top of page
< Back

The decline and fall of Anglo-Jewry?

William Rubinstein

<plain_text><page sequence="1">The decline and fall of Anglo-Jewry? WILLIAM D. RUBINSTEIN This paper will focus not on the demographic decline in Anglo-Jewry's population or the splits and fractures in Anglo-Jewish life, although these will be touched on, but on the loss of a separate British Jewish identity over the past forty years or so, as counterposed to other forms of nationally ori? ented Jewish identities. My thesis is as follows: each Diaspora Jewish com? munity in modern times has evolved separate and distinctive characteristics with its ambience, structure, component parts and ideologies, as Anglo Jewry most certainly did between about 1840 and i960; this Anglo-Jewish ambience and ideology was recognizably different from other very similar Diaspora communities, even in the English-speaking world. It regarded itself as different and prided itself on its differences. Since the 1950s, the distinctive characteristics of Anglo-Jewry have slowly but surely declined, so that today Anglo-Jewry draws most of its responses and cues from out? side, in particular, of course, from the two largest and most important com? munities in the world: the United States and Israel. Finally, this decline in Anglo-Jewish distinctiveness has coincided with, and is presumably related to, the decline of Britain as a great power and the loss of self-confidence and distinctiveness by the wider British community. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Anglo-Jewry developed a characteristic set of institutions and leadership elements which differed from those in other Diaspora communities. Self-evidently, the two most important and best-known were the Board of Deputies, which evolved in the century or so after its initial formation in 1760, and the institution of Chief Rabbi, which also gradually emerged at the same time. Other Jewish communities in Europe also had kehillot and recognized chief rabbinates, but without Britain's peculiar institutions. For instance, membership in the Anglo-Jewish community was always a voluntary act and the community had no power to levy taxes on all local Jews, as did many Jewish communi? ties on the Continent, unless they opted out to pay for Jewish social welfare, education, and so on. Yet the Board of Deputies was given extraordinary quasi-legal powers by Parliament in 1836-7 to name congregations legally able to conduct Jewish marriages, and later also acquired a range of other legal and quasi-legal powers, especially to grant exemptions to the Sunday Trading Act. 13</page><page sequence="2">Willam Rubinstein Apart from this, and more importantly, the mainstream of Anglo-Jewry adopted a characteristic set of group attitudes and unofficial defining struc? tures which continued to mark it for the next century or so. Most obviously, perhaps, it was in terms of religious practice what might be defined as 'mod? erate Orthodox'. While unswervingly Orthodox in its ritual, eschewing the development of the Liberal and Reform movements, it was equally wary of strict Orthodoxy, and Britain had no, or very few, Hasidic synagogues, yeshivot, or strictly Orthodox communities on the Eastern European line until, arguably, the twentieth century. Strict Orthodoxy hardly made any impact on Anglo-Jewry until after the Second World War. As a result, the Chief Rabbi was never, or almost never, a renowned talmudic scholar in the Eastern European sense, nor, obviously, the head of a closed community like the leader of a Hasidic dynasty. I believe that Solomon Herschell, who was Chief Rabbi (the first officially designated Chief Rabbi of the British Empire) from about 1802 until his death in 1842, was the only Chief Rabbi who was a talmudic scholar in the Eastern European mould. His successors became progressively more like Protestant ministers and the religious lead? ers of a small mainstream British sect. They gave English sermons that were increasingly the most important part of the service, wore recognizably Western clerical and lay dress as a matter of course and performed pastoral duties in much the same manner as other Christian clergymen, rather than, to reiterate, being chosen because of their traditional scholarship. They related centrally to the Anglo-Jewish community, its needs and structures, and paid little heed to the strictly Orthodox world of Eastern Europe, where the majority of the world's Jews lived until the twentieth century. By, say, the 1870s this process was completed, with 'Jewish Emancipat? ion' allowing Jews to sit in Parliament, hold any official position or join any profession, with a Jewish or pseudo-Jewish Prime Minister in office, and liberalism and toleration taken much for granted and universally internal? ized. The wider society in which the emergence of modern Anglo-Jewry took place was also unique, certainly in Europe, but possibly anywhere in the world. Britain had no mainstream reactionary element among its con? servative forces which opposed liberalism in general or Jewish rights in par? ticular, and never developed a significant anti-Semitic political movement. Something like the Dreyfus Affair, which split France down the middle for fifteen years, let alone the pogroms and blood libels of Tsarist Russia or the overtly anti-Semitic parties found