The Jewish Community in British Politics 
by Geoffrey Alderman.
Oxford, 218 pp., £17.50, March 1983, 9780198274360
Show More
Economic History of the Jews in England 
by Harold Pollins.
Associated University Presses, 339 pp., £20, March 1983, 0 8386 3033 2
Show More
Show More

One of the greatest ideological achievements of Nazism was the successful promotion of the image of the Jew who was simultaneously a heartless capitalist and a revolutionary communist. Certainly a people which produced both Rothschild and Trotsky, as well as many lesser men in their image, might find themselves objects of virulent hatred from both left and right. Jewish economic achievements and championship of social change are undoubtedly a source of pride in the Jewish community, but when under attack these features of Jewish life are often stowed below as so much embarrassing luggage which ought not to be seen outside the family circle, and replaced with a roll-call of Jewish heroes in the arts and sciences. The undeniable fact that a people of whom there are no more than 15 million throughout the world should have had an influence in nearly all fields of human endeavour quite out of proportion with this demographic strength has been a constant source of worry for many Jewish communities in Europe, but perhaps nowhere more so than in England. The influence exerted by Anglo-Jewry in business and at the polls has been a particularly sensitive issue. Indeed, Geoffrey Alderman notes the opposition and personal abuse which he suffered during the research and writing of his book on the Jewish vote in Britain from the leaders of Anglo-Jewry, who thought it best to ‘tell it not in Gath, publish it not in the streets of Askelon’.

Generally speaking, the history of the Jews in England can be divided into three distinct periods: the first period was from their settlement with the Norman Conquest untill their expulsion from England in 1290; the middle period ends with unofficial toleration under Cromwell in 1655, when England was nominally Judenrein, although many individual Jews did make their way there; the last period shows the Jews in England improving their legal position, becoming emancipated in 1858, and attempting to fall into line as loyal British subjects of the Mosaic persuasion. Both Dr Alderman and Dr Pollins are primarily interested in Anglo-Jewry during the 19th and 20th centuries and it is in these areas that their original contributions lie. When dealing with earlier periods, both historians have relied almost exclusively on the secondary literature, and their first chapters stand or fall on the quality of this material, which is often unreliable. The 18th century has been rather better served and this, too, is reflected in the books before us.

Here Dr Alderman sheds new light on the entry of Anglo-Jewry into national politics, which coincided with their struggle to obtain a Naturalisation Act which would free those Jews who wished to make their residence in England permanent from the necessity of taking the sacrament and pronouncing the words ‘on the true faith of a Christian’ when swearing the Oaths of Supremacy and Allegiance. The Jews in England reckoned that this privilege might come to them from the Whig government as some sort of reward for their loyal support of the Crown during the Jacobite rebellion of 1745, and they engaged the lawyer Philip Carteret Webb. The Jewish Naturalisation Act (the ‘Jew Bill’) was finally passed in May 1753, but during the general election of the following year it became a focus for City, High Church and Tory opposition. ‘Here, for the first time in English history,’ Dr Alderman writes, ‘the spectre was raised, and the possibility (however remote or far-fetched at the time) discussed, of a “Jewish vote” and of a substantial Jewish (and therefore “foreign”) dimension being introduced into English political life.’ The Whigs themselves repealed the ‘Jew Bill’ by the end of the year, but Anglo-Jewry continued to support Whig governments, in the main financially: it was Nathan Mayer Rothschild who supplied the bullion to pay Wellington’s forces in Spain.

One of the most interesting features of Jewish political life in 18th-century England was the existence of a genuine Jewish vote before the Emancipation of 1858. Theoretically, no professing Jew could vote because returning officers at elections had the power to demand the swearing of a Christian Oath of Abjuration by all prospective voters at the polls. The law on this subject was not changed until 1835, after which time voters were not required to take any oath before voting. Yet even before that there were many places where the oath was regarded as a tiresome preliminary and was dispensed with altogether. So, for example, we find that in December 1832 Rabbi Asher Ansell of Liverpool voted in the general election, and was so recorded in the Poll Book. Certainly by the 1780s, Dr Alderman writes, many Jews had reached the necessary property qualification – and they were voting Whig.

