Britain's last anti-Jewish riots

Why have the 1947 riots been forgotten?

New Statesman
Desecrated graves at a Jewish cemetery in Prestwich, Lancashire, in 1965. (Getty.)

In 1947 a washed-out summer had followed a harsh winter, and Britain was in the grip of recession as it struggled to restart its economy after the Second World War. On the August bank holiday weekend, the weather in Manchester had turned hot and stuffy. Trade in the shops was poor, rationing was in full swing and many workers had opted to stay in the city for the long weekend.

In cinema queues and on street corners, one topic dominated the conversation: the murder of two British army sergeants by Irgun paramilitaries in Mandate Palestine. The Irgun was one of several Zionist groups fighting a guerrilla war to force British troops out of the territory and establish the state of Israel. It had kidnapped the two sergeants in retaliation for death sentences passed on three of its own fighters. The three men were executed by British forces on 29 July, and two days later the bodies of the soldiers were discovered amid the trees of a eucalyptus grove near Netanya. They had been hanged and the ground beneath them booby-trapped with a landmine.

It was just one incident of many in a vicious conflict. Militants had bombed the King David Hotel in Jerusalem a year previously, and even set off small bombs in London. But the “ser­geants affair”, as it came to be known, caused public outrage in mainland Britain.

On 1 August, a Friday, the Daily Express reported the story on its front page, prominently displaying a photograph of the bodies which, it promised its readers, would be a “picture that will shock the world”. British Jewish leaders condemned the killings, but more lurid details followed in the next day’s papers. That weekend, as Walter Lever, a working-class Jewish resident of Manchester recalled, “There was nothing to do but walk the streets . . . discussing the newspaper,” the story of the hanged sergeants “taking precedence over the week’s murders and rapes”.

There were already signs that a backlash was imminent. In Birkenhead, near Liverpool, slaughterhouse workers had refused to process any more meat for Jewish consumption until the attacks on British soldiers in Palestine stopped. Around Merseyside, the anger was starting to spill on to the streets as crowds of angry young men gathered in Jewish areas.

On Sunday afternoon the trouble reached Manchester. Small groups of men began breaking the windows of shops in Cheetham Hill, an area just north of the city centre which had been home to a Jewish community since the early 19th century. The pubs closed early that day because there was a shortage of beer, and by the evening the mob’s numbers had swelled to several hundred. Most were on foot but others drove through the area, throwing bricks from moving cars.

Soon the streets were covered in broken glass and stones and the crowd moved on to bigger targets, tearing down the canopy of the Great Synagogue on Cheetham Hill Road and surrounding a Jewish wedding party at the Assembly Hall. They shouted abuse at the terrified guests until one in the morning.

The next day, Lever said, “Cheetham Hill Road looked much as it had looked seven years before, when the German bombers had pounded the city for  12 hours. All premises belonging to Jews for the length of a mile down the street had gaping windows and the pavements were littered with glass.”

By the end of the bank holiday weekend, anti-Jewish riots had also taken place in Glasgow and Liverpool. There were minor disturbances, too, in Bristol, Hull, London and Warrington, as well as scores of attacks on Jewish property across the country. A solicitor in Liverpool and a Glasgow shopkeeper were beaten up. Nobody was killed, but this was the most widespread anti-Jewish violence the UK had ever seen. In Salford, the day after a crowd of several thousand had thrown stones at shop windows, signs appeared that read: “Hold your fire. These premises are British.”

Arsonists in West Derby set fire to a wooden synagogue; workers at Canada Dock in Liverpool returned from the holidays to find “Death to all Jews” painted above the entrance. And in Eccles, a former sergeant major named John Regan was fined £15 for telling a crowd of 700: “Hitler was right. Exterminate every Jew – every man, woman and child. What are you afraid of? There’s only a handful of police.”

Just two years after British troops had liberated Bergen-Belsen, the language of the Third Reich had resurfaced, this time at home. Anger about what had happened in Palestine was one thing, but it seemed to have unleashed something far more vicious.

Hidden history

Whitechapel, London, 2012. I am waiting outside the library – a glassy new building just up the high street from the Victorian edifice where a generation of self-educated Jewish intellec­tuals and artists congregated in the early years of the 20th century – to meet Max Levitas. It’s a Thursday afternoon and I have interrupted his weekly ritual: a trip to the Turkish bath in Bethnal Green, a walk that Levitas still makes, alone, at the age of 97.

