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Celebrating 350 Years of Jewish Life in Britain (Part II)

Peter Egill Brownfeld
Spring 2008

(In 1656, Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell reversed Britain’s almost 400-year old ban on Jews, which lay the foundation for a well-integrated Jewish community that would find success in many fields and that would project British values of freedom and justice as it aided oppressed Jewish communities elsewhere. Britain recently celebrated the 350th anniversary of its revived Jewish community. Part I of this article appeared in the Winter 2007 ISSUES and discussed Jewish life in Britain through the end of the 19th century. Part II covers the modern period.)  
Between 1881 and 1914, 120,000 to 150,000 Eastern European Jews emigrated to Britain, permanently transforming the character of the community. In the book The Jews of Britain, 1656 to 2000, Professor Todd M. Endelman, professor of modern Jewish history at the University of Michigan, writes, “Their poverty, occupations and foreignness drew unwanted attention to them and native-born Jews alike, fueling the fires of xenophobia and anti-semitism. By virtue of their numbers, they swamped the established community and gave Anglo-Jewry, once again, a foreign-born, lower-class cast, which disappeared only in the mid-twentieth century. Furthermore, their behavior rubbed against the comfortable grain of native Jewish patterns, creating intracommunal friction.”  
According to Endelman, “Their old world religious practices offended those accustomed to the polite but somnolent atmosphere of anglicized synagogues. They balked at recognizing the authority of the chief rabbi, his reverend ministers, and the Board of Deputies, while, in politics, a vocal minority embraced radical causes — socialism, anarchism, Zionism — that were believed to threaten native Jewish interests. But at the same time, they guaranteed the demographic survival of British Jewry into at least the twenty-first century. For without this infusion of new blood, the small, increasingly secularized, native-born community, left to itself, would have dwindled into insignificance, as drift, defection, and indifference took their toll.”  
New Arrivals  
In response to the large numbers of new arrivals, anti-Semitism rose at the end of the nineteenth century, concerning the native leaders of the Jewish community. They feared that unchecked migration could lead to the kind of prejudice that existed in much of the rest of Europe. They worked to slow immigration to Britain and also to accelerate the Anglicization process. The new arrivals also had a distinctly different outlook from the native Jews. Having lived in oppressive conditions, they did not identify themselves as Russians, Poles, Ukrainians, etc., but first and foremost as Jews. This attitude would lead to conflict with the British Jews who knew what it was like to live in a more egalitarian society.  
Most of the new arrivals moved to the East End of London, where they found synagogues and Yiddish-speaking communities. Jews also moved to provincial cities including Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Birmingham and Glasgow. By 1914, the Jewish community had swelled to 300,000, with 180,000 living in London.  
Even as large numbers of poor Jews arrived, other Jews in Britain were finding their fortunes. The decades before World War I, according to Endelman, constituted “the golden age of the City of London, the apogee of its influence in world trade and finance. Jewish families in banking, brokerage, and international trade amassed enormous fortunes, thanks in great part to the City’s ascendancy. Some, like the Rothschilds and Goldsmids, traced their roots in England to the eighteenth century, others, like Ernest Cassel (1852-1921) and Barney Barnato (1852-1897), were ‘obscure’ men who had acquired their fortunes in the diamond fields and gold mines of South Africa. The number of Jewish millionaires in Britain during this period, relative to other top wealth holders, was unprecedented. Jews constituted 12 percent of non-landed millionaires who died in the 1890s, 14 percent in the 1900s, and 23 percent in the 1910s.” These numbers are far out of proportion to Jews’ total share of the British population, which never exceeded 1 percent.  
Material Success  
Endelman continues, “Material success kindled their social ambition. By the 1880s, rich Jews had made their way into the drawing rooms and dining rooms of smart society, their entrance made possible by aristocratic willingness to absorb new wealth, whatever its origins, industrial, financial or mercantile, American or Jewish. ... In political life, wealthy Jews faced few obstacles to finding a seat in Parliament. Six unconverted Jews sat in the House of Commons in 1869, 16 in 1906. After the Promissory Oaths Act (1871) made possible the appointment of Jews to ministerial office, neither Liberal nor Conservative leaders were reluctant to promote Jewish MPs. Sir George Jessel (1824-83) became solicitor general in 1871, Henry de Worms (1840-1903) undersecretary of state for the colonies in 1888. Three Jews — Herbert Samuel, Rufus Isaacs, and Edwin Montagu — held office under H.H. Asquith before World War I.” Jewish knights and baronets were plentiful. The first was Moses Montefiore who was knighted in 1837 after being elected as sheriff of London and was made a baronet in 1846 in recognition of his work for persecuted Jews abroad.  
