The Complete Works of



George Orwell > AntiSemitism In Britian > Essay

AntiSemitism In Britian


There are about 400,000 known Jews in Britain, and in addition some
thousands or, at most, scores of thousands of Jewish refugees who have
entered the country from 1934 onwards. The Jewish population is almost
entirely concentrated in half a dozen big towns and is mostly employed
in the food, clothing and furniture trades. A few of the big monopolies,
such as the ICI, one or two leading newspapers and at least one big
chain of department stores are Jewish-owned or partly Jewish-owned, but
it would be very far from the truth to say that British business life is
dominated by Jews. The Jews seem, on the contrary, to have failed to
keep up with the modern tendency towards big amalgamations and to have
remained fixed in those trades which are necessarily carried out on a
small scale and by old-fashioned methods.

I start off with these background facts, which are already known to any
well-informed person, in order to emphasise that there is no real Jewish
"problem" in England. The Jews are not numerous or powerful enough, and
it is only in what are loosely called "intellectual circles" that they
have any noticeable influence. Yet it is generally admitted that
antisemitism is on the increase, that it has been greatly exacerbated by
the war, and that humane and enlightened people are not immune to it. It
does not take violent forms (English people are almost invariably gentle
and law-abiding), but it is ill-natured enough, and in favourable
circumstances it could have political results. Here are some samples of
antisemitic remarks that have been made to me during the past year or

Middle-aged office employee: "I generally come to work by bus. It takes
longer, but I don't care about using the Underground from Golders Green
nowadays. There's too many of the Chosen Race travelling on that line."

Tobacconist (woman): "No, I've got no matches for you. I should try the
lady down the street. SHE'S always got matches. One of the Chosen Race,
you see."

Young intellectual, Communist or near-Communist: "No, I do NOT like
Jews. I've never made any secret of that. I can't stick them. Mind you,
I'm not antisemitic, of course."

Middle-class woman: "Well, no one could call me antisemitic, but I do
think the way these Jews behave is too absolutely stinking. The way they
push their way to the head of queues, and so on. They're so abominably
selfish. I think they're responsible for a lot of what happens to them."

Milk roundsman: "A Jew don't do no work, not the same as what an
Englishman does. 'E's too clever. We work with this 'ere" (flexes his
biceps). "They work with that there" (taps his forehead).

Chartered accountant, intelligent, left-wing in an undirected way:
"These bloody Yids are all pro-German. They'd change sides tomorrow if
the Nazis got here. I see a lot of them in my business. They admire
Hitler at the bottom of their hearts. They'll always suck up to anyone
who kicks them."

Intelligent woman, on being offered a book dealing with antisemitism and
German atrocities: "Don't show it me, PLEASE don't show it to me. It'll
only make me hate the Jews more than ever."

I could fill pages with similar remarks, but these will do to go on
with. Two facts emerge from them. One--which is very important and which
I must return to in a moment--is that above a certain intellectual level
people are ashamed of being antisemitic and are careful to draw a
distinction between "antisemitism" and "disliking Jews". The other is
that antisemitism is an irrational thing. The Jews are accused of
specific offences (for instance, bad behaviour in food queues) which the
person speaking feels strongly about, but it is obvious that these
accusations merely rationalise some deep-rooted prejudice. To attempt to
counter them with facts and statistics is useless, and may sometimes be
worse than useless. As the last of the above-quoted remarks shows,
people can remain antisemitic, or at least anti-Jewish, while being
fully aware that their outlook is indefensible. If you dislike somebody,
you dislike him and there is an end of it: your feelings are not made
any better by a recital of his virtues.

