The outbreak of the First World War - as told in the pages of the JC
Memories of the Russian pogroms and concern over whether war would provoke antisemitism in Britain were at the forefront of Anglo-Jewish minds when the First World War began a century ago this week.
For those who had only recently fled the Pale, alliance with Tsarist Russia was a frightening prospect. Likewise, in 1914 British Jews had close links with their peers in Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. When Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assasinated; the Board of Deputies sent “an address of sympathy” to the Emperor of Austria.
But a month later, Europe had become what the JC described as “a seething mass of fighting humanity” – and Britain and Russia were fighting on the same side.
The week war was declared, the JC carried stories of expulsions from Kiev, the Tsar barring Jews from Russian educational institutions, and even a blood libel. A fortnight later, the paper wrote of a “shudder of fear” provoked by the Russian advance into areas where Polish Jews lived. “If Jews had to be made over in their thousands to any one power, Russia would surely have been the last one chosen” the paper said.
Yet despite advocating for peace, once war broke out the JC made clear that this country had no choice in the face of German militarism – and argued emphatically that such fears aside, support for the war should not be in question.
“England has been all she could be to Jews; Jews will be all they can be to England,” read a leader that week. “Place aside any individual feeling we may have harboured as to the course of international affairs, even the bitter feeling that this country in this titanic struggle is linked with Russia”.
Such publically emphasised loyalty was vital, not least because in some cases, “Jew” was used as a byword for the German enemy. Explaining that this had “perhaps arisen from the fact that the bulk of the Jews in this country are Ashkenazic”, the 21st August edition of the JC condemned the fact that this “muddleheaded idea... has gained unpleasant expression”.
Most grievously, the JC noted that this slur had appeared in letters published by The Times. “The issue of the Times on Friday last contained two references which... might very seriously encourage the ignorant identification of Jew with German” the JC noted.
The paper’s then editor, L J Greenberg, wrote to The Times pointing out that “Jews are bound in loyalty to the country of which they are citizens. The Jew in Germany is no more German than the German, and the Jew in England is no less English than the English.”
Not that, it seems, the problem was limited to this country. As the JC highlighted, “every Jew in the minds of these foolish people is of necessity a German Jew, just as by a stroke of exquisite irony the native Jews in Germany are being assailed today as ‘Russian’ Jews”.
Despite these smears, British Jews signed up to the war effort and fought en masse. The following December, the JC published a front page appeal calling on Jews to “fall in” and enlist. Estimates suggest that more than 55,000 Jews in the British forces, while 100,000 fought for Germany on the other side of the trenches.