Middle class Jews responded to Britain’s call to arms in 1914, and rabbis and other prominent Jews called on the community to offer its support as the nation went to war. Although the Jewish Chronicle had urged neutrality in July 1914, when it was clear that Britain would be going to war in August, it declared, “England has been all she could be to Jews, Jews will be all they can be to England.”  
The war also stirred unease in the community, with some fearing that Jews would be identified with Germany, from where many Jewish families originated. And perhaps more worrisome was the low rate of military service among poor Jews in the East End. In these communities, the new arrivals did not see a Jewish interest in the war, particularly because Britain was allied with tsarist Russia, from where many of them had escaped.  
Little Interest in Zionism  
When Theodore Herzl first started looking for support in Britain at the end of the 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th Century, he found little interest. He sold few copies of the English translation of Der Judenstaat, published in 1896, and the fourth Zionist Congress, held in London in 1900, generated little excitement. The historian of the English Zionist Federation reported that “the Congress proved a merely transient incident in the vast Metropolis.”  
The leaders of Britain’s Jewish community feared that the establishment of a Jewish state, particularly one backed by London, would undermine their position in Britain. Jewish nationalism found the most opposition among the successful Jewish families that had been in Britain for generations, while it found the most support in the new immigrant communities from Eastern Europe.  
The Anglo-Jewish Association and Board of Deputies formed the Conjoint Foreign Committee, which published a piece in The Times on 24 May 1917 criticizing Zionism for suggesting that Jews constituted “one homeless nationality” and for “stamping the Jews as strangers in their native lands,” thus “undermining their hard won position as citizens and nationals of those lands.”  
The League of British Jews, organized by Claude Montefiore and other influential members of the community, rejected the caveat of Jewish nationalists that “the Jew is an alien in the land of his birth.” It called upon all Jewish Britons, regardless of their place of birth, to support its platforms “To uphold the status of British subjects professing the Jewish religion. To resist the allegation that Jews constitute a separate Political Nationality. To facilitate the settlement in Palestine of such Jews as may desire to make Palestine their home.”  
Jewish Universalism  
A prominent theological voice for Jewish universalism was Rabbi Israel Mattuck, the pre-eminent Reform Jewish leader of the day. While some say that Jews “have no homeland,” Mattuck replied: “But Jews have homelands. They look upon the countries in which they live as their homelands.” In his book What Are the Jews?, Mattuck argues that the distinctiveness of the Jews is religious, not national: “... the dispersion of the Jews, which gives them universality, helps both its realization and expression. It is a condition of their religious value that they remain distinctive and dispersed ... By its very nature, religion tends to universalism. There have been national religions. All religions began in tribalism. But religion long ago outgrew its nationalist swaddling-clothes. Judaism cast them off at least 26 centuries ago — in the time of Isaiah, Amos and Micah. ... The genius of the Jews is a genius for religion. The contribution of the Jews to the life of humanity has been in the field of religion.”  
Rabbi Mattuck points out that if Jewish history dates from Abraham, it is 4,000 years old and that less than half of it took place in Palestine, and even then but partly. While Jews may have been a nation in the early years of their history, he writes that, “the political nationalist aspect of that history was not important. The writers of the Bible show an obvious lack of interest in political events with an equally obvious deep interest in the religious interpretation. ... The great men in that history have been religious teachers ... The life of the Jews in Palestine was insignificant and unimportant politically, and it produced nothing enduring in art, science or philosophy. They showed great originality in another field, many would say a vastly more important field. Though they produced no Plato, Pindar or Alexander, they produced a Moses, Isaiah, Jesus and Paul. But the productiveness they lacked and the productiveness they possessed together reveal their essential genius. It was in religion. And a people has its surest hope in seeking a destiny in line with its genius.”  
Possibility of a Jewish State  
During World War I, Zionism gained strength in England — with the British occupation of Palestine, Jews began to see a real possibility for a Jewish state. Critics of Zionism continued to boldly proclaim their stance. Claude Montefiore, then president of the Anglo-Jewish Association, in November 1916 asked: “How can a man belong to two nations at once?”  
