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July 20, 2012 1:35 pm

James Joyce and the Jews

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

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Canal Grande in Trieste with James Joyce monument. Photo: wiki commons.

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was so great, again from Church and business both fearing competition, that the bill, which initially passed, was repealed.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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  • Jack Gilhooley

    Can you tell me the name of the Irish Ambassador to France who collaborated with JJ to falsify docs that admitted French Jews to Ire?

    Thank you


    • Jeremy Rosen

      I suggest you contact John Bowker for more details

  • Neil R. Davison

    Thanks for this interesting, reflective piece.

    If any reader of this article would like to learn more about Joyce’s interest in Jews, Jewishness, Jewish Identity struggle, and the anti-Semitism of his era, I invite them to read my book on the subject: James Joyce, Ulysses, and the Construction of Jewish Identity: Culture, Biography, and “the Jew” in Modernist Europe (Cambridge University Press, 1996/ paperback with Forward by Anthony Julius, 1998).

    • Yes I heartily recommend it too. Am a great admirer of Anthony Julius, as a lawyer, an academic and a Jew.

  • Dr Phil Siegel

    wonderful analysis of Joyce who interestingly notes Jewish sexuality differing from Roman Authoritarianism…and acceptable and preferred…not that of Tacitus…

    • Jeremy

      Thank you Dr Phil!

      Yes you are right, the difference in attitude towards sexuality is indeed significant. And yet the guilt is the same!


  • Agreed with Robert: Great website! Keep up the good work.

  • kevobx

    Thou art Esau? Who did God choose, God the Father did not choose the state of Israel, want truth! *Psalm 78:67-68 Moreover he refused the tabernacles of Joseph, and chose not the tribe of Ephraim: But chose the tribe of Judah, the mount Zion he loved. (*Jeremiah 31:6 For there shall be a day, that the watchmen upon the mount Ephraim shall cry, Arise ye, and let us go up to Zion unto the Lord, our God.) *Isaiah 37:32 For out of Jerusalem shall go forth a remnant, and they that escape out of mount Zion: the zeal of the Lord of hosts shall do this. (Matthew 19:28 are the true believers of Revelation 21:12)

  • James Joyce did in fact influence my teaching in visual art communication, to break through the traditional academic thinking whish easy to remember to become a pattern of repetitions. Samuel Becket gave a new form to repetitions to become a new immortality. I guess Samuel Becket was influenced by J. Joyce which had intuitive relation to the language of art. I do experience in my painting the wonder of light (reflections of light from matter in motion – transformation of form- matters to become the origin of light, kind of constant transformations which everything is one, time-space-matter-light as one driving force – life. Means the difference between working with an idea and been naturally an idea! It is why James Joyce is difficult to read.

    Emil Fedida

    • jeremy rosen

      Interesting that you link Joyce to Becket and that both ended up in Paris. I think linguistic and cultural dislocation can be highly stimulating ( think also of Nabokov though of course his writing is about as far from Joyce and Becket as you could imagine) although its also true that many artists have given up. Thanks for that most helpful comment.


    I love this website!!!!!

    • jeremy rosen

      Assuming you include me, thank you very much. Congratultions to Dovid Efune for all his hard work.