Zionism, Aliyah, and the Jews of Glasgow: Belonging and Believing in Postwar Britain

Gavin Schaffer. Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies. Volume 37, Issue 3. Winter 2019.

Zionism did not become a central feature of British Jewish society until the 1930s. Prior to this period, while many of the world’s foremost Zionist leaders operated from London, British Jewry was divided and unsure about the desirability of a Jewish state. In the face of the government’s Balfour Declaration of 1917, while some Jews celebrated, others expressed anxiety and uncertainty, worried that the Declaration might undermine their rights as fully fledged Britons and draw their loyalties into question. Indeed, leading Jewish public figures worked to water down the Declaration, loosening its commitment to the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine, and highlighting the need to defend the rights of local Arab communities. In the face, however, of Nazi antisemitism and the Holocaust, British Zionists won control of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, and after the declaration of the State of Israel in 1948, there is little doubt that the great majority of British Jews supported the new state. In the postwar period, Zionism became a dominant force in British Jewish politics and identity, considered by some analysts as the bond holding communities together

Zionism came to Glasgow in the late nineteenth century after a branch of Chovevei Zion (Lovers of Zion) was established in 1891 under the leadership of David Wolff and Benjamin Wohlgemuth. Replacing Wohlgemuth, another Glaswegian Jew, Adolph Schoenfeld, attended the Second Zionist Congress in 1898 along with Wolff, and returned to serve as the first Chair of the Glasgow Zionist Association, pulling together competing Zionist groups in the city. A Zionist cycling and athletics organization was established at the end of the nineteenth century while the first Zionist women’s group in the city was formed in 1901. Although political divisions existed about whether Palestine, or another territory, offered the best national solution for international Jewry, a small number of Glaswegian Jews left to join the Yishuv in this period, some through the auspices of the Glasgow Agudas Olei Zion (Association of Immigrants to Zion). For most Scottish Zionists, however, commitment to the idea of a Jewish national home entailed educating themselves and their communities about Zionist ideology and campaigning for a Jewish state, while remaining in Glasgow. From as early as 1912 Glaswegian Jews fundraised for the Jewish National Fund (JNF) and campaigned in the local community to win favor for the Zionist cause. In 1919, in the wake of the Balfour Declaration, several small groups were amalgamated into the Glasgow Zionist Organisation. In the face of Nazi antisemitism, as in the rest of the United Kingdom, Zionism became mainstream within the Glasgow Jewish landscape, even more so after the Second World War, the Holocaust, and the establishment of the State of Israel. By the time of the Six-Day War in 1967, local religious activists complained that Zionism could galvanize the community in a way that Jewish religious practice no longer could.

This article will engage the history of Glaswegian Zionism, questioning what it might tell us about Jewish life in postwar Europe, and in Scotland and Britain specifically. More broadly, it will consider what Scottish Zionism may reveal about diasporic and religious identification in this period. If Zionism, as some have argued, became the focal point of Jewish life after the Second World War, then why was this the case? Was Zionist ideology, in a west-Scottish city with a history of enduring sectarianism, different to Zionism in England, and London in particular? After all, as Bradley has argued, “the potency of communal awareness” in west central Scotland has “no parallel in the UK apart from in Northern Ireland.” Did Glaswegian Zionism thus epitomize a broader rift between Jews and non-Jews in Britain, evidencing feelings of Jewish exclusion and non-belonging in the British multicultural state? To answer these questions this article will interrogate the postwar records of Zionist organizations in Glasgow and the local Jewish press, and engage oral history interviews with two Glaswegian Jews (and a further British Jew who worked in the community in Glasgow) who migrated to Israel as a result of engagement with the Habonim youth movement. Habonim, it will be argued below, in many ways exemplifies the social and cultural fissures of this period, encapsulating some of the key challenges facing Britain in the 1960s and 1970s.

