Pollutants

Antony Lerman

  • Literature, Immigration and Diaspora in Fin-de-Siècle England: A Cultural History of the 1905 Aliens Act by David Glover
    Cambridge, 229 pp, £55.00, November 2012, ISBN 978 1 107 02281 2

How should politicians respond to worries about immigration? Should they explain that immigrants from the eight Central and East European countries that joined the EU in 2004 have paid more in British taxes than they’ve received in direct and indirect public transfers? Or should they deploy vans on London’s streets with huge billboards telling illegal immigrants to GO HOME OR FACE ARREST, a campaign the government introduced in July? Should they argue for an amnesty for the more than 600,000 undocumented immigrants, given that, according to the latest figures, the UK Border Agency is having trouble clearing a backlog of 500,000 unresolved cases? Or instead enlist doctors, landlords and employers to track them down, a key plank of the government’s immigration bill? Criticised even by Ukip, the mobile billboard wheeze was scrapped on 22 October; the vans were ‘not a good idea’, admitted an unapologetic Theresa May. But the government is going ahead with its plan to outsource immigration control to private citizens, despite a barrage of criticism and a Channel 4 FactCheck report finding no clear evidence that it would work. To have presented objective data about the impact of immigration or granted an amnesty would have been sensible, but the vast majority of politicians shrink from suggesting such possibilities because they won’t risk being seen as ‘soft’ on immigration. Rare is the MP who doesn’t pander to the public’s prejudices: that Britain is full, asylum-seekers are ‘spongers’ and even legal immigrants won’t ‘integrate’. This shameful state of affairs was legitimised in 2005 by Tony Blair in the White Paper Controlling Our Borders: Making Migration Work for Britain: ‘Tolerance [is] under threat from those … abusing our hospitality.’

Faced with a moral panic about alien hordes pouring into Britain from the Russian Empire, the politicians’ response in 1905 was to pass the Aliens Act. And so began the policy of immigration control and restriction that still exists, much amended, tightened and aimed at new categories of the unwanted. There was no golden age of immigration, but for much of the 19th century Britain was open to migrant and refugee alike. The Aliens Act ended that laissez-faire period and called into question Britain’s claim to be a liberal state. While the Act did not refer specifically to Jews, everyone knew who was meant by ‘undesirable aliens’. From 1880, Jewish refugees began fleeing persecution, systematic repression, pogroms and poverty in the Pale of Settlement. About two million of them went to the United States. Between 1881 and 1914, 150,000 entered Britain. The distinctions we now make between refugees, asylum seekers and legal and illegal economic migrants can’t really be applied to the mass Jewish migration at the Fin de Siècle. I never thought of my paternal grandfather, a penniless, devout Jew without a trade from the small town of Korosten in Ukraine, who arrived in Britain in 1901, as having sought asylum. But he did.

David Glover wants to find out how ‘a law restricting immigration [could] be passed in a country that had prided itself on offering asylum to refugees and had virtually made the right to freedom of movement across national boundaries an article of faith’, and how ‘the figure of “the Jew” [came] to occupy the role of quintessential foreigner in the popular imagination, a process in which the word “alien” lost its old meanings derived from common law and became a national-racist epithet.’ Although racial anti-semitism was generally seen as a Continental phenomenon, it had seeped into British politics and society, making possible the 1905 legislation.

Judeophobia and Jew-baiting were not uncommon in Victorian England, but by the 1880s assimilated British-born Jews had almost complete legal equality and benefited from a religiously based philosemitism. There were vigorous debates about whether Jews should more fully assimilate – what was known as the ‘Jewish Question’ – but depriving them of rights was not seriously discussed. Glover takes as his starting point George Eliot’s sympathetic and complex treatment of the mid-Victorian dilemmas of Jewish existence in Daniel Deronda (1876), which he describes as ‘the single most influential English work of fiction about Jews, Judaism and modernity in the decade immediately before large-scale Jewish immigration and agitation against it began’. Eliot, well aware of the persistence of anti-Jewish sentiment, places the completion of Jewish emancipation in the hands of Deronda, a young English gentleman who discovers that he is a Jew and accepts the mission of reviving a Jewish national consciousness that has a deep but little recognised kinship with Englishness. In the novel the Jewish nation is to be established in the ‘East’, but Eliot herself thought there should be as much Jewish immigration into Britain ‘as can be humanely countenanced’.

