Anti-Semitism in Ulysses: A Nuanced Response

Naphtali Rivkin


Reading Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) in a post-Holocaust world—hypersensitive to the ramifications of xenophobia and anti-Semitism—may bias the reader into unfairly accusing Joyce and his characters of anti-Semitism.  Joyce, in a letter to a Harvard student insisted, “I have written with the greatest sympathy about the Jews” (Ellman, as quoted by Davison 1).  Indeed, in the chapter he calls “Cyclops,” the author clearly sympathizes with Leopold Bloom, his Jewish character, who “ascends to the glory” (283.1916) of moral superiority in the image of an Irish Elijah over the violent, drunken, pub patrons.  Joyce often conflates the Jews with the Irish in “Cyclops” to further confirm, “it [Ulysses] is the epic of two races (Israel-Ireland)” (Joyce 1920).  Though Joyce’s post-Holocaust readers and critics may jump at admittedly available evidence in “Cyclops” to demonstrate the anti-Semitism of the Irish pub patrons, the preponderance of textual evidence proves the patrons as simply garden-variety Irish nationalists, frustrated with British occupation and with Bloom as a generic “other.”

Joyce, true to his letter, paints Bloom in “Cyclops” as a morally superior character, far more sympathetic to the reader than to the pub patrons in the chapter.  Bloom’s “prudence” (249.437) annoys the pub patrons when Bloom refuses to drink with them.  After all, the narrator, one of the patrons, seems to equate drinking with honor when he calls “the citizen” an “honourable person” for drinking (245.240).  The patrons further doubt Bloom’s honorable motives for leaving the pub in a hurry to help secure widow Dignam’s mortgage; they wrongly and quite unjustifiably suspect that he goes to collect his winnings on the horse race (275.1554).  But Bloom’s relative temperance (for he is not a teetotaler) and unselfish thrift (for he helps the widow Dignam and her children) restore the reader’s calm, undoubtedly furious that Simon Dedalus would spend money to drink Guinness while his children starve.  Above all, Joyce seems to expect his readers to, at least in “Cyclops,” sympathize with Bloom, the Jew, over any of the Irish characters.

Though the pub patrons are certainly less than sympathetic, they are not necessarily anti-Semitic.  At the beginning of the chapter, the patrons’ words only reveal xenophobia.  Certainly Joyce’s readers in a post-Holocaust world recognize the dangers of xenophobia manifested in action, and perhaps Joyce even foresaw the causes of the Holocaust in the chapter’s all-too-easy transition from generic xenophobia at the beginning to overt and violent anti-Semitism at the end.  But Joyce’s characters hate the English more than they hate “the Jew,” and a study of “Cyclops” will reveal that the pub patrons only dislike the Jew to the extent that they dislike “the other.”

Instead of reading the patrons’ comments as patently anti-Semitic, perhaps critics like Davison, in his work James Joyce, Ulysses, and the construction of Jewish identity (1996) could tune their interpretations more to the spirit of the time and place of the text.  For example, “the citizen” calls Bloom “that bloody freemason … [for] … prowling up and down outside” (246.300-301) instead of coming into the pub.  Davison claims, “the insult obviously references … Jewish-world-conspiracy rhetoric” (Davison 215).  But Freemasonry has about as much to do with Judaism as is does with Irish Catholicism.  

In fact, the Vatican banned Freemasonry in the 18th century, and almost every Pope since then reiterated the ban until it became Canon Law in 1917 (Crane).  The vehement Catholic animosity toward Freemasonry transcended the clerics and percolated down to parishioners, so the reader can expect that good church-going Irish Catholics like “the citizen” would reflexively call “the other” a “bloody freemason.”  It is the equivalent of 21st century pub-goers calling someone they do not like by a slur that would commonly refer to a homosexual person; crude, unjustified, and technically inaccurate, but consistent with the pub lingo of the time.  This begs the question, “what made ‘the citizen’ perceive Bloom as ‘the other?’”  In this particular instance, Bloom’s seeming refusal to enter the bar—to come into the fold of “Irishness”—bothers the pub patrons most.

Photo by Ellen Wiencek

Another misread scene, incorrectly condemned as anti-Semitic by critics and readers, stretches from line 1136 on page 265 to line 1162 on page 266.  Davison calls this scene anti-Semitic (Davison 216) largely because Bloom himself misinterprets the comments made by “the citizen” in this scene as anti-Semitic.  Though it would not be incorrect to read these lines as anti-Semitic, they certainly do not have to be read that way.  A close reading of this scene will prove that “the citizen” is not necessarily speaking pejoratively about Jews, but about foreign oppressors in general and the English, specifically.

