This piece helps to explain the xenophobia and hatred of foreigners that were a key driver of Brexit by the English in Britain. This was accelerated by key actors such as Nigel Farage and our Alt Right populist media (The Sun, Mail and Express). These are extracts from a forthcoming book by Irina Fridman called Foreigners, Aliens, Citizens – Medway and its Jewish Community 1066 – 1939.
On Tuesday, 4 December 1655, in the Council Chamber of Whitehall, a conference of representatives of political, theological, legal and business walks of life gathered to decide the following questions:
- Was it lawful to admit Jews to England?
- If yes, would the country admit them?
- If it is decided that they are to be admitted, then on what terms and conditions?
Very quickly it became apparent that there was no legal prohibition preventing Jews from settling in England. But did the English want Jews to settle here? A small number of religious leaders were in favour, but the majority were against. They argued that Jewish customs and “their worship or religion is not only evil in itself, but likewise very scandalous to other Christian churches.” Merchants vigorously insisted that allowing Jews in would only enrich foreigners and would cause the decline of English trade. Even those who were in favour, wanted to impose stringent conditions which included:
- That they may not be admitted to have any publicke Judicatoryes, whether civill or ecclesiasticall, which were to grant them terms beyond the conditions of strangers.
- That they be not admitted eyther to speake or doe anything to the defamation or dishonour of the name of our Lord Jesus Christ or of the Christian religion.
- That they be not permitted to doe any worke or anything to the prophanation of the Lord’s Day or Christian Sabbath.
- That they be not admitted to have Christians dwell with them as their servants.
- That they bear no publicke office or trust in this commonwealth.
- That they be not allowed to print anything which in the least opposeth the Christian religion in our language.
- That, so farre as may be, not suffered to discourage any of their owne from usinge or applying themselves to any which may tend to convince them of their error and turn them to Christianity. And that some severe penalty be imposed upon them who shall apostatize from Christianity to Judaisme.
In the end the conference produced no result…
With the restoration of the monarchy from 1660, anti-Jewish agitation was revived. The death of Cromwell in 1658 had already unleashed a campaign against the Jewish presence in England with some clerics, MPs and their constituents praying for the banishment of the Jews and confiscation of their property. In December 1659, Thomas Violet brought a case against Jews to court. Basing his statements on Prynne’s Demurrer he argued that settlement was illegal, and that the law should be upheld by banishing the intruders. Not being satisfied by the judicial opinion that there was no illegality in admitting Jews to England and by Mr Justice Tyril’s refusal to take action, he published a tract, asserting that the existence of Jews and their worship in the City of London was “the great dishonour of Christianity and public scandal of the true Protestant religion.” Following the judge’s advice, Violet also applied to the Privy Council, personally marching to the Whitehall and delivering his application to the Lords. Violet’s anti-Jew campaign received great support from the City of London Corporation. The Corporation feared competition from the Jews, whom Cromwell had granted the right to trade with native merchants on an equal footing. They were also eager to preserve traditional methods of trading, no matter how outdated they were. All this prompted the lord mayor and the aldermen to join Violet in his anti-Jewish campaign. They argued that Jews were a swarm of locusts, that they corrupted religion, that they presented a threat to English women, that they endangered public security, that they ruined trade.
The military campaigns of the early 18th century dominated public discourse, detracting attention away from Jewish aliens, though the relationship between the Jews and the English was tense under the surface. The situation erupted in 1753 with the introduction of a bill into parliament, which would have allowed any Jew who had continuously lived in the country for at least three years to be naturalised by parliament without taking the Sacrament. The arguments in favour stated the economic, social and religious benefits, like the introduction of capital into the country and the notion that Jews never attempted to make converts. On the contrary, allowing Jewish immigrants to settle in the country would present an opportunity for their conversion. An additional bonus was the tradition of Jews to provide for their own poor, which meant that there would be no recourse or drain on parishes.
