Foreign Jews Protection ctte petition East London Observer 5th Aug 1916 – Copyright Tower hamlets Library

As the Nineteenth Century came to a close the established Anglo-Jewish community, which had strived for several generations to adopt the norms of English society, viewed with some dismay the arrival of thousands of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe and Russia.  The latter brought with them the language, customs and religious practices which many English Jews had sought to put behind them in their efforts to be accepted as members of English society.

At the start of WWI some of the new immigrants had become naturalized citizens, but the majority had not. The Aliens Restriction Act of 1914 confirmed the legal distinction between citizens and resident aliens, regardless of the latter’s country of origin. Only citizens could enlist in the army. Jewish publications and recruitment posters urged Jewish men to show their patriotism and to enlist to fight for their country. 

Copyright Library of Congress

When recruitment failed to reach the numbers needed, the Military Service Act of 1916 made military service compulsory for all adult male citizens between the ages of eighteen and forty. Local military tribunals were set up to evaluate those who claimed exemption from conscription. 

It is estimated that 90% of young Anglo-Jewish men of military age fought for Britain. The more recent immigrants, including those who had become naturalized citizens,  were far more ambivalent about their obligation to fight for the country they had come to seeking asylum. Britain’s alliance with Russia was unpopular with a population that had left Russia to escape persecution and forced military conscription.

Some felt they would face anti-semitism in the army and that it would be impossible to observe Jewish law. Many felt they could not abandon their families, and businesses only recently established. More self-interestedly, government war contracts for uniforms, boots, etc offered commercial opportunities for the many Jewish tailors and cabinet makers, which led to accusation of profiteering and job-snatching. 

Anglo Russian Convention August 1917 – copyright Jewish Museum

There were also political factors. The East End’s political scene included many Jewish socialists and anarchists who viewed the war as the interest of capitalists and imperialists, in which the workers had no stake.

Appeals to the Military Tribunals by Jewish recently naturalized citizens fed existing prejudices about the Jewish community.  Throughout the spring and summer of 1916 tribunals for naturalized citizens from Russia, Poland, Germany, Austria and other European countries were told in no uncertain terms that the price of their residence and shelter in Britain was service in the army. 

In 1914, Britain’s Jewish population was broadly divided between the established Anglo-Jewish component, and the much larger community of more recently-arrived Eastern European immigrants. Anglo-Jews were keen to prove their loyalty and patriotism, and it has been estimated that 90% of young Anglo-Jewish men of military age fought for Britain1

However, the immigrant community was much more ambivalent about the conflict. While some Jewish immigrants were proud to fight for their new country, most declined to enlist. This attracted public resentment and hostility against the Jewish community in general. There were many reasons for not wanting to fight.   Questions of identity were paramount.  Many amongst the immigrant community saw themselves as neither British nor Russian, but simply as Jews, and felt that the war had little to do with them.

The Military Service (Conventions with Allied States) Act of July 1917 turned the attention of the military tribunals to ‘friendly aliens’, a group that did not enjoy the same legal protections as the naturalized citizens of immigrant background. Russian subjects resident in Britain were especially targeted. The Act gave them the choice between conscription and deportation. Fight for Great Britain or fight for Russia. A notice was sent to several thousand Jewish homes in September 1917.

‘Take notice that facilities have been provided for you to return to Russia under the above Act, and in order to avail yourself of them you must be at Euston Station, platform 14, at 11:30p.m. on Saturday, September 29th….Not more than two packages of combined weight of not more than 150 lbs can be taken, and each package must have a label attached with the words ‘Russian Convention’ and the name and serial number of the owner clearly written on them.
You are not allowed to take with you letters, English gold or intoxicating liquor. You are advised to take food for the railway journey.
If you fail to avail yourself of this opportunity to return to Russia the necessary steps to enforce your liability to serve in the British army will be taken as soon as possible.’

It is unlikely that anyone deported would have seen active service, as the journey was long, hazardous and slow, and just a few months later came the Revolution. Russia made an independent peace and withdrew from the war.

It is estimated that there were between 25-31,000 Russian subjects of military age in Britain, the majority of them Jews.

By the end of the war an estimated three thousand Russian emigres had been repatriated back to Russia, some motivated by the desire to help build a new, socialist society.  They arrived however to find the country in total collapse, with no welcome prepared or roles available to them, and many were never heard from again³. Of the rest, about 8,000 would ultimately serve in the British army, mostly in the Jewish battalions in Palestine or the non-combatant labour battalions.  Thousands more claimed exemption at the Military Service tribunals, or went into hiding until the end of the war.

About 8,000 would ultimately serve in the British army, in the Jewish battalions in Palestine or the non-combatant labour battalions set up from August 1917. Thousands more claimed exemption at the Military Service tribunals, or went into hiding until the end of the war.

There were of course those also who did not want to fight, either on religious or political grounds and for recent immigrants to Britain, the prospect of war was particularly troublesome.

Currie explains: “There were real problems for the Russian immigrants. They didn’t feel British, they couldn’t speak English and they were reluctant to serve alongside the very people they had just fled from persecution.

“Many had escaped the Russian draft – conditions in the Russian army were horrific and in the mid-19th Century, you had to serve 25 years or more if you were Jewish. But there did come a time when they were expected to join the British army or face deportation. Some did actually return, while others simply disappeared.”

A few were exempted, but others were forced to serve as non-combatants or faced imprisonment with hard labour, as in the case of Morris Miller, who joined 1,000 other conscientious objectors at Dartmoor Prison.


Russia or Britain – take your pick!

Immigrant Jews who had arrived in the UK before 1914 did not need to become naturalised in order to live and work in the UK and some never did. Russian Jews in particular often never applied for UK citizenship for themselves or their children. Distrustful of authority and with no need for citizenship to access any welfare provisions (there was no welfare state) they simply didn’t bother. They resided largely in the East End of London where they could live without engaging outside of their known community. Anglo-Jewry did encourage the Russian Jews to get citizenship, just as they encouraged them to learn English, to send their children to school and to start to assimilate themselves into British society. Some of the immigrant communities were keen to take up the chance to become British and to ‘fit in’

Once the war started there was a question of what the Russian Jews living in the UK should do. Recruitment posters were put up encouraging Jews to enlist and the posters were in Yiddish to encourage the recent immigrants as well. As foreign nationals they were unable to join the British forces so those who had been born in the UK to foreign parents were encouraged to acquire citizenship to do so. That still left the problem of those who were born elsewhere but were now resident in the UK. Having large numbers of men of military age not engaged with the war effort became a source of embarrassment for Anglo-Jewry and a number of conversations began about what should be done. 

Once conscription was introduced in 1916 the community became even more concerned that the Jewish community must be seen to be doing ‘its bit’. Posters in the Jewish Chronicle and the Jewish World newspapers as well as elsewhere declared that THERE MUST BE NO JEWISH SLACKERS’ encouraging everyone possible to join up. Discussions with Russia led to the passing on 8 June 1916 by the War Office of Army Council Instruction 1156 (ACI 1156) that confirmed that all friendly aliens would now be permitted join the British forces.

Information sourced from:

Auerbach, Sascha (2007), ‘Negotiating Nationalism: Jewish Conscription and Russian Repatriation in London’s East End, 1916-1918’, in Journal of British Studies 46 (July 2007): pp594-620. Downloaded from

Bermant, Chaim (1975), London’s East End: Point of Arrival, Macmillan Publishing, New York), 292pp.

Lush, Karen, (Source Jews who did not want to fight)