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Israel Finestein, historian of Anglo-Jewry

Lloyd P. Gartner

<plain_text><page sequence="1">Jewish Historical Studies, volume 43, 2011 Israel Finestein, historian of Anglo-Jewry LLOYD P. GARTNER Israel Finestein, QC, MA, Shmuel to his friends, carried on two successful important careers: one as a barrister and a judge and the other as a historian. Busy, as his legal career demanded, he yet found the time to publish an impressive series of studies in Anglo-Jewish history. They appeared in the Jewish Chronicle, in various festschriften and conference papers, and mainly in the Transactions of the Jewish Historical Society of England (now Jewish Historical Studies), and were conveniently gathered by Shmuel during his later years, between 1993 and 2008, in four volumes under the imprint of Vallentine Mitchell: Jewish Society in Victorian England(1993), Anglo-Jewry in Changing Times: Studies in Diversity 1840?igi4 (1999), Scenes and Personalities in Anglo-Jewry 1800-2000 (2002) and Studies and Profiles in Anglo-Jewish History: From Picciotto to Bermant (2008). (Titles when cited here are abbreviated.) I begin this evaluation of Israel Finestein as a histo? rian by bringing to notice an essay that does not appear in his collected works. It concerns the prophet Malachi and with rare sensitivity treats his condem? nation of religious pretence and hypocrisy. I do not know what led Shmuel to undertake his apparently unique effort in the exacting sphere of biblical studies, except perhaps the urging of an active conscience. He otherwise restricted his writing to Anglo-Jewish history, and within that field did not touch the medieval era or the early generations following the Resettlement. He focussed on the Victorian and Edwardian period until about 1914, in which he had no peer. All his studies are written in the clearest English, often with touches of humour and irony, and most of them contain learned, schol? arly notes that sometimes reached unusual length. He was fully aware of Anglo-Jewish history's place within English history, and his writings impres? sively synthesize these elements. One specimen, cited below, treats the admission of Jews to Oxford and Cambridge Universities, where the uni? versities' broader scene is presented in some detail. Shmuel also wrote about Anglo-Jewry of his own time, practically all of whose significant figures he knew and about some of whom he composed thoughtful, well informed obit? uaries. He did not speak or write ill of persons. It may be noted that he expressed the deepest admiration for Lord Denning, the great and some? times controversial Master of the Rolls, and particular personal respect for Dayan Yehezkel Abramsky, many of whose long-remembered Sabbath I</page><page sequence="2">Lloyd P. Gartner Talmud lectures (shiurim) he attended. It also deserves to be put on record that Shmuel, the son of an immigrant merchant of Hull, knew Yiddish well and used it readily. Hull was the only local Jewish community part of whose history he wrote (Scenes and Personalities, 112-64). Shmuel's efforts as a historian began on fairly conventional lines, with an account of the career of Sir George Jessel, who had been elevated by Gladstone when Prime Minister to become Master of the Rolls, from 1872 until his death in 1883 (Jewish Society, 257-304). Finestein, as a lawyer who had been a student of English history, analysed in detail (unlike in his later writings) the development of the office of Master of the Rolls, and was atten? tive to JessePs position as the first Jew to hold judicial office in England, as was Jessel himself. Curious to add, Shmuel met the prominent American Jewish comedian of the recent past, also named George Jessel, who was a lateral descendant of the Master of the Rolls but could tell the inquiring his? torian nothing about him. The eminent lawyer and community leader Arthur Cohen was a later subject (Jewish Society, 305-26) and the legal scholar of American origin Arthur L. Goodhart (Scenes and Personalities, 233-43) received later, discerning treatment. About the same time as he wrote about George Jessel, Shmuel published his major study in the Transactions, entitled 'Anglo-Jewish Opinion during the Struggle for Emancipation, 1828-58' (Jewish Society, 1-53). Originally it was delivered as an address at a Jewish event that celebrated the centenary in 1958 of the Act that 'emancipated' English Jews by allowing them to become Members of Parliament in the House of Commons. Its argument must have raised eyebrows in Shmuel's audience on that occasion. He showed that Anglo-Jewry was more indiffer? ent than deeply engaged in the struggle to pass the Act, which stirred mainly the wealthy and the leaders, not the mass of poor Jews, most of whom could not yet even vote. Moreover, such important persons as the Chief Rabbi Adler and Moses Montefiore felt little enthusiasm for parliamentary eman? cipation, which they feared would divert many Jews from their communal and religious interests. Montefiore, the most famous nineteenth-century English Jew, was the subject of three carefully balanced, non-adulatory studies: 'The Uneasy Victorian: Montefiore as Communal Leader' (Jewish Society, 227-56), 'Sir Moses Montefiore: A Modern Appreciation' (Scenes and Personalities, 164-77) and the bitter but somewhat comic-opera episode in whose centre he stood, 'The Anglo-Jewish Revolt of 1853' (Jewish Society, 104-29). Montefiore appears as an eighteenth-century grandee of the com? munity unwilling to accept the nineteenth-century world of middle-class Jewish rule. Several important studies followed from this far-reaching reconsideration of Jewish emancipation. A highly suggestive one concerns 'The Jews and English Marriage Law during the Emancipation' (Jewish Society, 54-77). 