From Law to Anti-Semitism, a Polymath: Anthony Julius at The Cambridge Union

Alex Manzoor 26 November 2019
Image Credits: Chambers Student

As I casually describe Anthony Julius as a ‘polymath’ in my opening question, he quickly but politely shakes his head.

Such modesty is completely unwarranted by the facts. A solicitor by trade, Julius studied for an undergraduate degree in English literature, his passion, whilst at Jesus College, Cambridge. In what begins to look like characteristic humility, he decided that he would train to be a lawyer as he feared he would not be able to get the grades necessary to pursue postgraduate study: he received a first-class degree.

He smiles widely when reminiscing at the unplanned way in which he stumbled into law. Perhaps with his own case in mind, he advises, for students, that it ‘is critical to commit yourself to something that you feel most strongly about’. Taking advice about certain careers because they are considered to be good careers is a mistake because ‘just as you cannot secure happiness by pursuing happiness, so you cannot secure a good career by pursuing one’.

“Taking advice about certain careers because they are considered to be good careers is a mistake because ‘just as you cannot secure happiness by pursuing happiness, so you cannot secure a good career by pursuing one’…”

Julius, whilst working as a high-profile solicitor representing clients like Princess Diana, has studied for a PhD in English Literature from UCL and written a lengthy history book on Anti-Semitism in England.

His drive comes from the fact that he has ‘done all the things that have interested me when the opportunities to do them have come up’. He is driven not merely to observe subjects of interest like most people but rather to take an active part and impress himself on a wide variety of topics. It is more than simply interest however, as he ‘rather likes the challenges’ and ‘tends to be warmer towards the transgressors than the rule upholders’. Although Princess Diana may be an adored icon now, one gets the impression that Julius enjoyed the challenge of representing a woman defying centuries of protocol and facing down the assembled forces of an ossified institution like the Monarchy. Such a focus on transgression, however, like with many of Julius’ interests bleeds into his academic work. His book on TS Eliot and Anti-Semitism was a good example of when ‘creative work violates… moral rules’. Eliot’s Anti-Semitism, Julius boldly argued, was ‘actually very interesting and quite enabling in the poetry rather than disfiguring’. His book did not go without challenge and many academics were reluctant to see ‘such a huge figure in the literary canon’ who has achieved ‘a kind of sanctification’ through Julius’s prism. He makes clear however that his effort was, in fact, to liberate Eliot from ‘a misreading of him’ because he is ‘much more interesting than a kind of plaster cast version of him which is the one that we were offered until very recently’.

His ability to switch so effortlessly between subjects, from the law to literary criticism, is arguably not incentivised in modern academia where specialisation and in-depth research is more typical. Julius himself laments pigeonholing in society, describing it bluntly as a ‘terrible thing, a really awful thing’ that could be a ‘specifically British thing’ as it does not seem to be something he has seen abroad. He clearly disapproved of the way people had assumed of himself that ‘as a lawyer, I’m a decent academic and as an academic, I might be a decent litigator’. Julius, in his time, has faced far less subtle jabs such as when an article in the Daily Telegraph suggested, invoking the sinister stereotype, that as a Jewish intellectual he was less likely to feel restrained by considerations of fair play.

Julius, despite his PhD and position as Chair of Law and the Arts at UCL, faced criticism for his lengthy history of Anti-Semitism in England Trials of the Diaspora.

Some reviewers argued that, although most of the book was detailed and well-researched, the last section of the book focusing on contemporary anti-Semitism, was more polemical than academic. Although he does say that ‘at the most… banal level there is a sort of territorialism’ he quickly ‘dismissed that’, due to the belief that ‘we should engage with the objections with charity’. His ability to include a critique of his criticism and then move on to the bigger point, in the space of a few seconds, perhaps explains why the influential seek out his legal services. Interestingly enough, he attributes some of this criticism to a tendency for methodological even-handedness arguing that ‘there is a sort of discomfort with the principle of argument in academic work, it is almost considered to be inconsistent with scholarship to argue for a thesis’. However, he acknowledges that another problem could be the ‘difficulty in writing contemporary history’ and the challenge of giving a work ‘any kind of purchase on contemporary reality’. The question that is faced when writing contemporary history is whether ‘it’s legitimate to use the same techniques’ of analysis used when analysing something yesterday in comparison to something that happened five hundred years ago. He offers the ‘self-criticism’ that he failed to predict that ‘six or seven years’ after the book was published ‘anti-Semitism would essentially capture the Labour Party’. Although this may prove ‘the frailty of contemporary analysis’, he pushes back against the criticism more broadly by pointing out how historians like Diarmaid MacCulloch, who criticized the book, also write about contemporary and deep history ‘with the same interpretive methods.’ In his unfailingly polite responses to questions, he rapidly structures answers that both counter objections and build on his previous comments, demonstrating that he had no trouble articulating a powerful, if nuanced, thesis.

