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Negotiating Nationalism: Jewish Conscription and Russian Repatriation in London's East End, 1916–1918

  • Sascha Auerbach
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1 Panayi, Panikos, “Anti-German Riots in Britain during the First World War,” in Racial Violence in Britain, 1840–1950, ed. Panayi, Panikos (Leicester, 1993), 6591.

2 The Aliens Restriction Act of 1914 was passed on 5 August 1914, one day after Britain declared war on Germany. Panayi, Panikos, Minorities in Wartime: National and Racial Groupings in Europe, North America, and Australia during the Two World Wars (Providence, RI, 1993), 6.

3 For the cultural foundations of nations and nationalism, see Anderson, Benedict, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism, rev. ed. (London, 1983), 18.

4 London was culturally and ethnically the most diverse city in Britain, but many other ports and industrial cities (Liverpool, in particular) could boast their fair share of immigrants. Most recently, Laura Tabili has examined the complexities associated with Britain's multinational character (especially during wartime) in her article, Outsiders in the Land of Their Birth: Exogamy, Citizenship, and Identity in War and Peace,” Journal of British Studies 44, no. 3 (October 2005): 765815, which examines how the issue played out in the Tyne port of South Shields.

5 Schneer, Jonathan, London 1900: The Imperial Metropolis (New Haven, CT, 1999), 78.

6 For a general history of Jews in Britain before World War I, see Feldman, David, Englishmen and Jews: Social Relations and Political Culture, 1840–1914 (New Haven, CT, 1994). For information on black seaman working in Britain, see Tabili, Laura, “We Ask for British Justice”: Workers and Racial Difference in Imperial Britain (Ithaca, NY, 1994).

7 Holmes, Colin, Immigrants and Minorities in British Society (Lavenham, 1978), and John Bull's Island: Immigration and British Society, 1871–1971 (London, 1988); Statt, Daniel, Foreigners and Englishmen: The Controversy over Immigration and Population, 1660–1760 (Newark, NJ, 1995). For immigration and migration within the Commonwealth itself, see Smith, T. E., Commonwealth Migration: Flows and Policies (London, 1981).

8 See Gullace, Nicoletta, “The Blood of Our Sons”: Men, Women, and the Renegotiation of British Citizenship during the Great War (New York, 2002).

9 Dummett, Ann and Nicol, Andrew, Subjects, Citizens, Aliens and Others: Nationality and Immigration Law (London, 1990), 107. In November 1916, Parliament disfranchised conscientious objectors, though later amendments would insure that the denial of voting rights lasted only until 1926 and that the measure would not apply to COs who had engaged in “militarily useful work” (Gullace, Blood of Our Sons, 180–81).

10 Arnstein, Walter, Britain Yesterday and Today, 1830 to the Present, 8th ed. (Boston, 2001), 263; Winter, J. M., The Experience of World War I (New York, 1989), 115–21.

11 Only 1,150,000 men out of a possible 2,179,231 eligible for service came forward (Marwick, Arthur, The Deluge: British Society and the First World War [New York, 1965], 78); Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (DNB), s.v. “Edward George Villiers Stanley.”

12 Pearce, Cyril, Comrades in Conscience: The Story of an English Community's Opposition to the Great War (London, 2001), 157. Married men would be incorporated into the conscription scheme four months later. Most politicians initially accepted compulsory military service at the level of national politics, although the mechanism of conscription would come under harsher and harsher criticism as time wore on. Not surprisingly, it was Irish nationalists in Parliament who were often the most critical of conscription. In the April 1918 parliamentary session that would culminate in the passing of the Military Service Bill of 1918, which was meant to counter the German's Spring Offensive with manpower from Ireland, Joseph Devlin (MP, Belfast) referred to the “indignities and evils” of the conscription, calling it “not a national necessity, but a low trick, a Ministerial dodge,” intended by those who opposed Home Rule to “bring about an anti-Irish cry and raise civil war in Ireland” (The Times, 18 April 1918, 10). Devlin's words would, of course, prove prophetic. Irish conscription damaged the cause of moderate nationalists and drove voters into the arms of the separatist Sinn Féin party. “The terrible and tragic future” Devlin predicted would be made manifest with the outbreak of the Irish War of Independence (aka the Anglo-Irish War) in 1919. In response to the passage of the first compulsory service act, only one Liberal minister, Sir John Simon, resigned. Later that year, when a second bill was passed, a number of Labour ministers announced their resignations, but “after a seemly interval had elapsed, they were withdrawn” (Marwick, The Deluge, 78–79). Compulsory conscription, however, did face a formidable array of opponents outside of the government. Most prominent of these external challenges was the No Conscription Fellowship (NCF), formed in December 1914 under the leadership of Fenner Brockway, Clifford Allen, and C. H. Norman. The NCF adopted some of the tactics of other committed political groups such as Sinn Féin and the suffragettes, distributing propaganda and arranging for “shadow” members to step into the roles of those who were arrested (Marwick, The Deluge, 80). Brockway and Allen would pay dearly for their leadership of the NCF. Brockway, a leading light in the International Labor Party (ILP), would be sentenced to prison four times across the course of the war, the final sentence being two years’ hard labor. Allen, another ILP member, instead of accepting exemption (which he would have earned in any case on health grounds), chose to contest his own conscription by arguing that his role as chairman of the NCF was essential war work. He was subsequently arrested, court-martialed, and, like Brockway, sentenced to two years’ hard labor (DNB, s.v.v. “Fenner Brockway” and “Clifford Allen”).

