Saturday, December 17, 2005

Friend or foe?

War brought a huge influx of people to Britain. This tested the nerves of the migrants, brought fresh ideas to question Victorian values, and provided racists with scapegoats for all the ills of an Empire threatened by the conflict.
Divided loyalties'Looking back, I must have asked some awkward questions,' the late radical politician Phil Piratin says in his account of his life as a Jewish teenage son of immigrants immediately after the First World War (Our Flag Stays Red, Lawrence and Wishart).
'I remember being shaken when on one occasion I asked my father's friend, Dayan Rabbi Chakin (a 'Dayan' is a Jewish judge), how it was possible for the Chief Rabbi of Germany to call on the Jewish people to fight in the Kaiser's armies, and the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom to call on the British Jews to fight in the British armies, both Chief Rabbis knowing quite well that their fellow Jews would be fighting each other. I was quoted all kinds of references, the essence of which was that the Jewish people are strangers in a strange land, should be grateful for their shelter, and should conform with the policies... of the reigning Government. This... didn't satisfy me, as it was in conflict with the teachings of religion, in which I then believed, regarding international brotherhood.'
Immigration of all nationalities, races and colours increasingly brought this sort of questioning of the basics of what was then a fairly rigid hierarchical society – although the vast majority of immigrants wanted nothing more than to be able to fit into so-called normal British life (as is evident from Piratin's Dayan). Indeed, many changed their names to be more anglicised – Schmidt might become Smith, the Irish Gaelic Seoirse might become George and the Hebrew Yeshua might become Joshua.
People were prepared to die for their king – because the king was their superior and that was that – but when they may be killing their own relatives fighting for enemy countries, this sort of confidence was harder to sustain. On top of this, many Jewish people were suspicious of a war where one of the chief allies was Tsarist Russia, the country from which many of them had fled persecution.
In addition, with nationalism at its height thanks to wartime propaganda, many people were suspicious of anyone different. Jews were accused of profiteering or taking jobs, and the tension between the Jewish and gentile communities erupted into violence, notably in Bethnel Green, east London, in 1917, when 2,000 to 3,000 people fought battles in the streets.


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