shakespeare manage to look for something positive in Shylock and even give him some strong arguments in his defense, whereas Marlowe’s Jew is just a nasty, evil, unattractive caricature? How is it that George Eliot could write Daniel Deronda, in which a Jewish character is portrayed as noble idealist, while most of her contemporaries, such as Trollope and even Dickens, saw them merely as financial manipulators and unsavory upstarts? Or that Martin Amis could be so different to his anti-Semitic father? American-born T.S. Eliot describes Jews in the crudest of words, while James Joyce on the contrary saw the good and helped many escape from Europe when the Nazi disease began to spread.

It is not just literature. In 1655 Oliver Cromwell convened the Whitehall Conference to rescind the 1290 expulsion of Jews from England. But to his surprise he found that both the Church and commercial interests were strongly opposed. He had to let the matter drop (and turned a blind eye to the small number of refugees). In New York, Peter Stuyvesant refused to allow Jewish refugees from Brazil to settle until the Dutch West India Company overruled him. In 1753 the Houses of Lords, Parliament, and King George II all agreed to give the Jews equal rights; but the outcry was so great, again from Church and business both fearing competition, that the bill, which initially passed, was repealed. Horace Walpole commented that it was “an affair which showed how much the age, enlightened as it is called, was still enslaved to the grossest and most vulgar prejudices”.

This ambivalence towards Jews, more than to any other minority I can think of, runs deep and strong throughout Europe, and indeed many other Christian and Muslim societies. Outsiders are rarely popular, and we are the archetypal outsiders. Our survival stands as a challenge to the dominant aspirations of those religions that hoped to supersede us.

This brings me back to James Joyce, because he was one of the few writers who actually saw the morally corrosive destructive influence of church and society, and made the difficult decision to flee Ireland to get away from the pettiness as soon as he could. The Italy he escaped to was just as bad, but at least it was different and he had cut the umbilical cord. I suggest that this was precisely why he could identify with the Jews of his day. They were the underdogs. The Irish struggled for independence from the British occupiers, and during the great migration of Jews from Eastern Europe a significant number ended up in Ireland, where they flourished. Irish society was always divided between the rural primitives and the urban elites, the ruling classes and the workers. The Jews were regarded with fascination but not revulsion, as the character of Leopold Bloom in Joyce’s great work Ulysses illustrates. Yet there are plenty of other writers from minority or oppressed groups who are unremittingly and illogically anti-Semitic.

Irish politics has changed since Joyce’s day. The struggle with the Old Enemy has been won. After staying neutral in the Second World War, even being partly pro-Nazi, Ireland joined the EU and has adopted much of its mentality. So that now again the Jews are seen as the aggressors and manipulators. Attitudes towards Jews have run a gamut of emotions from fear of the different to sympathy for the underdog to anger at their strength. One senses this transition in Irish public opinion today as much as one sees it manifest in the attitude of the Church of England, which is increasingly antagonistic to Israel. This, together with the old Marxist hatreds, has transmogrified into political correctness that picks specifically on Israel and, inevitably, Jews.

Underdogs love to turn on others when they emerge from their inferiority and so the tables have turned. Now in Ireland, as in London, the mere whiff of an Israeli sportsman or actor is enough to bring out crowds of howling furies (none, as far as I am aware, seem to be so offended by Assad).One is no longer surprised at the overt hatred of acclaimed writers and academics, for they all have their biases and blind spots. But the worse it gets the more we should treasure those few great writers who did not succumb to anti-Semitism in one of its forms or another.

The fact is that I have adored Joyce for other, purely literary reasons. Ever since I first read the Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, I realized how excited I was by the ability to create a language of one’s own, to play with words and manipulate them for literary effect. No one does it better than Joyce. True, that makes him difficult to read, and the more banal modern literature becomes the less inclined people are to want to struggle with a book. And Joyce’s Finnegans Wake is even harder to read than Ulysses.

And here comes my version of “Joyce and the Jewish Question”. Maybe the reason I love Joyce is because with him, as with our religion, it is not for the fainthearted or those who want an easy life. Only if you struggle with it do you get to appreciate its majesty.

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