Glover shows that support for Jewish civil and political rights, the growing freedom of movement in Europe and the feeling that it was possible to choose a national identity provided the context for Eliot’s book and her advocacy of both assimilation and proto-Zionism. But Britain was on the cusp of changes that would make such liberal, cosmopolitan principles less popular. Worries started to be voiced about the impact on national identity of this ‘world of mobile subjects’, as Glover puts it; the 1870 Naturalisation Act made it possible for subjects (Zionist Jews, for example) to demonstrate their allegiance to a country by divesting themselves of their status as Britons and thus made it easier to assert that incomers were unpatriotic; there were concerns about the huge increase in the scale of migration. Benevolent propositions aimed at alleviating any remaining disadvantage to Jews, put forward at a time when the position of Britain’s Jews was relatively secure, became more problematic as social and political tensions rose. The Jewish population, around 60,000 in 1880, was 180,000 by 1905; anti-Jewish sentiment also increased. There were claims that East European Jews were essentially un-English and unassimilable and that Britain should avoid ‘a premature fusion with immigrants of alien blood’. Besides, if assimilation provided a positive solution to the Jewish Question, why the need for Zionism? The two may seem mutually exclusive but Eliot would have argued that the kinship required to make assimilation work depended on the revival of Jewish national consciousness.

When Theodor Herzl, the founder of the movement for political Zionism, came to Britain in 1895 (and again in 1902 to appear before the Royal Commission on Alien Immigration) he advocated the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine as the answer to the Jewish Question and the key to eliminating anti-semitism; this line, as Herzl intended, appealed to the anti-alien lobby. Anglo-Jewish leaders were less sympathetic, believing Herzl’s Zionism challenged the community’s successful assimilatory policy and made it easier for them to be accused of disloyalty to the sovereign and the state. They opposed legislation to restrict the number of Jewish migrants allowed to enter Britain, but, as David Feldman showed in Englishmen and Jews: Social Relations and Political Culture 1840-1914 (1994), both the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Jewish Board of Guardians distinguished between ‘undesirable’ and ‘desirable’ Jewish migrants, and didn’t want the former admitted, believing they would be a drain on the community. Desirable migrants were those ready to assimilate, to stop speaking Yiddish; they had a trade and some financial resources. Jewish leaders wanted, as the Jewish Chronicle put it, migrants’ ‘complete amalgamation with the aims and feelings of their host’.

This distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Jew was also made by those campaigning for an Aliens Act. W.H. Wilkins claimed in The Alien Invasion (1892) that the existence of ‘secret’ Jewish revolutionary societies ‘cannot be doubted’, but he also explicitly disavowed anti-semitism and ‘praised the genuine refugees of the past’. Arnold White, another campaigner against immigration, also feared having his ideas dismissed as crass, Continental-style anti-semitism. ‘Englishmen of the Jewish race today,’ he wrote, ‘form one of the most valuable constituent elements in our nation.’ But he also thought that Jews had ‘polluted’ the ‘British character’, being responsible for ‘the points in which [it] is most defective’, and claimed that Jews brought anti-semitism on themselves by their success in gaining financial power. Leo Maxse’s National Review, and the radical right figures associated with it, gave space to anti-semitic ideas, but didn’t go any further than that: anti-semitism never became respectable in national politics. Even so, thanks to the creation of what Glover calls a ‘counter-public’, a loose formation of individuals and groups, anti-alien and restrictionist forces succeeded in making the Jewish Question an important political issue.

As Glover recognises, the expansion of the franchise meant that public fear of the ‘alien’ was something politicians could not ignore. And nowhere was this fear stronger than in the increasingly crowded East End of London, which is at the heart of Glover’s story. This was where most Jewish migrants took up residence in the 1880s, and social investigators and novelists worried both about their supposedly disruptive influence, and about the area’s housing conditions, its harsh labour market and criminality. In All Sorts and Conditions of Men (1882), Walter Besant located the East End’s problems in the ‘absence of suitably edifying forms of leisure’, but the social novelist Margaret Harkness captured public anxiety more accurately in In Darkest London (1892), which reflects the mounting sense of hostility towards Jews. The word ‘anti-semitism’, coined in Germany in 1879 and still unfamiliar in England, does not appear in the text, but the prejudice of the main character, a self-educated forewoman in a sweet factory, goes beyond ‘jingoistic sentiments … paraded in the music hall and the public house’, Glover writes. ‘Here is an anti-semitism that is ready to leave the street corner for the political platform, to make its stand as something other than vulgar prejudice.’ It was fuelled by the popular perception that Jews dominated the sweated trades (they didn’t), both as workers who would take wages lower than native Londoners would accept and as rapacious, unforgiving taskmasters. Glover quotes Wilkins’s reference in The Alien Invasion to ‘“the bloated human spider, who … sucks the life-blood of his victims”, appropriately pictured “in the pages of Punch as a gorgeously apparelled, champagne-drinking, cigar-smoking Hebrew”, laughing as he rakes in the gold’.

