The setting: central London. The occasion? A protest. An audience of 1,500 quietly seething Jews indignant at the Labour Party, accompanied by Labour MPs who shared their frustrations, gathered to hear a keynote speech from the president of the Board of Deputies.
But this was not 2018. It was Sunday July 28 1946. And this was — until last week — the last time the Jewish community had organised a protest of such magnitude against the Labour Party.
That protest, however, was not against naked antisemitism but the Labour government’s attempt to abort the birth of the Jewish state and its stifling restrictions on Holocaust refugees immigrating to Mandatory Palestine. It was organised not by the Board of Deputies but the Zionist Federation. The star of the show, Chaim Weizmann, was a last-minute drop-out, struck down by illness. Nonetheless, the flat caps and flapping coats of Anglo-Jewry shuffled in to the auditorium of the Palace Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue in central London to express their communal fury.
In the words of the JC’s editor last week, protest is “not the way we do things”. It is in America, and it certainly is in Israel. But the UK is different and that reticence is something the Palace Theatre attendees would have recognised.
The historian Richard Bolchover argues that the Anglo-Jewish community experienced the emancipation process as a contract, where full equality was granted on condition of becoming mere “Englishmen of the Jewish faith”. In short: keep your Jewishness in your heart and home but out of the public domain, and we will treat you as equals.
The result has been the conditioning of a lingering awkwardness into public Jewishness in the UK, and subsequently public protest has always been largely anathema to Anglo-Jewry, an act of mouthy ostentatiousness from a community more comfortable with a quiet word behind closed doors.
But then, as now — to Labour’s shame — the situation demanded it, because then, as now, the community was at the end of its tether. Britain’s Jews will only break from the usual demure propriety of Anglo-Jewish diplomacy if the fundamentals of their safety and security are at stake. They do not make the decision to protest lightly. Both in 1946 and 2018, unprecedented times called for unprecedented measures.
Yet there are differences between the two protests that reveal how Anglo-Jewry stands on more assured ground now. In the Palace Theatre, Labour MP and future Board of Deputies President Barnett Janner was at pains to profess of his cause that “there was something radically British in it, breathing the spirit of British freedom.” To him, the Zionist cause was at one with his country: “We have established a new Jerusalem in Jerusalem”.
Such effusiveness betrayed insecurity rather than confidence. Subconsciously or not, Janner sought to rebut a notion of Jewish separateness and the dual loyalty charge. Yet last week our communal leaders did not couch their anti-racist appeals in any “British tradition’ or highlight the achievements of Anglo-Jewry. The community is self-confident enough that it no longer feels the need to prove it belongs in order to demand to be treated as equals. British Jews can treasure the fact that this is one Jewish insecurity that has ebbed away.
Other insecurities remain. In the minutes of the Palace Theatre meeting there is an all-too familiar combination of affinity and alienation with the progressive cause. The Zionist movement was a socialist movement and Berl Locker, speaking on behalf of the Jewish Agency in London, expressed gratitude for “what the British Labour Movement had done for us” through its previous pro-Zionist and philosemitic positions.
But as with Labour-supporting Jews today, this only heightened the sense of betrayal. “What”, said Mr Locker, “has happened to this great Labour movement?” His crusade was both pragmatic and moral. The Labour movement “would govern the world only if the highest moral principles would govern Labour”.
And these words from 1946 could have just as easily been spoken in 2018: Locker “was a great admirer of what the Labour Party programme stood for”, but “there was something fateful going on today”.
The familiarity of this history should not be a cause for despair. There have been dramatic swings in Anglo-Jewry’s relationship with Labour, recovering from the tensions of 1946 to enthusiastic support for Harold Wilson. And an affinity for Margaret Thatcher did not prevent Tony Blair becoming immensely popular among British Jews. There is no invisible hand of history guiding the oscillations of Anglo-Jewry’s political support. The future is in the Labour leadership’s hand.
But if today’s Labour leader wants his relationship with the Jews to recover, he would do well to recall the frustrations of Britain’s Jews 60 years ago. Then, as now, words were not enough.
“On December 17th 1942… a Labour member — a backbencher — made a very simple suggestion: ‘Let us rise for a minute or two as an expression of sympathy for the Jewish people’” recalled Locker, noting his appreciation for those words.
“But we expected something to be done following that tribute.” Nothing was.
Well, Mr Corbyn. Britain’s Jews expect again.
‘Nazi persecution in Anglo-Zionist Thought, 1939-1949’, by Aaron Simons, will appear in Volume 49 of ‘Jewish Historical Studies: Transactions of the Jewish Historical Society of England’.