< Back

Class, ethnicity and politics in the Jewish East End, 1918-1939

Elaine R. Smith

<plain_text><page sequence="1">Class, ethnicity and politics in the Jewish East End, 1918-1939* ELAINE R. SMITH Several years ago the Jewish Chronicle Colour Magazine featured on its cover a middle-class professional couple in their stripped-pine home in Hackney. The caption on the photograph read 'The real East Enders'.1 An added irony was that the woman was in fact an American. For me, this scene encapsulated the myth that any present-day Jewish East Ender, below retirement age, must be a newly arrived middle-class professional. The reality is somewhat different. There are 'real' Jewish East Enders, like myself, but we are often hidden from official Jewish sources because we do not conform to what is popularly perceived as the norm. By not belonging to a synagogue or participating in Jewish organizations, we are often excluded from accounts of the contemporary Anglo-Jewish experience. This failure to understand the nature of the Anglo-Jewish community, or at least certain sections of it, is not new. Those Jews who remained in the East End in the 1920s and 1930s, at a time when many Jews were moving out, were either forgotten by their upwardly mobile former neighbours or were misunderstood by the longer established Anglo-Jewish leadership. Misconceptions about inter-war Jewish East Enders abounded. For some, they were regarded as dangerous Com? munists who gave Anglo-Jewry a bad name at a time when the community felt increasingly threatened by political anti-Semitism. For others, they were perceived as loyal Zionists who needed only an injection of enthusiastic leadership to enable them to demonstrate their latent support for the Zionist enterprise. In practice, East End Jews were neither wholeheartedly Communist nor enthusiastically Zion? ist. Indeed, the Jewish East End was not monolithic in any sense: politically, socially or economically. This paper represents an attempt to disengage the myth from the reality and to show that the Jewish political experience in the inter-war East End was the product of a complex relationship between class and ethnic factors. The first point to stress is that this study is primarily concerned with second generation East End Jews. These Jews were only partially integrated into the majority community, and this created dilemmas, problems and uncertainties for the minority Jewish community concerning its status in local non-Jewish society. Thus, although second-generation Jews participated in local political life, they did * Joint lecture with the Society for Jewish Study, delivered on 16 May 1991. 355</page><page sequence="2">Elaine R. Smith not, on the whole, become integrated socially, culturally or economically. Political integration under these conditions was possible for two reasons. Firstly, second generation East End Jews had attained a sufficient level of anglicization to enable them to participate in local politics. Specifically, the education they had received at local London County Council schools gave them the linguistic ability necessary to function in non-Jewish society. Secondly, these Jews shared the same class posi? tion as non-Jewish East Enders. In other words, East End Jews experienced the same social and economic conditions as the non-Jewish working class. Poverty, unemployment and sub-standard housing were the common enemies of both groups of workers. In fact, The New Survey of London Life and Labour, commenting on the situation in the early 1930s, reported that the proportion of poverty among the Jewish working-class community in East London was slightiy greater than that of the surrounding non-Jewish population (13.7 per cent compared with 12.1 per cent).2 Unemployment plagued the East End Jewish community throughout the inter-war period but was particularly severe in the early 1920s and early 1930s. In an interview published in the Jewish Chronicle in 1921, Oscar Tobin, the Jewish Labour mayor of Stepney at the time, drew attention to the extent and severity of Jewish unemployment in the borough, particularly in the clothing and cigar trades.3 The gravity of the problem was also indicated by the bankruptcy of the Jewish Board of Guardians which, in October 1921, was forced to reduce its grants and the scale of its allowances by 15 per cent.4 The industrial depression which set in during 1929 had an equally catastrophic effect on the East End Jewish community. In 1933, Marcus Lipton, a Labour Party activist in Stepney, contended that the Jewish community was no longer able to alleviate poverty from its own resources.5 This was undoubtedly true, since recipients of the dole included young British-born Jews.6 Lipton attributed the high level of Jewish unemployment to the fact that industries on which East End Jewry had previously depended for their livelihood, in particular tailoring, were badly hit by the depression.7 Unemployment was also a serious problem in the cabinet-making branch of the furniture trade. According to one Jewish cabinet? maker, 'The trade could only offer different degrees of insecurity. None except the most favoured knew from one day to another when they would be out of work.'8 Despite their common experience of poverty, unemployment and slum housing conditions, Jews and non-Jews remained, for the most part, segregated in their social and working lives. Jews lived in streets which were populated mainly by Jewish families and were employed in artisan trades which reinforced this largely self-imposed ethnic segregation. Such residential and occupational segregation had two important effects. Firsdy, it acted as a powerful force against working class unity in the East End. As John Rex has shown in his book Race and Ethnicity, worker unity in working-class communities traditionally relied on a combination of workplace ties and neighbourhood life.9 This kind of social and economic interac? tion between Jews and non-Jews was virtually non-existent in the East End. 356</page><page sequence="3">Class, ethnicity and politics in the Jewish East End, 1918-1939 Secondly, residential and occupational