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The Challenge to Jewish History. Presidential Addresses

Cecil Roth

<plain_text><page sequence="1">THE JEWISH HISTORICAL SOCIETY OF ENGLAND The Challenge to Jewish History Presidential Addresses delivered before the Jewish Historical Society of England, October 20, 1936, and January 11, 1938. By Cecil Roth (0 SOME JEWISH CONTRIBUTIONS TO ENGLISH LIFE In the course of the last few years, as is obvious to all who follow current tendencies in thought and politics, the position of historical studies in the world has changed. They were formerly considered a scholastic backwater, to be explored by the ordinary reader only for occasional diversion, or, in rare cases, inspiration. But recent events have abolished the time-honoured conception of the " cloistered student." It is precisely the student and the scholar (as the Germans in particular discovered long ago) who can mould the conceptions of the rising generation, and thereby of a nation as a whole : and it is in the universities, the schools and the academies that the present struggle between freedom and obscurantism, liberty and authority, more especially centres. History is in the forefront of the struggle : and Jewish history above all. Down to the last century the attack against us was on b</page><page sequence="2">2 THE CHALLENGE TO JEWISH HISTORY a theological basis. We were informed that our beliefs, our religious practices, our infidelities, disqualified us from forming part of the political or economic organisation of the Christian state, and marked us off as fit subjects for persecution and attack. This was followed, of course, by the corollary that any Jew who abandoned his ancestral faith was relieved immediately and completely from the discrimina? tion which he had previously suffered. But the decay of religious feel? ing on both sides during the course of the past couple of generations has altered this. On the one hand, it is impossible, in this ostensibly tolerant world, to base restrictions (as was formerly the case) on sectarian grounds. On the other hand, the weakening of Jewish allegiance brought into existence a large category of persons against whom anti-Semitism could no longer express itself in religious terms. The basis of the attack therefore altered, from religion to race; and its justification, from theology to history. We are no longer told that those who believe as we do can have no part in a Christian state, but that there is something in our blood which renders us, ipso facto, bad citizens. It is alleged that the part we have played in European life has from the outset been disruptive and deleterious: that our contributions to modern culture have in every case been corrosive and harmful: that we have been, and are, fighting a deliberate battle for the overthrow of the best values in the so-called " Aryan " civilisation : that this poison is inherent in our blood, and cannot be modified or thrown off, either by formal change of religious allegiance or by im? memorial length of association with the traditions of any particular country. The campaign against us, on these lines, is not a sporadic one. It is the whole keynote of the new anti-Semitism. It is the official justification of the terrible persecution in Germany? and now too in Italy. It is the inspiration of the new anti-Semitic literature. It is repeated by agitators, even in this country, in gutter periodicals and at street-corner meetings. It is slowly permeating the minds of persons of goodwill, of the type more impressed by the itera? tion than by the cogency of argument. Such is the importance attached to this line of attack in Germany that there has been estab</page><page sequence="3">THE CHALLENGE TO JEWISH HISTORY 3 lished in Munich, under the highest auspices and with the utmost financial backing, an Institute of Jewish Historical Research, intended to re-interpret Jewish history in this light and to furnish mob-hysteria with a cloak of pseudo-scientific justification. The attack upon us, then, has removed from the theological to the historical field. We must be prepared to accept the challenge. We must answer argument with argument, slander with refutation, alle? gation with fact. And, in this battle, the Jewish Historical Society must be prepared, not only to offer its services wholeheartedly to the Community, but to take an outstanding part. It is my intention here to offer a few suggestions with regard to lines of research, for the most part neglected, which (as it seems to me) should be pursued at the present juncture. I propose to restrict myself only to matters of strictly Anglo-Jewish interest, leaving untouched for the moment the wider question, of the position of the Jew in the world as a whole.1 Anti-Semitism