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The growing Jewish community in Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries faced far fewer legal restrictions and enjoyed more religious toleration than their fellow Jews in Europe. There were, however, a number of barriers to full participation in civil, commercial and political life that applied to large sections of the population, Jewish and non-Jewish alike.
These had for the most part arisen as part of the peacemaking settlement that followed the Civil War in the 17th century. Access to public office, the universities, the professions, the army, and even retail trade in the City of London, was confined to those swearing an oath "on the true faith of a Christian", or in some cases testifying their allegiance to the Church of England. In response however to widespread political pressure - in which the Jews were able to make common cause with other disqualified groups - the barriers were gradually dismantled during the 19th century.
From then on, Jews were able to take up the highest offices, and gained access to all the professions. In 1835 Francis Goldsmid became the first Jewish barrister in Britain. The same year, David Salomons was elected Sheriff of the City of London, and 20 years later became Lord Mayor. In 1837 Moses Montefiore was knighted by Queen Victoria. Jews were able to graduate from London University in 1837, from Cambridge University in 1856 and from Oxford University in 1871.
In Parliament, several baptised Jews who were willing to swear the Christian oath took their seats in the House of Commons in the 18th and 19th centuries - men such as David Ricardo and Ralph Franco. The best known, and the most potent symbol, was Benjamin Disraeli, who became a member of Parliament in 1837 and rose to the top of British political life when he became Prime Minister in 1868. Although he had been baptised into the Church of England, Disraeli was known to have been a Jew by birth, made no secret of his Jewish origins, and was frequently lampooned as a 'Hebrew'.
Those who were unwilling to swear the oath, however, remained unable to sit in Parliament at all until the second half of the 19th century. The first Jew to do so without swearing the oath in its original form was Lionel Rothschild in 1858. This was his fifth time of being elected - on each of the four previous occasions he had not been allowed to take his seat! In 1866 the Parliamentary Oaths Act opened the door fully to future Jewish (and other non-Christian) members of Parliament.
These reforms affected only the more prosperous sections of the population. Full enfranchisement, regardless of property ownership or gender, was not achieved until the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Jews were on an equal footing here, though, with the rest of the population. This reinforced the image held by many, both at home and abroad, that England was a good country for Jews to live in, free of much of the persecution that dogged them elsewhere.
The high degree of political success enjoyed by Jews already established in the country meant little, however, in practical terms, to newly arrived immigrants around the end of the 19th century. Their circumstances were very difficult, as they fought for survival in the slums of London, Leeds and Manchester.
Newly arrived immigrants were isolated from the political mainstream. Unable to speak English, and unwelcome among either the existing Anglo-Jewish community or the native British community, immigrant Jews developed their own political responses.
The East End of London before the First World War was a ferment of ideas and political discussion, ranging across the spectrum from anarchism to Zionism. The heavy concentration of Jews in small areas, in London and elsewhere, made their votes in these areas potentially very important. They were soon electing Jewish MPs or expressing their views through the ballot box on issues relevant to Jewish immigrants.
In 1885 Samuel Montagu, a popular figure in the East End who had organised the small local synagogues into an influential Federation, was elected Liberal MP for Whitechapel.
Radical ideas proved attractive to some in desperate times. A group of anarchists had widespread influence in the immigrant community. Their newspaper the Arbeter Fraint , (Workers Friend), published in Yiddish, was widely read in the East End.
From premises first in Berners Street and later in Jubilee Street, the anarchists ran active programmes of lectures, concerts, plays and dances that attracted many immigrants seeking political education and social diversion. A leading figure among the anarchists was the German Catholic Rudolf Rocker (1873-1958), a charismatic character and superb public speaker who had learnt Yiddish and was widely admired by the East End Jews.
The fight to improve working conditions spurred many immigrants to become involved in political activity, through union membership and strike action. In London, the anarchists played a prominent role in organising Jewish workers. Rocker and others fought hard to strengthen Jewish trade unions, and in 1906 and 1912 helped organise two major strikes by the East End tailors, with some success.
Not all immigrants, however, supported radical movements. The anti-religious activities of some extreme radicals, for instance in organising anarchist balls on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, were deeply offensive to many Jews.
Others resented the damage the radicals did to the reputation of the Jews. These attitudes were reinforced by events such as the Tottenham Outrage in 1909, when a policeman was murdered by recently arrived immigrants, or the Sidney Street Siege in 1911, in which three policemen were killed after a bungled burglary.
After the First World War, the influence of socialists and anarchists in the East End declined rapidly, and politically active Jews turned to the Labour Party or the Communist Party, established in 1920. Some immigrants sought to improve their conditions through self-help. Friendly Societies, many established in the 19th century, provided an important social framework as well as aid for members in times of hardship or ill health.
These organisations were elaborate, with their own costumes, rules and rituals. In London in 1901 there were 13 Jewish orders of friendly societies, with a total membership of almost 23,000.
The Workers' Circle, a flourishing left-wing friendly society, was founded in 1909. It not only provided benefits for its members but also acted as an important educational, social and cultural club, organised from its headquarters in Circle House, Stepney.
It drew its members from the left wing in the widest sense: trades union members, anarchists, Communists, and socialists.The Circle's membership reached its highest levels in the late 1930s, when it became active in the fight against fascism.
Zionism - the belief that Jews should have their own homeland - was another political movement that found a deep emotional response among some of the immigrants. Some arrived from East Europe already influenced by Zionist ideals. Others were attracted to the movement when they heard Theodor Herzl's proposals to establish a Jewish home in Palestine.
