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.
If it is difficult to define the Anglo-Jewish community satisfactorily at any given moment, then by definition it is even harder to write its history over an extended period of time. But in additon, it is not clear precisely what the trajectory of that history is, or should be. For those who believe in the virtues and validity of assimilation, it might seem easy – a Whiggish account of triumphant progress, from the East End to the West End, the ghetto to the gentry. But in practice, it is extremely difficult to establish what assimilation means, or to discover just how, when, why and where it happens. And where does that leave those many British Jews who refused, or were unable, to become Anglicised and acculturated? The assimilationists must regard them as ‘failures’, because they did not conform to the preferred and prevailing stereotype. But there is another, very different view of the Jewish experience, which regards assimilation as apostasy, as the completion of the holocaust by more insidious means. Judged from this standpoint, it is the Jews who stayed loyal to their faith, their laws and their race whose lives and history must be celebrated, while those who married out or opted out are to be condemned.
These two interpretations are as impossible to reconcile in relation to the Anglo-Jewish past as they are in relation to the Anglo-Jewish present. So it is hardly surprising that some historians have decided to leave the Jews themselves alone, and have turned to the study of gentile attitudes instead. Have the British always been, in A.J.P. Taylor’s words, the ‘tolerant, patient and generous’ people they self-regardingly believe themselves to be? This sounds a simple and straightforward question. But once again, the answers are vague and discouraging. The Marconi Scandal, the resignation of Hore Belisha from the War Office, and the attacks on Leon Brittan at the time of the Westland affair, to say nothing of the Fascist and National Front disturbances in the East End, suggest that there was and is more political anti-semitism in Britain than most of us would like to think. The Jew as scapegoat is an all-too-frequent phenomenon. Ernest Saunders might have something to say about this. And among the snobs and yobs of England, there is undoubtedly a pervasive social and cultural hostility. Yet compared with much of Europe, the fact remains that this country has shown itself accommodating to the Jews – there is, after all, a clear distinction between the anti-semitism of the golf club and the gas chamber.
These seemingly ineradicable weaknesses in the Anglo-Jewish historical tradition are well illustrated by the three books under review. The most important, the most detailed and the most scholarly is that by Eugene Black. The central question he seeks to answer is deceptively simple. How did the Jewish cousinhood, the Rothschilds, the Samuels, the Cohens and their relatives, all of whom were proudly élitist and profoundly assimilationist in their outlook, respond to the mass influx of East European Jews, fleeing the Russian pogroms in the thirty years before the First World War? Inevitably, they regarded these unwashed and unassimilated aliens with anxiety and revulsion, for they feared that they would provoke an anti-semitic reaction which would threaten the Anglo-Jewish community as a whole. By a massive expansion in voluntary activity and philanthropic endeavour, they sought to assimilate, to acculturate and to Anglicise these new arrivals. The welfare services and education, the medical care and poor relief, the recreational facilities and subsidised housing, were not just charitable gestures: they were deliberate efforts at social control and engineering, the means whereby the patrician leaders of Anglo-Jewry attempted to inculcate their own values and impose their own order.
As Black is at pains to explain, however, this is only one side of the story, for they were only partially successful. The Anglo-Jewish leadership was far from monolithic: the Rothschilds and the Samuels differed, not just socially and politically, but religiously and philanthropically as well. Nor did their charitable endeavours accomplish as much as they had hoped. Despite seemingly limitless patrician largesse, many of them were hampered for lack of funds, and the increasingly collectivist British state gradually assumed non-sectarian responsibility for many of the social services. Many new arrivals refused to be assimilated, continued to speak Yiddish, and devised their own means of self-help, sometimes in the form of trade unions or socialist organisations, which only alarmed the Anglo-Jewish leadership still further. Eventually, the old order found its unquestioned supremacy challenged – partly by the provincial Jewish communities, which resented metropolitan dominance, and partly by the rise of proletarian Zionism, to which most of the cousinhood was bitterly opposed. In this context, the Balfour Declaration of 1917, pledging the British Government to support the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, was a major turning-point – for it spelt the beginning of the end for the old Lions of Judah.
Kushner’s book takes us into a very different world, as he explores the persistence of anti-semitism in Britain between 1939 and 1945. As far as the public life of the country was concerned, there can be no doubt that such prejudices persisted. Mosley’s British Union of Fascists claimed that the war was a result of a conspiracy of Jewish financiers, while the Catholic Herald and Truth insisted that it was Communism which was the real Jewish plot. Such contradictory propaganda was persistent, distasteful, and lasted the duration of the war. In addition, it clearly found some support on the extreme right of the Tory Party and in the more obscurantist recesses of the Foreign Office. But it never appealed to more than a tiny minority. The Government’s attitude was more ambiguous. They were well-disposed towards Anglo-Jewry, but feared doing anything which might stir up anti-semitism in the country as a whole. They were sympathetic over matters such as the provision of Kosher food – but only within certain well-defined limits. They interned all refugee aliens in the late spring of 1940, but began to release them in the following year. And while they were determined in their resolve to defeat Hitler, they made no effort to help European Jews reach Britain, and barely acknowledged what was going on in the concentration camps.