In the end, the League of British Jews failed to become a sufficiently powerful organization to threaten the proponents of Jewish nationalism. It suffered from chronically low membership. It made several attempts to recruit more supporters through a series of drawing-room meetings, public lectures and Lionel de Rothschild’s personal signature on 500 letters. All of these efforts produced disappointing results. Compared to the English Zionist Federation, the League was always by a large measure numerically inferior. Despite this fact, the League managed to attract most of the prominent families in English Jewry, including the Montefiores, Montagus, Rothschilds and Cohens. Many in the Jewish elite were members of the League, including several of the Jewish Members of Parliament, and the heads of almost all of the most important Jewish organizations.  
After the demise of the League, during World War II the Jewish Fellowship took up the anti-Zionist mantle. However, once the State of Israel was formed, the Fellowship was dissolved. Its founder and chairman was Basil Henriques, a member of one of the leading Jewish families. Former MP Sir Jack Brunel Cohen was the Fellowship’s president. In a recent article for the Jewish Journal of Sociology, Rory Miller writes: “For the Fellowship the campaign of Zionist Jews for a Jewish state in Palestine raised issues which struck at the heart of Jewish existence in the Diaspora — whether Jews were loyal to the country of birth or to the Zionist nationalist movement and ultimately, if it ever came into being, to the Jewish State. A Jewish State would severely strain, if not destroy beyond repair, the great strides that the Jews as members of a religious community had made since being granted citizenship.”  
Significant Influence  
While the Jewish organizations in England which opposed Zionism did not succeed in winning over the majority of the Jewish population, they did have significant influence. They showed that the Jewish community was not unified behind Zionism, and, in doing so, they provided an important counterweight to the growing strength of Zionism in Britain.  
As the Nazis rose to power, Jewish refugees from Germany and other countries began arriving in Britain, posing a problem for communal leaders: How to aid these refugees without risking a rise in anti-Semitism in Britain. During the 1930s, discrimination against Jews in Britain already was on the rise, mostly due to the economic deprivations of that era. According to Endelman, “British Jews gave the German-speaking newcomers a mixed welcome. Some threw themselves into refugee work, helping the refugees find employment, easing their way into the life of the community, taking in children who arrived on the Kinder-transport. But there were those, as well, who remained indifferent and did not respond to appeals for funds and, more importantly, for homes for unaccompanied children, one-third of whom, as a result, were placed in Christian homes.”  
Illustrating the Jewish community’s fear of a backlash, the Board of Deputies published a booklet in 1939 titled “While You Are in England” that included a list of do’s and don’ts. Endelman writes, “It advised the refugees to avoid speaking German and reading German newspapers in public, talking loudly, dressing conspicuously, taking part in politics, and, above all, commenting on how much better things were done in Germany.”  
Jewish communal organizations were hesitant to lobby for Jewish interests for fear that they would foster anti-Semitism. Endelman writes, “When the government interned Jewish refugees in 1940, neither the Board of Deputies nor the refugee aid organizations protested. Four years later when the issue of anti-Semitism in Polish army units on British soil came to a head, the Board of Deputies refused to participate in a public protest campaign because it did not want to embarrass the government, preferring instead to negotiate behind the scenes with the War Office. In regard to the great life-or-death issue of the time — convincing the government to rescue Jews facing death at German hands, whether by opening Palestine or Britain to those able to flee the continent or by taking even more dramatic steps — most communal leaders were also cautious. They were aware that an unprecedented tragedy was unfolding but were crippled by their caution and preoccupation with challenges at home.”  
Defeat of Nazism  
The defeat of Nazism did not lead to the death of anti-Semitism in Britain. In the five years after the war about a dozen fascist groups operated in London, using the post-war penury to build support for their movement. Jewish attacks on British soldiers in Palestine also contributed to these sentiments. Jews quickly moved to counteract this phenomenon, with demobilized Jewish servicemen forming the 43-Group (its name derives from the 43 individuals present at its founding) which violently responded to the fascist groups. By September 1946 it had 500 members.  
Endelman writes that the group’s members “assaulted fascist speakers and stewards broke up outdoor meetings, destroyed the stock of anti-Semitic bookshops, and infiltrated fascist groups. ... the 43 Group’s campaign began to show results. The number of fascist meetings dwindled, their tactics became less provocative and confrontational. Convinced that it had served its purpose, the 43 Group disbanded in April 1950,”  
In the post-war years, British Jews increasingly identified with Israel, although this did not represent a victory for classical Zionism, “Few Jews, Endelman points out, “before or after 1948, accepted the East European-rooted Zionist analysis of the condition of Diaspora Jewry. They did not believe that emancipation in Britain was a failure and anti-Semitism an ineradicable threat to their security or that an authentic Jewish life was possible only in the Jewish homeland. Evidence of this is the fact that few made aliyah.”  
