JBD

 

Extracts from the Jun 2015 Journal

Jews, minorities and anti-Semitism in Britain today

Recent events in some European countries have created something of a climate of fear among those Jewish communities that now feel themselves under threat. Both the terrorist outrages in Paris in January 2015, which began with the attack on the magazine Charlie Hebdo, and that in Copenhagen in February 2015, which began with an attack on a group discussing art, blasphemy and freedom of expression, ended with attacks on Jewish targets - a kosher supermarket and a synagogue respectively. In particular, in the Jewish communities of France and Belgium, where four people were killed in an attack on the Jewish Museum in Brussels in May 2014, the rate of emigration to Israel and elsewhere has increased to the extent that the future of those communities has been called into question.
Those atrocities were carried out by Islamist extremists. The Muslim communities in France and Belgium are largely composed of immigrants (and their descendants) originating from the countries of north Africa, which also contained substantial Jewish populations until the end of French colonial rule, in Morocco and Tunisia in 1956 and in Algeria in 1962. The Jewish population then left, much of it joining the exodus of the French non-Arab population (the Pieds-Noirs) to France. As the Jewish and Muslim communities had lived in close proximity to one another in cities like Algiers and Oran, the tensions between them that had already been in existence there were transferred to France, following the substantial emigration to that country of Muslim Arabs from north Africa that created a community now numbering several million.
In Britain, the Muslim community is largely drawn from Pakistan and Bangladesh, countries with little or no historical tradition of anti-Semitism. Relations between the Jewish and Muslim communities in this country are accordingly less fraught than in France, and there has been no equivalent to the murderous attacks on Jewish people and institutions launched by French-born or French-domiciled Islamists. One should, of course, beware of over-optimism: we all remember that many people considered it well-nigh unthinkable that British Muslims would ever undertake a terrorist outrage on home soil - until 7 July 2005, the day of the Tube and bus bombs in London.
But what of anti-Semitism among the ‘native’ British population? Overt levels of anti-Semitism are low in this country when compared to, say, France or Belgium, where hostility to Jews has historically been stronger and more deeply rooted. This is not to deny that anti-Semitism exists in Britain, but physical attacks on Jewish people by ‘native’ British aggressors are mercifully rare, while the derogatory term ‘Jewboy’, commonplace even in polite society in the 1930s, has all but disappeared from public discourse. Anti-Semitic feeling appears to arise mostly where Jews have a high profile as outsiders or are perceived as an exotic, alien presence. That is especially the case in areas with substantial Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox communities like Stamford Hill in London, scene of a recent attack on a synagogue by a group of drunken young people. With the British National Party, the repository of such swastika-waving anti-Semitism as remains in Britain, currently at an all-time low, the threat to Britain’s Jewish communities from that quarter would appear to have diminished significantly.
I should make it clear that for the purposes of this article I am distinguishing between anti-Semitism as hatred of Jews pure and simple, which has existed for millennia, long antedating the founding of the state of Israel, and what has become known as anti-Zionism, hostility towards Jews on account of their alleged identification with Israel and the policies of the Israeli government. I do so even though the two forms of prejudice often overlap and cannot always be disentangled.
I would argue that anti-Semitism is a particularly ugly excrescence that feeds on a larger body of hatred and prejudice against ethnic minorities in general. The Jewish refugees from Hitler who fled to this country after 1933 sometimes experienced the raw reality of this poisonous brew. An example was the young Charles Hannam, born Karl Hartland in Essen, who described in the second and third volumes of his autobiography, Almost an Englishman and Outsider Inside, the intense and vicious racial prejudice he encountered when serving with the British Army in Burma and India. Hannam’s fellow soldiers appear to have harboured a visceral, deep-seated hatred and contempt for everything connected to the native population.
Writing of himself in the third person, Hannam states: ‘Both the officers and the men he lived with had attitudes towards the Indians, their civilization and their customs that contained the same mixture of contempt, hate and ignorance that the Nazis had shown towards the Jews.’ When he gave a lecture to his comrades on famine in India and ended by asking them ‘And you don’t want the Indians to starve, do you?’, he received the loud and unanimous response ‘Oh yes we f****** do!’ All too aware that this reservoir of racial prejudice might easily be redirected against Jews, Hannam was at pains to conceal his origins from his comrades throughout the years of his wartime service.
That kind of crude, lower-class racial prejudice has continued to lurk below the surface of British society since the war, only partially driven underground by the race relations legislation that has been enacted since the 1960s, and erupting periodically into public view. In April 1968, London dockers demonstrated in support of Enoch Powell with the chant ‘Paint them black and send them back.’ Earlier this year, video footage appeared of English football supporters, Chelsea fans, apparently preventing an African man by force from boarding the Paris metro, while proclaiming their pride in their racist views. Shortly afterwards, another group of football supporters, West Ham fans, were reported to have shouted highly offensive anti-Semitic chants while heading to a match against Tottenham Hotspur, a team with strong Jewish associations. Again, the potential for the racial prejudice prevalent among such groups to be targeted against Jews, rather than against more visibly ‘alien’ minority groups, came to the fore.
Prejudice against minorities flourishes at times of febrile and inflamed nationalism. In the general election campaign of May 2015, foreign affairs played a notably small role but, when the outside world did intrude on the parochial concerns of the British media, it was mostly presented in such figures as workshy migrants exploiting the National Health Service (a service that would collapse overnight without its immigrant doctors, nurses and cleaners) or as an indistinct but threatening horde gathering to menace ‘our’ borders. Such views seem to stem from a curious combination of a loudly trumpeted sense of British superiority over other, lesser breeds and a deep-seated insecurity bred by the long decline in Britain’s power and standing in the world and its problematic adjustment to its post-imperial situation. Though Jews have not been the prime targets of the xenophobia latent in these attitudes, that is no reason for complacency: people who go around shouting ‘We’re racist, we’re racist and that’s the way we like it’ are hardly likely to form the most solid bulwark against any future wave of anti-Semitism.
The political discourse of the May 2015 election was also not always reassuring to Jews. Some will have been alarmed to hear a minister of the Crown attacking the Leader of the Opposition by claiming that he was prepared to ‘stab his country in the back’. Any Jew with a passing knowledge of modern European history would have recognised this phrase as one of the most potent founding myths of Nazi propaganda, which took up with fatally telling effect the false claim that Germany had never been defeated on the battlefield in November 1918 but had been ‘stabbed in the back’ by Jews and Socialists on the home front - the Novemberverbrecher (November criminals) on whom vengeance must be wrought.
Some AJR members will also remember how the argument that immigrants are taking scarce resources from native British people - in itself a not unreasonable point of view - can, in unscrupulous hands, be given a racist slant and turned against Jews. In autumn 1945, anti-Semitic groups of the far right sought to use the housing shortage in the then Borough of Hampstead to rid the area of its large contingent of refugee Jews. A petition was launched, demanding the repatriation of German and Austrian refugees to their countries of origin, in order to free up accommodation for British people returning to the borough from war service. What became known as the ‘anti-alien petition’ was signed by over 2,000 local residents but eventually collapsed ignominiously in face of determined resistance from the liberal elements prominent in the borough. That did not stop similar arguments being deployed, and against similar targets. In 1953, opposing the admission of East European Jews, the Fascist leader Oswald Mosley wrote in Union, the publication of his Union Movement: ‘They will make no better citizens of Britain than the flood that reached our shores in the 1930s. Let us put the British people first.’
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Art Notes

