Great Variance

Loading word count...
Listen to this article
This entry is part 1 of 3 in the Britain and her Jews

The refugees whose impact this series will examine are, in the first place, the Jews who immigrated to Britain in the later decades of the 19th century. Small numbers of Jews already lived in Britain before a much larger wave of Ashkenazi immigration from Eastern Europe occurred over several decades from the 1870s. Immigration was somewhat inhibited by the Aliens Act of 1905. As Jews were most of the arriving immigrants at that time, they were most affected. Still, more continued to arrive, a large number already had, and today, according to government statistics, Jews number around three hundred thousand in Britain, somewhat less than half of one percent of the population.

By the beginning of the 20th century, a narrative in which these recently-immigrated Jews were refugees from Russian persecution and anti-Jewish violence had become commonplace. As David Cesarani has described, this was always largely mythical:

“The anti-Jewish riots in Russia and the anti-Jewish legislation that followed triggered a wave of mass migration from the Tsarist Empire to Western Europe, America and South Africa. Between 1880 and 1914, about 2.5 million Jews migrated westward. Only a part of this migration was a direct result of the pogroms: most of it was economic migration. Jews had been leaving Russia and Poland steadily since the 1870s owing to the pressure of population on jobs and resources in the Pale [of Settlement]. The riots, which were anyway confined to two periods in 1881–2 and 1903–06, were localised. In the first period, the north-west of Russia was unaffected, yet it was from here that the bulk of emigrants departed. Similarly, Galicia in Austria-Hungary exported tens of thousands of Jews, but they left a region untouched by riots and in which Jews were full citizens.”1

The success of the atrocity-and-refugee narrative in Britain owed primarily to the sustained efforts of a network of interests increasingly committed to assisting the westward migration of Jews. This network centred on well-connected, intermarried and enormously wealthy members of the so-called Anglo-Jewish Cousinhood, including the Goldsmid, Mocatta, Rothschild, Montefiore, Sassoon, Cohen, Nathan, Samuel, Montagu and Henriques families. Collectively, they operated through organisations including the Board of Deputies of British Jews, founded in 1760, the Jewish Chronicle newspaper, founded in 1841, the charitable Jewish Board of Guardians, founded in 1859, and the Anglo-Jewish Association, founded in 1871. Anglo-Jewry increasingly acted simply as Jewry, a separate community enjoying propinquity with the powerful but concerned with the global Jewish nation and working to influence British foreign policy to promote Jewish interests worldwide. 2 As Sharman Kadish describes,

“The ‘Conjoint’ Committee of the Board of Deputies and the Anglo-Jewish Association had been set up in 1878. It acted as the ‘Foreign Office’ of the Anglo-Jewish community. A clearing house for information which reached the community about the situation of Jews abroad, it compiled reports and memoranda and cultivated channels of communication with the real Foreign Office, in the hope that the latter could be prevailed upon to intercede on behalf of Jews overseas should the need arise (the policy of shtadlanut).”3

Reports of Russian persecution of Jews by Joseph Jacobs in The Times were credited as sparking the pogrom controversy in January 1882. They prompted meetings at Mansion House and the Guildhall, at which at least £200,000 was donated; these donations were collected into the Mansion House Fund, which the Board of Guardians and other organisations drew upon to help Jews settle in London or travel on to the USA. A Mansion House Committee was formed and was soon renamed the Russo-Jewish Committee, with Julian Goldsmid as chairman and Jacobs as secretary. Fellow journalist and Jewish activist Lucien Wolf amplified Jacobs’ efforts in the press and worked to co-ordinate the efforts of the AJA and the Board of Deputies of British Jews. Bishops, cardinals, authors and celebrities of the day were won to the cause by the atrocity reports.4

Benjamin Disraeli as Prime Minister had narrowly been prevented from starting a war against Russia in 1877-8, and anti-Russian propaganda was already commonplace in parts of the British press.5 According to John Klier the Times “habitually described it as ‘a backward country, which has not yet worked its way to the level of European life’. The paper had begun a low-level campaign against Russian mistreatment of the Jews even before the outbreak of the pogroms. 6The Times was at pains to condemn the Russian government at least as early as 1880. The Telegraph, owned by Harry Levy-Lawson, began to promote the same line with even greater fervour. The Jewish Worldthen, between July and October 1881, published reports from an unnamed Special Correspondent which “portrayed the pogroms dramatically, as great in scale and inhuman in their brutality”, including rape and murder of Jews on a large scale across many locations. According to Klier, “[M]any of his claims, such as the enormous number of rapes, are unconfirmed or flatly contradicted by the archival record… His account most resembles a compilation of hearsay evidence, very little of it collected from first-hand observers. His atrocity reports, in particular, must be viewed with extreme caution.”7

