How Jews broke into the professions

By John Cooper, November 7, 2012
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In the past, Jewish mothers wished for their sons to become doctors or lawyers. Today, they are quite likely to want their children to become High Court Judges.

When David Edmond Neuberger was sworn in as the second president of the Supreme Court of the UK on October 1, it marked another landmark in the remarkable story of the Jewish contribution to the legal profession. Over time, members of the community have made their mark as solicitors, barristers and now judges, and helped to form major law firms like Berwin Leighton Paisner and Nabarro Nathanson.

Neuberger followed in the footsteps of Lord Phillips, the Supreme Court’s first ever president, who assumed office in 2009. Behind the remarkable fact that the first two presidents of the highest court in the land have been Jewish lies a fascinating historical story of Jewish appointments to high judicial office in the UK. At its heart is the paradox that Jewish candidates for the top reaches of the judiciary were perfectly acceptable in Victorian Britain, non-existent between the two World Wars and rare thereafter until the 1970s.

Serving previously as Master of the Rolls, Neuberger was in charge of the civil division of the Court of Appeal, which placed him in an excellent position for attaining the pinnacle of the legal profession. Starting as a member of a landlord-and-tenant chambers and with an affable manner and, in legal commentator Joshua Rozenberg’s words, “a razor-sharp intellect”, he rapidly climbed the judicial hierarchy before being appointed as a law lord. Opposed to the excessive use of superinjunctions to protect the rights of privacy, Neuberger has gained the reputation as a judicial liberal.

Jewish candidates for the top reaches of the judiciary were perfectly acceptable in Victorian Britain

When he vacated the office of Master of the Rolls, he was succeeded by another Jew, Lord Dyson, the fourth to hold this important position in 15 years, the others being Lord Woolf and Lord Phillips. Originally, Harry Woolf was passed over for the role because some felt it to be inappropriate for two Jews to occupy the two most senior judicial positions at the same time — at the time, his friend and colleague Lord Peter Taylor was serving as Lord Chief Justice.

Neuberger’s father Albert was born in Germany, where he studied medicine and chemistry. He came to Britain as a refugee, where he had to begin his career anew. Despite this setback, he eventually became professor of chemical pathology at St Mary’s Hospital and a Fellow of the Royal Society.

Jews filling top positions in the medical and legal professions in Britain; it seems so easy now. But it was not achieved without a struggle. Until the influx of East European Jews into this country after 1881, the British Jewish community was small, numbering only 60,000. Compared with Imperial Germany, Victorian and Edwardian Britain was a relatively open society, where the few anglicised Jews who entered the professions were accepted.

During this period, it was possible for a few Jews from patrician or wealthy merchant families to rise to the highest positions in the Bar or the front rank of the medical profession while retaining a Jewish identity. Examples include Ernest Hart, secretary of the British Medical Association and social reformer, physicians Gustave Schorstein and Bertram Abrahams, as well as lawyers including Sir George Jessel, Master of the Rolls, and Rufus Isaacs, the first Jewish Lord Chief Justice.

But, until 1914, the number of Jewish professionals in the UK was small, with no more than 90 or 100 doctors practising in London and perhaps a slightly smaller number of Jewish barristers.

There were still some prominent members of the professions at this time, such as the lawyer and former Secretary of State of the Confederacy, Judah Benjamin, who were only marginally Jewish. Others again, such as the eminent solicitor, Sir George Lewis — a man adept at hushing up Society scandals — were Jewish, but preferred mixing with non-Jews, neither emphasising their Jewishness nor denying it.

Between the World Wars, society was much less open. This was a time of heavy unemployment and economic malaise, with sharpening antisemitism that did not abate until a decade after the Second World War. No Jewish judges were appointed to front-rank (High Court) positions between the wars, with the exception of Sir Henry Slesser, who was the Solicitor-General in the minority Labour government of 1924 and was subsequently appointed a Lord Justice of Appeal. But, in any case, he was a convert to Catholicism. Discrimination was also widespread in the appointment of Jewish consultants to the top positions in the hospital system.

So, until the 1950s and 1960s, it was uncommon for Jews to reach the higher levels in the judiciary. True, there were outstanding individuals from the older Anglo-Jewish families, such as George Jessel and Rufus Isaacs, who had graced the benches in the High Court, but none had ever been joined by a Jewish colleague.

In 1943, Lionel Leonard Cohen, a leading expert in company law, was appointed a judge in the Chancery Division of the High Court — another solitary Jew on the benches. Descended from Levi Barent Cohen, the ancestor of the Anglo-Jewish “Cousinhood”, and a member of one of Anglo-Jewry’s most illustrious families with ties to the Rothschilds and the Montefiores, Lionel Cohen was educated at Eton and Oxford. He was the first Jew to be appointed as a puisne judge, then in 1946 the first Jew to become a Lord Justice of Appeal and finally the first to be made a Lord of Appeal in Ordinary, in 1951. On this last promotion, he was made a life peer.

When Seymour Karminski was appointed a High Court judge in 1951, the Jewish Chronicle proudly announced that “two members of the Anglo-Jewish community, for the first time in its long history sit on the Bench of the High Court”. Karminski was educated at public school and Oxford and was married to a granddaughter of the eminent solicitor, Sir George Lewis.