13 The terms “applicant” (i.e., for exemption from conscription) and “appellant” (i.e., against a conscription notice) are used synonymously throughout.

14 The Times, 22 February 1916, 5.

15 Moorehead, Caroline, Troublesome People: Enemies of War, 1916–1986 (London, 1987), 31.

16 Marwick, The Deluge, 80.

17 Gregory, Adrian, “Military Service Tribunals: Civil Society in Action, 1916–1918,” in Civil Society in British History, ed. Harris, Jose (Oxford, 2003), 178.

18 As Nicoletta Gullace has pointed out, the years between 1914 and 1918 were “a historic moment when citizenship was defined in terms of service to the nation” (Gullace, Blood of Our Sons, 3).

19 Bush, Julia, “East London Jews and the First World War,” London Journal 6, no. 2 (1980): 147–61.

20 Gullace, Blood of Our Sons, 73–74.

21 Bush, “East London Jews,” 148.

22 Observer, 18 March 1916, 5.

23 Bush, “East London Jews,” 150.

24 Dummett and Nicol, Subjects, Citizens, Aliens and Others, 97–99. For the connections—both real and perceived—between England's Jews, socialism, communism, and the Russian Revolution, see Kadish, Sharman, Bolsheviks and British: The Anglo-Jewish Community, Britain, and the Russian Revolution (London, 1992).

25 Dummett and Nicol, Subjects, Citizens, Aliens and Others, 98. Dummett and Nicol provide no specific citation for the phrase “a nation within a nation” but date the appearance of this specific accusation in European political discourse to the nineteenth century, associating it with Heinrich Von Treitschke, a German author and politician. The phrase itself first appeared in print in a series of articles published by the American industrialist Henry Ford Sr. in the Dearborn Independent from May 1920 to January 1922, which were subsequently reissued as a complete work in four volumes, The International Jew, the World’s Foremost Problem (Dearborn, MI, 1920–22); the Anti-Defamation League, “The International Jew: Anti-Semitism from the Roaring Twenties Revived on the Web,” (July 1999).

26 David Feldman, Englishmen and Jews, 1.

27 Bronstein, Jamie, “Rethinking the ‘Readmission’: Anglo-Jewish History and the Immigration Crisis,” in Singular Continuities: Tradition, Nostalgia, and Identity in Modern British Culture, ed. Behlmer, George and Leventhal, Fred (Stanford, CA, 2000), 3839; and Bush, “East London Jews,” 148. School board visitor's logbooks from the late 1880s described London's Jewish residents using a hierarchy of respectability based on a distinction between “English Jews” and “foreign Jews,” with the latter further subdivided into categories of national origin. Visitors distinguished between the better-off streets inhabited by middle-class or artisanal Jews from western Europe (“Dutch Jews” and “German Jews”) and the poorer, less respectable, and more “foreign” streets of “Polish Jews” (Life and Labour of the People of London, The Charles Booth Collection, 1885–1905, pt. 3, The Poverty Series, School Board Inquiry and House to House Visits; Group B: School Board Visitors’ Notebooks, microfilm, British Library of Political and Economic Science, London School of Economics, London, and Emory University Library, Atlanta).

28 Observer, 18 March 1916, 3.

29 The Cohens, or “Cohainim,” as they were sometimes called, were a priestly sect who were forbidden to see dead bodies, making combat service highly problematic.

30 Observer, 18 March 1916, 3.

31 An appellant refused by a local tribunal could further appeal the case to the county or city appeals tribunal. A Stepney tribunal member, on another occasion, challenged a Jewish CO’s case by pointing to de Rothschild's own prominent military service as evidence that there was no contradiction between the faith and doing one's national duty (Observer, 1 April 1916, 3). As a prominent, prowar member of the Jewish community, Lionel de Rothschild was a perfect candidate to serve on the London Military Appeals tribunal. There is no record of any active military service on his part during the war, so his inclusion in the armed forces may have been largely honorific (DNB, s.v. “Lionel Walter Rothschild, second Baron Rothschild”).

