Ivanhoe and Jewish Politics

I have fond if vague memories of the 1952 film “Ivanhoe,” with Elizabeth Taylor in the role of Rebecca, and which seemed to play frequently at a nearby revival film house when I was a kid in Philadelphia.  Until a couple of weeks ago, though, I had never read Sir Walter Scott’s famous novel.  To be honest, I found much of it kind of a slog.  I’ll take our contemporary pseudo-medieval melodramatist George R. R. Martin over Scott any day.

But of course there are no Jews in Game of Thrones, whereas they figure prominently and fascinatingly in Scott’s novel.  Ivanhoe was the most popular literary expression of nineteenth-century British philosemitism.  It is true that the character of Isaac of York is rife with stereotypes of Jewish greed, but Scott gives him virtues as well, and moreover takes pains to argue that obsession with money is not intrinsic to Jews but an acquired habit necessary for this politically powerless group’s survival in a hostile Christian world.

It is in Isaac’s daughter Rebecca, however, that we see the author lavish true virtue and nobility upon a Jewish character—moreso, in fact, than on any other character in the novel.  Not only is Rebecca intelligent, dignified, talented, and beautiful, but her bravery and loyalty throw into stark relief the absurdity and injustice of the Christian bigotry around her.  If a literary character makes the case for the political emancipation of Jews in England, it is Rebecca.  So admirable is the character that Scott was compelled in an introduction to a later edition of his novel to justify to readers his decision to have Ivanhoe marry his fellow Christian Rowena at the end rather than the Jewess Rebecca.

While set in medieval times, Ivanhoe works fairly unambiguously, therefore, as a brief for the political and social acceptance of Jews in contemporary English society.  However, I found myself asking whether and how Scott’s novel, so influential on nineteenth-century readers, imagines Jewish politics—that is, the politics of the Jews as a nation with its own political ambitions, rather than as individuals seeking acceptance within a host society.

Other famously philosemitic works of British literature, above all George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda with its explicit Jewish nationalism, are generally invoked in response to such questions.  Yet the subject does come up in Ivanhoe, in the chapter in which Rebecca and Ivanhoe witness the storming of the castle in which they are held captive.

Rebecca, surveying the battle from the window, is appalled at the violence and carnage she sees.  “Great God!” she cries, “Hast Thou given men Thine own image that it should be thus cruelly defaced by the hands of their brethren!”  She has nothing but contempt for the violent culture of European Christendom, what she calls “the fantastic chivalry of the Nazarenes.”  She claims that their bloody thirst for glory in combat entails “a life spent miserably that ye may make others miserable.”

Ivanhoe, a prisoner, is unable to take part in the battle outside.  However, he takes up rhetorical arms to defend the martial values of chivalry against what he believes are Rebecca’s timorousness and incomprehension.  When Rebecca dismisses his praise for the greatness of martial glory as so much justification for senseless bloodshed, Ivanhoe takes a different tack.  Against Rebecca’s charge that the values of chivalry are immoral, Ivanhoe argues that chivalry is the very basis of a free and just society.

[T]hou speakest, maiden, of thou knowest not what.  Thou wouldst quench the pure light of chivalry, which alone distinguishes the noble from the base, the gentle knight from the churl and savage; which rates our life far, far beneath the pitch of our honour, raises us victorious over pain, toil, and suffering, and teaches us to fear no evil but disgrace.  Thou art no Christian, Rebecca; and to thee are unknown those high feelings which swell the bosom of a noble maiden when her lover hath done some deed of emprize which sanctions his flame.  Chivalry!  Why, maiden, she is the nurse of pure and high affection, the stay of the oppressed, the redresser of grievances, the curb of the power of the tyrant. Nobility were but an empty name without her, and liberty finds the best protection in her lance and her sword.

Chivalry, according to Ivanhoe, is not a celebration of might for might’s sake, but a transcending of mere physical power through values that one is willing to die for.  It is a source of courage, an impetus to correct injustice, and a defense of liberty.  Rebecca cannot comprehend this, not because she is a woman, but, he says, because she is a Jew.