The Rise of Glaswegian Zionism

There can be little doubt that Jewish religious practice was in decline in postwar Britain. While this was a nationwide trend, the change in Jewish life in Glasgow (alongside other provincial communities) was particularly striking. In the last sixty years the city’s Jewish population has shrunk, according to some estimates, by three quarters, from sixteen thousand to four thousand, with only four of thirteen synagogues surviving. The city’s nine kosher butchers and five kosher bakeries have disappeared, leaving one delicatessen and a Lubavitch-run restaurant. This decline in religious affiliation has been similar to that experienced across British society writ large, and is not specifically a Jewish phenomenon. As author and writer Norman Cohen explained to a 1962 conference held by the Institute of Contemporary Jewry of the Hebrew University, “The question of religious trends in Anglo-Jewry cannot be separated from the general picture of religious observance to be found in the non-Jewish world.”20 Religion in general, he noted, was “at a low ebb.” Scholars of religious change in postwar Scotland have highlighted the extent to which this, indeed, was the case. From the 1960s, Callum Brown has argued, religious identification across faiths in Scotland entered a “free fall” that “has not been halted to date.”

In an atmosphere of rising secularism, Norman Cohen concluded, the “middle of the road Jew,” devotional yet moderate, was not walking “between the two opposite walls of fanaticism and assimilation” but instead “crossing a road from immigration to disappearance.” Speaking at the same conference, statisticians S. J. Prais and Marlena Schmool noted the “drastic fall in the rate of synagogue marriages,” a trend, they argued, that “must give concern to all sections of the community.” To Prais and Schmool, the decline in religious marriages related to Jews feeling settled in Britain, safe enough within the bosom of the nation to allow themselves to be incorporated within it. It was credible, they asserted, that “so long as the parents were born abroad, the children tended to marry within the community; but where the parents were born and educated in this country, the tendency for their children to marry outside the synagogue becomes stronger.” Speaking at a Board of Deputies conference on the subject of Jewish life in modern Britain in 1977, sociologist Ernest Krausz painted a similar picture of Jews losing their religion. “Acculturation,” he explained, “seems to be the order of the day” for British Jewry. Jewishness in Britain, he continued, was increasingly “an identity stripped of meaningful content and held together simply by association.” Krausz’s research, however, focused on a suburb in North West London. How would “acculturation” play out in a city with more heightened and entrenched religious divisions like Glasgow? In this kind of environment, Jewish nationalism seems to have taken on even greater importance, increasingly defining the community and shaping its agendas.

Scholars have been quick to emphasize the engagement of “ethnic defense” to preserve older religious affiliations in secularizing communities, and the manner in which “individuals reformulated secular moral identities for themselves” in postwar Britain. Especially in Scotland, where “political activity often reflects an ethno-religious consciousness,” Zionism was ideally placed to re-focus Jewish affiliation. On these terms, the Zionist Federation played a key role in providing the Jewish education that was seen as so vital to maintaining Jewish identities in a climate of religious decline. By the mid-1970s most children receiving Jewish education in Britain were learning in Torah im Derech Eretz schools established by the Zionist Federation. Here, Zionism was seen as serving a function beyond its immediate ideological remit. Dow Marmur, Chairman of the Council of Reform and Liberal Rabbis, explained how Israeli “revival of the Hebrew language,” “emphasis on the study of Bible and Talmud” and observance of Jewish festivals offered “a unique opportunity of turning the profane into the holy.”

In Glasgow, the power of Zionism to bring Jews together in the place of religion was noted by Tova Benski in her 1981 survey of group relations in the city. Israel, Benski explained, had become “a symbol that they are proud to identify with and which gives them a sense of belonging and security around which their secular-national identity evolves.”30 Amid this model of Jewish identification, there was little doubt that the routines of synagogal life were losing their grip in comparison. Facing the challenge of the Six-Day War, one congregant wrote to the local Jewish newspaper to complain that while one thousand people had come to a Sunday night meeting to discuss “the crisis in Israel,” only “people turned up at a Glasgow synagogue.” For a “gigantic majority” of the city’s Jews, the writer bemoaned, “there seems to be no place in the scheme of things for God.” And if the rise of Zionism called into question the relevance of traditional Jewish practice, so too did it open discussion about where Jews truly belonged. For the Jewish community of Glasgow, the possibility of migrating to the State of Israel, of “making aliyah” in Zionist parlance, simmered within Zionist endeavor.