segregation reinforced cultural differences. The Yiddish-speaking homes in which second-generation Jews were raised pro? vided them with a distinct cultural background. Even if they ultimately rejected the Yiddish language and its negative associations with the poverty and persecution of East European ghetto life, young East End Jews nevertheless cultivated their own distinct ethnic working-class sub-culture based around a network of informal social and political meeting places. The terms 'ethnicity' and 'ethnic group' have been so widely used by academics, journalists and politicians that it is easy to overlook their real meaning. In fact, ethnicity has been defined in a variety of ways depending on the discipline, experience and interests of the investigator. According to John Rex, ethnic groups have a sense of 'belonging together because of shared cultural characteristics and belief in a common ancestry'.10 A. D. Smith, in his book The Ethnic Revival, has expanded on this definition and has identified four salient features of an ethnic group as the sense of unique group origins, unique group history, aspects of collective cultural distinctiveness such as religion, language or customs, and a sense of unique collective solidarity.11 This last factor is crucial in the present context for it is central to the question of how East End Jews perceived themselves and how their collective identity determined their political behaviour. One aspect of collective cultural consciousness which was strikingly absent from most second-generation Jews of the inter-war East End was religious observance. As early as 1919 a Zionist magazine argued that it was useless to attempt to shepherd young Jews into a synagogue.12 Concern about the decline in religious observance among working-class Jews was frequendy expressed by London Jewry's lay and religious leaders in the 1920s and 1930s. In 1928 the Independent Order of B'nai B'rith organized a symposium at which leading Anglo-Jewish communal figures expressed their concern at the way in which 'the East End had got right away from religion'.13 This was attributed to the fact that young Jews felt alienated from the foreign, Yiddish-speaking rabbis who served the small Feder? ation synagogues in the East End. A number of initiatives were suggested to reverse the trend towards seculariza? tion. Some believed the problem could be solved by having more resident minis? ters in the East End.14 Others felt that the answer to the decline in East End orthodoxy lay in more religious education. This was the view of Rabbi Dr Meir Jung, Chief Minister of the Federation of Synagogues.15 The Sinai League, which he founded, aimed 'to preserve and promote traditional Judaism amongst Jewish young men and women'.16 The League was based in Whitechapel and became the launching pad for a network of Sinai Associations throughout London.17 Another serious attempt to deal with the problem was the Reconstruction movement, which was initiated in 1919 by the Revd Joseph Stern, minister of the East London Synagogue in Stepney Green.18 The movement was supported by such communal luminaries as the Revd A. A. Green, minister of Hampstead Synagogue, and 357</page><page sequence="4">Elaine R. Smith Henrietta Adler who, as well as being the author of the Jewish study in The New Survey, was a well-known Jewish communal worker and grand-daughter of a former Chief Rabbi. Reconstruction embodied the paternalistic idea that West End Jews should offer their services as voluntary workers in the East End in order to raise the spiritual standards of East End Jewry.19 From the late 1920s, the idea began to circulate in the Jewish press that in order to attract young East End Jews to the synagogue a concerted effort should be made to 're-Judaize' the East End.20 There was even a suggestion that the social activities of the youth should be 'Judaized' by instilling in Jewish youth clubs a strong religious flavour.21 However, despite all the attempts made to revive religion in the East End, young Jews continued to drift away from the synagogue and to reject traditional Jewish values. The Zionist Review's conclusion in 1935 that 'religion does not dominate Jewish life in the East End' was therefore correct.22 Although young Jews were clearly not practising their religion as much as their parents, and indeed were increasingly questioning the whole concept of religion, they nevertheless lived intensely Jewish lives, expressing their Jewishness in their social, family and working relationships. These local support networks were rein? forced by an intense cultural life centred around libraries, clubs, cafes, billiard rooms, dance halls and education classes. This was an East End in which every? thing and everyone one knew was Jewish. The atmosphere and the harsh reality of life in the inter-war Jewish East End has been evoked in the novels and memoirs of writers such as Simon Blumenfeld, Willy Goldman, Joe Jacobs, Bernard Kops, Emanuel Litvinoff and Ray Waterman.23 All of these writers make some reference in their work to the cultural and political influences of informal meetings at the Whitechapel Library, the Workers' Circle, and the Young Communist League meetings at the junction of Whitechapel Road and Vallance Road. Politics was thus an integral part of the cultural life of the Jewish East End and, to a large extent, was shaped by local cultural values. By rejecting the Jewish religion, young East End Jews were also challenging the very basis of the identity which the community's anglicized leadership had tried, unsuccessfully, to impose on the East End. The Anglo-Jewish elite was anxious that the community should be perceived as a religious group by the wider society. Their insistence on a religious identity was motivated by the hope that Jews could then be regarded as loyal British citizens of the Jewish faith rather than as an alien population which could constitute a potentially subversive group in British society. Any expressions of secular Jewish identity, whether political, social or cultural, therefore represented a threat to the unitary image of the community which the