As the West's war on terror intensifies, Muslims are increasingly becoming the focus of suspicion in Britain. Their predicament, writes David Cesarani, bears striking similarities to the experiences of immigrant Jews in the early 20th century
The war on terror has focused uncomfortable light on Britain's Muslim population. The glare has intensified since two of them recently became suicide bombers. But files newly released by the National Archives - formerly the Public Record Office, Kew - reveal that this is not the first time there has been a panic about immigrants importing terrorism. What may come as a surprise is that for much of the 20th century, Jews were the main source of anxiety.
In August 1946, Percy Sillitoe, the director-general of MI5, briefed prime minister Clement Attlee about a new threat to the country. He explained that underground groups in British-controlled Palestine who were waging a terror campaign to secure a Jewish state were planning to launch attacks on targets in the UK. Specifically, he told Attlee, it was feared that members of the Stern Gang and Irgun Zvi Leumi would join forces to send "five 'cells' to London to work on IRA lines".
Sillitoe warned: "Should such plans for extending their activities abroad be realised by Irgun or Stern, we might be faced with a real danger of assassinations or the sabotage of important buildings in this country, and particularly in London." More specifically, MI5 said the Stern Gang - which had already murdered Lord Moyne, the British minister, in Cairo, in 1944 - was plotting to kill another leading British politician, possibly foreign minister Ernest Bevin.
Consequently, the security services insisted on scrutinising all visa applications made by Jews in the Middle East intending to visit the UK, while Special Branch monitored the activity of the rightwing Zionist youth group Betar, which it suspected rather ludicrously of dangerous extremism.
These alarms came to nothing, but the press continued to carry scare stories and, in January 1947, a Sunday Times editorial challenged British Jews to denounce Jewish terrorism. The ploy left the Jewish leadership in a quandary. They were damned if they condemned the terror campaign, thus affirming its existence, or branded as traitors if they did not. But there was nothing new in the identification of Jews with treason and terrorism or the game of playing off "moderates" against "extremists".
During the 1880s, Russia led an international war on terrorism. By terrorists, the regime meant the revolutionaries who aimed to overthrow tsarist autocracy. But Russia used outrages perpetrated by Russian exiles to internationalise its fight. The resulting pervasive dread of "anarchism" was powerfully evoked in Joseph Conrad's novel The Secret Agent . This book was set in London, which was the destination for tens of thousands of Russian Jews escaping from poverty and persecution.
The Jewish immigrant community in the East End of London was the base for a lively exile political life. It was also home to extremists from various revolutionary factions. In January 1909, two Jewish revolutionaries from the Russian empire used firearms in a raid on a payroll van in Tottenham.
The raid turned into a massacre. Two people were killed and more than 20 wounded, including seven police officers. In the final shoot-out, one of the raiders was killed and the other fatally wounded.
The "Tottenham Outrage" sparked demands for tighter controls on immigration. The local Tottenham and Edmonton Herald declaimed: "Somehow it seems impossible to shut these undesirables out of our country. They not only hatch mischief, but perpetrate crime. There was an Aliens Act passed by Parliament not so long ago, but it has not been of much service."
In December 1910, police interrupted a group of Russian Jewish revolutionaries breaking into a jewellery shop in Houndsditch. An exchange of fire between the armed officers and the gang left three policemen dead and two wounded. One Jew was also shot.
The gang members were traced to lodgings in Sidney Street in the Jewish East End. After the police officers who were sent to arrest them were fired on, home secretary Winston Churchill authorised the use of troops. During the ensuing "Siege of Sidney Street", soldiers from the Tower of London poured fire into the hideout. Two of the revolutionaries died in the assault.
The Siege of Sidney Street prompted renewed demands for a crackdown on Jewish immigration. The Morning Post , read by the royal family, compared the immigrants to "typhoid bacilli". Brick Lane in the East End housed "aliens of the worst type - violent, cruel and dirty". The king himself wrote to Churchill asking that "these outrages caused by foreigners will lead you to consider whether the Aliens Act could not be so amended as to prevent London from being infested by men and women whose presence would not be tolerated in any other country".
Churchill prepared draconian legislation, but it was never promulgated. Instead, the outbreak of the first world war led to the passing of the Aliens Restriction Act, which ended mass immigration to England for more than three decades.
The state moved from the exclusion to the extrusion of alleged Jewish subversives. Jews were the first victims of the "Red Scare" that swept Britain after the Russian revolution in 1917. Two years later, the Aliens Restriction Act was amended so that the home secretary could deport aliens for committing acts of subversion. These included membership of any communist party or taking industrial action. Because few Russian-Jewish immigrants were naturalised, they were defenceless against the act.
The Russian revolution was a disaster for the Jews in that it cemented their association with revolutionary terror. Because many of the leading revolutionaries, including Trotsky, were nominally Jewish it was believed that Jews had a proclivity for conspiracy and violence. The Morning Post proclaimed in October 1918 that "Bolshevik is the best-known word for the International Anarchist, though that International Anarchist is not by any manner or means always a Russian Jew. He is generally a Jew of some kind."
Those who sided with the revolution cast a shadow over the Jewish diaspora. In panic, a group of highly assimilated individuals formed a League of British Jews to demonstrate their patriotism. On April 23 1919, they published a letter in The Morning Post proclaiming: "We welcome your suggestion that British Jews should disassociate themselves from a cause which is doing the Jewish people harm in all parts of the world." Of course, the league only confirmed to many people that "race" and the revolution were linked.
Although Labour and Liberal MPs opposed the annual renewal of the 1919 Aliens Restriction (Amendment) Act, it was never revoked and asylum was not restored. Thanks partly to the bloated image of the Jew as revolutionary terrorist, those who tried to flee from Nazi Germany to Britain after 1933 faced unyielding immigration controls - with tragic consequences.
No sooner was the war against Nazism over than the conflict in Palestine placed Britain's Jews in an excruciating situation. They were dismayed that the Labour government, mindful of Arab protests, refused to allow survivors of Nazi persecution to enter the British mandate territory. And so, overtly and covertly, through providing money for arms, they supported the Palestinian Jews who rebelled against British rule.
But as the conflict worsened British Jews came under immense pressure. Over the bank holiday weekend in August 1947, mobs incensed by atrocities against British troops in Palestine smashed up synagogues and Jewish-owned shops and desecrated cemeteries across the country.
Popular opinion, already antagonised by strikes on British targets in Palestine, was inflamed by the rumours of an impending attack on the UK. It was no surprise that Sir Oswald Mosley and his fascist party enjoyed a renaissance, promising yet more trouble for the cowed and fearful British Jews.
Aside from isolated criminal acts, the mass of the Jewish population in Britain was never involved in leftwing terrorism. While many supported the mainstream Zionist parties, they rejected extremism. Yet all Jews suffered from the repeated slur that they were disloyal and potentially dangerous.
At various times Jews were deported, interned and physically attacked because of the inflation of a Jewish terrorist threat.
If there is a lesson for today in these revelations from Kew, it is what can happen when the legitimate pursuit of national security degenerates into the demonisation of an entire community. For Britain's Muslim population, history already seems to be repeating itself.
David Cesarani is professor of modern Jewish history at the University of Southampton.