Orwell on British Jews (1943)

Orwell on British Jews

Although Jews in England have always been socially looked down on and debarred from a few professions (I doubt whether a Jew would be accepted as an officer in the Navy, for instance), antisemitism is primarily a working- class thing, and strongest among Irish labourers. I have had some glimpses of working-class antisemitism through being three years in the Home Guard— which gives a good cross-section of society—in a district where there are a lot of Jews. My experience is that middleclass people will laugh at Jews and discriminate against them to some extent, but only among working people do you find the full-blown belief in the Jews as a cunning and sinister race who live by exploiting the Gentiles. After all that has happened in the last ten years it is a fearful thing to hear a workingman saying ‘Well, I reckon ’Itler done a good job when ’e turned ’em all out’, but I have heard just that, and more than once. These people never seem to be aware that Hitler has done anything to the Jews except ‘turned ’em all out’; the pogroms, the deportations etc. have simply escaped their notice. It is questionable, however, whether the Jew is objected to as a Jew or simply as a foreigner. No religious consideration enters. The English Jew, who is often strictly orthodox but entirely anglicised in his habits, is less disliked than the European refugee who has probably not been near a synagogue for thirty years. Some people actually object to the Jews on the ground that Jews are Germans!

But in somewhat different forms antisemitism is now spreading among the middle class as well. The usual formula is ‘of course I don’t want you to think I’m antisemitic, but—’—and here follows a catalogue of Jewish misdeeds. Jews are accused of evading military service, infringing the food laws, pushing their way to the front of queues, etc., etc. More thoughtful people point out that the Jewish refugees use this country as a temporary asylum but show no loyalty towards it. Objectively this is true, and the tactlessness of some of the refugees is almost incredible. (For example, a remark by a German Jewess overheard during the Battle of France: ‘These English police are not nearly so smart as our SS Men’.) But arguments of this kind are obviously rationalisations of prejudice. People dislike the Jews so much that they do not want to remember their sufferings, and when you mention the horrors that are happening in Germany or Poland, the answer is always ‘Oh yes, of course that’s dreadful, but—’—and out comes the familiar list of grievances. Not all of the intelligentsia are immune from this kind of thing. Here the get-out is usually that the refugees are all ‘petty bourgeois’; and so the abuse of Jews can proceed under a respectable disguise. Pacifists an’ others who are anti-war sometimes find themselves forced into antisemitism.

One should not exaggerate the danger of this kind of thing. To begin w.: there is probably less antisemitism in England now than there was th years ago. In the minor novels of that date you find it taken for granted oftener than you would nowadays that a Jew is an inferior or a figure of fufe% The Jew joke’ has disappeared from the stage, the radio and the comic papers since 1934. Secondly, there is a great awareness of the prevalence of antisemitism and a conscious effort to struggle against it. But the thing remains, and perhaps it is one of the inevitable neuroses of war. I am not particularly impressed by the fact that it does not take violent forms. It is true that no one wants to have pogroms and throw elderly Jewish professors into cesspools, but then there is very little crime or violence in England anyway. The milder form of antisemitism prevailing here can be just as cruel in an indirect way, because it causes people to avert their eyes from the whole refugee problem and remain uninterested in the fate of the surviving Jews of Europe. Because two days ago a fat Jewess grabbed your place on the bus, you switch off the wireless when the announcer begins talking about the ghettoes of Warsaw; that is how people’s minds work nowadays.

That is all the political news I have. Life goes on much as before. I don’t notice that our food is any different, but the food situation is generally considered to be worse. The war hits one a succession of blows in unexpected places. For a long time razor blades were unobtainable, now it is boot polish. Books are being printed on the most villainous paper and in tiny print, very trying to the eyes. A few people are wearing wooden-soled shoes. There is an alarming amount of drunkenness in London. The American soldiers seem to be getting on better terms with the locals, perhaps having become more resigned to the climate etc. Air raids continue, but on a pitiful scale. I notice that many people feel sympathy for the Germans now that it is they who are being bombed—a change from 1940, when people saw their houses tumbling about them and wanted to see Berlin scraped off the map.

George Orwell, London Letter, May 1943.  Found in The Complete Works of George Orwell, Volume XV.  Two Wasted Years, pages 110-111.

Problems Magazine, Issue 42, 2nd Quarter 2020. July 1920.

See https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/problems-magazine-past-issues/ for other issues.