middle-class leadership wanted to convey to British society.24 The challenge of a secular ethnic identity was most clearly manifested in the high-profile political activity in which many East End Jews engaged in the inter war years. Such political activism provided a vehicle for the expression of a secular Jewishness. However, it needs to be stressed that most politically active East End 358</page><page sequence="5">Class, ethnicity and politics in the Jewish East End, 1918-1939 Jews shunned the specifically Jewish politics offered by Zionistic and other separ? ate Jewish political parties, and instead threw themselves wholeheartedly into the local British political scene. They did not regard this as a denial of their Jewishness but as an outward expression of their Jewish identity in East End society. By rejecting political separatism, East End Jews committed themselves to striv? ing for the ultimate unity of Jewish and non-Jewish workers. This was undoubtedly a massive task, especially as political integration had to take place without the supporting framework of social and occupational integration. However, it was a task to which Jewish political activists of all political persuasions in the East End were unequivocally committed. This strategy to unite both the Jewish and non Jewish sections of the working class had an important impact on the way in which issues which affected the Jewish community were expressed. Even issues which could be regarded as specifically Jewish were now couched in universal terms, with the clear intention that this would lend them appeal to non-Jews as well. For example, opposition to the deportation of alien Jews in the East End in the post First-World-War period was expressed in a way which harmonized with party political interests. Thus in April 1920, Stepney's Labour council adopted a resolu? tion proposed by Alfred Kershaw, a Jewish Labour councillor, which protested against the 'alleged wholesale deportations of alien Jews in the East End of London' without trial.25 Oscar Tobin dwelt at length on the issue in the 1919 1920 annual report of Stepney Labour Party. He wrote that the government's action in arresting and deporting alien trade-union officials had been a matter of such 'grave concern' to the council, that a deputation had interviewed the Labour Party in Parliament with a view to drafting amendments to mitigate the worst features of the Aliens Restriction Bill. Tobin believed that the position of all trade unionists was threatened by the government policy which made it a criminal offence for an alien to be a member of a trade union.26 In this way, he related the specific difficulties of alien trade unionists to the labour movement in general, thus giving a broader socialist validity to the problems faced by alien trade unionists. In the 1930s the problem of anti-Semitism was defined by the Jewish left as a threat to democracy in general rather than as a specifically Jewish problem. This view was shared by Jewish trade unionists, Jewish Communists and Jewish mem? bers of the Labour Party. Jewish trade unionists, for example, continually insisted that Jewish workers could only fight Fascism effectively by joining a trade union and uniting with non-Jewish workers. This was the view put forward by Morris Jacobs, a prominent Communist trade unionist active in the East End branch of the furniture trade union, when he addressed an anti-Fascist demonstration in Victoria Park in July 1934: 'You have got to show to the non-Jewish worker that you recognise that your struggle is in harmony and exacdy the same as that of the mass of the people of whatever creed or colour.'27 Jacobs's view was shared by the predominandy Jewish Houndsditch and Whitechapel Branch of the Shop Assistants' Union which in January 1935 formed an anti-Fascist section.28 This 359</page><page sequence="6">Elaine R. Smith action was endorsed by the non-Jewish secretary of the Eastern Area of the union, who said: 'The salvation of the Jews rests not in their setting up purely Jewish Organisations to deal with Fascism, but in breaking down the isolation existing at present which divides them from other workers, and which tends, among other things, to promote the growth of Fascism. The trade union movement affords this medium.'29 To this end, various initiatives were started, mainly by Jewish trade unionists, which aimed at bringing Jewish workers into the wider anti-Fascist movement. For example, in May 1933 the Bundist-inspired Workers' Circle Friendly Society invited the Communist-backed United Clothing Workers' Union to send delegates to a conference, the aim of which was to form a committee of Jewish and non-Jewish working-class organizations to fight anti-Semitism and Fascism.30 Specifically Jewish anti-Fascist bodies also sprang up in the East End during this period. For the most part these too were of a leftist character and were therefore also concerned to stress the universal aspects of their opposition to Fascism and anti-Semitism. For example, in November 1934 a conference of Jewish trade unionists, convened by the Workers' Circle, formed the Jewish Labour Council. The specific purpose of the Council was to combat Fascism and anti-Semitism, in partnership with the wider trade-union movement. Aaron Rol lin, a local organizer for one of the East End tailoring unions, was the main driving force behind the Council. Under his direction, the East End branch of the National Union of Tailors and Garment Workers put forward a resolution at the Council's founding conference which urged 'all Jewish workers to enter the recognised trade unions, and to fight along with their English comrades against capitalism and reaction'.31 In fulfilment of this policy, the Council pledged itself to give assistance to trade-union recruitment campaigns among English workers.32 The Jewish People's Council against Fascism and Anti-Semitism, founded in 1936 out of a conference convened by two prominent members of the Jewish Labour Council, adopted a similar strategy in relation to partnerships with non Jewish anti-Fascist organizations. The JPC was firmly of the opinion that the