The Zionist Federation of Britain was founded in 1898 and in the years before the First World War found support among newly arrived Jews in London and Manchester.
In the late-19th century, support for Zionism among the leaders of the Anglo-Jewish establishment was muted, many feeling it implied disloyalty to Britain. This began to change at the beginning of the 20th century: while emigration pressures from Eastern Europe remained high, both Britain and the United States had begun to introduce restrictions on immigration. Now not only the Anglo-Jewish establishment but also many non-Jewish politicians began to see the case for a homeland in which the emigrants could settle.
Although other destinations were considered, Palestine - with its existing core of a Jewish population and its historical linkage with the Jewish people - was the clear front-runner. In 1917, British government support for the idea of a Jewish homeland in Palestine was expressed in the Balfour Declaration.
Support for the Zionist ideal increased in the inter-war years, particularly in suburban areas, and among women and young people.
Women's organisations became the backbone of Zionist activity in Britain. It was an area where women were treated on equal terms with men.
Young Jews were attracted to groups like Habonim, which was founded in 1929, and encouraged the idea of settlement in Palestine. Habonim groups flourished in the newly settled suburbs like Cheetham Hill in Manchester, Chapeltown in Leeds or Cricklewood in London.
The establishment of Israel in 1948 made the Zionist dream a reality. Since that time, most British Jews have combined their strong sense of British identity with support for Israel, shown through support and fundraising.
As the immigrants became more settled in Britain, with increased social and geographical mobility, the rising generation moved more towards mainstream politics. The rise of fascism during the 1920s and 30s provoked changes in political attitudes, as opponents struggled to work out their response.
Following the First World War, Jews with left-wing views were more inclined to become active in the Labour Party, and the Mile End branch, with a large Jewish membership, was the most active branch in East London. Others, even more radical, joined the newly founded Communist Party of Great Britain.
The idealism which propelled many young Jews into the Labour Party in the 1930s also took many of them to Spain to fight the Fascists during the Spanish Civil War.
In the 1930s, the rise of anti-Semitism in the East End and the climate of increasing support for fascist policies in Europe heightened the political consciousness of the Jewish community. Sir Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists posed an increasing threat: the Fascists were strongest in East London, where the Blackshirts used terror and violence to instil fear in the local Jewish population.
Many young people responded by joining the Communist Party, which seemed to offer the only practical alternative to the rising threat of fascism. Other parties were lukewarm in their response to the Fascists, but the Communists were willing to confront them head-on. This earned them great support among Jews in the old immigrant districts. The Communist Phil Piratin was elected first to Stepney Borough Council in 1937, and then to Parliament in 1945.
Tensions in the East End culminated in the Battle of Cable Street on 4 October 1936. Mosley and 2-3,000 of his Blackshirts were prevented from marching by the police commissioner, who was concerned at the prospect of the fascists coming face to face with as many as 300,000 counter-demonstrators, in an alliance of Communist, trades union, Jewish and non-Jewish anti-fascists. The British Union of Fascists was seriously weakened and never posed a serious threat again.
Another practical way in which fascism was fought was through the widely supported boycott of German goods, in a protest against Nazism. Mike Stern, president of the Street Traders Association, led a demonstration organised by the United Jewish Protest Committee in 1933. The committee had been formed in response to Germany's measures against Jews. Some 50,000 Jews marched from the East End of London to Hyde Park, demanding a British Government boycott of German goods
The leaders of the community, however, concentrated their efforts in the 1930s on helping Jews to leave Germany, and supporting organisations, such as the Jewish Refugees' Committee, that were helping them adjust to life in Britain.
After the war there was a revival of fascism and attacks on Jews, particularly in London. To counter them, Jewish ex-servicemen formed the 43 Group, which broke up meetings, attacked fascist speakers and infiltrated fascist groups. Fascist meetings dwindled and the 43 Group disbanded itself in 1950.
Jews were now increasingly involved in mainstream politics. Twenty-eight Jews were elected to Parliament in 1945, of whom 26 were Labour Party members. None was a member of the Conservative Party, reflecting the traditional left-wing leanings of the first generations of Jewish immigrants.
In the post war period, however, the Conservatives attracted increasing Jewish support. As Jews became more affluent, their political leanings became very different from those of their impoverished ancestors working in sweatshops. By the time Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister, she was able to include several Jewish colleagues in her cabinet.
In the post-war years there have been few political issues, other than attitudes to Israel, that have generated a specifically Jewish response. One was the campaign for Soviet Jewry in the 1970s and 80s. In response to reports of Russian persecution, an active campaign was mounted by British Jews to persuade the Soviet authorities to allow Jews to emigrate.
Continental Britons, Jewish refugees from Nazi Europe (Jewish Museum and The Association of Jewish Refugees, 2002), (Grenville, A)
Cesarani, D (ed), The Making of Modern Anglo-Jewry (Oxford, 1990)
Endelman, Todd M, The Jews of Britain 1656-2000 (University of California Press, 2002)
Gartner, L, The Jewish Immigrant in England, 1870-1914 (2nd edition, 1973)
Lipman, V D, A History of the Jews in Britain since 1858 (Leicester, 1990)
Romain, Jonathon, The Jews of England (Michael Goulston Educational Foundation, 1985)
Beckman, M, The 43 Group (Centreprise, 1992)
Endelman, T and Kushner, T (eds), Disraeli's Jewishness (Frank Cass, 2002)
Feldman, D, Englishmen and Jews - Social Relations and Political Culture 1840-1914 (Yale, 1994)
Fishman, W J, East End Jewish Radicals, 1875-1914 (London, 1975)
Creators: Carol Seigel
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