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Jewish Conscientious Objectors

By Karen Lush

Conscientious objection, or the refusal to perform military service out of religious, moral or humanitarian conviction, became a major issue in wartime Britain.   Conscientious objectors were widely despised as cowards and were often imprisoned under harsh conditions.

English law at the time of the First World War understood conscientious objection to be a religious issue.  Pacifists seeking exemption at the military tribunals therefore required a testimonial from a religious minister in order to prove the sincerity of their beliefs.1  This became a difficult issue for Jews, as the Chief Rabbi ruled that there were no specifically Jewish grounds for conscientious objection.  But there were other rabbis who disagreed.    

The Anglo-Jewish leadership and press, always anxious to emphasise the community’s loyalty to Britain, were at pains to distance Judaism from conscientious objection and to echo the distaste expressed by society at large.  The (Jewish) Home Secretary, Herbert Samuel, proclaimed that 

‘Everything that is Jewish, even the fine Jewish ideal of peace…points the finger of scorn, derision and contempt at the Jewish C.O.’

It was stressed that Judaism was a religion of peace, not pacifism, and recognised the necessity of war when the country was under threat.  As the Jewish Chronicle explained, 

‘The Jews are a peaceful people, their ideals are ideals of peace, and their history is strewn with the stern lesson of the calamities that follow in the wake of war.  But the vast majority of them realise that to submit to the reign of Teutonic force would be to bring not peace but a sword…’3 

Although, in fact, there were many Jews who did want to avoid fighting (see Jews who did not want to fight History Window), very few were conscientious objectors per se.4   Those who were tended to be relatively assimilated, politically aware and religiously unobservant, and acted out of secular moral principles rather than Jewish belief.5   

Several Jewish pacifists had been members of the ‘Whitechapel Boys’, a group of young modernist artists and writers from London’s Jewish immigrant community.  They included John Rodker, a radical socialist and poet, who went on the run twice and was imprisoned at Wormwood Scrubs and Dartmoor for refusing to fight.  He later explained,

    ‘I knew about war, and how inconclusive it always had been and most of my childhood I had seen Boer War veterans begging in the streets, and all through my boyhood and adolescence I had been Socialist then Anarchist, and always anti-capitalist and so anti-militarist, and knew it would be, and was, a bloody mess…’6

Emmanuel Ribeiro, a Jewish Communist and father of (eventually) eight children, was an ‘absolutist’ who refused all co-operation with the war effort.   He went on hunger strike and was force-fed over 150 times, a process he described as ‘not only inhuman but barbarous torture of the worst kind’.7   At a court martial convened around his hospital bed, he was sentenced to two years’ hard labour in Wormwood Scrubs prison.   His wife Bella was left to look after their children alone and received constant abuse from neighbours. Ribeiro’s case was raised several times in Parliament before he was released on health grounds in June 1918.8   

Rev. John Harris, the rabbi of Liverpool’s wealthy and anglicised Princes Road synagogue, became a cause célèbre when he was summarily dismissed by his community for testifying at a military tribunal on behalf of a Jewish CO.  He argued that he had acted on general and not religious principles:

    ‘For my part I am an avowed pacifist.  I believe intensely in the paramount duty of returning good for evil, and in the final and certain victory of love and love alone over hatred and prejudice.’9 


Further information

Evelyn Wilcock, Pacifism and the Jews (Stroud: Hawthorn Press, 1994).  See Chapter 1, ‘Rev. John Harris: Issues in Anglo-Jewish Pacifism 1914-18’



 1Evelyn Wilcock, Pacifism and the Jews (Stroud: Hawthorn Press, 1994), p. 3

Jewish Chronicle, 28 January 1916

 3 Jewish Chronicle, 19 November 1915

Wilcock, p. 3.

 5 Mark Levene, ‘Going against the grain: two Jewish memoirs of war and anti-war, 1914-1918’, Jewish Culture and History, 2 (1999), pp. 66-95, pp. 82-83; Wilcock, p. 3.

 6 John Rodker, Memoirs of Other Fronts (Putnam, 1932), p. 111.


http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/world-news/world-war-conscientious-objectors-who-3553338;         http://www.myprimitivemethodists.org.uk/page/emanuel_nunes_ribeiro_1883-1995

 9 Jewish Chronicle, 12 May 1916.



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London Jews in the First World War - We Were There Too

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