even in Germany and Austria, did not exist in Britain and almost certainly could not have existed. Even compared with the United States, the goldene medina whose government, in George Washington's words, 'gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assis? tance', Britain was relatively free of the type of social and economic anti Semitism which was a hallmark of components of American society from 14</page><page sequence="3">The decline and fall of Anglo-Jewry? about 1870 until 1945 or later. For instance, most of America's elite univer? sities - such as Harvard, Princeton and Yale - are privately owned and can admit as students anyone they wish, for whatever reason. It is well known and well documented that, between about 1920 and 1950, most such uni? versities operated a ten-per-cent quota system on the admission of Jews as first-year students: about ten per cent of every entering class of first-year students were indeed Jews, although the percentage of Jews who applied for admission was far higher. At Yale, where this process has been studied in detail, one rabbi wrote to the Dean of Admissions in the 1920s expressing concern about this quota. He was told that there was no such quota and that, as the Dean cleverly put it, he supposed that every class at Yale had roughly the same percentage of'fat boys', although no one suggested that Yale had a quota based on weight. Yale's medical school at this time admit? ted fifty new students every year, of whom five were Jews and two Italian Americans - that was their notion of Jews in the pecking order. Although this subject remains unexplored in Britain, it seems likely that gross dis? crimination of this kind did not exist here, at least in the same form. Such ethnic and religious hostility as there was in Britain at this time was heavily centred on anti-Catholicism, especially anti-Irish prejudice, manifested politically through opposition to Irish Home Rule. Ireland was the perpetu? al running sore of British politics throughout the nineteenth century, down to Irish independence in 1922. There was no 'Jewish question' in Britain after 1858, although obviously there were manifestations and instances of anti-Semitism, as there are in every society where there are Jews. The Jewish presence in Britain became an issue of sorts in British politics only at the turn of the twentieth century, after two decades of what at the time passed for heavy immigration from Eastern Europe, with the debate over the Aliens Act, which from 1905 for the first time gave authorities the right to restrict immigration to Britain from outside the Empire. Until then immigration to Britain, from every source and for whatever reason, was totally unrestricted, a situation which obviously would have been modified at some point in the twentieth century. Jewish immigration was simply the catalyst for the inevitable. Most research on the Aliens Act has suggested that the level of Jewish immigration declined by about one-third between 1905 and 1914, although recent research by Andrew Godley concludes that it had virtually no effect on rates of immigration here.1 The period of the Aliens Act coincided with one of the 'golden ages' of Jewish life here, marked at the top end by Edward VII's so-called 'Jewish court' and the apogee of the great City of London 'cousinhood' families such as the Rothschilds. 1 Andrew Godley, Jewish Immigrant Entrepreneur ship in London and New York: Enterprise and Culture (Basin gstoke and New York 2001). i5</page><page sequence="4">Willarn Rubinstein In this atmosphere a deep sense of gratitude to Britain grew up through? out most of mainstream Anglo-Jewry. In the pages of the Jewish Chronicle one finds claims that British Jewry was 'twice Chosen' ? once as Jews, once as Englishmen. This is a theme which has been consistently downplayed by some historians, especially newer academic ones, but should not be under? estimated. A few historians have described this attitude as 'meliorism', a belief held by British Jews in the continuous evolution of Anglo-Jewish life in the direction of greater tolerance, a steady process assisted by the liberal? ism of the British Establishment. This attitude has been blamed for Anglo Jewry's alleged supineness during the Holocaust, but, since the Anglo-Jewish community was not supine in its response to the plight of Jewish refugees, and in any case Britain could do virtually nothing for the Jews of Nazi-occupied Europe who were prisoners of Hitler, it is difficult to see how 'meliorism' can be blamed for the inability to save Jewish lives. In fact, 'meliorism' generally, with some lapses, seems a perfectly valid and reasonable inference to draw from the treatment Jews received here, espe? cially when compared with almost anywhere else. Perhaps only once or twice did this faith in the British government fail, especially over the Balfour Declaration's commitment to a Jewish National Home in Palestine just before the Second World War, the MacDonald White Paper restric? tions of 1939 and Ernest Bevin's egregious policies in Palestine in 1945-8. The issuing of the White Paper in May 1939, at a time when German, Austrian and Czech Jewries were being forced to emigrate from Nazi Germany as quickly as possible, caused dismay approaching panic among even normally staunch Anglo-Jewish supporters of