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Albion & Jerusalem

Review by: William D. Rubinstein, University of Aberystwyth

Clark, Michael, Albion and Jerusalem: The Anglo-Jewish Community in the Post-Emancipation Era, 1858-1887, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

The treatment of Jews in any modern society has often been likened to a litmus test or lighting rod for the general health of that society, and, in any society with a claim to being democratic, to the general health of that democracy. While in many ways the treatment of Jews in modern British society has plainly been of minor and peripheral importance, it arguably assumes greater significance for the light it sheds on other aspects of British society. As academic sub-disciplines within the traditional mainstream of modern British history have developed in recent decades and become legitimate fields of study, Anglo-Jewish history has emerged as an independent unit, with its own debates and points of dispute. Long the domain of well-informed amateur historians who were mainly associated with the Jewish Historical Society of England (JHSE) – a body founded as long ago as 1893, with an unbroken record of publication for over a century – recent decades have seen many academic historians give the field a professional mantle. The most important historian of Anglo-Jewry before the present generation was Cecil Roth (1899-1970), who was both a doyen of the JHSE and University Reader in Post-Biblical Jewish Studies at Oxford. An amazingly prolific and erudite writer, his History of the Jews in England carried the story of Anglo-Jewry from Medieval times until 1858, the date of the so-called “Jewish Emancipation,” when professing Jews elected to Parliament were finally allowed to swear the oath “so help me God,” rather than “upon the true faith of a Christian,” and thus take their seats. This date, during the Age of Reform, is widely seen as marking the full acceptance of the Jewish community into British civil society (although it should be noted that 1858 was also a year when a non-professing Jew became Chancellor of the Exchequer for the second time). Roth’s highly Whiggish and optimistic work appeared in 1941, at the darkest moment of modern Jewish history, and was obviously meant to contrast the benign evolution of Anglo-Jewry with the catastrophe unfolding on the Continent.

In general, Roth’s Whiggish view held sway until the 1970s, when it was challenged by a range of younger historians, including Geoffrey Alderman, Davis Cesarani, Bill Fishman, Tony Kushner, and others, who have seen much more anti-semitism in British society than Roth, and also widened the study of Anglo-Jewry to include groups beyond the traditional “Cousinhood” elites. This school has itself been challenged by a counter-group, including this reviewer, who point to the minimal levels of anti-semitism in Britain compared with Europe, and to the fact that modern Britain experienced no ghettos, no massacres, no pogroms, and no Holocaust. This reviewer would also view Anglo-Jewry in part as a component of English-speaking Jewry, whose common experience was relatively benign.

This preface is necessary in order to consider properly Michael Clark’s outstanding work. In his preface, Clark makes a point of noting that he is not Jewish, and in my view this has worked to his advantage as an historical observer – he has no Jewish communal axes to grind, and is genuinely neutral. In his book Clark deals with the generation after “Emancipation,” a period which he rightly notes has been relatively neglected by historians, sandwiched between the struggle for Parliament and the mass immigration of eastern European Jews after 1881 (1887, the closing point of his book, saw both the Jubilee of Queen Victoria and the Anglo-Jewish Exhibition at Albert Hall, which presented an optimistic view of Anglo-Jewish achievement). His “Introduction: Emancipation and Modern Jewish Identity” and Chapter One, “Establishment and Emancipation: The Formation of Anglo-Jewish identity, 1656-1858” (pp. 1-49) present a masterful account of the previous historical and sociological work on this topic, probably the best summary I have seen. “Position and Politics: The First Jewish M.P.s” (pp. 50-108) is a valuable prosopographical study of the earliest Jewish M.P.s. Clark points out that no fewer than eighteen professing Jews were elected to Parliament in the generation after 1858. Many of these sat for constituencies with a virtually nil Jewish population, such as Nottingham, Pontefract, and Dewsbury. Although little research appears to have been done on this topic, almost certainly more Jews were elected to Parliament in this period than, say, Quakers or Roman Catholics outside Ireland. “Representation, Coordination, and Civilization: The Board of Deputies of British Jews and Communal Government” (pp. 109-169) breaks new ground in its analysis of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the legally-recognized “governing body” of Anglo-Jewry, and its “deputies” (delegates elected by synagogues, and, later, by other communal bodies). “Faith and Form: Anglo-Jewish Religion” (pp. 170-223) looks at the role of the Chief Rabbi and the breakdown of a communal religious consensus in the wake of the rise of Reform Judaism. Finally, “Immigrants and Exhibitions: Expanding the Boundaries of British Jewry” (pp. 224-255) discusses the social class dimension of the community and the impact of the arrival of the new immigrants. Although a number of historians have previously dealt with aspects of these topics, Clark’s is certainly the most detailed and sophisticated analysis.

In general, it seems fair to say that Clark has dissented from the darker picture offered by the post-1970 group of historians, although noting fairly the potential for some anti-semitism which did exist in Britain, for instance at the time of the “Eastern Crisis” of 1876-8, when Disraeli was venomously attacked. Yet Britain, emphatically, was never Russia, Germany, or the France of Dreyfus: liberalism and tolerance always survived bigotry. So, too, did the ambiguity of Jewish identity in Britain, where (as elsewhere) modernization and acceptance into civil society required Jews to reassess their own identity in fundamental and often divergent ways. Clark’s work is arguably the most sophisticated and intelligent account we currently have of this topic.

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