top of page
< Back

Book Notes: Jewish Parliamentarians, Greville Janner and Derek Taylor

William D. Rubinstein

<plain_text><page sequence="1">Jewish Parliamentarians (with an Introduction by Gordon Brown), Greville Janner and Derek Taylor (Vallentine Mitchell 2008) isbn 978-08530-38191, pp. 228, ?23.10. Literally dozens of Jewish MPs have been elected to the House of Commons over the past two centuries. While some are familiar names, many, perhaps most, are virtually unknown, even to those who take an interest in Jewish high achievement in Britain. Jewish Parliamentarians 241</page><page sequence="2">Book Notes includes capsule biographies of all Jewish MPs in a frequently entertaining package, presenting their life histories and career records in a paragraph or two. The arrangement is chronological, with, for instance, those serving in the Edwardian era separated from those before and after, and with each era introduced by essay describing the position of Jewish parliamentarians in that period. There are also a number of Appendices. Greville Janner was, of course, a long-serving Labour MP and now a life peer, as well as a senior communal leader, while Derek Taylor has written two works on Anglo Jewish history. I genuinely wish that it were possible for me to praise Jewish Parliamentarians unreservedly, but unfortunately it is not. Many of the entries have been compiled inaccurately, some egregiously so, and are plainly not the work of professional historians. Only a few examples can be cited here, but these illustrate the many deficiencies of this work. Concerning Sir Samuel Montagu (p. 32), the authors state: 'Lord Rothschild ... tried to unseat Montagu, which he was fully entitled to do so as a Conservative Rothschild was a banker who showed little concern for the effects on interest rates on trade: high interest rates invariably increased the profits for bankers. Montagu was a Liberal who believed in the impor? tance of free trade to the nation.' There is so much nonsense in this account that one hardly knows where to start. Both the Rothschilds and Montagu were merchant bankers, who dealt primarily in foreign and government loans; neither was a clearing banker (unlike Barclays or Lloyds) and the British interest rate was irrelevant to their profitability. Rothschild presum? ably clashed with Montagu over Tariff Reform, the proposal by Joseph Chamberlain in 1903 to place a high tariff wall around the whole British Empire (as had been successfully done in Germany and the United States), and which was a burning issue in British politics. Tariff Reform had noth? ing to do with interest rates. One would have thought that the Rothschilds were just as concerned with trade as was Montagu: the suggestion that he had 'little concern' for the effects of interest rates on trade - which was irrelevant to Tariff Reform in any case - is a very curious claim. Then there is Leopold Amery (p. 58). That Amery's mother Elisabeth, nee Saphir, was a Budapest-born Jew was unknown to historians, and delib? erately concealed by Amery himself in his autobiography, until I revealed it in two articles published in 1999 and 2000. Amery himself was an Anglican, but also a lifelong pro-Zionist. According to the authors, however: 'That Leopold Amery was a Jew was never in dispute ... As the Dictionary of National Biography delicately puts it, "His Jewish connections were known but were unremarked upon by his contemporaries".' This misleading sentence is not - as the passage cited incorrectly states - from the old Dictionary of National Biography, but from the new Oxford Dictionary of 242</page><page sequence="3">Book Notes National Biography, published in 2004, after my articles appeared, and is untrue. I have never found any contemporaries who were aware of Amery's origins, although these were often regarded as somewhat mysterious. The authors then state: '[Amery's] mother was born Elisabeth Leitner but she divorced his father when the boy was twelve. She the went off to Canada and became a farmer, having nothing to do with the family ther after.' Once more, there is so much nonsense here that one hardly knows where to start. Amery's mother was, as noted, born Elisabeth Saphir; Leitner was the name of her step-father. She most assuredly did not go off to Canada to become a farmer, but lived and died in London, where she struggled to give her sons good educations. The authors presumably have in mind Amery's father, Charles Frederick Amery, who did go off to Canada and elsewhere, but died in British Guiana. The slapdash inaccuracy of this entry is compounded by its omission of the most poignant event in Amery's life, the trial and execution in 1945 of his elder son John Amery as a wartime Nazi and traitor. The authors claim (pp. 28-9) that a Jewish MP named Sidney Woolf lived from 1844t0 ^92 ana&lt; was tne father of Leonard Woolf and father-in law of Virginia Woolf. As Michael Jolles explained in his work (see below), however, this MP was an entirely different man, a Pontefract earthenware manufacturer who was born in 1837, and apparently moved to Johannesburg, later returning to England where he died in Devon in 1918. Leonard Woolf s father was a London QC and was certainly never an MP. The case of Amery, a professing Anglican, raises a basic question nowhere examined by the authors: who is a Jew? Most strikingly - some would say unbelievably - Disraeli does not have an entry in this book, although he was at least as Jewish as Amery, and, unlike Amery, was universally regarded as a Jew. Nor do many other early MPs who were born Jewish, such as David Ricardo. An unfortunate feature of this work is that no sources are given for any of the information provided, and, with minor exceptions, none of the works which they have used. Geoffrey Alderman's Jewish Community in British Politics (1983) is mentioned in the Acknowledgements, but it is unclear whether, for instance, the authors used ? or even knew of the existence of - Michael Jolles's truly outstanding Directory of Distinguished British Jews, 1830-1930, which also comprehen? sively lists all Jewish MPs and peers. If they knew of it they certainly have not cited it. Given that one of the authors was a Labour MP for twenty seven years, there is a also a real danger of political bias in the entries, and this balances out the direct and personal knowledge that only Janner could have had. In general, it is possible to detect that Labour MPs have been more warmly treated than Tories, as have left-wingers in general. One might, for instance, compare their treatment of the right-wing MP Harold 243</page><page sequence="4">Book Notes Soref (p. 146) with that of the Communist MP Phil Piratin (p. 108). Soref s entry begins cAs a white supremacist, Harold Soref was an embarrassment to the vast majority of the Jewish community'; his entry continues in this highly tendentious (and often inaccurate) way, although Soref s views on post-independence Zimbabwe appear remarkably prescient. In complete contrast, Piratin's entry is not merely neutral but sympathetic, although he defended all of Stalin's enormities committed against Soviet Jewry during the 'black years' of the late 1940s. Any good biographical dictionary must, surely, be entirely neutral: this one sometimes is not. There is no evidence that Sir Henry Norman (p. 40) was Jewish, and Arthur Askey was certainly not a Jewish comedian. The Appendix list? ing Jews holding positions in the Lords without having sat in the Commons is certainly incomplete, omitting, for instance, the sixth Earl of Rosebery (the son of the Prime Minister and Hannah Rothschild), who was a Cabinet minister in Churchill's 1945 Caretaker government. The photograph (number 14) allegedly of Marion Phillips is obviously not of the MP, who died in 1932. Although the book includes entries on 'Jimmy de Rothschild' and 'Manny Shinwell', at least we have been spared 'Herbie Samuel' and 'Mike Howard'. Appendix B, listing the number of Jewish MPs by general election and party allegiance, states (p. 196) that there were 36 'Independent'Jewish MPs in the October 1974 Parliament, but only one Tory. In contrast, however, it will be news to many to learn (p. 197) that there were fourteen Jewish Communist MPs in both the 1997 and 2001 Parliaments. In this review, I am genuinely trying to avoid giving an unduly negative opinion, and it should be reiterated that the work is often useful, interesting and entertaining, and provides a great deal of information unavailable else? where. But readers should be warned of its frequent inaccuracy. William D. Rubinstein</page></plain_text>

bottom of page