British goodwill in Palestine, and led to a permanent, significant growth in Zionist strength throughout the world. There is much about this attitude of'meliorism' and sense of gratitude by Anglo-Jewry towards the British government which was questionable. It was much easier to be grateful towards Britain's blessings if one were a Rothschild or a Montefiore, than for a worker in a sweatshop in Whitechapel. It is also true that for every Russian immigrant between 1881 and 1914 who opted to receive the benefits of Britain's blessed society, probably fifteen migrated elsewhere, especially to the United States, but also to other parts of the 'New Diaspora'. Nevertheless, and despite everything, a characteristic set of attitudes associated with mainstream established Anglo-Jewry grew up during this period. Probably its most important wider element was British patriotism, at least of an undemonstrative, non-tub-thumping kind, which was genuine and intense. Leopold Greenberg, the editor of the Jewish Chronicle at the time, said repeatedly during the First World War that 'England has been all she could be to the Jews; the Jews will be all they can to England'. The First 16</page><page sequence="5">The decline and fall of Anglo-Jewry? World War saw this Anglo-Jewish patriotism - a theme which has never properly been explored by historians ?at its peak. In a community of 300,000, no fewer than 41,500 British Jews served in the armed forces plus another 8500 in Empire armies, with 2300 killed and 1105 Jews awarded decorations and honours, including several VCs. Anglo-Jewry apparently supported the First World War as enthusiastically as any other sector of the population, with the exception of extreme left-wing radicals and Russian nationality Jews who, understandably, were reluctant to fight for Tsarist Russia. With few exceptions, Anglo-Jewry failed to develop an anti-war pacifist element such as was found among British Nonconformists, or any? thing like outright opposition to Britain as in the case of many Irish Catholics. The second distinctive element in the characteristic attitudes of main? stream Anglo-Jewry is its emphasis on decorum and proper behaviour, and the eschewing of subversive radical modernism. The United Synagogue was in this very much in imitation of any mainstream Protestant religion. During the interwar years and beyond, leadership of the mainstream Anglo-Jewish community saw the replacement of the old 'grandee' families not so much by newer immigrants - that came only later - but by a public school and Oxbridge elite, educated at schools such as Clifton College. (It is sometimes said that interwar Anglo-Jewry was in the hands of a Clifton educated elite.) More widely, Anglo-Jewry was possibly unique in produc? ing virtually no radical or subversive cultural or intellectual innovators, such as was common in Central or Eastern Europe or in America. Indeed, its cultural leaders, such as they were, comprised probably the most unin? novative of any significant Jewry. Despite the occasional claims by anti Semites that Jews were strongly associated with unsettling modernist values, the only well-known Jewish cultural innovator of this kind in inter? war Britain was the American-born sculptor Jacob Epstein, who was the target of much anti-Semitic venom. Paradoxically, however, several of the leading modernist figures at the time, such as T. S. Eliot, were themselves anti-Semites. Anglo-Jewry also developed a number of characteristic attitudes on key issues of the day. For instance, on Zionism, most British Jews, following the Balfour Declaration, were what was termed 'practical Zionists' as opposed to 'political Zionists' demanding a state. This concept is often misunder? stood. 'Practical Zionism' was not the same as anti-Zionism or 'non Zionism'. There were a range of anti-Zionists in Britain, from the Marxist left to universalistic religious leaders such as Claude Montefiore who gen? uinely continued to construe Jewish identity in religious rather than ethnic terms. Most British Jews, however, fully supported the practical work of building a large Jewish community in Palestine. Where most drew the line, 17</page><page sequence="6">Willam Rubinstein however, was in wishing to create an independent Jewish state, particularly outside the Commonwealth. The main reason for this was not, in my view, as is often said because they feared this would increase charges of'dual loy? alties' which would undermine the security of Anglo-Jewry, but because they thought the patriotic emotions which British Jews undoubtedly ought to hold should be directed entirely in favour of British patriotism. Most British Jews would have been happy to see the Jewish community in Palestine remain within the Empire or Commonwealth; they were uneasy only with the notion of an independent Jewish state with its own patriotic demands which would necessarily rival their British patriotism. This conundrum was resolved only after the establishment of Israel, when many Anglo-Jewish British patriots became patriots for Israel. This theme also, particularly the precise situation of British Zionist attitudes, remains almost totally unexplored and misunderstood by historians. During this period Anglo-Jewry was more unified in its leadership than now, with less in the way of dissenting groups rivalling the