BOOK REVIEW / Blood and belonging: Englishmen and Jews: Social Relations and Political Culture, 1840-1914: David Feldman, Yale, 35 pounds

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
A REMARKABLE number of people, otherwise quite secular in their ways, seem to be reclaiming, or discovering, Jewishness. For some feminists, wanting perhaps to politicise their identity, it is a way of affirming their community with a wider constituency of suffering. In the hands of Emmanuel Levinas, the Talmud becomes the latest thing in deconstructive thought. For Jacques Derrida, Jewishness belongs to the realm of the imaginary; it is an inherently unstable identity, a master trope for the state of otherness, for what is called, in post-colonial discourse, the diasporic.

Englishmen and Jews is as much concerned with the uncertainty of belonging, and the indeterminacy of identity, as the theorists of post-modernity. But it is the work of a historian rather than a reader of cultural signs, and addresses itself to processes and their outcomes rather than images. The questions 'How Jewish were the Jews?' and 'How Jewish is Jewish History?' recur, asked sometimes of religion (the writer points to strange affinities between liberal Judaism and the critique of fundamentalist Evangelicals), sometimes of economics (East End sweating and domestic outwork in the 1880s and 1890s was the cutting edge of a new, more consumerist phase of manufacture), sometimes of associational politics.

Feldman's whole bias is to play down the Jewishness of British Jews, to show changes in their status as a by-product of development in other spheres, and to reintegrate what has been treated as minority or ghetto history into the mainstream of British constitutional life. Thus the lifting of Jewish disabilities - a pivot in Feldman's narrative - was a footnote to Catholic Emancipation. Similarly the Aliens Act of 1905, which put a stop to mass immigration from Eastern Europe, was an outcome of the rise of collectivism and state intervention in the lives of the poor.

Despite the striking photograph of family or synagogue elders on the dust-jacket, this is not so much a book about Jewishness as one about its many different hinterlands. Adopting a broad brush even when he is dealing with particularities, Feldman takes the story back to the making of Victorian liberalism. He is at pains to insist on the exogenous sources of change. For instance, in the upsurge of indignation against Russia over the pogroms of 1881-2, Feldman finds 'an illustration of a more general phenomenon, namely that in mid-Victorian England attitudes towards Jews emerged from discussion and debates in which Jews were not the central categories but into which they were interpolated'.

Feldman is a twin-track historian, drawing on an ecumenical assembly of authorities to lucidate even sectarian matters - for example, the character of the West London Reform synagogue of the 1840s - and using sources in Yiddish as well as English to bring an East European perspective to bear on the formation of Jewish occupations and trades, and thus to relocate the history of British Jewry in that of a much wider diaspora. Ambitiously, this book aims to reinterpret Jewish history and British (or what he calls 'English') history by studying both in conjunction.

The unexpected hero of the book, or anyway of its conclusion, is British liberalism, 'the obvious strength of a vision . . . that was rooted in a set of constitutional freedoms'. Feldman argues that the point at which the Jews began agitating vigorously on their own behalf, in the aftermath of the Aliens Act of 1905 and in face of the anti-foreign panic which followed the Hounsditch murders of 1911, was, from the point of view of entry into the national polity, British Jewry's coming of age. Earlier, though, he calls liberalism into question, pointing to the ways in which its universalising and democratising tendencies could make it impatient with the rights and privileges of small groups. A striking chapter on 'Disraeli, Jews and the English Question' shows how such lights of Liberalism as the historians Goldwin Smith and E A Freeman led the 'Judeophobia' of 1876-8, when Disraeli was accused of kow-towing to Asiatic interests and countenancing the massacre of Christians by the Turks: Gladstone privately referred to Disraeli's 'crypto Judaism', while publicly he deplored the 'the way in which . . . Judaic sympathies are now acting on the question of the East'.

A leitmotiv of this book is the enormous authority, in the 19th century, of the idea of England, and the extreme anxiety of Jews to win acceptance in their adopted country. This was true not only of the established banking families, the jewellers and goldsmiths, but also of the newly arrived immigrants of the 1880s, such as the religious militants of the Machzike Hadath or the social revolutionaries grouped round the Arbeiter Freund. When, in the 1900s, Zionists made a first appearance, they insisted that only British citizens could be elected to their Congress, while the Jewish Board of Guardians took an active part in repatriating to Eastern Europe thousands of what were regarded as undesirable immigrants.

Whether in imitation or by osmosis, the major Jewish institutions appear to have been modelled on native British ones. Thus the Chief Rabbi, who emerged as a national leader of the Jews only in the 1830s, seems to have fashioned his office after that of the Archbishop of Canterbury; there was even an attempt to win state recognition for an established Jewish Church. 'Prayers for the Queen and the Royal Family' is the heading of the Hebrew panel reproduced on the dust jacket. Feldman quotes the Chief Rabbi, in an address to the Jewish Lads Brigade in 1900, extolling the virtues of what he was pleased to call 'muscular Judaism'. He has a commander of the Brigade hoping that it would 'instil into the rising generation all that is best in English character, manly independence, honest truth, clean living, love of . . . health-giving pursuits'.

Englishmen and Jews has the defects of its qualities. Telling a story of the triumph of Englishness, it does not say much about the foreignness of the Jews, their use of Yiddish (there were still a Yiddish press and a Yiddish theatre in the 1940s), or the ways in which, when they spoke of der heim, as older ones were still doing in the 1940s, the reference was to Lithuania or Russia. Feldman has illuminating pages on the liberal Anglicanism of Thomas Arnold, and the activities of the Evangelical city missions, but surprisingly little about Jewish religious practice. The Jews in this book do not have muzuzahs (scrolls of the Law) on their door; they don't davan before breakfast or bensch after meals; nor do they swoon to their achingly melancholy liturgical music. Oddly, in the light of his thesis, Feldman does not discuss the possible reasons for British Jewry's exceptional attachment to orthodox forms of worship, or the weak development in this country, by comparison with the United States or continental Europe, of liberal and 'reform' alternatives.

It is notorious that things become historical at the point at which they are threatened with extinction. Now that British Jews, demographically speaking, seem to be an endangered species, perhaps they will attract the kind of historical notice historians reserve for disappearing worlds. If David Feldman's book is as influential as it deserves to be, the point of nostalgia will not be, as it was in Professor Fishman's East End Jewish Radicals, for Yiddish-speaking immigrants arguing passionately about the heim, but for a lost London full of manufacturing trades, and a lost England in which people actually wanted to be British.

Comments