The term aliyah has origins in scripture, describing the ascent of Jews to the Temple to offer sacrifices. It was later incorporated into Jewish traditions to describe “coming up” to the bima to read from the Torah in synagogue, as well as the act of making pilgrimages to Palestine. In the Zionist imagination the term was appropriated to denote broader currents of Jewish immigration to Palestine. As Baruch Kimmerling explains, “Zionist terminology incorporated the term for any kind of immigration to Eretz Israel or Israel, in order to present the act as ideological-Zionist immigration.” Aliyah as a descriptor was far from value-neutral, suggesting altruistic, community-minded migrants who came to Israel not just to live but to build a country for the world’s Jews. In the Zionist mind frame, Jews moving to the Yishuv and to Israel were not ordinary migrants or refugees. Instead, they were constructed as “a unique phenomenon,” a people returning from exile who were very much conscious of their “homecoming.” In this way, Jewish migrants “engage[d] more in an ascent than in an act of immigration,” realizing the true essence of their being, and leaving their past lives as part of a conscious recognition of the “primordial” nature of their Jewishness.

In Britain, the idea of aliyah became a significant part of the machinery of Jewish communal leadership after Israel’s creation. Local communities set up committees of people minded to migrate, and national organizations, such as the Board of Deputies, held seminars on aliyah and adapted their infrastructure to support it. Speaking to the Twenty-Sixth Zionist Congress in 1964, the President of the Board of Deputies saluted “the more than 12000 Jewish settlers from Britain” in Israel and explained that British Jewry was “proud of our sons and daughters who are making such a personal contribution to the upbuilding” of the nation. Writing in a Jewish Chronicle supplement about aliyah in 1978, Menachem Begin waxed lyrical about the impact of British olim in terms that suggested that British Zionism was a formidable force: “From the inception of Zionism to this very day, the great Anglo-Jewish community has played a vital role in the upbuilding and development of the Jewish State. Few communities have such a proud record of Aliyah. Indeed, in every sector of life, olim from the United Kingdom are represented—often prominently. One meets them in the settlements and in the towns, in the universities and in government, in industry and in our defence enterprises. Israel is the richer and stronger for their magnificent contributions.” The realities of British aliyah were, however, rather more modest as Begin, who was never one to miss an opportunity to proselytize, knew very well. As Elazar Leshem and Judith Shuval have noted, Jews from affluent and safe western countries “did not ‘rise up’ and come” to Israel. Indeed, only months after the State’s creation, David Ben Gurion was approaching relations with Jewish communities in Britain and the United States on the basis that they would mostly be useful to Israel as supporters from afar.

In Jewish communities in Glasgow, aliyah was promoted to local Jews from a young age, most obviously (though far from exclusively) through the work of the Habonim youth movement. Habonim was founded in 1929 in Whitechapel as a socialist scouting movement, set up to “prevent young Jews being lost to Judaism.” The Gedud [Battalion] in Glasgow was established “almost simultaneously” with London in 1929, led by Dora Stelmack and David Mossinson. Although formed initially as a Jewish scouting movement inspired by Zionism, Habonim formally adopted the goal of “building Palestine as the Jewish national home” in 1934, becoming “the first of the British chalutz [pioneer] movements.” To this end, the movement trained young members for life in Palestine, offering a program of elaborate Zionist education in local branch meetings and summer camps, and sending enthusiastic members to hachsharah [training] centers, farms owned by the movement, designed to teach the agricultural and communal living skills that would be needed on kibbutz in Palestine.

Between 1933 and 1970, Habonim ran seventeen hachsharah centers across England, most famously the new David Eder farm in Horsham, which closed finally in 1970. Other movements active in Glasgow, such as the religious Zionist B’nai Akiva, ran similar hachsharah programs for their members, most famously at Thaxted in Essex. From hachsharah, or sometimes directly following leadership roles in youth movements, members were encouraged to make aliyah, often as part of peer group cohorts called garin [literally, “seed” or “nucleus”]. Glasgow’s migrants made their mark on the Palestinian/Israeli landscape. While initially supporting the establishment of Kibbutz Kfar Blum in 1943, members founded Kibbutz Kfar Hanassi in 1948 and played a key role in providing personnel for a series of other kibbutzim across the country. The numbers involved in such programs were not insignificant, Bermant claiming that three thousand Habonim members had moved to Israel by the end of the 1960s. Moreover, other socialist movements, like Hashomer Hatzair, and the religious Zionist B’nai Akiva, established their own kibbutzim for British members.

