Not Really Their Crowd

Conservative Party Attitudes To Jews 1900 -1950 by Harry Defries. Frank Cass, 268 pages. pounds 18.50

One hundred years ago, British Jews were regarded as “un-English,” an alien entity in British society, “a sinister force bent on the destruction of the Empire.” Harry Defries argues that, while there was always prejudice in the British Conservative Party against Jews, its extent depended on the specific Tory and the type of Jew ripe for castigation.

British Jews – and particularly those born elsewhere – were the whipping boy par excellence. Tariff reform at the beginning of the 20th century meant a predisposition toward anti-alienism and anti-Semitism.

They were supposedly the cause of the Boer War, a malign influence in the court of Edward VII, pro-German before World War I, pro-Soviet after it. Jews were viewed as all-powerful, their leaders manipulating the tentacles of international Jewry to bring about the downfall of European Christian civilization. Whether capitalist or communist, Jews were responsible for the ills of the world.

IN 1903, Major William Evans-Gordon, the Conservative member of Parliament for the East End constituency of Stepney in London wrote that “the Hebrew colony was unlike any other alien colony in the land” and they could not be assimilated. Moreover, if given a free hand, they would “eventually monopolize all that is worth having in the countries they inhabit.”

A pro-Zionist of sorts, he considered that a Jewish nation on Jewish territory could deal with the “parasitical and the predatory” types of Jews who become prominent “where-so-ever Jews are congregated in numbers.” Yet Chaim Weizmann remembered him in his autobiography for help rendered in the cause of Zionism.

Genteel anti-Semitism was exploited by early Zionists to further the cause. Thus Theodore Herzl opposed England’s restrictionist agenda when he testified before the Royal Commission on Alien Immigration in 1902, but he also attempted to steer such prejudices toward a Zionist territorial solution.

Arthur Balfour told Weizmann that he once had a long conversation with Cosima Wagner, anti-Jewish composer Richard Wagner’s second wife, in Bayreuth, and shared many of her views on Jews. And so, Balfour “the Zionist,” who had given his name to the Declaration, was the same Balfour whose administration enacted the Aliens Act of 1905 and thus restricted Jewish immigration to Britain.

Similarly Lord Milner, who played a major part in the development of the Balfour Declaration, had written about the undesirable, often illegal activities of “low class Jews” when discussing the plight of refugees in South Africa.

Then there is Sir Mark Sykes who described the ghetto Jews of Eastern Europe as “repulsive, grasping, griping, fawning, insolent.”

These major players in the events of 1917 had their dark side, but they also saw the advantage in diverting Jews to Palestine – and in turn became entranced by the historic possibility of the return of the Jews to Zion. Jewish immigration to Palestine, rather than Britain, pandered to traditional prejudices and served to protect the imperial pathway to India as well as fortifying British hegemony in Egypt and Sudan.

THE TORY PRESS often said what Tory politicians thought. The Morning Post urged the removal of all German- born Jews from government during World War I. The Times reacted to the Bolshevik revolution by describing Leon Trotsky as “a Jew of the Jews” while the Spectator took the publication of the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion to heart and called for the establishment of a Royal Commission. The ascendancy of Zionism was simply another link in this chain.

The Daily Mail claimed that the British taxpayer had been forced to fund the Zionist enterprise, while the Times called for the abolition of the Zionist Commission and removal of Jewish officials from the Mandate’s administration.

Tory attitudes toward Jews continued to be mixed. Solidarity with Zionism did not necessarily mean a liking for Jews. Neither did being rationally opposed to anti- Semitism mean being pro-Jewish. It seems that while many Tories did not care for Jews – for their lack of “Englishness” – they disliked Nazi violence against them even more. It was simply not cricket.

Compassion for the status of the underdog did not, however, mean appreciating the underdog himself.

Defries points out that there were only 28 Jewish Tory MPs between 1900 and 1950. Only three held leading positions in Anglo-Jewish institutions. Few advocated Jewish interests in parliament and only two achieved ministerial rank – as junior ministers.

There were eight Tory MPs in 1939 when the White Paper was debated. One voted against, two for, and the other five absented themselves. Clearly even the most assimilated Jewish Conservative knew how to play the game.

The Liberals, in contrast, attracted and promoted their Jews to senior positions in government. Herbert Samuel, Rufus Isaacs, Alfred Mond and Leslie Hore-Belisha all prospered as Liberals.

Churchill was a great advocate of Zionism, but his prominence also served to obscure the opposition of his colleagues. Anthony Eden, in a private note in September 1941, commented that if it was necessary to have preferences, he favored the Arabs over the Jews.

Defries also points out that for all Churchill’s rhetoric, he did little when actually in government.

With the Lehi’s assassination in 1944 of the anti- Zionist Lord Moyne – responsible for implementing the White Paper that blocked Jews from entering Palestine even during the Holocaust – Churchill effectively placed even his verbal support in abeyance.

In parliament, he signalled his formal break with Zionism. “If our dreams for Zionism are to end in the smoke of assassins’ pistols and our labors for its future to produce only a new set of gangsters worthy of Nazi Germany, many like myself will have to reconsider the position we have maintained so consistently and so long in the past.”

In one sense, this gave the green light to many Tories to wrap themselves in the Union Jack and proclaim their support for British military actions against the Zionists. Thus many Conservative MPs remained silent when Lt. Gen. Barker, the General Officer Commanding in Mandatory Palestine, commented that by excluding British troops from Jewish establishments, this would punish the Jews “in a way the race dislikes as much as any, by striking at their pockets and showing our contempt for them.”

The press did not lurk much further behind. Lord Rothermere, owner of the Daily Mail, confided in 1948 that he had great difficulty in persuading his journalists to write an article in support of the Jews or one critical of British backing of the Arab cause. The journalists believed that it would harm the paper because of “the strength of anti-Semitism in the country.”

The late Harry Defries has written an interesting book about an area of Anglo-Zionist history that has been glossed over.

Defries’ untimely death some two years ago means that there will be no follow-up volume, but this work indicates that he certainly made his mark as a Jewish historian – a notable achievement for someone who was essentially self- taught.

Jerusalem Post 26 April 2002

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