It so happens that the war has encouraged the growth of antisemitism and
even, in the eyes of many ordinary people, given some justification for
it. To begin with, the Jews are one people of whom it can be said with
complete certainty that they will benefit by an Allied victory.
Consequently the theory that "this is a Jewish war" has a certain
plausibility, all the more so because the Jewish war effort seldom gets
its fair share of recognition. The British Empire is a huge
heterogeneous organisation held together largely by mutual consent, and
it is often necessary to flatter the less reliable elements at the
expense of the more loyal ones. To publicise the exploits of Jewish
soldiers, or even to admit the existence of a considerable Jewish army
in the Middle East, rouses hostility in South Africa, the Arab coun
tries and elsewhere: it is easier to ignore the whole subject and allow
the man in the street to go on thinking that Jews are exceptionally
clever at dodging military service. Then again, Jews are to be found in
exactly those trades which are bound to incur unpopularity with the
civilian public in war-time. Jews are mostly concerned with selling
food, clothes, furniture and tobacco--exactly the commodities of which
there is a chronic shortage, with consequent overcharging,
black-marketing and favouritism. And again, the common charge that Jews
behave in an exceptionally cowardly way during air raids was given a
certain amount of colour by the big raids of 1940. As it happened, the
Jewish quarter of Whitechapel was one of the first areas to be heavily
blitzed, with the natural result that swarms of Jewish refugees
distributed themselves all over London. If one judged merely from these
war-time phenomena, it would be easy to imagine that antisemitism is a
quasi-rational thing, founded on mistaken premises. And naturally the
antisemite thinks of himself as a reasonable being. Whenever I have
touched on this subject in a newspaper article, I have always had a
considerable "come-back", and invariably some of the letters are from
well-balanced, middling people--doctors, for example--with no apparent
economic grievance. These people always say (as Hitler says in MEIN KAMPF)
that they started out with no anti-Jewish prejudice but were driven into
their present position by mere observation of the facts. Yet one of the
marks of antisemitism is an ability to believe stories that could not
possibly be true. One could see a good example of this in the strange
accident that occurred in London in 1942, when a crowd, frightened by a
bomb-burst nearby, fled into the mouth of an Underground station, with the
result that something over a hundred people were crushed to death. The
very same day it was repeated all over London that "the Jews were
responsible". Clearly, if people will believe this kind of thing, one will
not get much further by arguing with them. The only useful approach is to
discover WHY they can swallow absurdities on one particular subject while
remaining sane on others.

But now let me come back to that point I mentioned earlier--that there
is widespread awareness of the prevalence of antisemitic feeling, and
unwillingness to admit sharing it. Among educated people, antisemitism
is held to be an unforgivable sin and in a quite different category from
other kinds of racial prejudice. People will go to remarkable lengths to
demonstrate that they are NOT antisemitic. Thus, in 1943 an intercession
service on behalf of the Polish Jews was held in a synagogue in St
John's Wood. The local authorities declared themselves anxious to
participate in it, and the service was attended by the mayor of the
borough in his robes and chain, by representatives of all the churches,
and by detachments of RAF, Home Guards, nurses, Boy Scouts and what not.
On the surface it was a touching demonstration of solidarity with the
suffering Jews. But it was essentially a CONSCIOUS effort to behave
decently by people whose subjective feelings must in many cases have
been very different. That quarter of London is partly Jewish,
antisemitism is rife there, and, as I well knew, some of the men sitting
round me in the synagogue were tinged by it. Indeed, the commander of my
own platoon of Home Guards, who had been especially keen beforehand that
we should "make a good show" at the intercession service, was an
ex-member of Mosley's Blackshirts. While this division of feeling
exists, tolerance of mass violence against Jews, or, what is more
important, antisemitic legislation, are not possible in England. It is
not at present possible, indeed, that antisemitism should BECOME
RESPECTABLE. But this is less of an advantage than it might appear.

One effect of the persecutions in Germany has been to prevent
antisemitism from being seriously studied. In England a brief inadequate
survey was made by Mass Observation a year or two ago, but if there has
been any other investigation of the subject, then its findings have been
kept strictly secret. At the same time there has been conscious
suppression, by all thoughtful people, of anything likely to wound
Jewish susceptibilities. After 1934 the Jew joke disappeared as though
by magic from postcards, periodicals and the music-hall stage, and to
put an unsympathetic Jewish character into a novel or short story came
to be regarded as antisemitism. On the Palestine issue, too, it was DE
RIGUEUR among enlightened people to accept the Jewish case as proved and
avoid examining the claims of the Arabs--a decision which might be
correct on its own merits, but which was adopted primarily because the
Jews were in trouble and it was felt that one must not criticise them.
Thanks to Hitler, therefore, you had a situation in which the press was
in effect censored in favour of the Jews while in private antisemitism
was on the up-grade, even, to some extent, among sensitive and
intelligent people. This was particularly noticeable in 1940 at the time
of the internment of the refugees. Naturally, every thinking person felt
that it was his duty to protest against the wholesale locking-up of
unfortunate foreigners who for the most part were only in England
because they were opponents of Hitler. Privately, however, one heard
very different sentiments expressed. A minority of the refugees behaved
in an exceedingly tactless way, and the feeling against them necessarily
had an antisemitic undercurrent, since they were largely Jews. A very
eminent figure in the Labour Party--I won't name him, but he is one of
the most respected people in England--said to me quite violently: "We
never asked these people to come to this country. If they choose to come
here, let them take the consequences." Yet this man would as a matter of
course have associated himself with any kind of petition or manifesto
against the internment of aliens. This feeling that antisemitism is
something sinful and disgraceful, something that a civilised person does
not suffer from, is unfavourable to a scientific approach, and indeed
many people will admit that they are frightened of probing too deeply
into the subject. They are frightened, that is to say, of discovering
not only that antisemitism is spreading, but that they themselves are
infected by it.

