Review of Stephan E. C. Wendehorst, British Jewry, Zionism and the Jewish State, 1936–1956

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Review of British Jewry, Zionism and the Jewish State, 1936–1956 Stephan E. C. Wendehorst. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. appeared in Britain and the World. Volume 7, Page 121-126 DOI 10.3366/brw.2014.0124, ISSN 2043-8567, Available Online

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  this reduced the effectiveness of his arguments for state support for projectsduring a time when the National Party dominated government. James Watson  Massey University  DOI: 10.3366/brw.2014.0123  British Jewry, Zionism and the Jewish State, 1936–1956 Stephan E. C. Wendehorst. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. xiv  + 422 pp. £64 (hardback).One of the peculiar features of writing about Anglo-Jewish history and culture inGreat(er) Britain is that every so often its practitioners find themselves put in asomewhat awkward apologetic mode, forced to justify the very notion that Jewishhistory is entitled to be seen as an autonomous field of research or that it offersany valuable insights to supplement our understanding of the societies Jews wereand are part. Prof. Bryan Cheyette, a leading voice in the study of modern Englishliterature and Judaic Studies, recalled how, during a job interview back in the1980s, he was approached by the head of search committee who opened the Q&Asession saying: ‘I might well be accused of being anti-Semitic, but don’t you think that writing about Jews is rather narrow?’ Apparently, during the Thatcher era thefact one could find abundant references to Jews and Jewishness in canonicalEnglish literature – renowned examples would include Shakespeare’s Shylock,Disraeli’s Young England trilogy, novels like  Ivanhoe  ,  Daniel Derronda ,  Oliver Twist   as well as numerous disdainful xenophobic remarks made by Chesterton, T. S. Eliot and others – could serve as no excuse for looking at the centre fromthe vantage point of the ever-present Other, the fringe, the minority. Historians,a no less conservative breed, had the tendency to ask similar questions. Even MaxBeloff, although born into an Orthodox Jewish family, found it difficult toexplain to himself or to his readers what makes ‘the Jewish experience’ somethingthat deserves more than an antiquarian interest. Given the lack of territory orlanguage unifying the Jews in their various diasporas, Beloff wrote in his memoir,the subject matter itself is so unclear that ‘at times it might almost seem that thestudy of Jewish history depends very largely on assessment of the history of anti-Semitism.’ David Cannadine, enjoying playing the role of a party pooper, raisedsimilar concerns in a polemical 1989  London Review of Books   essay. The story of  Jews in England is written in the form of one of the following incompatiblestories, Cannadine contended: either as a somewhat ‘Whiggish’ tale of successfulintegration of a minority, lucky enough to find itself absorbed into a wonderfully  Britain and the World   121  tolerant and high-minded liberal society, or, alternatively, through a constant andrather irritating search for hurdles – in the form of persistent anti-Semiticprejudices – to that very same integration. Either way, the subject matter itself –the Anglo-Jewish community or the individuals it consists of – remains difficultto discover or define, and the result is a constant stream of publications which fail,time and again, to bring their subject alive and establish a wider resonance for it.Cannadine’s verdict was cruel: what we are left with, at the end of the day, is aseries of anecdotes about a community that defy definition, told by ‘Jacobites of the 21st century, absorbed in the theology of nostalgia,’ a story which is ‘more arequiem for a dying culture than the products of a living vibrant and centralhistorical tradition.’In the book under review Stephan E. C. Wendehorst returns to Cannadine’scomplaint and seeks to dismiss it. British-Jewish history, he argues in aprogrammatic introduction, has an integrity and heuristic value of its own and canin fact contribute valuable insights to the understanding of British history. Wendehorst’s main thesis is that between 1936 and 1956 Britain’s Jewsunderwent what he describes as a ‘national transformation in a Zionist key shaped by the specific conditions of British politics and society’ (p. 1). Behind thisseemingly modest thesis lies a much more ambitious attempt to revise thetraditional way in which the history of Anglo-Jews during the twentieth century istold, as well as what he describes as the Zionist historiography ‘master narrative’ which tends to minimise, if not even ignore altogether, Zionist activities takingplace outside the Yishuv (the pre-statehood Jewish community of Palestine). Thisthesis rests on two seemingly irreconcilable key arguments or, if one likes, a kindof ‘glocal’ reframing of the debate: first, we must see British Jews, Wendehorstshows, as historical actors participating in a quintessentially ‘transnational Jewishpublic and social sphere of interaction’ and in an international political