attack on the Jews was 'only a prelude to the attack on the rights and liberties of all democratic people in the country'. Anti-Semitism was therefore as much the concern of 'the British people as a whole as of the Jews'.33 In this spirit the JPC cooperated with a variety of non-Jewish anti-Fascist bodies, including in particular the National Council for Civil Liberties, with whom it organized a joint conference in April 1937. The speakers at the conference included Dr Moses Gaster, the spiritual leader of the Sephardi community, as well as prominent non-Jewish figures such as the Dean of St Paul's and the secretary of the London Trades Council.34 Given the nature of Jewish political activism which has been oudined here, it would be inaccurate to speak of 'Jewish politics' in the East End. Although a disproportionate number of East End Jews were involved in local politics, the form 360</page><page sequence="7">Class, ethnicity and politics in the Jewish East End, 1918-1939 which that involvement took was not specifically Jewish, even where the issue may have been a Jewish one. It would also be inaccurate to view Jewish involvement in local politics as though the aim of politically active Jews was to further or promote Jewish interests. It cannot be emphasized too strongly that the political concerns of East End Jews were, for the most part, very similar to the concerns of economically depressed working-class communities elsewhere. Housing conditions and the shortage of suitable housing, together with unemployment and poverty, were all high on the local political agenda. Jews, who figured prominendy in the early Labour councils in Stepney, implemented many of the council's progressive poli? cies in these areas. For example, the Jewish Labour chairman of the Housing Committee in 1919 was John Raphael, under whose leadership Stepney became the first borough to take advantage of the powers conferred by the Housing and Town Planning Act. This Act authorized local authorities to conduct systematic sanitary inspections. The result of this policy in Stepney was, in the words of Oscar Tobin, that an enormous number of 'insanitary dwellings had been rendered habitable'.35 In an election-propaganda piece, which he wrote for the Stepney Labour Times in October 1928, Alfred Kershaw argued that the Labour Party had tackled the housing problem thoroughly and, during its period in office, had built 414 flats equipped with bathrooms. This was more than three times the number built since the inception of the council in 1900. Permission had also been obtained from the Ministry of Health for a large slum-clearance scheme in the Limehouse Fields Area.36 This scheme aimed to rehouse nearly 2000 people. By the end of the 1920s Stepney's Labour councils had erected Riverside Mansions in Wapping, the Brunton Wharf estate, and the mainly Jewish-tenanted Hughes Mansions in Whitechapel.37 In common with other Labour councils, one of Stepney's first measures was to introduce a ?4 minimum wage for all council employees. John Raphael emphasized the importance of this measure in the Stepney Labour Party's 1920 annual report.38 Raphael was also one of a number of Jewish Labour councillors who were prominent in protests against the level of unemployment in the borough. In 1920 he participated in a council deputation to the Ministry of Labour on the serious increase in unemployment.39 The following year Oscar Tobin presided at an open meeting held to voice the demands of the local unemployed. He reiterated the Labour Party's policy that any real measure of relief had to come from the government.40 The protests continued into the 1930s. In 1935, for example, Issy Vogler, who was mayor at the time, called a meeting in Stepney to protest against what the Labour Party regarded as the inadequate scales of unemployment relief provided by the government's Unemployment Assistance Board.41 Given the fact that Jews had permeated all political parties in Stepney, disagree? ments inevitably occurred between Jewish Labour councillors and their Liberal and Conservative Jewish opponents. These party-political disagreements served to highlight the extent to which East End Jews had become integrated into local 361</page><page sequence="8">Elaine R. Smith political life. A major political fracas arose over how the housing crisis in Stepney should be tackled. In 1933, for example, Dan Frankel, a Labour councillor who was later to become the MP for Mile End, attacked the strategy proposed by Miriam Moses, a Liberal councillor and prominent Jewish communal figure in the East End. Her proposal was that any housing programme should be financed by philanthropy and not from the public purse.42 The Labour Party's solution to the housing crisis was articulated by Issy Vogler. He argued that only a properly financed local authority could solve the problem.43 The unemployment issue served as a further source of conflict between Jewish Labour councillors and their Jewish anti-socialist opponents on the council. Many of the arguments put forward during council-chamber debates consisted of the kind of political point scoring and invective with which we would be familiar today.44 The major issue on which Jewish councillors of different political persuasions were never able to reach a consensus was the funding of local-authority services. In practice this was the rates issue, which dominated municipal politics in the East End in the 1920s. In Stepney, the Jewish Liberal councillor Jack Somper was in the forefront of the attacks against what he regarded as the Labour council's extravagance. He was particularly incensed about the cost to the rates of Labour's milk-distribution scheme for babies and nursing mothers, and its institution of a ?4. minimum wage for council workers.45 Tobin's response was to argue that if a poor borough such as Stepney wanted to improve and extend its services for local people it had no choice but to levy a high rate. He added that Stepney would follow Poplar's lead in refusing to pay the LCC and Police precepts levied on it, and instead would use the rates to support the borough's unemployed. The