in this country has always been to some extent tinged with ordinary xenophobia. The influx from Eastern Europe, after the beginning of the Russian persecutions in 1881, strengthened this tendency, and it is to-day widely assumed that the Jew, because he is a Jew, is necessarily a newcomer into this country. The work of this Society should serve to correct this impression. We have pub? lished many volumes on the history of the Jews in England in the Middle Ages. If that settlement was interrupted, the responsibility did not lie with us. Yet the blood of these medieval English Jews must necessarily have suffused the whole of northern Jewry, at least, in the course of the six and a half centuries which have elapsed since the Expulsion of 1290; and, among the multitudinous progenitors whom each of us had at that period, there must have been some to whom England's leafy lanes and the wide sweep of the downs and the bare loveliness of the new-ploughed fields were as familiar and as beloved as they are to us. The Re-settlement of the Jews in this country goes back, now, 1 I have since dealt with this subject in my work, The Jewish Contribution to Civilisation (London, 1938).</page><page sequence="4">4 THE CHALLENGE TO JEWISH HISTORY for nearly three centuries. We were here, as a body, well before the Huguenot refugees began to arrive from France. The latter have since been absorbed almost completely into the mass of the English people, their descendants to-day priding themselves not a litde (when they can trace it) on their romantic descent. Our economic historians enlarge nowadays on the manifold benefits which accrued to English life from this immigration, which fostered the textile industry in particular, and laid the foundation of England's former phenomenal prosperity in this sphere. It is worth while to recall, in the circum? stances, that these refugees from Continental intolerance were at the beginning viewed by the mass of the population with anything but kindliness. Indeed, precisely the same allegations and criticisms were levelled against them as were subsequently levelled against the Jews ?to such an extent that anti-Huguenot pamphlets of the eighteenth century were reprinted almost verbatim in the propaganda against Jewish emancipation at the beginning of the nineteenth! For the Re-settlement period and afterwards, Anglo-Jewish his? torical research has been devoted preponderantly to the capital. But it is most important to realise that Anglo-Jewish life was by no means so centralised. Already in the middle of the eighteenth century (according to my random notes on the subject, brought together from a wide variety of sources), Jews may be traced all over the country ?in the University towns of Oxford and Cambridge, at Nottingham, Godmanchester, Lincoln, Frome, Colchester, Poole, Bath, and so on. There was a properly constituted Congregation at Portsmouth at least from 1747, at Bristol from 1754, at Canterbury from 1760, at Birmingham from 1781, at King's Lynn from 1746, at Plymouth from 1752, at Exeter from 1763, at Ipswich from 1790, at Liverpool, Manchester, Sheerness, Chatham, Swansea, Falmouth and Penzance from the closing decades of the century. Even in Ireland?at Dublin and at Cork?communities were in existence as far back as Stuart times. These facts, so little appreciated, are enough to demonstrate that we English Jews have our roots deep in this country?not in the capital alone. Yet, of all the places I have just mentioned, three only have had their chronicle more or less comprehensively compiled.</page><page sequence="5">THE CHALLENGE TO JEWISH HISTORY 5 Here, obviously, is an important gap in Anglo-Jewish historiography ?a gap which must be filled before we are able to answer our critics adequately. Our ignorance of the part which the Jews have played in English public life is equally regrettable. We know, indeed, of the statesmen and politicians of the past century, from Beaconsfield to Reading. Yet there are few who realise that the Jew lavished his devotion on the public life of this country from the very earliest days of the Re? settlement, when Simon de Caceres assisted Cromwell in his West Indian projects and (with other Jews) collaborated in the acquisition of Jamaica as a British possession. In the next century, we find Samson Gideon assisting Walpole to re-establish public credit after the bursting of the South Sea Bubble, and working strenuously in conjunction with the other Jewish magnates of London for the main? tenance of order during the " Forty-five." We are informed how Jewish merchants with shipping in the Thames placed it unreservedly at the disposal of the Government; how they poured specie into the Bank of England in order to restore confidence; how they collabo? rated, more