movement;second, to understand the very way in which Zionism shaped the attitudes of the Jews of Britain we must put it against the specific, ‘local’ background andtake into consideration the political and social conditions that were unique to theUnited Kingdom. Thus, contra-Cannadine, what we have here is a story of ‘nationalisation’ of the Jews in the British Isles which is simultaneously framed inrelation and comparison to other Jewish communities and seen as an importantchapter in British history. The history of Britain’s Jews, then, has a great potential‘to serve as a barometer for ascertaining shifts in the social, religious, and nationalfabric of the British polity,’ and should be understood as ‘a set of interrelatedprocesses both state- and nation-building played out in three arenas: transnationalpolitics, the British–Jewish community, and the British polity’ (pp. 6–7). To defend his thesis Wendehorst has produced a meticulous study, rich inempirical data gleaned from numerous archives and interviews in Britain and122  Book Reviews   Israel, informed by and drawing inspirations from various theories in nationalismstudies. He divides his discussion into four thematic parts discussing the socialmakeup of the Anglo-Jewish community and explaining what made Zionism anattractive ideology (part 1), the Zionists’ political activities, such as lobbying,endorsement of immigration to Palestine, philanthropy and more (part 2), theestablishment of a Zionist hegemony in communal institutions (part 3), and theunique type of interaction of Zionism with the British state apparatus (part 4). Wendehorst is not a social or political historian suspicious of ideas. He tells acomplex story showing how nationalist ideas, initially regarded with hostility by the long-established leadership of the community, gradually but persistently conquered hearts and minds. This quiet revolution involved a deep-seatedquestioning of what he describes as the hegemonic ‘liberal-cum-assimilationist’presuppositions which traditionally guided the behaviour of members of thecommunity, facilitating a new type of politicization and self-understanding. Atthe end of that process Anglo-Jews saw themselves as natural allies of the Zionistcause, fixing their sympathies on the newly founded state of Israel, yet withoutseeing these as contradicting the self-presentation of the Jews in their diasporasocieties. Wendehorst argues that the destruction of European Jewry no doubthad ‘shaken the “Whig interpretation” of history’ that former leaders of thecommunity held dear, yet ‘the integration of the Jews into the fabric of theirreceptive countries of domicile remained the primary goal’ (pp. 55–6). Moreover,this process of ‘Zionization’, although triumphal, was never linear butcharacterised by ups and downs. After an initial ‘belle e´poque’, characterised by a strong bond of Zionist and British imperial interests, the changes in BritishMiddle East Policy, the delicate position in which Anglo-Jews found themselvesduring the Holocaust, the immediate postwar challenges such as the displacedpersons problem, and the general recasting of progressive politics during the1940s, pushed Zionism into isolation which, the book argues, ended only after theState of Israel was a fait accompli.Nor did the ‘Zionization’ involve a radical break. An unbridgeablegap between Jewish nationalism and liberal tents never emerged. Nuancedand attentive to its sources, the book shows how mainstream and non-confrontational British-Zionism actually was. Its pragmatist leaders succeededin replacing the religious understanding of Jewish collectivity with a new nationalparadigm without ever rejecting the Jewish liberal-assimilationist position intoto. The result is a ‘diaspora subnationalism’ or ‘diaspora Zionism’ (pp. 10–2,349–50 and passim) which went hand in hand with integration in the Britishnation-state. A joke Wendehorst quotes summarises, albeit grotesquely,this vicarious liberal-national formula: ‘A Zionist, variously living in theUSA, Britain, or any other Western country [ . . . ] was a Jew who gave money  Britain and the World   123  to a second Jew to help a third Jew to go on  aliyah  [emigration to the Land of Israel]’ (p. 124). Wendehorst, no doubt, has been able to produce a book that offers anargument that is complex, multilayered, conceptually sophisticated and at thesame time free of dogmatism. It brings together an impressive scholarship,interesting theoretical insights and bold historiographical ambition. Hecommands his material well, and the mass evidence he brings allows him toshed a light on riveting stories that were not fully told before. Providing valuableinformation about a plethora of almost forgotten figures such as Harry Sacher,Norman Bentwich, or Walter Eytan (ne´ Ettinghausen), who bridged Britishand Jewish politics, the book will serve well future scholarship. I also found hisbasic thesis regarding the emergence of a diasporic Zionist attitude, compatible with liberal beliefs and integrationalism, sound and persuasive. In Wendehorst’sreading confrontational Zionist figures like Lewis B. Namier – pugnacious criticof the community’s leadership, castigated