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The Mob and the Jews

The last stages of the London mayoral campaign in late April this year threw the British Labour Party into a mild panic, even though its candidate, Sadiq Khan, had been comfortably ahead in the opinion polls and was, of course, eventually to emerge as the clear winner. The issues at stake were the alleged existence of a strong current of antisemitism, aka hostility to the state of Israel, in Labour, Khan’s Muslim faith, and his alleged links with Islamic extremists. The latter accusation turned out not to have wings, in spite of energetic Tory efforts to promote the “Khan the extremist” line to other minority ethnic communities in London (notably to Hindus). It was perhaps too well known that Khan was a man of the soft left, formerly a strong supporter of Ed Miliband and in the scheme of things a political moderate (some indeed said an opportunist). It was at this point, a week before the mayoral vote, that former Labour mayor Ken Livingstone decided it would be a good idea to step in on the vexed Israel question by reminding everyone of Hitler’s supposed endorsement of Zionism “before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews”. (More recently another former London mayor, the unlikeable Tory buffoon Boris Johnson, has compared the EU project to Hitler’s. Can it ever be a good idea to compare those one disagrees with politically to Hitler or the Nazis?)

Critics of Israel’s frequently brutal treatment of Palestinian civilians and/or of the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, or the manner of its establishment, often assert that just because you oppose Zionism this does not mean you are an antisemite. This is certainly true. It is equally true, however, that it does not mean that you are not an antisemite. A little further probing may be required to establish the truth of such allegations one way or the other in any individual instance.

A little-remembered chain of events from 1947, starting in British-mandate Palestine and then spreading to Britain itself, seems to illustrate a causative connection between militant Zionist assertion and antisemitic reaction of a traditional kind, though in the final analysis one may wonder to what extent the reaction in this case – something of an aberration in the generally peaceful civic life of Britain ‑ was purely an ideologically antisemitic one and to what extent it involved of a more general phenomenon of the dynamics of mob behaviour.

In June 1947 three members of the Jewish paramilitary and terrorist organisation Irgun, Avshalom Haviv, Meir Nakar and Yaakov Weiss, were sentenced to death by the British authorities in Palestine for their part in the Acre jail break in May of that year. Despite the fact that Irgun had captured two British army intelligence personnel (spies) and was holding them as hostages, the three condemned men were hanged in Acre at dawn on July 29th. Later the same day the two British soldiers, Clifford Martin and Mervyn Paice, were hanged by their captors in the disused factory in Netanya where they had been held and on the following day their booby-trapped bodies were hung up in a nearby eucalyptus grove.

On July 31st, groups of British soldiers and police went on the rampage in Tel Aviv, smashing shop windows and assaulting civilians. In retaliation some young Jews started stoning the police. At this point members of mobile police units drove armoured cars from their barracks into the city, attacked civilians, smashed up property, fired on buses and threw a grenade into a cafe. Five Jews (and no members of the security forces) were killed in the ensuing violence. No charges were brought against any police personnel. (The website britishforcesinpalestine.org describes these events rather differently: “Many soldiers, having been kept in check successfully for so long and in spite of relentless provocation finally broke loose and five Jews were killed and many shops damaged though the troops were soon brought back under control.”)

Back in Britain it was holiday time, and as people read in their newspapers of the killings of Martin and Paice and the circumstances in which their bodies were discovered (The Daily Express carried a large picture of the men hanging from trees on its front page with the headline “Hanged Britons: picture that will shock the world”) a wave of rioting aimed at Jewish property began to spread across the country.

Paul Bagon, who completed an M Phil thesis on these events in 2003, wrote:

The rioting began as a wave of anti-Jewish demonstrations, which started in Liverpool and subsequently spread across Britain’s urban centres from London to Glasgow. These ‘demonstrations,’ fuelled by bank holiday high spirits, quickly turned into a violent outpouring of hatred against the Anglo-Jewish community ...

