Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles

Todd M. Endelman, The Jews of Britain, 1656-2000 (Berkeley & London: University of California Press, $24.95, 2002/2006, 347 pages, ISBN 0-520-22720-4)—Constance Bantman, Université Paris 13

 

Todd Endelman’s admirable history of the Jewish communities of Britain is a scholarly work which is also accessible and highly informative for the uninitiated reader. It is one of the first contributions to a series entitled “Jewish Communities in the World” which aims at providing long-term assessments of the histories of Jewries in various countries. Endelman’s study of British Jews is indeed especially satisfactory with respect to its ambitious historical span—it covers five centuries, with references reaching as far back as the twelfth century—which runs successfully against the tide of hyper-specialisation. It is all the more remarkable as the rhythm, the quality and the density of the narrative and the analysis are sustained throughout.

The book’s introduction is a leisurely but very stimulating literature review which stresses the key methodological problems of writing the history of the British Jewry. The central notion is that of its “exceptionalism” [4]; Endelman’s analysis both deconstructs and confirms this idea, which has led to the marginalisation of British Jews in histories of European Jewries. His first criticism targets the usual depiction of the British Jews as a small, uneventful and rather uninnovative group as compared to other Diaspora communities. Endelman does not entirely reject the idea that “no new ideological or cultural current in modern Jewish history was launched or nurtured in Britain” [2], stressing that major currents like the Jewish Enlightenment, Reform Judaism, assimilationism, nationalism and socialism originated mainly in Central and Eastern Europe. This is partly ascribed to the comparatively small size of the British Jewry (400,000 people at its zenith, after World War II). However, the importance of London as “a major centre of urban Jewish life” [4] is also restated, and pervades the narrative.

In fact, Endelman argues, the little scholarly interest this community has aroused so far among historians is due to the fact that “the absence of persecution is a problem: it eliminates a familiar framework—Jews as a persecuted minority—and a set of related concepts and terms with which to view the history of the Jews” [2]. As a result, until the 1970s, the British Jewry was the preserve study of amateur historians and apologists who glossed over the darker side of the Anglo-Jewry (like the obstacles to its integration or its intra-communal tensions) and left aside the bulk of the Jewish population, focusing on its institutional and elite aspects. Above all, Endelman castigates the general trend among British historians “to ignore or minimize the Jewish presence in their work” [6], while existing historical works are criticised for their emphasis on the victimisation of the British Jews or, on the contrary, on cases of successful integration and Anglicisation.

Those who do address the history of the Anglo-Jewry encounter other difficulties, among which categorising problems rank first, as they tend to stress either “the class character, the immigrant status or the religious nonconformity” of British Jews [7], in resolutely mono-dimensional approaches that can offer only truncated and contradictory understandings of the true complexity of these groups. Endelman suggests overcoming such erroneous approaches by making the “dual character” of the British Jewry the guiding principle of his account: “it is both part of the history of Jewish people in the West, which encompasses communities in North America and Western and Central Europe, and part of the history in Europe” [8]. However, Endelman emphasises the quality of post-1980 historians of the British Jewry, and their pioneering exploration of the social history of Jewish communities as a whole—an endeavour in which Anglo-Jewish scholarship preceded all its Western counterparts. The Jews of Britain shares this concern for an inclusive social history, and it is probably its greatest quality.

Following the dual interpretative framework he argued for, Endelman’s periodisation corresponds to the major stages of the social history of the Anglo-Jewry: from the unofficial seventeenth-century resettlement of predominantly Sephardim communities with strong international commercial ties, to the rise of the Anglo-Jewish establishment in the early nineteenth century, against a background of makeshift street trading activities. This is followed by the better-known era of mass migration from Eastern Europe starting in the late 1870s and the subsequent anti-Jewish outbursts in the British population, the emergence of English Zionism on the eve of the Great War and the Holocaust, the arrival of the foreign refugees and the ensuing transformations. The book ends with a very valuable history of present times which chronicles the “fracturing of the Anglo-Jewry.” Post-WW2 Anglo-Jewry is defined by its increasing support and attachment to Israel in the wake of the Holocaust, by its steady social integration, and an increasing internal polarisation caused by the combined rise of Jewish Orthodoxy and an ongoing process of secularization. While overt anti-Semitism has declined, more insidious forms remain, even in the new context of post-decolonisation multicultural Britain, Endelman observes.

Along the course of his account, the evolutions of the community and the historiographic debates concerning every stage of their history are pithily summarised. The accounts of the transformation of religious sentiments within the communities and of attitudes towards Zionism are particularly convincing in this respect.

Dealing with a large and complex group like the Anglo-Jewry over such a long period of time poses problems of consistency and unity, which are remarkably absent from this book. The narrative is held together by recurring key themes. The first one is obviously the evolution and succession of the various Jewish communities in Britain in terms of size, occupation, geographic distribution, which is discreetly informed by the concepts and approaches of the history of migrations. The theme of Anglicisation underpins the analysis, and is approached both through statistics and cultural productions, making for a convincing and comprehensive account of the variety of Jewish cultures in Britain, often underlining their juxtaposition and explaining it in social or generational terms. The religious feelings and practices within the communities are also scanned at every stage of the narrative, offering a long-term perspective on such central questions as the growth of religious indifference, generational or social divides in religiosity, or the links between secularisation, orthodoxy or religious reformism and broader social evolutions (and especially the rise of anti-Jewish feelings). The reception and perception of the Jews in Britain throughout the centuries also constitute one of the main threads of Endelman’s account, usually leading to the conclusion that while British receptions of Jews were recurrently tainted by anti-Alien and occasionally anti-Jewish feelings, these were still milder than in most Western countries. The successive layers of the Jewish community in Britain in the course of the centuries are another structuring theme, and it is one of the great merits of the book to describe and explain at length the intra-communal tensions that have marked the Anglo-Jewry at every stage of its history, not focusing exclusively on the viewpoint of the successive Jewish elites, while taking into account their momentous role in shaping Anglo-Jewish relations.

