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Writing English Jewish History

  • Todd M. Endelman


Cecil Roth (1899–1970), the dominant figure in the writing of English Jewish history in the mid-twentieth century, served as president of the Jewish Historical Society of England nine times. In his valedictory presidential address in September 1968, which he titled “Why Anglo-Jewish History?” Roth defended the enterprise—and the society and himself, by extension—against critics who considered it “petty and unimportant” and believed that “after all that has been written on the subject there is nothing more to be discovered.” In his apologia, Roth referred to discoveries made by members of the society that proved that “industrious cultivation of our own modest cabbage patch” contributed to knowledge of both British history and Jewish history in general. In Roth's metaphor, “the inconspicuous inlet of Anglo-Jewish historical research” sometimes branched out into “majestic and…unexplored rivers.” But, in closing, he admitted frankly that what motivated his choice above all was “the pleasure of the thing” rather than high-minded ideals.



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1 Roth, Cecil, “Why Anglo-Jewish History?,” Transactions of the Jewish Historical Society of England 22 (1970): 22, 24, 25.

2 Cannadine, David, “Cousinhood,” London Review of Books, 27 July 1989, pp. 1012. Two inferences can be made from Cannadine's comments. The first is that Jews merit attention only when they appear as victims, as objects of persecution. The second is that historians should concern themselves with explaining failure, not success. The first strikes me as condescending, the second as ludicrous.

3 Katz, Jacob, Out of the Ghetto: The Social Background of Jewish Emancipation, 1770–1870 (Cambridge, Mass., 1973), pp. 3840. By the same token, historians of British Jewry tend to avoid descriptive concepts and categories from the continental Jewish experience in their work. None, for example, characterizes the second half of the eighteenth century as the age of haskalah nor the first half of the next century as the age of religious conflict between tradition and reform. The one exception is Cecil Roth, who claimed there was a haskalah in England, citing as evidence the presence of a few individuals who shared some of the ideas of the German haskalah and a few learned persons who wrote in a modernized Hebrew style, at times on themes of general cultural interest. But he failed to show there was an ideological movement to modernize traditional Jewish life, which was the hallmark of Jewish enlightenment everywhere. See his article The Haskalah in England,” in Essays Presented to Chief Rabbi Israel Brodie on the Occasion of his Seventieth Birthday, eds. Zimmels, H. J., et al, 2 vols. (London, 1967), 1: 365–76.

4 Mahler, Raphael, Divrei yemei yisrael: dorot ahronim [A History of the Jews in Modern Times], 6 vols. (Tel Aviv, 19521976); Baron, Salo W., “The Modern Age,” in Great Ages and Ideas of the Jewish People, ed. Schwarz, Leo W. (New York, 1956); Ettinger, Shmuel, “The Modern Period,” in A History of the Jewish People, ed. Ben-Sasson, Haim Hillel (Cambridge, Mass., 1975); Sachar, Howard Morley, The Course of Modern Jewish History, (rev. ed.; New York, 1977); Seltzer, Robert M., Jewish People, Jewish Thought: The Jewish Experience in History (New York, 1980), part 4. Also see the syllabi collected in Wertheimer, Jack, ed., The Modern Jewish Experience: A Reader's Guide (New York, 1993), pp. 331–78.

5 Waterman, Stanley and Kosmin, Barry, British Jewry in the Eighties: A Statistical and Geographical Study (London, 1986), p. 7; Mendes-Flohr, Paul R. and Reinharz, Jehudah, eds., The Jew in the Modern World: A Documentary History (New York, 1980), table 18. British Jewish population figures are published annually in The Jewish Yearbook.

6 Roth, Cecil, A History of the Jews in England, 3rd ed. (Oxford, 1964), p. 270.

7 Endelman, Todd M., “The Englishness of Jewish Modernity in England,” in Toward Modernity: The European Jewish Model, ed. Katz, Jacob (New Brunswick, NJ, 1987), p. 242. For another example, see idem, “The Social and Political Context of Conversion in Germany and England, 1870–1914,” in Jewish Apostasy in the Modern World, ed. Todd M. Endelman (New York, 1987), pp. 83–107.

8 I include Cecil Roth in this group, since despite his Oxford credentials he wrote in the same apologetic vein as the amateurs of the Jewish Historical Society of England. Before the 1970s, the only academic historian to take up English Jewish history was the American-bom and trained Lloyd Gartner, whose pioneering book The Jewish Immigrant in England, 1870–1914 appeared in 1960. A doctoral student of Salo Baron at Columbia University in the 1950s, Gartner writes about East European immigration and settlement on a broad canvas that encompasses the United States as well as Great Britain. For a critique of the amateur school, see David Cesarani, “Dual Heritage or Duel of Heritages? Englishness and Jewishness in the Heritage Industry,” and Kushner, Tony, “The End of the ‘Anglo-Jewish Progress Show’: Representations of the Jewish East End, 1887–1987,” in The Jewish Heritage in British History: Englishness and Jewishness, ed. Kushner, Tony (London, 1992), pp. 29–41, 78105.

