Strangers at Home


It may be surprising to learn that the first official limitation of Jewish immigration to Britain was introduced in 1905. The Aliens Act was passed to control the numbers of Eastern European Jews fleeing Tsarist persecution who were seeking asylum here. These were Ashkenazim. The Sephardim who sought safety in Britain after the 1918 break-up of the Ottoman Empire were mostly from Aleppo, Cairo, Alexandria, Izmir and Salonika.

Sephardim divided in Manchester
South Manchester became home to many Syrian Jews. They were mainly poor, Arabic-speakers, some of whom found work in the cotton industry. Interviews reveal their amazement at seeing anglicised Sephardim wearing top hats in the synagogue. Cultural differences between Sephardim of West and East resulted in Eastern Sephardim establishing their own Manchester synagogue. The two Manchester communities had separate matchmakers: one for the Syrians and one for the Iraqis. This traditional way of life changed during the twentieth century, as some Sephardim married ‘out’ by choosing Ashkenazi or even gentile partners. It was not until the twenty-first century that Sephardim of both heritages united to pray. 

Ottoman Empire émigrés
Jews from the Ottoman Empire first settled in England at around 1850. In Manchester, they arrived in modest numbers. Many came from Greek-speaking Romaniote communities, trickling into Britain until around 1880. After 1918, the situation of Sephardim who had previously lived without persecution in Muslim countries became precarious. At the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, Sephardim dispersed into a new diaspora. Jews from Salonika, Constantinople/Istanbul, Corfu and Crete became part of a fresh wave of migrating Sephardim arriving between 1900 and 1930.

The 1929 economic crash brought this wave of immigration to a sudden halt. A Sephardi underclass was supported by an unofficial distress fund. Poverty drove some to leave Britain to live in North and South America. Others returned to Greece and Egypt.

Baghdadians had long been the wealthiest of the British-based Sephardim. They came between 1880 and 1914, and many settled in Manchester. The 1941 Farhud attack, which resulted in the murder of more than 180 Jews, signalled the end of 2,500 years of Jewish life in Iraq. Many of the Sephardim who fled the country then sought refuge in Britain.

When the state of Israel was formed in 1948, and after the 1956 Suez Crisis, Eastern Sephardim fled to the west. Many emigrated to France, Israel and North America as well as to Britain. In 1979, Iran’s Islamic Revolution propelled the exit of Farsi-speaking Persian Jews. Britain hosted Sephardim from Egypt, Greece, Iran, Turkey, Yemen, ex-Yugoslavia, the Indian subcontinent, and from Israel. As with the earlier migratory patterns, each group carried a distinct cultural heritage. 

No Sephardi Holocaust?
It was widely believed that most Sephardim escaped Hitler’s so-called Final Solution, but this is not quite true. Survival was often decided by geography as much as history. Sephardi Jews throughout the Greek mainland and islands were murdered by the Nazis. In Salonika, only 5,000 survived of a pre-war Jewish population of over 50,000. Sephardim in France, Holland, Italy and Yugoslavia were also murdered during World War Two. Gibraltarian Jews were evacuated by the British from the Rock. Some Turkish Sephardim were caught in France, and a list of 6,000 Jews, who had become Christians in Spain during the fifteenth century, was given to Hitler by General Franco. Sephardi Jews may have left the Iberian Peninsula around 1492, but their descendants still faced persecution in 1942.

Sephardi celebrities
In Britain, during the ‘Swinging Sixties’, many Sephardim were part of the fashionable celebrity scene. Playwright Harold Pinter hinted that his family was originally Sephardim, and his name could well have come from the Spanish ‘Pinto’. Vidal Sassoon’s geometric hairstyles and Peter Sellers’ zany humour epitomised a radical artistic chic. By the end of the twentieth century, many British-born and -based Sephardim were prominent in the media. These included Egyptian-born cookbook writer/cultural commentator Claudia Roden, Turkish-French fashion designer Nicole Farhi, merchants and gallery owners Charles Saatchi and his brother Maurice, who were of Iraqi parentage, and historian Simon Sebag-Montefiore, whose patrilineal line is Sephardi.

In an age of identity politics, a Sephardi background could be seen as cool. It expresses a history of cohabitation with Muslims and Roma in an Islamic Andalusia. The discovery of what we now call ‘intersectionality’ seems to transmit a transnational, secular Mediterranean spirit with, perhaps, a romanticised vision of an epicurean lifestyle boasting fine dining, excellent wine and sunshine. 

By the 1990s, the original Iberian-acculturated Sephardi community in Britain was dwindling. Intermarriage with Ashkenazim and gentiles, as well as conversion, placed Sephardim as a minority within a minority. Today, all British Jews comprise less than 1% of the population. 

The Brexit effect
The 2016 Brexit Referendum awoke a renewed interest in Sephardi history. Concerns about leaving the European Union prompted many British Sephardi Jews to request Spanish or Portuguese citizenship; to achieve this, they needed to show documentary proof that their families had fled the Inquisition.

For some, the discovery of how – and why – their ancestors had left the Iberian peninsula disinterred a long-buried past. They read documents revealing burnings at the stake, they read of torture and humiliation suffered at the autos-da-fé. Grief that had been suppressed for centuries became apparent when this old-new identity was claimed.

Our Oral Histories contain many fascinating stories about Jews who came to England in the twentieth century, revealing world history as lived through multiple immigrant experiences.