Born in Dublin in 1915 to Jewish refugee parents from the Baltic, Levitas has lived in White­chapel since 1930. In 1947 when the rioting erupted, he was a local councillor and member of the Communist Party. Although London was spared riots on the scale of those in the north, he recalls how the hanging sergeants incident compounded “animosity” towards Jews in the East End. “I opposed the hanging when I spoke at meetings, but the main fight was dealing with racism that foreigners were getting jobs and Jews were getting jobs.”

This was one sign that the anti-Jewish feeling had a deeper source than any act of terrorism in the Middle East. Postwar austerity was at its harshest. Contrary to the cheery “Keep Calm and Carry On” nostalgia with which the period is recalled today, it was a time of hunger and poverty. A fuel shortage during the winter of 1946-47 had led to soaring unemployment; in the spring of 1947 it peaked at 1.9 million. Hopes that anti-Semitism, which had re-emerged during previous economic downturns, would have disappeared with the defeat of Hitler were short-lived. Instead, as the historian Tony Kushner has written in an essay on the links between austerity and the 1947 riots, a popular stereotype persisted of Jews as “black marketeers gaining from the war but not contributing to the effort”. The extension of rationing kept the stereotype alive. Ernest Bevin, the foreign secretary, had made remarks about the Jews of Europe “pushing to the front of the queue” and during the fuel crisis he made a quip about “Israelites”, insinuating that Jewish black marketeers were hoarding fuel. Worse still, Jewish loyalty over Palestine was being questioned openly. In the opening days of 1947 the Sunday Times had addressed an editorial “to British Jews” in which the paper accused them of failing to perform their “civic duty and moral obligations” by denouncing the anti-British violence in Palestine.

In Glasgow, Liverpool and Manchester, where the worst rioting took place, the downturn was at its most painful. These cities had the highest levels of unemployment in Britain and even though the disturbances initially targeted the Jews they quickly progressed to generalised looting. “Get the Jews, get the stuff and get into the shops,” was one shout heard in Manchester. Not for the first (or last) time, racism and economic exclusion combined and formed a poisonous resentment.

Levitas had been part of the crowd that faced down Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts on Cable Street in the East End in October 1936. Like many trade unionists, he was alarmed at the resurgence of violence. “There was a feeling that we’d just had a war against fascism, and that we’d got to ensure that the fascists didn’t do again what they did in the Thirties.”

Although the violence in 1947 was not orchestrated by fascist political parties, it emboldened the remaining adherents. Jeffrey Hamm, a former member of the British Union of Fascists who was now in charge of the League of Ex-Servicemen, visited the north-west of England and attempted to stir up trouble. Fascists displayed copies of the Daily Express’s “hanging sergeants” front page at their meetings. And in 1948 Oswald Mosley, who had been interned in Holloway Prison during the war, launched a new party, the Union Movement.

At the end of the war, 43 Jewish ex-servicemen had set up a clandestine group to infiltrate fascist meetings and break up their opponents’ rallies by fighting in the street. The 43 Group was the first of several such organisations. Levitas believes that one reason the fascists were kept at bay, and why east London stayed relatively calm through the late 1940s, is that the lessons of the 1930s had been learned.

“Only through the integration of society could we play a major part in stopping racism,” he told me. For him, this “integration” went beyond anti-fascist protest; it involved “people demanding for themselves jobs, housing and education for their kids. To ensure that whatever religion you’ve got, whatever your colour, you play a part in society.”

“National disgrace”

On 5 August, four days after its sensationalised coverage had triggered the riots, the Express appealed for calm. “No more of this!” it implored readers, arguing that the attacks on innocent shopkeepers had become a national disgrace. In Manchester, the violence had subsided, leaving an ugly atmosphere. “For the rest of the week,” Lever recalled, “one overheard behind one in the bus, over one’s shoulder at the next café table, a row ahead in the cinema, whispering anecdotes and muttered abuse relating to the events of the Sunday night.”

A dividing line had been drawn through daily life where none appeared to exist before. Rachel Barash, who had worked for the Jewish “hospitality committee” that brought refugee children over from Germany and the Netherlands during the 1930s, remembered how the riots sparked a “nasty” stand-off between boys from rival youth clubs. Until that point, the refugees, who were housed in the suburban village of Withington, had been welcomed and treated as “our children” by their neighbours. Now Jewish boys across Manchester gathered together, ready to defend themselves.

Yet the tension dissipated almost as quickly as violence had surged: in the words of another Manchester resident, Agnes Sussman, “It all passed over as if nothing had happened.” Today, there is little mention of the riots in the official histories. There are only a couple of academic essays beyond Kushner's study, and the violence in Liverpool forms a backdrop to the play Three Sisters on Hope Street, the 2008 retelling of Chekhov by Diane Samuels and Tracy-Ann Oberman. Elsewhere, they are viewed as an insignificant footnote to the story of the creation of the state of Israel.