Cornelius Johnson (Cornelis Janssens van Ceulen, 1593–1661) was called Charles I’s forgotten painter but now the National Portrait Gallery is rehabilitating him with its first exhibition devoted to his work (to 13 September 2015). The Gallery has trawled through its collection to include portraits of Charles’s children, his successor Charles II, the future James II, and Mary, later Princess of Orange-Nassau, all painted in 1639.
In 1657 Johnson painted the future William III of Orange, only son of Charles I’s widowed daughter Mary, and the young man’s lugubrious face beneath his shoulder-length dark hair betrays a grimly striking resemblance to his doomed grandfather.
Cornelius Johnson’s reputation was overshadowed by that of his contemporary, Sir Anthony Van Dyck, who came to London as royal painter in 1632 only to have his own British career trounced by the Civil War. But Johnson’s gifts should be recognised in their own right. More than 350 years later we see how clearly he captured the siblings’ similarity and lovingly recreated the lavish fabrics, the lace and voluminous sleeves of his royal sitters as civil war loomed. The almost deathly pallor of their skin contrasts with the lushness of the materials which clothed them and seems, in retrospect, a metaphor for the royal family - a doomed species on the edge of war.
Johnson portrayed other nobles too, like Thomas, first baron of Coventry, appointed Lord Keeper of the Great Seal by Charles I, in lavish velvet robes.
One particularly striking image is that of a notorious society beauty, Frances, Countess of Somerset (1590-1632). Divorced from Robert Devereux, 3rd Earl of Essex, in 1613, she married Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset, but the pair were later imprisoned on charges of poisoning Sir Thomas Overbury, who had opposed their marriage. In this painting, Johnson pays great attention to her dress, her stiff lace ruff, but does not shrink from suggesting the femme fatale in her wryly conniving expression. We shall never know the truth as the pair were later pardoned but, in typical cherchez la femme fashion, she was blamed for having brought her husband so low.
Johnson trained in the Netherlands and after the Civil War he returned there, joining a painters’ guild in Middleburg near Zeeland. Despite the toughness of the Dutch art market he succeeded and died a wealthy man.
There is a subtlety about his work and his ability to capture likeness makes him an accessible artist even to modern eyes.
No Set Rules (to 15 June 2015) includes the Ben Uri’s own collections plus works from the Philip Schlee Collection and features artists working in Britain between 1920 and 2004. Nearly 50 leading artists, from Frank Auerbach, David Bomberg, Jane Joseph, Leon Kossoff, Michael Rothenstein, Glenn Sujo and Edward Toledano to Gillian Ayres, David Hockney, Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland, cover subject matter, technique and practice, from figuration to abstraction, monochrome to colour. I loved revisiting Leon Kossoff’s monochromatic tumbledown Christ Church - more ‘shtetl’ than Spitalfields - and Frank Auerbach’s Study for Mornington Crescent, which shares that fragile quality, but a few tenuous slabs of colour somehow lend it permanence.
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‘Second-Generation Syndrome’ SPLINTERS FROM KRISTALLNACHT: TWO YOUNG JEWS IN HITLER'S GERMANY edited by Ann Bradshaw and Stephen Kaufmann 2014, 123 pp. paperback. The print version and a Kindle version (without photographs) are available at Amazon.co.uk

