- ‘The Jew’ in Late-Victorian and Edwardian Culture: Between the East End and East Africa, and: A Jew in the Public Arena: The Career of Israel Zangwill
Scholarly interest in the experience of British Jews has grown tremendously in the past two or three decades as we have come to understand both that the British Jewish experience was much more complex than was once thought and that liberal societies pose particularly difficult and interesting dilemmas with regard to dealing with cultural difference. The two books under review are both products of that new scholarship.
The period covered by ‘The Jew’ in Late-Victorian and Edwardian Culture was particularly difficult and anxiety filled for British Jews and for the country as a whole. The small Jewish population, which was increasingly acculturated, native born, and middle class, more than quadrupled in size after 1880 as a result of the large-scale immigration of Eastern European Jews. This influx created anxiety both for the native-born Jewish community, whose members feared that their own status would be adversely affected by the newcomers, and for many non-Jews, for whom the Jews were the most easily identifiable foreigners whose presence threatened any sense of national identity. Nativists on both the right and the left accused immigrant Jews of undercutting the wages of English workers, and tensions between the newcomers and the native working class rose, particularly in London. Thinly veiled anti-Semitic agitation prompted Parliament to pass the 1905 Aliens Act, which gave the government the power to restrict immigration, and although the Act did not specifically mention Jews, there is little doubt that Jews were the quintessential aliens whose presence had sparked the fear that led to the Act’s passage. The situation was further complicated by the Boer War. The prominent place of Jews among South African gold and diamond interests led some opponents of Britain’s involvement in the war to label the war a product of a “Jew-imperialist” plot (2). Finally, the rise of anti-Semitism on the European continent was one impetus to the growth of Zionism, a movement that would find both sympathizers and opponents within the British Jewish community.
These complex issues, and others, are clearly and persuasively set out in Eitan Bar-Yosef and Nadia Valman’s introduction to their edited volume, which had its origin in two conferences held at the University of Southampton. Among the issues considered by the contributors are British anti-Semitism, contemporary images of Jews, Jewish anxiety about their place in British society, and turn-of-the-century Zionism. As is the case with most essay collections, the quality of the contributions varies from the excellent to the unfortunate, but, taken as a whole, the volume illuminates the immense complexity of the place of Jews in British culture.
As the quotation marks in the book’s title suggest, the emphasis of many, though not all, of the contributors is on the figure of the Jew as represented in fin-desiécle culture rather than with what Bar-Yosef and Valman refer to as “real” Jews, though, as they carefully point out, the relationship between “real” Jews and “discursive” Jews is a complicated one that must be handled carefully (11). Complicating the picture further is [End Page 676] the fact that the discursive Jew can be a product both of Jewish and non-Jewish discourses, and these two discourses might overlap or diverge. Hovering over these discourses was the freighted issue of whether Jews could be truly British or whether they were unalterably alien. Social investigators like Beatrice Potter (later Beatrice Webb) found the seemingly alien culture of the East End a fruitful site of quasi-anthropological investigation. Jewish writers, on the other hand...