2</page><page sequence="3">Israel Finestein, historian of Anglo-Jewry Jews had been able to marry and likewise to divorce within their community solely under the provisions of Jewish law (halakhah), without English legal regulation, until the Act of 1836, which enacted the canon law's broad pro? hibition of the Bible's 'forbidden degrees'. Some forbidden degrees were per? mitted in Judaism and a few prominent Jews sought a law to allow Jews to contract such now forbidden marriages. However, the contrary, dominant Jewish opinion opposed the seeking of laws for the particular benefit of Jews. Finestein shows with convincing clarity how this marginal issue bore on the larger question of the Jews as an equal or a separately recognized legal group. A further examination of issues connected to Jewish emancipation came in 'A Modern Examination of Macaulay's "Case for the Civil Emancipation of the Jews'" {Jewish Society, 78-103). Finestein's speech in Parliament and article of 1831 on behalf of Jewish emancipation (meaning the right of an elected Jew to take his seat in the House of Commons), quickly achieved classic status and made its author almost a hero among Jews. Macaulay's elo? quently expressed conception of the secular state stood in opposition to the young, then Tory, William Gladstone's advocacy of a Christian state ruled by an exclusively Christian parliament. The former's ready references to Jewish financial power, to a Jewish nation in England and to Jewish sepa rateness, amicably intended as they were, suggested a less favourable under? tone to views of Jewish peoplehood in England. Finestein carried further the implications he found in Macaulay in a series of articles which probed the depths of the subject. Above all, he gave credit to the good faith of opponents of emancipation, whose terms when negating emancipation were not far from those of Macaulay in its favour. They are admirably expressed in 'Some Modem Themes in the Emancipation Debate in Early Victorian England' and 'Post-Emancipation Jewry: The Anglo Jewish Experience' (Jewish Society, 130-53 and 154-81), as well as 'Jewish Emancipation in Victorian England: Self-imposed Limits to Assimilation' (Changing Times, 82-101). 'Some Modem Themes' presents cogently the objections to Jewish emancipation in its particular English sense. The pro? longed inaccessibility maintained at Oxford and Cambridge Universities to admitting Jews as students and to awarding them degrees was also due to the conviction that those national centres of learning should be Christian, prefer? ably Anglican. The Scottish universities and University College London, existing from 1828, were open to Jews, but a long campaign was needed to open Oxford and Cambridge to Jews as students and then as dons ('Religious Disabilities at Oxford and Cambridge and the Movement for Abolition, 1771 1871', Changing Times, 103-39). As Finestein shows, the strongest objection to parliamentary emancipation was derived not from hostility to Judaism or to the Jews as persons, but to the sincere wish to maintain England, and there? fore its Parliament, as a Christian state. A matter that somewhat perplexed 3</page><page sequence="4">Lloyd P. Gartner the Jews was their opponents' recalling Jewish faith in the messianic restora? tion in their distant homeland, which they saw as a conscientious obstacle to full Jewish citizenship in England. Restoration in messianic terms was a pillar of Jewish religious faith, also for English Reform Jews, which Anglo-Jewry did not cast away. Shmuel stresses how Jewish emancipationists saved appear? ances when they transferred faith in Restoration into the realm of the remote and the miraculous. 'Post-Emancipation Jewry' and 'Limits to Assimilation' (Jewish Society, 154?201) make clear how the Jewish community of Great Britain adjusted to its happy fortunes, which were better than in almost any other country. Their good fortune was justified, in a sense, by their extensive efforts to aid oppressed Jews abroad. In the later years of the nineteenth century, religious opposition to Judaism died down and respect, often admi? ration, for Jewish communal solidity and charitable effort took its place. Shmuel Finestein discusses this trend of thought brilliantly, taking Matthew Arnold as his model (Changing Times, 196-214). Yet while Arnold and a few others appreciated and enjoyed the hospitality of wealthy, cultured Jews, a tide of opposition to Jewish immigration rose during the 1890s ('Jewish Immigration in British Party Politics in the i8gos\ Jewish Society, 202?26). Israel Finestein was an active and loyal member of the Jewish community, knew it well and did not disregard its weaknesses. One conspicuous weak? ness was discussed in 'Educational Minimalism in the Ascendant, 1850-1914: Profile of Jewish Leadership at Bay' (Studies and Profiles, 1-28), which outlines clearly the apathy, amounting almost to disdain, for Jewish scholarship felt by the upper strata of Anglo-Jewry. Serious scholarship was deemed useless and impractical for the conduct of communal affairs that pre? occupied the community's leaders and managers. During the nineteenth century several efforts were made to establish Jewish scholarly institutions, all of them short-lived. The contrast with the scholarly accomplishments of German Jews was glaring and painful, although to the latter, works of schol? arship were believed necessary to establish their rights as German subjects, an effort not needed in England. Even Jews College in London, set up to train an English type of minister, whose necessity was recognized, was always kept on short rations. 