David Ce­sarani on WW1’s two fronts

The 1914-18 con­flict meant ei­ther fac­ing death in France—or fac­ing a dif­fer­ent kind of en­emy at home

The Jewish Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - BY DAVID CE­SARANI David Ce­sarani is re­search pro­fes­sor in his­tory at Royal Hol­loway, Univer­sity of Lon­don. He is com­plet­ing a book for Macmil­lan, ‘Fi­nal So­lu­tion: the fate of the Jews 1933-1949’.

THE FIRST World War trans­formed Jewish so­ci­ety in Bri­tain, ac­cel­er­at­ing the up­ward so­cial mo­bil­ity of the im­mi­grants and their chil­dren. But it placed enor­mous strain on the iden­tity forged by Bri­tish Jews and left the Jewish pop­u­la­tion bit­terly di­vided.

Dur­ing the diplomatic cri­sis of July 1914, the JC spoke for the com­mu­nity when it ad­vo­cated the “solid ground of neu­tral­ity”. Bri­tain was al­lied with Tsarist Rus­sia but few Jews wanted to fight along­side a regime they de­spised, least of all the thou­sands who had mi­grated to Bri­tain to es­cape dis­crim­i­na­tion and pogroms. By con­trast, Ger­many was viewed as an en­light­ened coun­try that treated its Jews rather well.

Once Bri­tain was at war with Ger­many and Aus­tria-Hun­gary, the JC hastily re­vised its po­si­tion and de­clared: “Eng­land has been all she could to the Jews. The Jews will be all they can to Eng­land”. Such slo­gans did lit­tle to dis­pel the pop­u­lar con­fu­sion sur­round- ing Jewish iden­tity and al­le­giances.

Prom­i­nent Jews of Ger­man ori­gin, such as Sir Edgar Speyer and Sir Ernst Cas­sel, came un­der in­tense pres­sure to sign “loy­alty let­ters” for pub­li­ca­tion in the press. Speyer was so dis­gusted that he re­signed all his pub­lic of­fices and em­i­grated to Amer­ica af­ter the war.

The pub­lic found it hard to dif­fer­en­ti­ate Jews from Ger­mans. The sink­ing of the Lusi­ta­nia in 1915 led to at­tacks on shops in east Lon­don owned by Jews with Ger­man-sound­ing names. To demon­strate its loy­alty, the Board of Deputies aban­doned Jews in­terned as “en­emy aliens”, even if they had ar­rived in Bri­tain decades ear­lier.

Most Bri­tish-born Jews strove to prove their fi­delity to king and coun­try. Within weeks of the recruitment of­fices open­ing in Au­gust 1914, thou­sands had en­listed. Ac­cord­ing to the his­to­rian V D Lip­man, by the time con­scrip­tion was in­tro­duced in May 1916, 10,000 Jews were serv­ing vol­un­tar­ily. They pro­vided 1,800 of­fi­cers, twice the av­er­age for the rest of the pop­u­la­tion and re­flected the ad­vanced ed­u­ca­tion and pro­fes­sional skills of the com­mu­nity. Con­scrip­tion swelled the num­ber of Jewish ser­vice per­son­nel to 41,500. This rep­re­sented nearly 14 per cent of the Bri­tish Jewish pop­u­la­tion, slightly more than the pro­por­tion of English­men in the armed forces. Lip­man reck­oned that this dis­crep­ancy stemmed from the fact that Jewish con­scripts came from ar­eas of the econ­omy where there were fewer re­served oc­cu­pa­tions.

De­spite its pres­tige as the se­nior ser­vice, only 400 Jews served in the Royal Navy and only 60 achieved com­mis­sions. Since the navy re­fused to ac­cept any­one for­eign-born or with for­eign-born par­ents it ef­fec­tively barred a huge slice of the com­mu­nity. Tellingly, five times as many served in the Royal Fly­ing Corps, pre­cur­sor of the RAF, a brand new or­gan­i­sa­tion with­out fusty mil­i­tary tra­di­tions.

