Review: Anti-Semitism in pre-war Britain and now

SELHuG meeting, October 2019

David Rosenberg, the historian, educationalist and walks guide, opened his talk with a brief description of his family background. His grandparents were all immigrants – on his mother’s side from Ukraine to London’s East End and on his father’s side from Poland to Canada. He was brought up in a Jewish home and, although not himself a practising Jew, he observes and respects Jewish culture and the immigrant heritage. He said his strongest boyhood influence, apart from West Ham football club, was an acute sensitivity to fascism and its association with antisemitism. This background led to his joining the Labour Party.

He then presented an interesting review of the history of antisemitism in the UK. The earliest reference is from the C12th; Jews were expelled from the country in 1290 but then invited back by Oliver Cromwell in 1656. The stereotyping of Jews gained strength from the C18th onwards together with its use in antisemitic propaganda. 

In more recent times there have been two waves of antisemitism. The first existed from the 1880s to around 1905. This coincided with the surge in the arrival of poor, working-class Jewish immigrants from Russia and eastern Europe arising from antisemitic pogroms, leading to accusations that these immigrants were stealing British jobs and eroding pay levels. David suggested that the opposition was led by middle-class Tories and the trades unions. In 1901 the British Brothers League was formed to oppose further immigration and to call for legal restrictions. The Aliens Act was passed in 1905, promoted by the Home Secretary Lord Balfour who subsequently became famous for his support for Zionism and a homeland for the Jews in Palestine.

The second wave of antisemitism occurred during the 1930s. The British Union of Fascists was set up by Sir Oswald Mosley in 1932. Its membership grew rapidly and even included some Jews. By 1934 however it had evolved into a fully antisemitic working class movement. During 1936 Mosley was organising marches through areas of East London, although initially they avoided the areas of greatest Jewish occupation. However, in October 1936 he planned a major march through the Jewish East End. Jews and anti-Fascists formed a determined opposition and staged a major rally that prevented the march from entering the area through Cable Street. 

During the 1940s antisemitism subsided, largely because personal relationships developed between Jews and non-Jews during the war. In the 1950s anti-immigrant antagonism focused on arrivals from the Caribbean and Southeast Asia.

David said he had heard more antisemitism in the last five years than he had in the last fifty-five. More than 1,000 incidents are being reported each year and the frequency is rising, mainly in London and Manchester. References to Hitler and the Holocaust such as “Yids: gas ‘em all” were common.

He devoted the final part of his talk to the allegations of antisemitism in the Labour Party. He counts Jeremy Corbyn as a friend and says he is not antisemitic, on the contrary he is known for his anti-racist stand; and suggestions that the party is institutionally racist are untrue. He said a number of party members, and especially Jewish MPs, had complained about abuse, particularly online, and that these cases had been fully investigated, that only a small proportion of the abuse had arisen within the party and that the perpetrators had been appropriately disciplined. He dismissed the findings of the recent BBC Panorama programme on antisemitism in the Labour Party as prejudiced and distorted. He thinks Shami Chakrabarti’s 2016 inquiry got it right.

As a socialist anti-Zionist, he believes the issue of antisemitism has been ‘instrumentalised’, or used, by the Tory party, Tory press and right-wing leaders of pro-Zionist organisations to discredit Jeremy Corbyn and left-wing politics. For David, Zionism is a political view and it is fine to criticise it. 

The evening was not without controversy. Three people walked out at David’s characterisation of the Conservative party. The view of SELHuG Secretary Tony Brewer was that David’s presentation left many questions unanswered on what he regarded as a matter of public importance. He said: “One cannot brush off complaints made by the Board of Deputies of British Jews and three Jewish newspapers led by The Jewish Chronicle as a Tory-led conspiracy, or label the Jewish MPs who resigned from the party as right-wing losers.”

SELHuG chair Hester Brown says: “We are very grateful to David for his generosity in talking from a personal perspective about antisemitism in the past and now, and his analysis based on many years of study and experience. We may have done him and the public a disservice in not making it clear when we promoted the talk that David is a socialist and anti-Zionist. That would have reduced the risk of misapprehension amongst attendees. It is up to us to invite speakers from other political perspectives if we want to broaden our understanding.”

Review by Tony Brewer