The Curiousness of Anglo-Jews

The Curiousness of Anglo-Jews

From the Spring 1984 issue


“What curious attitudes he goes into!”

“Not at all”, said the king. “He’s an Anglo–Saxon messenger and those are Anglo–Saxon attitudes. He only does them when he’s happy.”

That quotation was used by Angus Wilson as an epigraph for his novel, Anglo–Saxon Attitudes. I trust that its pertinence to my theme will authorize its perversion: if for Anglo–Saxon you were to read “Anglo–Jewish” throughout, you might, I think, agree that the curiousness of Anglo–Jews is hardly less remarkable than that of Anglo–Saxons. Very probably, it stems no less from their happiness.

If Anglo–Jewry has had its rough times, it has, on the whole, enjoyed a remarkably untroubled existence. Anglo–Jewish attitudes, however strange or maddening, are bound to have been influenced by the Anglo– no less than the Jewish element in the environment. I have not come here armed with statistics and I do not propose to draw any stringent conclusions about the Jews in this country. My remarks will be personal and anecdotal. You must look elsewhere either for sociology or for ardent advocacy of some solution to our condition.

I visited England first when I was about three years old. Unlike many, I did not cross the channel to get here: I crossed the Atlantic. I was, in almost all respects, a typical American child. When I looked at Harrod’s, I compared it unfavourably with Macy’s. I was shocked and scornful at the lack of skyscrapers. I said bath, not barth. My father was born in London and I was, in fact, of dual nationality. I was, however, certain that I would grow up in God’s own country and that I should never take a barth in my life. The Raphaels, so my father said, were among the first families to return to England on Oliver Cromwell’s invitation and it was appropriate that my English grandparents lived in Cromwell Road, even though the family appeared to have derived no large advantage from their early start. They had not acquired any choice properties or founded important banks or businesses. Their names appeared in the record of certain synagogues and can be deciphered in antique cemeteries, but only my great-uncle Jessel Benson was ever a manifest toff.

My grandfather worked for Raphael Tuck’s, the Greetings Cards people. I had the childish illusion that the Raphael in the firm’s name was a tribute to his participation, whereas in fact it was the Christian name, as it were, of the founder. In much the same way, I believed that the Renaissance painter was some distant relative, although his Raffaele was indeed literally a Christian name. Man cannot live by truth alone: we are supported, as we seek to secure ourselves against chance, by all sorts of comforting myths and reassuring illusions. Benjamin Disraeli, faced with the serried smugness of the English aristocracy, promoted the idea that the Jews, by virtue of their biblical provenance, belonged to a nobler house than any inhabited by the Earl of Derby or even by the Hanoverians themselves. The insolence of the arriviste’s imposture was seconded by a wit that contrived to argue his case with ingenuity and, at the same time, conceded that he did not really believe that the Jew was a superior form of life. His path was made, if not smooth, certainly less bumpy by the great speech by Lord Macaulay in which the liberal historian called for the emancipation of English Jews, but Disraeli could not have made his primrose way to the seats of power had he not accepted formal baptism.


Benjamin’s father, Isaac, was a distinguished littérateur, the author of Byron’s favourite books. He was a collector of literary oddities, a connoisseur of human foibles, a man of eclectic tolerance, you might say, who found nothing human either alien or lacking in a certain absurdity. No one could accuse either Isaac or his son of turning his back on Jewishness; it does not seem to have occurred to them to change their proud name. But seeking admission to the Church of England was a necessary prelude to taking part in English social and political life and I doubt if the Disraelis felt much shame in the process. Isaac D’Israeli was a child of the Enlightenment; he admired Byron no less than his Lordship admired him. After Byron's death at Missolonghi, he gave employment to Tita, Byron’s legendary gondolier and in due course Benjamin found the genial and hirsute Venetian a job in the public service and, eventually, a pension. It would have seemed ridiculous, I am sure, to someone of the Disraelis’ background and culture, to allow allegiance to an outmoded cult to embargo a bright young man from access to fame and fortune in the modern world. English, indeed European, society in the nineteenth century appeared to be moving inexorably towards a homogenized political synthesis. Disraeli’s rhetorical denunciation of “The Two Nations” accorded very well with his own personal predilections.

I suspect that it was not until the mass immigration in the last decades of the nineteenth century that English Jews became generally aware of their foreign brothers or of the consequences which the Jewish condition elsewhere might have on their own prospects and attitudes. In this parochialism they had much in common with the British population at large: Englishmen, of whatever persuasion, have rarely been remarkable for their willingness to believe that they are as other men are. Pharisaism has long been an endemic condition in the sceptred isle; if the British loved the underdog, they were rarely slow to keep him under. Disraeli’s imperialism, with all its affectations of principled guardianship, could be read as the ultimate attempt to achieve a kind of worldwide assimilation.

