OPINION: Philosemitism – A quiet British tradition

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OPINION: Philosemitism – A quiet British tradition

Against the backdrop of antisemitism, Ian Oakley reflects the long-ned support for Jewish traditions and culture

Ian Oakley
Disraeli, Tatcher, Blair and Churchill were Phil-semites
Disraeli, Tatcher, Blair and Churchill were Phil-semites

A regular reader of the Jewish News cannot have helped but notice the increase in the use of the term antisemitism in recent years. This worrying fact should be balanced by a term that is almost never used -online, in the press and in the wider media- that is Philo-Semitism.  Philo-Semitism is defined as the respect for and appreciation of Jewish people, traditions and culture, especially on the part of non-Jewish people.

Modern Philo-Semitism began with admiration for the Jewish born Benjamin Disraeli, the flamboyant nineteenth Century Prime Minister. When he first took to the hustings he would have slabs of pork thrown at due to his Jewish heritage. It is something current MPs should remember next time someone shouts abuse at them from a crowd and they run off to the media to complain. Of course the irony is that if Disraeli’s father had not fallen out with the Bevis Marks synagogue and had him baptised into the Church of England he could not have become an MP when he did and would not have been Prime Minister.

In the twentieth century the two most important Conservative Prime Ministers, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher were firm Philo-Semites. When Churchill was elected an MP for Manchester North West in 1906 he encountered a seat with a large Jewish community and began his long relationship with the Jewish community.  In the case of Mrs Thatcher, working with the Jewish businesspeople and charities of her Finchley constituency, recognised similarities to her own childhood as a shopkeeper’s daughter in Grantham.

This is not a party-political issue; all major parties have had Philo-Semitic leaders and traditions. The first practising Jew to sit in Parliament, Lionel De Rothschild, sat as a Liberal MP.  At the beginning of the Twentieth Century the great Liberal Unionist politician Joseph Chamberlain was Colonial Secretary and met with Theodore Herzl to discuss whether the lands of modern-day Uganda could be used for a Jewish homeland. The talks came to nothing, but the very fact the meeting took place, showed Chamberlain’s respect for Jewish interests. In the Labour Party, Harold Wilson in the 1960s and Tony Blair in 1990s are the two most prominent Labour MPs with strong links to the Jewish community and support for Israel.  The 1970s was probably the heyday of young UK socialists going to a Kibbutz in Israel for a summer.

Ian Oakley

I think the nature of Philo-Semitism is that for all those people who buy into the antisemitic tropes about Jews, there are others who admire Jewish businessmen and women, Jewish writers and scientists. Philo-Semites admire a community that believes in education, self-help and has a long charitable tradition. A community that has given the world Spinoza, Einstein and Saul Bellow, is one that has benefited all of mankind and not just itself.

So next time you read a report of an antisemitic incident or comment, please take heart and remember there is another tradition in Britain. Philo-Semites do not tend to go on demonstrations or rant on Question Time, but they do exist, as the Labour Party found out in the 2019 election.

  • Ian Oakley studied history at Durham University. He has been fascinated by the Jewish experience in Britain since studying the career of Benjamin Disraeli at school. He visited Israel in 2007 and in 2013 he visited the Ninth Fort in Kaunas, Lithuania, which was used as a Nazi death camp.

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