Jews & The Fight Against Racism In Post-WWII England

Sunday, I interviewed by Skype Anglo-Jewry historian Geoffrey Alderman ( He is the author of 22 books, including Modern British Jewry.

Here are some highlights of our discussion about fewer than .5% of Britain’s population.


Luke: “I’m interested in how Jews have shaped the fight against racism in England. According to one anti-Jewish website I read, the Board of Deputies of British Jews helped to formulate the Race Laws that now amend the Public Order Act in the United Kingdom. Is that true?”

Geoffrey: “It is true up to a point. The Board of Deputies of British Jews in the first decade after the Holocaust was extremely reluctant to raise any such issue [regarding race]… One reason for this was the in-built deference of the Board towards the British government. Second, was the knock-on effect in Britain of the last bloody years of the Palestine mandate. Not only were British soldiers being killed in Palestine, some of them were killed by Zionist extremist groups.”

“In the immediate aftermath of WWI, the London County Council passed a series of regulations that were aimed deliberately at Jewish immigrants in East London. One of these included access to social housing. Legislation was passed in 1923 that in ordinary circumstances, no one would be eligible for social housing if either of their parents had been born outside the United Kingdom. This was aimed at keeping the Jews out of London County Council housing estates.”

“In the immediate aftermath of WWII, there was a group of Jews, members of the Board of Deputies, who wanted to fight this… At the Board of Deputies, there was a ferocious opposition. This was not the time. One had to be sensitive to other considerations. The Board’s leadership refused to take this issue forward. It was left to a group of Jewish grassroots leadership to raise this matter with the then Deputy Leader of the London county Council, who was a prominent Jew, Victor Mishcon… Mishkon refused to do anything about the regulation.”
“The Board left this issue alone but it came up again during the passage of what became the 1976 Race Relations Act. If you go back on the early history of race relations legislation in the 1960s, you’ll find the Board keeping its head well down. This was an issue triggered by the influx of minorities from the Afro-Caribbean.”

“In 1976, the then minority Labor government of Harold Wilson announced that it was going to pass a comprehensive race relations act, and the Board of Deputies of British Jews was asked whether it wanted Jews to be specifically mentioned in that Act as an ethnic minority that would have the protection of the Act, and the Board refused. Case law afterwards established firmly that Jews were covered by the 1976 Act.”

“[Most English] Jews…have never been very happy about it. Certainly successive leaderships of the Board of Deputies have felt uncomfortable being classified along with the blacks, the near blacks, the Indians, the Chinese and even the Irish as ethnic minorities even though legally they are.”

Luke: “What is the essence of the Jewish objection?”

Geoffrey: “Jews don’t want to be seen as an object of hostility from anti-immigrant groups of any sort. Whilst the Board of Deputies and the Jewish leadership council, an Uncle Tom cobley, have condemned out and out Nazi groups like the English Defense League and the British National party, there is a recognition that current unease about immigrant groups is aimed at not-so-much Afro-Caribbeans, black Britains, but people from the Indian sub-continent and people from Bulgaria and Romania. Jews want to be seen as fully integrated into British society and to say that Jews are an ethnic minority could raise a question mark as to whether Jews are fully British. You find the same arguments deployed in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s as to whether Jews should be separately classified in the census… Should we just be Britains of the Jewish persuasion? Having Jews as a religious category is kosher, but having Jews as an ethnic minority category, we’re not sure about that.”

“Jews nowadays [in England] vote substantially Conservative.”

Luke: “We have the First Amendment in the United States and I can legally say negative things about Jews or blacks or Latinos, but if I were to say something negative about Jews publicly in the UK, say they’re a bunch of white collar criminals?”

Geoffrey: “You could find yourself in court.”

Luke: “When did this come about? When did it become illegal to say negative things about groups?”

Geoffrey: “The 2000 Equality Act. If you said Jews are very insular, or as I once said in one of my most famous Jewish Chronicle columns, Haredi Jews were well known for being sexual abusers of women, someone took this to the Press Complaints Commission, but I won because I was able to give four pages of examples. You need to be careful of what you say…”

Luke: “Have Jews played a significant role in the criminalizing of critical negative speech about groups in the United Kingdom?”

Geoffrey: “Certain Jews have played a part. I’m thinking of the legal firm of Sir Geoffrey Bindman, well-known civil rights lawyers. Jews have played a disproportionate part in the criminalizion of racially abusive behavior likely to incite civil unrest as they did over the abolition of capital punishment. The abolition of capital punishment in 1965 was largely a Jewish lobby headed by the Jewish Labor MB Sydney Silverman.”

Luke: “When Jews are talking amongst themselves, how free will they feel to use terms like ‘schvartze‘ and talk about the mental inferiority of the schvartze?”

Geoffrey: “I don’t move in the circles in which Jews habitually use that term.”

