Deadly silence of Britain's Jews

January 7, 2000

Have Jews suppressed research into controversial parts of their history? Phil Baty reports on a row splitting academe.

The Jewish establishment does not understand academic freedom and it has never liked its historians. Anglo-Jewry has always tried to control its academics." So says Geoffrey Alderman, Anglo-Jewish historian and former Jewish community leader.

Alderman, vice-president of New York's Touro College, says: "For too long Jewish historians have had to show that British Jews did everything that was possible (for fellow Jews in continental Europe) during the Holocaust and that British Jews were always Zionist."

Only in the past 30 years, he says, have historians started to defy the traditional Jewish establishment and write the real "warts-and-all" history of Jews in Britain. Yet attempts by this new wave to chronicle the often troubled life of Jews in Britain are still sensitive and their research is blighted by allegations of censorship and intimidation. The field is riddled with accusations of shoddy scholarship.

Alderman says that even the "founding father" of Anglo-Jewish historiography, Cecil Roth, Oxford university's first reader in post-biblical studies and Alderman's tutor at Lincoln College, was an apologist for British Jewry. He dismisses Roth's History of the Jews in England as "sanitised".

"There are historians of Anglo-Jewry who have bent over so far in favour of the right image that they have besmirched their reputations," Alderman says. "Although he was my teacher and was very good to me, I'd say that Cecil Roth's in-built self-censorship sullied his reputation."

The late Vivian Lipman, another of Roth's pupils, is also an apologist, Alderman says. Lipman's posthumously published History of the Jews of England is "outrageously partial" and "a work best forgotten". Alderman carried Lipman's coffin to Willesden cemetery in 1990. But of his academic legacy, he says: "He was willing to curry favour with the communal grandees even if this meant being economical with the truth."

Since the 1960s, a new generation of scholars has gradually disinterred an alternative version of history. Led by Lloyd Gardner, now of Tel Aviv University, this "young school" includes Alderman, David Cesarani, professor of modern Jewish studies at Southampton University, and his Southampton colleague, Tony Kushner.

The battleground is the history of British Zionism - the movement that worked for the establishment of a national homeland in Palestine for Jews. Cesarani's PhD was one of the first to claim that Zionism was a minority movement in Britain before the Holocaust, challenging the received wisdom that English Jews had always supported the creation of a Jewish state. Stuart Cohen, of Bar Ilan University, has also argued that at the turn of the century, Zionism in Britain was the refuge of a minority of rebels and malcontents. Before 1939, Alderman says, Anglo-Jewry rejected Zionism on the grounds that it implied Jews could not assimilate into European societies.

Another bone of contention is how British Jews responded to the Holocaust. The traditional view that the British did all they could to help Jews in Europe is fiercely disputed. The revisionists argue that the British sat back as the Nazis implemented the final solution. "Anglo-Jewry stood by during the Holocaust," says Alderman. "Others insist that nothing could be done once Hitler had the Jews in his grip. I say that there was a lot that could have been done."

Such theories have not made Alderman and his colleagues popular in some quarters. In 1989, Alderman accepted an invitation to address the Jewish Historical Society of England. When the society discovered that he intended to discuss the controversial career of Morry Davis, one of the most corrupt politicians in Labour politics between the wars - and a Jew - pressure was brought to prevent the lecture taking place. "The objection appears to have been not that I would say things about Davis that were untrue," he has said, "but that what I would say would be only too true."

In 1983, Alderman wrote a book "about the voting habits of Jews". He says:

"I was asked not to write the book - the (Jewish community's) position was that there was no such thing as a Jewish vote. Even to ask the question - is there such a thing as a Jewish vote? - would give ammunition to Jewry's enemies."

Alderman also claims that the Board of Deputies of British Jews - of which he was a member - blocked access to its archive, making it a condition of his access that he had to get approval for what he wrote.

It is not just Alderman who has experienced such pressures. Sharman Kadish became embroiled in a row over censorship when she was commissioned in 1995 by the Campadown Trust to write the history of the Jewish Lads and Girls Brigade.

Kadish suggested that the Lads Brigade was founded in the 1930s by a strongly anti-Zionist Jew, set up as a way of ensuring the assimilation of immigrants' children into English culture. Anti-Zionism, she argued, was a strong force in England before the war. Kadish has since confirmed that she faced pressure from the trust to remove a passage from her work that referred to the brigade's anti-Zionist past.

Such is the concern over suppression, one high-profile Jewish scholar would comment only on condition that she remained anonymous. "I'm an independent scholar without a paid position in a university, so I have to watch what I say," she says. "Life can be difficult. It is a bit of a generational thing. The Young Turks, led by David Cesarani, have clearly ruffled a few feathers."