9 Newman, Gerald, The Rise of English Nationalism: A Cultural History, 1740–1830 (New York, 1987); Colley, Linda, Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707–1837 (New Haven, 1992). For examples in the medieval and Tudor-Stuart periods, see Colin Richmond, “Englishness and Medieval Anglo-Jewry,” and Katz, David S., “The Marginalization of Early Modern Anglo-Jewish History,” in The Jewish Heritage in British History, pp. 4277.

10 Lemire, Beverly, “Consumerism in Preindustrial and Early Industrial England: The Trade in Secondhand Clothes,” Journal of British Studies 27 (1988): 124; idem, Fashion's Favourite: The Cotton Trade and the Consumer in Britain, 1660–1800 (Oxford, 1992).

11 One exception is Smith, Paul, “Disraeli's Politics,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 5th ser., 37 (1987): 6585. Awareness of the importance of Disraeli's Jewishness informs the following work: Weintraub, Stanley, Disraeli: A Biography (New York, 1993); Feldman, David, Englishmen and Jews: Social Relations and Political Culture, 1840–1914 (New Haven, 1994), ch. 4; Smith, Paul and Richmond, Charles, eds., Disraeli: The Fashioning of the Self (Cambridge, 1996).

12 Blake, Robert, Disraeli, (Garden City, NY, 1968), p. 47.

13 Richmond, “Englishness and Medieval Anglo-Jewry.”

14 Buckman, Joseph, Immigrants and the Class Struggle: The Jewish Immigrant in Leeds, 1880–1914 (Manchester, 1983), p. 145; White, Jerry, Rothschild Buildings: Life in an East End Tenement Block, 1887–1920 (London, 1980), p. 148.

15 Report of the Anglo-Jewish Association, 187]-1872 (London, 1872), p. 8. The journalist and historian Lucien Wolf (1857–1930), who headed the “foreign policy” arm of the Anglo-Jewish establishment, the Conjoint Foreign Committee, during World War I and the Paris peace conference, has often been viewed as a rabid assimilationist, a so-called British citizen of the Mosaic persuasion, because of his opposition to Herzlian Zionism. In fact, his sense of Jewish kinship was more expansive and complex. This emerges clearly in Levene's, Mark detailed account War, Jews, and the New Europe: The Diplomacy of Lucien Wolf, 1914–1919 (Oxford, 1992).

16 The books that laid to rest Roth's view include, in order of date of publication: Holmes, Colin, Anti-Semitism in British Society, 1876–1939 (New York, 1979); Endelman, Todd M., The Jews of Georgian England, 1714–1830: Tradition and Change in a Liberal Society (Philadelphia, 1979); Kushner, Tony, The Persistence of Prejudice: Antisemitism in British Society during the Second World War (Manchester, 1989); Kushner, Tony and Lunn, Kenneth, eds., Traditions of Intolerance: Historical Perspectives on Fascism and Race Discourse in Britain (Manchester, 1989); Cesarani, David, ed., The Making of Modern Anglo-Jewry (Oxford, 1990); Endelman, Todd M., Radical Assimilation in English Jewish History (Bloomington, Ind., 1990); Feldman, Englishmen and Jews.

17 The most extreme statement of this view is in Rubinstein, William B., “Recent Anglo-Jewish Historiography and the Myth of Jix's Antisemitism,” Australian Journal of Jewish Studies 7, 1 (1993): 4170, ibid. 7, 2: 24–45. See also Geoffrey Alderman's response in ibid. 8, 1 (1994): 112–21.

18 Ben Zion Dinur, Yitzhak Baer, Shmuel Ettinger, Jacob Katz, and their students. For a cogent critique of this approach, see the introduction to Paths of Emancipation: Jews, States, and Citizenship, eds. Birnbaum, Pierre and Katznelson, Ira (Princeton, 1995), pp. 336.

19 Endelman, Todd M., “The Checkered Career of ‘Jew’ King: A Study in Anglo-Jewish Social History,” AJS Review 7–8 (19821983): 69100, reprinted in From East and West: Jews in a Changing Europe, eds. Sorkin, David and Malino, Frances (Oxford, 1990), pp. 151–81.

20 For assessments of the new school, see Gartner, Lloyd P., “Mehagrim yehudim mi-mizrah eiropah be-angliyah: esrim ve-hameish shenot historiyografiyah” [Jewish Immigrants from Eastern Europe in England: Twenty-Five Years of Historiography], in Temurot be-historiyah ha-yehudit he-hadashah: kovets maamarim shai le-Shmuel Ettinger [Transformation and Change in Modern Jewish History: Essays Presented in Honor of Shmuel Ettinger], eds. Almog, Shmuel, et al (Jerusalem, 1987), pp. 527–42; Endelman, Todd M., “English Jewish History,” Modern Judaism 11 (1991): 91109; idem, “Jews, Aliens and Other Outsiders in British History,” The Historical Journal 37 (1994): 959–69; Rubinstein, “Recent Anglo-Jewish Historiography.”

21 Feldman, , Englishmen and Jews, p. 388.

22 Katz, David S., The Jews in the History of England, 1485–1850 (Oxford, 1994), p. vii.

23 Ibid., p. x.

24 Ibid., p. x.

25 Ibid., p. 188.

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