The immediate backlash ensued with the familiar anti-Jewish arguments under the banner “No Jews, No Wooden shoes!” – a nod to the Jews from Amsterdam. William Northey, MP for Calne in Wiltshire (1747 – 1761) and for Maidstone (1761 – 1768), claimed that “the Bill was an attempt to rob them of their birthright as Christians”, that swarms of Jews would come and settle in the country. Others argued that Jewish merchants were a threat to the English ones; that Jews would force the Protestants out of all offices, trades and professions; that Jews were a threat to the female population, as the daughters would be forced to marry rich Jews. The previous wild rumour of the conversion of St Paul’s Cathedral into a synagogue was revived as well as the well-trodden path of blood accusations. A novel argument claimed that the eventual act would reduce the consumption of ham and bacon. The situation was so intense that the archbishop of Canterbury, being sympathetic to the Jews, feared a general massacre.
There are no absolute figures for population in the first half of the 18th century, but the best estimates suggest that there were overall between five and a half and six million people in England and Wales. By 1750 the Jewish population of England was about 8,000, according to the consensus amongst academics.
Hostility and xenophobia were common features of the working English class of the time. Almost 40 years since the end of the 17th century were occupied with military operations. Even though they had done nothing to ease the despicable conditions in which people lived, the poorest of the poor had learnt that through being English, they were better than anyone.
Having secured equal rights to participate in politics on the municipal level in 1845, it was important to achieve and secure similar equality in parliament. However, this last and the most important bastion of English identity was to be defended by those who perceived any changes as their personal threats, for well over a decade longer.
A familiar trope of ‘unchristianising’, this time the legislature, raised its head again. It was acceptable for the laws of a Christian country to be managed by Jews, but the country would be in great jeopardy if non-Christians were permitted to be part of the making of the laws.22 The anti-Jewish campaign was gathering pace.
John Bull, a weekly periodical, which was described as ‘admirably adapted to country gentlemen’ and had on its masthead the crown and sceptre lying on the Holy Bible accompanied by the text ‘FOR GOD, THE SOVEREIGN, AND THE PEOPLE’, pursued a long-term campaign against Jews. They were often portrayed, together with Catholics, dissenters and Muslims as deadly opponents of Protestant Christianity. Every attempt to admit Jews to parliament inflamed John Bull. For example, in 1845 it stated that ‘to do so, will, in our judgement, be virtually to un-Christianise the British legislature, and thereby to invite the displeasure of Almighty God’. According to John Bull, if allowed any political power, Jews then might be admitted to the ancient universities, which will result in the ban of pork and the New Testament. The attacks on Jews in the press continued. The same accusations of perceived wealth and greediness, the imagined propensity to treachery, but in essence, inability to be Englishmen, irrespective of the time spent in the country, wilfully ignoring the fact that most Jews by that time were English born. A leading article of the Morning Herald on 18 March 1853 accused Jews of being mere traders, who did not contribute to the country as soldiers or husbandmen, and therefore could not be Englishmen. The editor suggested that if English required new allies, they’d better ‘take the Mahommedan, the Hindoo, the Buddhist,’ who, according to some convoluted and contradictory editorial argument, respect and venerate Christianity.
In the 1880s a big anti-immigration campaign ensued, with many eminent Jews travelling to Eastern Europe, trying to discourage emigration.
In addition, the un-English characteristics of the new arrivals were feared would jeopardise the amicable relations of the English Jewry with the Gentiles and ignite a new wave of antisemitism. Indeed, a less than subtle hostility towards Jews became discernible. Samuel Henry Jeyes, an influential writer, expressed his view in no uncertain terms:
‘English Jews… have their faults but they’re English to the core…. But [the immigrants] from Russia and Poland have all the vices which are generated by many centuries of systematic oppression. This immigrant class would never be popular in Britain ‘since they succeed, if not taking the bread out of English mouths, at least in reducing the margin of wages which might be spent on beer and gin [and] they are naturally and not quite fairly detested.’
Joseph Banister, a rabid antisemitic writer, in his work England under the Jews referred to all foreign Jews as thieves, sweaters, usurers, burglars, forgers, traitors, swindlers, blackmailers, and perjurers.
