We’re in­te­grated, but at a price

In the ef­fort to be part of Bri­tish so­ci­ety, we had to sup­press our own Jewish cul­ture


AD­DRESS­ING A Board of Deputies sem­i­nar in Sal­ford last week, lo­cal MP Hazel Blears, Sec­re­tary of State for Com­mu­ni­ties, spared not a word in the praise she lav­ished upon Bri­tain’s Jewish com­mu­ni­ties as a tem­plate, a model from which other im­mi­grant com­mu­ni­ties would do well to learn how to in­te­grate suc­cess­fully into Bri­tish so­ci­ety.

Now I won’t deny for one mo­ment that this in­te­gra­tion has in­deed been re­mark­ably suc­cess­ful. Jews are to be found at all lev­els of Bri­tish so­ci­ety and in all the sig­nif­i­cant strata of the Bri­tish state. But this in­cor­po­ra­tion has come at a price. And if we are to reach out to and as­sist more re­cent im­mi­grant groups, we need to be frank with our­selves — and with them — about the price that we have had to pay, and the sac­ri­fices that we have had to make.

Sort­ing through my li­brary re­cently I came across a book that was pre­sented as a prize to my late ma­ter­nal grand­fa­ther, who was a pupil at the JFS, in Spi­tal­fields, in 1896. The inside cover con­tains a ci­ta­tion, signed by the in­fa­mous Moses An­gel (an early ed­i­tor of the JC), who in 1842 be­came the school’s head­mas­ter, a post that he held for an as­ton­ish­ing 57 years.

In the lat­ter part of this ten­ure, An­gel was faced with the dif­fi­cult task of ed­u­cat­ing thou­sands of Yid­dish­s­peak­ing im­mi­grant chil­dren. “Their par­ents,” An­gel told the Lon­don School Board, “were the refuse pop­u­la­tion [he was re­fer­ring, in­ci­den­tally, to my great-grand­par­ents and per­haps yours too] of the worst parts of Europe”; “un­til they [the chil­dren] had been An­gli­cised or hu­man­ised it was dif­fi­cult to tell what was their moral con­di­tion … [They] knew nei­ther English nor any in­tel­li­gi­ble lan­guage.”

Well of course the chil­dren did know an “in­tel­li­gi­ble lan­guage”, namely Yid­dish. But as far as An­gel and the An­glo-Jewish lead­er­ship for whom he spoke were con­cerned, this was a “jar­gon” tongue. To teach the chil­dren English was one thing, and the JFS ev­i­dently did an ex­cel­lent job in this re­spect. But, in the name of in­te­gra­tion, and with the full ap­proval of the An­glo-Jewish lead­er­ship for whom he spoke, An­gel lit­er­ally flogged the Yid­dish out of the in­fants en­trusted to his care.

Th­ese young­sters, a Board of Trade re­port noted with sat­is­fac­tion in 1894, “en­ter the school Rus­sians and Poles and emerge from it al­most in­dis­tin­guish­able from English chil­dren”. But al­most their en­tire cul­tural her­itage (lan­guage, lit­er­a­ture, news­pa­pers, theatre) was jet­ti­soned in the process.

Let’s fast for­ward to the mid-20th cen­tury. By now the im­mi­grant gen­er­a­tions had been suc­ceeded by new, na­tive-born An­glo-Jewish com­mu­ni­ties, ea­ger to grasp the many op­por­tu­ni­ties that Bri­tish so­ci­ety of­fered, and to put their con­sid­er­able in­tel­lec­tual and en­tre­pre­neur­ial tal­ents at its dis­posal. The com­mu­nal lead­er­ship was happy to see this process at work — up to a point. But in the face of xeno­pho­bic hos­til­ity from the host so­ci­ety, An­glo-Jewry de­lib­er­ately ac­cepted for it­self a sec­ond-class sta­tus. Jewish shop­keep­ers were in­structed not to en­gage in busi­ness prac­tices which, though le­gal (such as of­fer­ing goods at be­low cost price to at­tract cus­tom), might an­noy their goy­ishe com­peti­tors. In 1940 the en­force­ment of this as­ton­ish­ing self-deny­ing or­di­nance was en­trusted to a for­mal body — the Trades Ad­vi­sory Coun­cil — whose job it was to make sure that the or­di­nance was en­forced. And it was.

Lest some of you are tempted to throw up your hands in hor­ror, and ex­claim that Al­der­man is just rid­ing one of his his­tor­i­cal hobby-horses, let me stress that the mind­set en­shrined in the Trades Ad­vi­sory Coun­cil sur­vived Sec­ond World War in­tact, and was to be seen as re­cently as 25 years ago, when, at the in­sti­ga­tion of our own com­mu­nal lead­ers, the Board of Deputies was em­pow­ered — by law — to vet (with­out ap­peal) ev­ery Jewish ap­pli­cant for Sun­day trad­ing reg­is­tra­tion, and to veto — some­times af­ter in­tru­sive and hu­mil­i­at­ing in­quiries — ap­pli­ca­tions of which it did not ap­prove.

In­stead of fight­ing anachro­nis­tic, ab­surd trad­ing laws, the com­mu­nal lead­er­ship will­ingly em­braced an in­fe­rior le­gal sta­tus for those whose in­ter­ests it claimed to rep­re­sent. And it did so (the late Samuel Mag­nus, QC, proudly told me) in or­der to de­fend the com­mu­nal im­age.

I omit from this anal­y­sis any con­sid­er­a­tion of the wider prej­u­dice still cur­rent against Bri­tish-born and Bri­tish-ed­u­cated Jews. Ms Blears, you were right. We Brits of the Jewish per­sua­sion are a model of in­te­gra­tion. But I do won­der, some­times, whether the price we have had to pay has been a com­pletely fair one.

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