To see this in perspective one must look back a few decades, to the days
when Hitler was an out-of-work house-painter whom nobody had heard of.
One would then find that though antisemitism is sufficiently in evidence
now, it is probably LESS prevalent in England than it was thirty years
ago. It is true that antisemitism as a fully thought-out racial or
religious doctrine has never flourished in England. There has never been
much feeling against inter-marriage, or against Jews taking a prominent
part in public life. Nevertheless, thirty years ago it was accepted more
or less as a law of nature that a Jew was a figure of fun and--though
superior in intelligence--slightly deficient in "character". In theory a
Jew suffered from no legal disabilities, but in effect he was debarred
from certain professions. He would probably not have been accepted as an
officer in the navy, for instance, nor in what is called a "smart"
regiment in the army. A Jewish boy at a public school almost invariably
had a bad time. He could, of course, live down his Jewishness if he was
exceptionally charming or athletic, but it was an initial disability
comparable to a stammer or a birthmark. Wealthy Jews tended to disguise
themselves under aristocratic English or Scottish names, and to the
average person it seemed quite natural that they should do this, just as
it seems natural for a criminal to change his identity if possible.
About twenty years ago, in Rangoon, I was getting into a taxi with a
friend when a small ragged boy of fair complexion rushed up to us and
began a complicated story about having arrived from Colombo on a ship
and wanting money to get back. His manner and appearance were difficult
to "place", and I said to him:

"You speak very good English. What nationality are you?"

He answered eagerly in his chi-chi accent: "I am a JOO, sir!"

And I remember turning to my companion and saying, only partly in joke,
"He admits it openly." All the Jews I had known till then were people
who were ashamed of being Jews, or at any rate preferred not to talk
about their ancestry, and if forced to do so tended to use the word

The working-class attitude was no better. The Jew who grew up in
Whitechapel took it for granted that he would be assaulted, or at least
hooted at, if he ventured into one of the Christian slums nearby, and
the "Jew joke" of the music halls and the comic papers was almost
consistently ill-natured. [Note at end of paragraph] There was also
literary Jew-baiting, which in the hands of Belloc, Chesterton and their
followers reached an almost continental level of scurrility. Non-Catholic
writers were sometimes guilty of the same thing in a milder form. There
has been a perceptible antisemitic strain in English literature from
Chaucer onwards, and without even getting up from this table to consult a
book I can think of passages which IF WRITTEN NOW would be stigmatised as
antisemitism, in the works of Shakespeare, Smollett, Thackeray, Bernard
Shaw, H. G. Wells, T. S. Eliot, Aldous Huxley and various others. Offhand,
the only English writers I can think of who, before the days of Hitler,
made a definite effort to stick up for Jews are Dickens and Charles Reade.
And however little the average intellectual may have agreed with the
opinions of Belloc and Chesterton, he did not acutely disapprove of
them. Chesterton's endless tirades against Jews, which he thrust into
stories and essays upon the flimsiest pretexts, never got him into
trouble--indeed Chesterton was one of the most generally respected
figures in English literary life. Anyone who wrote in that strain NOW
would bring down a storm of abuse upon himself, or more probably would
find it impossible to get his writings published.

[Note: It is interesting to compare the "Jew joke" with that other
stand-by of the music halls, the "Scotch joke", which superficially it
resembles. Occasionally a story is told (e.g. the Jew and the Scotsman who
went into a pub together and both died of thirst) which puts both races on
an equality, but in general the Jew is credited MERELY with cunning and
avarice while the Scotsman is credited with physical hardihood as well.
This is seen, for example, in the story of the Jew and the Scotsman who
go together to a meeting which has been advertised as free. Unexpectedly
there is a collection, and to avoid this the Jew faints and the Scotsman
carries him out. Here the Scotsman performs the athletic feat of
carrying the other. It would seem vaguely wrong if it were the other way
about. (Author's footnote.)]