Labour council's case thus rested on what it believed to be the basic unfairness of a system which placed a very heavy burden on the mainly poor people of Stepney. In this context, Tobin's call for the 'equalisation of the rates' paralleled the more famous rates-protest movement in Poplar 46 The political framework provided by the local council meant that for the first time significant numbers of East End Jews found themselves in the position of opposing fellow Jews along party-political lines. This created the impression that second-generation Jews were attempting to subsume their Jewish identity beneath their political identity. However, the fact remained that even for the most radical left-wing Jews, their social and cultural worlds were delineated by Jewish neighbourhood life in the East End. Ultimately, this 'sense of neighbourhood' overrode political differences and ensured the survival of an ethnic identity among second-generation working-class Jews in the East End. Nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in the remarkable degree of acceptability enjoyed by Jewish Communists, particularly in the 1930s. During that decade even normally apoliti? cal sections of the East End Jewish community, such as housewives, came to sympathize with, if not actively support, those Jews who had thrown in their lot with the Communist Party. It is, however, important to remember that the so 362</page><page sequence="9">Class, ethnicity and politics in the Jewish East End, 1918-1939 called Communist 'capture' of the Jewish East End was never complete. Even at the height of the party's popularity in the mid-1930s, the Mile End branch of Stepney Labour Party not only retained but actually increased its Jewish member? ship and support. Throughout the 1920s the Stepney Communist Party attracted only a small number of East End Jews and they were mainly the hard core of ideologically committed individuals who had staffed the various revolutionary groups in the East End before 1918. The reason for this was simply that during the 1920s the Communist Party hardly made any attempt to widen its appeal to include the mass of working-class Jews in the East End; this despite the tremendous opportunity with which the party had been presented by the Russian Revolution of 1917. It was not until the 1930s, when the Stepney Communist Party showed its mettle by providing local political leadership on all the major issues affecting the lives of working-class Jews in the East End, that the party enhanced its prestige and attracted to its ranks many Jews who would not normally support a Marxist party. In the first place, the party conducted a vigorous campaign against unemploy? ment both locally and nationally through its National Unemployed Workers' Movement. Morris Jacobs, already referred to as a prominent Communist trade unionist in the East End, was involved in the Unemployed Workers' Movement at the national level.47 As Joe Jacobs has recounted in his valuable memoir, Out of the Ghetto, the Stepney branch was led by Jewish Communists such as Morry Silver, Alf Chernoff and Morry Goldstein.48 In addition, the Communist-backed East London Trade Union Committee, which was set up to oppose the government's 1934 Unemployment Bill, included the ubiquitous Morris Jacobs as well as Dave Gershon of the United Clothing Workers' Union.49 It was the Communist Party's militant stand against domestic Fascism in the 1930s which, more than anything else, attracted many young East End Jews to the party.50 The party's tactic of direct confrontation on the streets with the Black shirts later led Phil Piratin, prominent in the Stepney Communist Party at the time, and in 1945 elected the Communist MP for Mile End, to claim in his memoir Our Flag Stays Red, that: 'Only the Communist party stood out as the forthright opponent of fascism . . . No one in East London and particularly Stepney, in those days, was unaware of this fact. A number of Labour members acknowledged this leadership of the Communist Party and regretted the weakness of their own leadership.'51 Stepney Communist Party's relatively low membership disguised the fact that there were many East End Jews who supported the party's stand against Fascism without becoming party members. This was either because they did not feel sufficiendy ideologically committed to join the party or because they were unwilling to take on the burdens which party membership entailed. Equally significant in terms of attracting East End Jews, was the party's support for the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War. As the only party which advocated an interventionist policy against Franco's Nationalists, the Communist 363</page><page sequence="10">Elaine R. Smith Party appeared to stand alone in its determination to challenge the threat of Fascism in Europe. In contrast to the Stepney Communist Party's enthusiastic support for the Republicans, the Stepney Labour Party was, to say the least, lukewarm in its support. This was because by the mid-1930s the party had become dominated by an Irish Catholic faction, and the Catholic Church was fiercely anti Republican.52 It was not hard to understand, therefore, why many Jews in the East End should have supported the Communist Party and have viewed the fate of Spain as having more relevance to their own situation than the fund-raising activities of a group of mainly middle-class Zionists on behalf of a remote Jewish homeland in Palestine. Jewish Communists in the Workers' Circle were in the forefront of the East End campaign to raise funds for the Spanish Republicans.53 In 1938 the Circle set up an Aid for Spain Committee and appointed itself the patron of the Jewish Naftali Botwin Company of the International Brigade.54 A number of East End Jews fought in Spain and some were killed. Two East End tailors, Nat Cohen and Sam Masters, were among the first to join the International Brigade.55 A third issue which won the Communist Party popular support among East End Jews was its campaign against high rents and slum-housing conditions. This campaign was conducted by the Stepney Tenants' Defence League (STDL), a