Monday 19 August 2013, 14:38
When we think of anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish demonstrations or riots it is all too easy to imagine that they were confined just to places and times like 19th century Czarist Russia and, more recently, the Nazi state in Germany.
It is comforting for us to imagine or believe that such things could never happen here, in Britain. We are more tolerant, more accepting, we tend to think. But, in the early years of the 20th century, they did.
In the summer and autumn of 1911 a wave of discontent spread like wildfire across south Wales. It was social, economic and political unrest, based around lack of money and poor living conditions, that had a variety of targets – the railway company in Llanelli, Chinese immigrants in Cardiff. And, in Tredegar and several other Monmouthshire towns, that unrest and ill-will was aimed at the Jewish community.
By 1911 Tredegar, an iron town that had flourished in the 19th century, was caught in the grip of economic depression. To begin with there had been a serious and long-running coal strike, miners from the Cambrian group of pits having been out of work for over a year. Wage reductions were implemented in several other industries and that meant money was tight. It was inevitable that, as a consequence, prices for basic food stuffs soared.
There was a fairly large Jewish community in Tredegar, many of the local shops and small businesses being owned and run by Jews. They also owned rental property across the town and large numbers of tenants were finding it difficult to pay their rent. There was simmering anger in the area and, as always when people feel let down or resentful, they began looking for scapegoats and easy targets.
On the night of 19 August 1911 a group of miners, after spending the evening in the pub, decided they had had enough. They had nothing, the Jewish shopkeepers – or so it seemed to these out of work miners – had everything. In a haze of alcohol-induced fury, a Jewish shop was attacked and ransacked.
Mass hysteria quickly took over and when the police arrived on the scene they were met by over 200 screaming rioters. The riot spread. The windows of Jewish shops and homes were smashed and 20 Jewish businesses looted. It was only by luck that nobody was seriously injured.
The unrest quickly spread beyond Tredegar. Soon there were similar disturbances taking place in nearby towns like Caerphilly, Ebbw Vale and Bargoed. For nearly a week the riots lasted and Winston Churchill, then Home Secretary, was forced to dispatch troops to quell the riots and to keep the peace in the valley towns.
However, by the time the soldiers arrived the impetus had gone out of the rioting and most of the troops had little or nothing to do. As quickly as they had started, the riots seemed to fade away. There appears to have been little damage to the relationships between the Jewish and gentile members of the community, even though Churchill – always a great man of rhetoric – called the riots a "pogrom".
The question remains, how anti-Semitic were the people of the valleys at this time? It might be unpalatable to admit it but there was undoubtedly an element of anti-Jewishness in places like Tredegar in the early 20th century. The town had already endured anti-Irish riots in 1882 when the locals, fearing that incoming Irishmen were taking their jobs, had resorted to a short-lived but serious wave of violence and destruction.
In 1911, that anger was targeted at the Jewish community. Such anger might well have been based around economics, the Jewish shopkeepers and landlords being seen to have the wealth of the community sewn up in their pockets.
But it is equally hard to ignore the religious undertones to the riots. People have gone on record as hearing the call "Let's get the Jews" when the trouble first began and there were instances of Welsh hymns being sung as the first attacks took place.
Above all, however, the reluctance of the Baptists – strong and immensely influential in south Wales in the wake of the recent religious revivals – to condemn the violence is nothing short of remarkable. It certainly gives the impression that anti-Semitism was alive and kicking in some quarters at that time.
At this distance it is hard to make a definite judgement. Certainly the rioters had arguments with the Jewish shops and businesses of the town. Whether or not they were truly anti-Semitic is not clear.
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