If the British could indeed command the seven seas and most of the continents and if only lesser breeds were to be “without the law”, in Kipling’s cunning phrase, there would be no call or case for distinction on the grounds of race or religion: all men would be equal under the crown. Heaven on earth would be staffed by Anglo–Saxon angels. British dominion over palm and pine would revive, at least, the Roman model under which the Jew Paul of Tarsus could, without anomaly or foolishness, assert that he was a Roman citizen and entitled, like any other, to appeal to Caesar. There was nothing necessarily sly or ignoble in Disraeli’s sentimental opportunism. He was not acting in his own or his racial brethren’s partial interests: was it not good and fair that all men should be equal under the law and that the law should be, wherever possible, British?

Disraeli’s brilliant success could hardly fail to excite and reassure British Jews, or to set a standard for them. Single-handed, he seemed to efface the darker pages of local history. I am not concerned here to rehearse tales of Mediaeval outrage, but I should perhaps mention the case of Ruy Lopez, Queen Elizabeth I's doctor, whose terrible execution, on a trumped-up charge of treason, is recounted with grisly relish by Lytton Strachey in his Elizabeth and Essex. Although Lopez had converted to Christianity, the rumours about him were believed not least because he was a Jew, as well as because he was a Spaniard. We have echoes in modern times where German Jews were regarded as Germans, although they were refugees, and their dubiousness was redoubled, rather than negated, by their Judaism. The Queen began by affirming her trust in Lopez, but she could not protect him. I shall spare you the details of his protracted agony, but the most poignant moment, for us, was his cry from the scaffold that he was “as good a Christian” as any of those who gloated over his sufferings. There is small doubt that he was innocent, but Elizabeth could not save him from the mass psychosis which commanded her subjects. Lopez's naive notion that swearing his fidelity to Jesus could influence the mob can, of course, be made to endorse the arguments of those who claim that it is futile ever to seek to escape the allegiance—or the taint—of the blood. What was rare in England was a commonplace in Spain: the Inquisition was notoriously vigilant, not to say vindictive, in its examination of the genuineness of conversions from Judaism to Catholicism. It is a matter for deeper analysis to decide why Jews are so often suspected of dual loyalties, as if such things were not common in many ways in many societies.


The demand that a man decide absolutely and definitively where all his loyalties lie is both impertinent and crass. A Jew in Britain is no more obliged to put all his eggs in one basket than is any other citizen, though it is a choice he can elect to make. What some may see as a lack of commitment is surely more happily to be regarded as a liberal conscience. Disraeli’s social strategy may have been a clever one—in that it integrated him with a society that he challenged to exclude him and also renovated the ethos of the Tory party—but it was neither shabby nor dishonest. Religious partisanship cannot provide a basis for a just or democratic society; no theocratic enterprise can lead to the sort of world in which cultivated people would want to live. It is true that we cannot have the world we would choose, but that does not require us to choose a world that panders to narrow minds or subscribes to savage orthodoxies.

When I was seven years old, a New York kid who liked Eddie Cantor and Jack Benny and Jones’s beach, Buicks, Macy’s, the Good Humour Man and the Empire State Building and who had heard, vaguely, of the German–American Bund and Father Coughlin, my British father—who wore seersucker suits and loved to dance in Harlem—was transferred by the Shell Oil Company to their London office. It was 1938. Our time in London was expected to be brief. My father’s career was in the States and he was to be in England only to gain experience of the American department in London so that he could then take over a better job in New York. His temporary transfer may also have had something to do with the antisemitism which he had been encountering in Radio City.

I accepted the move without regret: life would presumably not change all that much. When we arrived in London, my parents avoided the obviously Jewish suburbs. We found a flat in Putney. My English grandmother was not happy: “I should say Roehampton, if I were you”, she said. My parents were not seeking to conceal their Jewishness, but they did not wish to immerse themselves in it either. We had lived on Central Park West in New York and we had many Jewish friends, but even in the States my parents, with a typically liberal attitude, avoided exclusiveness. We lived near the Spanish-Portuguese synagogue, but my only memory of it is of the day when I got frostbite and clung to the railings to avoid being dragged away by the icy wind. In New York there were so many Jews that ostentatious pieties were an irrelevance. All the usual contradictions were in the melting pot: while my Lithuanian grandmother viewed all non-Kosher food with disgusted suspicion, her husband—who had been born in Bad Kreuznach, near Munich—was not above a good old ham sandwich when we went to the ball game. My father still preferred cricket, though he was a considerable enthusiast for the American way of life. His accent and attitude, however accommodating, remained decidedly British. He had been to St Paul’s and to St John’s College, Oxford and such things mark a man, if he is lucky. Justifying what he could not alter, he elected to embrace rather than bemoan his posting to London. He did so in terms I shall never forget: “Well, Freddie boy”, he said, “at least you'll now be able to grow up to be an English gentleman and not an American Jew.”

