Anti-Zionism in London’s Jewish East End, 1890-1948

Anti-Zionism in London’s Jewish East End, 1890-1948

 A summary of Chapter 6 with this title in Brian Klug’s: Being Jewish and Doing Justice: Bringing Argument to Life, Vallentine Mitchell (2010)

Brian Klug, being a philosopher, approaches this subject from a fascinating and very different angle to most historians. He casts a new light on the growth of British anti-Zionism.

Klug is interested in views of the proletariat – the 150,000 Jews who had fled European anti-Semitism and the pogroms in the period 1880-1914 and had arrived destitute in London’s East End. They worked hard to provide a roof over their heads for their families. They resisted Herzl’s personal call to go to Israel, being more attracted to the Bund and Communism than they were to Zionism. They eventually advanced themselves and moved to more prosperous areas and worked to be assimilated. (A similar story is told by the Jewish museum in Manchester, of arriving Jews settling in ghettos but working hard to move out of them).

Zionists, then as now, refused to engage with the argument against Zionism, preferring to side-step it and mount a systematic rhetorical attack on their opponents – denigrating the person, sneering and calling them names such as ‘Jewish anti-Semites’ and accusing them of treason against the Jewish people. The terms of the argument that is used to equate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism stem from this era.

Klug recalls that Jews in general down the centuries, did not possess any real power. True, there were families like the Rothschilds, but the vast majority of Jews in Europe were barely able to run their own lives, never mind control the world. Thus Zionism entered the Jewish East End as a harbinger of hope for people who came off the boat with little or nothing. When Herzl came to speak about it the Jews flocked to hear his offer: ‘Here is how to leave anti-Semitism behind you once and for all’. His visits occasioned bursts of enthusiasm. But in the intervening periods, there was Jewish working class apathy and even opposition.

When David Ben-Gurion, came to London to engage trade unionists his message was “… there is no future here …  tell Jewish workers that their destiny is in Palestine … urge them to sell up, sell whatever they have, and take the next ship to Palestine”. But what did they have that they could sell? They wanted a house with a clean kitchen and a decent school for their children. They did not dream of the cool stones of Jerusalem or the birthplace of the prophets; they dreamed of getting out of Stepney, of having a house with a small patch of garden, perhaps in Essex or a north London suburb somewhere, of a son trained to be a doctor. Their heads were full of this land of promise, not the Promised Land.

Communism, likewise, offered a vision of a better future for the huddled masses. That better way went via class rather than nation. It substituted working-class solidarity for Jewish ethnic bonding, a revolution against oppression for a movement to create a nation state. It said, in effect: There is a better way.

Any reading of historical reports of that time quote  Sir Samuel Montagu (father of Edwin Montagu) as one of the most widely recorded Jews who was strongly opposed to Zionism. Klug notes that he was actually very settled in London’s West End, and although he loved Zion, he was as a British citizen very attached to his country. Oxfordian Basil Henriques lived in the East End and was doing social work with the immigrant youth there. He was the driving force behind a leading anti-Zionist group and a leading disciple of Claude Montefiore – a high ranking Jew who was stressing that the Jews were not a nation but a religious community – a people of God, a light to the nations.

So who won the argument at the end of the day? As Klug says, the day is not ended. The debate continues; and for good reason: so much is at stake for so many people, Jew and non-Jew, Palestinian and Israeli, the living and the yet-to-be-born. The main lines of argument on both sides of the question were laid down in the pre-State debate, not least in the halls and shuls of the Jewish East End.

David Cannon

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