It was during the struggle for Emancipation that the Jewish vote came to be seen as a major political tool which could be exploited by the main political parties, especially the Liberals. The idea of Emancipation was that it would remove the remaining civil disabilities affecting British-born professing Jews, of which the bar to a Parliamentary career was the most obvious. Henry Mayhew, the great chronicler of London life in the mid-19th century, was told by a Jewish professional that it was unlikely that one Jew in ten, ‘activated solely by his own feelings, would trouble himself to walk the length of the street in which he lived to secure Baron Rothschild’s admission into the House of Commons’. The popular view of Emancipation sees the Whigs, Liberals, Benthamites, Evangelists, and Macaulay, ranged on the side of the Jews, against the Tories, the Church of England, the aristocracy and the House of Lords. The actual picture, Dr Alderman reveals, was much more complex: William Cobbett himself was fond of referring to the ‘blaspheming Jews’, Gladstone was a Whig and a great opponent of the Jews at one and the same time, while Disraeli was a Tory and the final Emancipation Act itself was a Conservative measure.

How then, Dr Alderman asks, did Emancipation come to be regarded as a Liberal victory won in the face of staunch Tory opposition? ‘The answer lies partly in the tactics of Liberal politicians and their Jewish allies in the late 1840s, and partly in a series of accidental circumstances and personal friendships.’ The persistent efforts of Rothschild and others to persuade the Conservative Government to ease Jewish disabilities might have borne fruit even in the 1830s, but King George IV declared himself against any change in this direction. At the same time, the Board of Deputies, which since 1760 had claimed to represent Anglo-Jewry, was willing to settle for certain changes in the law and to give up the vision of a Jewish Member of Parliament. The Jewish advocates of Emancipation were forced to fight on alone without any official communal support. The outstanding figure here was David Salomons, whose repeated efforts as a professing Jew to obtain election to the Court of Aldermen of the City of London was rewarded in 1845 with an Act which allowed Jews to hold any municipal office. After the passage of this law, it was clear that only one further political Everest remained to be conquered. The admission of a professing Jew to Westminster would have occurred sooner or later: that it took place when it did, Dr Alderman writes, was due to a realisation of the potential usefulness of the Jews at the polls. ‘The Whig/Liberal connection wanted votes, and allowed itself to be seduced by the allure of Jewish votes.’

It is at some point during the Emancipation debate that a Jewish vote emerges – that is, a recognised tendency on the part of Jewish voters to react in a particular way to political issues. In 1841, Jews were encouraged to vote for Lord John Russell (a Whig) because he was in favour of Jewish Emancipation – he won by nine votes. The Jewish vote, clearly, could be mobilised and put to good use.

The Liberals put up five Jewish candidates at the next election, including David Salomons (who had already stood unsuccessfully for the Liberals two years before) and two Rothschilds. Lionel Rothschild won and was duly denied his seat when he declined to take the Christian oath. David Salomons won a by-election and took the offending oath, omitting the problematic phrase. He voted in three divisions before agreeing to withdraw: so it was he who was the first Jew in Parliament, not Rothschild, as is generally believed. In the General Election of 1857 the Jewish question was a major political issue, and for Jews a source of religious controversy as well, since it was to be held on a Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath during which it is forbidden to write or to devote oneself to secular pursuits. But before the introduction of the secret ballot in 1872 nothing needed actually to be written, and both the Chief Rabbi and the Jewish Chronicle gave Sabbath voting their stamp of approval. After numerous wrangles and compromises, Baron Lionel de Rothschild was finally allowed to take his seat on 26 July 1858. He never spoke in the House once he had achieved his goal – ‘the yoke he had won for himself proved too heavy,’ Alderman suggests.

