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Jews in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

William D. Rubinstein

<plain_text><page sequence="1">Jewish Historical Studies, volume 40, 2005 Jews in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography WILLIAM D. RUBINSTEIN This paper is designed to give an overview of the coverage of the Anglo Jewish community in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB).' In September 2004 the sixty-volume ODNB was published with great publicity, containing no fewer than 54,922 biographies of significant Britons (and of others overseas with a salient connection to Britain) from ancient times to those deceased by 31 December 2000. Written by over 12,000 different contributors, it substantially revises and updates the first Dictionary of National Biography (DNB), the great reference work origi nally published in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and revised regularly with supplementary volumes, the last of which covered prominent British persons deceased in 1991-6. The ODNB contains over 16,000 more biographical entries than the old DNB and its supplements. The ODNB is available in two different forms, as an impressive sixty volume work and in an on-line edition. The printed version has a list price of £7500 (£6500 for an initial period, and at a discount price for contribu tors); the on-line edition was available free to contributors until the end of 2004, when it became accessible at a cost of £100 per year for contributors and £195 for others. Most large reference and university libraries purchased the printed edition, and many others have already made exten sive use of the identical on-line edition, from which any article can be printed out (although not sent by email: this is blocked). Whatever doubts most sensible people have about computers and schol arship, there is no doubt that the availability of the ODNB on-line makes for a dramatic, indeed breathtaking, increase in the utility of the work and the assistance it can provide to scholars and researchers. Through the computer facilities of the on-line edition it is now possible, in particular, to make lists of persons according to specific criteria, which would have been absurdly difficult and time-consuming, or simply absurd, if one were working from 1 I must acknowledge the excellent essay by Dr Michael Jolies on 'Jews and the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography', Jewish Historical Society of England Newsletter u (January 2005) 1-5. which surveys this question from a slightly different perspective, but with generally similar conclusions. 247</page><page sequence="2">William D. Rubinstein the published volumes alone. For example, if for some reason one were determined to produce a comprehensive list of everyone in the ODNB born in the year 1800 or educated at Harrow, one would have to peruse literally every entry in the sixty volumes. Even by checking entries at a rate of 200 per day, without a break, it would take over eight months to produce either list. As a test, I asked the on-line edition of the ODNB to produce lists of everyone born in 1800 and educated at Harrow. Keying in these requests took about twenty seconds each, and within three seconds the computer edition of the ODNB produced full alphabetical lists of the 566 persons educated at Harrow and the 236 born in 1800. Each list included the dates and a capsule description of every such person. By clicking on the name one could immediately bring the full entry onto the screen. Using this method we learn that the ODNB contains 804 entries of Jewish persons, or about 1.5 per cent of all entries. This number is in fact an understatement, as a good many Jews in the ODNB are not identified as such. I noted, for example, entries on Lords Balogh and Kaldor, the play wright Leopold D. Lewis, all of whom were certainly Jewish, but not so described. Of fourteen people with entries in the ODNB named 'Levy', only nine are listed as Jews. Michael Jolies has noted others, for instance Dame Myra Hess, often cited as one of the more distinguished Jews of her time, and the architect Berthold Lubetkin.2 This represents sloppiness by the ODNB editors. Conceivably, non-Jewish authors of entries were unsure or even ignorant of the Jewish background of the persons they were writing about, although in many cases this is hard to believe. But some (not many, but some) non-Jewish authors of entries on Jews in the ODNB do appear to have been oblivious to this aspect of their subject's identity. Estimating how many Jews appear in the ODNB beyond the 804 is very difficult, but some 10-15 per cent may represent a low, but likely estimate. Even beyond this, there is a grey area of persons with some claim to Jewish identity, via descent through one grandparent, for instance, which is again difficult to estimate, but must surely amount to hundreds more. One notable, and, to some, disturbing, element made clear in the biographical notices in the ODNB is just how many British Jews, in the twentieth century at least, married spouses who were, at least on the basis of their names, apparently not Jewish. My very superficial estimate is that around one-third of the twentieth-century Jewish entrants in the ODNB may have been married to non-Jews. This is probably a higher rate than in the American Jewish community prior to the 1970s, and indicates, among other things, the ease of acculturation and acceptability of British Jews to the rest of society after a generation or two. Ibid. p. i. 248</page><page sequence="3">Jews in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Bearing this in mind, how do the 804 Jewish entrants in the ODNB fare as a percentage of all entrants? Have the work's editors done a good job in representing Jewish achievement in this vast new work? The answer is certainly yes, as the following table indicates. This lists the number of Jews and their percentage among all entries deceased throughout the familiar demarcation lines of Anglo-Jewish history, following the decadal bound aries found in the old DNB's supplementary volume (1760 is the date of the accession of George III and the foundation of the Board of Deputies; twen tieth century decadal periods ends in '1' rather than '0'): Number of Total Number Jewish Died of Jews of Entrants Percentage Before 1066 0 906 0.0% 1066-1290 6 1407 0.4% 1291-1655 12 8495 0.1% 1656-1759 25 7727 0.3% 1760-1799 26 3575 0.7% 1800-1857 45 8416 0.5% 1858-1900 113 8329 1.3% 1901-1910 36 1982 1.8% 1911-1920 37 1352 2.7% 1921-1930 33 1359 2.4% 1931-1940 46 1520 3.0% 1941-1950 33 1506 2.2% 1951-1960 53 1491 3.6% 1961-1970 65 1521 4.3% 1971-1980 73 1557 4.7% 1981-90 80 1642 4.9% 1991-2000 122 1905 6.4% Overall, 1.46 per cent of all entrants were Jews, an extremely impressive percentage. With the arguable exception of the medieval