The statistician Hannah Neustatter noted that while there was “a sense of pride and an emotional attachment to the new state,” it did not operate “as a focus of Jewish loyalty in the same way as religion in earlier generations.”  
Growth of Reform Judaism  
The post-war era was also characterized by the growth of Reform Judaism. The arrival of several dozen university-educated Reform rabbis during World War II, including the theologian Leo Baeck (1873-1956),the head of German Jewry in its final days, enabled the Reform and Liberal movements to expand and to begin training their own rabbis.  
The Orthodox Jewish establishment in Britain did not welcome the growth of non-Orthodox Jewish religious movements. Orthodox rabbis refused to appear on platforms with Reform and Liberal rabbis or to participate in cultural and educational programs whose sponsors included non-Orthodox groups. When Anglo-Jewry marked its tercentary in 1956 with a service at the Bevis Marks synagogue, the leaders of the Orthodox community absented themselves because of the official presence of Liberal and Reform Jews. An example of such intolerance can be seen in Cardiff, Wales, where the self-styled “Rav of Cardiff and South Wales,” Ber Rogosnitsky, refused to allow the city’s kosher caterer to cater weddings that were celebrated in the town’s Reform synagogue. By the mid-1990s, there were sixty-nine Reform and Liberal synagogues and a new, more diverse era in British Jewish life was under way.  
A mark of Anglo-Jewry’s growing affluence was a shift rightward in politics. Margaret Thatcher, whose own constituency, Fincham, included large numbers of Jewish voters, was refashioning the Conservative Party, making it more attractive to Jews. Indeed, she preferred successful business and professional people to well-born grandees and championed the Victorian middle-class values of independence, self-help and hard work.  
Mrs. Thatcher’s “Revolution”  
In The Disenchanted Isle, Mrs. Thatcher’s Capitalist Revolution, Charles Delheim writes that “As an ambitious, aggrieved outsider in search of acceptance and success, it was natural for her to see Jews as kindred spirits ... to admire those who triumphed over adversity through intelligence and determination as she herself did.” Thatcher surrounded herself with Jewish advisors and ministers — at one time there were 5 Jews in her Cabinet — while the total of Jewish Tory MPs rose from 12 in February 1974 to 16 in 1987. Only 7 Jewish Labour MPs were returned that year.  
Between 1958, when life peerages were introduced, and 1989, 564 Jews were ennobled, almost ten percent of the total, among them Chief Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits, whose conservative views endeared him to Margaret Thatcher.  
Jews are so much a part of modern British society that few know that Antony Armstrong-Jones, first Earl of Snowden and husband of Princess Margaret from 1960 to 1978, was a descendant, on his mother’s side, of the German-born Jewish stockbroker Ludwig Massel, or that the first husband of Wallis Warfield Simpson, who married the Duke of Windsor in 1937, was the son of a Jewish father, whose original name was Salaman, not Simpson.  
Despite the inevitable ups and downs of history, the Jewish community in Britain has enjoyed tremendous success in the last 350 years, finding a country more welcoming than most in Europe and a home so comfortable that they identified themselves as English and contributed to the welfare of their nation.  
“In This Happy Land”  
Historian Cecil Roth declared that “in this happy land” Jews “attained a measure of freedom ... which has been the case in scarcely any other.” At the end of the 20th century, in his book A History of Jews in the English-Speaking World: Great Britain, historian William Rubinstein echoed Roth: “The story of the Jewish people throughout the English-speaking world has almost always been a success story, a success story without parallel in the post-exilic history of the Jewish people.”  
The Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Meg Munn stated in Parliament on 14 June 2006, “Jewish communities are part of the fabric of British life and have been for more than three centuries, and they have made a huge positive contribution to our society. ... Jewish contributions to British society have enriched it in many fields, including business and finance, arts and sciences, industry and technology, medicine and law, academia and the media, politics and public services, the armed forces and charitable endeavors. Indeed, it would be hard to find an area of British life that has not benefitted from Jewish input.”  
To learn more about the 350 years of Jewish life in Britain, consider visiting http://www.britishjews350.org.uk/, a website created by the Board of Deputies of British Jews. It outlines Jewish contributions and tells the story of Jewish history in Britain.

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