By the early years of the 20th century Judeophobia and Jew-baiting had turned into an anti-semitism capable of inciting mass violence at the anti-immigration demonstration organised by the proto-fascist British Brothers’ League in January 1902 in the East End, or physical attacks and organised boycotts, as in the anti-Jewish riots in Limerick in 1904. The many varieties of anti-Jewishness were so prevalent – ‘the Jew’ was now portrayed as ‘manipulative and self-seeking’, a ‘shiftless itinerant’, ‘the scum of Europe’, ‘cowardly, tyrannical and rapacious’, and riddled with disease – that the ‘threat’ of the East End Jew was raised in the parliamentary debates on the Aliens Bills of 1904 and 1905. In the 1904 debate Balfour took the charge that the Bill was a result of increasing race hatred seriously enough to issue a statement insisting that there was no ‘rise and growth of any anti-semitic feeling in this country’. But he had also spoken of ‘the undoubted evils that had fallen upon the country from an immigration that was largely Jewish’.

Glover argues that on the one hand anti-semitism allowed ‘the possibility of anti-alien legislation to become thinkable’; and on the other that there was no ‘simple correlation between the modern rise of anti-semitism and the push to restrict immigration’. To his way of thinking, it is a cultural picture full of contradiction and ambivalence. Attitudes towards Jews around the Fin de Siècle should be seen, he suggests, as examples of ‘semitic discourse’, a concept developed by Bryan Cheyette in Constructions of ‘the Jew’ in English Literature and Society: Racial Representations 1875-1945 (1995) who felt that anti-semitism understood as one-dimensional hatred and hostility could not yet account for the place of Jews in the English imagination. We may think that liberalism was responsible for establishing a society tolerant enough to make Jews feel secure and free in Britain, but liberalism could only stand a certain degree of difference. The relationship between British Jews and liberalism, an important element of the history of the Aliens Act, could have been better explored by Glover. Nevertheless, in his description of the contradictory attitudes towards Jews of so many anti-alienists and fictional characters (the narrator in James Blyth’s Ichabod, for instance), Glover strongly reinforces Cheyette’s ambivalence thesis.

Did liberal England die with the passing of the Aliens Act? Novels by Edgar Wallace and Violet Guttenberg – The Four Just Men (1905) and A Modern Exodus (1904) – implicitly warned that the Act meant the collapse of the principles that defined the 19th-century liberal state, principles summarised by Glover as ‘civic toleration, freedom of conscience, freedom of movement, individual liberty’ and asylum. But a liberal case in favour of the Act was also advanced. The ‘alien’ influx had damaged the country and tested the liberal state to near destruction and the Act was needed to rescue liberal political culture. This meant, according to some Liberal politicians, that certain restrictions on immigration could be justified. The TUC agitated openly for controls, along with many labour organisations and socialist groups. Even the Jewish Board of Guardians and the Board of Deputies of British Jews tacitly accepted that keeping out or deporting ‘undesirables’ would help maintain the good standing of the Jewish community.

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To see the debates around alien immigration principally as a conflict between liberal and illiberal forces is to ignore the fact that a congeries of often contradictory elements coalesced at a time of national and local anxiety, giving the Conservative government the confidence to put forward the legislation. When the Liberals returned to power in 1906 the radical right saw their initially lenient implementation of the Act as a national betrayal. By 1914 the Liberals had moved towards tighter restrictions, although ‘aliens’ were covered by the National Insurance legislation of 1911, suggesting that they continued to have an expansive conception of the imagined nation, at least until the outbreak of war.

Barely more than 1 per cent of the Jews who left the Pale of Settlement went to Palestine. Yet the Zionist narrative, whether articulated by Herzl or the popular novelist, playwright and chronicler of the ghetto Israel Zangwill, who took part in public debates about the Aliens Act, or even by restrictionists, acquired more importance as anti-semitism became more threatening. All sides were prepared to use Zionism to achieve their own ends. Herzl was willing to make alliances with anti-alienists. Zangwill, who became a fervent advocate of a Jewish settlement in East Africa since Palestine seemed unattainable, was admired by Major William Evans-Gordon, a prominent member of the British Brothers’ League. For restrictionists who wished to avoid the charge of anti-semitism, showing interest in an idea intended to ameliorate the position of Jews and keep them from coming to Britain was politically expedient. This backs up the Israeli historian Idith Zertal’s view that ‘Zionism thrived on Jewish troubles and needed Jew hatred,’ and adds an important element to the complex and contradictory picture of anti-semitism that Glover constructs.

Central to the restrictionist case was the claim that anti-semitism would get worse if too many Jews entered Britain. By arguing that the Act would deal with this, its supporters were demonstrating that anti-semitism was, as Glover puts it, ‘frequently regarded by the political class as a volatile problem that needed to be managed, as a danger that was symptomatic of democratic or popular excess, rather than a position that deserved parliamentary representation’. All of this still seems familiar, although it’s not migrant Jews we worry about now, and the term ‘alien’ is no longer used as a racist epithet. Prominent among today’s targets are the unrestricted numbers of Romanians and Bulgarians who will be allowed to work in the UK from next January in fulfilment of EU agreements. ‘Fifty thousand a year could come in the first five years’ was the unsubstantiated claim of Migrationwatch UK: SIXTY THOUSAND COMING, ran the headline in the Evening News and Post in June 1891.