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Who speaks for British Jews?

Contrary to the “clannish” stereotype, dissent comes naturally to Jewish people in Britain, says David Cesarani.

One of the most enduring myths about the Jewish people is that they are “clannish”. Centuries of prejudice have tempered the stereotype of “the Jews” as a unified mass. In many quarters, it is still an article of faith that “the Jews” are invested with enormous power by virtue of their preternatural solidarity and common will to pursue a shared agenda.

Yet a look at Jewish history or a familiarity with Jewish life soon dispels the myth. The Jews in Britain provide an exemplary case. External critics and internal dissidents may denounce the Jewish communal leadership for using its “power” to stifle debate, but in fact Jews in this country have always been fractious and unruly. Even when representative bodies have been able to knit a fragile consensus, they have been blighted by self-appointed individuals or rivals who claim equal authority.

There is some truth in the notion of Jewish unity. However, what validity it has can be attributed to the hostility that Jews have faced. We can see this in the origins of the British Jewish community. Its roots go back to 1656 and a collection of Spanish and Portuguese merchants in London who were descendants of Jews forcibly converted to Christianity in 1492. They had continued to practise Judaism in secret, but eventually fled the Inquisition and settled in London where they had less to fear.

 By a peculiar chain of circumstances, this clandestine congregation was “outed” and threwitself on the mercy of Oliver Cromwell and his government. Cromwell, acting in the teeth of opposition from Protestant divines and City merchants, gave the Jews permission to establish a synagogue.

Official recognition did not guarantee security. For a half-century, the fledgling community faced repeated assaults. Political instability and changes of regime gave Christian fanatics and business competitors opportunities to demand their expulsion. As a consequence, their leaders feared that any infraction of the law or provocation could be used against them. Hence, the rules of the congregation included sumptuary regulations, prohibited Jews from taking each other to the local courts, and required that every publication by a congregant had to be submitted for scrutiny by the elders in case it might offend the host population.

Until the early 18th century, the community was almost entirely composed of Jews of Spanish and Portuguese origin, Sephardim. Governance rested with the Mahamad, a committee made up of the elders of the congregation, who were mostly well-to-do merchants. In 1701 they opened Bevis Marks, the first purpose-built synagogue in Britain since medieval times, in the City of London. But the immigration of Jews from northern and central Europe led to the emergence of a community following the Ashkenazi rite. The establishment of an Ashkenazi synagogue in 1707 threatened the Sephardi monopoly. Their rabbi excommunicated its founder, Moses Hart, but this did not stop him.

In truth, neither the elders nor the religious authorities had a hold over fellow Jews of any stripe. Soon there were four congregations in London, three of them Ashkenazi, each with a rabbi assisted by a lay leadership, each jostling for precedence. In a voluntary group dependent on funds from members, anyone with resources could form a breakaway congregation. Those with money would always wield influence.

In 1753, Joseph Salvador, a prosperous Sephardi merchant, persuaded the government to pass a bill that would enable foreign-born Jews to acquire British nationality, making their commercial and personal status more secure. The subsequent “Jew Bill” aroused such protest from clerics and merchants that it was hastily withdrawn. To other Jews, the debacle seemed to stress the danger of individual initiatives.

When George III came to the throne in 1760, the Sephardi elders presented him with a petition of loyalty on behalf of Jews belonging to “the Portuguese nation”. The Ashkenazi congregations resented this unilateral action and insisted on joint representation on future occasions. Thus was born the London Committee of Deputies of British Jews, better known as the Board of Deputies, the first representative body of Jews in Britain.

Soon each synagogue in the land was invited to send a deputy to its meetings. But, for most of its early history, the board met erratically and merely kept a watching brief on legislation that might affect the community. Its role changed fundamentally in 1830 when, once again, a small and self-appointed band took the initiative to improve the Jews’ legal status.

By then, Protestant and Catholic dissenters had been relieved of the legal disabilities that prevented them from holding public office or serving as MPs. Isaac Lyon Goldsmid and his son Francis regarded the continued exclusion of Jews as an insult to their identity and a constraint on their business. They approached a liberal MP, Robert Grant, to introduce a bill to remove the Christian oath that prevented Jews from occupying municipal posts or entering parliament. The bill was defeated at its second reading but it set in motion a campaign for Jewish rights that lasted three decades.

Not all Jews welcomed it, though. The president of the board, Moses Montefiore, was an Orthodox Jew who was not prepared to sacrifice one iota of Judaism to enable Jews to enter parliament. He had made a fortune on the stock exchange, partly thanks to his kinship with the English Rothschilds. When he was appointed sheriff of London in 1837, he took care to observe the Sabbath and during official banquets had food brought from his own kitchen.

By contrast, the Goldsmids regarded much of Judaism as antiquated nonsense and an impediment to normal social intercourse. In 1840 they joined with discontented members of Bevis Marks to found the reformed West London Synagogue of British Jews. The ethos of the new synagogue was to modernise Judaism and eliminate whatever cast the Jews as a nation in exile yearning for Zion. Its name evoked the reformers’ preferred self-image: they were British first and Jews second.