But it was only after the mass Jewish immigration to Britain which began in the 1880s that Anglo-Jewry took on its modern complexion. In 1880, perhaps sixty thousand Jews lived in Great Britain, three-quarters of them in London. Between 1881 and the outbreak of the First World War, over a hundred and fifty thousand East European Jews settled in the British Isles and swamped the ‘native’ Anglo-Jewish community where rabbis wore clerical collars and were called ‘Reverend’ and the Chief Rabbi appeared in episcopal gaiters. One of the most interesting revelations in Dr Alderman’s fascinating book is the energy which the Jews resident in Britain before 1880 devoted to keeping these newcomers out. Chief Rabbi Nathan Adler addressed a circular to rabbis in Eastern Europe asking them to prevail on Jews ‘not to come to the land of Britain for such ascent is a descent.’ The Board of Guardians advertised in the Russian and Rumanian press to the effect that Jews coming to England would receive no help at all during the first six months when they needed it most. Rothschild and others protested against mass immigration: Sir Samuel Montagu, the Jewish Liberal MP, proudly proclaimed that he had been ‘the means of preventing the immigration to this country of thousands of foreigners’. Indeed, the Jewish Board of Guardians tried to repatriate the three thousand Rumanian Jews who arrived in the two years 1899-1900, and were pleased when Russian Jews who had refused to volunteer in the First World War (and thereby support the hated Tsar) were actually deported back to the Pale of Settlement.

‘Socialism was practically unknown among British Jews before the 1880s,’ Dr Alderman writes, and although the immigrant Jews often came from Eastern Europe with socialism in their hearts, the socialist movement itself had a very small electoral strength since most of the immigrants could not vote. Furthermore, the Liberal (and later the Labour) Party provided a clear reformist alternative. Nevertheless, by the 1906 Election the new immigrants were an electoral force. Many had adopted English names and had managed to get themselves on the electoral register. Others had found the £5 fee and were naturalised. They certainly played a part in bringing the Liberals back into power: in the hope that they would repeal the Aliens Act of 1905, which had so severely cut down the tide of immigration. But Dr Alderman is careful not to attribute too much to the Jewish vote, while at the same time noting the Jewish interest in issues which had nothing to do with the Jewish community itself. At Yom Kippur services in the New West End Synagogue in 1913, three Jewish suffragettes interrupted the prayers with shouted pleas to the Lord that he forgive Herbert Samuel and Rufus Isaacs, Jewish members of government, ‘for denying freedom to women’ and ‘for consenting to the torture of women’. The franchise reform of 1918, based as it was on residence rather than on the payment of rates, gave vast numbers of these immigrants the vote.

It was during this period as well that the major contemporary political issue of Anglo-Jewry made its appearance – Zionism, the very breath of which seemed to contradict the core argument of the emancipationists: that English Jews differed from their gentile fellows in religion alone. The First World War had sparked off an upsurge of Anglo-Jewish patriotism: when the Lord Mayor of London arrived at Yom Kippur services in the East End in 1915, the congregation stopped praying and burst into a chorus of ‘Rule Britannia’. But the British conquest of Palestine and the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which supported the establishment there of a ‘national home for the Jewish people’, put England in the central role in the struggle for a Jewish state which had begun years before when Palestine was still a Turkish backwater. While Zionism met with great success among the immigrant masses of the East End, official Anglo-Jewry was horrified at the implied criticism of their so recently demonstrated patriotism. A League of British Jews, dedicated to resisting ‘the allegation that Jews constitute a separate Political Entity’, was formed with Lionel de Rothschild MP as its president and supported in the early Twenties by most of the dozen or so Jewish MPs. It was also clear from election returns in the Thirties that Zionism would not always attract Jewish votes and indeed could actually hurt an East End candidate in the period of mounting anti-semitism.

Between Hitler’s accession to power in 1933 and the end of the Second World War about sixty-five thousand Jewish refugees came to Great Britain. These, unlike the poor and miserable immigrants who preceded them fifty years before, were mostly educated professional people. ‘Worst of all,’ warned the Sunday Express in 1938, ‘many of them are holding themselves out to the public as psychoanalysts.’ These refugees were a target for British Fascism in the Thirties, and the Board of Deputies put out the word that it was a bad time to emphasise Jewish influence and achievement. President Neville Laski chided working-class Jews for having brought trouble on themselves through sharp business practices, and the Board publicly called on Jews to adopt a low profile and advised refugees not to speak in a loud voice. At the same time, the publication by the Conservative Government in 1939 of the White Paper which abandoned the Balfour Declaration and any notion of the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine confirmed the Jewish drift towards the Labour Party, which, it was hoped after the war, would help to fulfil the Zionist dream.

