On Brick Lane: Are Jews the Model Immigrants?

Brick Lane is the heart of London’s East End, the immigrant quarter celebrated in the Victorian novels of Israel Zangwill (the man who first popularized the term “melting pot”), the 1950s film A Kid for Two Farthings, and Monica Ali’s 2003 bestseller. Whether it was the best use of the cash or not, it is unsurprising that Tower Hamlets, the borough where the Lane is located, should decide to create a culture trail for the area, using some of the funds from the developers of Bishops Square Spitalfields.

However, when the word got out earlier this year that the start of the trail would be marked by “hijab-shaped” steel gates and a “minaret-style” sculpture on the side of the Brick Lane Jamme Masjid mosque, formerly the Machzikei Hadas synagogue and before that a Huguenot (French Protestant) chapel, this sparked a bit of a furor. The opposition brought together an unlikely alliance, including artist and local resident Tracey Emin and the Jewish East End Celebration Society. The council has now abandoned the plan.

I don’t want to comment here on whether they were right to, or if the “hijab-style” gates are degrading and exclusionary, but instead on another aspect of the debate. Listening to the callers on BBC London’s phone-in radio show, hosted by Vanessa Feltz, one of Britain’s most Jewish of public figures, I was struck by the repeated invoking of the East End’s Jews as a model minority.

Several callers mentioned the period of Jewish immigration, claiming that the Jews did everything they could to integrate and fit in, in contrast to today’s immigrants. The same image had been used a couple of weeks earlier, in an intervention in the immigration debate. In support of MP Frank Field’s cross-party anti-immigrant lobby, Balanced Migration, former archbishop Lord George Carey claims that immigration to the UK has a cultural as well as a social cost, talking up migration’s threat “to the very ethos or DNA of our nation.” In a recent article, Professor Geoffrey Alderman–historian and commentator on Jewish affairs–adds his qualified support, but also raises a version of the image of Jews as a model immigrants, arguing that “We came here to integrate…

Jews, by virtue of history, might be suspicious of appeals to genetic purity and, as Alderman writes, benefited from earlier liberal immigration policies. However, on the whole, Jews did not come here to be British, and the Jewish experience should not be used as a standard by which later immigrants should be measured and found wanting.

First, there is the question of motivations for coming here. If Alderman’s grandparents came to these shores to become British, they are the exception rather than the rule. The vast majority came west for exactly the reasons migrants from across the world come here now: partly to escape a life not worth living, partly to find new economic opportunities. Undoubtedly, our parliamentary democracy and free press were part of Britain’s appeal to some, but it is unlikely that what Carey calls Britain’s “democratic institutions”–including, oddly, the monarchy and the Church of England–were much of a pull factor for many. They came here to avoid being Russian, perhaps, but not, in most cases, to be British.

And once they arrived, did they integrate? It depends what you mean by integrate. Certainly, they got on with life, found economic openings where they could operate (and in many cases flourish), and made both mundane and vital contributions in many areas of life. Jews served disproportionately in the armed forces during the First World War, for example.

But Jews did not simply pass unnoticed into the “host” country; they went about changing its DNA. What would the BBC or the British stage be like, for instance, without the Yiddish-inflected voices of many of its most important and most popular writers? Or–just as we are told the national dish today is chicken tikka masala–our traditional fish and chips would not exist if Britain had not adapted Sephardic Jewish fish-frying methods.

Jews could change the DNA in these sorts of ways because most Jewish immigrants refused to passively assimilate into existing British ways of life. Alderman’s (excellent) work as a historian provides innumerable examples of this. There were, for example, the Jewish radicals. Not just the terrorists who robbed banks and plotted to kill visiting foreign dignitaries–although tiny numbers of these did exist. I’m thinking of the masses of East End workers for whom, as Alderman puts it in one of his books, “praying in a synagogue and then sitting in the same room to discuss socialist principles and organize industrial stoppages” went together seamlessly. Or the Jewish housewives of the 1900s who, under the influence of the anarchist movement, provided gefilite fish for London’s Irish dockers out on strike. Or the large numbers of Russian Jews who refused to serve during the First World War in alliance with Tsarist Russia.

On the other hand, immigrant Jews resisted the integrationist form of Judaism promoted by their communal leaders. The synagogue on Brick Lane was in fact the first institution of what we would now call fundamentalist ultra-Orthodoxy in the UK, created as a rejection of official (“moderate” as we would now say) synagogues. The immigrant Jews were scolded by community leaders for their “ostentation” as a result. As Alderman has written elsewhere, for these immigrants, cultural difference (not being British) was “a source of pride rather than of embarrassment.” They sought to participate in the life of the nation in a way “that would enable them to preserve their distinctiveness rather than to smother it.” If this is what integration is, then, yes, Jews came here to integrate. But it is important to be clear today that Jews did not come here to assimilate, and nor should we expect other migrants to do so.

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