For enthusiastic Glasgow Habonim members, the organization offered a serious alternative to traditional streams of British Jewish youth culture and identity. One member, here anonymized with the name Margaret, recalled the extent to which she perceived a difference between Habonim and the more traditional 7.30 Club in Glasgow, where Jewish young people could come for traditional dances. With both sexes in Habonim wearing identical scouting uniforms, and makeup banned, the organization drove a “sense of equality” and broke down “socio-economic barriers.” Habonim members were keen to emphasize their difference and challenge traditional community structures. Margaret remembers “breaking in” to the 7.30 Club with fellow members in blue Habonim uniforms, “dancing a hora and taking it over.” A world away from dance nights in Glasgow, being in Habonim entailed a serious commitment to Zionist education. Margaret remembers “standing under a lamppost with a guy until midnight while he explained Borochov’s pyramids.” There was, she recalls, “a sense of total involvement” among members. Another Glasgow participant (anonymized here as Gary) recalled his time on hachsharah at the David Eder farm as “very intense.” “Sharing everything” in the spirit of Kibbutz life, the farm led 80 to 90 percent of his hachsharah peers to Israel, nearly all to Kfar Hanassi, where he himself ended up migrating.

The appeal of Habonim seems, to some extent, to have been rooted in a desire to promote a new kind of Judaism, away from religious Jewish life, and instead in Jewish nationalism infused with Jewish culture. One migrant who led the Habonim group in Glasgow (here anonymized as Ben) described his role as trying to “unlock this treasure [Judaism] for secular youth … to bring Jewish groups back into the heritage which they had pushed away because it smacked of religion.” For Margaret, Habonim’s approach to Judaism was liberating and inspiring. A world away from traditional synagogal learning, she described it as an “enlightenment,” a “renaissance,” “amazing.”

If, however, the decline of religion and desire for new forms of Jewish identification drove Zionist endeavor in the postwar period, the atmosphere was also significantly colored by the awareness of antisemitism, and specifically the legacy of the Holocaust. Robin Cohen has explained how diasporic Zionism in the postwar was bolstered by “a feeling of relief that the remnants of European Jewry had been saved.” In this context, Sternhell argues, Zionism “gained a moral basis, an urgency, and an international support that it had never had in the past.” In Britain, the impact of the Holocaust on young Zionists was obvious. Chaim Bermant recalled how his hachsharah experience under German Jewish youth leaders shaped his understanding of the potential of Jewish life outside of Israel. These refugees, Bermant recalled, made it quite clear that “what happened in Germany could happen in Britain.” Aryeh Wolfin, who grew up in Britain and migrated to Kfar Hanassi, recalled how German refugees staying with his family served as “live witnesses of the anti-Semitic atrocities in Nazi Germany, which even at the age of six and seven made a profound impression on me.” In Glasgow, the legacy of the Holocaust loomed large in Zionist activities long into the postwar period. For example, the treasurer of Glasgow’s Western branch of WIZO (the Women’s International Zionist Organisation), Fanny Glasser, included the following Holocaust history in her annual financial report for 1977-78: “In 1939, we saw the gathering clouds, which enveloped our people and almost the whole of civilisation in darkness. In this country, we were presented in May, 1939, with the White Paper, which virtually closed the gates to Jews entering into their promised land, and within three months the signing of the treaty of the Soviets and the Nazis, which gave the green light to the Nazis to carry out their diabolical and barbaric policy which led to the Holocaust.” After Glasser’s death, a tribute written by her peers in WIZO highlighted the extent to which the Holocaust had driven her personal commitment to Zionism. Noting her regular visits to Israel, the tribute highlighted how “on every trip to Jerusalem, her first visit was to Yad Vashem to pay homage to those who died in the concentration camps and who were victims of the Holocaust.”

