In 1914, just before the outbreak of the First World War, the Jewish population of Manchester was nearly 30,000. The community lived mostly around the Cheetham Hill area of the city, and many were recent immigrants from Eastern Europe. The majority did not have citizenship in the UK, as it was not necessary for them to find work or housing in the early twentieth century. When war broke out therefore, there was a question of what these non-naturalised members of the community were going to do.
From the outset, posters were put up to encourage Jews to enlist, and for those born in the UK to foreign parents to gain citizenship in order to do so. A banner was mounted outside the Jewish Chronicle’s headquarters in London with the phrase, ‘England has been all she could be to Jews, Jews will be all they can be to England’, and the Jewish World printed posters with lines such as ‘there must be no Jewish slackers!’
Image of Jewish Chronicle banner – copyright Jewish Museum
Many thousands of British Jews did volunteer, but some were reluctant, as many had come to the UK to avoid being conscripted into the Russian army. When conscription was introduced in Britain in 1916, this created even more confusion. Further to this, the Military Service Act of July 1917 meant Jewish immigrants being forced to choose between gaining citizenship and joining the British army, or being sent back to fight as part of the Russian army.
The Foreign Jews Protection Committee was established in the East End of London shortly after conscription was introduced in July 1916. Its primary aim was to resist, at this time, veiled government threats to deport ‘friendly aliens’ who did not volunteer for the British army back to Tsarist Russia. The FJPC organised large demonstrations in the East End, and published many appeals in the local press.
The Manchester branch of the FJPC was established in August 1917, following a conference called by the Garment Makers Union, and spurred on by the Military Service Act, which gave Russian males 21 days to report to a police station after the 19th July or risk deportation. The branch was based at 59 Bridge Street, Cheetham, an area with a large Jewish population in the early 20th century, with three prominent members of the Manchester Jewish community heading the committee: Mr H. Gogol as President, Leon Locker as Secretary and Samuel Cohen as Treasurer.
Urgent appeals letter
Urgent appeals such as the letter above were sent out to local synagogues and other prominent members of the community, with the aim of raising funds for the families of those that had been sent back to Russia and had no or very little income.
The committee also helped Jewish men to apply for exemption from conscription. Harry Morris was born in Kovno, now Lithuania, in 1876, and came to England after being summoned for recruitment to the Russian army in 1897. He spent the final years of the First World War trying to prove he was over 40 by the time conscription came in, which was particularly difficult as his Russian passport had been lost when the Liverpool Russian Consulate had closed down. With the help of Leon Locker, Harry was eventually able to prove his age, but he remained classed as an ‘alien’ for almost all of his life, only gaining citizenship in 1961.
In comparison, Harry’s younger brother Sam, whom Harry brought over to England from Riga, was able to become naturalised and join the British army, fighting with the Royal Garrison Artillery as a Bombardier during the First World War.
Abraham Levine was born in 1870 in Poland, arriving in Britain in 1899. In the First World War he fought with the Lancashire Fusiliers, Royal Welsh Fusiliers and the Royal Flying Corps, and yet remained classed as ‘Russian’ on his registration certificate in 1919. His wife was classed as an ‘enemy alien’ at the outbreak of war despite being born in Manchester.
These case studies, and the many more Jewish men and women who were helped by Locker and the Foreign Jews Protection Committee, highlight the struggles faced by immigrants arriving in Britain at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, especially during wartime. When asked to choose where their loyalties lay, the vast majority of the Jewish community saw themselves as British, and where possible wanted to do what they could to support their chosen country, just as the wider community did in 1914.
To find out more about the Jewish contribution to the war effort, visit the British Jews in the First World War site, a digital archive of the men and women who served during the First World War, and the unique experience of this community in the 1910s.