Growing up I was always aware of a family story that sounded frankly bizarre: our ancestors, when fleeing Eastern Europe at the end of the 19thcentury, had supposedly got on a ship thinking it was headed for New York, but when the ship later docked in Dublin they simply thought it was America and got off there. Thence came a generation in Ireland before crossing the Irish Sea to north-west England. Change a few of these place names and it turns out lots of families have a similar story – new Jewish immigrants from the shtetl were simply unable to recognise a city, or were tricked into buying a ticket thinking it was going elsewhere. These stories have been passed down in many British Jewish families for generations, so surely they are correct?
Whilst researching for an essay on Jewish immigration I discovered that these stories have in fact received academic attention, and are a noteworthy trend of the time. Why do so many families have a similar story of accidental or forced arrival in the UK? The answer lies in the power of origin stories and origin myths. All groups have origin myths about themselves. ‘England’ is heralded as a place of unique historical stability, uninvaded in 1000 years; America focuses on its supposed ‘Pilgrims’; Israel was supposedly rising out of the labour of the chalutzim irrespective of the Holocaust. By telling ourselves stories of where we come from and why, we view ourselves in the present.
For Jews arriving in the UK at the turn of the 19thcentury, things were complicated. Jews were concentrated in areas such as Stepney in London, Leyland in Leeds, and Redbank in Manchester. Anti-Semitism was present in a variety of ways in almost every aspect of life. Because they could never be truly white, or Christian, Jews were unable to assimilate in the way that Irish Catholic immigrants, for example, could over time. Indeed, the East London Advertiser wrote that “People of any other nation, after being in England for only a short time, assimilate themselves with the native race and by and by lose nearly all their foreign trace. But the Jews never do. A Jew is always a Jew.” The lack of even the option to assimilate was both a cause and a consequence of further anti-Semitism.
We should not assume that Jews fitted immediately into the existing Jewish community. The Anglo-Jewish establishment, formed primarily of the ‘cousinhood’ of twenty or so families, was frequently insecure of its position and hostile to migrants. The pre-existing population was wealthy, middle-class, either Sephardic or German in origin, and if not quite assimilated, there was certainly an agreed way of operating between Jews and Gentiles. The arrival of poor ‘Ostjuden’ (Eastern Jews) did not fit with a community that saw itself, by the late nineteenth century, as almost another denomination of Protestantism. The grand cathedral-like synagogues of the Jewish community contrasted with steibels– small house-based synagogues – of Russian-Polish migrant communities, keen to continue their older practices. Older English Jews nonetheless felt some need to help ‘Anglicise’ their Jewish brethren; as well as funding charities such as the Poor Jews’ Temporary Shelter, established 1885, they funded groups like the Jewish Lads’ Brigade, in order to show “how one could be at the same time a good Jew and a good Englishman”, combining conventional piety with militaristic imperialism.
The period 1880-1910 was one in which migration in general was opposed, across the world. Migrants were seen to threaten the national-imperial culture, they brought disease, they lowered wages, they were not fit for the ‘imperial stock’. Many of the fears around migration have never really gone away, though they were filtered through a context of nationalism and imperialism. So we return to the question of origins. Migrants who chose to come to England deliberately could be castigated as seeking to benefit themselves, and coming in to undermine traditional culture and traditional economic models. Moreover, migrants who were wealthy in their own countries could be criticised for having no real need to come to England. Despite this, at the time there was a widespread sense that some refugees were justified in coming to England, if they truly needed refuge from persecution. The 1905 Aliens Act which restricted migration (targeted at Jews) for the first time was also the first Act anywhere to introduce a formal protection for those seeking asylum. For Jews both before and after the Act, it was vital to be seen as refugees rather than migrants. Thus came the stories of accidental arrival to the UK. Jews who migrated to England were not, as they often claimed, the poorest of the poor; because of the cost of transport, it was usually only those with at least some resources who could make the journey. But the image that migrants presented to the wider world, and to themselves, was that only those truly destitute came, and even then they had ended up in England accidentally, or been tricked to come here. It is much harder to criticise migrants for coming to the UK if they supposedly did not mean to come here at all.
What can we learn today from these myths of our origin as a community in the UK? At a time when our position in Britain seems less stable, and less certain than ever, perhaps we can learn to shed the image of ourselves as merely lucky to be in this country, and instead embrace what it means to be British Jews, whatever we understand by it. We can also learn that the division between migrants and refugees has certainly never been valid for Jews throughout history, and is rarely a possible distinction to make today. Across the world people are dying in the process of trying to reach a safe place, to have a better life. Our history more than anything else shows the responsibility we have as Jews to respect shivyon erech ha’adam(the equal value of human beings) and to ensure that those coming to the UK do not face the hostility we faced as a community a century ago. – Harrison Engler