Communist pressure group formed in 1937.56 The League organized rent strikes in order to achieve immediate rent reductions, the carrying out of necessary repairs and the extension of rent controls to all working-class housing.57 By organizing the tenants against their landlords it was hoped to achieve a further aim, namely to unite Jewish and non-Jewish workers against Fascism. A number of the slum landlords in the East End were Jewish - a fact which aroused considerable hostility among many tenants. The League hoped to show tenants sympathetic to the Blackshirts that their Jewish neighbours suffered equally under the slum landlords and that it mattered litde whether or not the landlord was Jewish; it was his action as an exploiting capitalist which had to be attacked and not his Jewish ness. This aspect of the rent strikes was particularly stressed by East End Jewish Communists like Tubby Rosen, one of the strike organizers.58 He believed that the strikes had indeed united Jew and non-Jew and had thus led former Fascist sympathizers to abandon their anti-Semitic prejudices.59 The leadership which Jewish Communists like Rosen had provided in the strikes, was widely praised. Messages of support for the Tenants' Defence League were received from people as diverse as the warden of Toynbee Hall, the rabbi of the East London Synagogue and the secretary of the United Ladies' Tailors Trade Union.60 Once again, the Communist Party appeared to many East End Jews as the only party which was prepared to champion their interests. For most of the Jewish housewives who had manned the barricades at Langdale Mansions in Whitechapel, the rent strikes gave them their first experience of participating in political action. The fact that they may not have joined the Communist Party en 364</page><page sequence="11">Class, ethnicity and politics in the Jewish East End, 1918-1939 masse as a result of the strikes, should not diminish the impact which the strikes had on winning the party further popular support in the Jewish East End. During the 1930s the Communist Party increasingly tailored its appeals to a Jewish audience. In 1933, for example, the Daily Worker invited Jewish workers to a mass meeting to hear a statement on the situation in Germany.61 The following year the parly's London District Committee issued an appeal to the Jewish work? ing class in Yiddish, urging them to participate in an anti-Fascist demonstration in Hyde Park.62 Meanwhile, in the East End, the party held most of its outdoor meetings in predominandy Jewish streets.63 The requirement that all Communists had to belong to a trade union meant that Jewish union branches in the East End were also important recruiting bases.64 Communist activity in the East End bran? ches of the tailoring and furniture unions was particularly marked. One of the Communist Party's greatest successes in the East End was in attracting Jewish youth to the party. Both the Mile End, and the Whitechapel and St George's Young Communist Leagues were predominandy Jewish in composition.65 Jewish Young Communist League members were encouraged to attend Jewish youth clubs in order to conduct political activity and recruit new members. This policy of infiltration was viewed with considerable alarm by club leaders at the Oxford and St George's Club and the Stepney Jewish Girls' Club.66 By championing the rights of fellow Jews, Jewish Communists were asserting their own ethnic identity. It was therefore plainly false to argue, as one irate young Zionist did, that 'as soon as a young Jew enters the Communist Party, he flings away from him, as some unpleasant heritage from an unjust system, all his Jewish ness'.67 In fact, the Communist Party provided East End Jews with a means of expressing their Jewish identity within the framework of a secular political culture. One contemporary witness has even suggested that East End Jewish Communists 'were Jews before they were Communists'.68 The record of Jewish Communists, especially those active in the Bundist-inspired Workers' Circle, lends considerable credence to this view. As well as their support for the Botwin Battalion, Commu? nist activists in the Circle took a particular interest in the plight of Jewish child victims of Nazi persecution and were responsible for setting up the United Jewish Workers' Committee for the Relief of Jewish Children in Poland.69 In view of this activity on issues which were essentially Jewish, it would be impossible to draw a distinction between Jewish and Communist concerns in the East End. However, the point cannot be made too strongly that this ethnic radicalism was in no sense parochial. Jewish Communists were unequivocally internationalist in their oudook. Their concern for the Jewish working class was therefore just one aspect of their involvement in the international proletarian movement. What was the response of Zionism to the challenge presented by Communism? Perhaps somewhat ironically, the Jewish national movement appeared to offer little in terms of relevant policies and practical support for East End Jews. On the most important issue confronting the Jewish world in the inter-war years, namely politi 365</page><page sequence="12">Elaine R. Smith cal anti-Semitism, Zionists argued that the only real solution was to be found in setting up a Jewish homeland in Palestine where Jews would be free of such hatred. However, the establishment of an independent Jewish state did not seem to be an immediate possibility. The Zionist argument could therefore offer little comfort to East End Jews faced with the daily threats of Mosley's Blackshirts. Palestine was simply too remote to appeal to a community fully occupied with its own immediate economic and political struggles. Although the Zionists did try to inject some dynamism into their East End campaigns, it was too little too late. For example, some militant young Zionists recognized that a more active anti-Fascist campaign was essential if the Zionists were to retain any credibility among the East End Jewish masses. They therefore advised East End Jewish youth to reject the Board of Deputies advice to steer clear