How a Peerless Scholar of Victorian England Found Hope in Jewish History

Feb. 12 2020

In an encomium to the intellectual legacy of the late Gertrude Himmelfarb, the distinguished historian of British manners and mores who died last month, Daniel Johnson takes her understanding of what she called the “de-moralization of society” as prophetic in its anticipation of the “hollowing-out of Western civilization.” Yet, Johnson writes, Himmelfarb “never succumbed to pessimism.”

I believe her equanimity arose from a renewed immersion in and appreciation of the Jewish culture of her youth, a culture that always put family first and last. She announced this return to her roots with a short book, The Jewish Odyssey of George Eliot, published in 2009. . . . George Eliot was, for Himmelfarb, a kind of heroine. Her fiction, of course, speaks for itself, though in the case of Daniel Deronda, Eliot’s last novel, what she called “the Jewish element” baffled contemporaries.

In just 180 pages, Himmelfarb takes readers on their own odyssey, a journey that transcends George Eliot and stretches from the origins of Zionism and anti-Semitism in 19th-century Germany to the [very different] tracts on Jewish identity of Jean-Paul Sartre and Natan Sharansky in the 20th and 21st centuries. En route, she investigates Eliot’s “initiation” into “the Jewish question” and Judaism itself, explaining how this notorious agnostic saw the role of religion for Jewish people in an unexpectedly positive light.

Himmelfarb’s magnificent homage to George Eliot, published at the age of eighty-seven, might have been her final word on the subject of Jews and Judaism. Not a bit of it. Two years later, in 2011, she returned to the fray with The People of the Book: Philo-Semitism in England from Cromwell to Churchill. Similar in scale but much wider in scope than her study of Eliot, this volume was Himmelfarb’s response to the post-9/11 “resurgence of anti-Semitism throughout the world,” including the UK.

She wrote it to counter the “lachrymose” view of Jewish history, which is in perpetual danger of making Jews into victims and their history a chronicle of misfortunes: “Surely, I felt, Judaism is more than the history of anti-Semitism.” Himmelfarb wanted the Jewish people to be defined by the qualities that had enabled it to endure.

Read more at The Critic

More about: Anti-Semitism, Daniel Deronda, England, George Eliot, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Philo-Semitism

When It Comes to Peace with Israel, Many Saudis Have Religious Concerns

Sept. 22 2023

While roughly a third of Saudis are willing to cooperate with the Jewish state in matters of technology and commerce, far fewer are willing to allow Israeli teams to compete within the kingdom—let alone support diplomatic normalization. These are just a few results of a recent, detailed, and professional opinion survey—a rarity in Saudi Arabia—that has much bearing on current negotiations involving Washington, Jerusalem, and Riyadh. David Pollock notes some others:

When asked about possible factors “in considering whether or not Saudi Arabia should establish official relations with Israel,” the Saudi public opts first for an Islamic—rather than a specifically Saudi—agenda: almost half (46 percent) say it would be “important” to obtain “new Israeli guarantees of Muslim rights at al-Aqsa Mosque and al-Haram al-Sharif [i.e., the Temple Mount] in Jerusalem.” Prioritizing this issue is significantly more popular than any other option offered. . . .

This popular focus on religion is in line with responses to other controversial questions in the survey. Exactly the same percentage, for example, feel “strongly” that “our country should cut off all relations with any other country where anybody hurts the Quran.”

By comparison, Palestinian aspirations come in second place in Saudi popular perceptions of a deal with Israel. Thirty-six percent of the Saudi public say it would be “important” to obtain “new steps toward political rights and better economic opportunities for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.” Far behind these drivers in popular attitudes, surprisingly, are hypothetical American contributions to a Saudi-Israel deal—even though these have reportedly been under heavy discussion at the official level in recent months.

Therefore, based on this analysis of these new survey findings, all three governments involved in a possible trilateral U.S.-Saudi-Israel deal would be well advised to pay at least as much attention to its religious dimension as to its political, security, and economic ones.

Read more at Washington Institute for Near East Policy

More about: Islam, Israel-Arab relations, Saudi Arabia, Temple Mount