than in proportion to their numbers, in the association of merchants who bound themselves to accept bank notes at their face value, notwithstanding the general feeling of insecurity; and how the lower orders enlisted in the Militia. At the same period, there flourished a certain Israel Isaacs, who (according to the obituary notices which appeared at the time of his death in 1786, at the age of eighty-two) was the last of the body of merchants who, in 1746, advanced to the Government ?2,000,000 at a day's notice in a sudden emergency. In the following generation, England thrilled over the presence of mind of " Jew Dyte," who saved the life of George III when an attempt was made to assassinate him during a performance at Drury Lane. How Nathan Mayer Rothschild attempted to restore confidence at the time of the Batde of Waterloo (pace the absurd legend which is still being circulated) should be familiar to all of us, after Lucien Wolf's brilliant researches on the subject. But it is completely forgotten to-day how his last important operation, carried through</page><page sequence="6">6 THE CHALLENGE TO JEWISH HISTORY just before his death in 1836, was to assist in raising the loan of ^20,000,000 which made possible the abolition of slavery in the British Dominions. (It may be noted, in this connexion, how one of the few West Indian planters who anticipated Government action in this matter by freeing his slaves spontaneously was Isaac Simon, grandfather of the late Serjeant Sir John Simon, the eminent lawyer and philanthropist.) Baron Lionel de Rothschild similarly threw him? self heart and soul into the work of relieving the distressed condition of Ireland, at the time of the Potato Famine of 1847; his work on this occasion being no less noteworthy, though less widely known, than his collaboration with Disraeli in acquiring the Suez Canal shares for England in 1875. I shall be saying nothing novel if I remind you that the English Jew has a long tradition of participation in every form of beneficent activity; yet, surprisingly enough, no one has yet assembled the data by which this assertion may be substantiated. Perhaps I may be permitted to make a very modest beginning. " The first English Jew " (as Wolf called Antonio Fernandez Carvajal) set the example when, on his death in 1659, he left " to the poor of the Parish of Saint Katherine Creechurche Tenn pounds "; and the tradition thus set was loyally followed by the city magnates of succeeding genera? tions, few of whom failed to remember the non-Jewish poor in their wills. Moses Hart, second founder of the Great Synagogue, be? queathed no less than ^1,000?a very large sum for those days?to the London Hospital at the time of its foundation. His son-in-law, Elias Levy, was one of the half-dozen Jews who became Governors of the Foundling Hospital within a decade of its establishment and paid handsomely for the privilege; another being his kinsman, Aaron Franks, who was reported in the Press on his death to have been in the practice of distributing ^5,000 yearly, " without distinction of creed or race." The reputation of Benjamin Mendes da Costa, his contemporary and collaborator (for they were colleagues in the estab? lishment of the Board of Deputies of British Jews in 1760), stood equally high in Gentile and in Jewish circles; and on his death it was found that, by a codicil to his will, he had made arrangements for</page><page sequence="7">THE CHALLENGE TO JEWISH HISTORY 7 his benefactions to be continued to the indigent families who had previously enjoyed his bounty. The heroic days were yet to come. The first English Jews who were received into English society, without losing in the process any? thing of their Jewish loyalty, were the members of the Goldsmid family : and they repaid England wholeheartedly. The two brothers, Abraham and Benjamin Goldsmid, were famous in their day for their munificence. The latter 's charitable instincts were commemo? rated particularly by the Naval Asylum, in the establishment of which he was active. It is no coincidence that his nephew, Sir Isaac Lyon Goldsmid, co-operated with Joseph Lancaster in spreading en? lightenment among the masses, and with Mrs. Fry in improving the conditions of prisoners, as well as being one of the founders of the North London Hospital. Thus we are brought to the beginning of the Victorian era, to Sir Moses Montefiore's widespread benefactions, and to the Rothschilds' long tradition of uaobtrusive charity. From this period onwards, the collaboration of the Jews in charitable and beneficent activities in this country has been outstanding. Here, I have space to cite only one or two instances as they occur to me. Dr. Barnardo, according to his latest biographer, was by birth a Jew?son of a Hamburg