Commentary Magazine


British Jewry's Family Newspaper:
A Century of the “Jewish Chronicle”

The London Jewish Chronicle—the respected mother (or great-aunt) of Anglo-Jewish journalism (including the American)—has belatedly (because of the war) celebrated its centennial with the publication of an appropriate volume: The Jewish Chronicle, 1841-1941: A Century of Newspaper History (187 pp., 15 shillings). In this article, MARK RAVEN attempts to analyze what makes the Chronicle what it is, and why it is that way.

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The Jewish Chronicle of London has published a centenary history of itself, celebrating its continuous publication since 1841. One senses in reading it not only a quiet satisfaction at the fact that, as it says, “no other Jewish periodical has celebrated its centenary,” but also a feeling that to achieve a dignified age in this way is somehow a very British kind of thing to have done, giving the paper a pleasant fellowship with the other British periodicals that have, in the cricket phrase, “scored a century.” Punch, for example, is an exact twin. The London News-Chronicle, five years younger, makes up for it through the fact that the first editor of its constituent Daily News was Charles Dickens. The Economist is but two years younger than the Jewish Chronicle, but had some mighty names to conjure with in its centenary volume, not least that of Walter Bagehot. A number of provincial papers have also passed the hundred-years mark. The Manchester Guardian, noblest of them all, is one hundred and twenty-nine years old as a continuous publication, though only ninety years old as a daily. It preferred to tell its history, when the time came, as the life of its great editor, C. P. Scott, who was in charge of the paper for the amazing period of fifty-eight years. All the big papers are, of course, junior to the Times, which appropriately took three solemn volumes to celebrate its 150th birthday in 1935. And the Times itself is a baby to the Spectator, founded in 1711 and still endeavoring to reflect in form and spirit the elegance of Addison and Steele.

To be sure, the Jewish Chronicle has moved in a narrower world. Yet, one would guess, the reason for its survival and stability lies not so much in its being Jewish as in the qualities which it shares with its long-lived British contemporaries. How can one explain the success that the British have in turning their papers into unchanging and undying national institutions?

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An obvious explanation would lean on the fact that Britain itself grew up quite steadily and soberly during the past one hundred and fifty years, and that the papers grew with it. The almost unbroken peace and expanding prosperity that Britain enjoyed, from 1815 to 1914 particularly, allowed all kinds of institutions, including the papers—and including the monarchy—to assume a mantle of unshakeable eternity. Even though many of these institutions went through phases of instability during the 19th century, those that survived seem to the men and women who grew up after 1914 to be part of an age in which everything began, almost, by being a hundred years old.

Yet this cannot be the whole explanation. The distinctive character of British newspapers, in particular, lies not so much in any tradition of Victorian optimism or steadily expanding wealth, but rather in the peculiar intimacy with which they speak to the nation as a whole. The odd fact is that all these papers are in effect “family” papers, as wide as the nation in their outlook, international in their news coverage, yet parochial and intimate in tone. In all of them, despite the

differences of party and class which they express, there is an accepted feeling that the nation itself is a closely knit, almost a family, association, and that the affairs of the community—whether in Parliament or in industry or in sport—are of direct interest to all sections of that community. It is assumed that “everybody knows everybody” and that the country is old enough to recognize that its citizens have many evocative memories and family jokes in common.

One can see the practical expression of this sense of community in the fact that the chief newspapers of Britain are all nationwide in their service, available on every breakfast table in the country at the same moment. There are, of course, many purely local newspapers too, both daily and weekly; but the dominant newspaper influences in forming public opinion are the national papers, pitched, of course, at different levels, yet, when taken together, forming a network of homogeneity over the country. And if the voice of the BBC is added—the wise old uncle talking to rich and poor alike—the picture of intimate familiarity is complete.

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Only against this national “family” background can one correctly evaluate the character and influence of the Jewish Chronicle and the significance of its centenary. The Jewish community in Britain is a microcosm of the larger community. As ordinary citizens the Jews—even second-generation immigrants—are so deeply committed to their British background that they often seem to their fellow Jews in other countries to be too unapproachably British for words. Yet in running their Jewish affairs within Britain they have a parallel sense of identification with the whole of Jewry—a feeling of mutual responsibility—which is equally astonishing.