Is there something comically dated in his confidence? He genuinely believed in the values of the English gentleman—they are not, after all, evidently shameful—and he also believed, no less ardently, in a Jew’s right to embrace them. He had seen American Jews, many of them apparently irretrievably foreign in language and manners, treated as second-class citizens, refused admission to clubs and restaurants and denied easy access either to power or to places of learning. The American Jew, in the 1930s, was uncertain of his title to citizenship: he was constantly menaced by the oafishness of the mob and the superciliousness of the nobs. It might be true that Jews were making a great impression in the arts and in political thought, in certain areas of manufacture and marketing, but they seemed fated to remain on the margin, like the metics of Periclean Athens, sharing in the prosperity and the glamour of a society where they could never quite be at home. My father’s family was thoroughly at home in England, although some of them may have been more at home than others. He had been the first of the Raphaels to go to Oxford, but his father, Ellis, was a man of gentle dignity who played golf at Sudbury and whose appearance, in black coat, striped trousers and bowler hat, no more distinguished him from his SW7 neighbours than did his accent or his haircut. He belonged to a synagogue in Paddington and he had married a Jewess, but he would have been surprised and offended had anyone accused him of being anything but an ordinar Englishman, not that there was necessarily anything ordinary in that. He went to synagogue on High Days and Holy Days, but he did not, I think, refuse to eat bacon. My father did so, on one occasion at least.


In 1918 he was recruited into the army, being of the same age as the century, and was sent to camp on Wimbledon Common. The food was revolting and the breakfast involved sausages and bacon of a particularly unpalatable kind. My father could not stomach it and decided to mount his protest on religious grounds, since none other was likely to impress. His démarche resulted in his being served with a boiled egg, while the rest of the squad got the same old bacon. A mass conversion to Judaism seemed to be on the cards, but the entrance fee turned out to be unendurable for the company and he continued to eat his egg in solitary, Semitic privilege. Evidently it did not occur to my father to conceal his origins or to fail to take whatever petty but proper tactical advantage of them was available. I must confess that I should almost certainly not have had the nerve to do the same thing a generation later. Allowing for the probability that I lacked his boldness, I still think that it is fair to say that a Jew in England in 1918 was not the same article as a Jew in England in, say, 1948. In between came Hitler, Mosley and the British mandate in Palestine.

One of the happy oddities of Jewish history in England is that, while there have been scandals and atrocities, the English Jew cannot point to any signal act of injustice which supports a glum view of his prospects in this country. If there is anything in British attitudes to cause us disquiet it concerns, so far as I can see, foreign rather than domestic policy. We know, of course, that antisemitism has occasionally reached nasty proportions, but we have nothing here to compare with the Dreyfus case. That sense of scandal which drove the one-time assimilationist Herzl to conclude that Zionism was the only recourse could hardly have been kindled in England. Indeed, when Palmerston rattled his sabre on behalf of Don Pacifico, a Greek Jew who had been ill-used by a bunch of wogs and who just happened to be a British subject, he served notice that the meanest Brit might expect support from the heaviest artillery Her Majesty’s government could mount. Palmerston’s motives may have been cynical or vainglorious, but he made it conspicuously obvious that no Briton was to be abused by foreigners, however foreign his own provenance.

On the other hand, Jewish life in France has been profoundly, and ineradicably, marked by the Dreyfus case. Indeed, the egregious connivance of Pétain and Laval with the architects of the Final Solution can be seen as the revenge of the anti-Dreyfusards. Dreyfus’ corrupt condemnation polarized French society in a way from which it has scarcely recovered today. The Jews, who had once declared themselves “heureux comme Dieu en France” were alerted to the fear and revulsion with which they could be regarded by those with whom Napoleon’s emancipation had supposedly made them one. Recent studies suggest that even at the highest levels, where French Jews seem wholly at home in the machinery of Gallic intellectual and economic life, a sense of apprehension and alienation persists. The final irony is that the French Jews might have fared better had the unfortunate Captain Dreyfus indeed been a spy. From a mythical point of view, he is a scapegoat who failed: the guilt he might have taken with him to Devil's Island has, however grotesquely, remained to fester and pollute those who were courageous enough to secure his vindication.