This slim volume is self-published and contains many photographs, which are mostly interspersed among the text. The editors are children of the couple Gerda Just and Hans Kaufmann, who tell their life stories, and Ann Bradshaw has written quite a long introduction (24 pages) in which she describes their attitude to each other and to the world around them. She also states that ‘we, the children of these German Jewish refugees, have our own life-long psychological scars’. It is perhaps worth pointing out that this does not apply to all ex-refugee families - my two sons, for example, do not suffer from what might be called the ‘Second Generation Syndrome’.
Ann Bradshaw makes it clear that her mother came from a somewhat higher social background than her father: ‘she maintained all her life that she was interested in classical music and opera, perhaps to distinguish herself from Dad, who was definitely not a “cultured person”.’ Gerda came from a town called Crossen an der Oder (now Krosno Odrzanskie in Poland), her father from Lichtenau, a small village in Bavaria. Hans spoke German with a Bavarian accent whereas Gerda had no accent. Hans was from an Orthodox Jewish family, which kept the Sabbath and a kosher household. After he arrived in England he continued to go to the local synagogue although professing that he was an atheist. His daughter says ‘to him, his religion was his personal link with his forefathers and his former life in Lichtenau.’ Gerda refused to run a kosher household: for her these food laws were outdated and were introduced only because of the hot climate in Palestine.
Gerda and Hans’s children persuaded them to write down their life stories mainly for the benefit of their grandchildren but also as historical evidence and a warning to posterity. Gerda did so when she was in her fifties, in 1976, going as far back as joining the ATS in 1943, and completed the story, after a long interval, in 1988. Gerda’s story is very much longer than Hans’s - over 70 pages and 11 pages respectively.
Gerda writes in great detail about their extended family and friends and about her pre-school years and also life at school, which she did not enjoy as she was not an academic type. She came to Britain with the Kindertransport and became a student nurse, which she also hated. Following the outbreak of war the ex-refugee girls at the hospital were told to leave as the hospital was turned into a military one. She then took a job in a private nursing home but never qualified as a nurse. Subsequently she became a nanny, looking after an 18-month-old boy. When she was called up for war work in 1943 she chose to join the WAAF but, unaware that the RAF did not accept ‘aliens’ at the time, found herself in the ATS. There she trained as a cook and worked as such, first in Bulford on Salisbury Plain and then in Ilfracombe in north Devon. She was medically downgraded in 1945 and then worked as a clerk until she got out of the ATS.
Hans’s story can be summarised very briefly. He and his twin brother were the youngest of five siblings. By the end of 1934 their two elder sisters and brother had emigrated to other countries. Hans’s twin brother obtained a job as an apprentice baker some 70 miles away and Hans became an apprentice painter and decorator, remaining in that business for four years. But - as a Jew - he was not allowed to take the examination making him ‘officially’ a trained decorator. During the Kristallnacht pogrom he was arrested and sent to Dachau concentration camp, where he remained for two-and-a-half months. His mother was able to get him released as he had obtained permission to come to Britain as a member of the advance party refurbishing Kitchener Camp at Richborough.
In January 1940 Hans joined the Pioneer Corps and stayed in the army for six-and-a-half years. On his release he worked for a year as an employee of a painting and decorating firm and established his own business in the same trade afterwards. At about that time he married Gerda.
In the last chapter Ann Bradshaw describes very briefly - in barely two pages - conditions at the French camp Gurs, where her father’s mother had been sent shortly after the war started. She survived but nothing is said about her later fate.
The lives Gerda and Hans relate are similar to those of most refugees and their stories do not include any extraordinary events or experiences. I wonder therefore whether potential readers who are not connected with the family, and particularly AJR members, would find the book interesting. Unfortunately the reproduction of most of the photographs is rather poor - if there are groups of people you cannot see their faces and on the numerous photos of documents you can hardly read a single word. Because the book is self-published no professional editor was involved and this is noticeable: the punctuation could be improved and there are some factual errors and misprints. [link]

Letters to the Editor

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