Why Mus­lims are not the new Jews

Easy par­al­lels be­tween to­day’s ter­ror­ists and yes­ter­day’s im­mi­grants dis­tort his­tory

The Jewish Chronicle - - Comment&analysis -

ARE MUS­LIMS — as is some­times stated — the “new Jews”? In his hy­brid doc­u­men­tary, The En­emy Within, broad­cast last week on Chan­nel 4, Joseph Bull­man draws ex­act par­al­lels be­tween the his­tor­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ences of the two com­mu­ni­ties. The com­par­i­son is su­per­fi­cially at­trac­tive and the JC’s own Jonathan Freed­land was se­duced by it in his col­umn of Septem­ber 18. The pro­gramme’s nar­ra­tor in­forms us that, in the 1890s, Bri­tain was un­der­go­ing an in­flux of “for­eign asy­lum seek­ers” in­clud­ing “an­ar­chists — a group of fun­da­men­tal­ists be­ing ex­pelled from their own coun­tries in East­ern Europe”. Bull­man thus blurs the im­mi­gra­tion of Rus­sian Jews flee­ing poverty and op­pres­sion in the Tsarist Em­pire with the move­ment of po­lit­i­cal émi­grés to safe havens such as Vic­to­rian Lon­don. The con­fu­sion is de­lib­er­ately in­creased by use of the word “fun­da­men­tal­ist”. Yet the Jewish im­mi­grants were nei­ther fun­da­men­tal­ist in a re­li­gious sense nor, for the most part, an­ar­chis­tic.

True, there were an­ar­chists and rev­o­lu­tion­ary so­cial­ists among them. But how Jewish were they? Jewish an­ar­chists were anti-re­li­gious. On Yom Kip­pur, they held a feast out­side the Great Syn­a­gogue: hardly a sign of fun­da­men­tal­ism. Un­like to­day’s ter­ror­ists who act in the name of Is­lam, Jewish rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies were driven by a sec­u­lar ide­ol­ogy.

More­over, Jews were flee­ing a tyran­ni­cal regime and a large part of Bri­tish so­ci­ety, es­pe­cially the Lib­er­als, sym­pa­thised with their fight against Tsarist au­toc­racy. Con­trast that to the sit­u­a­tion to­day. What­ever their per­sonal be­liefs, Bri­tish Mus­lims are pop­u­larly aligned with Is­lamic coun­tries that threaten Bri­tish in­ter­ests, like Iran, or where Bri­tish troops are bat­tling Ji­hadist mil­i­tants. Whereas many Bri­tish Mus­lims with fam­ily roots in Pak­istan re­turn reg­u­larly, Rus­sian Jews gladly cut their ties with the “old coun­try”. .

Bull­man ar­gues that for­eign an­ar­chists found a wel­come among disen­fran­chised Bri­tish work­ers who were on the brink of revo­lu­tion. Few his­to­ri­ans of Vic­to­rian Bri­tain would recog­nise this pic­ture.

And what of the Jews? Ac­cord­ing to Bull­man, “in the Jewish neigh­bour­hoods, rev­o­lu­tion­ary sen­ti­ment [was] on the rise”. In one pas­sage echo­ing right wing anti-Jewish pro­pa­ganda, Bull­man’s nar­ra­tor pro­nounces that the “An­ar­chist move­ment was dom­i­nated by Jews”. This would have come as news to Prince Peter Kropotkin, Mikhail Bakunin, and En­rico Malatesta. It would have be­mused Ru­dolf Rocker, the Ger­man who led Lon­don’s East End Jewish rad­i­cals for 20 years.

The Bri­tish press cer­tainly did con­flate the rev­o­lu­tion­ary move­ment with the Jews, but this was a fan­tasy. If Bull­man is try­ing to per­suade us that the link­ing of Mus­lims with ter­ror­ism to­day is equally fan­ci­ful, sadly his own wit­nesses pro­claim the op­po­site. Im­tiaz and Hanif Qadir and Omer Butt all tes­tify to the wide­spread rad­i­cal­i­sa­tion of young Mus­lims.

This is not to deny that Jews were in­volved in vi­o­lent crim­i­nal acts for po­lit­i­cal ends. In Jan­uary 1909, two Jewish Bol­she­viks raided a pay­roll van in Tot­ten­ham, killing two peo­ple and wound­ing 20 oth­ers, in­clud­ing seven po­lice­men. The fugi­tives were even­tu­ally killed in a shoot-out.

In De­cem­ber 1910, po­lice in­ter­rupted a group of Jewish rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies break­ing into a jew­ellery shop in Hounds­ditch. An ex­change of gun­fire left three po­lice­men dead and two wounded. The gang was later traced to Sid­ney Street, in Step­ney. When the fugi­tives fired at po­lice of­fi­cers sent to ar­rest them, the Home Sec­re­tary, Win­ston Churchill, au­tho­rised the use of troops. Two Jews died in the as­sault on their hide­out.

This may­hem in Lon­don’s Jewish district em­pow­ered the big­ots who de­nounced “alien” im­mi­gra­tion and re­in­forced the ca­nard that Jews were rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies. But Jewish an­ar­chists were mostly pa­cific. The worst vi­o­lence was com­mit­ted by Marx­ist rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies and they were not try­ing to over­throw the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment, as Bull­man al­leges, but seek­ing to fund the cause in Rus­sia.

Bri­tish Jews de­nounced the rad­i­cals; there was no hint of sym­pa­thy or jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for their acts. The Jewish im­mi­grants were no less hos­tile. Jews in Whitechapel used their votes to elect a suc­ces­sion of im­pec­ca­bly re­spectable Lib­eral Jewish MPs to rep­re­sent them. Un­like to­day’s vot­ers for Re­spect, they es­chewed re­li­gious fun­da­men­tal­ism and po­lit­i­cal dis­si­dence.

If any­thing, Jewish rad­i­cal­ism, and the re­sponse to it, proves the very op­po­site of what Bull­man in­tends to show us about Is­lamic ex­trem­ism. De­spite su­per­fi­cial sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween the Jewish ex­pe­ri­ence and the po­si­tion of Mus­lims now, it is only pos­si­ble to cre­ate a par­al­lel by dis­tort­ing his­tory. David Ce­sarani teaches the new MA in Pub­lic His­tory at Royal Hol­loway that ex­plores the use and mis­use of the past.


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