In Habonim, the impact of the Holocaust seems to have been similarly substantial in shaping engagement with Zionism. Margaret, for example, recalls the “gradual awareness” of the Holocaust in 1950s Britain, during which she read more about the subject by borrowing her mother’s growing “cache of books.” Knowledge of the Holocaust took a psychological toll, undermining Margaret’s feelings of safety and security. Looking back on her childhood in Glasgow, where her family faced some antisemitism, she recalls, “I just remember as a kid if I had a nightmare it was to do with the Nazis knocking on my door.” These fears were underwritten by the knowledge that only a coincidence of geography had protected her and her family from the genocide: “If I had been born in France, if I had been born in Germany, that would have been me”—a realization, she recalls, that “no doubt coloured my Zionism.” In this atmosphere, the presence of the State of Israel, with its open door for international Jewish refugees, offered important reassurance. Margaret remembers feeling, “This has to be the next step, there has to be a place.” This thinking was far from the preserve of one individual, as Tova Benski revealed. Meeting local Jews, she recalls having Zionist sympathies explained to her in these very terms: “They stated that ‘We must have a country of our own: none of us is safe here, you know.'”

Nowhere was the link between the State of Israel and the Holocaust more evident than in Glaswegian Jewish responses to the Six-Day War of 1967. Fearing that the State faced annihilation in the conflict, Glasgow’s Jewish communities went to great lengths to support Israel, support that was underwritten by the widely held idea that Israel’s conflict with her Arab neighbors was a continuation of the Holocaust. The Egyptian leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Rabbi Herman told his flock at Giffnock Synagogue, “was the Egyptian personification of Hitler.” In the Jewish Echo, three days before the conflict, a cartoon showed six Arab leaders sitting around a table in a “deadly séance”: “Are you there, Adolf,” they asked. “What next?” Non-Jews rallied to the cause driven by similar thinking. One student, volunteering for Israel in the conflict, told the Jewish Echo that he was “not prepared to see another two million Jews slaughtered.”

For many Habonim members, the Six-Day War necessitated immediate volunteering in Israel, or at least total dedication to the cause by supporting the movement in Britain. Preceding the conflict, Garin Zayin, the latest peer group preparing for aliyah, released a statement recording their “immediate readiness to volunteer our services at the direction of the Government of Israel.” On these terms, all Habonim members at the David Eder Farm informed the Israeli embassy that they were “ready to go.” Habonim as a movement donated “all of its funds,” totaling £18,000, to the Joint Palestine Appeal (JPA) emergency fund leaving it with an “empty kitty.” This dedication to the cause was evident in Margaret’s and Ben’s response to the crisis in Glasgow. On the verge of getting married, the couple brought forward their wedding (scheduled for November) so that they could go to Israel as volunteers. Margaret recalls how she was granted a new passport (in her married name) in “half an hour” and gained permission to wed at short notice from the High Sheriff of the city. The accommodating nature of Glaswegian officials blends in her memory with recollections of the city’s antisemitism: “This is how much they loved us … when they thought we were going to be obliterated.” Having successfully secured flights, the couple spent the summer volunteering at Kibbutz Amiad, a northern kibbutz which had been bolstered by an earlier Garin of Habonim volunteers.

The majority of Habonim members, however, and the majority of Glasgow’s Jews, did not join the war effort in Israel, but instead raised money and lobbied for the cause from their home communities. Overall, the response of British Jewry to the Six-Day War was substantial and revealing. In the immediate aftermath of the conflict, the Jewish Chronicle reported that British Jewry had donated a sum of eleven million pounds, which would normally have taken five years of fundraising. In Hyde Park and at the Royal Albert Hall, crowds of five thousand rallied to support Israel, displays of loyalty that were replicated on a smaller scale across the country. In Glasgow, the Jewish Echo reported how the Jewish community, “as one man,” had “sprung to aid Israel” through the emergency appeal. Without regard for their businesses, the Echo explained, “40-50 men” met each afternoon “to plan and personally carry out the most intensive drive for Israel in the history of the Glasgow Jewish community.” Twelve hundred people attended a rally in support of Israel at the Couper Institute, and donations poured in from across and beyond the Jewish community. The Jewish Echo told of an elderly man who “gave his watch to the fund” as he was unable to offer money, as well as of a “non-Jewish woman from Baillieston” who came on the bus to donate two pounds to the cause.