Arnold White, a journalist and a virulent antisemitic campaigner against immigration, spouted the all-familiar diatribe about ‘the rich and powerful Hebrews who really the rulers of the civilised world.’ In 1886 he and Lord Dunraven formed and financed a Society for the Suppression of the Immigration of Destitute Aliens, with White wanting to stop ‘the leaks which take in the riff-raff from other countries’.
White’s views were challenged by Stephen Fox, who used statistical data as evidence against hostility towards pauper immigration. The data showed that immigrants were no burden on the communities and the local rates; on the contrary, they were a source of profit, having introduced two additional branches of trade – shoe manufacturing and tailoring.
However, anti-Jewish attacks were not restricted to Conservatives only; the Liberal party had its own antisemites. Hilaire Belloc was concerned with ‘Jewish peril’, while Professor Goldwin Smith was convinced that it was beyond the power of any legislation to make Jews patriots – his vicious attack prompted the chief rabbi to pen an article entitled Can Jews be Patriots? in terms commended by Gladstone.
To justify the country’s involvement [in the war of 1914-18] from religious and moral perspectives, politicians, clergy and journalists employed highly emotive rhetoric of ‘a final battle against ‘good’ and ‘evil’’, a ‘holy war’ and a ‘just war’ against now ‘pagan’ Germany. In autumn 1914 Prime Minister Herbert Asquith argued that Germany had become ruthlessly expansionist and was no longer guided by Christian principles. ‘We do not covert any people’s territory’, declared Asquith in October 1914, oblivious to the irony of his statement: ‘We have no desire to impose our rule upon alien populations. The British Empire is enough for us.’
The image of the Christian ‘knight’ on crusade against the ‘pagan’ forces of Germany, evoked by politicians, journalists and ecclesiastics, exacerbated the collective hostility and xenophobia already existent in the preceding years. Britain’s residents, either aliens, or naturalised British subjects, but identified by their German-sounding names became an easy target for this Christian anti-Germanism. To distract attention from their German connections, some anglicised their names, as was the case with the Fehrenbachs [non-Jewish], local jewellers and naturalised British subjects, who changed their name to English-sounding Fairbank. Even King George felt compelled to change from Saxe-Coburg Gotha to Windsor in 1917.
[After the war] The backdrop of the post-war crisis and class conflict, intensified by the Russian Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, provided fertile ground for the establishment of the first British fascist organisation in 1923. For those hankering for the ‘good olden days’, the allure of Mussolini’s fascist movement with its promises of ‘discipline’ and ‘order’, destruction of democracy, outlawing the trade unions and parties to the Left, and opposition to egalitarianism, was irresistible. By November 1924, the British fascist movement was well established and going strong in Gillingham. Editor’s note – fascism continues under the encouragement of Brexit to this day.
In October 1929 the American stock market crashed, sending ripples across the world. Within three years unemployment in Britain sky-rocketed from one to almost three million. The Labour government under the leadership of Ramsay Macdonald stuck to traditional economic policies, making cuts to balance the budget, keeping the overvalued pound, and upholding free trade, despite the changed economic reality and growing criticism. One of the critics was Winston Churchill. In his Oxford lecture in 1930 Churchill discussed the ‘failure’ of democracy and appealed for alternative methods of governing. In consequence, some aristocrats fearing the loss of their estates through taxation, advocated for more authoritarian rule and the temporary disbandment of parliament. In such an event, they proposed Churchill as leader.
The other critic was a Tory defector Sir Oswald Mosley. When a memorandum, where he proposed an expansion of credit, protectionism to revive the economy and increased public spending was rejected, Mosley resigned from the cabinet and turned the Mosley Memorandum into the Mosley Manifesto. In December 1930, 17 Labour MPs, including Frank Markham, MP for Chatham, signed the Manifesto.
By March 1932 the direction of the party was rather clear – Mosley talked about the need for a disciplined body of young men to resist the threat of communism. Party representatives were dispatched to study the methods of Hitler’s Nazi Party, and Mosley himself visited Italy and met Mussolini.
