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What's the story?

by: Cara Wides - Last updated: 2006-02-06

David Aaronovitch

David Aaronovitch

When during the last 350 years was anti-Semitism at its worst in England? How much did the English government know about what was going on at the concentration camps?

These are no small questions - ones which most British Jews would want to get to the bottom of. Ask four famous Jewish historians to discuss them, and you've upped the stakes considerably.

The four top-name historians that participated in the London Jewish Cultural Centre's discussion: 'What's the story? - the history of Anglo-Jewry over the past 350 years' were Professor David Cesarani, of Royal Holloway, University of London, Professor Todd Endelman, of the University of Michigan, Tony Kushner, Professor of Jewish/Non-Jewish Relations at the University of Southampton and Professor Bill Rubinstein, of the University of Aberystwyth.

Introducing the theme of the Jews' readmission to England in 1656, panel chair David Aaronovitch (journalist, broadcaster and author) set a jovial tone that continued throughout the night: "I love the word readmission - as if the Jews had their hands stamped on the way out like they were at a nightclub, and then flashed their stamps for readmission hundreds of years later."

The four panellists were booked to take the audience on 'a real romp through Jewish history in Britain since readmission' - and this romp was divided into four periods of history (or mini-romps, if you like).

Endelman began: "From readmission until the late eighteenth century, the Jews had a pretty easy time of things, and didn't face the trade  restrictions imposed on their relatives in France and Germany."

Kushner stepped in; arguing that at the time of the Jew Bill in 1753, there was a vicious culture of anti-Semitism, with Jews being accused of ritual murder, and other gruesome deeds.

In the nineteenth century, Benjamin Disraeli really put Jews on the map in England, and the fact that a Jew could rise 'up the greasy pole' proves for Kushner that Britain was very tolerant towards us in this era.

Other panellists hotly pointed out that Disraeli experienced a lot of anti-Semitism - pork chops were waved in front of him, and someone brought a donkey into one of his meetings, telling Disraeli to ride it back to Jerusalem.

The audience learnt most of them were descended from Eastern European Jews that fled to England at the end of the nineteenth century, escaping poverty and danger.

Everyone looked a bit put out to hear that their distant relatives were loathed by the Anglo-Jews for being 'poor, dishevelled, and embarrassing'.

The wider British community started throwing around accusations that these new immigrants were spreading disease, committing crime, and stirring up revolution. The British Jews quickly responded by trying to acclimatize the immigrants, setting up social clubs where they could learn to be more
gentrified.

When the panellists got to the period of history covering the 1930s onwards, suddenly everyone in the room seemed a little more alert. What was the truth about how Britain behaved during the Holocaust? Ten minutes further into this discussion, and tempers were rising among the panel.

In one corner, we had Rubinstein, claiming the Brits didn't know anything about the fate of the Jews until it was too late. Another panellist lashed back: "There was a great deal the British could have done to save Eastern European Jews. In 1936 Britain did everything possible to keep the Balkan Jews out of Palestine."

Michael Howard's name bobbed into the conversation - how did his family manage to get into Britain in the 1930s? The answer - they lied their way in, the only option that was available to them. So being deceptive was a Howard family tradition? No wonder Michael decided to go into politics.