In England, there is nothing comparable. Instead, we have a comedy. The Marconi case is the obverse of the Dreyfus affair. Rufus Isaacs was accused, among others, of having used inside information to enrich himself by the purchase of Marconi shares. The most distinguished Jewish lawyer of his day was saved from disgrace by somewhat disgraceful means. He told the House of Commons that it was not true that he had used his position to buy shares in the British Marconi company at a nice price. His assurances were accepted and his career took him on to the heights: he became both Lord Chief Justice and Viceroy in India. But if his assurances were indeed true, they were only just true: the shares he and his colleagues had chosen to buy were in the American Marconi company. A sharepusher with a phoney prospectus could scarcely hope to get away with it on a finer point of law. It is a sorry but comfortable irony that the French attitude to Jews has been more poisonously influenced by the conviction of an innocent man than have British attitudes by the acquittal of a guilty one. However, it would be rather too blithe to claim that the accusations of sharp practice levelled against “international financiers” by Oswald Mosley and his fellow ranters were not primed, and to some degree justified, by the behaviour of Rufus Isaacs and his colleagues in Lloyd George’s government.


The high comedy of Rufus Isaacs was repeated, as low farce, in the case of Sydney Stanley, in the 1940s. Those who were not alive, or adult, at the time will probably not even remember that lively little item of English social history. Sydney Stanley—a stateless person—was paraded as the man who corrupted honest politicians and received favours in return for whisky and clothing coupons and cigars. He did little that is not now a commonplace of business entertaining, but he signalled the re-emergence of the despicable Yid as a figure in the post-war bestiary. It was lucky, perhaps, that he was also a comedian of rare talents whose replies before Mr Justice Lynsky’s tribunal almost made a fool of Sir Hartley Shawcross, one of the most deadly cross-examiners at the bar.

Nevertheless, Stanley’s banal machinations embarrassed a Jewish community for which, despite the Holocaust, and Britain’s manifest failure to prevent or inhibit it, the gentile population felt scant sympathy. The conflict in Palestine caused a cleavage inside the Jewish community and between the Jews and their neighbours of a kind that had rarely existed before. Until very recently, when religious and racial fundamentalism once more became respectable, if not de rigueur, it was more or less assumed that one did one’s best to become assimilated to the dominant culture and ethos. The ultimate tribute to that ethos was, of course, apostasy. My American mother will never forget how my great-aunt Minnie, who had violet eyes that glowed in the dark, and a voice deeper than the basement, once told her that there was no such thing as a Jewish lady. “But you’re a lady, Minnie”, retorted my innocent parent. “I was never a lady, Irene”, boomed my great-aunt, “until I became a Christian.”

The English side of my family was riven with extravagant prejudices of all kinds; antisemitism was only one among many. My grandmother disliked Russians and Americans with equal venom. She did not think much of the working class either, nor yet of the medical profession which insisted that her heart condition was not terminal and was probably indigestion. She did manage to die of a heart attack eventually, but she waited till she was eighty-seven. Her antisemitism was not quite as aggressive as her sister Minnie’s but they and their handsome third sister, Rosie, formed a trio of Graces whose pleasure it was in their youth, and beauty, to sit in the lobby of the Grand Hotel, Eastbourne, and scan the incoming faces with searching malice. Should Minnie spot a Hebraic countenance, she was in the habit of hissing, in a carrying whisper, the one word “Fish!”, their easily broken codeword for Jew.

My grandmothers long-serving maid, Winifred, whose last name was, by pure coincidence, Stanley, though she was no relation of the infamous Sydney, was a subscriber to The Watchtower, but she never failed to remind certain members of the family of their pious obligations by sending them Jewish New Year cards. Minnie, an intimidating character, was exempt from these promptings, but Winifred considered it her Christian duty to keep the rest of us up to the mark right until her ninetieth birthday. I suspect that she favoured only the males of the family with her promptings, perhaps because she had a feeling that only those of the male sex were really Jews, an unspoken, perhaps unconscious tribute to the hold that circumcision has on the Gentile imagination. Although Winifred, who had much in common with Proust’s legendary servant-figure Francoise, insisted on wishing a different New Year on us, she did not, I am sure, doubt the family’s claim to be thoroughly English.