During that year, however, the New Party was rapidly losing its members precisely because of its close association with fascism. To pursue his ideas of a protectionist economy and strong government, Mosley needed to find a solution, and to find it quickly. On 1 October 1932, amalgamating the die-hard members of the New Party and other far-right groups, Mosley founded a new party, the British Union of Fascists (BUF). Believing that he was the only saviour against the Communists, Mosley managed to convince Mussolini and Lord Rothermere, the owner of the Daily Mail, to provide considerable financial backing. Parroting Mussolini’s movement, BUF members wore ‘Blackshirt’ uniforms and were operating as a para-military organisation. Meanwhile, the economic crisis in the country was deepening, and the number of unemployed surged further.
At the start, BUF denied institutional antisemitism, though it had a fair share of antisemites and racists. When challenged by the Jewish Chronicle to disown them, Mosley’s response was rather ambiguous: BUF ‘would never attack Jews because they are Jews’, but if Jews attack BUF or were ‘international capitalists’ or subversives, then the BUF reserved a right to counter-attack. However, his thin veneer of pretentious political respectability slipped in October 1934, when the BUF leader launched into a demagogic assault on an imaginary ‘international Jewish conspiracy,’ drawing his attack from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The epistle, which originated in Russia in 1905, was created in the annals of the Russian gendarme police to stoke the anti-Jewish feeling and entice pogroms. It claimed that the ultimate aim of the Jews was world domination, using any means necessary, through political and financial gain. The document reached Britain in 1920 and was exposed as ‘fake news’ in 1921. However, that did not stop the missive to be widely used by both far-right and the establishment, exploiting the image of ‘Jew’ as both, capitalist, motivated by financial greed, and simultaneously as communist, hungry for political influence among dissatisfied working classes plotting a revolution.
Mosley visited the Medway Towns several times. One of the visits was on 23 June 1936. Addressing the audience, Mosley claimed that the fascist regime would carry out the ‘will of the people’ unlike the current parties, who existed only to slow progress. To win the peace, he said, Britain had to ally with Germany, Italy and Japan. Mosley berated the socialists and argued that fascism was the only antidote to the socialism and the saviour against the Soviets.
On 13 March 1938 German troops marched into Austria. The same year Chamberlain’s government abandoned their ally Czechoslovakia, allowing Hitler to annex its Sudetenland area. In July 1938, the Evian Conference where 32 countries convened to design a plan to manage the increasing numbers of refugees from Nazi Germany, did not produced any result – hardly any country loosened their immigration restrictions. The inability or unwillingness of the countries to take decisive steps in resolving the issue, emboldened Hitler, who saw it as endorsement to escalate his antisemitic attacks.
On the night of 9 November 1938, which became known as ‘Kristallnacht’, or Pogrom Night, Jews and their property were attacked across Germany, Austria and Sudetenland. The pogroms continued during the day of November 10, and in some areas violence carried on for the next several days. Over 48 hours more than 1,000 synagogues were burned or otherwise damaged; about 7,500 Jewish businesses were looted and ransacked; at least 91 Jews were killed; Jewish hospitals, schools, cemeteries and homes were vandalised, often by neighbours. About 30,000 Jewish males aged 16 to 60 were arrested; the concentration camps of Dachau, Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen were expanded to accommodate new prisoners. On 15 November Jewish children were barred from attending schools, and the local authorities were ordered to impose curfews. By December 1938, Jews were banned from most public places in Germany.63
The November events were reported in the media, including the local newspapers. Letters to the editor followed. Two weeks after the pogroms, in the Chatham Observer R G Baker from The Quest, Yorkletts, Whitstable, complained about ‘sob-stuff on the persecution of the Jews in Germany and elsewhere (with the object perhaps of getting more of them here)’. Baker blamed Jews for their own persecution, the source of which he saw in the Talmud, which according to him, confirmed all those conspiracy theories regarding Jews.
On 15 March 1939 Hitler tore up the ‘peace in our time’ Munich Agreement and invaded Czechoslovakia. Several days later Mosley visited the Medway Towns again, giving an hour and a quarter speech at the Gillingham’s Paget Hall. He concentrated on the developments in Europe, defended Hitler’s actions and ranted against Jews and refugees, accusing them of taking jobs from the two million British still unemployed.
British re-armament was well underway, and the new war in Europe started to look imminent.