Yet, as the novel shows abundantly, Jews do possess the virtues Ivanhoe here celebrates as the property of Christians.  In fact, moral courage, the quality that “rates our life far, far beneath the pitch of our honour, raises us victorious over pain, toil, and suffering, and teaches us to fear no evil but disgrace” distinguishes Rebecca more than any other character in the novel.  Ivanhoe is wrong to assume she lacks either courage or nobility of character.  Realizing that Ivanhoe will not credit her words because she is a Jew, she thinks bitterly to herself:

Would to Heaven that the shedding of mine own blood, drop by drop, could redeem the captivity of Judah! Nay, would to God it could avail to set free my father, and this his benefactor [Ivanhoe], from the chains of the oppressor! The proud Christian should then see whether the daughter of God’s chosen people dared not to die as bravely as the vainest Christian Nazarene maiden, that boasts her descent from some petty chieftain of the rude and frozen north!

Jews, Rebecca tells us, are just as capable of bravery and noble self-sacrifice as Christians.  (And, she adds, they have a better pedigree.)  Yet are Jews therefore different from Christians only in that they lack the opportunity to demonstrate their courage through force of arms?  Is Jewish virtue simply a function of weakness and impotence?

The answer seems to be no.  Just prior to Rebecca’s unspoken meditations above, she makes a last speech in response to Ivanhoe’s encomium to chivalry, and to his claim that Rebecca, as a Jew, cannot understand its moral nature.  She tells Ivanhoe:

I am, indeed . . . sprung from a race whose courage was distinguished in defense of their own land, but who warred not, even while yet a nation, save at the command of the Deity, or in defending their country from oppression.  The sound of the trumpet wakes Judah no longer, and her despised children are now but the unresisting victims of hostile and military oppression.  Well hast thou spoken, Sir Knight: until the God of Jacob shall raise up for His chosen people a second Gideon, or a new Maccabeus, it will beseemeth the Jewish damsel to speak of battle or war.

Rebecca’s response does a few things.  It undercuts Ivanhoe’s claim that Christian chivalry acts as “the stay of the oppressed,” since it is under Christian rule that Jews live as “unresisting victims of hostile and military oppression.”  It gestures at the possibility that the Jews might again become a nation with the ability to exercise military power, when some “new Maccabeus” arises to lead the people.

And it also describes the political-military ethos of the Jewish nation as one in which power is exercised justly.  The Jews, says Rebecca, “warred not, even while yet a nation, save at the command of the Deity, or in defending their country from oppression.”  Rebecca seems to make a distinction between the degraded and warlike culture of European Christendom as she finds it, and the possibility of a kind of “Jewish chivalry” in which the moral values Ivanhoe claims are actually put into political-military practice by a nation, as they once were among the ancient Israelites.

I don’t know if Scott really had a Jewish state in mind here or, as seems more likely, was speaking of an ideal to which any modern nation might aspire.  Even if the latter, it is significant that Rebecca not only embodies virtues which give individual Jews a claim to toleration, but also expresses the ideal of a nation-state that weds military might with moral justice.


9 thoughts on “Ivanhoe and Jewish Politics

  1. As a Philadelphian, however long ago, you might appreciate that there is a well-founded myth that Sir Walter Scott’s Rebecca is based on Rebecca Gratz, the Philadelphia pioneer of Jewish education.

  2. A very interesting reading. Apologies for a possibly obvious and tangentially related point, but Scott is looking not only forward to “Daniel Deronda,” but also back at (and quotes, if I’m not mistaken) “The Merchant of Venice.” Isaac and Rebecca seem to be the more benign versions of Shylock and Jessica. The accepted interpretation of Shylock is that of a monster, of course, and the play is considered to be as viciously anti-Semitic as The Jew of Malta, but I actually think that Shylock the justice-seeker has, according to Shakespeare’s complex characterization, more moral clarity and consistency than all the Venetian gentiles put together.

  3. I know that my view of Shylock as a noble character is an outlier. Anyway, I mostly meant to ruminate on Scott’s antecedents, but perhaps you’ll blog about your preference for Marlowe some time. Thank you for the reply. I enjoy your blog: well-written and gutsy.

  4. Thank you for this article. I am reading a biography of William Wilberforce, the English abolitionist. It mentions that, being a Methodist, Wilberforce felt beleaguered, as the Jews portrayed in Ivanhoe were.
    Pleased to hear that Jews were portrayed in a positive light by Walter Scott, I wanted to learn more
    about it, and I did, finding your article! Thank you!

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