But Cesarani believes the days of censorship are largely over. "Yes, the Jewish community is vulnerable to criticism - and there is no doubt that there are all sorts of pressures," he says. "But it is not very different from any other self-interested group I Anglo-Jewish history has really matured. The days of academics being leaned on are over."

Cesarani believes that the "vile pressure" Alderman experienced from the Jewish establishment largely stemmed from his role as a community leader and member of the Board of Deputies. "If he had been working exclusively as a professor he would not have had so many problems."

But the arguments go on. John Fox, a non-Jewish lecturer on the Holocaust at the University of Kent and a former British Foreign Office historian, says: "I abhor the attempt by Cesarani and his colleague Tony Kushner to damage as much and as often as they can the reputation of the British government with regard to the position of the Jews in this country.

"They have denigrated the British position during the second world war over the Nazi question. They claim that Britain should, and could, have rescued the Jews from the final solution. This is absolute nonsense."

There is also criticism that Cesarani and his colleagues have gone over the top in their fault-finding. In a 1994 article in the Australian Journal of Jewish Studies, William Rubinstein, professor of history at the University of Aberystwyth, attacked the group for adopting a viewpoint that was "flawed and fundamentally inaccurate".

Rubinstein, author of The Myth of Rescue:Why the Democracies Could Not Have Saved More Jews from the Nazis, argues that it is wrong to blame the British and American war-time leaders for crimes against the Jews that were committed by Hitler, a "psychopath" who was intent on killing Europe's Jews. The new wave's "chief inaccuracy", says Rubinstein "is a systematic exaggeration of both the volume and significance of modern British anti-Semitism".

In a memorable analogy, Rubinstein wrote that this younger school "seems to be engaged in a kind of Dutch auction to determine who can discover the most insidious examples of British anti-Semitism - reminiscent of Monty Python's four Yorkshiremen, who strive to outdo one another to depict the exaggerated horrors of their youth".

But for some, the arguments are healthy. "If we are a grown-up community, why shouldn't we discuss these matters openly?" Alderman asks. He cites his favourite writer, Thomas Hardy, quoting St Jerome: "If an offence come out of the truth, better is it that the offence come than that the truth be concealed."


William Rubinstein vs David Cesarani The backlash against the new wave of Jewish historians climaxed in 1994, when Aberystwyth's William Rubinstein accused Southampton's David Cesarani of presenting "misleading and one-sided" evidence in his portrait of the prewar British home secretary Sir William Joynson-Hix.

Cesarani argued in 1989 in the Journal of Contemporary History that Joynson-Hix's provable anti-Semitism shattered the assumption among Anglo-Jewish historians that there was no official government anti-Semitism in Britain between 1879 and 1939. Cesarani claimed that Joynson-Hix's anti-Semitism was overlooked by historians and that he was "widely regarded as an anti-Semite", with his tenure as home secretary "marked by constant conflict with Anglo-Jewry".

But in a 1994 article in The Australian Journal of Jewish Studies Rubinstein said Cesarani made exaggerated claims. Cesarani argued that, as home secretary between 1924 and 1929, Joynson-Hix showed anti-Semitic bias in refusing naturalisation of Eastern European Jews living in Britain.

Rubinstein countered: "There is no evidence that Joynson-Hix dealt with the naturalisation of alien Jews in anything but a fair way."

He showed that the number of certificates of naturalisation increased under Joynson-Hix, while the number of certificates revoked remained stable.

Belsen victims challenge Rubinstein William Rubinstein's defence of Britain's record in the Holocaust was questioned earlier this summer when two former prisoners of the Belsen concentration camp challenged his claim about the exchange of prisoners during the war.

The Times reported in July 1999 that documents uncovered under the Open Government Initiative showed that Britain blocked a secret American plan to save thousands of Jews from Nazi concentration camps by exchanging them for expatriate German nationals in Latin America. Jews eligible for exchange would have to have had Latin American passports.

Documents showed that the then foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, rejected the proposal. Eden was concerned that the return of able-bodied Germans to Germany might bolster Hitler's war effort and that the freed Jews would emigrate directly to Palestine, causing trouble for Britain.

Rubinstein wrote to The Times claiming that its story "appears to be one more that blames the British for crimes committed by Nazi Germany". "Who were these Jews with Latin American passports in Belsen?" he asked.

Rubinstein argued that bona fide holders of foreign passports would have been repatriated much earlier than 1944, while holders of "spurious" passports denoting dual citizenship would have been "long since killed".

His claims were rebutted by former prisoners.

Mirjam Wiener Finkelstein wrote: "There was a whole section in Belsen devoted to such prisoners (with dual citizenship)." Finkelstein and her family qualified for an exchange by virtue of Paraguayan passports, bought in Switzerland by a family friend, which were accepted at face value.

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