All in all, having grown stronger over the course of the century, by the time of the Six-Day War, Zionism had become a major force in Glasgow, an increasingly popular manifestation of Jewish identity and commitment. And yet the distance between Israel and Glasgow, ideologically as well as geographically, remained. The overwhelming majority of Glasgow’s Jews did not move to Israel, nor did the Jewish state become central to the lives of many (perhaps most) of Glasgow’s Jews even amid the 1967 crisis. As one Glasgow migrant in Israel lamented in the midst of the Six-Day War, the temporary Jewish display of commitment was the exception, not the norm. Sylvia Lyon told the Jewish Echo: “I only wished they [Glasgow Jews] cared so much in better times. I really do not feel that the Jewish world had genuinely made an effort over the years to assist in creating a strong, flourishing country … There is much sentimental attachment to the country but that is all when you get down to it.” Of course, this lament aptly described some Glasgow Jews and certainly not others. Yet across all shades of support for Israel within the community, it is arguable that a distinct position, separate from Israeli Zionism, was consistently observable. Wendehorst has described this identification as a “diaspora sub-nationalism,” that is, an ideology which operated within and alongside over-arching Jewish commitment to Britain. Most manifestations of British Zionism, he concludes, “were compatible with advancement in British society.” This analysis certainly helps to explain Jewish behaviors, which were often built upon, and not oppositional to, British political and cultural identities. In the heightened sectarian atmosphere of Glasgow, the interplay of transnational and national affiliations was indeed unexceptional. But the distinct nature of Glasgow Jewish engagement with Zionism points to something further, specifically to the nature of diasporic consciousness on a larger scale. It exposes the ways in which people construct and use the concept of homeland in diasporic identification, and in political campaigning. Israel, in the end, meant a diverse range of things to Glaswegian Jews, and was a concept that belonged to their personal psychological weltanschauung, not to the vision of the State as articulated on the ground in Israel.

The Distance between Glaswegian Jews and the State of Israel

When Glaswegian Jews engaged with Israel, they did so as Scots and as Britons. In this context, it is possible to see Scottish Zionism as rooted in broader trends of British thinking in the post-war period, feeding from ideas that did not have a specifically, or at least entirely, Jewish root. For example, those Jews who left to join kibbutzim through Habonim were sometimes not so much interested in Zionism but instead in the rejection of capitalism and conservatism, and in achieving radical new lifestyles in keeping with international 1960s youth culture. A letter collectively signed by the Habonim hachsharah community in 1959 explained that the movement was “revolutionary,” rooted in “disillusionment with the structure of our parents’ society and determination to create something which is more worthwhile to us.” In a contribution to the Habonim newsletter, long-standing member Phil Moleman explained that he had joined in search of “the simple life, free from the artificial values of modern society in the European world.” Exasperated by the nationalism within the movement, Moleman resigned from Habonim rather than live in Israel. As a socialist, he explained, he found the “chauvinistic” atmosphere in Israel “abhorrent.” What he had believed was a movement of “revolutionary fervour,” he feared was “becoming the Scout movement of the Zionist Federation.”

To most members, however, radical socialism and Zionism felt compatible. Margaret, for example, not only thought that Habonim in Glasgow offered a departure from traditional Jewish life, but similarly felt a counter-cultural draw to kibbutz. For her, volunteering in the Six-Day War felt like an international statement of radical youth culture, a “phenomenon”: “The youth of the world were here … this was the place to come and help.” Perhaps inevitably, life on kibbutz could not live up to these expectations. The people Margaret found that she had “most in common with” were not the kibbutzniks themselves but the “volunteers who were on their way to Kabul and passing through.” Nonetheless, life in Habonim and migration to kibbutz enabled a personal radical journey for her and others. In Habonim, Margaret recalls, “people found themselves. Found who they could be.” For Gary, aliyah offered an opportunity for a different kind of life. After all, he recalls, it was a “new state,” and it was “exciting to be part of something.”

