The geniuses who quietly built up British businesses

Throughout its history, the Jewish Chronicle has maintained an almost shy approach to finance and business, but the remarkable contribution made by Jewish Britons in these fields cannot be ignored


LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - MAY 28: Tim Steiner and friend attend the opening of House of Elemis, Mayfair's only couture beauty house on May 28, 2015 in London, England. (Photo by Nicky J. Sims/Getty Images for Elemis)

When, at the height of the BHS pension fund scandal in 2017, the Jewish Chronicle chose to run my adverse commentary on the business activities of Sir Philip Green right across the front page, it was a seminal moment.

The JC, from the day it was founded 180 years ago, has maintained an ambivalent, almost shy, approach to finance and business.

The long association of Jews with finance, dating from the new freedoms provided by the Enlightenment in the late 17th century, has made Jewish newspapers and journals reluctant to recount the disproportional triumph of their fellow citizens in commerce.

There long has been a fear of feeding the stereotypes of Jewish bankers (and media moguls) running the world.

As an infamous 1841 tract by Alexander Weill put it, just as the first editions of the JC were rolling off the presses: “There is but one power in Europe and that it is Rothschild. His satellites are a dozen other banking firms; his soldiers his squires, all respectable men of business and merchants; and his sword is speculation.”

This toxic image of Jews in business is still as pervasive in the 21st century as it was when it was written.

At the height of the financial crisis of 2007-09, an article in Rolling Stone magazine reached back to an image first perpetuated by the notorious antisemite “Coin” Harvey by invoking the vision of global investment bankers Goldman Sachs as a great blood sucking “vampire squid”.

Former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn appeared to approve such a narrative when he endorsed the mural Freedom for Humanity by American artist Mear One in September 2012.

It depicted tycoons of Jewish appearance playing a high-stakes game of cards on a table made up of the backs of the poor and oppressed.

A combination of the general reticence of British Jews to draw attention to themselves together with fear of feeding longstanding tropes made the whole practice of reporting on Jews in business perilous.

It is remarkable, when trawling the JC archives, how little is made of the Jewish families, sometimes referred to as the “cousinhood”, who played such a brilliant role in the earliest days of the City.

Instead, we read in the JC of those early financial and trading geniuses the Rothschild family, the Mocattos, the Montefiores, the Samuels, the Waley-Cohens, the Franklins and others as the benefactors and builders of the enduring institutions of British Jewry: the Board of Deputies, the United Synagogue, the Board of Guardians (now Jewish Care) and the Jewish Free School.

When the great rush of Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe began in 1881, it was these denizens of Anglo-Jewry who as the funders of the Board of Guardians stood at St Katherine’s Docks to greet the new arrivals.

In their commercial lives, they were also the great merchant families who had plied their wares in the 17th and 18th-century coffee houses, sowing the seeds of merchant banks such as NM Rothschild and the great stockbroking and commodity houses.

Their successors, Warburg in the 1930s (now part of Swiss bank UBS), and Goldman Sachs, which arrived in the 1990s, provided the scaffolding for the modern Square Mile.

The JC’s interest in the early generations was as good citizens, rather than financial titans. The penniless, uneducated, Yiddish-speaking generations whom the established Jews initially welcomed to these shores would in the late 19th and 20th century help build the British economy as we know it today.

There is not a sector of British business to which Jews have not made a contribution. Sir Marcus Samuel, later Lord Bearsted, was the City commodity trader and merchant who founded Shell, one of the world’s largest energy giants.

In manufacturing, Sir Arnold Weinstock built the General Electric Company which by the 1980s had become Britain’s biggest electronic and defence company.

Sir Isaac Wolfson’s Great Universal Stores (GUS) was suitably anonymously named; he was much better known to JC readers as the builder of the Central Synagogue on Great Portland Street.

His commercial legacy lives on in the shape of Burberry, credit checking group Experian, Argos and much more. It was knowledge of mail order, gleaned from the GUS legacy, which allowed his nephew Lord Simon Wolfson to build Next into a £10billion online and retail giant.

Names that were too Jewish were hidden. The Salmon and Gluckstein families chose to build their pioneering catering and food enterprise under the name J Lyons, a cousin and figurehead-chairman (my mother’s family) rather than their own.

Marks & Spencer was more written about in the JC as a company doing business with Israel bringing Jaffa oranges and much more to UK consumers than as a business. Its shares were, however, a core holding for Jewish mothers.

In the petrol and property world, Gerald Ronson, trading under the name of Heron, regularly appeared in the JC. But they were for his profound contribution to the safety of the British Jews through the Community Security Trust, as well as his support of Jewish education.

Even the less savoury tycoons were featured for their community rather than more notorious roles.

The late Robert Maxwell wickedly plundered the Mirror Group pension fund. But the tycoon played a big role in the airlift of Jews from the Cold War Soviet Union to Israel. Behind the scenes, Philip Green has been a stalwart of Jewish Care and other causes.

Jews are also pioneers in the digital economy. Tim Steiner is one of the founders of Ocado. Alex Chesterman is the genius behind the Zoopla property and Cazoo car trading websites.

If history is any guide it is their contribution to the community, rather than commercial brilliance, which will make the JC’s headlines of the future.

Alex Brummer is City Editor of the Daily Mail

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