Why have the riots been forgotten? According to Dave Rich, deputy director of communications at the Community Security Trust, a charity established in 1994 to ensure the “safety and security” of British Jews, one reason was that there were much bigger things to worry about then. The full horrors of the Holocaust were still coming to light; efforts to establish the state of Israel were ongoing; and in Britain, for Zionist and non-Zionist Jews alike, there were more pressing economic concerns. “Given that few people were actually hurt in the riots,” Rich says, “it’s understandable that, in the wider picture of what is on the mind of Jews at that time, it would very quickly get relegated.”

British politicians, too, were keen to sweep things under the carpet. James Chuter Ede, the postwar home secretary, dismissed the rioting as mere “hooliganism . . . rather than an indication of public feeling”, while magistrates condemned rioters as “un-British” and “unpatriotic”. Nations need their feel-good stories and as Rich points out, “The thought that those popular anti-Jewish riots could happen two years after the Holocaust in Britain . . . runs counter to the anti-fascist mythology of Britain’s role in the war. Who wants to go digging that up?”

Yet the riots were neither an aberration nor the product of an unruly working class. Britain was experiencing an identity crisis: it had won the war but appeared to be losing the peace, with recession at home and the break-up of its empire abroad, in which the events in Mandate Palestine played only a small part. As colonised peoples increasingly demanded independence, Britain turned to a more inward-looking nationalism. Along with it came the question of who would be included and who would be left out.

In 1948, with cross-party support, the Labour government passed the British Nationality Act, marking a shift from a situation where all those living in the empire – in theory, although quite evidently not in practice – were equal subjects under the Crown to one where each country in the Commonwealth could determine its own version of citizenship. Although in the years to come it would be non-white immigrants from the Commonwealth who would most strongly challenge received notions of Englishness and Britishness and who would bear the brunt of racism, Jews, too, were caught up in this, for a brief period.

There is one other reason why this episode is worth remembering. On the face of it, there are striking similarities with the way modern Britain has responded to Islamist-inspired terror. Now, as then, events in the Middle East have violent repercussions on Britain’s streets. Home-grown terrorists have set off bombs in London; tabloid newspapers give sensationalist coverage to attacks on “our boys” fighting abroad and question the loyalty of British people of a different faith, this time Muslims. This in turn has provoked an angry backlash in the form of the far-right English Defence League.

At the same time, “integration” is a demand made of outsiders to adopt “our” values, to become more like us. In doing so, some of today’s integrationists hold up British Jews as a kind of “model community”. In 2006 at a ceremony to commemorate the 350th anniversary of Crom­well’s readmission of the Jews into England, Tony Blair told a congregation at Bevis Marks Synagogue: “As the oldest minority faith community in this country, you show how identity through faith can be combined with a deep loyalty to our nation.” Less was said about how we arrived at this point.

Yet it is best to see the events of 1947 as the end of a chapter rather than the beginning of one. A year later, the state of Israel was formed and Chaim Weizmann, who had lived and worked in Manchester, was appointed as its first president. Britain’s duplicitous conduct towards Jews and Arabs since it had taken control of Palestine in 1920, the dispossession of the Palestinians and the nasty guerrilla war were events that it suited both sides to pretend had never happened. Relations were soon “normalised” and nobody cared to recall the brief moment when the messy end to a colonial misadventure was played out on British streets.

Today Cheetham Hill, the old Jewish quarter of Manchester, is home to people of many faiths and none. Most of the old buildings were knocked down in the 1970s and one ornate former synagogue is now a clothing warehouse, its stained-glass Star of David window cracked and boarded up. But this is no cause for mourning; many Jews simply moved further up the road, taking their places of worship with them. At least 35,000 still live in Manchester, which has the largest Jewish population in the UK outside London. The “sergeants affair” is a fading memory, snatches of which are preserved on a handful of reel-to-reel recordings in local history archives. Yet somewhere amid the ghostly swirl of recollections, a painful irony remains: one of the murdered soldiers, Clifford Martin, was Jewish.

Thanks to the Manchester Jewish Museum

Tony Kushner's essay "Anti-Semitism and austerity: the August 1947 riots in Britain" is published in Panikos Panayi (ed.), "Racial Violence in Britain in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries" (Leicester University Press, 1996)

Daniel Trilling’s “Bloody Nasty People: the Rise of Britain’s Far Right” will be published by Verso in September. Follow him on Twitter @trillingual