Reimagining British Muslims
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Thursday 30th June 2022

Friday, October 16th, 2015

David Cesarani’s book on the History of the Jewish Chronicle and its relationship with Anglo-Jewry is a must read for British Muslims. It covers the history of the Jewish Chronicle as the leading British Jewish community newspaper from 1841-1991. Discrimination against Jews was legal in the early part of the 19th century as Jews were not allowed to graduate from British universities until 1827 and they were not allowed to trade in the city of London until 1830. It was against this backdrop that leading community activists and influential British Jews such as Sir Moses Montefiore and Baron Lionel de Rothschild decided to help support the setting up of a British Jewish community newspaper. One major concern of the newspaper at the time was to somehow engage the British Jewish population in a dialogue on English values. Reform Judaism had begun to make important criticisms of orthodox practices and this led orthodox Jews to call for some kind of revision of their ritual practices such as shortening the very long Sabbath services and having sermons in English. In the 1850s and 1860s there was also a considerable amount of discussion on Christianity in the Jewish Chronicle. This is because the Jewish Chronicle was seeking to help members of Anglo-Jewry “orientate themselves as Jews in relation to the dominant culture”. There was also a critique which emerged from mid-Victorian liberal universalism of Jewish particularity but Cesarani states that this “frequently boiled down to majoritarianism”, i.e. that the values of the majority were dressed up as universal values and forced upon particular minority communities.

As the Jewish community established itself in the United Kingdom, there grew a disparity between the more settled Jews of Belgravia and the newly arrived Jews of Whitechapel. Jews who were facing persecution in Europe or Russia began arriving in the UK and settled in the East End, this created some tension between Jews. This was to such an extent that leading Jews would even call for repatriation of the new migrants. The Jewish Chronicle on behalf of the settled Jewish population campaigned against the new Jewish schools that were being set up by the immigrants. They were concerned that the teachings in these schools were not ‘English enough’. For example, in one editorial the Jewish Chronicle stated that “the Russian immigrant must be taken by the hand. His civilisation is not his affair, but the community’s, which desires as much for his own sake as for him to improve his condition”.

The political stance of the Jewish Chronicle has changed over the years. For example, under Benisch, the Jewish Chronicle supported Turkey in the late 19th century even though English Christians were very strongly anti-Turkey at the time. This was because he was concerned about anti-Semitism amongst the Slavs. Jews on this occasion were accused of being more loyal to their faith and community than to the nation. Even with the rise of Zionism and increasing anti-Semitism across Europe, the Jewish Chronicle did not wish to be seen as unpatriotic in its support for the Zionist cause. The paper remained lukewarm on Zionism until Greenberg was appointed as editor in 1906. The Jewish Chronicle then became very strongly Zionist to such an extent that it became critical of Zionist leaders that the newspaper felt were compromising in their negotiations with the British for the new Jewish homeland. Anti-Semitism was on the increase in Europe and reached its zenith during the Second World War. The Jewish Chronicle at this time received many stories describing massacres of Jews throughout Europe and it must have been harrowing to receive story after story of massacre after massacre, the writers of the Jewish Chronicle became almost de-sensitized to the increasingly awful nature of the persecution of Jews in Europe. The Jewish Chronicle was also quite reticent about emphasising Jewish suffering during the Second World War, however this would lead to occasional outbreaks of distress as readers would write in to express their shock as to what they were reading. The formation of Israel after the Second World War created a new dynamic for the British Jewish community as it sought to support this new homeland in the aftermath of the holocaust and the Jewish Chronicle has over the years developed a stronger pro-Israel sentiment.

The history of the Jewish Chronicle by Cesarani provides a fascinating insight into the life of the Jewish community’s most important newspaper. The newspaper provides a space for discussions of important and pertinent issues, it reports on matters of political urgency and is also a space for reflection and consideration. It is also a window on to the thoughts of an important minority community as it adjusts to settling in the United Kingdom. The parallels between the Jewish community in the nineteenth century and the British Muslim community today are obvious. This book covers many of these issues and is highly recommended.

The idea for MuslimView came after reading this book and MuslimView was saddened to hear of the passing of David Cesarani on 25 October 2015. He has made a major contribution towards a better understanding of the history of British Jews and the factors that lead to the Holocaust.

The book is available from Amazon:

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Atif has been involved in Muslim community life since the late eighties. He is a student of social psychology, his...
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