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Response to Review no. 753

I welcome Bill Rubinstein’s engagement with this book and his opening statement, even if qualified, that ‘Anglo-Jewish history is a growing and arguably important field within the mainstream of British history’. It is odd, having opened his review with this advocacy of Anglo-Jewish history, that Bill should, in the same paragraph, accept David Cannadine’s utter dismissal of the history of British Jewry in a national context as ‘just not that important’.

As the reviewer notes, Cannadine’s remark has been ‘often quoted by recent historians of Anglo-Jewry’. It is hardly surprising that they have done so given its destructive nature and the prominence of its author – formerly director, for example, of the Institute of Historical Research. If Cannadine’s analysis was isolated, then it would be wrong to dwell on it, but those working on Anglo-Jewish history have faced such responses directly or indirectly in the past few decades during which the study of this minority group has been transformed from previous approaches which were often antiquarian. Alas, those working more generally on immigrant and minority studies within British history face ongoing marginalisation and dismissal of their work. At a grassroots level, minority history is big and growing in significance (and this has been reflected at a literary level in books such as Andrea Levy’s Small Island and Monica Ali’s Brick Lane, and in theatre more recently with Richard Bean’s superb England People Very Nice), but this engagement has not yet filtered through to the British historical profession.

The reason why I do not accept Cannadine’s position, or Bill Rubinstein’s agreement with the ‘unimportance’ of Anglo-Jewish history, is that it is coming from an elite perspective. In terms of anti-Semitism, the measuring rod appears to be the Holocaust or bloody pogroms. If, therefore, post-readmission Jews in Britain have not faced large scale murderous violence, then attitudes and responses to them are thus deemed to be of no significance. There are two problems here. First, anti-Semitism in the form of mass murder has never been the norm in Jewish history – historians have moved on from the lachrymose school of the Jewish experience. Second, it ignores recent subtle and sophisticated work, especially coming from literary and cultural studies, which explores the place of the ‘Jew’ in British culture and the ambivalent nature of liberalism when confronted with Jewish difference. Such work has made its mark in the wider world of Jewish studies but it is largely ignored in British historiography. Sadly it is also rarely referenced in the study of other minority groups in Britain and post-colonial studies more generally or, for that matter, on works on the construction of Englishness or Britishness (Paul Ward’s recent study (1) is a notable and welcome exception).

In relation to the experience of Jews in Britain, the most exciting work has been from within the field of social history, influenced especially by the ‘history from below’ movement. It is the study of ordinary Jews and their everyday life that makes Anglo-Jewish history so exciting and, dare I say it, important. The ‘new’ historians of Anglo-Jewry have not ignored politics, or economic history, but their work is ‘bottom up’, providing intriguing new insights into Jewish life and the place of Jews in the economy, politics and culture of Britain and beyond. I look therefore at questions say of Jewish emancipation from a non-elite perspective – following especially the careers of the first Jewish councillors in Britain in the towns of Southampton and Portsmouth, and their successes (and, sometimes, the costs of such success). If such work continues, largely, to be ignored within ‘mainstream’ British historiography, it reflects not its weakness, but the lack of acceptance of the importance of ethnicity and processes of racialisation in the British past (and present).

Moving more specifically to Bill Rubinstein’s comments on Anglo-Jewry since 1066 there is a curious paradox at work here. On the one hand, the reviewer generously remarks that it is ‘important and innovative, even path-breaking’, a statement repeated in the conclusion where it is also described as ‘valuable’. I fear, however, that the reader might wonder from his other comments what it is in the book to merit such praise. What is particularly surprising is that the reviewer does not confront two of the three central themes of my book – that of place and memory. Bill Rubinstein suggests that Anglo-Jewry since 1066 is ‘not notably well integrated or connected’ but I would counter that it is the themes of place and memory that make it cohesive as well as challenging and innovative.

My book utilises inter-disciplinary and multi-disciplinary approaches, bringing in the work of geographers, sociologists, archaeologists, anthropologists, and cultural and literary theorists. Its sources are equally varied, including novels, street names, official reports, oral testimony, archaeological digs and so on – a detail that escapes the attention of the reviewer. Historical geographers especially, and their work on place, have been particularly influential. It is especially owes much to Doreen Massey and her observation that ‘The identity of places is very much bound up with the histories which are told of them, how those histories are told, and which history turns out to be dominant.’(2) Massey in the same article suggests that ‘the local is always a product in part of “global” forces’ (3) and this perspective informs all of Anglo-Jewry since 1066. Geographers have gone beyond the rather juvenile perspective of much of the historical profession of ‘national = important, local = insignificant’ by problematising the boundary between the two. The book does exactly what is says on the cover – it covers all the periods of Jewish settlement in Britain through place, memory and locality, and it is made explicit on the cover and in the book description that the focus is Hampshire. I am not expecting, therefore, a call from Trading Standards in a midnight raid on my office for selling goods under a dodgy and misleading title. And whilst there are aspects of the Jewish experience that were particularly linked to Hampshire – especially that of the neglected area of Jewish transmigrancy which was not only big business but reflected the essential fluidity of migratory movements – this is not the only or major reason for a study of locality. More important is the interaction of the local and global that is part of all people’s lives and this is as true of the Jews of Hampshire at different times and places as it is of others.