It is through the combination of these two complementary attitudes that the Jewish Chronicle, a nationwide newspaper for all the Jews of Britain, has survived its early vicissitudes and is now running nine years into its second century. If it is remarkable that the United States, the heartland of business and economics, should have no national periodical remotely resembling the Economist, it is no less remarkable that the United States, with its five million Jews, should have no newspaper resembling, in its national character, the Jewish Chronicle.

Like the Economist, the Jewish Chronicle combines a minute concentration on the affairs of the community as a whole with first-rate correspondence from abroad. In both cases, the foreign news service has made the papers of unique value in their respective fields throughout the world. The front page of the current Jewish Chronicle is almost always devoted exclusively to news stories from abroad. These, and special articles within the paper on Jewish subjects in the broadest sense, bring together information that is found collected nowhere else in English, perhaps not in any language. Interspersed with this is a mass of advertising, personal and commercial, a detailed coverage of the internal affairs of every synagogue and Jewish community in the country, and a series of high-minded editorials, echoing—or striving to echo—in their comment on Jewish affairs, the dignified tone of the Times itself.

Since everything remotely connected with Jewish life or individual Jews in Britain is mentioned in some way in the Chronicle, its most obvious function, in the less serious sense, is to serve as a sounding board for the “family gossip” of British Jewry. Yet this does not imply, as might be expected, that the Jews of Britain are “narrower” in their outlook or more restricted in their activities than the Jews of other countries. The contrary is more probably the truth. The Chronicle merely intensifies that aspect of their life which they share with their fellow Jews. And since the sense of interdependence is greatly developed in all things within Britain, the character of the Chronicle both derives from and itself enriches the community sense of British Jewry.

Not that all has been sweetness and light for one hundred and nine years. On the contrary, the pages of this centenary volume reflect a series of constant battles—the Jews’ own fight with their neighbors for equality, the struggles among different groups of Jews, the constant searchings of heart of the individual Jew in trying to solve the problems that refuse to be solved. If there is any satisfaction, it lies in the drama of battle itself, and in an unconquerable optimism that lends purpose to the fight.

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Looking back over a hundred years, the big political issues always stand out boldly. With the editorials ringing in our ears, it seems as though the problems of the world were always going to be solved when a specific political battle was won. Never was this clearer than in the long battle which took place in the middle of the 19th century on the right of a British Jew to sit in Parliament. It was in the Jewish Chronicle of January 22, 1847, as recorded in this volume, that the rumor was first mentioned that “at the forthcoming General Election, three Jews intend to offer themselves for election.” In fact, the number of Jewish candidates was five. Only one, Baron Lionel de Rothschild, was returned at the head of the poll, and then began the struggle to make it legally possible for him to take his seat (representing the City of London) despite his refusal to take oath, as required, “on the true faith of a Christian.” For more than ten years the struggle raged, with the Jewish Chronicle putting the case for full equality of citizenship in one vigorous article after another. The triumph enjoyed by the whole community when, in 1858, Parliament finally amended the oath and permitted Lionel de Rothschild to take his seat, seemed like the dawn of a new era.

But these new eras have dawned and faded and dawned again many times in the course of a hundred years. Against the growing emancipation and influence of the Jewish community within Britain, the Chronicle viewed with horror and fought with vehemence the earlier pogroms in Russia and other countries, lauded freedom when it seemed to be within reach after World War I, and then had to marshal all its strength and influence against the monstrosities of postwar Poland and the barbarism of Nazi Germany. Cutting across this familiar fight for political rights lay the unique phenomenon of Zionism. In the early days, when Herzl was striving to convert leaders of British opinion to his program, Zionism was not acceptable as a philosophy to the Jewish Chronicle. Herzl’s views, and the developments at Zionist Congresses, were reported in full, but the editor was careful to point out that “we still regard Zionism as ill-considered, retrogressive, impracticable, even dangerous.” Later, the Chronicle was purchased by a different group and became a powerful influence for spreading the belief in Zionism. But the travail—as well as the triumph—of Zionism left its mark on the internal community. The unity on broad questions of policy that had lasted for many years split on the question of the degree of commitment to the Zionist faith. Only now, with some of the basic problems eased, is there felt, throughout the whole community, a strong desire to “heal the rift.”

