Julius: the UK needs its intellectuals

MISHCON de Reya deputy ­chairman Anthony Julius is adamant that he isn’t a workaholic

Well, he could have fooled most of us.

Besides being one of the ­country’s most famous litigators and a respected academic, historian and literary critic, Julius has somehow found time to write four fairly meaty books.

His latest project – The Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England – weighs in at a mighty 800 pages and ­combines his interest in history, literature and Jewish studies to create the first detailed examination of the subject.

But Julius admits that the topic is not necessarily an agreeable one. “Dedicating myself to a subject I cordially dislike may not have been the best way to spend my time,” he jokes during a talk at Birkbeck College, where he is a visiting professor.

Nevertheless, it’s a subject that Julius found himself drawn to after acting for historian Deborah Lipstadt in a libel suit brought by Holocaust denier David Irving.

“A friend said to me, ’why don’t you write about the case?’,” recalls Julius, who thought instead that a history of English anti-Semitism might be more interesting

“It’s a subject that’s been ignored,” he explains to The Lawyer before his appearance at Birkbeck. “Anti-Semitism is ­mistakenly taken to be one
thing, so it’s treated in a global way or in its most extreme modern form – the Holocaust.”

Julius’s contention that the ­English manifestation of anti-Semitism has a distinct flavour is at the core of the book. He draws a line from the blood libels of the 11th and 12th centuries, through to the expulsion of the Jews in 1290 and on to what he describes as the tradition of “literary anti-Semitism” of Chaucer, Shakespeare and Dickens.

He also examines modern forms of anti-Semitism, which, he argues, have become “a pollutant” of other movements and ideologies, not least the anti-Zionist
elements of the anti-war protests following the invasion of Iraq.

But has he experienced the kind of prejudice he describes in his book?

“When I came down from ­Cambridge I was told there was no hope in applying to big law firms because you wouldn’t get taken on. That’s just not true now. It’s never felt to me like any real constraint on my career.”

There’s little doubt that his ­natural abilities would have helped Julius overcome any such ­constraints, but he has nevertheless been the victim of a certain amount of prejudice, not least when acting for Princess Diana in her divorce from Prince Charles.

A Daily Telegraph article ­published in the wake of the 1996 settlement described Julius as “a Jewish intellectual” who was “less likely to feel restrained by ­considerations of fair play”. The newspaper ran an apology the ­following week

“That’s straightforward anti-Semitism,” says Julius. But of more concern than any prejudice toward him as a Jew – something about which he has an almost dismissive attitude – is the feeling that this country has an insidiously anti-intellectual streak.

“We don’t have a tradition of public intellectuals here,” he says. “They’re all full-time academics. But in the US or France, intellectuals are not members of some academic guild. People here find it difficult to accept the possibility of one person doing two things.”

Julius, however, has never seemed to have much trouble ­juggling more than one thing, but when asked what he considers himself first and foremost, there’s no hesitation as he declares that he is a lawyer above all.

“I work very hard for my clients and am always available to them,” he says, claiming that he has never had to take time off work to write his books. “The only work I do is work that I enjoy. I only take on cases that I find rewarding.”

Still, writing a book is not the way most lawyers would choose to unwind when they’re away from the office. Julius has a simple explanation for how he has ­managed to effectively forge two careers. “No one finds it remarkable that lawyers are fanatical golfers or theatre buffs, but that can take up as much time as ­writing a book,” he says.