Modern History

The (Un)knowability of Jews in Britain: Discourses from State and Sitcom in 1965


Last week’s news story about a Labour councillor suggesting that Rachel Riley might cause ‘another Jo Cox moment’ through her campaigning against antisemitism in the Labour Party, is just the latest in a series of incidents that has led to increased concern for the individual and communal safety of British and European Jewry in the wake of increasing populism. This brings to mind other historical moments when Jews and Jewishness have been implicated in discourses around broader political issues.

There is an uncertainty then, not only for Jews but about Jews and Jewishness. The Polish-Jewish philosopher Zygmunt Baumann once commented that the central element of the relationship between Jew and Gentile in Modern Europe was not antisemitism but allosemitism: the belief that, no matter what else the Jews were, they were fundamentally, irrevocably, different, defying the modern idée fixe of categorisation and compartmentalisation. 1

This idea of Jewish ‘otherness’ has manifested itself in the unlikeliest of places as my research into the debates around the Race Relations Act 1965 and contemporary situation comedies has shown. Even in the context of the British State purportedly seeking to mitigate the effects of ‘difference’ there is evidence to show that the Jews simply did not ‘fit’.

In introducing the Race Relations Bill 1965, then Home Secretary Frank Soskice commented that:

It is certainly the intention of the government that people of the Jewish faith should be covered […] [they] would have an origin which many people would describe as an ethnic if not a racial one. 2

There are several elements worth unpicking in this short quotation. Not only does Soskice first define the Jews theologically (going against the terms of the Bill which did not include religion as a legitimate ground for protection); he then goes on to problematise this seemingly unambivalent definition by identifying the Jews both ethnically and racially: neither of which are defined in any substantive terms.

Perhaps more importantly, Soskice simultaneously marks British Jewry as different—‘people of the Jewish faith should be covered’ [my emphasis]—and either dilutes or outright revokes their agency in determining what defines them as a group—‘an origin which many people would describe…’. Sadly, these are discourses that regularly appear throughout these seemingly well-intentioned Acts which, when analysed through the lens of Jewishness, come to be seen as more problematic than originally thought: as an operation of power rather than of protection.

That Soskice was even compelled to make such a pronouncement however, demonstrates the uncertainty with which the Jews and Jewishness were held in Britain in 1965. It was far from a truth universally acknowledged that the Jews were ‘different’ enough to warrant inclusion among Britain’s racial minorities: and yet it was the experiences of the Jews under the dominion of Nazism that largely structured the Race Relations Act 1965.

What is remarkable, given this uncertainty about their applicability, is the lack of consideration Jews were given in the context of the Race Relations Act. The above quote from Soskice is typical of the brevity with which the Jewish example, with all its complexity, was disposed of within the debates of 1965. The Jews were ‘different’—that much was clear—, but no MP could quite pin down why.

This lack of consideration was not, however, total, within the public sphere of 1965. The ‘difference’ of Jews was given a degree of assessment, its complexity explored and the agency of British Jews in constructing and contesting it reinstated, through the rantings of an unpleasant, vicious bigot from East End docks: Till Death Us Do Part’s Alfred Edward Garnett.

The monstrous creation of Johnny Speight, Alf (played by Warren Mitchell) has been rightly vilified for his views and the influence they had on lending confidence to increasingly vitriolic rhetoric on the political right. Yet, as with the Race Relations Act, reading this social realist situation comedy through the lens of Jewishness throws up surprising results.

Alf is a Jewish character. The fourth episode of the first series, ‘Intolerance’ (tx. 27 June 1966), contains an extended discussion between Alf and his son-in-law Mike (played by Tony Booth) in which Jewishness plays a central role:

Mike   –    How would you like it if I called you a Yid?

Alf       –    What are you talking about Yid? I ain’t a Yid!


Mike   –    Your grandfather’s name was Solly Diamond.


Mike   –    There’s nothing to be ashamed of being Jewish.

Alf       –    I am not Jewish!

Mike   –    Look at your hooter! That’s a right kosher conk you’ve got there!

This short exchange, part of a conversation that continues throughout the episode, offers up a number of elements for analysis within the context of race relations. It is notable that Mike brings up Alf’s supposed Jewishness in response to a particularly nasty outburst from Alf about his black GP, Dr Chingala. Jewishness is thus connected to a discussion of race relations and a Jewish man subjecting someone to race-based hatred is constructed as something ironic. Alf’s supposed ‘difference’ is utilised as a means of silencing his commentary on supposed black ‘difference’.

The ability of Jewishness to disrupt modern categories is also explored here. Mike, supposedly a bastion of progressiveness simultaneously ameliorates Dr Chingala’s ‘otherness’ and reinforces Alf’s: insisting that he has ‘nothing to be ashamed of’ in being Jewish. Alf, by contrast, who positions himself politically on the right, is far more concerned with the sublimation of his Jewishness.