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But whereas the emphasis in a Jewish newspaper today seems, by an irony of history, to be given over to the primitive problem of Jewish survival, the Victorian editor—no less doughty in the struggle for Jewish rights—could at the same time devote a great deal of space to the inner problems of life, the search for a personal faith, the defense of the faith against doubt and attack. The Chronicle still prints a weekly sermon and numerous articles on religious questions, but gone is the amplitude of Victorian days when purely religious or religio-historical questions were explored week by week with a detail and concentration that seems to have almost no parallel of any kind in modern life. A sermon by the Chief Rabbi was announced in advance as a forthcoming attraction, and then, when it had been delivered, was printed in full and discussed editorially. The Jewish scholars of the day, ploughing up new fields that have since yielded ample harvests, contributed translations of medieval poetry and philosophy. More popular writers provided serialized accounts of Jewish history, and even novels on Jewish themes in numerous instalments. In later years, writers like Israel Abrahams and Solomon Schechter were able in the pages of the Chronicle to combine deep erudition and a fascinating simplicity and charm.

To the Victorians, religious controversy was the breath of life, and it was to the taste of his readers that Dr. Abraham Benisch, editor of the Chronicle throughout its formative period from 1855 to 1869 and again from 1875 to 1878, conducted vigorous arguments not only with Jewish but also with Christian scholars, collecting and republishing them separately under such titles as: The Principal Charges of Dr. McCaul’s Old Paths Against Judaism as stated by Mr. Newdegate in the House of Commons considered and answered (1858), or Bishop Colenso’s Objections to the Historical Character of the Pentateuch and the Book of Joshua . . . critically Examined (1863).

Yet even if the somewhat archaic character of these controversies may have passed away from the Chronicle, it has remained throughout the years a sounding board for the eternal questions that come up for every Jew, and that seem perhaps impossible ever to solve. The first Reform synagogue was founded in England in 1840, a year before the Chronicle made its debut, and the problem of “Orthodoxy versus Reform Judaism” has been debated constantly in the pages of the Chronicle for all this period in the same terms and with the same fundamental irreconcilability. Even more deeply, the problem of complete assimilation has been a constant question mark. Against the “liberal” background of the 19th century, assimilation seemed to many a constructive solution to an “out-of-date” dilemma; against the persistent recurrence of persecution it seemed at least a safety device. Combating all these tendencies, the Chronicle put forward always a positive attitude to Judaism itself; yet assimilation went on, finding new forms and new excuses.

The latest example of a sharp controversy on this subject took place as recently as early in 1950, around an interview that Arthur Koestler gave to a representative of the Chronicle, in which he advanced once again his view that all Jews in the Diaspora who did not emigrate to Israel and become Israeli citizens should deliberately assimilate, as he himself is now doing, fitting in, in every way, to their non-Jewish environment—including teaching their children the “dominant” religion in their country—and severing every link with their now “meaningless” Jewish past. A flood of outraged letters in the issues which followed this interview gave adequate expression to the feeling in Britain that being Jewish has some very positive meaning both in relation to a set of religious beliefs and to every Jew’s personal “folk history.”

The oddest thing to the historian is that Koestler should think that the issue had suddenly arisen because of the creation of the State of Israel. The same problem has been discussed in what amounts to the same terms for generations, if only because it has been a constant phenomenon in a small sector of Jewish life. It is more than likely that nothing in all the letters which appeared after the Koestler interview added anything fundamental to a series of thirty-three articles which Benisch wrote as editor in the 70′s, and republished in 1878 under the title: Why I Should Remain a Jew.

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But if serious discussion and self-examination have been the staple diet of the Chronicle for one hundred and nine years, one can also turn to this centenary volume for antiquarian interest and for the light entertainment that small wrangles always provide—in retrospect. On the antiquarian side, the advertisements alone, especially in early Victorian days, have a flavor of their own. It is advertised that a portrait of the newly elected Chief Rabbi, engraved on stone, has been published; that Miss Isaacs, a pupil of Monsieur E. Coulon, respectfully thanks her friends and the public generally for their patronage, and informs them that her Academy for Dancing and Deportment will shortly reopen; that there is a separate smoking room at Mr. Levin’s Boarding and Lodging House in Bury Street, St. Mary Axe, where an Ordinary is served every day at one and two o’clock; that Mr. Caleb C. Portman requires immediately a money partner, Israelite or Christian, of true Scripture principles, who could advance from £1,000 to £5,000 to purchase land and build an edifice in Birmingham to be called the Millenium Sanctuary. One can follow the prodigious history of Sir Moses Montefiore, fearless defender of Jews in every country of the world, and sympathize perhaps with his tireless scholar-companion Dr. Loewe, who was, in his other capacity, “Oriental Interpreter to the Duke of Sussex.” And however strong the tendency has been in Britain, as elsewhere, for Jews to wander from the fold, one can still trace in reports of meetings and movements the same family names of Anglo-Jewish leaders, who continue to feel, though perhaps they could not define, their identification with the community.