as the ‘Order of Trembling Israelites’ –becomes the exception, not the rule. Although one may suspect if Wendehorst didnot exaggerate in stressing the complaisance of the Zionists in some cases, I findmyself in agreement with his overall argument that the ‘Zionization’ of Britain’s Jews, as a general rule, avoided the snare of dual loyalty and that we, thehistorians, should avoid thinking in ‘zero-sum’ terms, ‘implying that being moreZionist meant being less British or vice versa’ (p. 349). Yet, alongside its strengths, the book has its own problems. First, it would behard to describe it as elegantly written or well structured. The decision to dividethe chapters thematically resulted in a lengthy text that is often repetitive and dry,burying dramatic stories, events and figures under a heavy coat of lifeless academicdiscourse. The author, no doubt, is steeped in the sources he unearthed but whilehe does an excellent job recording the political discourse, there are times when heprovides no discussion of a source’s relevance. The editors of the series might havebenefited if they would have pressed the author to shorten the manuscript andtighten its conceptual structure. Second is the way the book positions itself againstexisting literature, or more accurately – the lack thereof. Evidently the book was along time in the making, and during that period the scholarship has moved on.Israeli scholars were exceptionally productive in this field: the place of DPs(Displaced Persons) in post-war politics, a major theme of Wendehorst’s book, was studied thoroughly by Arieh Kochavi, Motti Golani had looked morecarefully at the last days of the Mandate, and the convoluted diplomaticrelationships between Great Britain (the ‘former proprietor’) and Israel (the‘successor state’) were examined by Natan Aridan, Mordechai Baron, Moshe Yegar and others. Unfortunately, the book is not engaged in a dialogue withthis scholarship, nor with a very rich body of literature, produced by a mix of 124  Book Reviews   historians and literary scholars over the 1990s, which showed how a careful,nuanced examination of the way Jews were understood and culturally constructedin British society can break new grounds in understanding the mind of theVictorians and their predecessors. Third and far more problematic is the book’s periodization which remains vague and ultimately, I would argue, untenable. I could find nowhere in the book a clear explanation why one should start the survey in 1936. The transformationof communal authority is one of the locus classicus of the study of modern Anglo- Jewry, but one could tell a very similar story stretching all the way back to 1917, when British troops conquered the Promised Land and Lord Balfour hadauthored his famous declaration in favour of Jewish National Home in Palestine,much to the dismay of the old Anglo-Jewish elite. The feeling that the Zionistshad ‘conquered the community’ – often an optical illusion more than politicalreality – emerged long before 1936, and Wendehorst does not add much to therather old and beaten historiographical debate over the question whether theZionists actually succeeded in doing so. Equally dubious is the decision to end thebook with the Suez Crisis. What exactly was brought to an end in 1956? Duringthe campaign the British government’s policies were backed by the greater part of the local Jewish community who saw Israel as acting in self-defence. But was thissomething that would never come into view again? Do we see a decline infinancial support, immigration and willingness to fight for the Jewish nation afterthat heyday? There is no doubt much courage in starting a historical survey with adiscussion of a time when the Empire was well entrenched and the Jews had noindependent nation-state and to end it in the glory days of decolonisation. It is animportant reminder that although the Holocaust and the establishment of theState of Israel in 1948 were game changers, one can identify numerous layers of historical continuity, especially in patterns of communal behaviour and activity.Slicing out two neat decades, however, seems rather arbitrary and artificial. Giventhe lack of clear justification, it seems to be founded on shaky historical grounds.Lastly, I must take issue with the question of transnationalism. Theinterconnectedness of Jewish Diasporas, very much like the British Empire,provide perfect examples of large-scale networks that beg this kind of reading.Both invite historians to identify how ideas, individuals, practices, funds andpolitical activities cut across local boundaries, flow back and forth between distantareas. A steady routine of Zionist World Congresses as well as the coexistence of two headquarters – one in Jerusalem, governed by the local leaders of the Yishuv,and a second in 77 Great Russell Street in London, headed by Chaim Weizmannand his British Zionist entourage – meant that the Zionist movement itself wasquintessentially ‘transnational.’ Wendehorst, aware of these facts, stresses timeand again how important it is to see British Zionism as part of a much larger, Britain and the World   125
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