100 year anniversary of WW1: The Jews who allied against the storm

100 year anniversary of WW1: The Jews who allied against the storm

As Britain prepared for war, the Jewish community set aside its differences to support the Allied cause. Derek Taylor describes how the conflict laid the foundation for an enduring partnership.

WW1: Lord Kitchener poster. 'Britons - Wants You" Join your country's army. God save the King.'
WW1: Lord Kitchener poster. 

Britain’s foreign secretary, Lord Grey, warned his Cabinet colleagues of the possibility of war only two weeks before it was declared on 4 August 1914. The assassination of an archduke in far-off Sarajevo seemed little enough excuse for a major European conflict. Even when war did break out, it was confidently expected to be over by Christmas.

My grandfather told me it was so unexpected he took my grandmother out to dinner on that Sunday night. The Jewish community in the UK had expanded from about 35,000 in 1880 to nearer 400,000 in 1914. The refugees had poured in from Eastern Europe.

The government passed an Aliens Act in 1905 to restrict their entry, but as the home secretary was the Jewish Herbert Samuel, the subsequent immigration regulations were not too onerous. What did concern the original community was that the newcomers were foreign, mostly poverty-stricken and not out of the top drawer. They were definitely considered likely to let the side down, image-wise.

The spiritual leader of the community before he died in 1911 was Hermann Adler, a man so well connected that Edward VII called him “my Chief Rabbi.” A member of the Victorian Order, Adler was at home in court circles but hopelessly out of his depth with the Eastern-European immigrants, many of whom did not consider him anything like Orthodox enough.

The new Chief Rabbi, Joseph Herman Hertz, from a Hungarian immigrant family in New York, was appointed partly to bring the newcomers into the mainstream. Hertz was an inspiring speaker, fluent in Yiddish, which the core community considered common, and highly experienced from his time as a minister in South Africa in dealing with obstreperous lay leaders. He would find this quality particularly useful during the next 30 years of his incumbency.

At the outbreak of war, the main bone of contention for the immigrants was the fact that Russia was one of the Allies. The immigrants would have preferred the Russians to lose the war. At the same time, the authorities were aware of the programme of the Zionist movement, headquartered in Berlin, but considered it a potential ally for the enemy Turks in the Middle East.

David Lloyd George
David Lloyd George

Herzl, Weizmann and other leaders had ancestry in the Axis countries. The immigrants had powerful communities in London, Manchester, Leeds and Glasgow and the other side of the Zionist coin was that one of the MPs in Manchester was ex-prime minister Arthur Balfour.

His constituency chairman was Charles Dreyfus, president of the Manchester Zionist Society and a cousin of the man unjustly condemned in the Dreyfus Affair. The future prime minister, Lloyd George, had actually been asked, as a solicitor, to draw up the Zionist Constitution some years before.

In 1912, the rabbi at the Adath Yisrael synagogue in North London was Victor Schonfeld. He wanted an organisation for the Charedim and did not consider the United Synagogue Orthodox enough.

Chaim Weizmann
Chaim Weizmann

From Schonfeld would come the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations. On the other side of the spectrum was the Reform movement, still keeping to most of the Orthodox precepts of its founders. To their left was the new Liberal Synagogue movement of Claude Montefiore and Lily Montagu, who felt Orthodox Judaism was well past its sell-by date.

The battle for the hearts and minds of the immigrants would be a constant for many years. In the event, the Liberals would  always be vociferous but numerically insignificant.

The Jewish community contributed more than its statistical share of members of the armed forces in the war. Hertz toured the battlefields in France and the commander-in-chief, General French, said “anyone who now chose to question Jewish loyalty and military ardour did so in defiance of the declaration of the commander-in-chief of the British army”.

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