The history behind the histories

I have just finished the final draft of my next book. With numerous appendices, voluminous footnotes and an index (which, unlike most authors, I am insisting on compiling myself), not to mention the introduction, it will run to around 200,000 words. It is a new history, British Jewry Since Emancipation, to be published by the University of Buckingham Press.

In 1992, under contract to Oxford University Press, I published Modern British Jewry. The work was designed and commissioned as the sequel to the History of the Jews in England, which OUP had first published in 1941, written by Cecil Roth, who taught me at Oxford in the early 1960s.

At that time I doubt that there were as many as half-a-dozen professional historians specialising in Anglo-Jewish history, the pursuit of which could guarantee nothing in terms of career advancement in the world of British academia (if anything, the reverse was true).

The readership in post-biblical Jewish studies that Roth held at Oxford had been specially endowed by the Bearsted family. Roth’s appointment to it had been highly controversial. Oxford coveted the money but not necessarily the man: it was only through the efforts of the Anglican philosemite Herbert Danby (professor of Hebrew at Oxford who had published the first-ever translation of the Mishnah into English) that tempers were cooled, at least to the extent that Roth’s appointment was ratified. But he was never made a fellow of any Oxford college.

Roth’s was the first scholarly history of British Jews. But it was also a work of propaganda — a wartime thank-you to the people of Britain for having been a great deal kinder to the Jews than the peoples of most other European states.

It virtually stopped with the triumph of Emancipation in 1858. It said almost nothing about the anti-alienism that was triggered by the immigration of Jews from eastern Europe at the end of the 19th century; on 20th century British antisemitism it was noticeably superficial.

In composing Modern British Jewry I determined to fill these gaps. Whether and to what extent I succeeded is for others to say. Beyond the magic circle of Anglo-Jewish literati, the work was (if I may say so) widely praised, but within this circle it was generally damned. I shall not be surprised if British Jewry Since Emancipation suffers a similar fate.

It gives me no pleasure to have to prophesy in these terms. But facts have to be faced, and whatever else you may think of me, few (if any) of you could ever accuse me of concealing the truth, or of glossing over the unpalatable. Let’s take a few examples.

To Cecil Roth and his generation the great Victorian Jew Moses Montefiore was a hero. I consider him, if not a villain (that would be unfair), then certainly a communal failure.

In my 1992 volume I offered evidence to support the view that British Jewry was far from welcoming to refugees from Nazism in the 1930s and 1940s. A great many of my fellow Jews found this deeply upsetting, and told me so.
In my new book I offer even more evidence to back up this argument.

Nor have I had any qualms about addressing the still largely taboo subject of domestic terrorism by pseudo-Zionist extremists operating in England in the late 1940s. Jewish anti-Zionists complained that Modern British Jewry failed to accord them the centrality to which they believed they were entitled. The good news is that in my latest work I devote several paragraphs to this strange breed.

And talking of strange breeds reminds me that an adherent of “Jews for Jesus” complained that Modern British Jewry did not mention them at all. I have now repaired this omission, and have taken care to give them the space they deserve.

But I should add that British Jewry Since Emancipation is neither a biographical dictionary nor a celebratory hagiography. In short, I have done my very best to leave no turn unstoned.

Churchill famously remarked that “writing a book is an adventure. To begin with it is a toy and an amusement. Then it becomes a mistress, then it becomes a master, then it becomes a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster and fling him to the public.”

That is what I am about to do.

    Last updated: 4:45am, August 23 2013