That this feeling of identification has survived the unending communal fights of a hundred years is perhaps the clearest evidence that the community is, after all, a family. The struggle for control of the Chronicle itself has been repeated in a number of generations, though not today with the same charming frankness displayed in the early Victorian days, when, after a quarrel between the publisher and his “erudite but erratic” editor, Marcus Heymann Bresslau, a notice could be published, in the issue of July 28, 1848, stating: “It is most particularly requested that NO MONEY be paid to Mr. M. H. Bresslau on account of THE JEWISH CHRONICLE, he having long ceased to be in the employment of the Proprietor.” Perhaps it is healthy to bring quarrels into the open. At any rate, the issue of September 27 in the same year carried a happier announcement, informing the subscribers that Mr. M. H. Bresslau would resume the Editorship with the next number, “the misunderstanding between that Gentleman and the Proprietor having been cleared up to the entire satisfaction of both parties.”

The squabbles of those early days seem very parochial, yet no more so than reports in current issues when seen from a distance of three thousand miles. Opening the paper at random, one reads in the issue of April 21, 1950, of “Another Turbulent Meeting” at the Federation of Synagogues, with the President resigning “as the climax of an extremely heated session marked by continual uproar and punctuated by ineffectual and at times scarcely audible appeals for order.” The trouble seems to have arisen over a resolution proposed by a member of the Council calling for the resignation of the Treasurer, which the President (who was in the chair) maintained was not in order. His ruling being challenged, a vote of confidence had to be taken, but, runs the report, “for well over an hour, despite attempts to preserve some semblance of order, there was almost continuous disorder and pandemonium. Even after the vote had been taken—as far as it could be ascertained there appeared to be 67 against the President and 46 for him—delegates protested that they had not been clearly instructed on the voting issue. At this stage, the Chairman said: ‘I have come to the decision that my health is dearer to me than any organization. In consequence of this, you will accept my resignation.’ He stated that as a result of the previous Friday’s meeting, he had been advised by his doctor to consult a specialist, and had had to have three injections. He would have to take a health cure at the end of May, and had been told that his health would worsen with the years.” From across the Atlantic, one feels impelled to send this sorely tried servant of the public the sincerest wishes for recovery.

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This, then, is the Jewish. Chronicle of London—as British as Yorkshire pudding and as Jewish as gefïlte fish. Does anything in its long history and beneficent influence suggest any ready-made formula for the Jewish communities of other countries?

Perhaps the only effective reply is to quote the old Jewish quip on how to live long: “Drink borsht for a hundred years.” For here we must refer again to the historical background, the social and political stability of Britain during a long period, which enabled such institutions as the Chronicle to take root and flourish. There also seems to be some special quality arising out of life within a small community which may not be easily exportable. A small nation may be physically weak in a trial of strength, and may lack the economic resources on which unlimited expansion and experiment depend. Yet it can provide its citizens with a feeling of identification which has its own satisfactions and is, to some extent, a special formula for strength.

Not that stability and a national sense of neighborliness are qualities that are complete goods in themselves. Stability can be rigidity, which is a dangerous state of health. And as for neighborliness, Alfred Zimmern—of the Greek Commonwealth—says somewhere: “There is no tyranny like the tyranny of near neighbours. The smaller the group, the tighter its stranglehold over your life and activities.”

Perhaps Britain suffers from these drawbacks, and within Britain, perhaps this applies also to the Jewish community. In compensation, they at least enjoy also the pleasanter side of the medal. A citizen of Britain has a great feeling of being at home wherever he is in the country—and at home with the past as well as the present. He has a feeling also that, despite the sharp quarrels of party and class, there is at work within the country a powerful sense of the public interest, linked directly to the fact that the individual is identified with the whole. Something of this spirit has certainly been carried down into the Jewish community within Britain, and, in a way difficult to define, this is perhaps the long-life formula of the Jewish Chronicle.

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