Rich Jew, Poor Jew; the conspiracy theory in practice

Arguments often used in favour of control were that Jewish workers were taking away English people's jobs, undercutting wages, weakening unionisation and taking away housing from the English. An obvious question that arises is the connection between an anti—semitic movement which was directed against working class Jews, and the anti-semitic notion of Jewish capitalist domination. Of course, there could be no rational connection, but given assumptions about the world Jewish conspiracy, then links could be made on the most irrational and transcendental of levels.

One way of dealing with this was to try and make some distinction between "rich Jews" and "poor Jews". It is at this point some of the socialists' apparent opposition to control becomes quite ambiguous, as opposition was also couched in anti-semitic imagery. For instance, in 1904 the I.L.P. actually issued a pamphlet against control—The Problem of Alien Immigration. On its first page it mounted an attack on:

"The rich Jew who has done his best to besmirch the fair name of England and to corrupt the sweetness of our national life and character"

and to compare this to the "poor Jew" who should be allowed in.

More frequently, the socialist groups tried to discover actual links between "rich Jews" and "poor Jews", in order to attack the latter as being in some way a pawn of the former. For instance, Beatrice Potter, one of the founders of the Fabians, constantly argued in her investigation of East End life that the only aim of a Jewish worker was to become a capitalist. In one essay she wrote that:

"The love of profit distinct from other forms of money earning" is "the strongest impelling motive of the Jewish race" (Nineteenth Century, vol XXIV).

This is not so much a picture of the poor Jew as pawn, but rather of the poor Jew as embryonic capitalist, clone and biological imperialist. The Fabians, as an organisation, never opposed control—they merely abstained and let it happen. Moreover, Beatrice Potter deliberately lied about Jews in the East End by concealing all reference to the powerful Jewish labour movement developing there. Indeed, in the essay quoted above, she claims that Jews, as embryonic capitalists:

"Have neither the desire nor the capacity for labour combination".

Potter combined very well the prejudices of the attack on rich Jews and on poor Jews.

Ben Tillett had another angle. He argued that it was ultimately the British government which was a pawn in the hands of Jewish capitalists and was therefore reluctant to enact controls. He asserted:

"Our leading statesmen do not care to offend the great banking houses or money kings"

and went on to say:

"For heaven's sake, give us back our own countrymen and take from us your motley multitude" (London Evening News, 19.6.1891).

So it seems, Tillett perceived Jewish financiers—"money kings"—as somehow engineering and manipulating the immigration of the Jewish masses—"your motley multitude". Tillett was quite willing to speak on the same platform as the most infamous Jew baiters, none of whom cared whether Jews were rich or poor. He spoke on the same platform as Arnold White at a meeting of an early control organisation—The Association for Preventing the Immigration of Destitute Aliens (London Evening News and Post, 25.7.1891). At this meeting he was supported by J.H. Wilson of the Sailor's Union, J. Tanter of the Progressive Union of Cabinetmakers, J. Cross of the St. Helens Colliery Enginemen's Society and "many other delegates from trade unions in London and the country". In 1900, at the T.U.C. Conference, a new dimension was introduced when John Ward, leader of the Navvies' Union argued that:

"Practically £100,000 of the taxpayer's money has been spent in trying to secure the gold fields of South Africa for cosmopolitan Jews, most of whom had no patriotism and no country" (T.U.C. Annual Report, 1900).

In other words, all Jews, rich or poor, were cosmopolitan with gold on their mind-particularly South African gold.

It is relevant to note another way the conspiracy theory operated. Whilst "socialists" were attacking Jews as either imperialist financiers or lumpen scabs, the bourgeoisie were attacking them as militant trade unionists and anarchists. The London Evening News proclaimed that:

"The advance of socialistic and anarchical opinion in London is commensurate with the increased volume of foreign immigration" (21.5.1891).

Given the conspiracy theory, the bourgeoisie had no need even for themselves to be consistent about this. So S.H. Jeyes, another ardent restrictionist, argued in his essay Foreign Pauper Immigration In A. White (Ed.) The Destitute Alien of Great Britain that Jews deliberately did not organise in unions, in order to suppress the general level of wages, and so incite the English to revolution. As he put it:

"To strengthen the spirit of discontent and disorder on which the agitators live and batten and which in time would pollute England with the visionary violence of continental socialism".

Finally, in this context of the conspiracy theory in action, it is worth noting that the British Brothers League attracted members who regarded themselves as socialists. At least one member of the Independent Labour Party left that organisation to join the Brothers (The Eastern Post 19.10.1901). Someone signing themselves "Mile End Socialist" wrote to the Jewish Chronicle (21.11.1902) stating that:

"Jew versus Gentile" will be my battle cry at every election as long as life is spared ... the Jew has made himself obnoxious through the incarnate instinct of his race to every nation where he has now emigrated. This is an historical fact and beyond controversy".

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© 1984 Steve Cohen, edited and produced by Libby Lawson and Erica Bunnan.
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