As these young people’s search for new radical lifestyles suggest, Glasgow-Zionist engagement with Israel was guided and shaped at every stage by local and national politics, and never fully incorporated into any international melting pot of Zionist thinking, comprehensible instead in terms of the process of secularization in 1960s Scotland. As Ruth Gilbert has noted, Israel served as an “imaginary landscape” for British Jews, onto which they could project their desires, fears, and ideology. On these terms, a significant distance could exist between Glaswegian Zionism and Israel, one that could and did flare up during close encounters and periods of tension. Glasgow’s WIZO, for example, maintained a consistent commitment to helping all people in Israel, regardless of whether they were Jewish or not, a policy which emphasized a specific vision of Zionism which aimed to support Arabs as well as Jews. When, in 1957, WIZO advertised a coffee morning in the Glasgow Herald to support fundraising for an Israeli children’s home, Dorothy Cosgrove explained the home’s values: “Here, there is no difference between Arab and Jew … Arab children from the friendly Arab village of Abu Ghosh are accepted side by side with the children of Jewish refugees from Arab countries.” In the wake of the Six-Day War, WIZO held an “austerity luncheon” in conjunction with Oxfam, raising money for “the Arab refugees in Israeli occupied territory.” Of course, raising money for Israel’s Arab communities and for displaced Palestinians, as well as for Jewish Israelis, did not in and of itself reveal a difference between Glaswegian and Israeli Zionism, but it did indicate a distinct local agenda which was brought sharply into focus by an advertisement placed in the Jewish Echo by the Glasgow Zionist Organisation in 1988, during the first Palestinian Intifada. Here, a set of signatories from the Organisation urged the Israeli government to negotiate with the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), and described the occupied territories as a “cancer in the heart of Israeli society.” This advertisement drew quick condemnation from others within the GZO, and more broadly in Glasgow Jewish communities. In its aftermath, a debate was held on the issue, which revealed the level of communal disagreement. Nonetheless, this advertisement well highlights the idiosyncrasies of Glaswegian Zionism, which was nurtured and evolved locally, showed a good deal of Scottish and British political values and agendas, and grew separately from (and was not always in accord with) the politics of the Israeli state.

The British nature of Glaswegian engagement with Zionism did not only show through progressive and radical politics but also through an atmosphere of colonial superiority and condescension. A WIZO report from 1973 recorded the Israeli challenge of “integrat[ing] women from backward countries,” while an article from 1966 promoted the need to help women who are “unable to cope with the demands of modern society.” More broadly, Glaswegian Zionism bought heavily into the idea that the Israelis were restoring the land to civilization, and were the only people able to achieve progress in the face of primitive Arab communities. A 1953 article written for a “Blue and White Bazaar” fundraising drive to support a land reclaim scheme in the Hulah Valley was titled “Conquest of the Wilderness.” It explained how the land had been “destroyed by man in ignorance and neglect” and needed Zionist ownership to restore its potential: “Hand in hand with the transfer of land in Israel to the ownership of the Jewish people, goes the restoration of the soil to fruitfulness. Today, its resources are buried by centuries of neglect, hidden under deserts and swamps, covered by a crust of waste. Redemption from desolation must go together with redemption from alien ownership.”

Of course, this kind of imperial paternalism was far from the preserve of Glaswegian Jews, or any Jews, in Britain in this period. Indeed, this is exactly the point. Underwritten variously by youthful commitment to counter-culture, by left-wing/progressive commitments to Arab rights, and by an underlying colonial imagination, Glaswegian Zionism represented in microcosm British politics and society writ large in this period as much as it represented any international Jewish ideology. Ultimately, Glaswegian Zionists were Glaswegians, and Britons, and their engagement with the Zionist cause was always on these terms. That this was the case is shown further by the limits of Zionist endeavor, which in many ways reduced the ideology to a fringe/social commitment.

For many Glaswegian Jews, Zionism operated within set boundaries of associational life, providing a backdrop to social activities often in the place of religious devotion. For most, as the Chairman of the GZO complained in his 1975 annual report, Zionism meant “simply fund-raising,” and not moving to Israel. Another chairman of the GZO noted that Glaswegian Jews were “confused in their minds” about what Zionism meant in the 1960s. Now that Israel existed for Jewish refugees from other countries, what need was there to continue to associate with the cause? Of course, the Six-Day War brought the meaning of Zionism back into focus, but even here Glaswegian Jews simply seem to have incorporated Zionism into existing social commitments and habits, reflecting broader patterns of “ethnic defense” in this period. For example, WIZO’s “Garden Fayre” (albeit without “floral decorations” as a mark of respect) took place as planned during the conflict. The minutes of the first WIZO meeting after the War (one day after its conclusion) recorded the success of the fayre before moving on to discuss the emergency appeal. Time and again, in subsequent minutes, Zionist fundraising events such as card evenings, cocktail parties and “Bring and Buy” sales were described as successes “socially and financially.” The guests of one card evening in 1969, minutes noted, were treated to whisky and sherry, salmon and chopped fish, all served by “two waitresses and a lady to wash up.” Israel may have been the cause, but it was mostly incorporated within Scottish-Jewish associational life, with a desire to socialize with likeminded community members often being at the heart of the activity. Chaim Bermant was dismissive of these Zionist women as he pondered their priorities: “If a hotel is new enough, posh enough and well-enough appointed, it can look to considerable custom from the FWZ.”

