Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2019, ISBN: 9783030259754; 232pp.; Price: £59.99
University of Edinburgh
Date accessed: 7 December, 2023
Research on immigration to Britain at the turn of the 20th century largely conforms to historiographical conventions which privilege the nation state as a framework for investigation and which adhere to narrative chronologies relevant to nations. These conventions, Ewence contends, eclipse much from view which does not easily fit into such established categories. Looking into the spaces ‘in between’ offers much ground for reflection, not least on national narratives. Starting from the observation that lives, particularly those of migrants, cannot adequately be accounted for within the boundedness of nation states, The Alien Jew in the British Imagination makes a foray into fin de siècle cultural history by investigating perceptions and representations of ‘alien Jews’ from 1881 to the passing of the Aliens Act in 1905. This was the time of the Great Migration: from 1881-1941, c. 2.5 million Jews emigrated from Eastern Europe westwards. Most had the United States as their final destination, but en route, by design or by accident, as many as half a million Jews passed through the UK. Ultimately only around half of that number settled permanently in Britain. This unprecedented mass movement of people was subject to much political and social commentary, and from this public discourse came the attempt to curb the numbers of immigrants through the Aliens Act. Ewence’s lucidly written analysis connects three concepts: the alien Jew, alien space, and the Aliens Act. The mobilisation of ideas about ‘space’ and ‘place’ drive the exploration of the ways in which commentators in a range of genres and art forms conceptualised ‘alien Jews’ in relation to British national identity discourses and British national and imperial interests and reputation. Framing the analysis in terms of spatial discourses is helpful for understanding the ways in which commentators conceptualised and imagined the places inhabited and traversed by Jews and made their images useful and accessible to their British audiences. The spatial turn allows for the crossing of boundaries, while simultaneously reflecting on the boundedness of the nation, allowing Ewence to place her analysis into the context of British national history and at the same time to challenge its dominance.
Ewence interprets the imagery developed in responses to Jewish migration from Eastern Europe in Britain in relation to the spaces Jews originated in, the spaces they travelled through, and the places in which they settled. In doing so, Ewence not only uncovers how commentators invested their visions of ‘alien Jews’ with their own anxieties and insecurities about British national and imperial identity, she also discovers much of the writers’ assumptions about the relationship between Jews and space. Thus she sets out to understand ‘how this disparate assortment of commentators reimagined, rhetoricised and politicised what they saw as they transplanted themselves literally and vicariously into the spaces and environment of the migrating Jews’ (6). This approach sets Ewence’s book apart from previous works that focus on an investigation of the migrants’ places of origin, or on the journey, or on arrival and settlement. By analysing ‘outsider’ perspectives on Eastern European Jewish migrants to Britain, Ewence at once broadens the view to take account of the migrants’ lives as a whole, including the range of places and spaces in which commentators encountered migrant Jews, and she focuses the exploration by concentrating on how Jewish migrants were conceptualised and written about by those interested in representing them to a British readership, aiming thereby to influence public discourse and political decisions. The backdrop to the focus on Jews through the book is defined through an examination of broader discussions about Britishness and the boundaries of the state in relation to the Great Migration. The public and political debates about whether and how to control entry to Britain offer fertile ground for Ewence as she throws a wide net in locating and analysing journalistic, literary, artistic and political contributions to the discourse about immigration and Britishness at the turn of the 20th century.
In three main chapters the analysis moves from a consideration of Eastern European Jews within their native settings, to a reflection on the journey towards Britain, and an interpretation of the Jewish East End. Beginning with the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, which ushered in a wave of antisemitic violence across the Pale of Settlement, and closing with the passing of the Aliens Act into British law in 1906, Ewence presents a fine-grained analysis of a range of contemporary genres. Key tropes throughout the book are various investments of ‘the Jew’ with anxieties about British national identity and the integrity of the nation, images of ‘the Jew’ giving shape to a range of ideas that are antithetical to British national self-understandings. Set in sharp relief to British colonial enterprises, the ‘conceptual Jew’ that emerges from contemporary literature embodies qualities in conflict with British territorial integrity and territorial expansion in the colonies, being largely seen as malevolent and as conspiratorial in their search for Jewish territorial dominance. Even the lack of Jewish territorial self-determination, a trope running through much of the British imagination of ‘the Jew’, was transmuted into a fantasy about Jewish territorial power, which both belied and also gained imaginary force from the absence of Jewish geographical self-determination in reality. Whether benevolently disposed towards immigrants who fled persecution and poverty, or seeking to curtail immigration, for most commentators ‘alien Jews’ did not fit into the British national narrative, due to supra- or trans-national characteristics that were seen to contain claims to territory at odds with a world dominated by nation states.
Cutting through British society by researching politicians, journalists, travel writers, and novelists of all social backgrounds, Ewence iweaves an insightful portrait of the perception of potential and actual immigrant Jews in Britain at the end of the 19th century. Focusing on the debates preceding the passing of the 1905 Aliens Act, she demonstrates that at the turn of the 20th century the figure of the ‘alien Jew’ drew on national discourses in relation to migration in ways that expressed a number of concerns in often contradictory ways. ‘The Jew’, as prior works by Hannah Arendt, Bryan Cheyette and Zygmunt Bauman have demonstrated, was seen to be both territorially bound and itinerant, and as such could be seen to resist the ‘self-evident truths’ on which claims to nationhood – territory, natural belonging, heredity of these qualities – rested.
