Saturday, August 4, 2007

Backhanded Philosemitism

Lady Elizabeth Rigby Eastlake (1809-1893) was the daughter and sister of physicians. She lived for two years in Russia which undoubtedly informed some of her writings. Lady Eastlake was an amateur painter and art critic, but is best known for her criticism of Charlotte Bronte in an article in the Quarterly Review.

In 1846, Lady Eastlake published Livonian Tales, a collection of three stories set in the Baltics (probably Finland). The third story, entitled "The Jewess," concerns a Jewish woman named Rose, the wife of a Russian Jewish peddlar. The Cossacks overrun their town and Rose is forced to give up her little son, Matvei, to a kindly Christian woman to keep the boy safe.

Rose, heartbroken by her loss, finds herself on a ship and responds to an anti-semitic remark: "And what do you know of the Hebrews? There are as many Hebrews as little like what you call Jews, as there are Christians who act not up to the creed they profess; and if you Christians think your religion the better of the two, more's the shame. I have found those the best Christians who were kindest to the Israelite" (p. 173).

Rose is reunited with her son somewhat later in the story. She expresses great gratitude toward God and toward the Christians who saved her and rescued her son. One of them (Maddis) says: "... and Jewess though she be, nobody better deserves to become a Christian. I'm not sure she is not one already." [The narrator continues...] We cannot quite vouch for the truth of good Maddis's surmise, but this we can assert, that Rose never quitted her benefactress, and that the little Matvei was baptized a fortnight afterwards at the village church" (p. 178).

So the moral of the story seems to be this: Christians, be kind to the Jews, for thusly you will win them into the kingdom. Lady Eastlake's story fits into the genre of what I like to call "backhanded evangelical philosemitism" (love the Jews but hope and pray that they convert to Christianity), yet without the flagrant evangelism that is present in many other works of the day.

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