Anti-Semitism at Oxford during WWII

Monday, 20 May, 2024 - 5:55 am


One of the oldest hatreds in the world is Anti-Semitism. This has taken on many forms, from ancient times until today, giving rise to countless books, including the three volume 'History fo Anti-Senmitism' by Leon Poliakov, and countless articles on its causes and ways to counter it. The most recent form in Anti-Semitism, according to the late Lord Sacks, is a campaign against Israel's right to exist and defend itself: many times anti-Zionism masking a deeper antisemitism. In this essay, we would like to look at the more classic form of Anti-Semitism that existed in England during the Second World War at Oxford with the rise of refugees escaping the Nazis in Europe and the bombing in London. 


Jewish life at Oxford during WWII


A case study is the city of Oxford, before and during the Second World War, in light of an increase in size of the Jewish community in the city. Anti-Semitism in Oxford took two forms: relating to campaign against Jewish academics seeking a university position, as in the case of Isaiah Berlin’s appointment to All Souls, Albert Einstein to Christ Church and Hans Krebs’ admission into a Common Room. The second form was a popular negative attitude towards Jewish refugees. The Jewish population of Oxford had risen noticeably during the Second World War, as a result of the evacuation of Jewish mothers and children, blind persons, hospital patients and others from London. Reflecting the growth, instead of approximately 30 families before the war, over 200 people attended synagogue on Yom Kippur in 1939.


In the same year, it was believed there were some 200 London children in Oxford and more in the surrounding districts. During this time, numerous organisations were founded and flourished, including Oxford University Jewish Society (OUJS); Oxford Zionist Society (formed in 1939); Oxford Women’s Zionist Society (November, 1940); Theodor Herzl society; Federation of Women Zionists (FWZ); Jewish National Fund (JNF); The Jufra Club, which served during the war as rallying point for German-Jewish women and girls, chaired for its first two years, until April, 1941, by Mrs. Ettinghausen; Oxford Jewish Youth Club (November 1940); and The Jewish Religious Union (January, 1941). In December, 1939, the local branch of FWZ merged with the Oxford Zionist Society.


A Jewish Voluntary Choir was formed in Oxford in December 1940, conducted by Mr S. Alman, the Musical Director of the Hampstead Synagogue. Other groups formed within the community, including a knitting party, organised by Mrs J.J. Marks in April, 1941, which met every Monday evening. In January 1940, Rev J. Weinberg formed a Young People’s Social Circle, which met every Sunday evening in the Vestry Room of the synagogue. Aware of the difficulties facing Jews in Europe, a Sefer Torah, rescued from Germany, was deposited at the Oxford synagogue in November 1939, was used for the first time during a special service to mark the anniversary of Kristallnacht.


Anti-Semitism in Oxford during WWII

This increase in the presence of Jews to Oxford led to an increase in Anti-Semitism. This occurred, most conspicuously, surrounding the circumstances related to obtaining kosher meat and its distribution. In the beginning of December, 1939, a committee was appointed by the community to examine the question of the supply of kosher meat. This was still an issue in November 1940, reflected in a notice in the Jewish Chronicle: Letter from ’Oxford Evacuee’ re kasher meat. Better than merely ’discussing’ the matter, could have invited a kasher butcher to open a shop. Orthodox Jews have to await parcels of meat from Birmingham and it is distressing to find Jewish women having to buy ‘trefa.’ In March 1941, the Oxford community was thought to number 5,000 and was assured of a supply of kosher meat. Thanks to Jewish Chronicle for the publicity, one of Oxford’s leading non-Jewish butchers, Mr R.A. Butterfield, had arranged for official consent for shochetim to slaughter at the Oxford City abattoir. Around a thousand registrations at Mr Butterfield’s establishment at the Central Market, a figure more or less maintained throughout the war, saw part of the market portioned off as a kosher meat shop with Jewish supervision. About 150 fowls were sold every week. By May, due to difficulty in obtaining live fowls, the figure had reduced by more than half. On 3 October 1941, it was reported that good relations with the Town Hall authorities was shown by the opening of the Market on Sunday, the eve of the New Year, for the first time in the history of the Market, so that Jews could have access to the butcher shop. The request was made by the local minister.


