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Jews who did not want to fight

By Karen Lush

In 1914, Britain’s Jewish population was broadly divided between the established Anglo-Jewish component, and the much larger community of more recently-arrived Eastern European immigrants. Anglo-Jews were keen to prove their loyalty and patriotism, and it has been estimated that 90% of young Anglo-Jewish men of military age fought for Britain1. However, the immigrant community was much more ambivalent about the conflict. While some Jewish immigrants were proud to fight for their new country, most declined to enlist. This attracted public resentment and hostility against the Jewish community in general.

There were many reasons for not wanting to fight.   Questions of identity were paramount.  Many amongst the immigrant community saw themselves as neither British nor Russian, but simply as Jews, and felt that the war had little to do with them.  

Britain’s alliance with Russia was unpopular with the Eastern European Jews, who did not want to fight in association with the country that had persecuted them.   Forced Jewish conscription in Russia had left them with a deep-seated aversion to military service, and many had fled to England specifically to escape the draft.

Religious Jews were reluctant to volunteer because it was impossible to observe Jewish law in the army.  Others feared that they would encounter anti-Semitism there.  Those who did try to enlist were sometimes insulted and harassed by the recruitment officers, and some gave a false name and religion so as to avert prejudice. 

Many felt unable to abandon their family and business responsibilities.  Army pay was meagre, and the risks were high.  Equally, government war contracts for uniforms, boots and camp equipment offered exceptional commercial opportunities for the many Jewish tailors and cabinet-makers, which led to accusations of profiteering and job-snatching.  

Political factors were also relevant.  Many of the Jewish socialists and anarchists of the East End’s vibrant political scene viewed the conflict as a capitalist and imperialist war in which the workers had no stake.   There were also a small number of Jewish pacifists and conscientious objectors (see Jewish Conscientious Objectors History Window)

Only British subjects were eligible to join the army, which excluded the many unnaturalised immigrants.   It was estimated that there were about 25-30,000 Russian subjects of military age in Britain, most of them Jewish2.  After conscription began in 1916, Russian immigrants were invited to join as ‘friendly alien’ volunteers, but few did so.  Mounting public hostility against Jews led the government to declare that Russian men living in Britain would have to join the British army or return to Russia to fight there.   There was an immediate storm of protest from the immigrant community, who objected that they had come to Britain as refugees seeking asylum from Russian persecution.  Nevertheless, an agreement was concluded between Britain and the post-revolutionary Russian government in 1917 which required Russian men to submit to British conscription or register for repatriation. 

About 2,000 of the Jewish immigrants did return to Russia, some motivated by the desire to help build a new, socialist society.  They arrived however to find the country in total collapse, with no welcome prepared or roles available to them, and many were never heard from again³. Of the rest, about 8,000 would ultimately serve in the British army, mostly in the Jewish battalions in Palestine or the non-combatant labour battalions.  Thousands more claimed exemption at the Military Service tribunals, or went into hiding until the end of the war.

 

 

NOTES.

1Michael Adler (ed.), British Jewry Book of Honour (London: Caxton, 1922), p. 3; Todd Endelman, The Jews of Britain, 1656-2000 (Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 2002), p. 184.

2 Report of the Alien Recruitment Committee to the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Office, 26 July 1916, National Archives file HO/45/10818/31095.  The figure of 25-30,000 Russians appears in this report, and was quoted by Samuel in the House of Commons on 16 August 1916 (Parliamentary Debates, House of Commons, 16 August 1916, vol. 85, 1840).

³ For more on the fate of the Russian returnees or 'Conventionists', as they became known, see Harold Shukman, War or Revolution: 1917: Russian Jews and Conscription in Britain (London: Vallentine Mitchell, 2006).   

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

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