One of the great strengths of Endelman’s account is his permanent contextualisation of the history of the Anglo-Jewry, which proves the relevance of his stress on the dual nature of the British Jews. The evolution of the Jewish communities in Britain is constantly interpreted with respect to the general—economic, social, intellectual, diplomatic—evolutions of Britain itself. Broad change in mentalities and collective imagination are taken into account, as is clear from the first chapters, which insist on the Millenarian sentiments which argued in favour of the Jews’ resettlement into Britain, along with more mundane considerations. This description of the British Jews as a touchstone for British society itself applies best of course to periods of crisis, such as the late-nineteenth century and its unprecedented rise of anti-Semitism (or anti-Alien feeling, as its proponents usually called it), or war times. Starting from the sound principle that “minorities […] reveal the power of myths, fantasies, and fears, the irrational and the unconscious” [7] gives remarkable scope and subtlety to Endelman’s analysis. His conclusion thus articulates some rather pervasive remarks about Englishness itself, and especially English elites, as seen through their reception of Jews in the past few centuries: “England’s elites, especially those whom Jews encountered in the metropolis, shared a common culture, a culture that was ruthlessly genteel, monolithic, arrogant, and exclusive. There was one, and only one, way of being authentically English” [261]. Crucially, his emphasis on the reception of Jews as a mirror for Englishness enables him to deliver a convincing inventory of the many, complex facets of British anti-Semitism—not least as expressed by Virginia Woolf and even by some minor Jewish writers—and suggest “rational” explanations for them, a laudable endeavour which is usually successful and thankfully devoid of any moralizing. Conversely, he explores the ways in which positive or negative attitudes towards Jews shaped their religious feelings, communal solidarities and drive to integrate, which makes for a very engrossing study of the interactions at stake within processes of immigration and integration in the long term.

Secondly, Endelman systematically draws comparisons between the Anglo-Jewry and other Western Jewish communities, thus putting most developments into perspective and confirming his initial statement of the specificity of the Anglo-Jewry. Occasionally, this comparative perspective allows a revision of the traditional view of the British Jews as a minor Jewry; the unique acculturation and secularization of the British Jews from the eighteenth century is thus highlighted, and measured by upward social mobility, election to the Commons, entrance into prestigious clubs and attribution of life peerages. Moreover, Endelman concludes, the economic integration of British Jews was not only unique compared to most other European Jewries (except those of France and post-unification Italy), but also greater than that of the British population itself. However, this statement is qualified by an emphasis on the limitations of English liberalism, and the overall conclusion that this integration came at a very high price, requiring that British Jews redefine and sacrifice part of their Jewishness: “neither state nor society demanded that they become Christians, as happened elsewhere, but circumstances conspired to make them less Jewish in their sentiments and affiliations” [261]. This “pressure” and its “disintegrative effects” on British Jews are deplored by Endelman, but they can also be seen as the inevitable part of integration processes in general. Moreover, Endelman remarks, while many Jews became world-class intellectuals, their Jewishness was usually put aside, and generally, the cultural achievements of Anglo-Jewry were underwhelming—another argument in favour calling into question the traditional narratives of success of Anglo-Jewry.

One potential drawback in such an ambitious account was over-generalisation. At the highest level, the political history of the community is dealt with thoroughly. Pithy developments are devoted to the legal status of the British Jews or to the communal institutions involving or representing them—especially the schools, synagogues, the Board of Guardians or the Board of Deputies formed in 1760 to negotiate with British authorities on the status of British Jews, which remains a central organ to this day. Prominent actors and powerful personalities are also presented and analysed. But the traditional focus on institutions, elite circles and individual success stories is successfully enlarged. The narrative conveys a sense of individuality and realitythroughout, and especially in the second chapter, “Bankers’ Brokers, Peddlers, Pickpockets,” which conjures up the colourful world of the Jewish street vendors in the eighteenth century. This is achieved through an extensive use of primary sources, not least biographical ones, both from Jewish and non-Jewish British actors. Endelman’s reliance on cultural productions as testimonies of feelings within and towards the British Jewry further reinforces this sense. There is a constant interplay between the general and the individual, which is the condition of a truly convincing social history, the school Endelman explicitly locates himself in. The attention paid to provincial developments—whether they follow the London trends or go against them—also concurs to this sense of comprehensiveness.

Of course, specialists of Jewish history and of the British Jewry in particular might be frustrated by the fact that the book is generally an extremely well-informed and critical synthesis of existing research, but does not open dramatically new perspectives in itself, even if Endelman does take a stance on most current historiographic debates and occasionally suggests revisions of some historical aspects. Unavoidably, the span covered by the book is counteracted in places by an impression of cursoriness—which never boils down to insufficiency or superficiality however. Lastly, the reader may sometimes regret the absence of an index—and the fact that such a minor detail should come to mind as one of the book’s flaws, in itself, testifies to its immense quality.

Cercles2006
All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner. Please contact us before using any material on this website.