32 Observer, 1 April 1916, 3.

34 The tribunal first ascertained that the appellant was neither a Quaker nor a Christadelphian, two sects whose CO status had already been recognized (Observer, 1 April 1916, 3).

35 Observer, 18 March 1916, 3. Synonymous with “tough,” the term “corner boys” first came into use in the late nineteenth century as a phrase denoting young working-class men who engaged in violent or criminal behavior. Corner boys were usually older than their younger counterparts, “hooligans,” and thus more threatening. The term was commonly applied to Irish men in the 1880s and 1890s, giving it a distinctly ethnic cast. The first mention of corner boys in The Times was 8 April 1881, 6.

36 Observer, 25 March 1916, 5.

37 Ibid., 1 April 1916, 3.

38 Ibid.; Bush, “East London Jews,” 151.

39 Observer, 1 April 1916, 3.

40 Gregory, “Military Service Tribunals,” 182.

41 As the chairman put it, “seeing the amount of domestic matter that would be revealed” (Observer, 18 March 1916, 6).

42 Police court cases reported in the Observer, in contrast, provided the names of those on trial and any witnesses who appeared. The “domestic matter” revealed in these cases was often more detailed than that which appeared in tribunal proceedings, but, in criminal cases, the defendant forfeited his or her right to privacy.

43 This is particularly true of the latter category, since COs’ pleas frequently appeared alongside those of applicants whose appeals were made most commonly on familial and economic grounds rather than on those of conscience.

44 Gregory, “Military Service Tribunals,” 187; Bourke, Joanna, Dismembering the Male: Men's Bodies, Britain, and the Great War (Chicago, 1996), 78; Gullace, Blood of Our Sons, 101–6.

45 Observer, 18 March 1916, 3.

47 For conscientious objection to compulsory vaccination, see Durbach, Nadja, Bodily Matters: The Anti-vaccination Movement in England, 1853–1907 (Durham, NC, 2005). For state regulation and legal compulsion of parenting and other “private” behavior, see Behlmer, George, Friends of the Family: The English Home and Its Guardians, 1850–1940 (Stanford, CA, 1999).

48 The Times, 24 February 1916, 9.

49 Ibid., 11 April 1916, 5. The tension between de Rothschild and Lansbury was already at an apex since, just previous to the above-mentioned application, the tribunal had dealt with an appeal against the Battersea tribunal's order that Reginald Allen, a devout socialist and the chairman of the NCF, must undertake noncombat service. In reviewing the appeal, de Rothschild concluded that Allen was “not engaged in work of national importance” and would have to do so within one month or face conscription. Herbert Samuel (1870–1963) was a prominent Anglo-Jewish Liberal politician who was appointed as Home Secretary in January of 1916 (DNB, s.v. “Samuel, Herbert Louis, first Viscount Samuel”). Those among the tribunal who were elected officials had to pay particular attention to public opinion, though they could take comfort in the knowledge that, as volunteers, they were not vulnerable to removal from the tribunal on the grounds of unpopularity (Gregory, “Military Service Tribunals,” 181–82).

50 Observer, 15 April 1916, 5.

51 Ibid., 1 April 1916, 3.

54 As an anti-Semitic slur, this was hardly original.

55 The Times, 9 September 1916, 3.

56 For example, the 1920s would witness a campaign of public vilification and prosecution against the so-called Sabini Gang of Italian and Jewish racecourse bookmakers and against Chinese gambling parlors in London's Limehouse neighborhood.

57 Observer, 6 April 1916, 3.

58 Ibid., 15 April 1916, 5.

59 Later, the Anglo-Jewry's public criticism of Russian émigré Jews who avoided service could also serve as a rhetorical tool to distance the established elite from the taint of Bolshevism and anti-Western sentiment associated with the latter following the October Revolution. On the fears of the English and French Jewish elite in this regard, see Black, Eugene, The Social Politics of Anglo-Jewry, 1880–1920 (New York, 1988), 376–77.

60 Observer, 15 April 1916, 6. The author was described as “‘Mentor,’ in the Communal Chair of the Anglo-Jewish organ.” This pseudonym probably belonged to Leopold Greenberg, owner of the Jewish Chronicle (Cesarini, David, The “Jewish Chronicle” and Anglo-Jewry, 1841–1991 [Cambridge, 1994], 103–42).

