Why Muslims are not the new Jews

Easy parallels between today's terrorists and yesterday's immigrants distort history

By David Cesarani, October 22, 2009

Are Muslims — as is sometimes stated — the “new Jews”? In his hybrid documentary, The Enemy Within, broadcast last week on Channel 4, Joseph Bullman draws exact parallels between the historical experiences of the two communities. The comparison is superficially attractive and the JC’s own Jonathan Freedland was seduced by it in his column of September 18.

The programme’s narrator informs us that, in the 1890s, Britain was undergoing an influx of “foreign asylum seekers” including “anarchists — a group of fundamentalists being expelled from their own countries in Eastern Europe”. Bullman thus blurs the immigration of Russian Jews fleeing poverty and oppression in the Tsarist Empire with the movement of political émigrés to safe havens such as Victorian London. The confusion is deliberately increased by use of the word “fundamentalist”. Yet the Jewish immigrants were neither fundamentalist in a religious sense nor, for the most part, anarchistic.

True, there were anarchists and revolutionary socialists among them. But how Jewish were they? Jewish anarchists were anti-religious. On Yom Kippur, they held a feast outside the Great Synagogue: hardly a sign of fundamentalism. Unlike today’s terrorists who act in the name of Islam, Jewish revolutionaries were driven by a secular ideology.

Moreover, Jews were fleeing a tyrannical regime and a large part of British society, especially the Liberals, sympathised with their fight against Tsarist autocracy. Contrast that to the situation today. Whatever their personal beliefs, British Muslims are popularly aligned with Islamic countries that threaten British interests, like Iran, or where British troops are battling Jihadist militants. Whereas many British Muslims with family roots in Pakistan return regularly, Russian Jews gladly cut their ties with the “old country”. .

Bullman argues that foreign anarchists found a welcome among disenfranchised British workers who were on the brink of revolution. Few historians of Victorian Britain would recognise this picture.

And what of the Jews? According to Bullman, “in the Jewish neighbourhoods, revolutionary sentiment [was] on the rise”. In one passage echoing right wing anti-Jewish propaganda, Bullman’s narrator pronounces that the “Anarchist movement was dominated by Jews”. This would have come as news to Prince Peter Kropotkin, Mikhail Bakunin, and Enrico Malatesta. It would have bemused Rudolf Rocker, the German who led London’s East End Jewish radicals for 20 years.

The British press certainly did conflate the revolutionary movement with the Jews, but this was a fantasy. If Bullman is trying to persuade us that the linking of Muslims with terrorism today is equally fanciful, sadly his own witnesses proclaim the opposite. Imtiaz and Hanif Qadir and Omer Butt all testify to the widespread radicalisation of young Muslims.

This is not to deny that Jews were involved in violent criminal acts for political ends. In January 1909, two Jewish Bolsheviks raided a payroll van in Tottenham, killing two people and wounding 20 others, including seven policemen. The fugitives were eventually killed in a shoot-out.

In December 1910, police interrupted a group of Jewish revolutionaries breaking into a jewellery shop in Houndsditch. An exchange of gunfire left three policemen dead and two wounded. The gang was later traced to Sidney Street, in Stepney. When the fugitives fired at police officers sent to arrest them, the Home Secretary, Winston Churchill, authorised the use of troops. Two Jews died in the assault on their hideout.

This mayhem in London’s Jewish district empowered the bigots who denounced “alien” immigration and reinforced the canard that Jews were revolutionaries. But Jewish anarchists were mostly pacific. The worst violence was committed by Marxist revolutionaries and they were not trying to overthrow the British government, as Bullman alleges, but seeking to fund the cause in Russia.

British Jews denounced the radicals; there was no hint of sympathy or justification for their acts. The Jewish immigrants were no less hostile. Jews in Whitechapel used their votes to elect a succession of impeccably respectable Liberal Jewish MPs to represent them. Unlike today’s voters for Respect, they eschewed religious fundamentalism and political dissidence.

If anything, Jewish radicalism, and the response to it, proves the very opposite of what Bullman intends to show us about Islamic extremism. Despite superficial similarities between the Jewish experience and the position of Muslims now, it is only possible to create a parallel by distorting history.

David Cesarani teaches the new MA in Public History at Royal Holloway that explores the use and misuse of the past.

Last updated: 5:30pm, December 10 2009


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