It is the intense analysis of places and their meanings, enabled by the focus on the ‘local’, that I would argue makes my study work. It reflects research that comes out of a wider project on ‘port Jews’ which put at its heart concepts of place and space (see, for example Place and Displacement in Jewish History and Memory (4)). Place, and the study of place, matters and thus Atlantic Hotel, an important hostel set up in 1893 near the docks to make sure transmigrants were not a health threat to the late Victorian port of Southampton was linked not as the reviewer notes to the Spitfire but to the Titanic. It was the later Atlantic Hostel, near Eastleigh, and perhaps the largest transmigrant camp in Europe during the 1920s, which was linked in memory work to the Spitfire. In both cases, iconic modes of transport – the world’s most famous ship and arguably the world’s most famous aircraft, have removed the less ‘worthy’ histories of migrants and refugees from consideration and recognition.

This book provides both history and memory – it is complex and as much about the ‘now’ as the ‘then’.  It gives, for example, a history of the Jews of medieval Winchester, one of the richest in England, but also how that history has been subsequently constructed and reconstructed since the expulsion of the Jews in 1290. Jewry Street in Winchester was so-named not at the time of the Jewish presence in the city but in the early 1300s. It was the absence of Jews that was being commemorated by such naming. I explore processes of memory, explaining why the rich and diverse Jewish histories of Hampshire across the ages have largely been forgotten. Indeed, much attention is given in the book to processes of forgetting, one that are equally complex to those of remembering. It is my standpoint that forgetting is not inversely in proportion to memory as is so often assumed. To this conclusion I owe much to the cultural anthropological work of Jonathan Boyarin. Often the process of forgetting is an active one – it explains more generally why Britain, a country shaped by waves of immigration, is often in denial of this reality.

Turning to a few specific points raised by Bill Rubinstein. Bill complains that the book has too little on those who were socially mobile. In fact, it might be argued that the focus is, at times, a little too much on those who ‘made it’ – from Liquoricia or Licorice in medieval Winchester (one of the richest women in England at this time and one amongst a handful of such Jewish women discovered by the late Sue Bartlet in her splendid work on the Jews in this city), the politician, Ian Mikardo, and the scientist, Hertha Ayrton (amongst the most famous sons and daughters of Portsmouth Jewry in the 19th and 20th centuries), through to the Millet family who started off in the back streets of Southampton and ended up as the leading outdoor clothing retailer in Britain. What I do point out, however, about the Millet family is the number of business failures that they also endured. Taken as a whole, the Millets was far from a straightforward, Galician Jewish rags to riches immigrant success story. In addition, many of the businesses of their fellow Jewish traders in Southampton simply disappeared without trace. Rather than provide a nostalgic account of the area occupied by these immigrants, I explore the processes of nostalgic memory and what is, and is not remembered, making comparisons to other places of mass Jewish settlement, including the Lower East Side in New York and the East End of London. More briefly the reviewer complains that I am inserting ‘a predetermined ideological interpretation’ of what I think 150 years later concerning the Governor Eyre controversy. This is not to do justice to Victorian discourse – this ugly episode was couched explicitly in the language of masculinity, race and class and violently so.

Finally, a thought about Bill’s description of the book as a ‘quasi-post-modernist history’: I am not a post-modernist, though have to confess that some of my best friends are. Rather this is a book influenced by approaches from a variety of disciplines and it attempts, I hope with some success, to have provided a bridge between them. It does examine the processes by which the histories of the communities under study have been constructed and reconstructed, and, no doubt to Bill’s unease, I have been influenced by the ‘literary turn’. The book also explores throughout the relationship between ‘then’ and ‘now’. I would like to think it makes it interesting and innovative, but hardly post-modern, unless, to paraphrase Sir William Harcourt, we are all post-modernists now. But just to worry Bill a little further: he says I am not to be confused with the ‘controversial, gay, radical, anti-Zionist Jewish American playwright of the same name: they are two different people’. Well, how come Anglo-Jewry since 1066 comes up on various gay websites as recommended reading (though sadly not, like a previous book, on ‘Cocktales – a gay holiday book site)? And why are some of the playwright’s titles on ‘my’ British Library catalogue entry? Perhaps the footprints of my youngest son, part of a map of Jewish journeys designed by the South Hampshire Reform Jewish Community which feature on the cover of  Anglo-Jewry since 1066, are just a heterosexual front? All these questions of identity, Bill, aren’t they just terribly confusing? Will the real Tony Kushner please stand up?

Notes

  1. Paul Ward, Britishness Since 1870 (London, 2004).Back to (1)
  2. Doreen Massey, ‘Places and their pasts’, History Workshop Journal, 39, 1995, 182-192, 186.Back to (2)
  3. ibid, 183.Back to (3)
  4. Place and Displacement in Jewish History and Memory, ed. David Cesarani, Tony Kushner and Milton Shain (Edgware, 2009).Back to (4)