Chapter two analyses the encounter of 19th century British travellers with Eastern European Jews in their countries of origin. Here Ewence uncovers the perception of Jews as a population that stakes out claims on the territory they inhabit as well as on locations further afield. These depictions sit alongside characterisations of Jews as subject to persecution and without any spatial claims at all, while also conjuring images of a ‘sanitised safety of a bucolic Jewish agrarian world’ (65). Through a close reading of commentators such as William Evans-Gordon, a staunch critic of Jewish immigration to Britain, she locates another motivation in these assessments of Eastern European Jews: by forging connections between portraits of Jewish life and British imperialism, writers such as Evans-Gordon characterised Jews as rival imperialists with a design on territorial expansion through immigration. What is actually at work in these fantasies about Jews are the ‘anxieties of an imperial nation threatened by the territorial ambitions of others, however great or small, real or imagined’ (65).
Chapter three moves the discourse from Eastern Europe to the activity of travel itself, and examines the rhetoric surrounding Jewish migration westwards. Ewence draws on the legend of the ‘wandering Jew’ as a powerful trope used by writers to plant fear in the hearts of their readers. Jews became not only ceaselessly itinerant, this process also rendered them chimerical in their ‘racial’ identity and their ‘claims’ to territory. Commentators portrayed Jews as volatile shapeshifters, able to cross borders invisibly, as carriers of diseases, as dangerously infiltrating the body of the nation through its ‘porous’ borders. In the face of the reality of migrating Jewish populations alongside actual territorial ambitions of Zionists even the voices most sympathetic to the plight of Jewish migrants retreat from pro-immigrant advocacy: the closer Jews came to Britain, the higher the level of anxiety conjured by the writers. Ewence concludes that ‘the spectre of the Wandering Jew lurked in the British psyche’ and ‘the idea of Jewish mobility […] was, […] bound up in the challenge that unwelcome or unbidden people, matter, microbes and pestilence posed to the nation’s existing frontiers as well as her international reputation’ (118, emphasis original). Commentators’ anxiety found expression in calls for immigration management.
The fourth chapter turns attention to Jews having arrived ‘at the heart of the empire’ in London’s East End. Ewence charts the conflicted relationships between immigrant Jews and resident Britons projected by those writing of their observations of the ‘Jewish ghetto’. Again ‘travelogues’ of those who journeyed to the East End and observed immigrant life provide the primary source material for this chapter, alongside the description of walking tours that could be enjoyed as part of a touristic itinerary. The East End emerges as ‘exotic’, both in a pejorative and in a beguiling sense, as writers map the poverty of sweatshops alongside the splendour of synagogues, as they enter domestic spaces and chronicle religious and family life. Ewence summarises the chasm between opposing evaluations of immigrant life in London thus: ‘The places particular to immigrant life germinated “types” whose devotion to family life and religious discipline offered a blueprint for the nation. In the overwrought imagination of others, however, alien terrain in the capital was a frightening foreshadowing of Britain’s impending decline’ (178). The spatial discourse used in relation to Jews now represents them as being at the centre of the nation – the ‘alien Jew’ was no longer placed in a foreign country or journeying towards Britain. Instead, they were seen to have arrived and, as immigrant Jews making their home in Britain, they now needed to be considered as likely future British subjects and contributors to the nation. Ewence demonstrates how the discourse of anxiety and alienation now mingled with the possibility of appreciation and recognition of Jews as not ‘alien’ any more.
‘The migrant’ has always been and continues to be a category that can be filled with whatever insecurities and anxieties surface within a nation’s discourse about its own claims to space and identity. Nevertheless, Ewence has demonstrated convincingly that fin de siècle engagements with ‘the alien Jew’ reveal a particular conjunction of ‘geopolitical anxieties of the receiving nation’ in the years preceding the Aliens Act: ‘a melding of identity politics with geopolitics, “race” discourse with space discourse’ (196). In Ewence’s analysis, the figure of ‘the alien Jew’ emerges as a barometer for British public discourses about the nation: about British claims to imperial territory, about the spaces at the ‘heart of the empire’ and its ‘porous borders’, and about the character of the nation. With this monograph, then, she suggests a research agenda that pushes against conventional patterns of national historiography and proposes a focus on the ‘in between’ spaces which traverse a range of geographical and biographical locations. Rather than considering the impact of, in this case, Jewish, migration on the ‘host society’, or trace patterns of acculturation, Ewence examines British public discourses on migration and thereby places the nation at the centre of the inquiry, while at the same time challenging the prevailing national history paradigm as anything but self-evident.
The Alien Jew in the British Imagination is a welcome addition to the growing scholarship on British Jewish history, migration history, transnationalism and national identity. By extending the reach of national history, and by making a case for a focus on the perception of migrants in various spaces and places in order to diversify perspectives on the nation, Ewence’s monograph is sure to appeal to a large readership. One can imagine a complementary and equally fruitful inquiry into Jewish perceptions of Britishness and Britain in the same time period, and this research would similarly not only draw on the voices of those who had already arrived on the British mainland, but it would equally draw on evidence from Eastern Europe, imagining ‘the West’ and its various national way-stations paving the path of Jewish migration. How did would-be emigrants imagine their destinations? How did they narrate their journeys? How did they reflect on their points of arrival and new homes? And how did Jews begin to contribute to (non-Zionist?) national identity discourses before, during, and following emigration? Such questions have begun to be posed and responded to for each of the staging posts of migration, but a project drawing these together into a monograph or an multi-author anthology might be an appealing project. A key question would be how different such perceptions would be from the non-Jewish British discourses explored by Ewence.