The (Un)knowability of Jews in Britain: Discourses from State and Sitcom in 1965 

Christopher S. Byrne | 12 August 2019

◇ Modern History | British History | European History | Cultural History | Jewish History | Media History | Political History | Social History

Last week’s news story about a Labour councillor suggesting that Rachel Riley might cause ‘another Jo Cox moment’ through her campaigning against antisemitism in the Labour Party, is just the latest in a series of incidents that has led to increased concern for the individual and communal safety of British and European Jewry in the wake of increasing populism. This brings to mind other historical moments when Jews and Jewishness have been implicated in discourses around broader political issues. 

There is an uncertainty then, not only for Jews but about Jews and Jewishness. The Polish-Jewish philosopher Zygmunt Baumann once commented that the central element of the relationship between Jew and Gentile in Modern Europe was not antisemitism but allosemitism: the belief that, no matter what else the Jews were, they were fundamentally, irrevocably, different, defying the modern idée fixe of categorisation and compartmentalisation. [1]

This idea of Jewish ‘otherness’ has manifested itself in the unlikeliest of places as my research into the debates around the Race Relations Act 1965 and contemporary situation comedies has shown. Even in the context of the British State purportedly seeking to mitigate the effects of ‘difference’ there is evidence to show that the Jews simply did not ‘fit’. 

In introducing the Race Relations Bill 1965, then Home Secretary Frank Soskice commented that: 

It is certainly the intention of the government that people of the Jewish faith should be covered […] [they] would have an origin which many people would describe as an ethnic if not a racial one. [2] 

There are several elements worth unpicking in this short quotation. Not only does Soskice first define the Jews theologically (going against the terms of the Bill which did not include religion as a legitimate ground for protection); he then goes on to problematise this seemingly unambivalent definition by identifying the Jews both ethnically and racially: neither of which are defined in any substantive terms. 

Perhaps more importantly, Soskice simultaneously marks British Jewry as different —‘people of the Jewish faith should be covered’ [my emphasis]—and either dilutes or outright revokes their agency in determining what defines them as a group—‘an origin which many people would describe…’. Sadly, these are discourses that regularly appear throughout these seemingly well-intentioned Acts which, when analysed through the lens of Jewishness, come to be seen as more problematic than originally thought: as an operation of power rather than of protection. 

That Soskice was even compelled to make such a pronouncement however, demonstrates the uncertainty with which the Jews and Jewishness were held in Britain in 1965. It was far from a truth universally acknowledged that the Jews were ‘different’ enough to warrant inclusion among Britain’s racial minorities: and yet it was the experiences of the Jews under the dominion of Nazism that largely structured the Race Relations Act 1965. 

What is remarkable, given this uncertainty about their applicability, is the lack of consideration Jews were given in the context of the Race Relations Act. The above quote from Soskice is typical of the brevity with which the Jewish example, with all its complexity, was disposed of within the debates of 1965. The Jews were ‘different’—that much was clear—, but no MP could quite pin down why. 

This lack of consideration was not, however, total, within the public sphere of 1965. The ‘difference’ of Jews was given a degree of assessment, its complexity explored and the agency of British Jews in constructing and contesting it reinstated, through the rantings of an unpleasant, vicious bigot from East End docks: Till Death Us Do Part’s Alfred Edward Garnett.

The monstrous creation of Johnny Speight, Alf (played by Warren Mitchell) has been rightly vilified for his views and the influence they had on lending confidence to increasingly vitriolic rhetoric on the political right. Yet, as with the Race Relations Act, reading this social realist situation comedy through the lens of Jewishness throws up surprising results. 

Alf is a Jewish character. The fourth episode of the first series, ‘Intolerance’ (tx. 27 June 1966), contains an extended discussion between Alf and his son-in-law Mike (played by Tony Booth) in which Jewishness plays a central role: 

Mike – How would you like it if I called you a Yid? 

Alf – What are you talking about Yid? I ain’t a Yid! 


Mike – Your grandfather’s name was Solly Diamond. 


Mike – There’s nothing to be ashamed of being Jewish. 

Alf – I am not Jewish! 

Mike – Look at your hooter! That’s a right kosher conk you’ve got there! 

This short exchange, part of a conversation that continues throughout the episode, offers up a number of elements for analysis within the context of race relations. It is notable that Mike brings up Alf’s supposed Jewishness in response to a particularly nasty outburst from Alf about his black GP, Dr Chingala. Jewishness is thus connected to a discussion of race relations and a Jewish man subjecting someone to race-based hatred is constructed as something ironic. Alf’s supposed ‘difference’ is utilised as a means of silencing his commentary on supposed black ‘difference’.

The ability of Jewishness to disrupt modern categories is also explored here. Mike, supposedly a bastion of progressiveness simultaneously ameliorates Dr Chingala’s ‘otherness’ and reinforces Alf’s: insisting that he has ‘nothing to be ashamed of’ in being Jewish. Alf, by contrast, who positions himself politically on the right, is far more concerned with the sublimation of his Jewishness. 

The discussion of the Jewish nose provokes a great deal of laughter from the audience. While this reaction might be viewed as reifying Jewish ‘otherness’, the audience that day was, in fact, largely made up of Mitchell’s friends and associates in London’s Jewish community. Following the programme Speight, unsure of whether the audience had been ‘in on the joke’ asked them and received an affirmative reply alongside congratulations on his satirical work. [3]

Speight’s comedy, when explored through the lens of Jewishness, problematises the ‘difference’ and to an extent, the ‘sameness’ of Jews. It offers a self-reflexive exploration of Jewishness lacking in parliamentary discussions of the period that were largely a matter of domestic expediency.

Christopher S. Byrne is a PhD student at Southampton University’s Parkes Institute for the Study of Jewish/non-Jewish Relations. His research analyses the UK Race Relations Acts 1965–76 and compares them to contemporary situation comedies to explore the ways in which Jews and Jewishness were constructed and contested in 1960s and 1970s Britain.


[1] Zygmunt Bauman, ‘Allosemitism: Premodern, Modern, Postmodern’, in Modernity, Culture and ‘the Jew’ ed. Bryan Cheyette & Laura Marcus (Stanford: Stanford U. P., 1998), 143–56. 

[2] Hansard, HC, 3 May 1965, vol. 711 c. 932. 

[3] Mark Ward, A Family at War: The Unofficial and Unauthorised Guide to Till Death Us Do Part (Tolworth: Telos, 2008), 76–77.