“In the 1970s, as you will read in my book Modern British Jewry, I give chapter and verse for a rather horrendous incident. I think it happened in 1971. The Anglo-Yiddish newspaper the Jewish Tribune, which was the paper of choice of the UK’s Haredi communities, the only paper that publishes in English and Yiddish, so the Jewish Tribune in its Yiddish section, it wrote an article critical of the Labor MP and subsequent president of the Board of Deputies and now a peer, Greville Janner, criticizing him for speaking up the schvartzes in the House of Commons. It’s a stupid newspaper, what my predecessor [as a columnist for the Jewish Chronicle] Chaim Bermant once called the ‘Sheitel-Wearers Weekly’ thought that no black would ever read the Yiddish. How wrong they were. The West-Indian Caribbean newspapers translated this article and there was one helluva row and the Jewish Tribune had to make an apology. In one sense, that is very funny, but in another sense, it is very tragic.”

Luke: “So in your circles, no one would use the word ‘schvartze’ in front of you?”

Geoffrey: “Not in front of me, no, but I’m not your average Jew.”

Luke: “How did Jews react to Enoch Powell‘s Rivers of Blood [1968] speech?”

Geoffrey: “In general, sweeping condemnation though there were some members of the Board of Deputies who were congratulatory such as Harold Soref who was a member of the British Union of Fascists in the 1930s… Jewish membership of Oswald Mosley‘s BUF and support groups is an interesting subject. I was called to a meeting the British Board of Deputies and told not to do this research.”

Dr. Alderman refused.

“Yes, there were Jews who supported Enoch Powell but the [Jewish] establishment distanced itself from Enoch Powell.”

Luke: “If anyone used the term ‘schvartze’ on the BBC?”

Geoffrey: “There would be an absolute eruption. There would be questions in parliament. Demonstrations. I just dread to think what would happen.”

Luke: “I go to Orthodox synagogues and this is how black people are spoken about when we are among ourselves.”

Geoffrey: “What people say in public and what people say in private are two different things.”

Luke: “How did Jews react to the influx of blacks, largely from the Caribbean, in the 1950s in England?”

Geoffrey: “I don’t think there was a Jewish reaction. It was Enoch Powell who invited them in. He was Minister of Health in a conservative government and after the Second World War there were acute labor shortages and Enoch Powell approved advertisements to go out to Jamaica and the West Indies for workers.”

According to Wikipedia: “Whilst he was Health minister, he encouraged a large number of Commonwealth immigrants into the understaffed National Health Service. Prior to this, many non-white immigrants were often obliged to take the jobs that no one else wanted (eg. street cleansing, night-shift assembly production lines), often paid considerably less than their white counterparts. Powell was vehemently opposed by the Trade Union movement (who feared that immigrants were being used by capitalists to keep wages low by artificially increasing competition for jobs), but there is no doubt that in easing non-white immigrants into what was considered a prestigious form of career, he boosted the confidence of the immigrant population and helped lay the foundations of a future immigrant-descended permanent Afro-Caribbean and Asian middle class in Britain.”

Geoffrey: “I don’t know if you have any seen the Second World War film, The Dam Busters? The Dam busters were a brave group of airmen who bombed certain strategic dams in the industrial heartland of Germany using a bouncing bomb, which literally bounced on the surface of the water. Most of the crews never returned.”

“If you watch the film, there is only one reference to a person of color. The pet dog of Group Captain Guy Gibson is called ‘Nigger.’ In one short scene, the actor playing Guy Gibson says to his soldier, ‘Please take care of nigger for me whilst I go on this mission.’

“Almost all the entire ground crews who serviced those planes and loaded those intricate bombs were Afro-Caribbeans, but in the film, they are all white.”

Luke: “Have Jewish efforts to criminalize hate speech resulted in anti-Jewish feeling in the United Kingdom by people who feel that their rights to free speech have been restricted?”

Geoffrey: “No.”

Luke: “How do Jews feel about an increasingly multi-racial and multi-cultural England?”

Geoffrey: “There has been a significant backlash in this country against multi-culturalism.”

“Former [Ashkenazi] Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks would jump on any bandwagon [including multi-culturalism] and then jump off it if he thought it was losing in popularity.”

“Multi-culturalism has run its course because it is now perceived as having given aid, succor and comfort to Islamic extremist groups.”

Geoffrey: “What do you mean by multi-racism?”

Luke: “I assume that during WWII, England was a 90% plus white country and then I assume that today that percentage is significantly lower.”

In the 2011 census, 53% of Londoners were not born in the UK.

Luke: “How do Jews in England feel about all these other blacks, Pakistanis, Indians, darker-skinned people in the country as opposed to what was an overwhelmingly white country?”

Geoffrey: “I don’t think that’s the way Jews in this country… That is not the terms that Jews engage in this question. The terms in which most Jews in this country engage with that question is Islam. To the extent that the Hindus in London are perhaps even more anti-Islam than the Jews are, the Jews would probably welcome a Hindu presence in London… Most anti-Semitic incidents are the result of agitation by adherents of Islam.”

Luke: “I assume that Jews would prefer no more Muslim immigrants to the United Kingdom? And if that is true, can they say that out loud?”

