Cousinhood

David Cannadine

  • The Social Politics of Anglo-Jewry 1880-1920 by Eugene Black
    Blackwell, 428 pp, £35.00, February 1989, ISBN 0 631 16491 X
  • The Persistence of Prejudice: Anti-Semitism in British Society during the Second World War by Tony Kushner
    Manchester, 257 pp, £29.95, March 1989, ISBN 0 7190 2896 5
  • The Club: The Jews of Modern Britain by Stephen Brook
    Constable, 464 pp, £15.95, April 1989, ISBN 0 09 467340 3

How should the history of the Jews be written? Ever since the compilation of the Old Testament – a pioneering work of collaborative authorship, sometimes inaccurate and inadequately documented, and biased throughout by teleological distortion – it has been an understandably difficult and daunting task. For the most part, this is because of the diversity and the intensity of the Jewish experience. In one guise, they have been the greatest victims of European history – chosen by God, but rejected by man, and condemned to wander the world in the anguished search for safety and security. But in another, they have been the greatest ornaments of European civilisation – so resilient in their triumphant survival, and so cosmopolitan in their fertile brilliance, as to put plodding, parochial and prejudiced gentiles to shame. A history which culminates (thus far) in the creation of Israel and the barbarism of the Holocaust is neither for the faint-hearted nor the squeamish. Except, perhaps, in the case of English Jewry. For by comparison with these dramatic, momentous and highly-charged happenings, the history of the Jewish communities in Britain is little more than a bland and lukewarm chronicle.

Significantly, the Jewish minority in England has never been all that large. In Imperial Russia, there were five million Jews, there are now the same number in the United States, and the world community today totals 13½ million. At its peak, Anglo-Jewry never boasted more than 350,000 souls – less than 1 per cent of Britain’s total population. And it has not only been comparatively small, it has also been relatively safe. Unlike Russia or France or Austria or Germany, there have been no pogroms, no show trials, no outbreaks of orchestrated anti-semitism, no final solutions. Ever since Anglo-Jewry’s return to Britain on the eve of the Restoration, its history has been one of sustained economic progress and successful political assimilation. In the 19th century, the Jews won the vote, got themselves elected to Parliament, and even became peers of the realm. And in Thatcherite Britain, they have received unprecedented ed Cabinet preferment, while the recently-ennobled Chief Rabbi has become the de facto primate of Downing Street. On this reading, the history of Anglo-Jewry is essentially the history of a successful minority. But in terms of generating scholarly excitement or stimulating public interest, that is just about the worst sort of history it is possible for any group to lay claim to.

The inevitable result is that most historians of Anglo-Jewry have been vainly searching for an approach which might bring their subject alive and establish a wider resonance for it. One obvious line of inquiry has been to locate and investigate ‘the Jewish community’ in Britain. Surely, the argument runs, the Jews knew who they were, and possessed a strong sense of corporate identity? And so it must be possible to evoke the vigour and intensity of their collective lives which transcends, even as it re-creates, the boundaries of their ethnic existence. But in practice, it is extremely difficult to discover or define such a community. The political opinions, social behaviour and economic circumstances of British Jews were (and are) so diverse that it is not at all clear that being Jewish was the most important thing in living or understanding or explaining their lives. It is probably more useful to regard the 19th-century Rothschilds as bankers, plutocrats and social climbers than as the self-appointed spokesmen of ‘the Jewish community’. And in the East End of London, the elemental problems of working-class life – birth, survival and death – were essentially the same, regardless of ethnic identity or national origin.

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