The atrocity claims that began in the Jewish World had no basis in any Russian source and appear to have been the creation of an international activist network already assembled when the violence began; the perception of Jews living and dying in miserable oppression dovetailed with an organised effort to instigate and fund Jewish migration to Western countries, primarily the USA. As Klier writes, “The emigration movement represented the coming of age of the modern Jewish press. […] The period witnessed pioneering efforts to use the Jewish press for propagandistic purposes. […] [T]he proponents of emigration proved particularly skillful in this regard. Very influential too were the widely reprinted exhortations of the Memel rabbi Dr. Yitzhak Rülf, who emphasized Russian atrocities in order to mobilize an international relief and protest movement.”8 Rülf had been ‘interceding’ (shtadlanut) on behalf of beleaguered Jews through the 1870s, publicising claims of Jewish starvation in Poland and supporting the efforts of the Alliance Israélite Universelle (AIU) to encourage Jewish emigration to the USA.9 The Jewish World correspondent’s salacious account of violence in Borispol “was widely disseminated by Rabbi Rülf both in Russia and abroad. As he put it, ‘the history of the world may well be declared to contain no parallels of the Russian anti-Jewish outrages.’ Through 1882, he also spread “sensationalized accounts of mass rape”. The Jewish World joined the Times and Telegraph in blaming the Russian government, characterising the Russian peasantry as dirty and ignorant dupes easily incited against Jewry as convenient scapegoats.

As emigration became more viable, many Jews opted for it, whether they had experienced rioting or not.

“Relief funds that were set up to assist pogrom victims became the target of appeals from what would be called, in contemporary parlance, “economic migrants.” […] The desire of some emigrants to assert their status as pogrom victims may also account for the exaggerated tales of atrocities that they told. Certainly the American authorities charged with dealing with refugees expressed their skepticism about the authenticity of some self-proclaimed victims.”10

Organisations involved in assisting migrants were concerned that “many of the refugees had been lured by extravagant promises of assistance and ‘glowing accounts of America given them by persons interested in inducing them to emigrate’”.11

The RJC, in January 1882, persuaded the Times to publish articles which were “substantially a compendium of atrocity stories taken from the columns of the Special Correspondent of the Jewish World. Garnished with the prestige of The Times and devoid of any further attribution, subsequently published as a separate pamphlet, and translated into a variety of European languages, the account became the definitive Western version of the pogroms.” Of the Times’ editorials alongside the RJC articles, Klier says that “Russia was urged to ‘put an end to these enormities… If they are unwilling, the Russian government must be held responsible for all the crimes – some of them as atrocious as any recorded in history – which have been accomplished by letting loose the hatred of Orthodox mobs’.” Other papers then began to parrot the Jewish World reports.12

Jewish parliamentarians led by George de Worms agitated for the Russian government to be held responsible. The Foreign Office tasked its consuls in Russia to assemble their own reports on the violence, which they did without the involvement of intercessors. The consuls’ reports were at “great variance” to those in the Times, especially on the claims of rape. Other correspondents also contradicted the Times’reports. In response, the Times stooped as low as to aver that “the indignation of this country is justified to the fullest degree, even if, as seems to be the case, there is ground for thinking that the most villainous misdeeds are in part the creations of popular fancy”.13 The paper then collaborated with the RJC on further editorials discrediting the consuls, flattering the public and informing their readers that Jews in Russia were “hated by the populace for their success” before publishing further atrocity reports from anonymous sources.14

The Foreign Office consuls responded to their disparagement in the Times with another set of reports justifying and explaining their earlier findings. As Andrew Joyce describes,

“The Consuls were outraged. [Consul-General] Stanley reiterated the fact that his intensive investigations, which he carried out at great personal cost with a serious leg injury, illustrated that The Times’ accounts of what took place at each of those places contains the greatest exaggerations, and that the account of what took place at some of those places is absolutely untrue.’”15

Fortunately for the RJC, though, more severe violence in Balta in April 1882 could be used to support their narrative. As Klier describes, the British vice-consul visited the town in the aftermath and reported large-scale destruction of property. British consuls also informed the Foreign Office that at least one official Russian publication had understated the scale of violence in some areas. The Times declared the matter settled. The rest of the press, having already copied the Jewish World reports, welcomed the putative confirmation of their narrative. “In the public mind,” says Klier, “the Balta pogrom served to confirm all previous claims.”16 Thus did the RJC’s narrative prevail, and was built upon in the subsequent decades. The New York Timesplayed the same role in the USA.

