Anglo-Jewry since 1066: Place, Locality and Memory

June 18, 2009

Two kinds of experiences have shaped Jewish histories: persecution and diaspora. The pre-eminent 20th-century American Jewish historian Salo Baron objected to the preoccupation with persecution, which he called the "lachrymose" view of Jewish history.

Tony Kushner, professor of Jewish/non-Jewish relations at the Parkes Institute and the department of history at the University of Southampton, objects to one historiographical consequence of the diaspora - the dispersing of Jews from their homeland following their final defeat by Rome in the 1st century AD (or, for Jews, CE): a focus on Jews globally rather than locally. It is as if Jewish historians have strived to overcome the diaspora by treating Jews as if they were still united.

Kushner objects to the marginal attention that the history of Jews in the UK has garnered compared with that of Jews in Eastern Europe and the US. He objects even more vigorously to the marginal attention given to the history of British Jews outside London. To correct this one-sidedness, he presents the history of Jewish communities in medieval Winchester, early modern Portsmouth and modern Southampton. He shows that their presence, while not large numerically, was more significant than has been granted, especially by non-Jewish local historians.

At the same time, Kushner aims to correct the treatment of local communities in isolation. Jewish life must be viewed both globally and locally. He disparages what he calls a "dominant myth of the past", that "of the 'local' as self-contained and parochial".

There was more flux and variety in his chosen towns than has been assumed, Kushner asserts. Jews were not all of one class or occupation; not all of them lived on the margins; and the nature of each area shaped their lives.

Winchester long congratulated itself on having spared its Jews from medieval massacres, but Kushner shows that they hardly avoided persecution there. Yet Jews were still part of the community and contributed to it in ways that, lamentably, even present-day histories of the city ignore.

Life varied from period to period and from class to class, and "Winchester Jewry was a multi-layered and fast-evolving community stretching between the secular and religious worlds".

Until superseded by Manchester in the 19th century, Portsmouth was home to the largest Jewish community outside London. Because it is a port, "respectable" Jews there had more difficulty than their landlocked counterparts in separating themselves from immigrants. There was no homogeneity: there were Jewish criminals as well as merchants.

That Portsmouth was a naval port meant that those subject to "the volatility of naval trading" experienced intense periods of growth and decline. The presence of the Royal Navy made the Jewish community especially eager to demonstrate its loyalty to the state, and the questioning of Jewish patriotism during the time of Napoleon was felt hardest in Portsmouth. Even the granting of full citizenship to British Jews in the second half of the 19th century did not mean full acceptance.

Of Southampton, Kushner emphasises the transience of the population and the strength of Zionism. In both Southampton and Portsmouth, Jews in the latter part of the 19th century began to occupy a "civic role" as councillors, sheriffs and mayors, "one totally disproportionate to the overall size of these Jewish communities". Local histories by non-Jews have tended to ignore these accomplishments.

This careful, detailed study might have been enlivened conceptually by consideration of the fashionable promotion of the local by historians and others of a postmodern bent.

For example, US anthropologist Clifford Geertz named his second collection of celebrated essays Local Knowledge (1983). He objected to the supposedly modernist concentration on the general and indifference to the particular. Consideration of Geertz and others might have offered Kushner additional theoretical justifications for his undertaking, which nevertheless stands solidly and impressively on its own.

Anglo-Jewry since 1066: Place, Locality and Memory

By Tony Kushner. Manchester University Press. 304pp, £60.00. ISBN 9780719076541. Published 13 February 2009

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