Many Jewish conversion novels are philosemitic, not antisemitic.1 From a Jewish POV, the two frequently feel like much of a muchness; nevertheless, philosemitic authors arrive at noticeably different recommendations about how to treat Jews, both politically and personally. A 19th-c. philosemitic evangelical believes that Jews live in peril of eternal damnation, and therefore need to be converted in order to be saved. Nevertheless, s/he also believes that Jews quite understandably refuse to be converted when faced with the ugly evidence of Christian bigotry--after all, if you claim that your religion is the superior one, acting like a nasty, vicious jerk is, at the very least, contraindicated. Hence the phenomenon of conversion novels containing furious denunciations of anti-Semitic bigotry (violence, name-calling, shunning, ghettoizing, other forms of physical or verbal persecution) and, in some cases, also calling for political reforms, such as emancipation. In other words, the philosemitic evangelical usually holds that the best way of convincing Jews that Christianity is the true path is to treat them as equals.
Aside from the conversionist goal, philosemitism has other issues, not least of them its affiliations with anti-Catholic politics (it's not a coincidence, for example, that evangelical Protestants made hay out of the Edgardo Mortara case).2 Nevertheless, reading a philosemitic novel is not the same thing as reading an antisemitic one--as an afternoon with Anna Clay Beecher's Gwendolen. A Sequel to 'Daniel Deronda' (1878) forcibly reminded me. Unlike the Anglo-Jewish novelist Amy Levy's own ironic rejoinder to Daniel Deronda, Reuben Sachs: A Sketch (1888), Gwendolen leaves the reader in absolutely no doubt of its intentions.3 After a scant few months in the East, Daniel is ready to chuck the Jews overboard permanently: he tells a rabbi that the Jews (parasites all) need to be "extirpated" through mass assimilation (28), and is thoroughly depressed by the "unholy depravities" (64) on exhibit in the Jewish community. (It gets rather difficult to figure out how Mirah and Mordecai ever came into existence.) If things couldn't get any worse, Daniel later finds two Jews about to bury his late mother in a nameless grave (72-74), which inspires him to swear that "henceforward her persecutors were his enemies" (74). Much later, he winds up in a Jewish quarter, where he continues to simmer with "loathing even against the very house of the accursed race" (271). Fittingly, he disinters both Mirah and his mother, reburying them "in Christian sod" (74). (One does wonder how that was possible.) Even Charles Kingsley's ickily anti-Catholic Westward Ho! eventually manages to suggest that its hero, Amyas, is perhaps overdoing it somewhat. Not so here. Gwendolen, not mincing words, insists that the only good Jew is an ex-Jew.
John M. Picker rightly describes the novel as "presumptuous," noting that it "not only deconstructs the design of her [Eliot's] narrative with an anti-Jewish attack but also attempts to pass itself off as authorized in appearance if not in fact."4 But Gwendolen's systematic assault on Daniel Deronda extends beyond its antisemitism. Specifically, Gwendolen rejects DD's insistence that identity must be shaped by biological and cultural inheritance; in fact, Gwendolen arguably endorses the Alcharisi's original belief that Jewish identity could be freely willed in and out of existence. The Alcharisi tells Deronda that she "had a right to seek my freedom from a bondage that I hated" (VII.1), even though this individualism paradoxically turns out to be the "freedom to do what everyone else did" (VII.1). In the grips of an agonizing, imminent death, the Alcharisi reveals the truth to Deronda because her own rejected history seems to return upon her, bodily. Gwendolen, however, insists that the only important connections are those freely chosen and freely maintained. The title character discovers that her mother is not, in fact, her mother at all, but her aunt, who chooses to raise Gwendolen as her own; after this discovery, Gwendolen chooses to continue calling Mrs. Davilow "mother."5 Later on, Hans Meyrick tells his family that while he would never disown Mansbach, the village of his birth, he no longer feels any sympathies with it: "I flee everywhere in the entire world from littleness, shall I love it then because it belongs to the soil from which I spring?" (176). This, the novel suggests, is the right attitude to childhood influences. Meyrick feels affection for his roots, but, again, freely chooses the cosmopolitan world of culture. By contrast, in one of the novel's many inset narratives, Deronda is told that Jews so intensely identify themselves with their rituals that one community hounds to death (literally) a young Jewish woman who refuses to cut her hair after marriage (280-84). The novel's point is all too clear: Jews are evil because they enforce traditional identity through tyranny. Most importantly of all, Deronda gains a new father-figure, in the form of Roland (Mrs. Davilow's first, lost love), a free-thinking philosopher who hands Deronda a mysterious box (157) that sends him off searching for Gwendolen. Roland's box erases the legacy of Charisi's chest, with its disparate texts on Judaism, just as Roland's German philosophy erases the legacy of Judaism itself.6 Instead of sticking with the father who gave birth to him, Deronda chooses a new one. For Eliot, the Jews' connections with the past were what might enable them to have a future. For Beecher, the Jews are nothing more than the past's dead weight.
1For a history of nineteenth-century philosemitism, see W. D. and Hilary L. Rubenstein, Philosemitism: Admiration and Support for Jews in the English-Speaking World, 1840-1939 (Houndmills, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 1999).
2 See this essay (PDF) by Danny Loss on evangelical reactions in the USA, which also held true across the pond.
3 Is it a critique of Jews in general? Of assimilated Jews? Of comfortably middle-class and assimilated Jews? (Levy's origin, in other words.) Of Eliot's fantasized Jews? Some or all of the above? In a review essay, Sheldon Rothblatt writes off the novel as a "flimsy piece of Jewish self-denial" ("Jewish Life in the Eighteenth Century," Eighteenth-Century Life 21.1  <muse.jhu.edu>), while Nadia Valman argues that the novel "replicates" the evangelical critique of Judaism (The Jewess in Nineteenth-Century British Culture [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007], 191). Other readers, like Iveta Jusová, have pointed out that the "irony, exaggeration and unreliable narrator" make the diagnosis of "self-hatred" problematic (The New Woman and the Empire, 157).
4 John M. Picker, "George Eliot and the Sequel Question," New Literary History 37.2 (2006) <muse.jhu.edu>.
5 There's a massive, albeit amusing, legal botch here: Gwendolen's father could not have married his sister-in-law, thanks to the Marriage Act of 1835. Marrying a deceased wife's sister was illegal until 1907.
6 One of the oddest things about this very odd (and ugly) novel is that it isn't Christian--at least, not in anything more than the most nominal sense. Robert A. Colby was right on the money when he described it as "'pro' only a misty kind of German chauvinism." "An American Sequel to 'Daniel Deronda,'" Nineteenth-Century Fiction 12.3 (1957): 234.