61 Other common grounds for exemption claims included the lack of a qualified candidate for replacement in the appellant's job (a claim usually made by the employer) and, finally, conscientious objection. Adrian Gregory, briefly sampling statistics from the Banbury tribunal, has assigned a breakdown of 40 percent to domestic (hardship) grounds, 40 percent to occupational grounds, 10 percent to a combination of the two, and less than 10 percent to conscience (Gregory, “Military Service Tribunals,” 178).

62 Ibid., 179.

63 Observer, 15 July 1916, 6.

64 The mayor of Stepney, chairman of the tribunal, was one of two members that held the title of justice of the peace.

65 Ibid., 5 August 1916, 6.

66 Ibid., 15 June 1916, 2.

68 One naturalized Polish immigrant had appeared before the Stepney tribunal on the first day it was convened. Having applied for exemption on the grounds of not being “British born,” he was told that it was not valid grounds. Unsatisfied, he walked out with the declaration that he would hire a solicitor (Ibid., 18 March 1916, 7).

69 Gullace, Blood of Our Sons, 73–97.

70 Observer, 27 June 1916, 5.

72 Ibid., 29 July 1916, 6.

73 His inquiry was greeted by cries of “hear, hear” from others in attendance (The Times, 22 November 1916, 12). See also Bush, “East London Jews,” 152.

74 Jewish Chronicle, 15 June 1917, 11.

75 Although thirty thousand was the number most often quoted, the true number of eligible men was very likely much smaller. During the House of Commons debate over the second reading of the Military Service (Conventions with Allies States) Bill, James Kiley (MP, Whitechapel) argued that the Borough of Stepney, according to national registration figures, held only forty-nine hundred single alien men of military age. Stepney, along with Whitechapel, was purported to have the highest Jewish population in London, where most of the thirty thousand in the nation were said to reside, in any case. Not only were many of the forty-nine hundred single male aliens of exempt nationalities (neutral or enemy), but there were also a substantial number of sailors and other seafarers, also exempt, among them. “The problem,” Kiley concluded, “had been grossly magnified” (ibid., 15 June 1917, 12).

76 “Memories of the cruelties inflicted by the czarist army were too deeply ingrained and made them distrustful. The police doubted that many ‘Russian’ Jews would opt to go back” (Kadish, Bolsheviks and British, 206). The Jewish Chronicle, in the midst of its ardently patriotic statements, nonetheless acknowledged, sympathetically, that the typical Russian reaction to conscription was avoidance whenever possible (Bush, “East London Jews,” 151).

77 Forced military conscription of Jews, it is worth noting, was a tactic employed by Czar Nicholas I as a centerpiece of his effort to crush independent Jewish culture and communities and to bring the population fully under the control of the Russian imperial state. The mechanism put in place in the 1820s consisted of ninety-five legal clauses specifically targeted at Russian Jews. Jewish recruits faced thirty-one years of mandatory military service, not including training and transport, as well as “de-Judification” through forced baptism and brutal tutelage under Russian noncommissioned officers and Greek Orthodox priests (Fishman, William, Jewish Radicals: From Czarist Stetl to London Ghetto [New York, 1974], 37).

78 Bush, “East London Jews,” 152. Bush identifies the group merely as the “Foreign Jews Protection Committee,” but the longer title given here, which refers specifically to Russian deportation, is how the group identified itself in its first official petition to the British government. The FJPC included “representatives from 22 Jewish organizations, including seven socialist groups, 12 union branches, and various friendly societies” (Ibid.). Kadish argues that, although British government authorities focused on the strong representation of antiwar Jewish leftist elements in the FJPC (especially socialists, anarchists, and trade unionists), the membership and support for the organization encompassed a broader section of the East End Jewish population, and it “would be wrong to identify the FJPC exclusively with these elements” (Bolsheviks and British, 204–5).

79 Observer, 5 August 1916, 5.

80 Black, The Social Politics of Anglo-Jewry, 326–27.

81 On February 27, Bonar Law announced in the House of Commons that Russian military-aged subjects resident in England must serve in the British forces or return to Russia. The British government had been in communication with the government of Russia on the issue (The Times, 28 February 1917, 3). On the same day, a conference of East London officials (borough councils, local tribunals, and London County Council members, along with MP H. Harrison, the mayor of Stepney, and the mayor of Poplar) had met to discuss the “alien issue” and passed a resolution demanding that friendly aliens must serve. The trope of “job stealing” was prominent in their discussion, and, at one point, the mayor of Bethnal Green declared that “men had to sacrifice their little businesses or their small factories to serve at the front, and neighbors of foreign parentage stepped into their places and reaped the reward.” The resolution passed unanimously (ibid.).