On 10 October 1941, it was reported by a letter from ‘Oxford Evacuee’ that there are queues for kosher meat but under control. On 17 October 1941, a letter from ‘Another Customer’ says that the ‘scenes at the kosher butchers are causing anti-Semitism. Obviously, it continued, it has been difficult for a community of 30 souls to be swollen suddenly to 2,000.’ On 24 October 1941, once again, a letter from Joseh Hirsch reported that as a member of the Oxford Jewish Congregation he wrote to the Committee on July 28 pointing out the unsatisfactory state of meat distribution. The letter was not acknowledged, however, nor a second letter to the wardens. He writes: ‘some people are buying trefa meat because of difficulty of buying kosher meat. He has been informed that some are buying trefa meat and koshering it.’On 31 October 1941, it was reported in a letter to the Jewish Chronicle regarding the growth of anti-Semitism in Oxford, referred to in sermon in synagogue during Kol Nidrei. It stated that scenes at the kosher butcher are a cause and reflected in advertisement columns of the local press. In Jews of Oxford, on this subject, it omits the subject of Anti-Semitism in this regard, saying rather: ‘There were public relation problems, gradually solved, in the large Jewish queues in the narrow alleys of the Covered Market, and the customers themselves complained that the shop was not kept in a clean state and that fowls were killed in the shop in the presence of women and children.’


Anti-Semitism in England during the war


In Jews of Oxford, it records there was a great deal of Anti-Semitism in England during the war. A few factors played a role in this: firstly, the press reported more in black market cases involving Jews than Jewish servicemen and deaths in service. These cases were reported also in the Oxford press. A further cause appears to have been the internment of enemy aliens in summer 1940, even though the Oxford Times was retrospectively hostile to many aspects of the mass internments. In August 1940, a lorry driver was charged with creating disaffection by telling soldiers: ‘You are mugs to fight for two bob a day, while enemy aliens are living in luxury in the Isle of Man.’


This spilled over into Oxford: In January, 1941, the Mass Observation Unit reported ‘there is a lot of Anti-Semitic feelings in Oxford, particularly towards the middle-class refugees, but not the working class.’ Hostility facing Jews in Oxford involved also classic Anti-Semitic motifs. In October, a prominent Zionist official claimed to have been lured into a field by a soldier and told: ‘You are a Jew and you and your like will be turned out of Oxford. Now hand over all the money you have.’ A factor was housing shortage. Working class people were losing their accommodation to better paying middle class refugees. The issue was the influx of refugees, mostly Jews, but others also, to Oxford, doubling between December, 1939 and December, 1940 to 2,000, of whom 275 males and 702 females were enemy aliens. This led to the problem of overcrowding and tension. As a response to Anti-Semitism, in July 1943, a conference on anti-Semitism was held at Oxford Union Society’s Hall on Saturday. Forty delegates represented trade unions and other organisations, though no Jewish organisations were invited. The Very Rev Dean of Christ Church presided. Speeches were made by Rev R.R. Martin, Rural Dean of Oxford, Mr Bellinger, Chairman of the Oxford Trades & Labour Council, and Mrs Corbett-Ashby, Vice-president of the Liberal Party. Anti-Semitism was predicted by the Mass Observation Unit reports during the war that admittance of too many Jews will trigger Anti Semitism, playing a role in limiting immigration.




There are two classic approaches to respond to Anti-Semitism: the first, make oneself less noticeable through assimilation. In Oxford, during the 1920s, this group could themselves the 'assmilationists,' as recorded in 'Jews of Oxford' by Prof. David M. Lewis. A second approach is to remain firm in one’s identity in the face of opposition and education. As then, a more constructive approach to counter Anti-Semitism in all its forms, is to remain firm and employ sound reason to argue that the path forward for civilazation is to finally remove this scourge and build a world of tolerance and peace for all people. 

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