Thursday, 28 April 2016

[#21] Leonie Star, England’s Ethnic Cleansing of the Jews (Glen Waverly, Australia, 2013).

When I read a piece of literature to review on this blog, I get a piece of paper and separate it into three equal parts, which I label as ‘THE GOOD’ (top), ‘THE BAD’ (middle) ‘THE UGLY’ (bottom). Ordinarily, the top two columns are relatively easy to fill in and the bottom one tends to remain empty (or with very few minor notations). However, I had a funny feeling that this review would adopt the latter two columns much more, given that my undergraduate dissertation was effectively aimed at countering this book and arguing that it is anachronistic, reductionist and just plain wrong – though when I started this blog it was to review anything and everything on the subject so I couldn’t exclude it. That being said, it’s been a while since I read this book and, as a result of this blog, I’ve gained a new appreciation of the need to make work accessible.  (Incidentally, you, dear reader, have now learned something about me that may be to your advantage in the future: if I disagree with a point then it doesn’t matter whether it’s Mrs Random on the street or Professor Tedious in his study, I will debate the point rigorously.) Despite my low expectations for this book, I found the reading of the first chapter trying and the entire book a trial by ordeal. Indeed, the only good point that I could come up with is that its aim, to make the subject matter of medieval Jews more accessible, though I think that even that aspect of this book isn’t especially well executed given that I don’t think that it follows that general readers want more simplistic texts – I tend to think that they want more engaging texts which eliminate much of the academic apparatus and with more emphasis on the history than the historiography (though I could be guilty of academic snobbery here so it’d be interesting hear what any of the non-academic people who read this blog think of the book).

            First, and foremost, I think that is the height of hypocrisy for an author to state at the outset of a piece of writing that they are not going to use the phrase anti-Semitism because of the historical baggage (particularly from the mid-twentieth-century) that that term brings and then make use of a phrase ‘ethnic cleansing’ which was born in post-war Europe in reaction to events in the former Yugoslavia (Petrovic: 1994). This is also problematic because the Jews were expelled from England but while there was some isolated violence against the Jews, this wasn’t state sponsored and certainly wasn’t condoned so the Expulsion fails to live up to an important aspect of the definition of ethnic cleansing. Another problem that I have with this book is the argument that the experience of Anglo-Jewry during this period was one of general suffering and melancholy as a result of which the Expulsion was inevitable: it wasn’t inevitable in 1275 so it certainly wasn’t during the twelfth-century (see review #1). If that wasn’t bad enough, it gets worse because Star also tries to argue that in the aftermath of the massacres of 1189-1190 Anglo-Jewry were in a state of decline until the Expulsion which isn’t a point which can be substantiated in the extant source material. Indeed, R. B. Dobson has pointed out, by the 1220s and 1230s the Jews of medieval York (and England) were experiencing ‘the halcyon years’ of their presence in England, so far from being in  a state of decline in the first half of the thirteenth-century the Jewish communities were experiencing a high point (Dobson: 1974-1978, p. 36). Equally, despite the devastating tallages of the 1240s and 1250s, Robin Mundill has convincingly (to me anyway) demonstrated that in some quarters the Jewish community was showing tentative signs of recovery (Mundill: 2003).

Finally, it is oft remarked that ‘you can’t judge a book by its cover’, something which I agree wholeheartedly with but if you can’t judge a book by its cover what can you judge it by quickly? As far as I’m concerned, the answer to that question is its bibliography or references – I think of academic history like cooking, you can’t turn bad ingredients into a good finished product but if you start with good ingredients then the meal takes care of itself. So when I removed this book from my bookcase, I immediately flicked to the back and read the bibliography – not an inspiring experience (the basics were there but a number of significant pieces of literature were omitted and there were a few Wikipedia entries which I look at aghast – there’s no doubt about it, that definitely is academic snobbery – as well as some other utterly bizarre references given the subject matter). Then I read the text of the book and corresponding references and was even more irritated: the references didn’t necessarily correspond to the text. Thus, I find it impossible to recommend this book to you, dear reader, although I would certainly never suggest that you shouldn’t read something and if you do pick it up then just be cautious about what it is that you’re reading.

Work Cited:

Dobson, R. B., ‘The Decline and Expulsion of the Medieval Jews of York’, Transactions of the Jewish Historical Society of England, 26 (1974-1978), pp. 34-52.

Mundill, Robin R., ‘Changing Fortunes: Edwardian Anglo-Jewry and their Credit Operations in Late Thirteenth-Century England’, Haskins Society Journal, 14 (2003), pp. 83-90.

Petrovic, D., `Ethnic Cleansing – An Attempt at Methodology`, European Journal of International Law, 5 (1994), pp. 242-259.

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