The announcement by the Labour Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin in 1945 that his government would stand by the White Paper of 1939 and that future immigration to Palestine would take place only with the consent of the Arabs came as a shock to Anglo-Jewry, which, for reasons of temperament as well as general ideology, had come to regard the Labour Party as their political home. The blowing-up of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem and the assassination of Lord Moyne lost the mainstream Zionist movement many friends in the Labour Party and the State of Israel was not recognised by the United Kingdom until February 1949 (eight months after independence) – and then only after a general election in which Labour’s majority was cut from 146 to five seats. The Labour attack on the Conservative Government’s Suez adventure in 1956 was a further blow to Jewish hopes, and the 17 Jewish Labour MPs voted against the Government in condemnation of Israel. Some would pay for their party loyalty with their seats, a clear indication of the existence of a Jewish vote. In February 1974 the Zionist Federation issued a list of MPs who abstained or voted with the Conservative Government’s embargo on arms shipments to Israel during the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Dr Alderman notes that when Margaret Thatcher was elected Conservative leader in 1975, she became the first leader of a major party to sit for a constituency where the Jewish vote is crucial.

Dr Alderman’s book is really about prominent Jews and Jewish issues in British politics rather than about Jewish voting patterns: sociological questionnaires had not been invented in the days of Disraeli. He identifies Jewish voters in the Poll Books ‘by ethnic name’, hardly an adequate method in a world where a Katz can be German and an Alderman Jewish. The British never kept detailed records on immigration, as the Americans did, in part out of liberal sentiments, and even the Royal Commission on Alien Immigration at the turn of the century could not determine how many immigrant Jews there were in England. Sometimes Dr Alderman is thrown back on very vague postulates: relations ‘between blacks and Jews vary a great deal. They are often very good, but can deteriorate remarkably quickly.’ But this is a very sound and very courageous book.

Dr Pollins’s Economic History of the Jews in England looks at another sensitive area of Anglo-Jewish life. He carefully avoids what he calls ‘grand theories’ about the role of the Jews in economic history, particularly in the development of modern capitalism: in his view, they ‘suffer from insecure factual foundations’. Dr Pollins is no doubt thinking here of Werner Sombart, whose exasperating study of Die Juden und das Wirtschaftsleben (1911) identified the Governors of the Dutch colonies and Columbus himself (one of the ‘managing directors for Israel’) as Jews on the basis of ‘a glance at the portraits’ of these figures. Curiously, Sombart’s classic study is missing from Dr Pollins’s admirable bibliography, but his book (unlike Sombart’s) is the work of a professional historian. Like Dr Alderman, Dr Pollins is principally interested in modern Jewry, and especially in the role of the Jews in the trade-union movement, and in his book, too, the first few chapters on the Jews in England before the 18th century are sadly deficient. Even more than Dr Alderman’s work, this book is a general history, based on and synthesising the research of others. Again, the chapter on readmission is patchy and generally unreliable, and the introduction on Medieval Anglo-Jewry sketchy and superficial. But by the time we get to the 18th century, Dr Pollins is well into his stride, and provides us with a fascinating picture (based on the research of Dr Gedalia Yogev) of London Jews importing diamonds from India and paying for them with coral which was re-exported after being sent to England by their Mediterranean co-religionists. We also see Jews involved in commodity trading at the Royal Exchange, and making the transition to Exchequer orders, stocks and bonds with the expansion of government finance during the 1690s, especially after the establishment of the Bank of England in 1694.

