Denial lawyer Anthony Julius on antisemitism and the age of extremes
As I walk up to the large detached house in north London belonging to Anthony Julius, one of the very few people in this country who can justly be described as a famous lawyer, I feel a small wave of apprehension. Not about his famed intellect, which allegedly, and somewhat snarkily, has earned him the nickname among his peers of “Anthony Genius” – over the past four decades, Julius has made his name not just as a fearsome lawyer for the grand and the gruesome, from Diana, Princess of Wales to Robert Maxwell, but also as the author of a clutch of widely respected books, including, in 2010, a 900-page doorstopper, Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Antisemitism in Britain. (A light read it is not.)
No, his brains don’t scare me. I am, however, mildly concerned about whether I’ll escape this encounter with my virtue intact, because it turns out that Julius is a total ladykiller. This is not mentioned in any of the articles I have read about him, which prefer to focus instead, with a distinct tinge of the fetishisation of the exotic, on how he keeps kosher. But it is very much mentioned in Denial, the new feature film written by David Hare about what is probably Julius’s most famous case, when he successfully defended American historian Deborah Lipstadtagainst disgraced crackpot David Irving after he sued her for libel for describing him as a Holocaust denier.
“You won’t be the first person to be attracted to his intellect – remember Diana?” one character warns Lipstadt (played by Rachel Weisz; Andrew “Moriarty” Scott plays Julius and Timothy Spall plays a squinty Irving).
“Beware of Julius – he does these things for his own ego and many women have been in his pocket,” another adds.
So, Anthony, I say, as we sit in his predictably book-strewn living room, are you secretly the Casanova of the British legal profession?
“Ha! Just bizarre,” he laughs, more nebbishly than swoonsomely. “Watching [those scenes] was a very strange experience.”
You didn’t know that Lipstadt’s friends were worried that you were going to overwhelm her with your machismo?
“I mean, one wants to laugh very hard at that,” he says, doing just that.
In person, he is more appealing than photos allow, with such a warm and charming manner that he is able to refer to himself as “one” and not seem wildly pompous. But I remain unseduced, and not just because his wife and their five-year-old son are next door in the kitchen.
Questions of his machismo aside, these rather odd lines from the film touch on a popular characterisation of Julius in the media as someone who is not to be trusted – the pushy, self-promoting Jew, too blunt, too clever by half and with the fat pay packet (almost all articles about him mention his salary, as though a well-paid solicitor is some kind of anomaly). There have been long-running whispers that his role in the Irving case has been over-inflated – by him is the intimation, even though there is more than ample evidence of his key role. Julius himself is far too careful to comment on the record about those rumours specifically, but he has in the past pointed out the absurdity of the press styling him as an exotic outsider when all four of his grandparents were born in Britain. And of course, there is a neat if somewhat dismaying aptness in such stale antisemitic tropes being used against a lawyer involved in the most famous legal case involving antisemitism in this country in the past half-century.
The Irving case is still a fascinating one – who could seriously deny the Holocaust? And how can you prove it happened without putting the Holocaust itself on trial? But I found the film a clunky affair, with characters dropping exposition so heavily it’s a wonder they emerged without broken feet. Did Julius like it?
“Well, I think [David Hare] put together a version which does a kind of justice to the case, but it is one of any number of versions I could imagine,” he replies, displaying the kind of non-committal tact for which he is famously well-remunerated.
The film is certainly timely, given all the discussion last year about antisemitism in Britain, or, to be more precise, in the Labour party, which turned into an increasingly deranged dumpster fire. Against a background of various party members and politicians being suspended for antisemitic statements, Ken Livingstone ran around town shouting “Hitler” at anyone foolish enough to offer him a microphone and Jeremy Corbyn chatted with an a man who had abused MP Ruth Smeeth at the launch of the party’s much-derided report into antisemitism. A later report conducted by a cross-party committee of MPs said Corbyn’s lack of action “risks lending force to allegations that elements of the Labour movement are institutionally antisemitic” and the party was “demonstrably incompetent” at dealing with this.
Julius, quite correctly, distinguishes this grossness from Irving’s, which he describes as “the last gasp of a certain vampire-like, Nazi antisemitism, the kind that spoke in German and was indebted to a European cultural project that started around the time of the French revolution ... [The kind in the Labour party] is more a new anti-Zionism, which I think is somewhat contaminated by antisemitic language.”
Julius has always been a Labour man. “I find it hard to imagine what the circumstances might be when I would not [vote Labour],” he said back in 2002. Is this still true?
He pauses for a good few seconds. “Well, no, it isn’t.”
Julius fell out of love with the party even before Corbyn came on the scene, switching to the Liberal Democrats in 2015 “because I had no conviction young Miliband was going to make a good fist of being prime minister”.
Julius laughs at the suggestion: “He’s not a leader of a party I would want to support.”
While Corbyn’s supporters keenly point to his record of fighting against racism, his critics say he too blithely looks past the antisemitism of those he considers allies. So, was Julius not surprised by the anti-Zionist and antisemitic stuff coming out of the Labour party last year?
“No, because I had studied the question of left antisemitism generally, and knew something about the provenance of the new leadership of the party including associated groups, political friends, and so on,” he says. “So the sense of being given permission to [express] that kind of language and sentiment was so strong.”
