Our 150 years of wasted power

By Geoffrey Alderman, July 25, 2008

What have Jewish Parliamentarians ever done for the community?

This past week and next mark two important 150th anniversaries. It was on July 23 1858 that Parliament enacted legislation enabling professing Jews to sit in the House of Commons. Five days later, Lionel de Rothschild, at the climax of an 11-year campaign, was finally able to take his seat in that chamber as Liberal MP for the City of London.

When my late teacher, Dr Cecil Roth, published his ground-breaking History of the Jews in England in 1941, he virtually ended his triumphal narrative with the momentous events of that anniversary year - 1858.

But was the struggle really worthwhile? Roth and his generation certainly thought so. I am not so sure.

Very few of our Jewish forebears were in the least bit enthusiastic about Lionel de Rothschild's campaign. On the contrary, most of them opposed or were indifferent to it. The great mid-Victorian chronicler of London life, Henry Mayhew, recorded that he had been told by one "Hebrew gentleman" that so little did the Jews care about "Jewish emancipation" that he doubted whether "one man in 10... would trouble himself to walk the length of the street in which he lived" to secure Lionel's admission to the House of Commons. The lay leader of British Jewry, Moses Montefiore, and the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, Nathan Adler, were at best unsympathetic to Lionel's efforts and, at worst, deeply fearful that political emancipation would foster religious assimilation. The Board of Deputies played virtually no part in Lionel's efforts.

How are we to explain such attitudes?

Firstly, most British Jews reasoned that they had as much social acceptance and economic freedom as they wanted. Why upset this pleasurable existence by demanding the controversial right - which only the very wealthy could exercise - to sit amongst the Christians at Westminster?

Secondly, Lionel's campaign was widely regarded as a communal embarrassment - made worse by the irresponsible public antics of his great rival, Sir David Salomons. Having secured election as Liberal MP for Greenwich in 1851, Salomons had taken the parliamentary oath (illegally omitting the Christian phrase to which both he and Lionel objected) and had then sat down (if you please) in the Commons and - making an already scandalous situation yet more outrageous - illegally voted in three divisions on his own expulsion therefrom. Salomons had thus ensured that it was he, not one of the Rothschilds, who was the first professing (that is, unconverted) Jew to sit - to physically sit, you understand - in the Commons. But he had (it was said) disgraced the community in so doing.

Thirdly, the communal leadership feared that "Jewish" MPs would be elected who, far from adding lustre to the community, might well bring it into disrepute, and who might, in any case, be regarded by the Gentiles as constituting a Jewish "lobby".

Well, there have, it's true, been a few genuine scoundrels amongst the 200 or so professing Jews who have become MPs since the momentous events of 1858 - none more colourful, surely, than the Hungarian fraudster and spy Ignaz Trebitsch-Lincoln, who (though never a British citizen) was briefly Liberal MP for Darlington in 1910. But the fear that Jewish MPs would come to constitute a distinct and disciplined political "bloc" at Westminster has never been realised.

You could, indeed, number on the fingers of your hands the Jewish MPs who have, unashamedly and unequivocally, acted in the Commons to protect Jewish interests: John Simon (Dewsbury) and Samuel Montagu (Whitechapel) in the 19th century, Samuel Finburgh (North Salford) and Michael Marcus (Dundee) in the early 20th, Manny Shinwell (Linlithgow) and Harold Lever (Manchester Cheetham) later on, and later still Michael Fidler (Bury & Radcliffe) and Louise Ellman (Liverpool Riverside).

The fact is that the vast majority of "Jewish" MPs have never seen their Jewish origin or identity as incurring or attracting the slightest political obligation. Far worse than the mischief-making of Trebitsch-Lincoln was the perfidy of Maurice Orbach (East Willesden), the emollient Labour "Zionist" who proudly supported Ernest Bevin's Palestine policy. Far more detestable than the loudmouthed anti-Israeli Gerald Kaufman (Manchester Gorton) was the smooth-talking Barnett Janner (Leicester North-West), who although President of the Deputies and of the Zionist Federation could not, it seems, muster the strength of character to oppose his party by supporting Israel during the Suez crisis.

Having spent a great deal of time and money getting into Parliament, Lionel de Rothschild never once spoke in a debate. What a pity that other Jewish MPs have not followed his example.

Last updated: 1:42pm, July 24 2008