Jewish financiers and international traders figure prominently in Dr Pollins’s study, but so too do the Jews of the ‘other London’ in the Augustan Age, who came to London free of charge on the British mail packet from Holland to Harwich. Like the gentile poor, they often became involved in crime: the ‘Chelsea Murders’ of 1771 committed by a gang of eight Jews provides the earliest example of the use of publicity to capture criminals. At least one thousand Jews were deported to Australia, including Ikey ‘the Prince of Fences’ Solomons, perhaps the model for Fagin. But most 18th-century Jews were pedlars or small shopkeepers, in the provinces as well as in London. From the late 18th century, guides in Yiddish and Hebrew appeared with coaching information and notes on holidays, inns, fairs and hotels. Up until about 1830 the coaching inns on the main roads would keep a locked cabinet of kosher utensils: the last Jew to use them would write his name and date in chalk, and note the Biblical portion of the week. A Moroccan Jew who arrived in England in 1811 lived in Taunton at ‘a lodging-house for de Jewish people wat go about wid de gold tings, de jewellery’.

Other Jews became more successful, such as Lemmle Hart, the purveyor of rum to the Royal Navy whose name is immortalised in ‘Lemon Hart’ Rum. But Britain’s 19th-century economic success was based on coal, steam-power (including railways), engineering, textiles, shipbuilding, iron and steel, and Jews played no part in the formative years of these industries, remaining shopkeepers and craftsmen involved largely in clothing and tobacco (especially cigars): they only came into the new developing industries once they were underway. A few Jews were involved with overseas trade, notably Marcus Samuel, who imported shells for the decoration of boxes: his two sons would concentrate on trade with the Far East, especially oil, and would later call their company Shell in memory of their father’s entrepreneurial spirit. And of course the Rothschilds figure prominently in Dr Pollins’s study as well. The five sons of old Mayer Amschel Rothschild settled in Frankfurt, London, Paris, Vienna and Naples and kept in contact through a highly efficient courier service. But Dr Pollins rejects the story that Nathan Mayer Rothschild was thereby the first person in England to know of the victory at Waterloo, and made a killing on the Stock-Market by appearing there with a gloomy countenance while simultaneously buying up falling stock. The Rothschilds raised money for Metternich and later supplied the English Government with funds at short notice to purchase the Suez Canal shares. In 1885 Nathaniel Rothschild was the first Jew to be raised to the peerage (over Victoria’s protests). Still, Dr Pollins claims that despite numerous influential contacts and shooting weekends with the Prince of Wales, the Rothschilds never played the central role in English life which Jewish financiers enjoyed elsewhere.

The major changes in Jewish economic activity came with the massive immigration to England between the 1880s and the First World War. At its height, eight immigrant ships were docking in London every week. Their passengers made their way to the nearby East End of London, and either took up an independent occupation (such as peddling), worked for another Jew, or even set up as employers. The main occupations were in clothing, furniture, tobacco, peddling, or in serving the religious and alimentary needs of the community itself. Very many worked in intolerably harsh conditions, to the point where it was commonly believed that the Jewish immigrants themselves were responsible for the growth of sweated industries. The work was seasonal, producing periods of unemployment, and with such an abundant supply of labour, employers had little incentive to stock up during the slack season or to invest in capital equipment: a small-scale workshop was the best way to turn a profit if human misery was not a consideration.

We see this familiar pattern in the early life of Ephraim Sieff, the son of a Lithuanian village miller, who landed in Hull, thinking he was in America. He took up peddling, but when insulted by a woman at the very first house where he tried to sell his imitation jewellery, he moved out to Manchester, and met a Landsman who got him a job with a tailor. Sieff collected the discarded scraps of cloth and within eight years had bought out the firm to which he sold them. His son became the business partner of Simon Marks, whose own father had advanced from peddling at village fairs to a settled shop in Manchester shared with a gentile named Tom Spencer. Marks and Spencer had 36 establishments by 1900, and three years later became a limited company: it is still being run by the Sieffs.

