- Sport and British Jewry: Integration, Ethnicity and Anti-Semitism, 1890–1970 by Dee, David
Prior academic studies, aside from cursory attention, largely ignore Jewish participation in modern British sport. As a revisionist corrective, Sport and British Jewry provides an ambitious scholarly analysis of the subject. Although historian David Dee reveals a significant Jewish involvement in British sport, he eschews triumphalism and anecdotal ephemera. The years of peak Jewish immigration, ethnic formation, and group visibility (1890–1970) provide the chronological canvas for Sport and British Jewry. Framed by a formal introduction and conclusion, three substantial, thematic, and interrelated chapters form the volume’s [End Page 505] organizational structure, examining, in sequence, British sport as an agent of Jewish assimilation, the influence of sport on Jewish ethnicity and religion, and sport as reflection and response to anti-Semitism. Dee employs the microcosm of sport to illuminate the larger experience of British Jewry.
By 1880, Britain’s relatively small Jewish population had, writes Dee, largely acculturated to English norms and undergone significant socio-economic mobility. During the late nineteenth century, however, an influx of new Jewish immigrants, primarily poor and Yiddish-speaking, began settling in British cities, creating a mixture of sympathy and anxiety amongst their more comfortable co-religionists. The established Jewish community sought to ease the hardships endured by new arrivals. In addition, the Jewish elite also feared that the growth of an unassimilated immigrant presence would diminish the status of all Jews.
Jewish elites actively promoted immigrant Anglicization, founding and supporting institutions to better the lives of immigrants and to make them more English in appearance, behavior, and values. These organizations, particularly youth clubs, such as the Jewish Lads’ Brigade, frequently employed sport to promote social integration. Influenced by Muscular Christianity as well as by the distinct needs of inner-city immigrant youth, Jewish leaders employed sport to encourage fair play, physical development, and British nationalism. Dee offers a case study of Harold Abrahams, British gold medalist at the 1924 Olympics in the 100-meter sprint, to illustrate the rewards that sport could bring to the child of Jewish immigrants as well as the challenges it posed to Jewish identity.
Abraham’s secularized lifestyle and distancing from religious traditions did not evoke the ire of fellow Jews, for they too followed the course of Anglicization. British Jews viewed Abraham as a hero and role model until the mid 1930s. Then, Abraham’s perceived rejection of his background evoked strong criticism from fellow Jews when he endorsed British participation in the 1936 Nazi Olympics hosted by Adolf Hitler.
Even the concerted efforts of the Maccabi movement, melding Zionism, sport, and ethnic identity, could not reverse the trajectory of Jewish assimilation. Despite their secularization, Anglicization, and religious declension, the second generation—the children of British immigrants—possessed a distinctive Jewish identity, albeit quite different from that of their observant parents. As players and more frequently as demonstrative spectators, second-generation British Jews typically chose football (soccer) fields over synagogues on the Sabbath.
Moreover, Jewish fighters, fans, trainers, referees, and promoters, dominated British boxing from the 1890s through the 1950s. World welterweight champion Ted “Kid” Lewis, notes Dee, discarded the Jewish religion and culture of his youth as well as his birth name but wore the Star of David emblazoned on his boxing trunks along with the Union Jack. Jewish fans proudly identified with such athletic champions, casting them as symbols of a distinctive second-generation identity, comprised of the common experience of meditating between ethnic and British dualities. Ethnic boxers also combated anti-Semitic canards about Jewish physical degeneracy and cowardice.
Nonetheless, Dee reports that anti-Semites denigrated Jewish boxing achievements, attributing ethnic victories to avarice, criminality, and conspiracy. Paralleling disparagement [End Page 506] of Jewish attainments in other areas, the British Union of Fascists proclaimed the emergence of a threatening, disproportionate alien presence in politics, economics, and sports. Prejudicial shibboleths asserted that the corrupt manipulations of a Jewish “Hidden Hand” menaced Britain.
In the more genteel...