Montefiore was appalled. The Sephardi elders placed the Reformers under a ban and he refused to recognise them as Jews at all. As long as he presided over the board, he prevented any member of the Reform synagogue from sitting as a deputy, even if they were elected to represent an Orthodox synagogue. This was only one fissure that ran through the community.

The Goldsmids believed it would be possible to get parliament to remove all the disabilities on the Jews with one sweeping bill. But David Salomons, a banker and future lord mayor of London, was convinced that the same end could be achieved piecemeal, by winning the right to take up one forbidden post after another. He followed this strategy doggedly and with success, until he improperly took the seat in the House of Commons to which he had just been elected. Shockingly, he participated in a debate about his own presence before the serjeant-at-arms ejected him.

Meanwhile, the Rothschild family pursued its own course. Lionel de Rothschild stood repeatedly for election for the City of London and each time he won he refused to take the Christian oath required of every newly elected MP.

One vociferous rabbi, Joseph Crool, condemned the entire campaign, arguing that Jews were foreigners everywhere but in Zion. It was hardly surprising that, in the face of entrenched Tory opposition, it took until 1858 to achieve a breakthrough. By then even the leadership of the Conservative Party was embarrassed that a person could be excluded from the House on the grounds of religious conviction. At last the oath was amended so that a professing Jew could sit as an MP.

Paradoxically, the entry of Jews into parliament only exacerbated the question of who spoke for the community. The Board of Deputies still watched over legislation and naturally now looked to Jewish MPs to intervene if necessary, but not all Jewish parliamentarians shared their agenda.

Once he finally became an MP, Salomons refused to defend the exclusion of the Reform synagogue from the board and deplored the idea of separate Jewish schools. When Henry de Worms, one of the first Conservative Jewish MPs, felt that the board was not active enough in foreign affairs, he set up the Anglo-Jewish Association as a rival. For a while, whenever Jewish communities abroad faced persecution, the Foreign Office got requests for intervention from two separate Jewish organisations, each claiming to be representative. Eventually the board was obliged to constitute a joint committee with the AJA.

The mass immigration of Jews from eastern Europe between 1880 and 1914 aggravated the fissiparous character of the Jewish population. The immigrants were escaping from poverty, discrimination and the fear of violence, but their plight did little to narrow the gulf between them and the predominantly middle-class, anglicised British Jews. They were more religious, they spoke Yiddish and they crowded into slum districts where they pursued “sweatshop” trades. The influx stimulated the country’s first campaign for immigration control. British Jews, who felt they had little in common with the new arrivals, were terrified that legislation aimed at the immigrants would not stop with them.

While the Board of Deputies held its nose and did its duty, lobbying against any proposals to restrict immigration, leading members of the community echoed the restrictionists. In 1892, the architect Nathan Joseph proposed that the Jewish Refugee Committee should repatriate to Russia those Jews who could not make a living in England. When Harry Samuel, scion of an old Jewish family, stood for re-election in the Limehouse constituency in the 1900 general election, his election leaflets declared that he opposed Jewish immigration. Samuel had no compunction about aligning himself with the British Brothers’ League, a violent and anti-Semitic forerunner of the BNP.

By contrast, the Jewish Chronicle, edited by Leopold Greenberg, defended the immigrants. The JC was founded in the 1840s to promote Jewish emancipation, but previously had tended to act as a mouthpiece for the wealthy lay leaders who dominated the communal organisations. Greenberg, who made his money from an advertising agency, had purchased the paper with a consortium of friends in 1906. Under his direction, it took a resolutely independent course.

But Greenberg was also a follower of Theo­dor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism. He was one of a generation of bright, middle-class Jews who saw Jewish nationalism as the modern ideology of the Jewish people. They held the “assimilationist” Jewish elite in contempt. In their eyes the nouveaux riches Jews who ran the community were behaving like a feudal aristocracy. The new men wanted a share of power and envisaged the paper becoming a powerful voice for Zionism. It was thus set on a collision course with the Anglo-Jewish elite, who looked on Zionism with alarm.

The conflict came to a head during the First World War when the government of David Lloyd George contemplated promising Palestine to the Jews as a device to win over Jewish opinion in neutral America and as a fig leaf for an imperial land-grab in the Middle East.

In October 1917, the president of the board, D L Alexander, and Claude G Montefiore, head of the AJA, published a letter in the Times denouncing Zionism. They believed passionately that it was a form of dual loyalty and undercut the claim of Jews to civil rights in the countries where they lived. Unfortunately, they had not consulted their members before going public. Many members of the board, especially those representing the often-neglected Jews living in the regions, were outraged by the two men’s presumption to speak for the whole community. At an emergency board meeting, Alexander was deposed and the alliance with the AJA was terminated.

This was not the end of the struggle over Zionism. Almost the entire Anglo-Jewish elite joined the League of British Jews, devoted to advertising their patriotism. Symbolically, the league forbade membership to foreign-born Jews. In November 1919, ten of its leading figures published a letter in the xenophobic and rabidly anti-communist Morning Post, condemning the Jewish Chronicle for expressing sympathy for the Bolshevik revolution. The letter dissociated British-born Jews from their Russian-born co-religionists.

