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.

Though institutional in its focus, the book also has very little to say about the most important non-synagogal institutions of Anglo-Jewry: its charities. Alderman’s silence on one of the most important of these, the Joint Israel Appeal, is indicative of his failure to examine adequately the nature of Anglo-Jewry’s commitment to Israel. To propose that ‘Jews give disproportionately to communal charities because they are disproportionately represented in the higher social classes, and – consequently – enjoy a higher disposable income’ is to overlook the Jewish imperative to be charitable, the history of communal self-reliance, and an English Zionism which has tended to substitute for emigration to Israel donations to its Treasury.

Alderman has nothing to say about the place of Jews in English intellectual life. One finds no mention of Berlin, or Namier; no mention of Gollancz or Weidenfeld. The book scarcely refers to the Jewish contribution to English literature and art. One finds no mention of Feinstein, Jacobson, Abse, Silkin, Litvinoff, Josipovici or Bernice Rubens; no mention of Bomberg, Kotiliansky or Kitaj. Alderman thinks an adequate account of Isaac Rosenberg is to give the dates of his birth and death. There is no pride in the achievements of Anglo-Jewry; there is not even any curiosity: ‘it was in the visual arts that the late 19th and early 20th centuries witnessed a flowering of talent, much of which was very Jewish in its focus. Most notable were the painters Solomon J. Solomon ... and Mark Gertler ... The sculptor Sir Jacob Epstein (1880–1959), born to Polish-Jewish immigrant parents in New York, came to Paris in 1902 and settled in London three years later.” What are we to understand by ‘very Jewish’? That many artists were Jewish? A statement of this kind requires a supporting account of the contribution of Jewish artists to the art of the period, as well as a capacity to distinguish between artists who are merely Jewish by origin and those whose Jewishness informed their work. In their absence, ‘very Jewish’ fades into vacuity.

Alderman is illuminating on the reception of East European Jewry by their more established fellow Jews and similarly interesting, though harsh, on the later reception of German-Jewish refugees. He gives a good account of the emergence of Zionism in England. He disinters the career of the Victorian Jewish novelist Amy Levy, criticised for ‘fouling her nest’ by writing critically of Anglo-Jewry. (Typically, however, he is interested in her only as an instance of the Jew punished by ostracism for her dissent.) His account of the emergence of an Anglo-Jewish ministry seems unlikely to be improved upon, and his criticisms of the ‘policy of low profile’ among communal leaders often have point.

Overall, however, the length of the book exceeds its author’s ability usefully to fill it. Having read it, one would not want to know more about the quarrels between the United Synagogue and the rival Federation of Synagogues. Nor would one want to read anything else on the recent squabbles over the licensing of ritual slaughterers. More important, Alderman’s antagonism to the Jewish Board of Deputies leads him to overstate its power wildly while ignoring its most valuable contribution to the community: through the Board, anti-semitic activities are monitored; the Jewish community is safer as a result of its vigilance.

If one wants to understand the nature of Anglo-Jewish assimilation, the work of Todd Endelman is indispensable; if one wants to understand the politics of the community in its formative years, one must read Eugene Black; the arrival of East European Jewry has been illuminatingly detailed by Lloyd Gartner; the career of Lord Jakobovits, the present Chief Rabbi’s predecessor, has been better analysed by Chaim Bermant, as has the role of the Jewish grandees, or ‘cousinhood’; Colin Holmes’s study of English anti-semitism is essential reading on the subject; and contemporary Anglo-Jewry has been more shrewdly, as well as more comprehensively, described by Stephen Brook. There is a need for a book which draws together the separate threads represented by these other studies, but Modern British Jewry is not it.

Alderman is unable to place Jews in the context of English society. This inability leads to dangerous pronouncements:

Contemporary British Jewry is also over-represented in some professions, notably law, medicine, dentistry, pharmacy, estate agency, accountancy, and higher education.

Jews were over-represented in the social strata from which the political classes were drawn.

Compared with the proportion which Jews comprised of the total population of the United Kingdom, they were already [1858] ‘over-represented’ in the Commons, a state of affairs that has persisted since.

‘Over-represented’ in this context has a very precise history. It has been used both to justify restricting Jewish access to universities and the professions and to condemn the alleged preponderance of Jews in discreditable occupations: Edward Bristow has written authoritatively on the supposedly leading role of Jews in the white-slave trade. Anti-semites contended that Jews were ‘over-represented’ in that area of professional vice. I don’t want to labour the point. A person capable of writing, ‘In the struggle to meet the challenges of emancipation and assimilation, Adler and his allies relied essentially upon three weapons: the cloak of legitimacy; the umbrella of institutional protection; and the power of education,’ is not someone to whom one looks for niceness of phrasing. One would, however, have expected a Jewish historian to be alert to the rhetoric of anti-semitism.