The discussion of the Jewish nose provokes a great deal of laughter from the audience. While this reaction might be viewed as reifying Jewish ‘otherness’, the audience that day was, in fact, largely made up of Mitchell’s friends and associates in London’s Jewish community. Following the programme Speight, unsure of whether the audience had been ‘in on the joke’ asked them and received an affirmative reply alongside congratulations on his satirical work. 3

Speight’s comedy, when explored through the lens of Jewishness, problematises the ‘difference’ and to an extent, the ‘sameness’ of Jews. It offers a self-reflexive exploration of Jewishness lacking in parliamentary discussions of the period that were largely a matter of domestic expediency.

Christopher S. Byrne

Christopher S. Byrne is a PhD student at Southampton University’s Parkes Institute for the Study of Jewish/non-Jewish Relations. His research analyses the UK Race Relations Acts 1965–76 and compares them to contemporary situation comedies to explore the ways in which Jews and Jewishness were constructed and contested in 1960s and 1970s Britain.


  1. Zygmunt Bauman, ‘Allosemitism: Premodern, Modern, Postmodern’, in Modernity, Culture and ‘the Jew’ ed. Bryan Cheyette & Laura Marcus (Stanford: Stanford U. P., 1998), 143–56.
  2. Hansard, HC, 3 May 1965, vol. 711 c. 932.
  3. Mark Ward, A Family at War: The Unofficial and Unauthorised Guide to Till Death Us Do Part (Tolworth: Telos, 2008), 76–77.
read more

Apologise for Amritsar? Violence and Memory on the Centenary of the Massacre

The wall with bullet holes at Jallianwala Bagh

Saturday just gone (13th April) marked the one-hundredth anniversary of the Amritsar Massacre. On this day in 1919, thousands of Indians from the city and its environs descended upon the Jallianwala Bagh, a public space, to celebrate the Sikh festival of Baisakhi, to attend a political meeting in the context of Gandhi’s Rowlatt satyagraha, or simply to rest and relax in the Bagh. The British commander in charge of the local army garrison, General Reginald Dyer, had earlier issued orders prohibiting public gatherings and imposing a curfew on the city. Considering the gathering a direct contravention of his orders, Dyer determined to disperse the meeting with force. Without any forewarning, Dyer’s troops opened fire upon this peaceful and unarmed group of men, women and children. After more than ten minutes of slow, deliberate firing, official figures suggest 379 people lay dead (other estimates are much higher), with three times that number wounded.

The Amritsar Massacre has come to occupy a prominent place in any litany of the violent excesses of British imperialism. At the time, Dyer’s actions were criticised by some (but not all) in Britain as an outright betrayal of British values. Most famously, in July 1920, Churchill recalled what happened as ‘a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation … Such ideas are absolutely foreign to the British way of doing things’.

Today, centenary activities have principally coalesced around demands for the current British government to issue an official apology, with debates on this issue in the Lords back in February and in the Commons last Tuesday. This reflects larger, ongoing concerns about how best to contend with Britain’s imperial legacy. Ahead of the debate in the Commons a Foreign and Commonwealth Office spokesperson revisited Churchill’s speech, in tones that were reminiscent of David Cameron’s visit to Amritsar in February 2013.

Whilst stopping short of an apology, Cameron expressed ‘deep regret’, drawing upon Churchill’s speech to both condemn the massacre and attempt to recover Britain’s reputation as a benevolent influence upon the world. Both Churchill’s and Cameron’s depictions have been informed by a narrative of exceptionalism, in which British colonial rule is portrayed as kinder and gentler than that practised by other European powers. In these accounts, Dyer’s actions are an aberration, abhorrent to the strong moral basis upon which the empire was built.

In reality, however, Amritsar was no exception, but the most well known example of the ordinariness of colonial violence in British India. Invoking such banality is not to suggest that we should take this violence for granted. Doing so can reduce us to simply reconstructing history for its own sake, rather than reflecting on how events and actions were experienced and justified at the time. At the same time this is not an attempt to excuse what happened, but to better understand the motivations behind such actions.

Rather than focus on the ways in which the massacre subsequently electrified Indian anti-colonial nationalism of various ideological hues and methods, Kim Wagner’s recent book has emphasised the continuities of colonial rule in the violence of 1919. Invoking ‘the spectre of the “Mutiny”’ of 1857, Wagner has revealed how a particular and recurring ‘colonial mindset’ was shaped by the contradiction between ‘white power and white vulnerability’. In fact, Dyer’s actions reflected a common desire to ‘keep up appearances’ and avoid ‘losing face’, in the context of a pervasive and imagined anxiety about the latent threat of ‘native rebellion’.

Whether we end up with a formal apology or not, we can be certain that the massacre will continue to figure on any roll call of British colonial violence. This owes much to the consistent depiction of Amritsar and other colonial massacres as exceptional events. However, such interpretations ultimately deserve much closer and more careful scrutiny, in view of both the inescapability of colonial violence and the shared pressures and apprehensions that informed it.