of anti-Fascist organizations and instead reminded them that since their natural allies were to be found 'in the ranks of democratic non-Jewish youth' they should support the demands of the unem? ployed for higher scales of relief, the campaign for trade-union rates of pay and the fight against sweat shops.70 The normally staid Young Zionist even argued that 'the parties of the Left alone are capable of leading democratic forces against Fascism and against those governmental tendencies which assist it'.71 However, these independent initiatives were frowned on by senior Zionist officials. The second-generation Jews who remained in the East End during the 1920s and 1930s created a small, personal world where their social, political and working environment was based around a network of close ethnic ties. But these were not only ethnic communities. They were also communities based on class loyalties. United by their common experience of poverty and unemployment, these East End Jews were divided from the economically successful and upwardly-mobile middle class sections of the community by income, lifestyle and, increasingly during the period, by geographical distance. Although they constituted a separate ethnic group, East End Jews went out of their way to emphasize that the political causes which they pursued were not in any sense parochial, but had a wider relevance for the whole of society. In other words, East End Jews were determined to achieve political integration while at the same time maintaining their distinct ethnic identity. This identity was, in large part, a product of the East End Jewish community's settlement pattern in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. The residential concentration of Jews in particular streets facilitated the development of an intense social and cultural life based around a network of close family ties and friendship bonds. This network was reinforced and strengthened in the workplace as Jews were often employed in the same workshops as their relatives, friends or neighbours. In economic terms, this community was located firmly within the working class and yet it remained quite distinct from the non-Jewish proletariat by the very fact of its ethnic characteristics and the existence of'Jewish trades'. Despite the existence of a vigorous Jewish ethnicity in the inter-war East End 366</page><page sequence="13">Class, ethnicity and politics in the Jewish East End, 1918-1939 there was no clear Jewish political agenda. Although Fascism was, of course, a particular threat to Jews, it was also a serious public-order problem and, as such, was of concern to the non-Jewish authorities as well. In addition, many politically active East End Jews, especially those involved in the Labour movement, regarded anti-Semitism and Fascism as universal issues affecting all sections of the com? munity because of the threat they posed to democracy. By assigning a universal meaning to ethnic issues and concerning themselves with non-ethnic issues, East End Jews hoped that they would be accepted as fully integrated participants in the local political culture. At the same time, however, it is clear that East End Jews continued to display a particular concern for the welfare of other Jews, both in Britain and abroad. Indeed, East End Jews could see no contradiction between their desire to participate in the local political system as equal members of the general working class and their desire to retain close ethnic links with fellow Jews. As this paper has shown, East End Jews were divided on almost every major political issue. The community was not, therefore, politically homogeneous. This mistake has often been made by commentators of the Jewish East End who have tried to impose their own convenient ideological labelling on the area. Clearly, the political complexion of the inter-war Jewish East End was overwhelmingly left wing, but the East End Jewish left encompassed a wide range of political activism from right-wing Labour Party supporters through to Communists who were so militant that they even rejected the diktat of the British Communist Party. In addition to these political divisions there were also class divisions within the East End Jewish community. These were either based on the employer-employee relationship as in, for example, the distributive and manufacturing trades, or on the landlord-tenant relationship as in the rent strikes. Yet above and beyond these political and class divisions all East End Jews were united by their shared sense of belonging in the East End. This sense of place and neighbourhood ultimately proved stronger than internal divisions. Indeed, in the absence of a clear Jewish political agenda East End Jews were able to maintain their ethnic distinctiveness by the very fact of their rootedness in a small, highly personalized neighbourhood. NOTES 1 Jewish Chronicle Colour Magazine 6 Dec. 1985. 2 The New Survey of London Life and Labour VI Survey of Social Conditions (London 1934) 22. 3 Jewish Chronicle (hereafter JC) 25 Nov. 1921, pp. 18-19. 4 Ibid. 21 Oct. 1921, p. 12. 5 Ibid. 3 March 1933, pp. 8, 12. 6 Ibid. 31 March 1933, p. 12. 7 Ibid. 3 March 1933, pp. 8, 12. This point was confirmed by Henrietta Adler in The New Survey VI, p. 287. 8 M. Cohen, What Nobody Told the Foreman (London 1953) 81. See also Cohen's account in / was one of the Unemployed (London 1945) 2. 9 J. Rex, Race and Ethnicity (Milton Keynes 1986)71. 10 Ibid. 14. 11 A. D. Smith, The Ethnic Revival (Cam? bridge 1981) 65-7. See also 13, 203. On con? temporary Jewish group solidarity see S. Haberman, B. A. Kosmin and C. Levy, The Size and Structure of British Jewry in igjj (London 1983) 3 367</page><page sequence="14">Elaine R. Smith 12 The Junior Zionist, supplement to The Zion? ist Review April 1919, p. 9. 13 The Jewish Graphic 3 Feb. 1928, p. 3; The Jewish Guardian 3 Feb. 1928, p. 5. 14 See, for example, JC 14 Feb. 1919, p. 6. 15 Ibid. 28 Feb. 1919, p. 22. 16 The Sinai League, Moses Gaster MSS, University College, London. See also The Sinaist III, No. 1, Feb. 1919. 17 G. Alderman, The Federation of Synagogues 1887-1987 (London 1987) 48-9. 