Second Middle Age is a time of clarity, a time to take off blinders and to see the world as it is and not as we wish it to be. From the vantage point of having lived 60 years on this planet, having lived in London as a young diplomat, and having studied the history of England and Great Britain, I did not need to watch Oprah’s interview with Harry and Meghan to understand that systemic racism is alive and well in the UK and supported – implicitly or explicitly – by the Royal Family.
History matters; we can only understand our present day problems with full recognition and accountability for the past. My personal experience and knowledge relates to anti-semitism, and that is what I am focusing on here. This is not intended to ignore or minimize other forms of systemic racism, it is just my own area of knowledge.
So I am writing to share information relating to the history of anti-semitism in England and the United Kingdom. This is not a fun read; still it is important to know what has come before to understand where we find ourselves now.
Possibly the first, and certainly one of Europe’s worst massacres of Jews took place at Clifford’s Tower, in York, England in 1190, where the entire Jewish community of York perished. As a junior Foreign Service Officer at the U.S. Embassy in London, England, I was privileged to join the 1990 commemoration of the 800th anniversary the Clifford’s Tower Massacre in York.
In the late 13th century, King Edward I began by perspecuting the Jews as a financial scapegoat and ended in ejecting them altogether. England became the first country in Europe to ban Jews and confiscate their property, and they were not allowed back until the 17th century.
Fast forward to the early 20th century: as the governing colonial power in much of the Middle East, the British Empire stretched from the Suez Canal to the Persian Gulf. Mandatory Palestine consisted of a single political unit corresponding to the modern state of Israel, the West Bank (aka Judea and Samaria) and TransJordan. At that time, painstaking diplomatic efforts to reestablish a sovereign Jewish state dated back to the 19th century had recently culminated in the Balfour Declaration (November 2, 1917), supporting: “the establishment in Palestine of a national home of the Jewish people.”
Although the British faced a law and order challenges East of the Jordan river, it is clear that the Balfour Declaration intended for Transjordan to be included as an integral part of Palestine for purposes of establishing a Jewish homeland:
The first draft of the Palestinian mandate was submitted to the Council of the League of Nations [precursor to the United Nations] by Arthur James Balfour, on behalf of the British Government, on December 5, 1920. It continued no provision exempting Transjordan from the Scope of the Jewish National Home. As late as February 1921, when the experts of the [British] Colonial Office prepared recommendations for the Cairo conference, Transjordan was included in Palestine and was to be an indistinguishable part of Palestine and open to Jewish immigration. The British Palestine Royal Commission of 1937 concluded that the ‘field in which the Jewish National Home was to be established was understood, at the time of the Balfour Declaration, to be the whole of historic Palestine.’Benjamin Shwadran, Jordan a State of Tension (1959)
Long-standing British policy and the eternal aspirations for a Jewish homeland counted for nil when the UK faced an unsettled situation in Transjordan. After decades of painfully slow progress towards development of a plan for a Jewish Homeland – a homeland that literally might have saved millions of Jews during the Holocaust – in 1922 the British expediently hived off the eastern half of Mandatory Palestine to the Hashemites, a clan without local ties or historical claims that had been ejected from their ancestral territory in Hejaz (present day Saudi Arabia) and demanded British support.
Britain’s imperial ambition was paramount; keeping promises to the Jews counted for nil. Britain’s support for the Hashemites in TransJordan has had far-reaching and negative implications for the sustainable resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
More broadly, throughout the period of the British Mandate, the UK repeatedly sacrificed Jewish lives and aspirations, with the worst of the violence and Pogroms taking place Jerusalem and Hebron. After the Arab massacre of Jews in Hebron in 1929, the British evacuated the Jews from Hebron, and again removed the Jewish population during subsequent unrest in 1936 – 1939. The acts of evacuating Jews from Hebron – instead of enforcing their civil and juridical rights to residence 100 years ago – also have had longterm, negative reverberations in our own time.
Perhaps the most shameful chapter occurred in the 1930s and early 1940s, when Britain’s foreign policy apparatus mobilized its considerable efforts to prevent Jews from escaping Nazi Germany and reaching then-Mandatory Palestine. Despite a full understanding of the perilous conditions for Jews in Europe and its own commitment to establishment of a Jewish homeland through the Balfour Declaration, the UK focused not on opposing the Nazis, but on on blocking the flight of Jews from Germany to what was then a British protectorate: Mandatory Palestine. To be clear: this policy continued in the face of full knowledge and understanding of ongoing extermination of the Jewish people of Europe by the Nazis, and despite open appeals to the British Foreign Office.