Sephardi, who, settling in Dublin, lost all connexion with his people. John Zachariah Lawrence, an eminent Jewish oph? thalmologist of the last century, established the institution which grew into the Royal Eye Hospital. Harry Barnato left ?250,000 for the Cancer Wing of the Middlesex Hospital. The Wandsworth Orphan? age owes its name, not to its location, but to the fact that it was founded by Lord Wandsworth, formerly Sir Sydney Stern, with a bequest of one million pounds sterling. Sir Robert Mond founded the Infants' Hospital in Vincent Square, Westminster. The vast charities of Bernhard Baron, unique both in scale and in method, are fresh in our minds; and the London hospitals have to-day no more munificent friend than Sir Edward Meyerstein. Nor should we of the Anglo-Jewish Community overlook the fact that the movement for the humane treatment of animals in this country, and hence in Europe as a whole, owes its existence to a Jew, working in the Biblical</page><page sequence="8">8 THE CHALLENGE TO JEWISH HISTORY and Rabbinic tradition?Lewis Gompertz, the real though neglected father of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and one of the noblest figures in the noble history of British humani tarianism. It is not only in the support and establishment of institutions for the relief of the sick and the needy that English Jews have shown their public spirit. The handsome gift made by Solomon da Costa Athias to the library of the British Museum, at the time of its opening in 1759, hardly calls for mention : though his appreciation of the institution at so early a date was not perhaps so natural as might now be thought. But to-day, as one goes through the Museum galleries, one is continually reminded how open-handed towards it Jews have been. In particular, there is the great Waddesdon Bequest, left by Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild, which in itself would constitute a museum of high order. At the National Gallery, there is the glorious Mond Bequest, not to mention the Duveen foundations at the T?te Gallery and at the National Portrait Gallery, which has made that institution the palace of delight which it is to-day. All these founda? tions owe much to the National Arts-Collections Fund, largely the creation of that discerning connoisseur, Henry Oppenheim. En pas? sant, it may be pointed out how much the two great national collec? tions owe to the " alien immigrant." The National Gallery was founded by John Julius Angerstein, who may be reckoned also the founder of Lloyd's in its present form : while the great library of the British Museum is a monument to the genius of an Italian exile (also said, though I believe inaccurately, to have been a Jew), Sir Anthony Panizzi. Turning to educational establishments, we have, first and fore? most, the institution with which the Jewish Historical Society is proud to be so closely associated?University College, one of the prime movers in the establishment of which was Sir Isaac Lyon Gold smid, who may thus be reckoned among the fathers of the University of London. At Oxford, there is Alfred Beit's foundation for the study of Colonial History: at Cambridge, the School of Chemistry, ire endowed largely through the exertions of Sir Robert Waley Cohen</page><page sequence="9">THE CHALLENGE TO JEWISH HISTORY 9 and his associates : at Liverpool, the magnificent new library, made possible by a gift from Harold L. Cohen (whose father, Louis Cohen, endowed hospitals and medical teaching in the same city on a vast scale) : and at more than one university Sir Montague Burton's char? acteristically Jewish foundations in the interests of industrial and international peace. Many seats of learning, both in this country and in Italy, have reason to be grateful to the memory of Arturo Serena, who devoted the whole of his fortune to fostering improved cultural relations between the two countries. He was not a professing Jew, but his parents, exiled from Italy for his father's strenuous support of Daniel Manin, were the first couple married in the Great Syna? gogue of Venice. There is to-day a somewhat ironic interest in recall? ing how, as a memorial to King Edward VII, Sir Ernest Cassel set aside the munificent sum of ?200,000 in order to found an Anglo German Institute, for assisting German studies in England and English studies in Germany.2 These instances could, and should, be assembled : for they would make an impressive list. For the student of social history, it is worthy of note that the participation of the Jews in English intellectual life began so early, notwithstanding the comparatively late date of the Re-settlement. Indeed, translations of Jewish liturgy into the ordinary language of the country, printed in Latin characters, were published