18 JC 31 Jan. 1919, p. 6. 19 Ibid. 14 Feb. 1919, p. 6. 20 See, for example, The Jewish Guardian 11 March 1927, p. 11. 21 The Jewish Daily Post 5 June 1935, p. 6. 22 The Zionist Review Jan. 1935, p. 167. 23 See especially S. Blumenfeld, Jew Boy (London 2nd edn 1986); S. Blumenfeld, Phineas Kahn: Portrait of an Immigrant (London 2nd edn 1988); W. Goldman, East End my Cradle (London 2nd edn 1988); J. Jacobs, Out of the Ghetto: my youth in the East End: Communism and Fascism, 1913-1939 (London 1978); B. Kops, The World is a Wedding (London 1973 edn); E. Litvinoff, Journey through a Small Planet (London 1972); R. Waterman, A Family of Shopkeepers (London 1973) 24 The conflict between secular and religious definitions of Jewish identity was not unique to the Anglo-Jewish experience. See, for example, P. Hyman, From, Dreyfus to Vichy: The Remaking of French Jewry, 1906-1939 (New York 1979) 63. 25 Stepney Borough Council minutes, Vol. XX, 26 April 1920; 30 April 1920, p. 28. 26 Stepney Trades Council and Central Labour Party, Annual Report, 1919-20, 5. 27 Police report of demonstration held at Vic? toria Park, 22 July 1934, Public Record Office (hereafter PRO), HO 45/25383/532978/59A. It was also the view of the East End Communist, Israel Rennap. See Daily Worker (hereafter DW) 16 Nov. 1936, p. 1. 28 The Shop Assistant 5 Jan. 1935, p. 14. See also ibid. 23 May 1936, p. 432. 29 Ibid. 18 May 1935, p. (i). 30 S. Potashnik and B. Rosner (secretary and chairman respectively of the Workers' Circle) to the United Clothing Workers' Union, 8 May 1933, uncatalogued MSS, National Union of Tailors and Garment Workers Archive, London School of Economics. For the Workers' Circle belief that trade unionism was the best defence against anti-Semitism see The Circle Feb. 1937, p. 3 31 The Circle Dec. 1934, p. 6. See also The Provisional Committee of the Jewish Labour Con? ference to combat Fascism and anti-Semitism, type? script, n.d., uncatalogued MSS, Aaron Rollin papers, Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick. A Jewish Labour Council pamphlet, Sir Oswald Mosley and the Jews (London 1935) demonstrated the extent to which the Jewish working class were in the same economic position as the rest of the working class. The conclusion drawn from this fact was that the solution to anti Semitism lay in the close 'co-operation and solidarity of all workers, irrespective of race or creed'. 32 The Circle Dec. 1934, p. 6. 33/5 it true? JPC leaflet, n.d., uncatalogued, Communist Party of Great Britain Library (here? after CPGBL). See also What Fascism Means!]VC leaflet, n.d., uncatalogued, CPGBL. 34 Daily Herald (hereafter DH) 5 April 1937, p. 3; JC 30 April 1937, p. 20; East London Observer (hereafter ELO) 1 May 1937, p. 4; Vigilance July-August 1937, No. 2, Parkes MSS, 17/16, Southampton University Library; London Trades Council, j8th Annual Report 1937, 19; Ronald Kidd (secretary, National Council for Civil Liberties) to Secretary of State for Home Affairs, 7 June 1937, PRO, Metropolitan Police files 2/3112. 35 JC 25 Nov. i92i,p. 18. 36 Stepney Labour Times Oct. 1928, p. 4. 37 Stepney Citizen Dec. 1933, p. 1. 38 Stepney Trades Council and Central Labour Party, Annual Report, 1919-20, 15. 39 East London Advertiser (hereafter ELA) 21 Aug. 1920, p. 4. 40 Ibid. 16 Sept. 1922, p. 5. 41 Ibid. 16 Feb. 1935, p. 8. 42 Ibid. 4 March 1933, p. 6. 43 JC 27 Jan. 1933, p. 14. 44 See, for example, ELA 28 Jan. 1933, p. 5. 45 Ibid. 9 April i92i,p. 5; 27 Jan. 1932, p. 5. 46 The East End Pioneer Oct. 1921, p. 1; Nov. 1921, p. 6. For a discussion of the rates protest movement in Poplar see N. Branson, Poplarism, igig-ig2^: George Lansbury and the Councillors' Revolt (London 1979). 47 Interviews with Monty Goldman (April 1985); Solly Kaye (April 1986). 48 Jacobs (see n. 23) 173. 49 East London Trade Union Committee, n.d., uncatalogued, pamphlet collection, CPGBL. 50 Jacobs (see n. 23) 148, 170, 171. 51 P. Piratin, Our Flag Stays Red (London 2nd edn 1980) 17. 368</page><page sequence="15">Class, ethnicity and politics in the Jewish East End, 1918-1939 52 A number of contemporary witnesses have testified to the Catholic domination of Stepney Labour Party and its hostile attitude towards Republicans. For example, interview with Harry Wayne (June 1985). 53 See, for example, The Circle May 1937, p. 6 in which it was reported that the Circle had col? lected ?500 for Spain in the previous nine months. On Jewish Communist support for the Republican cause see H. Srebrnik, 'Jewish Com? munist Activity in London on behalf of the Spanish Republic', Michigan Academician XVI, 3 (Spring 1984) 371-81. I am grateful to Dr Srebrnik for drawing my attention to this article. 54 The Circle August 1938, p. 3. 55 On Cohen and Masters see B. Alexander, British Volunteers for Liberty: Spain 1936-1939 (London 1982) 36, 41, 51-2; W. Rust, Britons in Spain. A History of the British Battalion of the XVth International Brigade (London 1939) 20-1; Jacobs (see n. 23) 215. 56 Piratin (see n. 51) 38; ELO 29 May 1937, p. 1. 57 Communist Plan for Life in Stepney (Stepney Communist Party 1937), London District Com? munist Party pamphlet, uncatalogued, pamphlet collection, CPGBL; DW17 Jan. 1939, p. 8; Let ter from Michael Shapiro, ELA 30 July 1938, p. 6; ELO 25 March 1939, p. 6; ELA 4 Feb. 1939, p. 58 Piratin (see n. 51) 37-8, 40. 59 JC 2 June 1939, p. 20. See also ibid. 22 Dec. 1939, p. 18. 60 DW29 June 1939, p. 1. 61 Ibid. 18 March 1933, p. 4. See also ibid. 27 March 1933, p. 1. 62 Ibid. 6 Sept. 1934, p. 3. 63 See, for example, ibid. 6 Oct. 1930, p. 2. This has also been confirmed by oral testimony, for example, interview with Monty Goldman (April 1985). 64 Interview with Danny Silver (June 1985). 65 Interview with Danny Silver (June 1985). 66 Ibid. Also, interviews with Phil Piratin (June 1985); Solly Kaye (April 1986); Manny Weiss (June 1985). 67 The Young Zionist Dec. i93i,p. 17. 68 Interview with Bessy Weinberg (June 1987). 69 The Circle May 1937, p. 2; May 1938, p. 3; Workers' Circle Central Committee minutes, 9 Feb. 1938 in ibid. p. 4. 70 The Young Zionist Dec. 1936, p. 11. 71 Ibid. Jan. 1937, p. 12. 369</page></plain_text>