hegemony of the Board of Deputies and the United Synagogue. By the 1930s probably the only large group of Jews who were visibly outside the mainstream were the left-wing, often pro-Communist Jews in the East End of London and else? where, which the established community kept at arm's length. The United Synagogue in the interwar period was 'winning' the 'battle' with its com? petitors, especially the 'right-wing' Federation of Synagogues which had been predominant in the East End among many immigrants. Attempts by the Federation to expand to the newer suburbs of north London generally proved unsuccessful, and several Federation Synagogues opted to join the United Synagogue. Between 1912 and 1945, thirty-four synagogues were founded or came under the aegis of the United Synagogue, nearly all in the newer suburbs of north London. Other characteristic institutions of this time, such as the Jewish Lads' Brigades, emphasized the same values at the United Synagogue. At this time the United Synagogue and its leaders appeared more at home with its 'left'-wing rivals than with the first stir? rings of strict Orthodoxy in Britain. For instance, Professor Alderman has written on how Chief Rabbi Joseph Hertz in 1926 prevailed on the Home Secretary to refuse admission to Britain of a Polish Hasidic rabbi whose emigration to Britain was sought by a strictly Orthodox group in Gateshead. At the other extreme, there was some growth among the Liberal and Reform movements, whose joint membership in 1940 was about 6000, about one-sixth of the total of affiliated London Jews. Sociologically and in some respect ideologically the Liberal and Reform movements were closer to the United Synagogue mainstream than later or today, representing the same type of acculturated families, also lukewarm on Zionism, and neither group viewing itself as an enemy of the other, as is the case today. 18</page><page sequence="7">The decline and fall of Anglo-Jewry? The type of Anglo-Jewish ideology outlined here, especially the hegemo? ny of the United Synagogue, was probably at its peak between about 1925 and 1965 (and not earlier). In the earlier part of this period, the British Empire was arguably still the greatest geo-political unit in the world, with Britain down to the 1940s still unquestionably a Great Power. The authori? ty and popularity of the United Synagogue and Board of Deputies main? stream were increased by their association with a successful British Establishment, and unquestionably the decline of this has been closely linked with the postwar decline of Britain. Anglo-Jewry during this period was also at the head of Empire or Commonwealth Jewry, an extended Jewish community of growing importance. By 1939 the Jewish population of the Empire, including the ever-expanding Yishuv in Palestine, was more than a million, collectively the fourth-largest Jewry in the world after the United States, Poland and the Soviet Union and, next to America's, the second largest to live in freedom. Most of the Commonwealth automatical? ly recognized British Jewry, especially the Chief Rabbi, as its head, and there was a good deal of transmigration. For example, Chief Rabbi Israel Brodie was born in Newcastle and lived in Melbourne from 1922 to 1937, when he returned to Britain, eventually becoming Chief Rabbi. These link? ages, and the international importance of Anglo-Jewry in this period, again remain chronically underexplored themes among historians. Since the 1950s or 1960s, it is evident that all this has changed fundamen? tally, and the point of this paper has been the loss of any particular sense of Anglo-Jewish or British specialness, or any sense of a specific Anglo-Jewish pathway apart from that taken by the wider Jewish world. From the 1940s on, and emphatically from the 1960s, Jewish modes of identity have been set in Israel, the Jewish state, and the United States, the largest, wealthiest and most dynamic Diaspora community. It has become virtually impossible to identify a specifically British component to contemporary Jewish life as distinct from the definitions of contemporary Jewish identity set in Israel and America. One important reason it flourished down to the immediate postwar period is that viable alternative models did not exist: Israel had not yet been established, America's community, though large, was still too new and provincial to serve as a role model, while the great Jewish communities of Eastern Europe which existed down to the Holocaust were simply too alien and 'backward' in their ambience, language and appearance to serve as exemplars for Anglo-Jewry. Indeed, this Society and a handful of similar bodies apart, it has largely been forgotten that there was ever a specifically Anglo-Jewish pathway. A striking example of this may be found in the writings of the current Chief Rabbi, a scholar of modern Jewry who is familiar with the major historical and sociological sources. Yet his books contain little if anything about 19</page><page sequence="8">Willam Rubinstein Anglo-Jewish history, including Montefiore, Disraeli, Jewish Emancipat? ion, the evolution of Anglo-Jewish leadership and so on, but a great deal which reflects the thoughts of philosophers, sociologists and historians in New York and Tel Aviv. By the 1960s mainstream Anglo-Jewry had fallen into line, becoming Zionists, and