'Anglo-Jewish Attitudes to Jewish Day-School Education, 1850-1950' (Scenes and Personalities, 52-95) shows sharply the strong class bias which underlay Jewish education. Day schools such as the huge Jews' Free School were needed for the foreigner class, but state schools suited English children. In contrast, children of well-to-do Jewish families were placed in expensive private, often Jewish, schools. Nowhere was Jewish education a major concern; the day school founded by the Chief Rabbi Nathan Adler alongside Jews' College never attracted enough students. The great Jewish historian Graetz was politely received when he visited England in 1887, where he called in his lectures for a Jewish academy of learning of 4</page><page sequence="5">Israel Finestein, historian of Anglo-Jewry international scope. Graetz was wasting his words, for nothing came of his lectures. Despite ShmuePs awareness of their manifest limitations, he respected the Victorian leaders of Anglo-Jewry for what they accomplished. At the head of his list is 'Lionel Louis Cohen MP, 1832-87: Aspects of the Establishment' (Studies and Profiles, 61-97), a banker, financier, Tory politi? cian and the most important founder of the United Synagogue and of the Jewish Board of Guardians (now the Jewish Welfare Board). Little interested in the demands of democracy, a hard-driving, persuasive worker and a tire? less master of detail, Cohen understood and dealt forcefully with the Jewish community's needs but solely in the accepted terms of his own time. Shmuel points unerringly to Cohen's strengths and shortcomings, among the latter his complacent attitude, which was that of his contemporaries, towards the shallowness of the education deemed fit for the masses and his indifference to Jewish learning. Victorian Anglo-Jewry had as its spiritual guide the Chief Rabbi Hermann Adler ('Hermann Adler [1839-1911]: Portrait of Jewish Victorian Extraordinary', Changing Times, 215-50) who functioned as 'Delegate Chief Rabbi' after the retirement of his father Nathan Adler in 1880, and after his death, as Chief Rabbi from 1892 until he died in 1911. Shmuel treats the younger Adler in a penetrating study of a man who never established rapport with the large immigrant majority, partly because his religious leadership too closely fitted his main constituency, native English Jews. His hostility to Zionism only deepened his alienation from the immigrant sector and their children, which only began to be bridged under his successor, the Chief Rabbi Hertz, a far different sort of man. Anglo-Jewry after two world wars was a different community from what it had been. England was no longer an imperial and world power, while the Jewish community attained unprecedented prosperity and a notable place in the country's political and cultural life; material life too substantially improved for the British population. No longer did an elite of connected families rule the Jewish community and a new elite, sons and grandsons of East European immigrants, took power. The Jewish community had new problems to reckon with, and Shmuel Finestein lived through them and con? sidered carefully their origins and consequences. In 'The Changing Governance of Anglo-Jewry, 1950-2000' (Scenes and Personalities, 1?51) he comes to grips with the radical changes in the structure and relations of power in the Jewish community during the period that he experienced and knew intimately. Funds were raised for Israel and, thanks to the new 'Jewish Continuity', also for Jewish education on a scale never known before. Many such funds were merged and co-ordinating councils came into existence to cover such needs as the community's physical security and social welfare. A now sizeable but somewhat distinct group was the Jewish intellectuals, whose 5</page><page sequence="6">Lloyd P. Gartner adherence to the Jewish community was desired but not easily obtained. 'The Estrangement of the Jewish Intellectuals' (Scenes and Personalities, 96-111) covers this problem subtly. Israel Finestein was a finished historian, an amateur only in the sense that historical research was not his livelihood. His mastery of historical data was manifest not only in the limited field of Anglo-Jewish history but also in the history of England, which he had studied as a student at Cambridge. Still more noticeable was his knowledge of Jewish history, in which he dispensed with the frequent, antiquated invocations of martyrdom and suffering which were the standard among amateur historians. He thus kept up with modem scholarship in Jewish history. His writing was always clear even when stately and every sentence made a point. Anyone who reads Shmuel Finestein's his? torical writings will understand that those who opposed Jewish interests, such as emancipation or immigration, were not necessarily wrong or wicked. These are the virtues of a lawyer, still more of a judge who is able to examine both sides of an argument. Shmuel's reader will hardly find economic or cul? tural history but a rich, rewarding diet of political, communal and legal history. In his chosen fields few if any have equalled him and he will long remain unsurpassed. 6</page></plain_text>