On the other hand, most of the evidence concerning popular attitudes suggests that the official view – that the British public was latently anti-semitic – was profoundly mistaken. In the early days of the Blitz, there was certainly some heightening of tension between Jews and gentiles in the East End. The old stereotypes emerged once more, as the Jews were accused of profiteering, black marketeering, cowardice and selfishness. But on the whole, the cameraderie of the air-raid shelters dissolved antagonisms more than it accentuated them. And the same was true when it later came to evacuation. Rich Jews, comfortably ensconced in the hotels of Bournemouth and Llandudno, seems to have been unpopular throughout the war. But East End evacuees, although initially disapproved of in the more remote areas to which they were directed, seem to have been very well integrated and happily settled by the closing stages of the conflict. At the end of the war, gentiles knew more about Jews, and vice versa, than had ever been true before, and Kushner is clear that this dissolved more prejudice than it created. Above all, Hitler’s bombs did far more to disperse and to assimilate the East End Jews than any amount of Rothschild philanthropy or social engineering had ever been able to do.
Brook’s volume brings the story up to date, with a readable, irreverent and pessimistic account of contemporary Anglo-Jewry, as seen by someone who belongs to it by birth but rejects many of its values by choice. He begins with an exploration of the religious community, which he depicts as a divided and declining anachronism. He describes the deep and bitter disagreements which separate the Ultra-Orthodox Chasidic Jews from progressive Judaisim, and the United synagogues from the Reform Synagogues. He tells us about the hard-liners, who believe that only a difficult and demanding religion will retain loyal adherents, and the liberals, who insist that this objective can only be accomplished by moderation and modernisation. He describes the quite astonishingly unemancipated attitudes which many Jewish men take towards Jewish women, and dismisses the Chief Rabbi as a wordy apostle of reaction. He is equally scathing about Anglo-Jewry’s secular institutions and voluntary associations. The Board of Deputies is little more than a talking-shop, representing no one but itself. The provision of Jewish education is inadequate, of uncertain standard, and riddled with theological disputes. The charity network is inefficient, and further handicapped because it cannot even acknowledge that the social problems arising from homosexuality and adultery exist.
In one sense, of course, this is another account of triumphal assimilation, and Brook himself seems perfectly happy at that outcome. But the result is that the surviving representatives of Anglo-Jewry seem fated to become the Jacobites of the 21st century, absorbed in the theology of nostalgia, and preoccupied with internal wranglings which seem at once petty and self-destructive. In London no less than the provinces, the Jewish community is in steep and apparently irreversible demographic decline. The great families which had once provided the secular leaders of the community have long since withdrawn. The contribution of British-born Jews to the artistic and intellectual life of the country has been singularly uninspired – especially when compared with that of the German refugees of the Thirties. In politics, the tradition of Jewish radicalism seems all but exhausted, and the Jewish community as a whole has shown remarkably little interest in the problems and predicaments of more recent immigrants to this country. The result, Brook insists, is a sterile, lacklustre, philistine, mediocre culture, self-absorbed but not self-perpetuating, which faces the future with fear rather than with hope, and seems doomed to marginality.
Each one of these books tells us a great deal which is worth knowing, and tells it well. Black’s gives the most fascinating account yet written of the Anglo-Jewish cousinhood in its heyday, and brilliantly brings together the politics of domestic Jewish welfare and of international Zionism. He is exceptionally sensitive to the ambiguous interaction between the West End and the East End, and handles both the dominance and the decline of the great dynasties with rare skill and perception. In the same way, Kushner treats wartime anti-semitism with subtlety and finesse. He is well-aware of the differences between political and cultural animosity, between government policy and popular attitudes, and he makes a brave attempt to place his subject in the broader context of 20th-century Anglo-Jewish history. And while not everyone will agree with the thrust of Brook’s powerful yet poignant polemic, it vividly conveys his sense of Anglo-Jewry in decline, of a community which has still not resolved the inner tension between the allure of assimilation and the desire to maintain a separate identity. Taken together, these three books provide a vivid and vigorous account of Anglo-Jewish history during the last hundred years.
To say that, however, is once again to draw attention to the limits and limitations of Anglo-Jewish historiography. For while they convey much fascinating information, none of these books ever really takes wing. They are so precise in their focus, so balanced in their judgments and so even-handed in their conclusions as to be positively soporific in their moderation and reasonableness. Thus Black concludes that to some extent the Jewish grandees were successful at practising social control, but that in other ways they were not. To a certain degree, the immigrants were socialised and assimilated, but in other ways, they preserved their separate identity and asserted their own claims. Kushner points out that anti-semitism in Britain did exist during the war – at both the governmental and popular levels: but he also notes that it was less fierce than in other countries, and that on balance the war accelerated its decline. And Brook evokes a community which is possessed of a strong sense of identity in some ways, but is impossible to define in others, and where assimilation and separateness dwell uneasily side by side.
One thousand pages on, we are left, yet again, with the recognisable approaches and the familiar failings of so much recent Anglo-Jewish history: communities that defy definition, trajectories that cannot be agreed upon, attitudes which are unexcitingly moderate, conclusions which seem well-balanced, subject-matter still in search of a problem. In the context of international Jewry, the history of British Jewry is neither very interesting nor very exciting. In the context of British history, it is just not all that important. Some recent attempts have been made to establish its broader relevance, by suggesting that the Jewish immigrant experience has much to teach those minorities which have arrived in this country since the Second World War. But 19th-century Jews, fleeing the pogroms of Eastern Europe, had precious little in common with the boatloads of Irish who settled in Liverpool and London, and they have even less in common with the Asians, the West Indians and the Arabs of today. The best that can be said about these admirable books is that they exactly mirror the contemporary state of British Jewry itself. They are more a requiem for a dying culture than the products of a living, vibrant and central historical tradition.
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