A synagogue was burned down, while others had their windows smashed and their walls defaced with scrawls and symbols; gravestones were uprooted in a Jewish cemetery in Birmingham and everywhere slogans were daubed – “Hang all Jews”, “Destroy Judah”, “Hitler was right” and “Jews – good old Hitler”. The Jewish Chronicle reported that during a demonstration in Eccles in Lancashire a crowd of about seven hundred people cheered each hit as missiles pelted Jewish properties. A Liverpool shop carrying the name “Lewis” displayed the imploring notice “We are not Jews”, while in Manchester, to stem possible further attacks, a notice pleaded: “Don’t make another mistake, chums. This shop is 100 per cent British owned, managed and staffed.” All in all, as britishforcesinpalestine.org puts it, “[a]t least 300 Jewish properties were attacked before the anger subsided [my emphasis].”

If I’m not mistaken, few people are now aware that there was such extensive rioting aimed at the Jewish community in Britain as recently as 1947, and not just an isolated riot but incidents in all parts of Britain of direct attacks on property and more symbolic and insidious attacks on places of worship and cemeteries. But what did it all mean?

Paul Bagon’s conclusion seems to be that the turn that extreme Zionism (as in Irgun) had taken in Palestine put the English Jewish community in an impossible position. The leadership (“aristocracy” is a term Bagon uses) of Anglo-Jewry had first opposed Zionism and then come to terms with it. Now Zionism was attacking British forces: where did British Jews stand? Or were they really British first, or British at all? This was indeed a dilemma, though of course it greatly eased after British forces left Palestine.

But does Bagon’s view that the rioting was simply a mass emotional reaction to the killings, prompted by extreme Irgun actions, deserve further examination? Can such a range of outrages, across so many urban centres, over several days, be motivated just by an aggregate of individual anger or angers, or was there something there already, some lurking prejudice or hatred? Indeed was there organisation or co-ordination in the attacks? We may doubt if the references to Hitler betoken any real British sympathy for national socialism (at least not in 1947 – ten years earlier it might have been different). They are more likely to have been the products of diseased and vulgar minds, of which perhaps there is never a shortage. However the emergence of other types of written slogans – like “Jews are sin” or “Destroy Judah” – may suggest the presence of other forms of antisemitism of a fundamentalist Christian or biblical stripe. As the academics say, more research is required.

I came across the reference to the 1947 British riots in a footnote in James Shapiro’s book Shakespeare and the Jews (released this year in a new edition twenty years after its first publication). Shapiro’s work documents the long history of Jewish settlement in England (indeed he is particularly concerned to refute the arguments of those who would deny any such presence during much of English history). He also documents the strange – and often vile – ways in which Jews were portrayed, tracing much of it back to the insecure religious identity of early-modern Britain and the earnest efforts of theologians and biblical exegesists to compensate for this.

While the extensive attacks on Jewish property in 1947 appear to have been immediately triggered by a killing by a Zionist militia it would be rather absurd to interpret them as an anti-Zionist phenomenon. It is difficult, on the other hand, to see how they could have been so violent and so widespread without some kind of pre-existing residue of popular antisemitism. A third factor, however, must be some consideration of the behaviour of mobs and even of what a Christian writer might refer to as the fallen nature of Man. In September 1955, a highly organised pogrom targeted what was left of the Greek community in Istanbul. Events were set off by a false story that Greeks in Thessaloniki had bombed the birthplace of the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. A mob was trucked into the city and set about destroying and burning Greek property over nine hours as the police largely stood by. Anything from thirteen to thirty people died that day and the Greek population of the city was to drop by fifteen thousand over the next five years, as it was surely intended to.

The medieval and early-modern incidents that James Shapiro catalogues of the harassment, persecution and murder of Jews in England and in Europe often have a minor but particularly unsettling feature in common: just how funny the perpetrators and spectators often found the cruelty in which they were engaged, how hilarious the plight of their victims. The Polish writer Anna Bikont, author of the book The Crime and the Silence on the 1941 Jedwabne massacre of Jews, told of the reaction of a friend to whom she had shown her manuscript: “For me the hardest thing to bear is not that the Jews were massacred in Jedwabne and the area, but that it was done with such cruelty and that the killing gave so much joy.” It may not be all that surprising that the organisers of pogroms do what they do: they usually have political reasons. It is more surprising perhaps that there never seems to be any shortage – on the exceptional occasions when such opportunities arise – of people willing to burn, smash, jeer, beat and even kill, often under the guise of “anger”. Perhaps it is the case that, as the last survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising is recorded as having said: “There’s something in man that makes him like killing.”
18/5/2016