82 Jewish Chronicle, 15 June 1917, 11.

83 Ibid., 23 March 1917, 11. Leopold Greenberg, the owner of the Jewish Chronicle, was initially opposed to the idea of deportation but strongly supported the idea of Jewish service in the armed forces, and the March Revolution softened the paper's stance on the former issue (Cesarini, The “Jewish Chronicle” and Anglo-Jewry, 118–19).

84 The Times, 7 August 1917, 3. The GOI had been founded in 1898 and had also made a contribution to the Boer War funds in 1900, albeit on a much more modest scale (ibid., 31 May 1900, 8).

85 An all-volunteer unit, the Zion Mule Corps, had already served with distinction in the Battle of Gallipoli, 1915. The formation of the new unit was greeted with enthusiasm by Jews already serving in the British forces, and the Army received “hundreds of applications … from Jews in other units for transfer to the new battalion” (Ibid., 14 September 1917, 7).

86 Watts, Marin, The Jewish Legion and the First World War (New York, 2004); Freulich, Roman, Soldiers in Judea (New York, 1964). Lord Derby refused to grant the unit an official badge or distinctive name (The Times, 14 September 1917, 7).

87 “The real value of the declaration to the [Jewish] Legion lay not in recruitment in the United Kingdom, but as propaganda in the United States and Russia” (Watts, The Jewish Legion and the First World War, 123).

88 Bush, “East London Jews,” 157.

89 Jewish Chronicle, 13 April 1917, 7. The “alien issue” had been at the forefront of public debate among East London officials since the beginning of the year (Bush, “East London Jews,” 153).

90 Jewish Chronicle, 13 April 1917, 7. Although public-house owners were not a “scheduled” (i.e., exempted due to essential war work) trade, the claim to be responsible for a “one-man business” was grounds for exemption (The Times, 19 August 1918, 3).

91 The Times, 16 June 1917, 8.

92 Ibid., 19 October 1918, 2.

93 Jewish Chronicle, 15 June 1917, 11.

94 The Times, 28 February 1917, 3.

95 To deal with the particular complexities of enforcing the act, in August 1917, the government announced that special tribunals would be convened in areas where Russian émigrés were concentrated (London, Manchester, Liverpool, and Leeds) in order to hear their appeals against conscription. One stipulation of the new regulation was that these tribunals had to include at least two members of the Jewish faith (ibid., 24 August 1917, 3).

96 Cancellor, H. L., The Life of a London Beak (London, 1930), 69.

97 Ibid., 70.

98 Frederick Mead, magistrate of the South Western Police Court, was the chairman of the Lewisham tribunal (The Times, 17 August 1917, 3). Likewise, the chairman of the Southwark conscription tribunal was a police court magistrate, and the chairman of the Stepney conscription tribunal was a justice of the peace.

99 Cancellor, The Life of a London Beak, 69–70.

100 Ibid., 70.

101 Cairns, J. A. R., The Loom of the Law: The Experiences and Reflections of a Metropolitan Magistrate (London, 1922), 208.

102 Cancellor, The Life of a London Beak, 72.

103 Watts, The Jewish Legion and the First World War, 123.

104 Cancellor, The Life of a London Beak, 75. “The dowry is an all-important element in the marriage contract of a Russia [sic] or Polish Jew,” Cancellor explained. “Prospective fathers-in-law are more liberal in regard to daughters’ marriage portions if the suitor is of an age when he is likely to become the father of children. To curry favour with the old man, who wishes to become a grandfather, it is a common occurrence for a prospective bridegroom to understate his real age.”

105 The Times, 19 August 1918, 3. “I must admit that I have been asked,” one defendant stated, “on many occasions by young men of military age attending the tribunal, to get them a form which would keep them out of the Army. These young men have given us money to buy chocolates and sweets, the usual sum being 2s. 6d. When they met us in the streets, they would buy us ices and sweets.”

106 Ibid., 27 August 1918, 4. Of the remainder, “30 per cent. had exemptions, 20 per cent. being exempted on the ground of ‘hardship’ or ‘one man business,’ 10 per cent. were Russians, and 12 per cent. had legitimate certificates” (ibid., 19 August 1918, 3). Although neither Russians nor Jews were mentioned specifically as being particularly culpable in the affair, the prosecutor pointed out that the areas encompassed by the police inquiry “included districts affected by the Russian Tribunal” (ibid., 31 August 1918, 3).

107 Ibid., 27 August 1918, 4.

108 Ibid.

109 Ibid., 12 November 1918, 5.

110 Bush, “East London Jews,” 150.

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