Many of these immigrant Jews became involved in the trade-union movement, although their role in England was far less important than it was in America. There was no English equivalent of David Dubinsky, Sidney Hillman or Samuel Gompers (who himself was born in London). Dr Pollins rightly reminds us that the comparison with America is unfair (as is so often the case) because while the huge Jewish population in New York dominated the clothing industry there, even in Manchester and Leeds the Jews were in a minority. Secondly, during the peak period of immigration to the United States the trade unions were weaker than they were in England, and newly-formed Jewish-dominated unions could occupy leading positions in the industry, while in Britain the main industries which absorbed Jewish immigrants already had national unions by the 1870s. Gentile union leaders complained that the Jews only wanted to join when a strike was in the offing, hoping to get strike pay, and never understood the principles of trade unionism. Dr Pollins argues that Jewish seasonal unionism was tactically sensible, in that it took action when employers were most likely to concede to demands. In any case, it was very difficult to bring the socialist gospel to Jewish audiences: a Whitechapel union rally advertised speakers in ‘Russian, English, Yiddish, Polish, German etc’.

Some of the later sections of Dr Pollins’s excellent book are inclined to indulge in Jewish geography, reminding readers of prominent Anglo-Jewish firms, such as ICI, Unilever, General Electric, Gestetner, Great Universal Stores, Burton’s, Granada, ATV, Ladbroke’s and many more. But Dr Pollins himself corrects this impression in a final chapter by pointing out that many of these companies are no longer run by Jews, and that in any case in large firms the board of directors and external owners of capital may not be Jews. ‘It is not the intention to produce a directory of Jewish business,’ he protests, ‘but ... ’ But how can we resist hearing about a man like Sir Charles Clore, the son of an immigrant textile manufacturer, who began his career in 1924 at the age of 20 by purchasing and reselling the South African film rights to the Tunney-Dempsey world championship?

What emerges from both Dr Alderman on politics and Dr Pollins on economics is that the restrictions placed on Jews in this country from the time of their readmission were made on religious rather than racial grounds. Converted Jews and Jews who were willing to take a Christian oath found most doors open to them: the career of Disraeli proves that. And although practising Jews were excluded from the universities until the 19th century, a Jew who qualified abroad as, say, a doctor was permitted to practise in Britain. Indeed, the very difficulty these two historians encountered in the course of their research in isolating Jewish Englishmen from their fellows is a tribute to the English spirit of toleration.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 5 No. 20 · 3 November 1983

SIR: The deficiencies to which David Katz refers in his review of Economic History of the Jews in England by Harold Pollins (LRB, 6 October) are not confined to the years before the 18th century but apply also to the 19th century. He seems to accept Pollins’s claim that Jews played no part in the developing British industries of that century. But in at least one of the industries he specifies, shipbuilding, I have personal knowledge that he is mistaken. My maternal grandfather, Alfred David Lewis, a practising Jew, had responsibilities for the building of the Manchester Ship Canal and for organising and acting as a judge of the Exhibition of Naval Models held by the Worshipful Company of Shipwrights; and in 1886 he was Master of that Company. Perhaps Anglicisation by some ancestor of the name Levy to Lewis has contributed to obfuscation.

Isabel Jacobs
London NW11

Vol. 5 No. 21 · 17 November 1983

SIR: David Katz begins his review of two recent works on Anglo-Jewish history (LRB, 6 October) by remarking that ‘the influence exerted by Anglo-Jewry in business and at the polls has been a particularly sensitive issue.’ He ends the same piece with a ‘tribute to the English spirit of toleration’. At the very least, these comments are hard to reconcile.

Katz mentions that the leaders of the Jewish community practised a policy of repatriating thousands of East European Jewish immigrants in the 1890s. He neglects to consider the degree to which this was a response to growing hostility towards the immigrants and native Jewry. He also asks Jews to be grateful that those amongst them who converted ‘found most doors open’. What sort of ‘toleration’ is it that requires the public self-effacement of Jews as Jews? Anglo-Jewry may be grateful that it was not exposed to the worst forms of racial anti-semitism and extermination, but should this community feel gratitude when its people were forced to convert, or later felt impelled to send fellow Jews back to ‘darkest Russia’? Isn’t it time to consider critically a concept of ‘toleration’ which can encompass direct and indirect coercion as well as genuine acceptance?

David Feldman
Churchill College, Cambridge

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences