Colonel Josiah Wedgwood (1872-1943), came from the famous Staffordshire pottery family, and was a naval architect by training. From 1906-19 he sat as a Liberal MP, and from 1919-42, when he received a barony, as a Labour MP. In contrast to, say, nineteenth-century prime minister W. E. Gladstone, who once described himself as “anti-anti-semitism”, Wedgwood was a genuine philosemite, who wrote: "The Anglo-Saxon, more than any other race, wants to sympathise with the Jews. . . no doubt we understand the Jew better than can those to whom the Old Testament is not familiar from infancy. To the foreigner the word Jew is a hissing in the street; to us the word suggests Solomon and Moses, and a thousand cradle stories. So often have we used their names for our own children that they seem now to be our fathers, especially our Puritan forefathers. . . Towards such a people one has a feeling almost of awe. . ."
While serving in a military capacity in South Africa during the Boer War he had befriended a Jewish storekeeper whose premises were destroyed. He lent the man money to rebuild, and discussed Jewish issues with him. In Parliament he first evinced his sympathy with Jews in a speech in 1909. During the First World War, in Gallipoli, he came into contact with members of the Zion Mule Corps and became one of the strongest exponents of the Zionist cause in Parliament. He helped to influence the British government’s issuance of the Balfour Declaration, and visited Palestine in 1926 and 1934. He published a collection of his speeches supporting Zionism as Palestine: The Fight for Jewish Freedom and Honour (1926). In his book The Seventh Dominion (1928) he advocated an independent Jewish state on both sides of the Jordan as an integral part of the British Commonwealth. And he came to admire Jabotinsky.
His reply to the Jewish army officers, written from the House of Commons on 30 May 1938, was a rousing, subversive, noteworthy document:
“Your letter of May 10th has given me much thought. I know all that you say is correct. But how to improve the situation troubles me. I am afraid that merely asking for justice, or asking my help, is useless. In my experience, especially in times of difficulty, Governments give way only to actions. Demands backed by nothing but a sense of justice play little part in modern history. The Czechs would be under Nazi rule today if they had not decided to fight and die. So would the Spaniards. The Arabs or those who are troublesome get their way in Palestine because they act instead of petition. I do not think reprisals in the form of murdering innocent Arabs is morally justifiable. When ordinary law breaks down, lynch law generally takes its place. That is better than murdering innocent people; but I cannot advocate that, nor can I judge of its necessity.
But I think you are morally entitled to arm yourselves and your outlying colonies, and to erect such defences as possible. This, I have no doubt, you have done. There remains some such passive resistance as Gandhi put into practice in South Africa and India. Such action needs solidarity and the will to suffer by going to prison. I think it needs also the social boycott and the giving up of normal relations with the Government. You cannot dine and denounce.”Then came his recommendations for their response to British policy in Palestine – civil disobedience in the form of passive resistance, and facilitating illegal immigration:
“Passive resistance takes several forms: 1. The occupation of land and refusal to leave except by the forms of law – going to prison. 2. Refusal to pay taxes, breaking the law – going to prison. 3. Refusal to plead in the Courts, and to recognise their jurisdiction – going to prison. 4. Attending demonstrations which have been declared illegal. 5. Distribution of illegal literature. 6. Assisting of illegal immigration. 7. Picketing and boycotting the disloyal. [NB: The text of the letter reproduced in the London Jewish Chronicle on 27 July 1938 includes Point Six as given here, whereas The Times version, which carried it a fortnight earlier, omits it and has Point 7 here as the 6th and final point.]
Last year, some Jewish illegal immigrants were marched in chains to Acre gaol. I think that if you had freed them on that march, even by violence, British public opinion would have supported you and it would never have occurred again.
Now Jews are sent to concentration camps or gaol without trial or charge, and no protest or demonstration is made by the 450,000 in Palestine. You expect me to protest in Parlament. I am not going to do so any more. It is for the Jews in Palestine to stop that sort of thing. The same applies to Jews arrested for carrying arms. The Bastille was pulled down for less than this.
You do not even "sit-down" strike outside the gaol gates when they hunger-strike. Naturally they think they can do anything to Jews, or to some Jews. If there is no solidarity among the Jews; if some Jews go to the Government and apologise for other Jews; in that case you will get nowhere. The Trades Union of the Hisdatruth set you a powerful example. They strike and get their way against the Tel-Aviv Council or against the orange-growers. Why should government be sacrosanct? United you stand, divided you will always fall. You must have a willingness to suffer as well as a united willingness to help the sufferers.
If I were a British official in Palestine, I, too, should get “fed up” with your complaints, and should respect you much more if you curse “them” behind their backs; try cursing them to their faces, not you only but the Press also. If you dare not, then you are not worthy of your country. If you do, and not till then, they will think you worthy of arms to use in defence of the Empire and Democracy.
Like you, I want to see a free, manly people like the Maccabees in Palestine again. I want to see an army of 40,000 Jews fit to defend all that you and I hold dear. With reluctance I have come to the conclusion that only by the hard road laid down above can we arrive.
You have my free permission to show this letter to the High Commissioner [Sir Harold MacMichael], to General [Robert] Haining [the Commander-in-Chief], and to Mr Shertock [sic; i.e. Moshe Shertok], the head of the New Zionist Organization. All those will agree, but none of them will dare to say so. I know my countrymen, and a good deal better than you do. You ask me to imagine myself in your place with my own kith and kin attacked and my hands “tied”. I can imagine nothing of the sort. And Englishmen’s hands would not remain tied; and you are only tied by unworthy fear.
I cannot possibly give you any clear idea of what to do anywhere at any time. I can only suggest that when anything unpleasant occurs consider what action British colonists would take under the circumstances, and if you do about the half, you will not ever need to again."Predictably, the Mandate Government forbade reproduction throughout Palestine of the MP’s letter, in whole or in part, in any language. But its recipients were soon circulating it in the form of a pamphlet entitled Colonel Wedgwood calls Jewish Youth to Revolt. The pamphlet ended: “Jewish Youth, we present here a letter from Colonel Wedgwood, the friend of Zionism and an MP, will you awake after all and read in this letter the pathway to revolution and success? (Signed) Young Zealots.”
Wedgwood’s letter was reported in The Times (16 July 1938), and a prompt denunciation by Sir Laurie Hammond [who had been on the Peel Commission] was immediately forthcoming; it appeared in the paper’s correspondence columns on 19 July. Wedgwood was unrepentant – and scathing. In a letter written from the House of Commons that same day, printed on 21 July, he replied:
“Sir Laurie Hammond advocates patience for the Jews in Palestine. It is two years since the murder of Jews and the destruction of their property have gone unpunished under British rule....
The violence and anarchy today is worse than ever, because the policy of conciliation is still continued, and untrustworthy Arab supernumerary police are armed for no reason save to balance the arming of Jewish supernumeraries. The Administration continues strictly impartial between murderers and murdered. What we can urge is that passive resistance and active protest are more effective and more moral than retaliating on the wrong people and so dividing the Jewish people into two hostile camps. I do not believe any Jew has thrown any bombs. The other side have the bombs, and have shown as little reluctance to kill Arabs as to kill Jews or Englishmen. But impartiality which arrests both gangsters and victims is more calculated to exasperate than to pacify the victims’ friends and relations.”
“Let those who have seen the film Ben Hur see also these men and women led chained through Nazareth, not because they are dangerous but to exhibit to the Arabs the “impartiality” of the British Administration. Then let them translate the scene of action from Palestine to Kenya and imagine English men and women exhibited in chains to the Arabs of Mombasa. Some faint idea of how Jews feel towards the impartial Administration in Palestine may then be appreciated, and I shall not receive so much impertinent criticism from retired civil servants [a dig at Hammond] and sympathizers with the Nazi concept of Jews. Jews are not conceived yet, here at least, as devoid both of human rights and of human feelings.”Wedgwood died in 1943, when wartime paper shortages meant that even well-known Jewish communal figures received truncated obituaries in the London Jewish Chronicle, or were denied obituaries altogether. Not so Baron Wedgwood (as he had become). Despite the paper shortage, the Jewish Chronicle (30 July 1943) carried a suitably fulsome tribute to that “staunch and steadfast” friend of “the Jewish cause in its widest sense”.
Not for nothing did his niece, the distinguished historian Dame [Cicely] Veronica Wedgwood, call her biography of him The Last of the Radicals. But he was by no means the last - nor the first - of noteworthy British champions of the Jewish people and of Israel's cause. I wish more contemporaries would bear that in mind, instead of describing Britain as an inherently antisemitic country, which – as a student of philosemitism – I know is simply untrue.