Alderman boasts that his history tells the story ‘warts and all’, but for his purposes, ‘warts’ are merely communal divisions, and in particular the struggle between the ‘oligarchies’ and the process of ‘democratisation’. These are key terms in his account. He is against the Anglo-Jewish grandees, and attention to the divisions caused by their arrogance yields some results. It is depressing to know, for example, that in 1845 there were rival Jewish deputations to Sir Robert Peel on the emancipation question. It is even more depressing to read that some Jewish MPs spoke on behalf of the British Brothers League, an anti-immigration pressure-group at the turn of the century.

It is true that Anglo-Jewry is uncomfortable with self-criticism. Like many minority groups, it tends to believe that dissent reveals weakness, and that this weakness only has to be perceived to be exploited by its enemies – which is to be insensitive to the inevitability of dissent, and to the way it can both strengthen and bind. For example, Anglo-Jewish criticism of Israeli foreign policy in the Eighties drew many otherwise unattached Jews into dialogue with Zionists, and helped develop a more sophisticated model of Israel-Diaspora relations than had earlier prevailed. However, there isn’t much in Alderman’s example that offers reassurance. Rather than celebrate the unity and continuity of communal institutions, Alderman stresses discontinuity and division. Each of the last three chapters makes his point in its title: ‘The End of Consensus’, ‘The Defence of an Image’ and ‘A House Divided’. His preoccupation with these quarrels is not entirely disinterested: he has himself been a party to some of the more recent disputes.

Critics of the Jewish community will see in Alderman’s book the lineaments of the community he describes, and will regard criticism of it as displaced criticism of Anglo-Jewry. They will say that the book reveals its subject by what it omits, by its priorities and blind-spots. Read naively, it teaches; read sympathetically, it is revelatory. Not only is the Anglo-Jewish community as the book describes it: it is also like the book itself – stodgy, industrious, unimaginative, culturally inept.

If the book betrays ignorance of the work of many Jewish refugees from Nazism who came to England, so do most English Jews. If it pushes into footnotes Anglo-Jewry’s cultural institutions, these footnotes justly reflect their marginal status in Anglo-Jewish life. What is there? A faculty at University College London, a centre outside Oxford, some study centres in North London. There is no Anglo-Jewish ‘school’ of art or theology or literature; at best, there are individual Jews labouring away. Even initiatives taken to promote the work of such Jews reflects the essential philistinism of the community. One looks across the Channel at the Jewish community in France, or across the Atlantic, at the Jewish-American community, and despairs.

The fortunes of a periodical of the Thirties help to make the point. In June 1932 a new journal, the Jewish Review, appeared. The editors were not confident that it would succeed: ‘Whether the Jewish Review is wanted, time will show. That a comprehensive survey in English of Jewish life is needed, we are convinced.’ Two years later, it folded. The editors stormed that they ‘never anticipated a large circulation ... but this is ridiculous.’ The failure had nothing to do with the standard of the journal: ‘We could wish this were true, but it is manifest rubbish.’ The editors concluded: ‘English-speaking Jews have no real intellectual interest in Jewish things.’ Not even the rise of Nazism or the emergence of political Zionism could ‘disturb the complacency of the great majority’. The magazine, from the outset resigned to not having any popular following, lacked even a coterie audience capable of sustaining it. After the war, Jacob Sontag’s Jewish Quarterly was launched; it struggles on, dependent on private support and advertising revenue.

The Anglo-Jewish community honours the badges of intellectual achievement, while tending to resist the challenges of intellectual dissent. In this context, the new Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, is an exemplary figure. While his manner and education promise a certain openness, what he says rarely disturbs the most benighted Jewish orthodoxy. Though his style is admired by those who wish for a more inclusive Jewish practice, his doctrine has invariably been exclusionary in its applications.

This dismal (if overdrawn) case can be developed further. It could be maintained that just as the book is typical of its subject, so is Anglo-Jewry representative of English society. For example, one reason the anti-semitism at the time of the Guinness trials was both muted and unfair was that convincing distinctions could not be drawn between the activities of the Jewish and non-Jewish participants. Similarly, it can be argued that Anglo-Jewry is no more indifferent to its intellectuals than England is to hers. If the book is philistine, so is Anglo-Jewry. If Anglo-Jewry is philistine, so is England. These are not novel observations – but that only makes Alderman’s failure to engage with them even more deplorable.