Certainly my father would have been infuriated by any allegations of foreignness of any kind, even spiritual. Assimilation did not stand in the way of antique pieties, but nor did the latter in the way of assimilation. Zionism was unappealing to him in his youth and irrelevant in maturity. If he admired the State of Israel when it came into being, he would never, I am sure, have dreamed of living there. It was a refuge for the unfortunate not a haven for everyone. I am bound to say that the excessively fervent Zionism and Israeli patriotism of some English Jews sometimes strikes me much as it would have struck him; the lack of wholehearted belligerence in the Anglo–Jewish attitude may not satisfy the militants but it is not necessarily evidence of a faint heart or an empty head.


My father never complained of being Jewish and he would never have stooped to concealment, but his friends were often Gentiles (he would never have used the vulgarism goyim to refer to them, even behind their backs) and he was wholly at home in the land of his birth. Yet he was often aware of antisemitism and sometimes shared the apprehensions of the Jewish Board of Guardians that improper behaviour by newcomers might test the tolerance of the British. He winced at queue-bargers or black-marketeers for the same reasons that he never failed to stand a round of drinks or to pay his debts promptly. He was a good loser and a genial winner. Courteous to women and correct with men, he never waved his hands or raised his voice. He endured pain with a stiff upper lip, and he knew a great deal of pain, and he believed that it was best to make light of things. If he told a joke, he never laughed at it; if you told one, he would certainly smile, even if he had heard it before. He may have been disgusted that even here there were golf clubs where he could not be a member, but he would not dream of seeking to impose himself on company which did not welcome him. He never thought England a perfect place, but if he criticized it, as any Englishman might, he took it to be as decent and just a society as one might hope to find. In the event, he never returned to America to live and I do not think that he regretted it. He liked the good manners of the British, in the days when they had good manners, and he assumed that those of his own middle class were men whose word was their bond. The way in which he respected the religion of his fathers was of a piece with the conventional decency with which he tipped his hat when he passed the cenotaph or listened to the Queen’s speech or had a bet on Derby Day. It was not a matter of earnest belief or deep feeling but of rectitude and decent habit.

He had been a World Champion Ballroom Dancer in his youth and he carried himself with the aloof modesty of someone who had once been the best there was. He never alluded to his triumphs, just as he sought to keep quiet about his disappointments. He liked to think that he exemplified the Greek ideal, of Nothing In Excess. It is not, I should like to believe, a disreputable ambition and it is my particular pleasure, which I hope you will not regard as self-indulgent, to honour him here this evening. I am not so sure what I have become, but I am tolerably certain that he was indeed what he thought he was, an English gentleman who happened to be Jewish.

Not everyone in our family considered it possible to reconcile Jewishness with gentility. A young man wrote to me not long ago claiming cousinage. We had, he told me, the same great-grandparents. He was, and is, the grandson of my very rich great-uncle, Frederick Jee Benson, after whom my father named me, hopefully, not that it ever did me much good. Young Roderick, whom I have since met, had already come down from Oxford, a couple of years ago, before he had any idea that there was, as one of his female cousins put it, a “skeleton in the family cupboard”. Although Jessel actually died on the Day of Atonement, after returning from synagogue, his descendants had worked with furious ingenuity in the effort to conceal all traces of their Jewish connections. Typically enough, they became sneering antisemites and inveterate snobs: Jessel’s widow went to live in Monte Carlo and relished the Proustian acquaintance of dethroned royalties. The reasons for her recoil from Judaism are inaccessible to me, but they seem to have held good for her daughters and that whole side of the family. It is interesting to observe that young Roderick, whose research into the whole background have already turned up some choice items, is delighted by the discovery of his Semitic genes, and genesis. It is for him to analyse in depth what it means for a routine Englishman, whatever that means, to discover that he is a Jew, whatever that means. What it means will depend, I suppose, on what he makes of it, or it of him, in an intellectual or social or religious sense.

Jewishness, George Steiner has observed, is “a club from which, in the twentieth century, there can be no resignations”. This is perhaps a more British observation than one might expect from Steiner, for it suggests that it is a matter more of honour than of racial allegiance or religious commitment. To be a Jew is, I think, to accept, in the existential sense, the absurdity of the human predicament rather than to rally to a demanding series of rituals or to the chauvinistic vanity of Zionist fundamentalism. I concede that this is probably an Anglo–Jewish attitude but then, for all my American birth and childhood, I have to admit that it is with difficulty that the apple falls far from the tree.