“The question that is faced when writing contemporary history is whether ‘it’s legitimate to use the same techniques’ of analysis used when analysing something yesterday in comparison to something that happened five hundred years ago.”

‘As far as anti-Semitism is concerned, it’s much easier and more comfortable for people to think about dead Jews than live Jews and think about yesterday’s anti-Semitism rather than today’s because yesterday’s is not self-implicating in the way that today’s might be.’

Anthony Julius has been a fierce opponent of contemporary anti-Semitism, but he became visibly angry, for the first and last time, at the idea that ‘America is great, Europe is rubbish on the Jews’, arguing that we should ‘absolutely resist that’ and stating that the cause of this idea was due to the position of ‘the evangelical right in America’ on the question of Israel. Although with regards to contemporary English anti-Semitism, he thinks that ‘it is deeply unsettling what is happening’ he ‘thinks the Jewish community is equal to the challenge that it represents’. He praised the possibility that the whole problem might encourage further thinking on the subject amongst English Jews. Julius’ attempt to draw out and elaborate the positives in even the direst situations permeates many of his answers especially when the questions involve the spectre of anti-Semitism.

Julius pushes back against the popular idea that England did not have moments of anti-Semitic hysteria, in the vein of other European nations, pointing out that in the middle ages  ‘we introduced the blood libel’ and the ‘principle of explosion’ and all that ‘migrated into literature where it continued to circulate in the culture’ but ‘away from Jews in emerging civil society’.

‘General historical amnesia’ about anti-Semitic tropes is one of the reasons why Julius believes that some people can get away with actions that are clearly in an anti-Semitic tradition.

He sees ‘the utter lack of consensus’ about what anti-Semitism is as a key ‘feature of contemporary anti-Semitism’ which is only ameliorated by the fact that Jews have a pretty good understanding of anti-Semitism. ‘One of the reasons why this country is a perfectly decent place for Jews to live is that most people aren’t interested in this problem in a way which is protective of Jewish security. They don’t look the other way when Jews are being persecuted. They look the other way while Jews and anti-Semites are arguing’.

Incredibly, Julius says this in a relaxed way once again, drawing out the silver lining in a non-ideal situation, to put it mildly. However, he explicitly does not extend this to the modern Labour Party, ‘where it is not possible without a huge amount of effort to be a Jew and yet be comfortable in the party’. In Labour he sees people as being ‘culpably indifferent’, ‘and that’s seriously bad’, he added gravely.

His new book is on liberal democracy and censorship, particularly in the arts, and given his background, this seems to vindicate his statement that he pursues what interests him. The thesis of the book is that since the Satanic Verses affair in 1989 and censorship undertaken in the US by the Christian right, ‘it is clear that the received liberal understanding of free speech which privileges political speech and religious speech needs to be revised so that literary and art free speech is given a proper theoretical grounding’. His new book is likely to combine both his deep understanding of literary criticism along with a powerful and consistent argument likely to draw strong praise and condemnation: Stephen Fry did not call him the cleverest man he’d ever met for nothing.

One of Julius’ most notorious cases was when he represented the Jewish historian Deborah Lippstadt, who was being sued for libel by the infamous holocaust-denier David Irving. This high-profile case was serialised in the 2016 film Denial where he was played by Andrew Scott of Fleabag fame. The reason there are not many famous lawyers in the United Kingdom, in contrast to the United States, is because in the US, ‘lawyers are just much more important’, he stated simply, with the coolness of someone who was largely disinterested in side-effect of celebrity given to him by virtue of his legal work.

“…in the US, ‘lawyers are just much more important’, he stated simply, with the coolness of someone who was largely disinterested in side-effect of celebrity given to him by virtue of his legal work.”

Julius is still most famous for his work on Diana’s divorce. The resulting settlement, including a £17 million lump and £400,000 a year, was down, in no small part to Julius’ skill as a solicitor. This was, rather oddly, used in the press against him and, as with the Telegraph comment previously mentioned, was tainted with a whiff of Anti-Semitism itself. Regardless of the press, the Palace itself is well known for its heavy-handed approach to scrutiny which Julius doubtlessly faced. When asked whether he faced any such onslaught he rather diplomatically but firmly stated ‘I’m not going to answer that question.’ Following up this terse response with a laugh, saying ‘good question though’ which, in my opinion, spoke for itself.

His advice of ‘more speech, not less speech’ for tackling antisemitism could just as easily apply to his ability to overcome challenges and achieve his status, perhaps to his modest protestations, as the UK’s most famous practising solicitor.