We’re integrated, but at a price

In the effort to be part of British society, we had to suppress our own Jewish culture

Addressing a Board of Deputies seminar in Salford last week, local MP Hazel Blears, Secretary of State for Communities, spared not a word in the praise she lavished upon Britain’s Jewish communities as a template, a model from which other immigrant communities would do well to learn how to integrate successfully into British society.

Now I won’t deny for one moment that this integration has indeed been remarkably successful. Jews are to be found at all levels of British society and in all the significant strata of the British state. But this incorporation has come at a price. And if we are to reach out to and assist more recent immigrant groups, we need to be frank with ourselves — and with them — about the price that we have had to pay, and the sacrifices that we have had to make.

Sorting through my library recently I came across a book that was presented as a prize to my late maternal grandfather, who was a pupil at the JFS, in Spitalfields, in 1896. The inside cover contains a citation, signed by the infamous Moses Angel (an early editor of the JC), who in 1842 became the school’s headmaster, a post that he held for an astonishing 57 years.

In the latter part of this tenure, Angel was faced with the difficult task of educating thousands of Yiddish-speaking immigrant children. “Their parents,” Angel told the London School Board, “were the refuse population [he was referring, incidentally, to my great-grandparents and perhaps yours too] of the worst parts of Europe”; “until they [the children] had been Anglicised or humanised it was difficult to tell what was their moral condition … [They] knew neither English nor any intelligible language.”

Well of course the children did know an “intelligible language”, namely Yiddish. But as far as Angel and the Anglo-Jewish leadership for whom he spoke were concerned, this was a “jargon” tongue. To teach the children English was one thing, and the JFS evidently did an excellent job in this respect. But, in the name of integration, and with the full approval of the Anglo-Jewish leadership for whom he spoke, Angel literally flogged the Yiddish out of the infants entrusted to his care.

These youngsters, a Board of Trade report noted with satisfaction in 1894, “enter the school Russians and Poles and emerge from it almost indistinguishable from English children”. But almost their entire cultural heritage (language, literature, newspapers, theatre) was jettisoned in the process.

Let’s fast forward to the mid-20th century. By now the immigrant generations had been succeeded by new, native-born Anglo-Jewish communities, eager to grasp the many opportunities that British society offered, and to put their considerable intellectual and entrepreneurial talents at its disposal. The communal leadership was happy to see this process at work — up to a point. But in the face of xenophobic hostility from the host society, Anglo-Jewry deliberately accepted for itself a second-class status. Jewish shopkeepers were instructed not to engage in business practices which, though legal (such as offering goods at below cost price to attract custom), might annoy their goyishe competitors. In 1940 the enforcement of this astonishing self-denying ordinance was entrusted to a formal body — the Trades Advisory Council — whose job it was to make sure that the ordinance was enforced. And it was.

Lest some of you are tempted to throw up your hands in horror, and exclaim that Alderman is just riding one of his historical hobby-horses, let me stress that the mindset enshrined in the Trades Advisory Council survived Second World War intact, and was to be seen as recently as 25 years ago, when, at the instigation of our own communal leaders, the Board of Deputies was empowered — by law — to vet (without appeal) every Jewish applicant for Sunday trading registration, and to veto — sometimes after intrusive and humiliating inquiries — applications of which it did not
approve.

Instead of fighting anachronistic, absurd trading laws, the communal leadership willingly embraced an inferior legal status for those whose interests it claimed to represent. And it did so (the late Samuel Magnus, QC, proudly told me) in order to defend the communal image.

I omit from this analysis any consideration of the wider prejudice still current against British-born and British-educated Jews. Ms Blears, you were right. We Brits of the Jewish persuasion are a model of integration. But I do wonder, sometimes, whether the price we have had to pay has been a completely fair one.

    Last updated: 6:10pm, May 13 2008