Six years later, Cyril Salmon was made a High Court judge; once again he came from an affluent family. His father was a cousin of the managing director of J Lyons. In 1964 he was promoted to the Court of Appeal. When, in 1964, Alan Mocatta was elevated to the High Court bench, this was the first time that there had been three Jewish judges sitting together in the High Court.

All four post-war High Court judges came from well-established families belonging to the Anglo-Jewish elite. Three were educated in well-known boarding schools, while one attended a public day school; all went on to university at Oxford or Cambridge. Two, Lionel Cohen and Alan Mocatta, were descended from some of the oldest families in Anglo-Jewry. The Mocattas, a Sephardi family from Spain, settled in England in 1671, establishing the banking house of Mocatta and Goldsmid.

Until the late 1960s, no Jew could become a High Court judge unless he — and it was he — belonged to the Anglo-Jewish elite, which differed little in educational attainments and lifestyle from the rest of the English upper class. But, starting in 1968, during the last years of Harold Wilson’s Labour administration, the Lord Chancellor Gerald Gardiner began to appoint Jewish barristers from middle-class backgrounds and of east European origin to the High Court bench. These men, for the most part, had been educated in local grammar schools and redbrick universities.

The first such appointment, Sebag Shaw ,was placed on the High Court bench in 1968. Seven years later he became a Lord Justice of Appeal. Here was a clear break with the past; promotion for a man who had grown up and been educated in the East End, and who headed what had become known as the “Jewish Chambers”.

Unlike the other post-war Jewish judges, he came to the fore in the criminal courts and was often used as a “trouble-shooter in difficult criminal cases where a combination of strength and discretion were particularly required in the presiding judge”.

The next Jewish High Court judge was appointed in 1970 — Cardiff-born Sir Philip Wien. Not long afterwards, Sir Morris Finer, an outstanding member of the post-war Bar, was elevated to the High Court bench. Aggressive in action in court, Finer sat in the Family Division, where his unrivalled knowledge of tax law was utilised to make it work more harmoniously with the social security system.

Despite having a national reputation as an outstanding defence lawyer, Dame Rose Heilbron was beaten in the race to sit as the first female High Court judge, and had to wait until the return of a Labour government until she was able to join its Family Division.

Why did the appointment of Jewish judges widen so significantly after the war? In the first place, the establishment of the NHS in 1948 wrought fundamental changes in the selection of consultants and other staff in hospitals. As more Jews from an immigrant background joined the ranks of consultants in major hospitals in the 1950s and 1960s, it seemed incongruous that judicial appointments should lag behind, and there was a knock-on effect on the legal profession.

In the past, great obstacles had been in the way of Jews wishing to become partners in big City law firms, thus limiting their involvement in company work and revenue law. But a cluster of firms founded by Jews and connected with big property companies — notably Nabarro Nathanson, Brechers, and BLP — emerged in the West End, as did others on the fringes of the City, such as DJ Freeman and Titmuss Sainer. This allowed Jewish solicitors to break into a new field and levelled the playing field for Jewish barristers seeking to specialise in company work and takeovers. In fact, Sir Lawrence Collins leapt from a partnership in a City law firm, Herbert Smith, into the upper echelons of the High Court.

Another reason was that, whereas in the mid-1970s, there were no more than 50 judicial appointments made every year, by 1997 that number had risen to 600, and the procedure for selecting judges followed guidelines under which the candidates were marked for communication skills, courtesy and humanity. Under Lord Mackay, the Conservative Lord Chancellor in the early 1990s, the higher judiciary increasingly became a meritocracy, with suitable candidates promoted irrespective of ethnic origin, gender, affiliation or religion.

Among the outstanding judges after the war were Peter Taylor and Harry Woolf. In 1992, Sir Peter Taylor was made Lord Chief Justice. It was a time when public confidence in the justice system was low, having been shaken by the quashing of the convictions of the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six. Taylor developed a judicial agnosticism and his judgments struck a balance. When he retired in 1996, public confidence in the judicial process had been restored. In 1989, he produced a report on the Hillsborough disaster, laying the blame for the tragedy on the police and the stadium owners, which led to the introduction of all-seater stadiums.

Harry Woolf was promoted in 2000 to Lord Chief Justice. By the early 1990s, he had extended the process of reviewing the government’s administrative decisions. He believed that judges could decide whether powers conferred by parliamentary statute were being exercised fairly and reasonably. Another esteemed judge, Lord Hoffman, was described before his retirement as “the most dominant personality in the Lords today by a mile, significantly outscoring the others in the number of leading judgments he has given”.

Whereas many of the judges from the older Anglo-Jewish elite families had a tradition of communal service, the leading judges of the recent era have — with notable exceptions — attached much less importance to their Jewish identity. Lord Taylor, for example, values his Geordie affiliations as much as his Jewish ones, while Lord Hoffman described himself as “a Jew by race rather than religion”. Still, it is fair to say that these days, parents can aim high in their dreams for their children.

John Cooper is a historian, retired lawyer and author of ‘Pride versus Prejudice: Jewish Doctors and Lawyers in England 1890-1990’ (Littman Library of Jewish Civilization)

    Last updated: 3:45pm, November 7 2012