Jewish Liberation

David Katz

  • The Jewish Community in British Politics by Geoffrey Alderman
    Oxford, 218 pp, £17.50, March 1983, ISBN 0 19 827436 X
  • Economic History of the Jews in England by Harold Pollins
    Associated University Presses, 339 pp, £20.00, March 1983, ISBN 0 8386 3033 2

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.

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