Those who chose to move their lives to Israel were considered exceptions to the norm, as if they had transgressed the unspoken parameters of healthy Zionist commitment. As Margaret recalls, when she told her family that she was going to make aliyah, her mother responded by complaining that she “never meant you to take it this seriously.” Parents who sent their children to Zionist youth movements more often than not had little idea that aliyah would be on the agenda. Gary explained that he was “shipped off” to Habonim by his parents in the same manner that they encouraged him to join the “cubs” and the “cadets.” Similarly, participants themselves mostly joined Zionist youth movements out of a desire to socialize with their peer-group, not out of ideological zeal. For example, Chaim Bermant remembered joining Glasgow’s B’nai Akiva “by accident,” finding companionship in “the other dozen or so Glasgow youngsters of my age who did not go to football matches on Shabbat, and two or three good-looking girls.” Only “a year or two” later did he realize “that one’s Zionism need not be limited to alms-giving and prayer.” And having been through the ideological inspiration of Habonim, many youth-movement-inspired migrants ultimately found that Israel was not for them. Gary remembers the number of people in his garin who “came and went” having found that kibbutz life was not what they wanted. Similarly, Bermant recalled how one of his Zionist youth leaders left for Israel only to be “back in Glasgow a month later, looking a little shamefaced and forlorn.” While migration to Israel changed for good the lives of some of Glasgow’s Jews, for the majority commitment to the cause would mean continuing to live in Britain, and allowing Zionism to occupy a place in their social and cultural lives.


In the postwar period, Glasgow’s Jewish population has shrunk to roughly four thousand people. While numerical decline has been experienced across British Jewry, the dramatic level of change in Glasgow indicates not only assimilation, but also a desire of Jews to live in bigger Jewish communal centers. Israel has benefited from this desire but on nothing like the scale of London or Manchester. And yet, Israel and Zionism did become the core features of Glaswegian Jewish life in this period, as Glaswegian Jews reworked their identities in a sectarian but increasingly secular city. While commitment to the cause may not frequently have led to migration, the relationship between Glasgow and Israel does prompt important questions, most obviously relating to Jewish identity, ethnicity and sense of belonging in postwar Scotland, and Britain more broadly. Two factors in particular bear consideration here. Firstly, as Wendehorst and others have asserted, it seems unarguable that Zionism filled a space in the lives of Jews in the place of religion. Looking at the associational life of Glasgow’s Jewish communities in the postwar, it is clear that the cause of Israel oiled the machinery of Jewish life, bringing people together and giving them a shared focus in what remained an ethnically conscious environment. This new fashioning of Jewish identity not only spoke to rising secularism but also to anxieties about antisemitism, rooted in an evolving Holocaust consciousness, which focused Glaswegian Jewish minds on the need to safeguard Jewish ethnicity around the world. Indeed, Israel occupied postwar British Zionists not so much as an ideological homeland but as a beacon of hope in the fight against international antisemitism. The report of Harry Stone, Chairman of the Glasgow Zionist Organisation, after the Six-Day War, highlighted the extent to which British Zionism incorporated a desire to defend Jewry across the world. He explained: “We are one people with one joint responsibility. During the past year we have suffered grave tragedies with loss of life. We are deeply concerned with the anti-Semitic actions of the Polish government, the fate of the Jews in Russia and our co-religionists in the Arab countries.” Glasgow, a dwindling yet determined Jewish center, seized upon Zionism to this end, as a mechanism to defend international Jewry and provide a refuge against antisemitism in an increasingly secular post-Holocaust society. At the same time, Zionism as a communal activity provided fresh meaning and impetus to Glasgow Jewish life. As Scots and Britons, Glasgow’s Jews articulated their support for Israel as a safeguard of Jewish futures in an age of decline. For most, this devotion contributed a new flavor to ethnic consciousness in Scotland. For some, Israel offered the promise of a new life, and a new way to be Jewish.