Oliver Godsmark is Lecturer in History at the University of Derby. His research considers citizenship, democracy and territory in late colonial and early postcolonial India. He has considered these issues in his recent monograph and in articles in South Asia and Modern Asian Studies.

read more

Locating Women in the history of India’s Emergency (1975-1977)

hm blog

Image: Prime Minister Indira Gandhi addressing a (female) audience in Delhi, 1 March 1977 (Socialist India, March 5 1977)

More than forty years on from India’s State of Emergency (1975-1977), we are beginning to understand the many ways in which women supported, resisted and experienced this critical period in India’s history.

Forty-two years ago today, on 21 March 1977, India’s State of Emergency collapsed. The Janata Party, a coalition of anti-Emergency opposition groups, defeated Indira Gandhi’s Congress Government at the polls. Gandhi imposed this Emergency in June 1975, responding to rising opposition and a legal challenge to her position. Government censored the press, arrested opposition party members and activists, suspended elections and undertook controversial socioeconomic programmes, including coercive sterilisation and aggressive slum clearance. This is now a well traversed history. Recently, there has been a burgeoning of scholarship analysing these events. But the role of women in relation to all aspects of the regime has not commanded sufficient attention.

This is particularly striking for several reasons. A female leader who drew heavily on gendered narratives like Bharat Mata (Mother India) presided over this regime, mobilising such imagery to defend the Emergency’s legitimacy. In one instance, Gandhi stated:

We felt that the country had developed a disease and if it is to be cured soon, it has to be given a dose of medicine. However dear a child may be, if the doctor has prescribed bitter pills for him, they have to be administered for his cure… Now, when a child suffers, the mother suffers too. Thus we were not very pleased to take this step. But we see it worked (Socialist India 15 November 1975).

In 1975 India participated in the UN’s International Women’s Year (IWY) celebrations and the government’s Committee on the Status of Women in India published its report Towards Equality. One of the Emergency’s most infamous policies, coercive sterilisation in the name of family planning, is an issue that has been at the fore of feminist activism and scholarship. Although the Emergency is widely acknowledged as a catalyst for the contemporary women’s movement in India, there has been little attention to women’s activism or experiences during it.

My doctoral research revealed the myriad ways in which women were key to the articulation and implementation of Emergency measures. Depictions of women’s support for the regime were integral to pro-Emergency propaganda. The Congress Party used women dominated photographs to represent support for the regime, even describing the Emergency as akin to the IWY, as ‘yet another significant event for the welfare of women in this country’ because of its imposition of ‘law and order’ (Socialist India 21 August 1976). Contrary to such claims, and despite perceptions of the Emergency’s sterilisation policies as a vasectomy programme, my research revealed the negative implications of these policies for women, particularly the impact of the focus on sterilisation on the Mother and Child Health programme. Women were often at the forefront of families’ attempts to negotiate the Emergency’s many coercive measures. As one man put it, because of the financial pressures authorities placed on his family ‘my wife had to get sterilised.’

Women were not simply victims of the Emergency’s repressive measures, nor symbols utilised by the Congress’s pro-Emergency narratives. Women were active in resistance and organised protests against the Emergency. Underground literature reveals glimpses of this recording how in December 1975, Jayawantiben Mehta, Ahilya Rangnekar and Kamal Desai led groups of women protestors in Mumbai as part of an organised Satyagraha (non-violent resistance) campaign. Documentation from Maharashtra’s prisons shows that state authorities there arrested over 500 women during this period for such activities. Once in prison, women cultivated lively cultures of resistance, continuing to protest and maintaining connections with the underground resistance movement. Those who escaped arrest, such as teacher and later Janata Party Secretary Pushpa Bhave, continued to organise protests and shelter those participating in underground resistance in their own homes.

The Janata Government that took office in March 1977 had the lowest number of women in parliament. As feminist activist and scholar Dr Ranjana Kumari, who was active in underground activism as a student in Delhi, told me in an interview, ‘there were a lot of women who were very, very active’, but ‘they were all pushed aside post-Emergency… so many of them not even recognised, not even written about, it is sad’. This marginalisation of women in post-Emergency politics has contributed to the absence of their voices and stories from this history. My doctoral research begins to address this gap, but forty-two years on, there is still much work to be done.

Gemma Scott completed an AHRC funded PhD at Keele University in 2018. Her research examines the history of India’s State of Emergency (1975-1977), focusing particularly on women’s activism during this period and women’s experiences of Emergency measures. In 2015, she was an AHRC International Placement Scheme Fellow at the Library of Congress, Washington DC, and in 2016/17 she held a Scouloudi Foundation Doctoral Fellowship at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London. She is currently working as Engagement, Partnerships and Impact Development Officer at Keele University.

read more