The Nazis did their utmost to dehumanize and strip Jews of all of their assets in the run up to genocide and very few states wanted impoverished Jewish refugees either before or after the outbreak of World War II. To the best of my knowledge, the United Kingdom was the only country in Europe that actively sought to block Jewish emigration from Germany in promotion of their own colonial interests in the Middle East. This policy continued for the duration of the Holocaust and beyond.
With this context, in recent weeks I have been reading biographies of the Mitfords, among the most famous (and infamous) British aristocratic family. The rank anti-semitism of (at least) the Mitford daughters Unity, Diane and Pam is well documented yet seemingly excused by their beauty, charm, and so-called breeding.
Unity Valkerie Mitford famously traveled to Munich with the intention of meeting Hitler, who she stalked at his favorite lunch restaurant. She did manage to enter Hitlers inner circle; apparently he was thrilled by the support of a young, blond-blue-eyed British aristocrat from an important and prominent family, and even gave her an apartment so that she could remain near to him in Munich – after getting rid of its Jewish residents and redecorating it: “During his preparation for world war in the summer of 1939, he found time to arrange for a Jewish couple to be dispossessed from their apartment in Munich in order for Unity to have it.” Unity died of meningitis several years after she shot herself in the head upon learning that the UK was entering the war against Germany. She treasured her Nazi memorabilia to the end of her life.
Diane Mitford is remembered as beautiful and charming, rather than as a hate-filled anti-semitic fascist. She married the anti-semitic avowed Fascist Sir Oswald Mosely, founder of the Blackshirts and the British Union of Fascists, and was imprisoned as a supporter of the Nazis during World War II, however she was never cancelled. Following her internment, she was able essentially to pick up her high society life where she left off after the war, including reentry into (fascistic) politics. She never expressed any regret or sorrow, either for her personal regard and relationship with Hitler- who she never renounced, or her virulent anti-semitism. And she thrived.
Pam Mitford was a garden-variety anti-semite who made a comfortable life out of the headlines.
More than the spectacle of the Mitford girls, it is important to understand is the environment of endemic anti-semitism in the Mitford family and the peerage. As Unity Mitford’s biographer, David Pryce-Jones noted: “Her anti-Semitism, though bizarre in its manner of expression, was a faithful image of upper-class anti-Semitism.”
Who names their daughter “Valkerie”? Someone whose grandfather, the previous Lord Redesdale, was great friends and supporters of both Wagner and Houston Steward Chamberlain, the anti-Semite and “official philosopher of Nazism,” and whose other grandfather was also an anti-semite who “jeered at the Jews at the Wailing Wall.”
In software terms, racism of the British ruling classes isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. The Mitford girls grew up in a household where racism was commonplace, where their parents read – and apparently approved of – stereotypically anti-jewish books like Jud Süß (Suss the Jew) and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion: “In the copy of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion belonging to the Mitford family, Pryce-Jones found marginal comments made by Lady Redesdale (the lovable ‘Muv’): ‘Too true!’ ‘I always said so!’”
As her father, David Bertram Ogivley Freeman-Mitford and the 2nd Baron Redesdale made a series of bad investments he moved further to the right politically, joining among other anti-semitic organizations the Right Club, whose mission was “to oppose and expose the activities of Organized Jewry.” Both he and his wife Sydney (“Muv”) were favorably impressed by Hitler; while David later rejected the Nazis, Sydney remained sympathetic, and particularly well-impressed by her experience of meeting Hitler, who she said had good manners.
It is well established, if not well remembered, that support for European fascism in Italy and Germany was not uncommon among the peerage before World War II. Anti-semitism was also quite acceptable and reached the Monarchy.
Remember that even as recently as early 2005 Prince Harry felt comfortable wearing a Nazi uniform to a costume party event – possibly with no ill intentions but demonstrating either remarkable tone-deafness or having grown up in an environment where anti-semitism was unremarkable. And actions have consequences: published photos of Prince Harry in a Nazi uniform led to a rise in anti-semitic violence in 2005.
The roots of British racism – including anti-semitism – run deep, and the UK continues to reap what it has sown.
It is salutary that Prince Harry has now seen the corrosive impact of racism in his own life and is speaking out against it. Let’s hope that this is only the start of a life of activism against racism in all of its forms.
We all have an obligation to try to repair the injustices in the world, to mend the world and heal the divisions of the past to mitigate their effect on us in the present and for future generations.