And where was that permission coming from?
“It seemed to me to be tacitly sanctioned by the new leadership. I don’t mean that anyone asked permission to say these things, but that there was a sense of: ‘What a relief: what we want to say is now also being said – or has been said – by the leadership, too.’”
It’s interesting that Corbyn and George Galloway have been so happy to appear on Russia Today and Iran’s Press TV in the past, I say. So, on the one hand you have Donald Trump sucking up to Putin and, on the left, you have Corbyn on Russian state TV.
“Yes, the French say the extremes touch each other. But I’m not even sure if it’s reasonable to talk about the left any more,” he says. “There isn’t a left. You get the sense that our deepest-held categories through which we see the world are ephemeral.”
And what does he think of Trump, who hires people from Breitbart, which peddles antisemitic headlines, and works closely with his orthodox Jewish son-in-law?
“I think one can only make sense of it if one abandons all conventional categories, the left and right categories,” he says.
Julius himself has been accused over the years of political bias, especially in giving Israel too easy a ride. In an otherwise very sympathetic review in New Republic magazine of Julius’s History of Antisemitism in Britain, the Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland wrote: “The terrible history of defamation against the Jews must not be a block to criticism of Israel acting as a normal state judged by normal standards … Julius’s exploration of this vexed area is insufficient. The role that Israel’s own conduct might in some cases play in creating hostility to Israel is addressed in a mere parenthesis, and then waved aside.”
Doesn’t there have to be an acknowledgement when discussing anti-Zionism that Jews are not powerless the way we were before the establishment of a homeland, which is a state with a strong military?
“I don’t think that’s the right question,” he begins, lawyerishly, and then launches into an engaging discursion about how antisemitism isn’t about power but rejection: “What is the objection to Israel? Well, in part it is a rejection, as experienced by the liberal democracies of Europe: ‘Why did the Jews have to leave us?’”
Well, perhaps. But surely we have to acknowledge Israel’s power.
“We must acknowledge Israel’s power,” he bursts out, as though the issue were so obvious it hardly needs mentioning. “We must also acknowledge the suffocatingly short-termist perspectives of Israel towards the Palestinians. I mean, you just can’t look at the political situation in Israel without despairing, without feeling acute anxiety,” he says, rubbing his eyes sadly.
The son of a draper, Julius grew up in the north London environs where he still lives. After getting a first in English at Cambridge, he opted for the law instead of academia and married at 23. That marriage ended in divorce; his second wife, the Guardian journalist Dina Rabinovitch, died in 2007 of breast cancer, and he has been married to Katarina Lester for seven years. This long and winding marital road has resulted in him being the father and stepfather of, by my count, 11 children, ranging in age from 35 to five. No wonder he needs such a big house. These days, as well as still working at Mishcon de Reya, where he has been since the start of his career, he chairs an economic consultancy and is a professor at UCL, where he is the first chair of law and the arts. He is also working on another book, this time about censorship of the arts.
It’s pretty impressive to be so prolific with so many children, I say. I can’t even wash my hair some days and I only have two.
“Yes, well, let’s not forget the gender distinction: the role of the mother and the role of the father are not equal, at least not for the first 10 to 15 years,” he says. And yet, the reason we’re meeting at his house on a Tuesday morning is because he has stayed home from work so he can attend one of his children’s school events.
Julius is a charming host, but he makes sure that I know he finds being interviewed – “doing all this” – something of an ordeal, sighing, shifting and squirming often. But this seems to me more like British embarrassment than a genuine aversion to the media. To be “an attention seeker” is pretty much his most damning insult, and he uses it with some relish about both David Irving and Ken Livingstone.
Given his professed dislike of publicity, it must be strange to have worked with so many spotlight-chasing famous people.
“Yes, and if they are like that then there is an estrangement between us, because I can’t understand that perspective on life,” he says.
So, is it true he stopped acting as Heather Mills’ lawyer during her divorce from Paul McCartney because of her bizarre behaviour on a morning TV show?
He sighs again and then laughs silently.
Does he want to respond? Squirm. Headshake. More laughing.
His relationship with Diana, who was herself hardly a shrinking violet, was more fruitful. After he bagged her a £17m settlement from Prince Charles in their divorce, the two continued to have lunch together every week. Does he do that with all his clients?
“No, no, but I liked her. We became friends. She said to me: ‘You’re not really impressed by me as a princess, are you?’ And I said: ‘No, but we’re friends – isn’t that better?’ And she said: ‘Yes, that’s better.’”
And yet it was his work with Diana that made him the target of some of the most blatantly antisemitic attacks in the press. The Daily Telegraph said about him, “a Jewish intellectual and Labour supporter, [was] less likely to feel restrained by considerations of fair play”. The paper later apologised.
Does stuff like that make him feel alienated from his country?
“Well, I think if you live in a liberal democracy you have to give your country more credit,” he says. And he makes the smile of a man whose faith in his home has been, through it all, repeatedly vindicated.
• This article was amended on 1 February 2017. An error in the editing process resulted in an earlier version describing Israel as a “military state” when the writer’s intention was to say “a state with a strong military”.