On the Home Front the first months of the war were a time of eco­nomic dis­rup­tion and un­cer­tainty. How­ever, as the econ­omy be­came geared to the war ma­chine the for­tunes of Jews in the im­mi­grant trades vastly im­proved.

Cloth­ing man­u­fac­ture, shoe mak­ing, and car­pen­try had been poorly unionised, lowwage, and sea­sonal in­dus­tries. Govern­ment con­tracts for uni­forms, boots, and pre­fab­ri­cated wooden struc­tures set a de­cent rate of pay and ex­tended over 12 months of the year.

Con­stant em­ploy­ment en­abled Jewish work­ers to pay union dues, which gave them per­ma­nent rep­re­sen­ta­tion with em­ploy­ers. A vir­tu­ous in­come cy­cle en­abled many to move from the run-down in­ner cities where the im­mi­grants had set­tled, to houses in leafy sub­ur­ban streets. The ar­rival of Jews in new dis­tricts caused ten­sion, as did the flight of Jews from the East End in re­sponse to zep­pelin at­tacks and bomb­ing. MPs for south coast towns com­plained

of an in­va­sion by Jews and over­crowd­ing on com­muter trains caused by vol­u­ble East En­ders eat­ing fried fish.

As the U-boats took their toll on ship­ping, Jews were af­fected by short­ages like every­one else. But ra­tioning in­ad­ver­tently set Jews apart and stoked anti-Jewish feel­ing. When the pop­u­la­tion was re­quired to sub­sti­tute pork for beef the chief rabbi se­cured per­mis­sion for Jews to use their pork ra­tion to ob­tain ac­cept­able meat prod­ucts from kosher butch­ers. To non-Jews it looked as if Jews were get­ting favourable treat­ment from their own kind.

An im­pres­sion de­vel­oped that Jews were prof­i­teer­ing and shirk­ing their duty. There were, in­deed, roughly 30,000 Rus­sian-born Jewish men of fight­ing age who were in­el­i­gi­ble for mil­i­tary ser­vice even if they had wanted to join up. Many of them worked the in tai­lor­ing trades, mak­ing uni­forms, and the sight of able-bod­ied Jewish work­ers reap­ing the re­wards of govern­ment or­ders while English­men were dy­ing in the trenches caused im­mense in­dig­na­tion.

Since they were also im­mune to con­scrip­tion, the prob­lem fes­tered un­til 1917, lead­ing to anti-Jewish ri­ots in Leeds and dis­tur­bances in Lon­don. Fi­nally, Bri­tain con­cluded a con­ven­tion with Rus­sia un­der which Rus­sian­born Jews were of­fered the choice of com­pul­sory mil­i­tary ser­vice in ei­ther coun­try’s forces.

Fran­tic ef­forts to en­list Rus­sian Jews pro­voked op­po­si­tion among the im­mi­grants which ap­peared to sub­stan­ti­ate claims that Jews lacked pa­tri­o­tism.

Partly to in­duce them to serve, in mid 1917 the Jewish lead­er­ship re­luc­tantly swal­lowed the prospect of al­lJewish units. The Jewish es­tab­lish­ment had pre­vi­ously re­sisted the cre­ation of “ghetto” units, in­sist­ing that Jews serve as cit­i­zens ir­re­spec­tive of their faith.

Even­tu­ally, three Jewish bat­tal­ions of the Royal Fusiliers saw ac­tion in Pales­tine in 1918 and ac­quit­ted them­selves well.

Over­all, 2,000 Jews died in uni­form, in­clud­ing 300 of­fi­cers. Jewish hero­ism re­sulted in the award of five VCs and the same pro­por­tion of dec­o­ra­tions as won by English ser­vice­men.

Sadly, the con­tri­bu­tion of Jews to Bri­tain’s wartime strug­gle was ob­scured by a surge of an­ti­semitism in the post-war years. Jewish ex-ser­vice­men were soon back in the fray, this time de­fend­ing their co-re­li­gion­ists against a new and vi­cious en­emy.

Over 41,500 Jews served in the Bri­tish forces, 14 per cent of the coun­try’s Jewish pop­u­la­tion

An ap­peal for vol­un­teers pub­lished in the JC in 1914


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