advocating Jewish education rather than education at non-Jewish schools, even 'elite' ones, and so on. Another man? ifestation of this change was Holocaust commemoration, an important phe? nomenon which has been examined recently by a number of historians, especially Judith Berman of Perth, Western Australia.2 This change, which also occurred throughout the British Common? wealth among Jewish communities which had previously looked to Britain for leadership, was surprisingly late in coming. In October 1951, for instance, a prominent board member (and incidentally a refugee) of Temple Beth Israel, the chief Reform synagogue in Melbourne, Australia, was shocked to find that at an appeal meeting for Mt Scopus College, Melbourne's Jewish day school, 'only Hatikvah and not "God Save the King" had been sung'.3 This breach was regarded as so serious that it was referred to the Victorian Jewish Board of Deputies, the local representative body of the community. In Britain as late as 1953, Neville Laski, the able former president of the Board of Deputies, condemned Israel's raid against Palestinian terrorists at Kibya. It was wrong to suggest that there was an overriding Jewish loyalty to Israel: British citizenship, in his words, was not 'an umbrella you can open or close at will'.4 Throughout the 1950s there were constant calls (which are still occasionally heard), especially by the Liberal MP James de Rothschild, for Israel to join the Commonwealth. Probably only in the 1967 Six-day War, when an unprecedented wave of popular philo-Semitism and pro-Zionism swept the world, did it become wholly acceptable to be both an Israeli patriot and a British patriot ? indeed, as the sun set on Britain as a world power, this was more true of the former than the latter. Until even the 1980s Anglo-Jewry, for reasons which might be discussed, was surprisingly reluctant to grant the Holocaust any special place in Jewish commemoration or even, perhaps, Jewish memory. During the last fifteen to twenty years this has changed comprehensively, to the extent that Holocaust commemoration and memo rialization are as frequent and central as anywhere else. One can speculate 2 Judith E. Berman, 'Holocaust Commemoration in London (UK) and Jewish Community (Dis) Unity', unpublished essay. I am most grateful to Dr Berman, formerly of London and now of the University of Western Australia, for letting me see this valuable paper. See also Judith E. Berman, Holocaust Remembrance in Australian Jewish Communities, 1945 2000 (Crawley, Western Australia 2001). 3 Werner Graff, 'Temple Beth Israel', typescript, part 3, ch. 1, p. 9. 4 Cited in the Jewish Chronicle's obituary of Neville Laski, 28 March 1969. 20</page><page sequence="9">The decline and fall of Anglo-Jewry? on the reasons for this surprising reluctance. It might have been felt to detract from memories of Britain's specific role, including that of Britain's Jews, in the Second World War, which was to form a component of the Allied armies that wiped Nazism from the earth. For most British Jews, too, their direct experience of Nazism was surviving not a concentration camp, but the Blitz or the Normandy landings. This is one of the most important reasons in my opinion for the strange outbreak of anti-Semitism in Britain after the Second World War. Most British people thought, with good reason, that they were entitled to moral credibility and rewards for fighting alone against Hitler. Because Jews suffered a thousand times more severely from the Nazis than the British did, however, Jewish claims to greater moral credit aroused anger and hostility. Many would regard the decline of a specific Anglo-Jewish identity as nat? ural. Anglo-Jewry's 300,000 people could never evolve a central identity, while the Holocaust, the emergence of the State of Israel and, momentous? ly, the rise of the United States to world Jewish pre-eminence have under? mined large-scale Anglo-Jewish pretensions. The disintegration of the Empire and Commonwealth, the fact that Australian and Canadian Jewry no longer look to British Jewry for leadership and the general loss of British power and influence have added to this decline. Importantly, Anglo-Jewry during the past thirty years has been fracturing into hostile groupings, while the mainstream United Synagogue has lost authority and numbers. Many of its ceremonials and usages - the top hats and so on - now, perhaps regrettably, seem quaint to many, and remote from the contemporary ver? nacular. While this fracturing is symptomatic of mainstream Anglo-Jewry's decline, it was also caused to a certain extent by the loss of a separate Anglo Jewish identity after the 1950s. I am not sure what, if anything, can be done to reverse this trend, or whether the changes might not be for the best. Many of the ideological fea? tures of the old Anglo-Jewry, its lukewarmness towards Zionism, its class basis and the rule first of the 'grandees' and then of the public-school boys, were arguably obsolete. Yet in its day mainstream Anglo-Jewry was an important force for good and one never really appreciated by observers or historians. Its achievements and characteristics deserve to be placed on record for all to debate, now that with hindsight we can take a more bal? anced and comprehensive view of its features. 21</page></plain_text>

bottom of page