Greenberg had indeed expressed gratitude that the Russian Revolution freed Jews from state-sponsored anti-Semitism, though this was far from endorsing Bolshevism. Most British Jews were incensed that “the Ten” appeared to endorse the calumny that Jews were behind the Bolshevik revolution.

Yet “the Ten” represented the cream of Brit­ish Jews. They including a clutch of MPs and between them they ran practically every communal institution. For a whole decade, they even published their own newspaper, the Jewish Guardian, as a spoiler to the JC.

During the interwar years Jews in Britain were divided along lines of class, ideology and generation. In the wake of the Balfour Declaration in 1917, the Zionists struggled to impose their vision on the board and to mobilise every communal agency to support the Jewish national home. The result was unending disputation.

When the Nazis came to power and commenced the systematic persecution of German Jews, the British Jewish leadership found itself at odds again. The initial response on the Jewish street was to protest and boycott German goods. Henry Mond, the 2nd Baron Melchett, put himself at the head of the boycott campaign. But the president of the board, Neville Laski, a Manchester-born lawyer, cautioned against pitting the Jews against a foreign government and contradicting government policy, which was to mollify Hitler.

Furthermore, the Zionist movement made a special arrangement with the Third Reich to enable German Jews to emigrate to Palestine and take a portion of their wealth with them in the form of credits for German goods. Although the Zionists were instinctively anti-Nazi, this arrangement forced them to hold their tongue about the boycott. At a crucial moment, British Jews were unable to speak with one voice.

The antipathy between Zionists and non-Zionists spilled over into other areas. The Zionist ranks included the children of those immigrants who had made good. When it came to charitable work, the likes of Israel Sieff and Simon Marks, who owned Marks & Spencer, were able to match the donations of even the Roths­childs and so they demanded a say in policymaking and the governance of the community. As Zionists, they also insisted that most of the money raised to assist German Jews should go towards resettling them in Palestine. Anthony de Rothschild, head of the British branch of the family, hated Zionism and was prepared to settle Jews anywhere but there. At times, the effort to aid German Jews teetered on the edge of paralysis.

British Jews were equally divided over how best to respond to the threat posed by Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists. Sir Robert Waley Cohen, president of the United Synagogue, professed sympathy for fascism and pointed out that Mussolini had nothing against the Jews. Laski objected to taking a “Jewish” political stand and refused to lead the board into an anti-fascist crusade. Though covertly he put the resources of the board at the disposal of the Home Office and the police, in public he advised British Jews not to challenge the Mosleyites.

By 1936, this position was untenable. Mosley’s Blackshirt thugs were tormenting Jews in the East End of London every day. Young Jews were breaking ranks and forming self-defence groups. Communist and Zionist militants stepped into the vacuum and offered leadership. When Mosley announced that he would lead his col­umns through the East End on Sunday 4 October, Jewish trade unions, Communists and left-wing Zionists formed a Jewish People’s Council Against Fascism and Anti-Semitism (JPC) to lobby the government to stop the march.

The crisis culminated in the Battle of Cable Street. The official Jewish leadership issued a call through the Jewish Chronicle and synagogue pulpits, urging Jews to stay away from the route, but Jews still poured into the streets of Whitechapel and blocked Mosley’s path. The Communist Party and the JPC claimed credit for the achievement and their stock soared. Who now spoke for the Jews?

Thus, on the eve of the Second World War and the catastrophe in which millions of Jews perished, the Jews of Britain were divided as never before. Anti-fascists, boycotters, refugee activists and Zionists of every hue supported a proliferation of organisations, all of which claimed to represent ordinary Jews. The Jewish Chronicle gave almost everyone a platform, amplifying the cacophony.

The memory of this dissension would haunt the generations that lived through it. Even so, the postwar era brought renewed controversy. In the late 1940s, a band of anti-Zionist diehards formed the Jewish Fellowship and publicly distanced them­selves from Israel. Ex-servicemen who were sickened by the pusillanimous response from the Board of Deputies to Mosley’s reappearance formed the 43 Group, which used commando tactics to smash his meetings. The noisy campaign for Soviet Jews in the 1970s started as a fringe movement in defiance of diplomatic manoeuvres by the board. In the 1980s supporters of the Israeli peace movement shocked the communal leadership by advocating dialogue with the Palestinians.

Today, mainstream Jewish leaders still place a premium on unity, but they know that in a voluntary community they have no power to enforce unanimity. They can only appeal to the humility of idealists and busybodies alike who arrogate the right to speak “as Jews” and “for Jews”. They can point to the harm wreaked by individuals acting without the sense of responsibility that comes from being integrated into a people, knowing its history, understanding and sharing its hopes and fears.

There is a frisson to dissidence and yet, throughout the history of British Jews, dissent has always been easy, the price has never been high and the result has usually been dubious.

Read more: Keith Kahn-Harris on attitudes to Israel among British Jews.

David Cesarani is research professor in history and director of the Holocaust Research Centre at Royal Holloway, University of London. He is the co-editor most recently of “After the Holocaust: Challenging the Myth of Silence” (Routledge, £26.99)

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Who speaks for British Jews?