From line 1136 through line 1140, Joyce decries “the minions of the law” (265.1136) that can lock up a man without bail (Gifford 347).  In 1904, the English were locking the colonized Irish in jail for political protests against the crown.  As if replying to this accusation of the British, “the citizen” says “those are nice things … coming over here to Ireland filling the country with bugs” (265.1141-1142).  Out of context, this line may appear to a post-Holocaust reader like Davison as an overtly anti-Semitic statement (Davison 216).  

But “the citizen” continues ranting explicitly about his hatred for the British, not the Jews.  “The strangers, says ‘the citizen.’  Our own fault.  We let them come in.  We brought them in.  Adulteress and her paramour brought the Saxon robbers here” (266.1156-1159).  “The citizen” dislikes any non-Irish, but in this particular instance, he speaks about the Saxons—the British—not the Jews.  Bloom, then, is wrong to twice feign disinterest on lines 1143 and 1160.  Because “Bloom [was] letting on to be awfully deeply interested in nothing” (266.1160), the reader should realize that Bloom hears “the citizen’s” remarks, and they offend him because he thinks they refer to him—to his Jewishness.

“The citizen’s” remarks in this scene condemn “the other,” whomever he may be, and Bloom gets caught in the crossfire as “the other” not necessarily because he is a Jew, not because he is the reviled British oppressor, but because he has an intolerable personality.  Bloom takes himself too seriously, and consequently, the pub patrons perceive him as a “Mister Knowall” (258.838).  For example, when Alf jokes that a convict, upon his hanging, develops an erection, Bloom chimes in and ruins the fun with “that can be explained by science” (250.464).  The text seems to suggest that the pub patrons would dislike Bloom as a person whether he was Jewish or not.  However, true to his nature, Bloom takes himself too seriously to understand that the pub patrons dislike him for his personality, and so he constantly assumes that their remarks about him are in fact remarks about his Judaism or his cheating wife—things beyond his control.  Critics and readers, though, get tricked into seeing the pub and the xenophobic remarks of the pub patrons through Bloom’s gaze because of Bloom’s superior moral standing.

Photo by Ellen Wiencek

As is often the case, “the self” invents “the other” in order to define itself. “In the alien, therefore, man discovered the idea of humanity” (Hermann Cohen, as quoted by Davison in his epigraph) and in “the other,” “the citizen” discovers the idea of “Irishness.”  But as much as he may want to sharpen the differences between the Irish and “the other,” the text constantly conflates the Jews and the Irish, true to Joyce’s letter to his Italian translator.  From line 1120 to 1130, Joyce lists “the twelve tribes of Iar” (265.1125) in a style akin to the listings of Jewish families and tribes in the Old Testament.  Only in “Cyclops,” the heads of all the tribes have patently Irish names like “Oscar” and “Fergus.”  Even “the citizen” refers to the Irish in diaspora who “were driven out of house and home” (270.1365) by a conquering empire, much like the Jews.

In fact, the English Empire controlled both the Irish and the Jewish ancestral homelands in the early part of the 20th Century.  The Treaty of Sevres (1920) in which the Ottoman Empire ceded most of the Middle East to the mandate of the English Empire called for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people” (Treaty of Sevres, Article 95) in accordance with a resurgent Jewish return to the Palestinian territories.  At the same time, in 1920, the Irish, not unlike “the citizen” in “Cyclops,” were more actively and aggressively fighting for independence from the English Empire (Worldatlas).  

The Irish and Jews held a dislike of the ruling English in common, and Joyce’s funniest nod to that similarity comes from “the citizen,” who says “we had our trade … before those mongrels [the British] were pupped” (269.1298).  The British-Jewish statesman, Disraeli, once similarly remarked to Irish statesman Daniel O’Connell, “yes, I am a Jew and when the ancestors of the right honourable gentleman were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the temple of Solomon” (Bloy).  The relationship between Jews and Irish is certainly tested and strained in Ulysses, but, at least in “Cyclops,” they have more in common than they would probably admit.  
(bibliography below)

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Works Cited

Bloy, Marjie. "Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881)." Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881)., Web. 08 May 2014.

Crane, Frank P. "Lifting of Catholic Ban on Freemasonry Questioned." Editorial. The Evening News [Poughkeepsie, NY] 01 Apr. 1968, 11A ed.: 8. The Evening News - Google News Archive Search. The Evening News. Web. 08 May 2014.

Davison, Neil R. James Joyce, Ulysses, and the Construction of Jewish Identity: Culture, Biography, and "the Jew" in Modernist Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996. Print.

Gifford, Don, and Robert J. Seidman. Ulysses Annotated: Notes for James Joyce's Ulysses. Berkeley: U of California, 1988. Print.

Joyce, James. Letter to Joyce's Italian Translator. 1920.

Joyce, James. Ulysses. Ed. Hans Walter Gabler. New York: Vintage, 1986. Print.

"The Treaty of Sevres” - World War I Document Archive. Brigham Young University, Web. 08 May 2014.

"Timeline of Key Irish Events." Worldatlas. Web. 24 Apr. 2014