earlier in England and its dependencies than in any other land, not excepting even Holland or Italy, the tradition going back to 1761 in America and to 1770 in England. Even before this date, English Jews had appeared as authors. As early as 1684, a rhymed epitaph in English was inscribed upon the grave of Isaac Alvarez Nunez, and in 1720 2 No account has been taken of religious allegiance in connexion with the persons mentioned in this paper. Malefactors of remote Jewish origin are invariably paraded as Jews by our critics, and in the circumstances it would be absurd for us to apply a religious test to those whose record does us credit. In connexion with Alfred Beit, it is not out of place to cite the very succinct account of his benefactions from the Concise Dictionary of National Biography: " Founded Beit professorship of Colonial History at Oxford, 1905; benefactor to Imperial College of Technology, London, to Rhodesia, to London and Hamburg charities, and to National Gallery; thirty fellowships for medical research founded in his memory, 1909."</page><page sequence="10">10 THE CHALLENGE TO JEWISH HISTORY English commendatory poems were prefixed to Daniel Lopez Laguna's Spanish translation of the Psalms?one of the most remark? able works of Jewish interest ever printed in this country. The earliest Jewish contributions to English literature in its more specific sense were probably those of Moses Mendes, who turned out a lengthy series of works in prose and verse from 1746 onwards, and who popularised (though he did not originate) the term " blatant beast." His primacy is closely contested by his contemporary and occasional collaborator, Dr. Ralph Sch?mberg, whose prolificness hardly kept pace, indeed, with his inspiration. Moses Mendes' cousin, the wayward Emanuel Mendes da Costa, was a still more important figure in intellectual life; member of half a dozen learned societies in this country and abroad and a foremost authority on natural history. His Elements of Conehalogy, which appeared in 1776, was long con? sidered a standard work; and his voluminous correspondence with various contemporary savants at home and abroad, which is pre? served in the British Museum, is a really remarkable monument of English intellectual life in the eighteenth century, the neglect of which by research workers is as regrettable as it is inexplicable. From this period onwards, there is an unbroken sequence of English authors and scholars down to our own day?through the Disraelis, father and son; Lewis Goldsmith, the sworn enemy of Napoleon; David Ricardo, founder of the science of political economy; John Adolphus, the historian, and his son the critic (who first penetrated the secret of the authorship of the Waverley Novels); the Gompertz brothers, one of whom was compared by his admirers to Dryden; and Sir Francis Cohen Palgrave, founder of the scientific study of English history, and his trio of gifted sons.3 It is remarkable (racial psychologists might perhaps discern in this an inherent genius for organisation) that many of the classical English works of reference owe a great deal to Jewish collaboration. 3 The best-known of the three was Francis Turner Palgrave, Professor of Poetry at Oxford and compiler of The Golden Treasury. It may be mentioned that such typical English songs as " The Death of Nelson," " A Life on the Ocean Wave," and " Home Sweet Home " were composed by Jews or (in the last case) by a half-Jew.</page><page sequence="11">THE CHALLENGE TO JEWISH HISTORY II One of the distinguished Palgrave brothers, whom I have mentioned above, initiated The Dictionary of Political Economy; Sir Sidney Low was joint editor of The Dictionary of English History; that glorious compilation, The Dictionary of National Biography, owes its existence largely to the industry of Sir Sidney Lee. Less directly, as patrons of letters, music and the stage, the part played by the English Jews was far from negligible. As early as 1720, we find Mr. Isaac Fernandez Nunez listed among the subscribers to so un-Jewish a work as The Life and Acts of Edmund Grindal, and several subscribed in 1748 to Anson's Voyage Round the World. The unpleasant Jewish character in a recent novel on Richard Savage is wholly fictional. But Savage had one Jewish patron and intimate, nevertheless?Mr. Solomon Mendes, a selection of whose corres? pondence with the wayward poet and James Thomson (author of The Seasons) was published in The British Magazine and Review in 1782.* The London Jews patronised Handel as sedulously as the nobility boycotted him, thus doing more than their share to save for England that which is most characteristic in English musical appreciation; and, when Mozart was in London as an infant genius in 1764, he was a guest in the house of no