Geoffrey: “The answer to the first part of your question is yes. When the question was raised whether Britain should take in Syrian refugees, that question was raised. The Coalition government has trod carefully on this issue. This issue was raised after the terrible murder in London of drummer Lee Rigby who was hacked to death by adherents of Islam.”

Luke: “So if Jews in England wanted to support no more immigration to the country, but they particularly have in mind Muslims, how can they go about it?”

Geoffrey: “They can simply say that Britain is full-up. We’re a small island and there’s a limit to the number of people we can take. That is the argument used by UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party). My perception in North-West London that there is a lot of Jewish support for UKIP. I went last summer on a swelteringly hot evening to a packed meeting in Jewish Hendon addressed by the leader of UKIP, Nigel Farage, and Farage had this audience in the palm of his hand. No more immigrants except a few on strict humanitarian grounds. Pulling out from the EU. He knew what to say.”

“The Jewish establishment supported the Aliens Act of 1905, which was the first piece of immigration restriction in modern Britain designed to keep the Jews out. The Chief Rabbi and Lord Rothschild in the House of Lords supported the act. The Jews kept very quiet in general with the anti-alienism of Conservative governments in the 1920s and 1930s. As far as Holocaust rescue, with notable exceptions, the Jewish leadership saw to it that as few Jews as possible from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia entered this country. In the great immigration controversies of the 1950s and 1960s, the Jews kept out of it, and when the Jews did not keep out of it, he was condemned in the Yiddish section of the Jewish Tribune.”

Geoffrey Alderman wrote in the Jewish Journal of Sociology in 2012 (Vol. 54, nos, 1 and 2):

This note addresses some features of the London mayoral election of 3 May 2012. This contest, which took place at the same time as elections for the London Assembly, achieved international media coverage. Seven candidates presented themselves to an electorate of some 5.8 millions but two dominated the event: Boris Johnson the incumbent and Ken Livingstone, his predecessor. Johnson is a politically Conservative idiosyncratic media personality who has openly challenged several policies adopted by David Cameron‘s Conservative-led coalition government and Livingstone, equally idiosyncratic is a stalwart of the Labour party‘s ‗hard‘ Left who had served as Mayor from 2000 until 2008. I have already traced the history of Livingstone‘s tenure of City Hall and of his tempestuous relationship both with the Labour party and with London‘s Jewish communities.1
In 2000 Livingstone had not been the official Labour candidate but ran as an independent. Expelled from the party he was reinstated as a party member and re-elected in 2004. In 2008 he lost to Johnson in a contest in which London‘s Jewish electorate (of perhaps just 118,000) played a quite disproportionate part.2
The reason for this lay not merely in Livingstone‘s much-publicised anti-Zionism but in a continual series of statements over two decades on the subject of Jews and Jewish values.3 I do not intend examining these statements here but it is important to note that they were more or less universally accepted as evidence of an antipathy towards Jewish people. Rarely since the end of the Second World War has this issue featured so prominently in an English local election. In the politics of London one would have to go back to the London County Council a century ago for a “Jewish question” hanging over a capital-wide electoral contest.4
That this was so and that London‘s Jewish voters and Livingstone‘s perceived attitude to them might decide the fate of the 2012 mayoral race was not lost on Jewish Labour party members. On 1 March 2012 an extraordinary meeting was held in secret between some of these and Mr. Livingstone. We know about the meeting because it was the subject of a remarkable letter written on 21 March by some of those present to Labour leader Ed Miliband (the first professing Jew to lead the Labour party). The meeting was supposedly private and its proceedings were conducted under Chatham House rules.5 The letter was subsequently leaked to the Jewish Chronicle – a fact of significance in itself.6
What were the motives of those attending the meeting? They claimed
that they wished “to explore ways in which Ken could re-connect with Jewish voters in advance of the May 3rd mayoral election.” Did they hope that he would oblige them with an attractive sound-bite or that he would give an assurance that during the mayoral campaign he would refrain from saying anything about Jews or Israel? If so they were bitterly disappointed. Livingstone (they reported to Miliband) saw Jews exclusively as a religious group, lacking any ethnic or national dimension. “At various points in the discussion,” they continued, Livingstone “used the words Zionist, Jewish and Israeli, interchangeably, as if they meant the same.” What is more, he “did so in a pejorative manner.” And when asked
to consider the importance of addressing the concerns of London‘s Jewish electors Livingstone intimated that in his view this would be a pointless exercise since Jews were wealthy and – thus – firmly entrenched in the Conservative camp…
Although, as already mentioned, no discrete survey of Jewish voters was undertaken at the time of the London mayoral contest, one polling organisation did survey a sample of London voters generally over a wide range of issues, one of which concerned ‗the poor relationship between Ken Livingstone and the Jewish Community.‘ Specifically, respondents in the sample were asked how important that factor was (along with many others) in determining how they would cast their mayoral votes. Of those respondents who declared themselves first-preference Johnson supporters some 40 per cent specifically identified Livingstone‘s attitude to Jews as either a “very important” or a “quite important” factor in propelling them to vote for his Conservative opponent.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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