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The secret Tebbit test

The forthcoming Poland-England match is a test of whether formerly Polish Jews now see themselves as entirely English.

In an 1881 editorial, the Jewish Chronicle complained about the thousands of Yiddish speaking eastern European immigrants pouring into Britain. Most of them had fled tsarist pogroms and were conspicuously foreign, unlike the Anglo-Jewish leadership, who were proud of their assimilation. “They come mostly from Poland,” the paper kvetched. “They . . . bring Poland with them and they retain Poland while they stop here. This is most undesirable; it is more than a misfortune, it is a calamity.”

The JC was committed to integration and one of the ways of becoming more English was by excelling at sport. Integrate, assimilate, anglicise. “As the oldest minority faith community in this country,” Tony Blair once told an audience at Bevis Marks Synagogue in London, “you show how identity through faith can be combined with a deep loyalty to our nation.” Such loyalty – or, to put it another way, maintaining a low profile, not making a fuss, keeping shtum – has been the cornerstone of Anglo-Jewish policy since 1656, when the Jews were readmitted to England after a 366-year exile. The community has blended in – some would say to the point of invisibility.

Take the forthcoming Poland-England match. This is our secret Tebbit test. Growing up in Leeds, I would be taken to the local Polish club when one of my grandparents died. Funerals were the only occasions my family talked about our eastern European past. As Jonathan Safran Foer noted in his introduction to the Haggadah, “We are masters of forgetting.”

This amnesia can only partly be explained by bad memories. There is an immigrant tradition of starting afresh and not looking back; as mountaineers and many migrant communities will tell you, you don’t look down when you’re climbing. Forgetting we were once Polish – or Lithuanian or Russian – speaks to the narrative of assimilation. Yet there are signs that a historically attenuated Anglo-Jewish identity, which dates back to medieval England, is becoming more assertive: film festivals, TV documentaries, book weeks, flourishing cultural organisations and publications. This magazine recently devoted an entire issue to Judaism.

In the past, assimilated English Jews rarely wrote or produced work about their ethnicity, as we know from the careers of Lucian Freud, Peter Brook and Harold Pinter, but a new generation of writers, artists and critics now seeks to be heard. According to Matthew J Reisz, editor of the Jewish Quarterly, they now “move in and out of Jewish identity as one part of their British identity”. Jewish stories, Reisz observes, are “being told very well, and unapologetically . . . in a completely unselfconscious way”, as “part of a wider British conversation”.


Why, then, so few stories about Jews and football? Could it be that, as a Howard Jacobson protagonist once proclaimed, it is “not a Jewish game”? Try telling that to the FA’s Jewish chairman, David Bernstein, responsible for the England team that travels to Poland. Or David Pleat, who will be commentating on it and whose grandfather Israel Noah Fishman came over from Poland in 1910. Or Morris Keston, Tottenham’s biggest fan, whose parents fled Poland to escape anti-Jewish riots. All of them are symbols of an insecure community’s successful attempt to emulate the mores of the host nation.

The Anglicisers’ dream of converting a Yiddish-speaking tribe of eastern Europeans into a confident community of Englishmen has been realised. Yet, in our journey from ghetto outsiders to football insiders, it is as if that community has forgotten it was once Polish.

Anthony Clavane’s book “Does Your Rabbi Know You’re Here? The Story of English Football’s Forgotten Tribe” (Quercus, £17.99) will be launched at the Jewish Museum in London on 16 October.

This article first appeared in the 15 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, India special