If, as I suggest, prejudice against Jews has always been pretty
widespread in England, there is no reason to think that Hitler has
genuinely diminished it. He has merely caused a sharp division between
the politically conscious person who realises that this is not a time to
throw stones at the Jews, and the unconscious person whose native
antisemitism is increased by the nervous strain of the war. One can
assume, therefore, that many people who would perish rather than admit
to antisemitic feelings are secretly prone to them. I have already
indicated that I believe antisemitism to be essentially a neurosis,
but of course it has its rationalisations, which are sincerely
believed in and are partly true. The rationalisation put forward by the
common man is that the Jew is an exploiter. The partial justification
for this is that the Jew, in England, is generally a small
businessman--that is to say a person whose depredations are more obvious
and intelligible than those of, say, a bank or an insurance company.
Higher up the intellectual scale, antisemitism is rationalised by saying
that the Jew is a person who spreads disaffection and weakens national
morale. Again there is some superficial justification for this. During
the past twenty-five years the activities of what are called
"intellectuals" have been largely mischievous. I do not think it an
exaggeration to say that if the "intellectuals" had done their work a
little more thoroughly, Britain would have surrendered in 1940. But the
disaffected intelligentsia inevitably included a large number of Jews.
With some plausibility it can be said that the Jews are the enemies of
our native culture and our national morale. Carefully examined, the
claim is seen to be nonsense, but there are always a few prominent
individuals who can be cited in support of it. During the past few years
there has been what amounts to a counter-attack against the rather
shallow Leftism which was fashionable in the previous decade and which
was exemplified by such organisations as the Left Book Club. This
counter-attack (see for instance such books as Arnold Lutin's THE GOOD
GORILLA or Evelyn Waugh's PUT OUT MORE FLAGS) has an antisemitic strain,
and it would probably be more marked if the subject were not so
obviously dangerous. It so happens that for some decades past Britain
has had no nationalist intelligentsia worth bothering about. But British
nationalism, i.e. nationalism of an intellectual kind, may revive, and
probably will revive if Britain comes out of the present war greatly
weakened. The young intellectuals of 1950 may be as naively patriotic as
those of 1914. In that case the kind of antisemitism which flourished
among the anti-Dreyfusards in France, and which Chesterton and Belloc
tried to import into this country, might get a foothold.

I have no hard-and-fast theory about the origins of antisemitism. The
two current explanations, that it is due to economic causes, or on the
other hand, that it is a legacy from the Middle Ages, seem to me
unsatisfactory, though I admit that if one combines them they can be
made to cover the facts. All I would say with confidence is that
antisemitism is part of the larger problem of nationalism, which has not
yet been seriously examined, and that the Jew is evidently a scapegoat,
though for what he is a scapegoat we do not yet know. In this essay I
have relied almost entirely on my own limited experience, and perhaps
every one of my conclusions would be negatived by other observers. The
fact is that there are almost no data on this subject. But for what they
are worth I will summarise my opinions. Boiled down, they amount to

There is more antisemitism in England than we care to admit, and the war
has accentuated it, but it is not certain that it is on the increase if
one thinks in terms of decades rather than years.

It does not at present lead to open persecution, but it has the effect
of making people callous to the sufferings of Jews in other countries.

It is at bottom quite irrational and will not yield to argument.

The persecutions in Germany have caused much concealment of antisemitic
feeling and thus obscured the whole picture.

The subject needs serious investigation.

Only the last point is worth expanding. To study any subject
scientifically one needs a detached attitude, which is obviously harder
when one's own interests or emotions are involved. Plenty of people who
are quite capable of being objective about sea urchins, say, or the
square root of 2, become schizophrenic if they have to think about the
sources of their own income. What vitiates nearly all that is written
about antisemitism is the assumption in the writer's mind that HE
HIMSELF is immune to it. "Since I know that antisemitism is irrational,"
he argues, "it follows that I do not share it." He thus fails to start
his investigation in the one place where he could get hold of some
reliable evidence--that is, in his own mind.

It seems to me a safe assumption that the disease loosely called
nationalism is now almost universal. Antisemitism is only one
manifestation of nationalism, and not everyone will have the disease in
that particular form. A Jew, for example, would not be antisemitic: but
then many Zionist Jews seem to me to be merely antisemites turned
upside-down, just as many Indians and Negroes display the normal colour
prejudices in an inverted form. The point is that something, some
psychological vitamin, is lacking in modern civilisation, and as a
result we are all more or less subject to this lunacy of believing that
whole races or nations are mysteriously good or mysteriously evil. I
defy any modern intellectual to look closely and honestly into his own
mind without coming upon nationalistic loyalties and hatreds of one kind
or another. It is the fact that he can feel the emotional tug of such
things, and yet see them dispassionately for what they are, that gives
him his status as an intellectual. It will be seen, therefore, that the
starting point for any investigation of antisemitism should not be "Why
does this obviously irrational belief appeal to other people?" but "Why
does antisemitism appeal TO ME? What is there about it that I feel to be
true?" If one asks this question one at least discovers one's own
rationalisations, and it may be possible to find out what lies beneath
them. Antisemitism should be investigated--and I will not say by
antisemites, but at any rate by people who know that they are not immune
to that kind of emotion. When Hitler has disappeared a real enquiry into
this subject will be possible, and it would probably be best to start
not by debunking antisemitism, but by marshalling all the justifications
for it that can be found, in one's own mind or anybody else's. In that
way one might get some clues that would lead to its psychological roots.
But that antisemitism will be definitively CURED, without curing the
larger disease of nationalism, I do not believe.

Index Index

  • Other Authors:    
> Charles Darwin
> Charles Dickens
> Mark Twain
> William Shakespeare

George Orwell. Copyright 2003,
Contact the webmaster
Disclaimer here. Privacy Policy here.