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Russia or Britain – take your pick!

Immigrant Jews who had arrived in the UK before 1914 did not need to become naturalised in order to live and work in the UK and some never did. Russian Jews in particular often never applied for UK citizenship for themselves or their children. Distrustful of authority and with no need for citizenship to access any welfare provisions (there was no welfare state) they simply didn’t bother. They resided largely in the East End of London where they could live without engaging outside of their known community. Anglo-Jewry did encourage the Russian Jews to get citizenship, just as they encouraged them to learn English, to send their children to school and to start to assimilate themselves into British society. Some of the immigrant communities were keen to take up the chance to become British and to ‘fit in’

Once the war started there was a question of what the Russian Jews living in the UK should do. Recruitment posters were put up encouraging Jews to enlist and the posters were in Yiddish to encourage the recent immigrants as well. As foreign nationals they were unable to join the British forces so those who had been born in the UK to foreign parents were encouraged to acquire citizenship to do so. That still left the problem of those who were born elsewhere but were now resident in the UK. Having large numbers of men of military age not engaged with the war effort became a source of embarrassment for Anglo-Jewry and a number of conversations began about what should be done. 

Once conscription was introduced in 1916 the community became even more concerned that the Jewish community must be seen to be doing ‘its bit’. Posters in the Jewish Chronicle and the Jewish World newspapers as well as elsewhere declared that THERE MUST BE NO JEWISH SLACKERS’ encouraging everyone possible to join up. Discussions with Russia led to the passing on 8 June 1916 by the War Office of Army Council Instruction 1156 (ACI 1156) that confirmed that all friendly aliens would now be permitted join the British forces. 

Many of the Russian Jews were still disinclined to enlist. They did not want to fight on the side of Russia, a country that they had fled, some had political objections against the war as a whole, some voiced concerns that they would be subject to anti-Semitism or anti-foreigner prejudice, whereas, others simply felt that the war had nothing to do with them. Ze’ev Jabotinsky saw the situation as an opportunity to campaign for a special Jewish Legion to be raised to serve in the fighting in the Middle East. While he had some support including from the UK government others were concerned that this would only separate Jews rather than help them to assimilate. 

As an acceptance of the perceived prejudice that Russian Jews might feel in the UK Forces a new clause was added to the act that overruled a previous Army Act. The Army Act of 1908 restricted the ratio of Aliens to British Citizens within military units to no greater than 1 to 50. The new ACI 1156 had a paragraph that stated 

‘In the case of the Russian Jews they may be recruited on product of a certificate from the Jewish War Service Committee, New Court, St Swithins Lane, London EC and if they so desire may be posted in batches to serve together in the same unit’.

In July 1916 the Home Secretary Herbert Samuel announced that service in either the British or Russian army would become compulsory. Samuel was Jewish and sympathetic on one level to the concerns of the Russian Jews, however, he was an extremely loyal British subject and wanted to ensure that the Russian Jews served in the military and helped the war effort. The Russian Jews were, therefore, given an October deadline to self-enlist before there service was compulsory – and accompanying it was the threat of deportation. By 25 October 1916 of the estimated 20,000 + Russian Jews that were eligible for military service only 632 had come forward. 

Samuel had no choice but to enact the compulsory service law. Special tribunals were set up in London, Manchester and Liverpool to assess for those claiming exemption from service.  The Jewish community was split along different lines with many believing that the Russian Jews should simply be forced to serve. 

Lucien Wolf, a leader in Anglo –Jewry, editor of the Jewish World publication and an ardent assimilist stated in a letter to The Times on 24 July 1916 that: 

‘I am afraid I do not agree that Russian Jews of military age living in this country have any right to object to service in the British army on the grounds of Russian persecution of the Jews. Many non-Jewish British subjects hold the internal policy of the Russian Empire in as much detestation…but they do not on that account hesitate to serve in the British Army. Nor do I see why there should be so much clamour against deportation. There need be no deportation if the Jew does his obvious duty.’ 

This final push meant that 7,600 Jews applied to return to Russia, although only an estimated 3,500 appear to have been sent. Those that did return became known as the 'Conventionalists' as a result of the convention agreed with Russia. In July 1917 Jabotinsky got his way with the creation of the Jewish Legion in the 38th, 39th and 40th Battalions of the Royal Fusiliers (see the Jewish Legion History Window). These Jewish Legion was formed from the bulk of East End immigrant Jewry. 

Of those Jews that did return little is really known, many were certainly never heard of again. The Russian revolutions in 1917 made communication with Russians difficult and the Bolshevik withdrawal from the war meant that no more Russians living in the UK would be dispatched to join that army.  

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

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