period, Jews are always overrepresented compared with their percentage in the whole popu lation. The degree of overrepresentation in the final decade (1991-2000) is of the order of roughly 10-12 times, an incredible differential that indicates something of the eminence (or occasionally notoriety) which so many British Jews have managed to achieve. (One wonders if a supplement to the ODNB covering those dying in, say, 2041-2050 will include quite so many Jews. Probably not.) These differentials, moreover, certainly understate the overall Jewish percentage, and not merely because the number of Jews included in the ODNB has been understated. Among those listed are many 249</page><page sequence="4">William D. Rubinstein non-Britons, including persons of note in the colonies and in what is now the United States prior to about 1790. It also includes hundreds of Irish persons, among them most of the leaders of the Irish Free State after its independence in 1922. The editors of the ODNB also had a policy of including every person previously listed in the DNB. Among these are hundreds of Anglican vicars who wrote works of local history, eighteenth century major generals, minor colonial administrators and the like, who might well not have been included had the work been written from scratch. While some colonial figures were Jews, obviously the overwhelming major ity were Gentiles, and had the ODNB not included so many persons of this kind, the Jewish percentage would surely have been even higher than it is. An extraordinary percentage of the recent Jewish entries were certainly refugees from Hitler, who achieved eminence in numbers disproportionate even to the Jewish community as a whole. The editors of the ODNB had an active policy of including prominent Jews, and did an excellent job in choosing names. The sub-editors respons ible for choosing Jewish entries, among them Professors David S. Katz and Geoffrey Alderman, by and large succeeded in their task, while many Jews appeared, of course, not because they were Jews but because they were eminent as scientists, writers, politicians, or in some other field. The ODNB had a deliberate policy of increasing the 'inclusiveness' of its entries, especially by adding more women, members of ethnic minorities, and significant achievers in unusual fields. While this has been seen as too great a concession to 'political correctness', with criminals and fringe radicals now much more prominent than in the old DNB, it is important to realize that this allowed for the inclusion of many more from what, for want of a better term, might be labelled the 'right' rather than the left. For instance, until well into the twentieth century the DNB had a policy of not generally including businessmen, however successful, unless they had made a mark at something such as philanthropy or art collecting. The ODNB corrects this, providing hundreds of new entries on successful businessmen, some of whom were Jews. In many cases their biographies have appeared nowhere else, and certainly not in an authoritative, concise form with comprehensive up-to-date bibliographical references. Since the editors included fringe and notorious figures if they were sufficiently important, some of the Jews given entries are those of whom the community is unlikely to be proud, such as Clarence Hatry (1888-1965), the most notorious financial swindler of the interwar period; Peter Rachman (c. 1920-62), whose name became synony mous with criminal racketeering in housing rental; Robert Maxwell (1923 90); and Oscar Slater (c. 1870-1948), whose wrongful conviction for a murder in Glasgow in 1909 did not alter the fact that he was a convicted thief. Within reason, and provided that entries of this type do not over 250</page><page sequence="5">Jews in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography whelm or detract from the large number of persons who should be included because they were worthy or significant in a mainstream field, this is of course surely justifiable in a comprehensive biographical work. Jews included in the ODNB range over a wide swathe and it is difficult to think of any areas which were conspicuously omitted or neglected. The medieval coverage is probably too low - so I am informed by experts - but the twelve Jews from the period 1290-1655, when there were allegedly no Jews in England, will surely surprise.3 Among Jews from the post-1880 period, those whose fame came largely by achievements within the commu nity — so are unlikely to be well known to others - were probably under represented. This is true, for example, of figures in the world of Yiddish theatre, early Zionist activists, communal leaders apart from the best known, especially outside London, and rabbonim and other religious figures, particularly those beyond the Chief Rabbis and a handful of other obvious names, and especially, it would seem, among the strictly Orthodox. These omissions were certainly not deliberate and were, perhaps, inevitable, given the nature of the ODNB. Then, too, while the ODNB includes 54,922 biographies, of which 804 (at least) concern Jews, there will always be a 54,923rd and an 805th most prominent who will not appear simply because there might be a cut-off point somewhere. The entries themselves are, generally, very good, although naturally a specialist may always find something to criticize. Some contributors were unwisely chosen, for instance Richard Davenport-Hines, who wrote no fewer than 142 entries and who seems to have had a policy of being gratu itously and pointlessly nasty about virtually everyone he described (with, it seems, one exception: Thomas Hamilton [d.1996], the monster who murdered twenty-six children at Dunblane, has an entry so deadpan and objective as to seem virtually apologetic. Compare Davenport-Hines on Sir Charles Clore, who is reviled from first to last). As noted above, some non Jewish writers of Jewish entries were oblivious to the background of their subject, although their Jewishness must in some cases have been among the prime defining components of their identities, and in others the most important. Nevertheless, dealing with the ODNB is rather like writing a biography of Winston Churchill or Abraham Lincoln: setting out their deficiencies is pointless, since their manifest greatness obviates criticism. The ODNB is a monumental summary of the best that historical scholar ship can accomplish in our time. 3 The first five of whom (in alphabetical order) were Dunstan Anes, merchant (d.1594), Alvise Bassano, musician (d.1554), Baptiste Bassano, musician (d.1576), Sir Edward Brampton (d.1508), and Philip Ferdinand, scholar (d.1559). The best-known was, of course, Rodrigo Lopez (d.1594). It should be noted that Edgar Samuel informed the editors that the Bassanos were not Jewish, but that they are described as such nonetheless. 251</page></plain_text>