The eager and combative participation of both Britain and the USA’s ‘newspapers of record’ in publicising false atrocity stories is remarkable, as is the credence given to the Jewish World’s reports by them and the broader press. As Klier says, “the archival records relating to the pogrom in Balta do contain claims of rape. It is virtually the only pogrom, though, where this is actually the case.”17 In almost all the other riots, Christians targeted Jewish property for looting or destruction; bodily harm usually occurred in drunken fights. “And yet” continues Klier, “the high incidence of rape was widely reported in Western accounts of the pogroms, especially those provided by Jewish groups.”18 The editors of the Times and New York Times appear to have chosen which accounts to credit based on considerations far removed from those of journalism.

In the decades since, the media and politicians have become ever more supportive than they were in 1882 of the interests who formed the RJC and enabled Jewish migration. The refugee narrative has endured as a largely undisputed canard and is employed today as a pretext for open borders policies. Jewish groups in Western countries frequently cite their own purported refugee background as a laudable motive for assisting other refugees (defined to include all illegal immigrants) to settle in those countries (not Israel). The Board of Deputies of British Jews is one of many examples, while the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) and the International Rescue Committee (IRC) are two based in the US. HIAS proudly calls itself “the world’s oldest refugee organisation” and urges Western populations to “Welcome the stranger. Protect the refugee.” Subsequent articles in this series will examine the impact on the West of the 19th century Jewish immigrants and their descendants.

  1. The Left and the Jews, David Cesarani, p41 ↩︎
  2. See The Rise of Modern Jewish Politics, C.S. Monaco ↩︎
  3. Bolsheviks and British Jews, Sharman Kadish, p60 ↩︎
  4. Russians, Jews and the Pogroms of 1881-2, John Doyle Klier, p 374 ↩︎
  5. Disraeli as Prime Minister (1874-1880) had committed Britain to supporting the Ottoman Empire as an obstacle against a potential Russian challenge to British control of India and the Suez Canal (he had also arranged the British state’s purchase of a controlling stake in the canal in 1875 with a loan from Lionel de Rothschild). The trigger for the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-8 was a Turkish slaughter of Bulgarians. Disraeli publicly mocked and dismissed the reports and his cabinet narrowly prevented him from waging war against Russia. The Times, evidently having no principled objection to crimes against civilians, sided with Disraeli and the Ottomans.
    Russia had fought the war for implicitly ‘pan-Slav’ reasons. Pan-Slavism among veterans of the war was cited as a motive for anti-Jewish rioting by the Jewish World correspondent mentioned below [Klier, p403]. Veterans were “a notable element in almost every pogrom.” [Klier, p51]. Klier also mentions that the Russian journal Kievlianin editorialised after the riots that “Jews should be barred from holding state contracts to provision the armed forces, a concern which harked back to military procurement scandals during the recent Russo-Turkish War.” The Levin Memorandum, produced by upper-class Jewry in Russia, blamed pan-Slavism and broader Russian nationalism for the riots and implied that the state should act against the nationalist movement. Pan-Slavism and distrust of Jewry appear to have been strongly coincident. ↩︎
  6. Russians, Jews and the Pogroms of 1881-2, John Doyle Klier, p398-9 ↩︎
  7. ibid., p401 ↩︎
  8. ibid., p296 ↩︎
  9. ibid., p365 ↩︎
  10. ibid., p371 ↩︎
  11. ibid., p373 ↩︎
  12. ibid., p404 ↩︎
  13. ibid., p405 ↩︎
  14. ibid., p407 ↩︎
  15. Myth and the Russian Pogroms, Andrew Joyce, ↩︎
  16. ibid., p409 ↩︎
  17. ibid., p47 ↩︎
  18. ibid., p66-7 ↩︎

Originally published on Horus’ Substack. Reprinted with permission.

Series NavigationThe Resplendent Cosmopolitanism of Edward VII >>

Post Author

Leave a comment

4.8 4 votes
Article Rating
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x