The Canon: The Jewish Immigrant in England 1870-1914. By Lloyd P. Gartner

May 28, 2009

In 1960 a young American-Jewish historian published a monograph that revolutionised not only our current understanding of Jewish immigration to England a century ago, but also our approach to the researching and analysis both of Anglo-Jewish history and, more generally, of the immigrant experience in the UK.

Why was Lloyd Gartner's The Jewish Immigrant in England 1870-1914 so groundbreaking? Until 1960, histories of the Jews in England had, without exception, been sanitised, self-censored accounts, preoccupied with the preservation and propagation of a certain image. Expelled in 1290, the Jews had returned under Cromwell, had prospered, had socially integrated more or less completely, and had thus earned their right to legal and political equality. The first scholarly account of Anglo-Jewish history, Cecil Roth's History of the Jews in England, which Oxford published in 1941, ended - deliberately - with the granting of political emancipation in the mid-19th century. Roth (who taught me) knew all about the great immigration of Jews from Eastern Europe at the end of the century, the prejudice and political agitation to which this gave rise, and the distasteful attempts of the "native" Anglo-Jewish gentry to stem the immigration tide. But he was a Whig historian. He felt uncomfortable even talking about these matters. In 1959, his pupil Vivian Lipman had published an official history of the London-based Board of Guardians of the Jewish Poor that completely - and deliberately - understated the frantic efforts of that gentry to send their immigrant brethren back whence they had come, or to ship them on to the Americas.

Perhaps only an American-Jewish historian, fully at home with the Hebrew and Yiddish sources as well as the English, could have produced what remains still the definitive antidote to this romanticised and largely mythical view. And many indeed were the myths that Gartner exposed. Until 1960, for example, received wisdom insisted that the Jews who came to the UK at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries were refugees fleeing Tsarist persecution. Gartner exposed this as a fairytale. The majority of Jews who settled in Britain from Eastern Europe did not come from the "pogrom" districts of Russia at all. Many came from Galicia, which was under Austrian control. Most were economic migrants. Some (including, for a time, my paternal grandfather) actually returned to a Russia they evidently missed. Far from welcoming the newcomers, the smug Anglo-Jewish plutocracy determined to wean them away from socialism, trade unionism and Zionism, and made their lives a multiple misery in the process. The restrictive Aliens Act of 1905 - an important nail in the coffin of free trade - was supported by this plutocracy, and received the blessing of the Chief Rabbi.

The raw but meticulously researched picture that Gartner painted has stood the test of time. Historians who followed him (including me) have added fresh detail, but in large measure this has served only to reinforce his conclusions. Gartner painted the picture "warts and all". His influence on me has been immeasurable.

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