Fouling the nest

Anthony Julius

  • Modern British Jewry by Geoffrey Alderman
    Oxford, 397 pp, £40.00, September 1992, ISBN 0 19 820145 1

A lawyer defends the reputation of his firm, one of the oldest and most profitable of City practices, against a charge of anti-semitism. Jewish himself, he concedes that he is the only Jewish partner in the firm. He is not prepared, however, to attribute this to prejudice. There are other explanations, chief among them is that Jews have tended not to want to work at the firm. He has not experienced any anti-semitism there; he is willing to take his partners as he finds them. And yet, he is quite plainly proud of having been made a partner: he is proud, that is, of being an exceptional Jew. Someone then remarks that his firm in fact has a second Jewish partner. ‘Oh yes, of course,’ he says; and it becomes obvious that he wanted the credit of being the only Jew at the firm, even though this undermined his defence of it.

From this vignette of Anglo-Jewish life one can infer that anti-semitism remains a live issue among English Jews, indeed tends to interest them rather more than the positive aspects of their faith and culture; that Jewish admission to the professional establishment is restricted, which can give special pleasure to those who, even so, gain entry to it; that Jews who do succeed in this way are often called upon to justify themselves; that s ‘quotas’ are probably applied to Jews in other contexts too; and that the Jewish-Gentile relationship in Britain can be characterised on the one side by identification and partial assimilation, and on the other by accommodation and partial exclusion.

Geoffrey Alderman is a member of the community he describes and his book can be read as a collective self-portrait – presented from an inward-looking, religiously Orthodox, politically conservative and rather philistine perspective. Modern British Jewry has little to say about anti-semitism or assimilation, both of which, without distinction, it sees merely as threats to Jewish survival. Non-Orthodoxy is represented exclusively as a challenge to the unity of the community, and that large fraction of Anglo-Jewry unaffiliated to synagogues plays no part in its discussion. Its tendency is to scorn the engagement of Jews with socialism and the waning tradition of Jewish support for the Labour Party.

The book reveals no grasp of the contribution of Jews to the business life of England at any but the most modest levels. This is not all that surprising, because the nature of commercial activity eludes Alderman: ‘The United Synagogue had become, in the nicest sense of the word, a business enterprise.’ What nice sense does Alderman have in mind? He manages to write about Anglo-Jewry without writing about its major entrepreneurs, and thereby ignores what Anglo-Jewry itself tends to value most highly.

‘Most British Jews,’ Alderman writes, ‘resent the “race relations” industry,’ citing as his authority for this dubious sneer one of his own earlier writings. It isn’t a remark that inspires confidence in his judgment as a historian or his reliability as a student of modern Anglo-Jewish opinion. My own impression is that most Jews regard the race and public-order legislation as providing essential safeguards, for themselves and for others. The conviction, for example, of Lady Bird wood for disseminating anti-semitic propaganda would not have been possible without it.

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